UC Berkeley News


War and peace, bells and whistles at Dwinelle
Nimitz lecturer Thomas Barnett says our best weapon against terrorism is increased globalization

| 17 March 2005

Generals, the axiom goes, are forever fighting the last war. Thomas Barnett thinks that's putting it mildly.

Nimitz lecturer Barnett power-pointed during his Dwinelle talk (Peg Skorpinski photo)
The former U.S. Naval War College professor (and in-demand author of The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the 21st Century) warns that the American military's mindset remains frozen in the Cold War, and that its reluctance to adapt leaves the nation ill-equipped to deal with terrorist threats and other modern-day global challenges.

In an era of unconventional wars, Barnett, an "economic determinist" who views globalization as the best hope for tamping down terrorism, seems a fittingly unconventional war strategist. ("Deep down," he confesses in his blog, www.thomaspmbarnett.com/weblog, "I consider myself a peace strategist.") A proponent of the 2003 Iraq invasion, he's a self-described "Tony Blair Democrat" - a Democrat on domestic issues, but hawkish on foreign affairs - who voted for Al Gore in 2000, and advised the Kerry campaign in 2004.

He has also delivered controversial briefings to an impressive array of military brass and intelligence VIPs, armed with a PowerPoint presentation that, the Wall Street Journal wrote, "more resembles performance art than a Pentagon briefing." Barnett brought that presentation to campus on Wednesday, March 9, for the first of two Chester W. Nimitz Memorial Lectures in National Security Affairs, under the aegis of the campus Military Affairs Program. With his crewcut and clipped, gravelly bark, and framed by an ever-changing backdrop of loopily animated slides, he suggested a younger, civilian-clad George C. Scott in Patton, with PowerPoint standing in for the Stars and Stripes. The packed house at Dwinelle Hall, including dozens of blue-uniformed members of the Air Force ROTC, was dazzled.

Barnett began by noting he'd recently left the War College, a career shift that hasn't affected his message, he insisted, but that does mean "I have to apologize less for what I say." Over the next two hours he fired off unapologetic shots at Colin Powell, Richard Clarke, the United Nations, Michael Moore, Condoleezza Rice, Ann Coulter, the Department of Homeland Security, and the CIA, among others, and described the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al Qaeda as "the first live-broadcast snuff film in human history."

"First chance I ever got to watch about three dozen people I knew fairly well die, live on national television," he said. "I was meant to be impressed, and I was impressed."

The events of 9/11 were what Barnett calls "system perturbations," shocks emanating from the "lesser includeds" - military-speak for less-developed countries that U.S. forces are presumed capable of keeping in check, and thus that are implicitly "included" in any strategy to stave off threats from great-power countries like Russia and China. In fact, said Barnett, demands on the U.S. military since the collapse of the Soviet Union have had almost nothing to do with great powers but have centered more and more on discretionary deployments in hot spots like Somalia, the Balkans, and Haiti.

Yet while the global challenges have evolved, he added, the American military remains too small, and too focused on the likelihood of great-power war, to deal with the new global reality.

"If you want an explanation for Abu Ghraib and every other snafu that's happened in this [Iraqi] occupation," he said, "you can find it in our response to this rising demand curve across the 1990s, and the Pentagon's refusal to get off the Big One, in terms of contingency planning, and adjust itself to a world of lesser includeds."

What 9/11 showed, according to Barnett, is that the most serious threat is not from so-called great powers but from groups of "super-empowered individuals," a phrase coined by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, another staunch advocate of globalization. Where we once had to worry about the Soviet Union "blowing up the world," today "it's all about killing bad guys," said Barnett. "If you don't pay attention to that kind of change, you're going to be deeply confused - as so many in the Pentagon are."

The Core and the Gap

"Disconnectedness defines danger," Barnett declared. "That's my mantra." He breaks the world into two categories: the Functioning Core, characterized by financial opportunity, stable governments, and rising standards of living; and the Non-integrating Gap, where political repression, widespread poverty and disease, and chronic conflicts create breeding grounds for terrorists.

"One-third of the world is still outside the global economy, noses pressed to the glass, unable to join," he said, adding that "terrorism is not caused by poverty," but by "disconnectedness." The reason a father in the West Bank straps on an explosive vest, said Barnett, is that "he sees no better future. He thinks that's the next best step. That is disconnectedness."

Calling Osama bin Laden "a latter-day Lenin," Barnett insisted the way to defeat him is to cause "system perturbations" of our own - the Iraq invasion being a good example - while simultaneously shrinking the Gap and expanding the Core.

"What he's going to try to do is drive the West out of the Middle East and hijack the Middle East out of the global economy," said Barnett. "If we want to defeat that purpose, we've got to connect the Middle East to the global economy faster than he can disconnect it."

Such a strategy, he made clear, includes war - but war, as he sees it, "in the context of everything else."

"What we're searching for in many ways is a new definition for not just the American way of war," he said, "but a new definition of the American way of peace, which frankly we do better than any other military on the planet, and we still suck at it - as we've seen in Iraq."

Turning to the Bush administration's lack of preparedness for the postwar occupation, Barnett sniffed, "Condi Rice? Everybody said we're not gonna do nation-building, we're not gonna do any of that peacekeeping crap, none of it. Condi said, 'The 82nd Airborne isn't gonna escort any children into kindergarten on my watch' - words she has yet to eat."

He also dismissed the views of pundits on the right ("Ann Coulter says 'hell, let's kill 'em all'"), the left (Michael Moore takes a "soda-straw view of history"), and in the middle, such as former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke ("If he had his way he'd put a big fence around America. Trust me, I know this guy - you don't want to live in his country.").

As for the Department of Homeland Security, Barnett called it "a strategic feel-good measure" and "mostly a waste of money." Its creation, he added sarcastically, was "a transformative event - especially for those poor bastards that actually have to work there."

"Americans do not want to hear this," Barnett wrote in the March 2003 Esquire magazine article on which he based his book, "but the real battlegrounds in the global war on terrorism are still out there." If we want to ensure our security, he told his Nimitz audience, we need a military nimble enough to complement our economic and diplomatic efforts to bring more of the world's people from the Gap into the Core.

"Direction is critical, not degree," he maintained, observing that the People's Republic of China today is ruled by a communist party "whose ideological mix is about 30 percent Marxist-Leninist, 70 percent The Sopranos."

While he views Iran as a country that could be brought into the Core, he was far less charitable toward North Korea, condemning dictator Kim Jung Il as a mass murderer and "the tailbone of the Cold War." By offering China stronger incentives to work with the U.S. toward "truly global" globalization - for example, rescinding our longstanding defense arrangement with Taiwan - we could, said Barnett, "build an East Asian NATO on that idiot's grave."