Connections, Core, and Gap: Thomas Barnett’s Pentagon’s New Map

I’ve finished my second detailed reading of Thomas Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map and now I feel ready to start commenting on it. If you haven’t read the book, I strongly recommend that you do so. It appears likely that it will be highly influential over the next few years so reading it may help you make sense of the world we’re living in. To get some familitarity with the basic ideas in the book you can swing over to Barnett’s web site and read the Esquire magazine article that outlines the key ideas in the book. I read the magazine article first and still found the book worth reading if only for the “Inside Baseball” view of the Pentagon and the Naval War College.

Barnett posits a world consisting of the peaceful, prosperous Core nations and the troubled, impoverished Gap. The difference between the Core and the Gap is connectivity: the Core nations are connected, the Gap nations aren’t. The Core is a Lockean world in which law is supreme; the Gap is a Hobbesian world in which Leviathan in the form of the American military maintains order and intervenes periodically as we see fit to punish and remove serious violators. Leviathan’s ultimate objective should be to make all of the Gap part of the functioning Core.

I agree without qualifications with Barnett’s optimistic view of America’s grand strategy and with his unrelenting insistence that the benefits of the Lockean Core should be open to people of all countries regardless of gender, race, religion, or ethnicity. I agree with his view of the general benignity of America’s grand strategy although this view puts both of us at odds with a considerable fraction of the American electorate, mostly in the Democratic Party. I also agree with Barnett’s view of the relationship between the United States and China and that the likelihood of superpower war between the United States and China is extremely remote (I don’t necessarily agree with Barnett’s explanations for why this is so since I believe that issues completely internal to China are more significant than connectivity in explaining the relationship). However, I do think that Barnett’s model has some flaws and the remainder of this post will attempt to identify a few of them.

The first and most serious flaw is that Barnett never proposes a rigorous, quantifiable, testable definition of connectivity. The Core and Gap are areas on a map and Barnett tells us the difference is connectivity. The difference is that the area referred to as the Gap contains the problem spots and Barnett explains those problem spots by connectivity. We need a better test for determining whether a country is Core (which includes countries like the United States, France and Germany), New Core (which includes countries like China and India), Seam States (like Mexico, Brazil, and Turkey), or Gap (Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Colombia, etc.).

This is critical since the litmus test for whether the United States is warranted in acting unilaterally to remove a regime is whether the country is in the Gap or not. No definition—no litmus test; no litmus test—no legitimacy.

The second flaw is that I think that Barnett is a victim of his own metaphor. I don’t read Hobbes’s Leviathan as a call for a universal system of consensual rule by law. I read it as a demand for a powerful sovereign to keep the peace. When you characterize the U. S. role as Leviathan, it is in fact a call for an American Empire. Barnett is very clear in calling for American rules rather than American rule. But that’s not what Leviathan is about. He needs to come up with a different metaphor to avoid tearing down his own argument.

Barnett’s notion of dividing the responsibilities of the Pentagon between Leviathan responsibilities and what he refers to as System Administration responsibilities is ahistoric. Historically, several forces—genuinely different groups of people—have been influential in U. S. foreign policy decision making: isolationists, idealistic internationalists, economic realists, and populist nationalists. For a handy key to understanding these groups this post of mine.

Our military has historically been and currently is heavily influenced by Jacksonians. Jacksonians have little or no interest in the objectives Barnett is setting out for the SysAdmin force. That group will necessarily be composed of Hamiltonians and Wilsonians. You can’t carve out the function of SysAdmin. It will have to be added on both for political and druthers reasons. And I honestly don’t see any willingness of the American people to fund such a group as an add-on.

Another flaw is that there is an implicit assumption that once a nation is part of the Core it always will be. I see no reason for this to be so. Nazi Germany clearly abandoned Globalization Core I. In my own lifetime I’ve seen two countries which were arguably New Core, i.e. Lebanon and Yugoslavia, become part of the Gap. The force most generally responsible for these changes is nationalism. A rise in nationalism in various parts of the world could result in New Core members, e.g. Russia, China, becoming part of the Gap. It’s even possible that Old Core members for reasons of nationalism or demography could become part of the Gap. No stable Core—no PNM.

The next flaw is that the entire model is oddly U. S. A.-centric. There don’t seem to be any real responsibilities for any part of the Core except the United States. For example, I found this passage troubling (PNM p. 315):

“The key to remember in all of this is that the rest of the Core does not want to see America
fail in its role as Gap Leviathan, they simply want to see us thinking about the system as a whole,
and administering the system as a whole.”

I think this is what Barnett wishes rather than what actually is. I think there’s precious little evidence of European support for a U. S. role as Gap Leviathan. Three generations of French politicians have defined French foreign policy in terms of opposition to the United States (or at least obstruction of the United States) and the Gerhard Schroeder-Joschka Fischer government in Germany has maintained power by opposition to the United States. The European press has been relentless and consistent in demands that the United States subordinate its warmaking to the Security Council cf. “illegal war”.

