The Pentagon's New Map
War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century
by Thomas P. M. Barnett

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Putnam: New York, 2004

435 pages June 2011

A goal for the world

When I first looked into this book upon its issuance, I was disappointed that both its vision of a "new map" of how Americans should perceive and interact with the world, and its justification of this map, were so far out of line with my own thinking. Revisiting the book, my adverse reactions as to goal, premises, and historical perspective are more clearly perceived and more strongly held.

The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century is by civilian strategic analyst Thomas P. M. Barnett. It is the distillation, as he informs us, of many briefings given to high-level officials. Geographically, the "new map" describes the world as divided into a Functioning Core of North America (less Central America); Argentina, Chile, and Brazil (the ABC countries of South America); Europe (less the Balkans); Russia and the better-off ex-Soviet states; India, China, Taiwan, Japan; South Africa, Australia, New Zealand. Then we have the Non-Integrating Gap, wherein most of the dictatorships, poverty, and revolutions of the world. Granting this division,

  • What is Barnett's goal for America? — I'll oversimplify it as: world peace through globalized prosperity, supervised by American force as various outsiders are integrated.
  • What then, is his suggested structure of the American military? — To oversimplify again, this is: while retaining superpower deterrence, focus on the ability to knock down bad actors in the non-integrated regions, within the context of integrating those regions progressively into the global prosperity.

My first stumbling block is his aim:

... to secure globalization's ultimate goal — the end of war as we know it.

Really? Any dictator of world-wide ambition could say the same. I'd prefer something more like: Encourage American-style freedom throughout the world, and peace and prosperity will follow the spread of free institutions. Barnett doesn't think this is reasonable, and states his concern another way:

I found myself instinctively exploring the seam between war and peace, locating it first in U.S. military crisis responses and then America's foreign aid, and finally focusing on its leading edge — the spread of the global economy itself. What I found there in the late 1990s was neither "chaos" nor "uncertainty" but the defining conflict of our age — a historical struggle that screamed out for a new American vision of a future worth creating.

Why a new American vision? Barnett's thesis describes ongoing force projection to keep the peace for the global economy, in parallel with extending the global economy for the sake of peace. This is a technocratic approach, managed by (in his terms) System Administrators who enforce rule sets to avoid or minimize System Perturbations.

Talk of an "empire" of freedom, liberty, or democracy is oxymoronic ...

Globalization does not come with a ruler, but with rules. ...

America seeks global adherence to protocols, nothing more.

There is a stolen concept here. Who defines these rules? Who determines which are best, and how much force the strong should apply in enforcing them on the weak?

American values do not seem to play a part; perhaps that is what is "new" here.

Narrowed premises

First, while acknowledging that America needs to maintain its nuclear deterrence, supposedly we needn't worry about the actual use of nuclear weapons and megadeath. Thomas Barnett cites concern for his family as his reason to cease attending scary Top Secret level briefings and reading such analyses. Additionally, he cannot imagine nuclear weapons being authorized or used again. So Barnett is unwilling to "think about the unthinkable" of nuclear confrontation. Speaking for myself as a U.S. Army veteran and former holder of a Top Secret clearance, I don't consider Barnett's attitude reasonable for a Pentagon strategist. Wishing is pleasant, but clear-sightedness is necessary.

It is another kind of wishfulness to assume that prosperity makes everyone peaceable. This flies in the face of human psychology and of world history. In times of stress, individual and collective motivations may be revalued for good or ill, sometimes abruptly, as for instance in a nation under attack or perceived injustice. Barnett also shows a serious lack of understanding of the myriads who are less motivated by money and material goods than by family, patriotism, religion, or ideology.

The Pentagon follows political directives

Under the United States Constitution, our military force is at the direction of our elected institutions. Very odd is Barnett's concentration on the Pentagon-managed American military, largely free of its American political context. His entire career, as he explains at a number of points in this book, seems to have been reading and writing position papers, and attending and giving briefings. Even so, his lack of interest in American political control of its military policy is odd considering that he repeatedly asserts that we must consider strategy in the "context of everything else". For instance, he claims of our military,

That fabulous Leviathan force was completely useless on 9/11. ... America's unbeatable military force had let our homeland be sucker-punched and dropped to the canvas.

This is a tirade. If America's military had been completely useless on 9/11, it would not have been buildings hit by airplanes, but under whose foreign dictatorship we would be slipping. And the country dropped to the canvas? Hardly.

Now, when we get to sucker-punched, we have a really interesting question. Because defining and directing what our assorted defense institutions are directed and allowed to prepare for — not just the Pentagon and the armies and fleets but the CIA and FBI — is a political function, and America's ill-preparation for that type of attack was a political failure over the previous decade and longer.

Historical perspective

Barnett's sense of history scarcely perceives anything earlier than World War II. (Well, he does think that "America has seen its society consumed by civil wars on a number of occasions over our history." Really.)

This short-sightedness is quite unfortunate, because it gives the "new map" the appearance of a timeless snapshot. Rather, it is a single page torn out of a historical atlas which actually shows a progression of maps across the centuries, a world in flux.

We do not have to look very far back into history for a counterexample to the idea that industrious, prosperous, trading nations do not make war with each other. With Imperial Germany of 1913 we have a country which meets all the happy globalization criteria. Additionally, it had an aggressive-minded military — led by the German General Staff — with a population (like other nations then) quite eager to fight, and an autocrat who could, and did, commit Germany to war.

To meet this Kaiser's War, the British Empire had to regroup and recruit its world-scattered forces, largely abandoning its ability to fight brush wars in favor of the mortal war at its doorstep.

After the Great War of 1914-1918 ("the war to end wars") we see a potential parallel to Barnett's post-Soviet world. There was a general stand-down of forces, followed by peace treaties and even arms limitation treaties. Since forward-looking aggressor nations ignore or work around such limits, the optimism of perpetual peace that infected the big Western democracies only shifted the balance in favor of the potential aggressors, increasing their confidence that they could take on, possibly destroy, the peaceable ones. Imperial Japan, and even Weimar Germany before Hitler, went right ahead with war preparations in violation of treaties. The absence of major conflicts and the prevalence of minor ones for two decades after 1918 was not a predictor of general peace in 1939 onward, let alone a guarantor of it.

Based upon an extremely short historical perspective showing only brush wars in the current period, Barnett presumes that no existing Power among the nations, nor rising new Great Power, seriously will challenge America by force or threat of force. This, like other key premises here, is wishful thinking.


The approach of The Pentagon's New Map is not scholarly. It offers a serious thesis, but there are a number of personal anecdotes of debatable relevance. The explanatory tone is often overweening, punctured in turns by humility, boasting, flippancy, sarcasm, and even insults to individuals or political positions he doesn't like. Barnett's concept deserved a better treatment from its author.

Barnett mentions that "Esquire magazine named me one of their 'best and brightest' thinkers in December 2002". This reminds me irresistibly of Kennedy-Johnson's team of experts that were so sure they could manage the Vietnam War. See David Halberstam's history The Best and the Brightest (1972) for an account of their credentials, their hubris, their methods, and the results they gave us.

As for this particular "new map", I am most doubtful that it is a true or useful map for the Pentagon, for America, or for the world.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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