Barnett’s Department of Everything Else

I first came across Thomas PM Barnett via his TED talk last year.  He’s an engaging speaker (PowerPoint performance artist might be more accurate), and he has interesting ideas about how globalization works, and what the US military’s role has been, is, and should be.  I’ve followed his blog on and off ever since.  I’m fascinated with him because a huge amount of what he says rings true, and unusually frank, but a little bit of it seems jarring. Last night I watched his full-length brief and took notes, to try and figure out what exactly it was that I disagree with.

The most fundamental thing we disagree on – or at the very least, that I don’t fully understand about his position – is the historical role and motivation of US military interventions overseas.  I get the feeling that he believes most of our interventions have been in some sense altruistic, or at least well intentioned.  It may be that we just have different ideas of what constitutes “well intentioned”.  I think often we’ve deployed our military, or at least our intelligence community, in the service of US business interests, and often against the democratic interests of other nations, with whom we have disagreed economically or ideologically.  Chile, Guatemala, and the rest of the Central American mess certainly come to mind.  But a lot of the point he’s making overall is that enhanced economic connectivity is in a pre-requisite to meaningful development, and maintaining, or enhancing, that connectivity is valuable, even if it comes at the cost of (temporarily) stunted democracy.  This seems a little rosy to me, but certainly more honest that supposing we only ever go to war, or topple governments, in the name of Freedom, Justice, and Democracy, which was a popular myth for the latter half of the 20th century at least.  It’s not even clear to me that the US actually wants to foster the development of new economic partners (rivals).  I think that might be something that’s happened in the past because we had little other choice, and that we’d just assume maintain a bunch of economic colonies in orbit around us.  Luckily, I don’t think we actually have that choice any more.  The sooner we get used to the idea of changing our conception of America’s central role in the world, the better.

I also don’t think I completely agree with his assessment of the role or importance of environmental issues.  He acknowledges that climate change will partially define the future relationships between nations, or at least the parameters of our interactions, as some areas (especially the poorest) become less habitable, but I think he underestimates the potential for rapid destabilization as a result.  There are two specific scenarios that come to mind.

First is the melting of the glaciers and icefields which feed many of the major rivers of Asia.  Even if climate change is gradual, these water resources are likely to vanish.  Some of them soon.  Up until they go, there’ll be plenty of water – more than the historical average even, as they literally liquidate themselves – and then there’ll be none, save the annual spring snowmelt, which is not what the agriculture of the region has developed to depend on.  Even with massive dam projects attempting to take the place of the glacial interannual reservoirs, there’s likely to be less overall precipitation to work with, and greater evaporation from the reservoirs themselves, which (as we are discovering with Lake Powell and Mead) will have a limited lifetime anyway, as a result of sediment buildup, and in any case, cost vastly more than current food prices can justify to build.

The second scenario is abrupt climate change.  Really that’s a huge class of scenarios.  But we know it’s happened (and happened often) in the past, as the climate system has undergone state changes between glacial and interglacial periods, often in less than a decade (see Richard Alley’s book The Two Mile Time Machine).  That magnitude and rapidity of climate change, should we experience it with six or ten billion people on board, would be a catastrophe that defies description.  Global crop failures in a finely tuned agricultural system running at or beyond capacity would mean hundreds of millions to billions of people either starved or displaced.  It might not “resurrect great-powers war”, even if we’re talking about Pakistan, India, China, Iran, Bangladesh… but the sheer magnitude of chaos would certainly be destabilizing.  More troubling, it seems at the moment like it would be a complete surprise.  If nations really believed this were possible, they would be much more serious about reducing emissions.  Cuban missile crisis serious.  And we can’t negotiate with the atmosphere.

More subtly, Barnett says “only mandate the interface”, i.e. set the rules for economic interaction, but don’t try and determine how those externally visible standards are met (especially in a political context).  But many environmental concerns are part of the interface.  We share the oceans and the atmosphere with China.  Oceanic acidification, sea level changes, and greenhouse gas emissions are being exported by all industrialized nations, to everyone else (free of charge).  We have to start treating these imports and exports as an integral part of global trade.

Barnett is also more of a Cornucopian than I am.  There are no coming resource wars he says.  We must develop consumer demand in a new global middle class, a billion people strong, he says.  They will eat meat, and drink milk; they will drive cars, he says.  I’m not so sure.  We need to raise their standards of living, but we need to do it in a different way.  The next billion cannot industrialize the same way we have.  I think this is possible, but not a foregone conclusion.  Call me a Frugal Cornucopian.  The earthlings can all have enough.  Plenty, even.  But not if there are 12 billion of us humans, and not if our wealth is equated with the rate at which we take pristene natural resources, and turns them into landfill.  Doing this right, by which I mean avoiding those non-existent resource wars, and successfully hedging against the price volatility that will result (is resulting?) from our occasionally bumping up against supply constraints, will take heroic efforts.  Heroic efforts worth making.  Heroic efforts I intend to be part of.  But I do not think our success is assured.  There just aren’t that many factors of two left in the material world.

He lays out a path from poor country to cheap country: basic security, connectivity, and foreign direct investment.  It’s less clear what the path is from cheap country to rich country.  At least, less clear to me, because I don’t believe consumer debt and western style material consumption are scalable.

He also seems to believe Milton Friedman‘s old maxim that economic freedom (i.e. capitalism) is ultimately inextricably linked to political freedom (i.e. democracy), which necessarily suggests that China’s current arrangement is not a steady state.  I’m not entirely convinced that authoratarian capitalism can’t be stable in the long run – as stable as democratic capitalism anyway (which certainly seems to be a bit wobbly on occasion… and could certainly be more democratic!).  If authoritarian capitalism can be stable, then China’s pre-emptive nationbuilding in Africa might easily be interpreted as ideologically expansionist.  We’ll give you economic connectivity.  We’ll help you build out your infrastructure.  We don’t care what your government looks like.  Economies expand, standards of living rise, and the powerful stay in power.  But maybe it’s not going to be that way (even if it’s theoretically possible).  It certainly does seem hopeful that the likely next cadre of Chinese leaders largely took their advanced degrees overseas.  Who knows what the world will look like when post-Boomers are in charge here, post-Cultural Revolutionaries are running China, post-Soviets rule Russia, and post-Colonialists populate sub-Saharan Africa.  Different anyway, that’s for sure.

Looking forward to reading Great Powers some time next year.  Maybe more than anything else right now, we need vigorous competition in the market for visions of our future.  I’m sure Barnett will have interesting things to contribute.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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