Embracing Defeat, Part III: The Born Gimp

Note: This is part of a series of reviews for Blueprint for Action. The introduction and table of contents are also available.

Tom Barnett has been embracing losing.

Now it is time for him to embrace defeat.


In the first part of Embracing Defeat, I outlined Barnett’s two plans for winning the Global War on Terrorism: the Reverse Domino Theory to move countries to the Core, and the A-Z Rule-Set for dealing with bad guys. I went on to describe America’s fear and trembling of nation building. The “Systems Administrator” Tom Barnett describes in Blueprint for Action is crippled at birth.. Dr. Barnett’s SysAdmin is a born gimp.

Dr. Barnett is a globo-imperialist. He wishes to prevent a reemergence of mini-Cores and instead build an Empire of the Core – a rich-country security force using his A-Z Rule-Set to slowly yet surely shrink the Gap. But Barnett’s dreams are both incompatible with the depths of American cowardice and treachery and incompatible with the heights of American idealism.

In his new song Happy Christmas and a Whole Lot of Love, emerging web-artist writes the following verses

At this hour
the world is witnessing
terrible suffering and horrible crimes
in the Darfur region of Sudan
Crimes my government has concluded are genocide
The human cost is beyond calculation

More troops are need
to protect the innocent.
We need to intervene now,
before it’s too late.


I still can’t figure out
why it’s a good thing for us to be at war with Iraq
And have all these middle class people
over there sacrificing
Surely there’s some way we can find
in this new moment of hope
Peace in the Middle East

Rx’s pleas to leave Iraq and enter Sudan are not examples of liberal hypocrisy. Rather, they are evidence that the American people want a functional Systems Administrator: one able to stop genocides, ethnic cleansings, mass murders, and mass rapes, even before they begin. Also, they want a SysAdmin that won’t cost thousands of American lives per use. Sadly, Barnett’s vision now shuts the door on these dream.

Everything wrong with Barnett’s vision is summed up in one slide from his recent presentation


and, for that matter, in one slide transition:


Barnett’s plans for the lawful multilateralism — liberal institutionalism — of his SysAdmin are the equivalent of hammering an infant. It creates a gimp unable to function as an adult, which will only leave pain and disappointment to all who hoped for it.

For example, imagine that there was a genocide. Say in a country like Sudan, and a popular outcry demanded that something must be done. Barnett’s own words would prohibit involvement. No removing the problem on his watch:

Does the tyrant have a friend in Hu Jintao or Jacque Chirac? Then no SysAdmin!

The employment of our SysAdmin force must represent the highest order of our military cooperation with the rest of the world’s advanced militaries. Moreover, if structured correctly, whereby the United States provides the “hub” to the rest of our coalition’s “spokes,” our unilateral ability to employ our portion of the larger, multilateral SysAdmin force will be effectively curtailed, meaning we will be unable to wage peace inside the Gap without effectively gaining at least the approval of the Core’s other major pillars, such as Europe, Russia, India, China, and Brazil. ( 36)

After all, ending genocide isn’t a “permanent” victory since another intervention might be needed in a generation. The lives saved in the short-term just aren’t worth

So yes, a unilateral America can bomb a Gap country back to the Stone Age (for some, a very short trip), but what sort of permanent victory would the resulting fear and loathing represent in an age where disconnectedness defines danger? (36)

Would a local government, or just an end to the government’s export of violence, be worth it? Nope, because no regime change without nation building — circumstances be damned

So what we’re looking for is a rule set that makes the application of the solution transparent to all interested parties (eliminating the sense of zero-sum competition among great powers), judicious in its application (the Leviathan does not generate more work than the SysAdmin an handle), consistent in its use (a sense of due process), and just in its outcomes (the guilty suffer, but the innocent are reconnected to the larger global community in a manner respectful of local needs and desires). (50-51)

And again. Who cares if just removing a government would solve the immediate crisis: no peacekeeping, no peacemaking.

