TCS Daily

A Blueprint for Inaction?

By Max Borders - May 9, 2006 12:00 AM

Thomas P. M. Barnett knows how to electrify a room full of military brass. He's been doing it since there was PowerPoint. That's because, like a scaled-down Copernicus, Barnett taught us how to see the world in a different way. In fact, he did it again, recently, at the Hudson Institute here in Washington, D.C. He's not just a strategy wonk, he's an entertainer.

Barnett is famous for fleshing out the idea that we couldn't just look for bad guys to save the world from; we had to look beyond good and evil to concepts like open and closed. In other words, to make the world a better place through the application of military force, we have to determine which countries are plugged into the global economy and which are not; because if our topography is shaped by the relative connectedness and economic interdependency of the world's peoples, we'll come to see a new map of danger and possibility.

This map came to be known as The Pentagon's New Map -- and so did Tom Barnett's phenomenally successful first book in which he details a "grand strategy" for the US and its allies. Those who've read The Pentagon's New Map will be aware of the Core-Gap thesis. It's fairly intuitive: If you look at the countries that are sufficiently connected with the global economy (the Core) and compare the countries that are isolated (the Gap); and then plot all of America's military operations since the Cold War, you'll find that 99 percent of those US operations have taken place in the Gap. The takeaway for military types is: instead of just chasing down terrorists and dictators, we've got to figure out how to get countries out of the Gap and into the Core. For Barnett, such a process involves the surgical application of overwhelming US military power, followed by serious attention to clean-up -- or what some like to call "nation-building."

The elegant simplicity of the Core-Gap thesis took admirals and generals by their bar-bedizened lapels. With the power of an idea, Barnett contributed to reshaping much of both the Departments of War and of State -- whether or not either will admit it. But The Pentagon's New Map left a lot of unanswered questions. Very powerful people said: "I buy your way of looking at the world. I buy that we need to reframe our strategy around the implications of this worldview. But how, pray tell, do we do it?" This and a confluence of other events including critical acclaim, comments from readers, US postwar stumbles in Iraq, and some unfinished thinking he'll readily admit -- all contributed to Barnett's realization that a follow-up to the Pentagon's New Map was necessary. Blueprint for Action was born.

And it is in Barnett's recommended process of transforming Gap states into Core states that we see the age-old tension between theory and practice start to emerge. Before attempting to expose this tension, we should note that Barnett's Blueprint for Action is a worthwhile effort. Still, it falls short -- not due to the Wherefores carefully elaborated the first book, but due to some of the Hows elaborated in the sequel. The shortcomings of the second stage of Barnett's grand strategy -- implementation -- are, in some respects, due to what Friedrich Hayek called "the fatal conceit." In other words, Barnett focuses too much on nation-building and not enough on institution-building.

Like the Core-Gap thesis of the first book, the Archimedian point of Blueprint is perhaps the distinction between "Leviathan" and "Systems Administration (SysAdmin)." We're all familiar with Leviathan. It's the high lethality, low footprint, laser-guided war machine that is the most powerful in human history -- the US military. Leviathan isn't a lumbering beast, either. The Air Force and Navy use net-centric warfare to advance on an enemy faster than that enemy can prepare, and to kill with an accuracy and finality not matched even in the war-stories of Homer.

But SysAdmin is another animal altogether. And how one characterizes that animal is everything to the success or failure of getting Gap states into the functioning Core. If Barnett's characterization of US military might is Leviathan, then his characterization of SysAdmin should be called "Behemoth." But before going into Barnett's characterization of the SysAdmin function, we should come to a tentative agreement about what it is SysAdmin should do. After all, function often dictates form. For the most part, Barnett's idea of the SysAdmin function rings true:

"One of the last sections I wrote for The Pentagon's New Map was about splitting the American military into two parts: a Leviathan-like force that focuses on waging war and a System Administrator force that focused on the everything else, meaning all the military operations other than war (e.g., peacekeeping, crisis response, humanitarian/reconstruction, counter-insurgency.)"

