The Wave Theory of Core and Gap

The Pentagon's New Map

I read Thomas Barnett’s Esquire article, The Pentagon’s New Map, a little over two and a half years ago and his expansion of the article in book form a little thereafter. After I’d read the book a second time I posted my own commentary. You might want to go there and refresh your memory on my reactions.

In my post I listed a few of the quibbles I had with Barnett’s revolutionary view of the challenges facing American foreign policy he’s encapsulated in his book. Among them were

  • lack of quantification and verifiability
  • U. S. A.-centricity
  • the connectivity of the Gap

I promised to present a view of my own, complementary to Barnett’s, that I’ve been referring to as the “Wave Theory of Core and Gap” (in reference to the wave theory of light and matter). In this post (and the subsequent installments) I’m going to try and explain my thoughts.

The graphic above is from the Esquire article and it’s the jumping-off point for Barnett’s discussion of Core and Gap. The lines he draws on the map enclose the Pentagon’s hot spots: the areas where problems have occurred/are occurring/will occur. The dark-shaded areas (which exclude China and India) are the Gap. Let’s consider a few other graphics.

The world at night

This picture is a NASA photograph of the world at night.

Islamist attacks since 9/11

This map is from Gates of Vienna’s Bloody Borders Project. Click to enlarge. The version on their site is highly interactive and provides more information on individual incidents.

Map of war risk insurance

This map from ComingAnarchy shows Barnett’s Gap overlayed on a map of countries in which companies undertaking major projects must carry war risk insurance.

Map of countries with anti-homosexuality laws

This map from ComingAnarchy shows Barnett’s Gap overlayed on a map of countries with anti-homosexuality laws.

Map of ungoverned areas

This map from ComingAnarchy shows ungoverned areas. I think it’s being conservative.

Each of these graphs is, in its own way, an attempt at quantifying the Core and Gap. Barnett’s map derives from a chart of “hot spots”—areas requiring America’s attention. The Gates of Vienna map counts incidents of Islamist terrorism. The picture of the night sky shows electrification. And so on.

I find these graphics tremendously suggestive. But when you look at them a little more analytically and discard preconceived ideas like the proverbial man from Mars when taken collectively it’s not completely clear why some countries are part of the Gap and others part of the Core. Or New Core. Or whatever.

Why is India New Core? Why is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Gap? Why isn’t France or Denmark or the Netherlands and any number of other European countries classified as Seam States or some other new classification indicating they’re in transition?

I believe that I have an answer to all of these questions. There is no Core. There is no Gap. And it’s not connectivity or globalization: Pakistan and Afghanistan are tremendously connected to each other and to other Islamic countries. It is Influence. Primarily Western influence.

I influence you. You influence me. Americans influence Frenchmen, Germans, Saudis and every other people on the face of the earth. Saudis influence Americans, Emiratis, and lots of other people. A Russian diplomat influences Iranian government officials. A Mexican migrant worker works a construction job in the United States and sends his earnings home to his parents in Mexico. A German company starts buying its products from a Chinese company which employs more Chinese workers who used to be farmers while throwing Guatemalan workers out of work.

Influence is not discrete like the lines or dots in some of the graphics above. It proceeds outwards from its broadcasting sources in waves. The waves are transmitted, repeated, interact with one another, and are blocked.

The waves of influence of different cultures can interfere with one another—like the squawk when you put your telephone receiver too close to your radio. When it’s severe enough these interfering waves of influence can lead to war.

The waves of the influence of Americans and American institutions are enormously powerful—so much so that they threaten to drown out even the other, less powerful but still compatible wave forms of the EU and its nations. Other countries and cultures are resisting that influence by erecting barriers to it and broadcasting influence of their own. The interaction of these conflicting influences creates instability.

In future installments in this series I’m going to discuss the activities, institutions, and measures that broadcast influence, the activities, institutions, and measures that block influence, and interaction between waves.

16 comments… add one
  • Oooh. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  • Nice commentary Dave. I like your clear headedness.

  • phil Link

    Good stuff, Dave. I too am looking forward to the next installment.

  • Larry Dunbar Link

    So close to being right, if you could zoom in one notch I think you would have it! It’s not really about American influence is it? I am thinking it is about technology’s influence. Right now corporations own it, and America is presently where these corporations are centered.
    In war or any strategy like war (OODA, PISRR) everyone seems to look for the center of mass. Right now, the USA precariously holds that position. The offensive strategist (EU) try to flank it (out tech it), the defensive minded (Asia) wants it to strike at its most strategic line of defense (in the middle of its people or the masses). I think you are really getting to the basics here. East meets West and both become Americanized. I know I may have strayed some in my comments, but nice work.

