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Thomas P.M. Barnett Goes Dark

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Tom goes sine die

You can still catch Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett’s geopolitical thinking at TIME magazine’s Battleland blog and, of course, if you subscribe to Wikistrat 


COIN may be Dead but 4GW has a New Lease on Life

Monday, December 12th, 2011

As I had predicted, a global recession, budgetary chicken in Congress and national weariness after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have forced a public rethink of the prominence of counterinsurgency doctrine in America’s military kit.  Colonel Gian Gentile, long the intellectual archenemy of FM 3-24 and the “Surge narrative” has pronounced COIN “dead” and even CNAS, spiritual home of COIN theory inside the Beltway, is now advocating COIN-lite FID (Foreign Internal Defense). As this entire process is being driven by a global economic crisis, there is another aspect to this American inside-baseball policy story.

While COIN as the hyperexpensive, nation-building, FM 3-24 pop-centric version of counterinsurgency is fading away, irregular warfare and terrorism are  here to stay as long as there is human conflict. Moreover, as economic systems are to nation-states as vascular systems are to living beings, we can expect an acceleration of state failure as weak but functional states are forced by decreased revenues to reduce services and diminish their ability to provide security or enforce their laws. The global “habitat” for non-state, transanational and corporate actors is going to grow larger and the zones of civilized order will shrink and come under internal stress in the medium term even in the region that Thomas P.M. Barnett defined as the “Core” of globalization.

The theory of Fourth Generation Warfare is helpful here. Many people in the defense community object to 4GW thinking, arguing that it is a poor historical model because it is overly simplified, the strategic ideas typified by each generation are cherrypicked and are usually present in many historical eras (albeit with much different technology). For example, eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray writes of 4GW in Another Bloody Century:

….The theory of Fourth Generation Warfare or 4GW merits extended critical attention here for several reasons. It appears to be a very big idea indeed. It’s author [ William S. Lind] and his followers profess to be able to explain how and why warfare has evolved over the past 350 years and onto the future….

….Talented and intellectually brave strategic theorists are in such short supply that I hesitate before drawing a bead on Lind and his grand narrative of succeeding generations of warfare. Nonetheless, there is no avoiding the judgment that 4GW is the rediscovery of the obvious and the familiar. 

4GW theory is not something that can be defended as having sound historical methodology. However, it works well enough as a strategic taxonomy of mindsets and political environments in which war is waged; particularly with the inclusion of the van Creveldian assumptions of state decline, it is a useful tool for looking at warfare in regions of weak, failing and failed states. The same global region Dr. Barnett has termed “the Gap” in his first book, The Pentagon’s New Map.

Tom predicated his geostrategy on the power of globalization being harnessed with judicious use of Core military power to “shrink the Gap” and provide connectivity as an extremely powerful lever to raise up billions of the world’s poor into a more stable, freer and middle-class existence. While that still holds, the flipside is that times of  sharp economic contraction limit the ability of the Core, led by the United States, to intervene robustly, permitting the “bad guys” to make use of connectivity and black globalization for their own purposes. Where the great powers are disunited, disinterested or increasingly in the case of European power projection, disarmed, the Gap could potentially grow.

A new Iraq or Afghanistan sized campaign is not in the American defense budget for at least a decade. Or NATO’s. Hence the newfound interest in cheaper alternatives to massive intervention on the ground, for which the Libyan campaign might charitably be classed as an “experiment” ( where it was not simply bad strategy and negotiated operations) or as a multilateral reprise of Rumsfeldian ideas of transformative, light and fast military force mashed up with Reagan Doctrine proxy warfare, justified under a new ideological theory of R2P.

These are rational policy responses to conditions of parsimony, but it also indicates a coming era of strategic triage rather than grand crusades in using military force to stabilize parts of the global system.  The US and other great power  are going to be more likely to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have” than they are to heed JFK’s call “to pay any price, bear any burden”. The politics of hard times means that we will be minimizing our burdens by replacing, where we can, boots with bots, bullets with bytes and Marines with mercs. Not everywhere, but certainly on the margins of American interests.

Beyond those margins? We will aid and trade with whatever clients can maintain a vestige of civilized order without too much regard to the niceties of  formal state legitimacy. Too many states will be ceding autonomy to subnational and transnational entities on their territory in the next few decades and we will have to abide by that reality if regions of the world become Somalia writ large. What to do? A number of recommendations come to mind:

  • Get our own economic house in order with greater degrees of transparency and adherence to rule of law in our financial sector. Legitimacy and stability, like charity, begins at home.
  • Adopt policies that strengthen the principle of national sovereignty and enhance legitimacy rather than weaken or erode it. This does not mean respecting hollow shells of fake states that are centers of disorder, but respecting legitimate ones that effectively govern their territory
  • Foreign policies that reject oligarchical economic arrangements in favor of encouraging liberalization of authoritarian-autarkic state economies prior to enacting political reforms ( democracy works better the first time on a full stomach).
  • Create a grand strategy board to advise senior policy makers and improve the currently abysmal level of strategic calculation and assessment prior to the US assuming open-ended commitments to intervention
  • Accept that the Laws of War require a realistic updating to deal with the international equivalent of outlaws, an updating that contradicts and rejects the 1970’s era diplomatic effort to privilege irregular combatants over conventional forces.
  • Fighting foreign insurgencies is something best done by primarily by locals, if willing, with our aid and advice. If those with the most to lose are not willing to stand, fight and die then they deserve to lose and the US should either eschew getting involved at all or resolve to secure whatever vital interest that exists there by brute force and make certain that reality is clearly communicated to the world (i.e. Carter Doctrine).  Truly vital interests are rare.

