I have been a fan of Barnett’s geopolitical insights since I saw his TED talk. I just came across something he offered in a Q & A forum over on Wikistrat, and was encouraged by the following A to a posted Q:
Q: Greg R. Lawson – Dr. Barnett, I have always been struck by your immense optimism at the general direction of global affairs and that the imperatives of economics will lead to increasingly greater cooperation among already established as well as rising powers. Yet, the “Jacksonian” instinct (as referred to by Prof. Walter Russell Mead) is still prevalent in the US. Do you fear that political leaders may manipulate latent bellicosity within the American body politic in order to keep China, relative to the US, “down.” Obviously, this is already inherent in things like the AirSea Battle concept, but I am thinking beyond only the confines of the Pentagon.
A: I don’t doubt that if Mitt Romney got elected – what with all the Bush neocons advising him – that we’d see some attempt at re-establishing a sense of US “primacy.” But Obama’s turn here is more than a swing to the other impulse (“leading from behind”), it’s a right-sizing effort that presupposes – correctly, I believe – that the U.S. has entered a period of globalization’s maturation in which America’s ability to lead by fiat has been significantly diminished. So Romney’s advisers can dream all they want of putting America back in the driver’s seat, but it ain’t gonna happen to any degree they’ll happily recognize as successful. Those days are gone, with the “unilateral moment” (Krauthammer’s term) of the 1990s having been as artificial – in structural terms – as that of the 1950s (that caused by the flattening effect of World War II).
I don’t note such things with an eye toward declinist arguments. I have argued at length in my books that America’s nearly seven-decade-long grand strategy of encouraging the spread of a globalization based on the “American system” (states uniting, economies integrating, collective security, network building, etc.) has succeeded beyond – what should be defined – as our wildest dreams (think back to 1945 and realize what a world we’ve created). It has enabled a spreading of the global wealth that, in turn, is in the process of effectively erasing the Great Divergence (1800-2000) in wealth accumulation between the West and the Rest. That’s arguably the greatest single foreign policy achievement in U.S. history – and world history to boot.
But that success has created challenges. Demographic aging among our traditional allies means we need new allies – to put it bluntly – if we’re going to manage the messy and long-term job of settling globalization’s remaining economic frontiers (or what some have myopically reduced to only the “war on terror” or a “struggle against radical Islam”). Successor allies are obvious enough: rising economic powers with expanding global interests and growing defense budgets. Problem is, that’s basically China and India, two natural future allies that our current generation of foreign policy leaders have a hard time imagining – except in a two-versus-one manner (namely, India + America versus China).
And that’s actually where you locate the surviving impulse of the neocon “primacists”: we imagine India can be made to help keep China “down,” lest this world of our creating be hopelessly warped by Chinese authoritarianism. [That and Obama’s cynical downsizing of primacy to mean that America can summarily execute any individual on the planet that it so chooses to define as its mortal enemy.]
On this score, I suggest Conrad Black’s brilliant biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In it, Black offers the argument that Roosevelt didn’t “cave in” to the Soviets (Yalta) or get duped by Stalin, but rather he maintained a supreme confidence that the U.S. system would simply outperform the Soviet one – thus he could not conceive of the Russians ever winning any future global struggle.
Well, it turns out FDR was right, and I’m arguing today (see my January 2011 Esquire article, “When China Ruled the World”) that we should exhibit the same calm confidence regarding “rising” China. China’s economic rise was achieved through completely unremarkable means: Beijing got rid of babies for four-plus decades and reduced the country’s non-working population from 80% (1965) to 40% (2010). Now, due to that success and others, China ages demographically at three times the rate of the United States: we’re both roughly 36 years “old” (mean age) now, but by 2050 America will just be reaching 40 while China will be 47-48 years “old.”
We may, in our current fears, imagine China will get rich and nasty before it gets old, but it ain’t gonna happen. Healthcare and environmental costs, not to mention stupendously rising dependence on foreign energy and food, will slow Chinese growth down dramatically, making it far harder to keep both the military (guns) and increasingly restive public (butter) happy.
So I not only reject the residual “primacy” impulse because it’s structurally untenable (What? Are we to somehow stop all these rising powers that we purposefully encouraged over the past decades?) but because it’s pointless. China is the only great power package we can imagine in classic expansionistic terms (even as a grade-school reading of Chinese history says otherwise), and so we dream up as our next great challenge a quasi-containment strategy for East Asia (Obama’s cynical “strategic pivot”), when what we should be doing is moving toward an understanding achieved with China of how our global security interests overlap quite nicely in every other region in the world.
But as I’ve noted with Obama on this score: I see internal motives primarily at work here. Obama must justify his strategic withdrawal from Southwest Asia and so requires a scarier tale that “commands” him in this way. The “big war” crowd in the Pentagon greedily embraces this because it fits the self-serving needs of the Air Force and Navy in their counter-revolution against COIN and all that it has cost them in lost procurement (when, in truth, it has set them on the correct path of “the many and the cheap” versus “the few and the absurdly expensive”).
Why must Obama surrender to these base impulses? First, he must be re-elected. Second, whatever strategic vision he possesses does subscribe to the general notion that – per his right-wing critics – it is a better world with a less powerful America. So sending us off on the fool’s errand of containing China in East Asia will spare us the temptations of “empire” across what I call the Gap.
Of course, my counter to this logic is that, if we can recognize our natural allies in this era of maturing globalization (China, India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, etc.) then “shrinking the Gap” (as I once dubbed the settling of globalization’s remaining frontiers) requires nowhere near an “imperial” effort on the part of the United States. Between America and all these risers, there’s no question we have the resources and will to do what is required, which, by the way, looks more like China’s aggressive investment in Africa’s economies than Africom running around assassinating every radical Islamist it can.
But, of course, I am naïve for thinking such things. I’ve spent the last 7 years working primarily in international business and I’ve lost my stomach for arguing with ideologically rigid national security types who do not have a clue about how the world really works in this day and age. Honestly, the more time I spend in international business (I currently structure hydrocarbon deals globally), the less able I am to even hold a decent conversation with those who pass for “strategists” these days. I know I come off harsh here, but seriously, the lack of economic awareness among this crowd is simply stunning. In fact, I would describe it as the biggest security threat the world faces today – even bigger than the numbskulls running much of the PLA.
We are bereft of serious leadership in this day and age – both China and America. It is the only thing that truly scares me nowadays.