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Perpetual War for a Lasting Peace

Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004), 320 pages, hardcover $26.95.

The geopolitics of war are theorized in a Pentagon-centered system of war colleges, defense universities, academic departments, institutes of strategic and international studies, and quasi-private think tanks. Together these make up a powerful, rightist military-ideological complex. For the most part, waging war is discussed behind closed doors by people sharing similar attitudes, beliefs, and values—of patriotism for their beloved country, and antagonism toward its circle of enemies, real and supposed. This closed discursive formation is dangerously non-democratic, in the sense that positions are assumed within it that would be impossible to sustain outside, in a more open environment of deep criticism. The restricted spatial formation of this discourse on geopolitics allows a mentality to prevail, and to be taken for granted, that is out of touch with reality as perceived by the rest of the world, and out of touch with public opinion. Basically this military-ideological complex has recently assumed what originally began as an extreme, neoconservative stance, one that believes in preemptively attacking countries deemed to be potential threats to the United States. The recent record of invasions, attacks, and tragedies merely confirms the veracity of the dominant view that the world has to be made into a safe haven for the further development of U.S. civilization. Yet within this hegemony there are differences in emphasis, and debates on strategy, between what might once have been called liberals and conservatives, but now are best termed neoliberals and neoconservatives, between those who convince themselves that they want only to give peace a chance, and those who openly believe in aggressively waging war…just in case. We can glimpse these positions by reading Thomas P. M. Barnett’s recently published The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century. Barnett is a senior strategic researcher at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, a “vision guy” in the Office of Force Transformation at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Each year he lectures to thousands of military officers and paramiltary personnel from what might be termed a progressive, neoliberal perspective. A Wall Street Journal article calls Barnett a key figure in the debate on what the modern U.S. military should look like—he influences, the article says, the way the Pentagon understands its enemies, vulnerabilities, and future strategies.

The United States, Barnett argues, is searching for a new strategy to replace its previous, decades-long countering of the Soviet threat. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he claims, revealed a gap between the military built to win the Cold War, and the different one needed to secure globalization’s ultimate goal, the end of war as we know it. The “information revolution” and resulting worldwide connectivity present a new operating theory of the world. But the United States, as a nation, does not truly understand the political and security ramifications involved. The U.S. military actually engaged in more “crisis-response activity” in the 1990s than in any decade during the Cold War. At the Pentagon, however, these responses have been filed under “military operations other than war” as if to signify their lack of strategic meaning. However, Barnett finds strategic pattern in recent U.S. military interventions. Deployments were concentrated in parts of the world effectively excluded from what he calls globalization’s “Functioning Core.” This “core” is defined by two main characteristics:

  1. A country or region is functioning if it can handle the content flows (ideas, services, money, and media) that come with integrating the national with the global economy.
  2. A country or region is functioning when it seeks to harmonize its “internal rule sets” with the emerging global rule of democracy, rule of law, and free markets—for example, by gaining admittance to the WTO.

Which countries or regions are within the “core”? North America, Europe, Russia, Japan, China (less so the interior), India (in a pockmarked sense), Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the “ABCs of South America” (Argentina, Brazil, Chile), encompassing a population of roughly four billion. By mapping 140 U.S. military operations conducted since 1990, Barnett discovers that U.S. forces went almost exclusively to countries outside the “core,” in what he calls the “non-integrating gap”—the Caribbean Rim, Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and much of Southeast Asia—places where global connectivity is thin or absent. A country is “disconnected” when it fails to gain the confidence of multinational corporations, which limits foreign investment. This may be because the country is a theocracy, is spatially isolated, connected to the world via corrupt state-run telecommunications media, pursues illicit gain, treats its women as birth machines and therefore limits its labor force and export potential, or because it is “blessed” with too many raw materials that constitute its main exports. Connectedness is kept from appearing in the “gap” (peripheral countries) by wars, leaders who stay too long, and so on.

September 11, 2001, was an amazing gift, Barnett says, twisted and cruel as that may sound. It was an invitation from history for the United States to wake from the dream-like 1990s and force new rules on the world. The combatants in this new world harbor different dreams about the future. There is an asymmetry of will regarding the use of violence to achieve desired ends—a “rule set gap” that will have to be eliminated. The enemy is neither religion (Islam), nor place, but the condition of disconnectedness. To be disconnected in this world is to be isolated, deprived, repressed, and uneducated. For Barnett, these symptoms of disconnectedness define danger. Simply put, if a country was losing out to globalization, or rejecting much of its cultural content flows, chances are that the United States would end up sending troops there. So Barnett thinks that the 1990s revealed neither chaos nor uncertainty, but the defining conflict of our age, a historical struggle that screams out for a new U.S. vision of a future world worth creating. Strategic vision in the United States needs to focus on “growing the number of states that recognize a stable set of rules regarding war and peace”—that is, the conditions under which it is reasonable to wage war against identifiable enemies of “our collective order.” Growing this community is a simple matter of identifying the difference between good and bad regimes and encouraging the bad ones to change their ways. The United States, he thinks, has a responsibility to use its tremendous power to make globalization truly global. Otherwise portions of humanity will be condemned to an outsider status that will eventually define them as enemies. And once the United States has named these enemies, it will invariably wage war on them, unleashing death and destruction. Remembering that disconnectedness is the ultimate enemy, the United States can, by extending globalization, not only defeat the enemies it faces today, but eliminate in advance entire generations of threats that our children and grandchildren would otherwise face. This is not forced assimilation, Barnett claims, nor the extension of empire; instead it is the expansion of freedom.