There will always be the temptation, in trying to create a global SysAdmin function, to pretend that we can somehow outsource that function to Gap nations themselves… Better warfighting is not the answer; better peacemaking and nation building is. (64)

Barnett wants to neuter the Leviathan (blitzkrieg force) by tying it to the SysAdmin (peacekeeping force) — and tying the SysAdmin to the liberal, multilateral institutionalism that has done so little for the Gap.

Dr. Barnett’s SysAdmin cannot survive the world of John Kerry and Howard Dean. It’s a gimp unfit for America after Vietnam, or any world with the French. It is deaf to the cries of the needy, because its ears have been plucked out by Barnett’s need for Core-wide buy-in. And its impotent, because it’s castrated by the political whims of the American people.

The wretched of the world don’t need Barnett’s born gimp. They need a knight in shining armor.

Who is the Knight in Shining Armor, and how will he make globalization truly global? Stay tuned, and find out!

This has been Embracing Defeat, part of a series of reviews for Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett’s Blueprint for Action. The posts in Embracing Defeat are:

I. Barnett’s Two Strategies
II. Blood and Will
III. The Born Gimp
IV. Embracing Victory

5 thoughts on “Embracing Defeat, Part III: The Born Gimp”

  1. While you're very slick about it, I didn't miss the fact that you're conflating two different things, the rule of law (a core-wide rule set) and the rule of men (having a friend in Hu Jintao or Jaques Chirac). It's important to create a rule for intervention and processing politically bankrupt states. Creating those rules makes bribing Schroeder, Chirac, or Hu much less effective in staving off intervention in Gap states.

    At the same time, its important to recognize that Saddam's semi-success at international bribery (it made intervention come much later and with fewer participants) is going to spawn imitators who will continue to line 1st world politicians' pockets on the theory that if only they keep their heads down better than Saddam, the Saddamite strategy will be effective for them. Even in a full blown shrink-the-Gap world strategy, there's going to be the difficulty of dealing with bribery on a massive scale. It is quite possible that the practical effect will be entirely psychological with the US going in with another Coalition of the Willing but this time they'll be going in with a defined ruleset and it'll be the naysayers who will be constantly dodging and twisting over why they aren't enforcing international law.

    You could take Gary Cooper in High Noon as a model. If he weren't enforcing a law. If Cooper had pinned the badge on after he made it himself, would he have been more or less effective as sheriff? One one level, it would have made absolutely no difference at all in the trajectory and accuracy of the flying bullets. It wouldn't have changed his ally list either. On the other hand, it would have changed the psychological dynamic of the entire tableaux and would have changed the aftermath off screen.

    Right now, all sheriffs forge their own badges. There is no a-z ruleset. If there were, forging badges would have to stop. However, the a-z ruleset is only a hindrance to US action if we just want to make Guatamala safe for United Fruit. If what we're doing is rescuing the people from a vile regime that is torturing and killing people (and expropriating US companies among others) the fact that we lead the charge to enforce the agreed rules isn't impeded at all. In an a-z ruleset world, the US would be constrained from turning from a Republic to an Empire. I like that. Do you have a problem with that sort of constraint?

    I think that labeling Barnett as a globo-imperialist is unfortunate, for more than one reason. First of which, whose empire is he advocating? It certainly can't be an american empire. I don't think he's a tranzi, either. The global Core he wants to create would not have one flag.

    But even going beyond that, there is the question of what is the natural state of the global system? I would say that the natural state is to work through disagreements and come together in tighter integration throughout the entire system.

    People don't start trading grain across the border, everything's working fine, and then without provocation, 100% tarriffs get slapped on the trade or the border gets closed down entirely. Reducing cross-border flows is something that is done in response to some sort of unusual event.

    Alternatively, flows are disrupted and withdrawn when one or more of the leaderships of nation-states reduces connectivity in order to tighten their grip on power and starve out their opposition so they cannot use foreign safe-havens either politically, economically, or socially.

    The unusual event model will happen no matter what but things will eventually go back to normal. Canada's beef will start, once again to flow into the US after the mad cow scare is over, etc. and continuing integration will resume its long march to its natural completion.