Iraq has been an important lesson about the necessity of some entity that quells insurgencies, stabilizes and rebuilds at least as well as Leviathan shocks and awes. Still, while we may agree that SysAdmin is necessary and valuable to the more complete picture of war-making and peace-building, what SysAdmin actually looks like needs to be fleshed out. And the way in which Barnett fleshes out SysAdmin goes far beyond what is necessary (much less desirable), and yet that devil-in-the-details remains.

Barnett jokingly refers to the creation of the "Department of Everything Else." Jokingly, because no one would name a cabinet-level department such a thing. But Barnett is very serious about the idea that such an entity should be (and will be) created. Leviathan is good at making war. But the US needs an entity geared to forging postwar peace. And he's right to say that SysAdmin is already evolving within the Pentagon like some benign appendage. What Barnett wants, however, is for that appendage to be given greater status, more independence, and of course a lot more resources. In fact, Barnett cottons onto the fact that resources are scarce -- even for the military -- and he laments the creation of Homeland Security because such made it less likely that the Department of Everything Else would come to exist, much less get what it needs.

Scarcity being a severe master, Barnett says that the US should, therefore, look outside its own people and coffers for help with SysAdmin. After all, he rightly contends, the Core nations are stakeholders in all of this. So in addition to a heavily supplemented Department of Everything Else, he suggests two additional - rather ominous - entities that would comprise what we might term the "SysAdmin Behemoth": an International Reconstruction Fund -- IRF, first suggested by Sebastian Mallaby -- and a G20 multilateral coalition operating outside the UN umbrella.

Mallaby set his IRF proposal forth in Foreign Policy magazine:

"The best hope of grappling with failed states lies in institutionalizing this mix of U.S. leadership and international legitimacy. Fortunately, one does not have to look far to see how this could be accomplished. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) already embody the same hybrid formula: both institutions reflect American thinking and priorities yet are simultaneously multinational. The mixed record of both institutions - notably the World Bank's failure on failed states - should not obscure their organizational strengths: they are more professional and less driven by national patronage than are UN agencies." (Emphasis added)

We should follow development economists like William Easterly in suggesting that behemoths of this genus, despite their underlying "American priorities" and relative lack of national patronage, will always have mixed records precisely due to the form of bureaucracy each embodies. The form is that of the largely unaccountable global bureaucracy. Let's call them quasi-governmental behemoths.

Any criticism of the World Bank and IMF would also apply to some future entity like the IRF. And many of these criticisms should be familiar to us by now:

  • Principle-Agent Problem - Behemoths are a management intermediary between two sets of "customers" (principles), the countries who fund them, and the countries in which they operate. A disconnect between the donors and the recipients means that information feedback loops get lost. The structure of the behemoth makes it virtually impossible for that agent effectively to respond to the (often divergent) needs of the principles. Even if the behemoths were completely unanswerable to the donor nations (which, for the most part they aren't anyway), they would still have a hard time addressing issues of the recipient nations - a fact that 50+ years of development economics belies.

  • Interdependency - Recipient countries become dependent on behemoths due to perverse incentives. These incentives are similar to the ones that created the enormous welfare underclass after the Great Society -- a subsistence dependency which failed to abate until the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Overwhelmingly, countries that have accepted (for example) World Bank aid have remained dependent. Meanwhile, the World Bank is also dependent on poor countries (like a master to his slave), for the bureaucracy can always claim - at the same time as it funds subsistence dependency - that the client countries need them. And need is the behemoth's raison d'etre.

  • Local Information Problems - There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of cases where the conditions on the ground were beyond the knowledge-base of the technical assistants. For example, a former World Bank employee recently related to me the story of that body's donating computers to help some developing country's justice system modernize. Turns out, the country experienced constant electricity brownouts, and the locals could never have afforded the maintenance and security costs required for a modern, networked database of files. The computers soon became high-tech paperweights. Similar problems confronted the US military when they arrived to discover the disrepair of Saddam's energy infrastructure, and they have been playing catch-up ever since.

