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Many Pop!Tech participants found Thomas Barnett’s presentation the most exciting of the conference. I am more critical for reasons to be explained below, but his was among the best overviews on America’s future place in the world that I have ever heard. Thus, in terms of praise, my more critical reaction does not fall far from the very adulatory ones. Here I will give a brief overview of Barnett’s points I will discuss, but for those wanting more a good overview of his talk as a whole can be found in Ethan Zuckerman’s account.

A momentous transformation
Barnett focused on the distinction between and challenges arising from the developed and rapidly developing world contrasted to that of essentially “failed states,” a band comprising most of Africa and the Middle East, but including other regions where the principles of market economies and international trade have not become established. There governments have little legitimacy, economic growth is stagnant, and national identity is weak. It is in this region that the US has intervened militarily since the end of the Cold War, and it is here that we can expect more such problems to arise.

Barnett argues that within the developed world a momentous power shift is taking place. Europe is withering as an international force, largely for demographic reasons. The rapidly developing nations of China, India, and Brazil are the wave of the immediate future, and the US needs to adjust its thinking to account for this. Most importantly, it needs to get beyond the Bush administration and other’s still caught in a Cold war mentality that we must look on China as our enemy. Foolish policies on either our or their side could still make that a truism, but in fact the two countries have far more to gain from cooperation than antagonism. Barnett’s case here is to me irrefutable.

Even so, I am not persuaded by his analogy that our current situation with China resembles the reverse of an earlier situation with Britain. In this earlier case Great Britain deliberately chose to align itself with the US once its most perceptive leaders realized their age of empire was over, to be replaced by that of the US. Now, Barnett argues, we should do the same with China. I will return to this issue below.

With respect to the region of failed states, the strategy Barnett emphasized would have us develop not only a rapid reaction capability able to intervene militarily within that world, a capability we already have, but also create a follow-up force able to engage in nation building, a capacity we conspicuously do not have.

Barnett emphasizes that foreign investment in the world’s most unstable places is now disproportionately Chinese. They are acquiring a strong vested economic interest in stability in these areas. We also have such an interest. In conjunction with Chinese expertise, we now have a possibility for creating an international force capable not only of destroying the region’s worst tyrants and warlords, but also of then building the needed infrastructure, establishing the rule of law, and a framework of security that encourages foreign investment and integration with the developed world. The long run this region of failed states would disappear.

I liked his diagnosis, and particularly his emphasis that advocates of globalization need to be aware of the political and military realities of the world in which we live. It was also good to see him reject Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations model, a clash that if it happens Huntington will have done much to bring about. For if ever a self-fulfilling prophecy can be made, that is it.

Barnett’s comparison of the US and China today with Great Britain and the US in the first half of the twentieth century is an fascinating one. But I think he leaves out a crucial variable that changes the equation in important ways. Britain and the US were basically democratic societies, and what sets democratic polities apart from undemocratic ones is a fascinating and little appreciated fact, and the reasons for it. The fact is that democracies are unique among the world’s countries in that they have never warred upon one another. As R. J. Rummel shows, this is statistically significant.

To put the reason overly simply, a democracy incorporates more than just government’s formal administrative apparatus. As with totalitarian governments, there is no clear boundary between society and government. But in the reverse of totalitarianism, society is the dominant dimension, not government. There is no clear hierarchy of power, but rather many competing such hierarchies, all dependent upon persuading voters that they should be given the responsibility for governance. As emergent systems, democracies are more like the market, science, or language than they are like teleological orders, such as undemocratic states, corporations, or political parties.

Consequently, when two democracies have serious mutual disagreements, they generally isolate the problem preventing it from flowing over to poison other relationships. At the same time, their openness and the legitimacy of internal opposition makes secret plans for aggression difficult, though as George Bush has demonstrated, not impossible. But when both countries are democratic, these factors seem adequate to diffuse tensions before much blood flows.

China does not yet have even the internal democratic institutions possessed by Germany before the outbreak of WWI. It does not (yet?) possess the systemic dynamics that would undermine the plans of an aggressive leadership – and as we have learned here, a country, can quickly develop leadership more than willing to commit acts of the most unprovoked aggression. There is hope for China. For the first time in her history there are contested village elections and democracy has taken root in areas characterized by Chinese culture. But so far it is still only hope.

