17th April 2010: On Tom Barnett’s ‘The Pentagon’s New Map’

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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.