Great Powers: America and the World After Bush is a book whose influence will be deep and long. It is also a book that will be loved and reviled. Loved because in it, Barnett connects history with strategy and foreign policy and does so with unvarnished, supremely confident, optimism regarding a future of an americanized Globalization and a globalized America. It will also be bitterly reviled for exactly same reason.
In essence, Great Powers is an intellectual-political rorschach test.
This will not be a traditional book review. By way of disclaimer, I was one of the people who read the earliest draft version of Great Powers as Tom Barnett was writing it ( at times Tom was writing faster than any of us could keep up reading it!) and offered comments and advice. I have seen various iterations of different parts of Great Powers as it was shaped by Dr. Barnett, Mark Warren and Neil Nyren and discussed the book during this time with others in Tom’s circle who were also readers. As a result I cannot possibly be considered an objective or impartial reviewer but what I am, however, is a well informed one.
What I will offer instead of a traditional review is my thoughts on why Great Powers should be read whether you admire Thomas Barnett’s philosophy or not.
First, Great Powers represents the first attempt to critically distill the meaning and the context of the historical mark of the George W. Bush presidency in a way that is not beholden to the needs of domestic partisans, Right or Left. As a result, some of these people will go absolutely ape in Chapter One and will be riding their hobby horse to the uptopian horizon of choice and never really read anything else in the book except through heavily rose colored glasses. For everyone else, Barnett’s handling of Bush-Cheney is a needed step back from presentism and into analysis of causes and effects, risks and opportunities, which make up the global legacy of President Bush.
Secondly, Barnett is enunciating a theory of historical evolution heavily influenced by economic determinism but not only economic determinism. Very few reviewers have picked up on this element ( John Robb was a notable exception) but Tom has revived and synthesized the “Frontier Thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner into postmodern, 21st century, transnational terms. “The frontier” is not just an economic margin but a verge for deep but decisive conflicts of personal identity and cultural renewal. Frontiers are dynamic and psychological, not fixed entities and the momentum is usually running toward civilizational expansion or collapse. We can find the frontier at home in “feral” neighborhoods mere miles from our houses or thousands of miles distant in far off Pushtunistan and the Fergana valley. There is no maginot line we can build, no place to “bring the boys home” to when the frontier exists as much in cyberspace as on the ground.
Thirdly, Barnett articultes the strategic macro-choices (“Realignment”) that we face in the first decades of the 21st century based on the framework that our past choices have created. This last part of the book is where he generates enormous amounts of friction with more traditional policy wonk experts by de-compartmentalizing their pet issues into the agonizingly interrelated gordian knot that they represent in reality while re-buffing the idea that they add up to a collection of worst-case scenarios fusing into a mega-apocalypse. The integrated perspective pushed by Barnett also denies the likelihood of securing neat little zero-sum policy “wins” just for America (or Russia, or China or the EU). Tom gets bashed for simplifying in his briefs but briefs are not books and the problem his critics have is not his simplicity but the complexity that Barnett chooses to put on the table for debate.
That approach makes a lot of people whose education and experience is in selling or consuming the inch-wide, mile-long, tunnel -vision perspectives very uncomfortable. It is a repudiation not of their policies but of their whole mode of thinking about policy.
That brings me to why I think Great Powers should be read. An old mentor of mine used to warn his grad students of books that made them feel good by confirming their prejudices and dulling their thinking with smug superiority. Good books cause you to scrawl furiously in the margin. Despite the fact that I am in sync with many of Tom Barnett’s strategic ideas, there are parts of Great Powers that caused me to grit my teeth (case in point, his entertaining the faddish, Left-Fem polemicist, Susan Faludi as a serious thinker) or take a second look at my previously held opinions. This is what good books do and great books are the ones that do so for many people and thereby become potential game-changers.
Great Powers is one of those books.