  • Great observation, Larry! And you’ve anticipated where I’m going with this. I don’t see technology as having an influence of its own but as being an amplifier for the influence of individuals or countries. Stay tuned!

  • Dave,

    You appear to be arguing that connectivity is a linear function. Waves certainly are — a peak of 1 amp plu sa peak of 2 amp gives a peak of 3 amps, etc. Yet wouldn’t it make more sense to say that it is a nonlinear function — if not a complex adaptive system?

    Second, while there can be competing Cores, I don’t think it’s fair to say there is no Core. It can be operationalized and measured — everything from fiberoptic throughput to international travel to disease vectors, etc.

  • I agree with absolutely everything you’ve written, Dan. Especially your observation about multiple competing cores. Perhaps a better way of saying it was a Core does not exist. And, as I see it, much of if not the entirety of the Gap is, in fact, a competing Core. In my view that leads to an entirely different set of conclusions than one would reach via Barnett’s Core and Gap model.

    And as far as linearity goes I think it’s helpful for conceptual purposes to think of influence in linear terms but, yes, a “complex adaptive system” is a good description. That should be more clear in my next installment which I plan to post this weekend.

  • Oh, and BTW, not all interactions between waves are linear.

  • Larry Dunbar Link

    No way!! A wave can not be linear. I bet if you looked in a dictionary for the description of non linear you would see a wave, at least in the dictionary I would write.
    I suppose if you just looked at amplitude (vertical force) or length (horizontal force) you would suppose a wave was linear, kind of like the old story of a blind man and an elephant. I suppose the simplest way to think of it is that a wave “moves” by area. Area has an exponent in it, which, I suppose, is really the defining feature of a non-linear entity.

  • Matthew Link

    Interesting post. I will start by saying that I am a big fan of Dr. Barnett’s work. I agree with many parts of the initial post, but at the same time, I take issue with other parts.
    I like the choice of influence as the fundamental concept. The idea of cross-influence between, and amongst, cultures is key to understanding the connectivity that Dr. Barnett advocates. Given that, influence, and therefore connectivity, can come in many forms. I would say the form that transfers the most influence is face-to-face interaction, but most thinkers equate connectivity with technology, which I feel is a fatal flaw.
    I do agree with the posts that correctly state that in general waves are non-linear (only under strict physical and mathematical assumptions are they linear). Through your own logic, then influence is non-linear, which I also agree with. My time in Korea, I was influenced in many ways by the locals, but to differing degrees and via different methods with different outcomes depending on the setting and the person I was interacting with.
    Refining the Gap/Core thinking with an overlay of wave theory, I think one can look at the Gap/Core line as a semi-permanent waveguide. Much the same way that jet streams in the atmosphere are treated as waveguides with respect to planetary-scale vacillations. Sometimes the influence of the outside world can penetrate into the Gap, other times the influence is turned aside. Sometimes the influence can go outwards. It is all dependant on the strength of the wave (Al-Qaeda and radical influences are quite strong) and the local strength of the waveguide (e.g. North Korea and the radio jamming towers that surround the country would be a strong waveguide).
    Maybe I got too much into the details, but it has been said that is the residence of certain fallen angel.

  • You’re anticipating the direction of future posts, Matthew. You’ve gotten my central point precisely.

  • Soylent Red Link


    Not being scientifically inclined, this may be obtuse. Have patience.

    I think Barnett did a good job of initiating the discussion, and I’m a regular reader of his stuff, but I get a real vibration that something far more difficult to get a hold of is afoot.

    I’ve always been an advocate of what Barnett call “soft kill”. Our biggest hammer has always been, for lack of a better way to put it, the way “American” or Western culture will quickly overcome or alter everything it comes into prolonged contact with. Given the opportunity to avoid deflections of what we’re sending out, we’re transmitting something fairly powerful.

    Connectivity and influence obviously play roles in all this, but I think a reforging of basic values inside the target (think secularism, role of women, consumerism, etc.) as a goal will necessarily have several different cooperative aspects in terms of content, each in varying measures depending on the particular Gap country you’re talking about.

    Again, I’m not scientifically inclined, so I have to use limited vocabulary, but hopefully by getting a deeper understanding of the spectrum of our “transmission” to the rest of the world, and by defining where and how that transmission is being received or deflected we can get a more accurate picture of the various stages between us and the Gap.

    The ultimate end result, as I see it, will be the application of the theory into a country specific “channel”, tailored to their particular place in the continuum between what we can easily define as Core and Gap.

    Look forward to the next one.

  • Matthew Link

    Alright. I will leave it up to you and continue with my grad school work.

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