4/15/07: Interview with Thomas Barnett on National Public Radio.
NPR: American foreign policy in the 21st century is beginning to look like a game of "Twister." The war in Afghanistan was America's first move after September 11th -- "right hand red," if you will. Over the past few years the US became more assertive and deeply involved in other foreign policy pursuits. Iraq -- "left hand yellow," North Korea -- "right foot blue," Iran -- "left foot green." At risk of becoming overstretched and entangled, the US now finds itself trying to repair damaged alliances and fight an ever-widening "war on terrorism." To more closely examine US foreign policy, we're joined by Thomas Barnett. His article, "The State of the World," appears in the May issue of Esquire magazine. ...In the introduction to your article, you write in the first line: "Now that the Bush presidency is over..." Is it really over? It seems as though the administration is continuing to press ahead on its agenda despite opposition from the Democratic majority in Congress and prevailing public opinion against the Iraq war?
Thomas Barnett: I guess I'd say it was over in two senses. One, it's over in the sense that the ideological impulse that this administration brought to international relations really has been shelved in the second term because of the ongoing tie-down of our resources in Iraq. And then in a salient, more "how the world sees us" way, I really argue that the Bush post-presidency began for all practical purposes with Katrina in New Orleans when the world basically found out the double message of the Bush administration which is that they can't do that kind of stuff abroad effectively and, guess what, they can't really do it at home very effectively. You've seen ever since Katrina a rising level of backtalk and a certain disrespect building in the system to the point where, yes, in the last year the Bush administration has rediscovered diplomacy. But it's not very effective now because everybody remembers all the years of unilateralism and they've already begun the countdown to what comes next.
NPR: In your article, you divide things up into good news, bad news, and wild card as issues that are faced by the US. But even the good news doesn't seem that good. I mean maybe the possibility of a less frightening outcome. In your opinion, do you think American foreign policy is really that hopeless? TB: Part of it's the definitional aspect of how we define war, how we define peace. That's a big problem. How we define victory and how we define failure is a big problem. Think back to the Balkans. We went in and systematically dismembered Monty Python's black knight -- Milosevic -- as he idiotically fought on, taunting us into further combat as we, in effect, lopped off the limbs of his body politic, country by country, and dismembered what we now call "the former Yugoslavia." Can you remember the victory parade on that one? Can you remember the decisive ending? the conclusion where everybody got their medals of freedom and wrote their books and we all took a collective deep breath and said, "Boy! That's over?" Finally. That's the kind of reality we're in with the Middle East now. There's never going to be a culminating sense at one point in the process we can look back with serious pride and say "Now it's done. Now we can go on to the next thing." It's going to be a very consistent flow of sequential problems. What the Bush administration basically did by going into Iraq -- the best rationale -- was really to lay a big bang on the Middle East and set that part of the world down some path of change. They've certainly accomplished that. The cynic in me says, the worse Iraq goes, so the better the big bang goes -- because it's more realistic that Iraq was going to go badly as opposed to well in terms of our expectations. The breakup of Iraq really forces the fights that need to occur in the Middle East now that Saddam has gone. And those fights are all going to be tricky. They're going to be overlapping. And there's not going to be an obvious conclusion to it. Instead, it's going to be a long, drawn-out evolutionary process where our sense of winning or losing really hinders our sense of imagination. In many ways, it retards the dialogue we need to have in this country about what comes next.
NPR: Look at some of the challenges that American foreign policy faces: Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinians. Where should the US actually focus? Are there real solutions, or is it just a matter of keeping the fires from burning out of control?
TB: My argument is that what's really driving a lot of this tumult is that globalization is finally penetrating a part of the world in which it hasn't found much purchase in the past. And when you add those three new billion capitalists in the East, you create impulses. You create the oil boom. You create all sorts of interest in that part of the world that's really discombobulating because these are still fairly traditional societies. So we've got to look at this as a process to be managed, where there will be countries that will come apart, there will be countries that rise and fall, and there'll be societies in some ways completely made over just as they were in Asia for the last twenty years. But what we don't have in the Middle East is some sort of regional security dialogue which I would argue is the required diplomatic/political top cover. We've had this tendency in the Middle East to assume that if we can find the perfect peace plan for Palestine vs. Israel, or if we can find the perfect peace plan now -- or whatever you want to call the plan, "the surge" -- in Iraq, that we could take care of individual problems and on that basis create sort of oases of stability in that part of the world. But what we've found in the Middle East over the last twenty, thirty years is that whenever there's an ongoing conflict, basically everybody in the region uses it to rough each other over. They take it as a venue for proxy conflict. That's really, in many ways, what's going on right now in Iraq. Which means Iraq can't be separated from everything else. And if you want to fix everything else, you've got to fix Iraq. That was what the Iraq Study Group called for.
NPR: Do you think the US should be restructuring -- or structuring, actually -- its international partnerships such as NATO to fight terrorism for example -- which is something you call "the long war"?
TB: Yes. And that's a term from John Abizaid who says you have to look at this as a decades-long process. And it really is about some larger international phenomenon like the spread of globalization in the Middle East. Which means, in effect, you've got to connect the Middle East to the world on a scale, on a scope, on a breadth, that's bigger than just oil. I think we really are at a point in history that we need to move off definitions of old allies and into definitions of new allies. My big complaint with the Bush administration is in a long war, where you need a grand strategy, they very casually conflate enemies that shouldn't be conflated -- like Shia vs. Sunni. And they very casually add enemies without adding friends. If you think about the requirement of doing post-disaster nation-building, it's very labor intensive. Think about the countries now that have just joined globalization, who are demographically fertile so to speak -- have lots of bodies, are interested in making globalization work. It's India and it's China first and foremost. And it's other emerging markets. So we really have to get off definitions of who our friends are and we really have to start reaching out far more to the Indians -- who think they are major players in the Middle East -- and the Chinese -- who are nervous about becoming that but really need to become that. Why? Because it's going to be India's and China's oil. We only take out a fraction of what comes out of the Persian Gulf -- 15%, 16%. Asia takes out about 50 or 53%. And it's going to go up to maybe two-thirds in the next fifty years. It can't just be our blood and their oil.
NPR: Thomas Barnett is a national security expert and a senior managing director of Enterra Solutions....