April 2010 Archives

From a note to strategic foresight senior lecturer Dr. Joseph Voros:

I have Tom Barnett's first book The Pentagon's New Map. He has spoken with Don Beck and the Integral Politics people. I haven't yet read his second book or later work, which may have changed.

Conceptually, Pentagon's New Map appeared after a mid-'90s debate between neo-Kantian cosmopolitanism and the classicist school of strategic history and tragic realism. The former resonates in programs at Columbia, Cornell or RMIT, through people like Mary Kaldor, Alexander Wendt and Saskia Sassen. The latter prevails more in the military colleges and realist-oriented political science departments, as exemplified in the work of Colin S. Gray, Michael Handel, John Mearsheimer, Ralph Peters, Stephen M. Walt, and Robert Kaplan's reportage. So, Pentagon's New Map appeared at the end of the Clinton Administration and the start of George W. Bush's presidential first term.

Barnett rapidly found an audience amongst US foreign policy people that were either outside the process or looking for new ideas. To me, the strength of his first book lies in an awareness of dynamics, compared with other popular books at the time which had one or two-factor explanatory models. From a 'history of ideas' perspective, whether he was aware of it or not, Barnett synthesized ideas from Kenneth Waltz's Theory of International Politics (1979) on the neo-realist importance of structural variables, from Immanuel Wallerstein's centre-periphery model, and from Carter era strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose Grand Chessboard of envisioned Eurasian geopolitical integration recently inspired Muse's prog-rock album The Resistance. Thus, part of the appeal of Pentagon's New Map may have been that it was a 'half-step' along from the thinking of the time, and that there was an earlier theoretical base.

Whilst co-writing an academic paper on Twitter and Iran, last year, I revisited Barnett's first book as part of the background research. I was surprised to find that, in the case of Iran at least, whilst the conceptual frameworks and language were different, Barnett's solutions were similar to the prevailing 'neoconservative' school of thought. For example, he felt that Iraq regime change would alter the Middle East, and that US strategic information operations to support Iranian protesters would also facilitate regime change, a worldview traceable to Samuel P. Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) and also made in Robert Kagan and William Kristol's edited volume Present Dangers (2000), which outlined the 'neoconservative' approach to salient foreign policy issues. Again, this may help to explain why his first book found an appreciative audience: Barnett's solutions resonated with other advisers, and with the popular works of Tom Friedman and Benjamin Barber. As discussed, the same issues apply to any theorist or analytical framework, and reflect artifacts of a thinking process rather than the person.

This raises various issues for foresight students and practitioners who may want to work in a 'worldviews'-type area like foreign affairs or trade. The trans-disciplinary focus of foresight and futures work can mean that practitioners gravitate to 'meta'-frameworks which may lack rigorous theory-building, theory-testing and evaluation. To minimize this, it helps to have some background in the history of ideas and culture, and political philosophy, particularly as Peter Katzenstein, Alaistair Iain Johnston and Patrick Porter demonstrate in the 'strategic culture' literature. Foreign policy frameworks that differentiate between diplomacy, informational, military, economic and other levers are useful, such as Terry Deibel's Foreign Affairs Strategy (2007). Finally, the varied work of these scholars illustrates this rigour and cycle of theory-building, theory-testing and evaluation: Stephen G. Brooks on global security and trans-national corporations, Jon Sumida on Clausewitz and other classical military theorists, Stephen Biddle's multi-method analysis of military power projection, and Dexter Filkins' multi-perspectival conflict reportage.
Tonight at a party in Melbourne's Nicholas Building, collaborator Ben Eltham reflects to an academic on the problems he has had with past journalist graduates. "Some of them were useless," he quipped. "I can make you a journalist in 30 minutes. Here's a chair. Here's a phone. Here's a story lead. Call someone. Now."

The academic replied: "Perhaps you hired the wrong graduates?"

Despite a purported industry crisis, journalism is seen by some universities as a 'hot' area for potential students who are interested in Web 2.0, citizen journalism, and other topics. It provides a meta-framework to bring a range of academic backgrounds and skills into a cohesive department. If there's a demonstrable market and student demand, it's also easier to get courses through Academic Board approval and course quality assurance processes.

Eltham's quip points to another reality: journalism is a craft or practice that requires a combination of sense-making, situational awareness and action. At some point, you have to go out and Do journalism, like a writer staring at a blank page, or a stockmarket trader placing a trade. For Eltham and myself, this approach perhaps comes from our mutual experiences in the student press and writing/editing for online publications. In 1994 student elections I suggested that student media and journalism departments follow the model at many US universities, where journalism graduates do an internship with the paper.

In contrast, at some of the new university journalism courses are attuned more to a Web 2.0 paradigm. To me, you can learn the basics of Del.icio.us, Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress, wikis, or whichever platform you choose, also in about 30 minutes. Yes, it's a powerful amplifier or ecosystem, with its own dynamics. Yet it's not a replacement for core skills, if you have ambitions to research, write, edit and publish original material, instead of reposting or relinking to existing material, via social network sites.

Perhaps that's why Eltham and I are also fans of long-form journalism that requires these skills. And, as Barry Saunders and I found, perhaps also why the very best investigative journalists are emerging from other arenas that share this focus on craft and tacit skills --- investment banking, intelligence analysis, police detective work --- and not necessarily university journalism courses.

You can forward or re-post a message in 30 seconds. You can learn the basics of journalism in 30 minutes. A social media platform can amplify this, and build in recursive audience feedback and reflection cycles. It can take a lifetime however to master and deepen your appreciation of journalism's craft, sense-making and tacit knowledge.

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