  • Leadership by committee - Since quasi-governmental behemoths are composed of personnel (and interests) from many nations, they are susceptible to the problems of rule by committee: inaction. While Barnett (channeling Mallaby) is right to say that the World Bank and IMF are less prone to issues of patronage than the UN, they are nevertheless prone. And while squabbles are less likely to pimple the countenance of behemoths devoted to development alone, they will surely mark a SysAdmin organization whose mandate is predicated on the use of force. If we consider a multi-headed body (IRF) designed to be a SysAdmin-counterpart to a single-minded US Leviathan, we can already see the tensions that might arise between these organizations: First, the IRF will not want to operate at the whim of the US. But if Leviathan is the smashing fist of a wider US-lead coalition, it would certainly be forced to serve in that capacity to some degree.

These problems and many others make quasi-governmental behemoths largely ineffectual and, worse, unaccountable. Barnett offers something of a tentative reply in saying that by giving the World Bank competition, the IRF would make the World Bank more effective. Such may be true, but the improved effectiveness would be negligible in the face of the inherent problems listed above. In fact, the IMF has already begun to stray from its original mandate and "competes" with the World Bank in the areas like technical assistance -- which hasn't seemed to help the effectiveness of either competitor. So in the case of any quasi-governmental behemoth the inherent problems I listed above are insuperable, due to the nature of such beasts.

And that leads me to larger, related concern: multilateralism. While Barnett is optimistic about the potential to use military force in affecting positive change, his optimism rests ultimately on the idea that a powerful cluster of rich nations can be convinced to go the way of America. But as Robert Kagan reminds us: "It is a natural human phenomenon that if you have more power, you are more likely to use it. When you have less power, you are less likely to use it, and also less likely to consider it a legitimate activity." In these remarks Kagan is referring to the perpetual peace mindset of European nations who have been free-riding on US military might for sixty years. But a large portion of the G20 nations, within which Barnett thinks consensus can be reached, are the nations of Old Europe -- i.e. the same nations who occupy the UN security council and argue endlessly for more resolutions, more diplomacy, and less action.

The problem of free-riding is likely to plague any informal coalition of states committed in principle to making war then building peace. It would be easy, for example, for the Indian government to pacify it's majority of constituents opposed to military operations by letting other states do the dirty work, then enjoy the fruits of, say, oil security and increased trade. Again, we can point the finger at almost all of Europe for such free riding.

The most important aspect of any SysAdmin effort should be institution-building, not just nation-building. This is where the UN and the quasi-governmental behemoths have failed so utterly in just about everything they've done. To build a nation without transfusing vital institutions is to build a house of cards ready to collapse. To wit: India and China are in no position to contribute to institution-building, as they're still grappling with the internal transformation of their own institutions. The most successful Core states are the states that look the most like the US in their institutions. So while you might want Britain or Australia to contribute to institution-building, you're not likely to want Russia or Brazil to do so.

Above all other considerations, institutional change is the nut we must first learn to crack if we buy the better part of Barnett's overall thesis of Gap-to-Core transitions -- much less a wider foreign policy that includes nation-building. That means the goal of nation-building should be splicing in the institutional DNA of liberal democratic societies, inasmuch as this is possible. So at the same time SysAdmin is putting down insurgencies, restoring basic infrastructure, and protecting civil order, it should also be establishing the essentials for prosperous and highly organized complex order: the Rule of Law; an independent judiciary; transparency and accountability mechanisms; a separation of powers; popular sovereignty (constrained by the rule of law); and fixed, enforced property rights. Without these essentials, a nation is doomed. But with them, the nation has a chance to grow and order itself spontaneously -- no central planners or behemoths necessary.