    Talking about globo-imperialism normalizes what is not normal, the use of disconnection to politically eviscerate domestic opposition and tighten a ruling elite's grip on power. It's saying that using that kind of technique on your people has to be respected by the international system and it's the people who trade across borders, whether goods, services, or culture, who are aberrant. Enabling that trade is imperialism and repressing it is just the way things are and should be.

    The Core is not an empire. The Core is not imperialist. The Core is a club of countries that have made it past starvation and grinding poverty and operate in a reasonably functional web of interdependencies that require mutual trust. Anybody can join as long as you sign up for the mutual trust and the interdependencies (both intra and inter national).

    The american people are famously happy with solutions that actually fix things. We don't really like coming back to band-aid the same problems again and again. It's annoying and rightfully so. A functional sysadmin, in your construction, is a band-aid dispenser a la LiveAid. Do you wonder why LiveAid is no longer a big deal? People figured out that it was a band-aid dispenser and didn't actually solve the problems. If the a-z ruleset solves the problems it claims to, that ruleset will be integrated into american foreign policy across all the schools.

    Arab muslims killing black muslims won't restart after a generation with a band-aid fix. They'll start after six months once we leave. The only reason they won't is that we kill off the tribes that make up the janjaweed. That's not going to happen. I think that the kind of sysadmin force that you're talking about is not going to happen because we've already had Somalia. We already know how messed up things can get when we come in with ill-defined goals like trying to stop people from killing each other. Would Somalia be very different if we had, in fact, gotten General Aideed? Larger forces were at work there and remain in play to this day.

    Iraq, by contrast, the intervention has a purpose, to break up the logjam of interlocking dictatorships and provide a local example that debunks the anti-myth that Arabs are somehow ethnically or racially deficient, that arab culture cannot create a just, consensual government. There's a larger goal, something that's going to last. Saddam probably killed more people than the Janjaweed ever did and he kept right on killing over a longer period of time. No band-aid sysadmin force stopped him and it's unlikely that such a force ever will because the realists will *never* sign on. If Iraq works, realists *will* be signing on a decade from now and that's the difference between a short-lived innovation and something that's going to change the world because it's got a broad enough coalition behind it that the idea will have legs.

  2. TM,

    A rule-set will exist anyway — the question is how uniform and extensive it will be. We must remember that while laws help us psychologically, they give the enemy stand-off capacity. Additionally, they slow action, making repeats of the quick-massacres like the Rwanda Genocide more likely.

    Anyway, I think you give the psychological benefits of international law too much weight. As the Iraq War demonstrates, both sides can accuse the other of violating/not-enforcing International Law, and never do any good, because International Law has been an empty pseudo-morality.

    Barnett's A-Z Ruleset doesn't prevent the emergence of an “Empire,” as Buchanan uses the term. Barnett has said plainly that we would be able to defend our Republic for a fraction on what we spend on defense. Whether we go with Barnett's A-Z Ruleset or some other approach to processing politically bankrupt states, we will be exporting security to the world. And have all the imperial baggage that goes along with that.

    Barnett advocates an Empire of the Core — a standing possee of rich nations that apply a different ruleset to the Gap than they apply to themselves. I don't think this is a hard thing – it makes more sense than Ferguson's proposed American Empire — but we should recognize it for what it is.

    But perhaps this is just details — was there an Athenian Empire or a Imperial Delian League? Would Barnett's rule-set be an American Empire or an Imperial United Nations (UNSC at the front of the A-Z Ruleset, ICC at the back). Would there be an American Flag, a UN flag, or a family of flags? Details.

    I don't know if there is any one “natural state” for the world-system, but democratic capitalist peace certainly is an equilibrium. Hopefully we can connect the rest of the world and fulfill that dream.

    Generally, tariffs become significant for both parties when both are integrated capitalist states. At this point the A-Z Ruleset would have already run.

    The American people rarely come up with solutions that actual work. Witness the cyclical bouts of prohibitionism. Americans want easy-big answers. An appropriate rule-set must embrace this.

    Live8 was a joke because it wasn't big – it was yet another series of concerts. Nothing to inspire or imagination, and not even a band-aid.

    Core forces being in a country isn't needed so much as Core forces being perceived as being able to intervene quickly — within a few days. UNAMIR didn't stop the genocide in Rwanda, but a belief that the Core would have quickly intervened would have.