Book Review: The Emily Updates by Thomas P.M. Barnett

Monday, October 3rd, 2011


The Emily Updates: One Year in The Life of a Girl Who Lived by Thomas P.M. Barnett

Grand strategist and author Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett has published a starkly different book with The Emily Updates, an e-book series that turns away from abstractions of geopolitical strategy and to a deeply personal kind of conflict, his daughter Emily Barnett’s battle with advanced pediatric cancer. Culled from a blog originally written by Tom and his wife Vonne Meussling-Barnett to keep family and friends appraised of the details of Emily’s medical treatment, the series paints an intimate portrait of parental desperation and the amazing grace of a toddler facing a life-threatening disease.

There are two sizable groups of people who will react most strongly to The Emily Updates : parents of young children and those who have faced cancer themselves, or in a loved one. An excerpt:

…Javedan says that her right kidney is enormously enlarged. It is so big that it’s displaced the liver out of its usual spot. That’s what was so confusing in the examinations. There seems to be tumors in or on the kidney.

There’s no need to assume cancer just yet, he says, but he mentions the term Wilms’ Tumor. Javedan orders me to rush Emily to Georgetown within the hour. The head of pediatric surgery and the head of pediatric oncology are already alerted and waiting. The exploratory surgery will be tomorrow morning.

Javedan’s words just froze me: “It’s already been scheduled.”

The doctors will need to run many tests on Emily by the end of the day, so we must hurry. Javedan knows these people. “They are the best,” he assures me.

“Emily will survive,” he is certain.

“It’s wrong to assume she will die, no matter how bad things get in the next hours and days. Remember that,” he counsels.

Quite literally, every parent’s nightmare.

Barnett does not spare the details and The Emily Updates read very much like you are hearing what has just happened in a hospital waiting room or across the Barnett family kitchen table, grueling procedures no child so young should have to go through

Strongly recommended.

Mapping our interdependencies and vulnerabilities [with a glance at Y2K]

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — mapping, silos, Y2K, 9/11, rumors, wars, Boeing 747s, Diebold voting machines, vulnerabilities, dependencies ]

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The “bug” of Y2K never quite measured up to the 1919 influenza bug in terms of devastating effect — but as TPM Barnett wrote in The Pentagon’s New Map:

Whether Y2K turned out to be nothing or a complete disaster was less important, research-wise, than the thinking we pursued as we tried to imagine – in advance – what a terrible shock to the system would do to the United States and the world in this day and age.


My own personal preoccupations during the run-up to Y2K had to do with cults, militias and terrorists — any one of which might have tried for a spectacle.

As it turned out, though, Al Qaida’s plan to set off a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve, 1999 was foiled when Albert Ressam was arrested attempting to enter the US from Canada — so that aspect of what might have happened during the roll-over was essentially postponed until September 11, 2001. And the leaders of the Ugandan Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, acting on visionary instructions (allegedly) from the Virgin Mary, announced that the end of the world had been postponed from Dec 31 / Jan 1 till March 17 — at which point they burned 500 of their members to death in their locked church. So that apocalyptic possibility, too, was temporarily averted.


Don Beck of the National Values Center / The Spiral Dynamics Group, commented to me at one point in the run-up:

Y2K is like a lightening bolt: when it strikes and lights up the sky, we will see the contours of our social systems.

— and that quote from Beck, along with Barnett’s observation, pointed strongly to the fact that we don’t have anything remotely resembling a decent global map of interdependencies and vulnerabilities.

What we have instead is a PERT chart for this or that, Markov diagrams, social network maps, railroad maps and timetables… oodles and oodles of smaller pieces of the puzzle of past, present and future… each with its own symbol system and limited scope. Our mapping, in other words, is territorialized, siloed, and disconnected, while the world system which is integral to our being and survival is connected, indeed, seamlessly interwoven.

I’ve suggested before now that our mapping needs to pass across the Cartesian divide from the objective to the subjective, from materiel to morale, from the quantitative to the qualitative, and from rumors to wars. It also needs a uniform language or translation service, so that Jay Forrester system dynamic models can “talk” with PERT and Markov and the rest, Bucky Fuller‘s World Game included.

I suppose some of all this is ongoing, somewhere behind impenetrable curtains, but I wonder how much.


In the meantime, and working from open source materials, the only kind to which I have access – here are two data points we might have noted a litle earlier, if we had decent interdependency and vulnerability mapping:


Fear-mongering — or significant alerts?  I’m not tech savvy enough to know.


Tom Barnett’s point about “the thinking we pursued as we tried to imagine – in advance – what a terrible shock to the system would do to the United States and the world in this day and age” still stands.

Y2K was what first alerted me to the significance of SCADAs.

Something very like what Y2K might have been seems to be unfolding — but slowly, slowly.

Are we thinking yet?

New Book: The Emily Updates

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Thanks to courtesy copy sent by Tom, I just began reading this:


Many people, including myself, have had the experience of a loved one suffering with cancer or battled cancer themselves. Cancer is an onerous, arduous disease, but having your child be diagnosed with cancer must be another whole level of terrifying.

Will have a review and something extra soon.

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