Max Borders is Managing Editor for



A disaster for the United States
The Core/Gap idea is compelling to those who revel in military strategy, but I think in the long run it will spell disaster for this country. Implicit in the notion is a war without end against all the countries labelled "Gap" countries. And this will certainly isolate us in the developed world as we continue to exhort nations to help us carry our wars to fresh places. We may still have some allies today, but in time their enthusiasm will wane.

Second, Iraq shows us that this is a failed policy, in that one of the main reasons behind the invasion was to make Iraq a showplace for our version of globalization. When we came in we did not just drive Saddam from power. We razed government to the ground, creating near universal unemployment (the economy was socialised and most people lost their jobs). After this Year Zero, business reps were supposed to line up to be the first wave of investors, picking all the low hanging fruit in a privatisation scheme that ultimately would auction off every asset in the country to bidders from the US, UK and Australia (no Frenchies, please).

Imagine our surprise when the country was then overtaken by chaos. The army was left to go home with their guns to an environment with 70% unemployment. Crime went through the roof. The infrastructure was dismantled and even the oil fields were paralyzed. Not one single investor showed up to bid on the mess that was created.

Third, the unending expense of conducting this and the Afghan occupation is just going on the national tab. In time we're going to have to start paying it all back. War may appear to be at no real cost, but if we hemorrhage money long enough in these quantities it will bring the country down-- as it threatened to do in Vietnam.

Anyone interested in a good historical overview of quagmires that brought mighty nations to ruin should read The March of Folly, by Barbara Tuchman

as usual, roy's information is years out of date

the end of WWII did not result in our economy collapsing in a heap.

At it's peak, WWII spending exceeded 25% of GDP.
At present, the entire dept of defense takes up only a few percent of GDP. (I don't have the exact numbers at hand, but govt as a whole takes up about 40% of GDP, and defense is only 10 to 20% of that total.) So far we haven't even built up our armed forces back to the level we were spending during the cold war.

If you have a better solution towards protecting the US against terrorists, I'd be interested in hearing it.

Amen to this book. It is just a prayer, it won't work, the missing variable is TIME!!!
Amen. Isn't that what we say at the end of a prayer. All we need is to separate the military into those that shoot and those that build and then it is conquer the world for its and our own good.

Nation Building, SysAdmin, Self Help, Occupation, Empire Building or what ever you want to call it is always doomed to failure. That is because over time the occupier loses interest in paying for the losses incurred and violence necessary to enforce the occupation.

Look at Iraq. As it stands there have been over 2000 people killed and $400 billion spent. The occupied folks know that sooner or later the US will leave and they can do what ever they want.

As for building institutions, that is equally as pointless. The local malcontents can use violence against the local population to keep their committment down to a minimum. The local malcontents can also destory much of the infractructure created in this SysAdmin period at very little cost.

The US could certainly use a book on how have a RATIONAL foreign policy or it could just follow the advice of Jefferson and not get involved in entangling alliances or the affairs with other people except on a comercial basis.

Hi Joanie. Good comments.

It would actually benefit us to wean ourselves from the war industry. Since WWII it has acted like any entrenched bureaucracy and grown larger and larger. You can see a similarity in the amount of deficit spending we do each year and the amount we spend on (1) the military budget plus (2) the supplemental spending that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mu own opinion is that these have been optional wars, conducted to provide a justification for our spending as much on our military as the entire rest of the globe put together.

A response to 9/11 would have been a required use of the military. Had we entered Afghanistan, demanded access to all Al Qaeda bases and forcibly taken Osama and his gang, that would have been a use of force geared toward success. We could have told the Taliban we're staying until we have him in custody. Then when they handed him over we could have left. But we didn't do that.

Instead we have endless occupations causing us to spend money our children will have to pay back. And now we can't cut and run without losing "face". Even though the new Zogby poll tells us 72% of our personnel serving in Iraq wants us out by the end of 2006.

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