    “Stopping people from killing each other” is not ill-defined, because there are easy metrics to use.

    I agree with you that band-aids don't work, but structural fixes do.

    Notta Libb,

    Nifty blog — thanks!

  3. Dan,

    I appreciate your willingness to poke and prod Dr. Barnett's ideas to produce a more functional solution, but I don't think you're giving enough credit to the American public. It's not so much that we are cowardly and treacherous. Rather, circumstances always lead us to ask some rather impeding questions like, “What are we doing in this corner of the globe that no one's ever heard of?”, “Are these people really worth our trouble”?, “Can we even make a difference”?, and every parent's favorite quesion, “Are we there yet”? In short, we don't very much like to enage in these sorts of endeavors because the perception is that they won't work (particularly with the ghost of Vietnam), take too long to accomplish meaningful results, and perhaps above all we're a bit of a home-body nation. What portion of the country has been outside North America? One of my favorite columnists, who writes under the pseudonym Spengler compares us to Tolkien's hobbits. At the beginning of The Hobbit when Gandalf is trying to convince Bilbo to go along with him to find the dwarve's treasure he replies that “adventures make one late for dinner.” I don't believe it's cowardess, though I do accept that the will is lacking because it's hard to convince a sizable majority of the public of the value of sending their sons and daughters to fight “other people's battles” which may or may not effect our security even though they inevitably do as we were made painfully aware of with Afghanistan. If you can convince the public of this above the shrill cries of the isolationist left and right I think we will find the courage, bravery, and will to stick things out. But to begin convincing you must first be up front with the public and then ask for voluntary and personal sacrifice. People want to feel apart of something greater themselves, so if all you ask is for things to go on as they did before (something which I think was Bush's greatest mistake) then the fire for big action and big ideas dies a slow and quiet death as we have witnessed over Iraq. For as Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive.” No, Americans are not the most patient of people, and we certainly don't base our foreign policy primarily on altruism, but it's amazing though to look at our history and see that often wars we thought we entered for rather self-interested reasons became wars for idealistic ends. We have also proven we can reach for long term goals if we feel they are worth the price (i.e. fighting the Soviets for 45 years, nuclear fusion reactor and missile defense research are now going on 50 years without a finished product). It's not fear that holds us back. No, it is a sneaking suspicion of the futility of it all. Ironically it is this same sort of fatalism which keeps the Arab world and the rest of the Gap down.

  4. Gregory,

    An excellent comment, but I think America is the reverse of a Hobbit. While Biblo Baggins had to be proded to join the journey, but then was determined to stick it through, America signs up for more adventures than it can count but quickly bails on them. Opposite the cool and conservative hobbit, America is a wizard with ADD.

    Self-questioning isn't so much the trouble as that the answer is always “not worth it” after three years of effort in some foreign land. After all, what's the point when we could have the troops “home over the holidays”? [1]

    Americans are altruistic and naturally ideological. It is very easy to convince Americans to fight other peoples battles — just hard to keep them fighting. The solution is for non-Americans, or atleast non-employees, to fight our battles for us — or at least buy our way out of trouble [2]

    The blowback from trying to do it ourselves is severe — remember that South Vietnam was only lost after the Congress emposed a de facto arms embargo on our /ally/. The vindictiveness of Americans when they are forced to sacrifice is frightening.

    The comparison of America to Judas Iscariot is both detailed and inescapable.

    I agree that people want to feel part of something big, and that war is a force that gives us meaning. Bush has done an admirable job of exploiting this (witness the left's howls), but he could have done it better. For example, geogreen issues have completely been ignored. [3]

    PS: I've never read Spengler, but Curtis has [4]. It'd be interesting to see your response to Curtis' thoughts.

    [1] http://www.johnkerry.com/action/20000/index.php?source=8005
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2005/12/23/embracing-defeat-part-iv-embracing-victory.html
    [3] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2005/03/26/putting_the_geostrategy_back_into_geogreen.html
    [4] http://www.phaticcommunion.com/archives/2005/12/in_favor_of_emp.php

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