So Barnett says he stands squarely behind the war against Iraq. For him, the issue never was whether Saddam really had weapons of mass destruction. Hussein’s regime had to go because it was a textbook example of everything the United States needs to eliminate in the “gap.” Taking Saddam down forced the United States to “step up” to the role of “gap Leviathan” in a way no other “core” nation could even dream of. And the Iraq intervention has to be repeated, over and over again, in a “gap” full of “demand for U.S. security exports.” As Barnett said in a subsequent interview with Esquire magazine: “What does this new approach mean for this nation and the world over the long run? Let me be very clear about this: The boys are never coming home. America is not leaving the Middle East until the Middle East joins the world. It’s that simple. No exit means no exit strategy.” In brief, war is the birthing process of an American future worth having. As Barnett puts it: “to abandon globalization’s future to those violent forces hell-bent on keeping this world divided between the connected and the disconnected is to admit that we no longer hold these truths to be self-evident: that all are created equal, and that all desire life, liberty, and a chance to pursue happiness. In short, we the people needs to become we the planet.

We should add that the U.S. Naval War College, where Barnett works, produces some of the more “liberal” notions in this new American Enlightenment version of global military strategy. In the spring 2004 issue of World Policy Journal, two of his colleagues, P. H. Liotta and James F. Miskel, use the “earthlights” image produced by NASA to show their version of the future contours of the global security system. This image is a composite of satellite photographs taken over a period of months recording illumination from city lights. The earthlights map, Liotta and Levy say, forces Americans to think about disturbing trends that, if left unchecked, will come to haunt them in the coming decades: the increased possibility of failing regions within functioning but troubled states; the rise of the “feral city” within regions inextricably linked to the process of globalization; in general, the patterns of world order and disorder. India is lit; Pakistan is dark. On the Korean peninsula, the thirty-eighth parallel forms a dramatic dividing line between the lights of South Korea and the dark shadow that is North Korea. The lights in the People’s Republic of China are clustered along the country’s Pacific coast, not evenly spread throughout the country, as with Taiwan or Japan. This suggests the eventual formation of “two Chinas”—one consisting of ever more densely populated urban zones, the other of underdeveloped and undergoverned hinterlands. Liotta and Levy conclude: “The attacks of September 11 not only revealed that Americans were vulnerable on their home soil; there also came the disturbing awareness that the new threat we faced came not from an enemy whose identity and capabilities were ‘in the light,’ but from one operating from the shadows.” In their view, the map reveals the topography of global enlightenment.

Blinded by the light, the professors of war cannot see that their solution, expanding the “core” by shining the U.S. example into the dark corners of the world, exacerbates the causes of the very security problems they fear. They cannot see that shining the light of freedom actually takes the form of threatening one society after another, and invading without sustainable pretext those who refuse to submit to the extended hand offering freedom. They cannot see that rules for peace cannot be established by waging preventive wars. More deeply, they cannot see that the United States’ will to destroy civilizations before they are known—that is, because they are “in the dark”—is exactly what fuels deep resentment in a world of diverse cultures. Further, in the restrictive discursive space of the Pentagon’s strategic planning, what a majority of the world’s people now believe—that the United States is the world’s most aggressive state—cannot be thought, or should a glimmer cross their minds, cannot be mentioned, in rooms resplendent with army brass. Such a biased vision of the global future takes for granted that U.S. intentions are always good. In this restricted discursive space, illegal attacks by the United States are called crisis response, the minister of war is the secretary of defense, waging war is making peace, and countries are invaded to impose “more stringent political and security rule sets” that settle on the rule that countries (other than the United States) should not invade others. It’s no longer Curtis Le May’s “bomb them back into the Stone Age.” Now, it’s bomb them forward into the Space Age. This doublespeak of war can make sense only within an utterly prejudiced view of a first world center, defined always in positive terms of all that is naturally fine and good, and a third world periphery that can be known only in clichéd negative terms of the inherently bad. Thus, Barnett describes a binary opposition: on one side there is a functioning core, a wonderful world, where the good stuff is found and the good life lived, with sacred America acting as the beacon of liberty; while on the other side there is the “disconnected gap,” where the bad stuff usually happens, off-grid locations where security problems and instability congregate, dangerous places that constitute a demand pattern for U.S. security exports. This cartography of American enlightenment guides a new attitude toward the world, intensifying the existing sense of global supremacy by expressing it always in optimistic terms, in contrast to terms of eternal lack in the places waiting for freedom to be imposed.

So it is that Barnett, a good man who wants to save the world using the “language of promise,” does his bit to destroy what slight potential might remain for global peace. Peace can come only from a geopolitical understanding that places violent events in their deeply antagonistic causal contexts. The terrible events of the last years do not come from the workings of an inherent evil, but from the pain of cultural contempt and the violence of all-out, state-led attacks on civilian populations (each report of “collateral damage” means the production of a hundred terrorists). Peace can come only from cultural encounters marked by mutual appreciation, not by shining the U.S. light of freedom into the dark, barbarian spaces of the Other. And universalism can only grow out of a synthesis of the different contributions made by all cultures, not globalization of the American example. What we have here, from the “progressive,” neoliberal end of an overwhelmingly neoconservative military-ideological complex, is the will to culturally annihilate all those who dare to differ from the American dream. Within this isolated, privileged discursive world, Barnett can say, in effect “get connected, or get invaded” and be tolerated with a wink from the rows of staunch army uniforms as a contrarian, liberal egghead! The world will be made safe for America—by making the world American. This new kind of Americentric global enlightenment, focused on market democracy—the ability to buy anything your heart desires—makes the old Eurocentrism, with its ridiculous royal families, and horrendous upper-class accents, look as outdated as a Rudyard Kipling tale. Exactly this American attitude, “we will bring you democracy or we will bring you death” has already killed tens of thousands of innocent people in Iraq. All signs indicate that Iraq is merely the first battle in a perpetual war to gain a lasting peace.

2005, Volume 56, Issue 08 (January)
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