Frankly, I think it’s important for the survival of the Core for both Old Core and New Core nations to have some actual responsibilities. That’s one of the reasons, for example, that I opposed U. S. involvement in Kosovo specifically and Yugoslavia generally. If the Europeans weren’t prepared to handle the problem themselves they needed to get prepared and our involvement merely enabled (in the sense of enabling an alcoholic) the Europeans in their Kantian fantasies.

Actually, I think that many European leaders privately believe just what Barnett claims: they want us on that wall, they need us on that wall. But they don’t think their people can handle the truth. That’s not enough. If the difference between Core and Gap is connectivity that must mean that we’re connected to the Europeans and the Europeans are connected to us. We can’t succeed in the role of Gap Leviathan unless we’re supported in that role by Europeans, openly and explicitly. If it’s politically impossible for European leaders to do that there is no Core. Unless, of course, connectivity means something different that that.

And that brings me to my next problem with Barnett’s hypothesis: the Gap has plenty of connectivity, particularly to other countries in the Gap but also to other Core and New Core countries. Look at the relationship between the EU and Iran and China and Iran, for example. But those relationships are steadfastly commercial with little or no interest in the transformation of Iran. Marc Schulman of American Future has a series of posts, EU and the Arabs, in which he outlines the connectivity of Europe, particularly France, to the Arab world. There are many other kinds of connectivity within the Gap itself including the system of madrasses that the Saudis have instituted and the system of quasi-formal banks that have sprung up across the Muslim world.

I think a more accurate model of what’s actually going on in the world is afforded by an analogy to the “spheres of influence” that prevailed in the late 19th century. In a future post I hope to address the issues of influence and barriers to influence that I’ve thought of us the Wave Theory of Core and Gap.

7 comments… add one
  • hey Dave,

    Great post! Thoughtful PNM review.

    In the interest of brevity, I’ll respond in bullet-point fashion:

    * I too noticed that Core-Seam-Gap status could use some quick & dirty quantification. In one of my early PNM-related reviews I suggested a Bell Curve model be constructed. If PNM blooms into a full-blown analytical school of thought, as it has the potential for doing, that is an area for further work by somebody with a good grounding in quantitative analysis methodology.

    * ” Leviathan ” – my read is that Dr. Barnett picked that nomenclature in the biblical-mythic sense of an awe-inspiring figure of titanic size and power and not the Hobbesian philosophical sense of the proper role of the State.

    * Leviathan vs. System Administration forces: This would indeed require an unprecedented restructuring of American military foces that would dwarf the changes of 1947 when the Navy and War departments were fused into the DoD and the JCS and Air Force were created. The driver here is not Dr. Barnett’s book but the real-world pressure of repeated nation-building MOOTW deployments and the difficulties of the Iraqi insurgency.

    The need for the U.S. have some kind of force that specializes in ” nation-building” is becoming an inarguable consensus -what and who would compose a System Administration and how/when/where to deploy it is something hotly disputed.

    *Hamiltonians/Wilsonians/Jacksonians strikes me as a very good way of analyzing how PNM proposals will fly politically in Congress, the Pentagon and with the public.

    * The Euros : We’re in a state of global flux – the U.S. is trying to propose new Rule-Sets to meet new realities and the Euros stand by the old ones and/or promote Kantian Transnational progressive Rule-Sets in opposition as suits their political advantage of the moment. Their primary consistency is trying to restrain the use of american power or have a say in its use ( without anteing up themselves). This problem is going to persist for a while, putting it mildly.

    * I agree that states can regress. I think Dr. Barnett would agree with you there as well and has mentioned that possibility on his blog after PNM’s publication ( might be wrong but I’m fairly certain).

    * Get cracking on that Wave theory ! ;o)

  • How does one enlist to serve in this Lockean Corps?

  • The Real World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil by Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky, 1993.

    In terms of testing, you’re spot on. However, a small, but growing, wave of young IR scholars are using network analysis to identify structural holes, cliques, and other patterns in world politics. Even though I have a background in network theory, I don’t have the technical skills to do this sort of work myself.

    Then there’s a whole wave of world systems theorists who have been trying to measure core/periphery relations in world politics for some time…

  • Thanks for the reference, Dan. I’ll take a look at it. Love your site, BTW. I’ve just been looking for an excuse to put it on the blogroll (and the energy to write an introductory post).

  • Dan,

    Thanks for the networking link. I’ve been looking for a book like that.


    Good point on the Leviathan. Hobbes’ Leviathan is very close to Barnett’s SysAdmin. Living through the English Civil War in exile, Hobbes wanted a strong force to return peace and safety to his homeland, constitutional/consent issues be damned. Obvious similarities with Chalabi, the Cuban exiles, &c.

    -Dan tdaxp

  • Dave: thanks for the kind words.

    In retrospect, my reference to the Singer & Wildavasky book was completely opaque. They don’t, IIRC, make any attempt to measure connectivity. The book is interesting because it makes a very similar argument (Lockean/Hobbesian zones), and did so twelve years ago :-).

  • I just wish Mr. Barnett had been accepted to art school. He would have been a sketcher and painter of buildings and landscapes by now.

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