This leads us to the issue of Taiwan, as discussed by Barnett. He said, and said rightly, that “Archduke Ferdinand lives in Taiwan.” This issue is THE point of contention between the United States and China. If Taiwan were simply ruled by the old Kuomintang, I would agree with Barnett that we should make it clear we regard Chinese Taiwanese relations as an internal issue for China. But Taiwan is now a democracy, and more important, a democracy rooted in Chinese culture, a culture that has supported autocracy for thousands of years.

Taiwan offers a model for internal Chinese reformers demonstrating that China can become a much freer society. Further, democracy is not simply an artifact of western civilization, it can also take root in a neo-Confucian culture. In other words, a democratic Taiwan may have importance out of all proportion to its population and politico-military importance, which seems to be the only lens through which Barnett views it. I think this could be a tragic error, even bigger and more fateful than the error committed with respect to Bosnia, that I will discuss below in a different context.

So what to do? My own bias is to make clear to the Chinese that any time the Taiwanese vote to join the mainland, they do so with the blessings of the US. Further, that if Taiwan abandons democratic institutions, they automatically become an internal affair of China’s. But that until such time, we need to protect democratic countries, especially democratic non-western ones, to serve as inspirations for peaceful reform in other nations.

In the long run, and in politico-military terms, the tipping of the balance of power in favor of democratic countries is the most important development of the twentieth century. Even with China, India maintains that ratio in terms of population as well as military and economic power. American assistance to Indian development would be very wise.

Beyond that, we should do everything we can to encourage good relations with China. I think seeking a cold war with Beijing is insanity, but we should not be so impressed with the growth of the Chinese economy and military as to forget that the changed world of nuclear weapons means that if today the Archduke were assassinated, most likely war would not have broken out in Europe.

My second criticism of Barnett’s prescription is also connected to what I believe is his under estimation of the importance of distinguishing between emergent processes and instrumentally ordered ones.

The Engineering Mentality
I think Barnett’s politico-military model also goes astray by approaching foreign relations through the mind of an engineer, as if societies were manipulable as mechanical systems. His advocacy of an international nation building force exemplifies this bias. First, assemble the needed experts, people well trained with the needed skills, and after the military has crushed the local thugs, rely on them to establish the institutions needed to integrate these dismal places into the developed world.

I truly wish I could agree. I truly do.

This goal might be able to be accomplished in Bosnia and other regions strongly influenced by European civilization, although the jury here is still out. There, prior participation in the European world created elements of civil society and concepts of political equality as desirable ideals that hold open the possibility for stable societies to arise once peace is established. But even in Bosnia friends of mine with long experience there worry that war could break out quickly if peacekeepers were withdrawn. And Bosnia is a relatively simple case.

My greatest criticism of the Clinton presidency is that Bosnia was a Muslim area with long and friendly cultural connections to Europe. At a time when such connections are increasingly important, he and European leaders allowed the region to be devastated by the worst elements of the old Yugoslavia. This crime of omission, aided and abetted by the thugs that currently rule the Republican Party, may yet turn out to have been a fateful blunder for more than the people of that land.

But most of this vast region of failed states lacks institutions of civil society and ideals of political equality, at least in ways that make them easily understandable by foreign experts. Under such circumstances well-intentioned intervention by such experts can backfire, as when nomadic peoples were persuaded to abandon common property for supposedly more economically efficient private property in Sahelian Africa. Their customs and nomadic herding way of life were ill suited to these institutions. The result was degradation of their fragile desert environment, and even worse destitution. We can build a dam, drill a well, construct a road, and the like. But that is the simple part. Social worlds are also worlds of meaning, and here the most important part of creating a better world must take place within people’s minds.

Even in developed areas with relatively honest and highly educated bureaucracies, such as the US, local communities often have a better understanding of their needs than do those farther removed from the complexities of place, culture, and time. I recommend Freeman House’s wonderful book, Totem Salmon, as an example taken from California, as well as much of the research by Elinor Ostrom and Daniel W. Bromley on common property management.

I also wonder whether innovations such as the Grameen Bank, that have proven so valuable in very poor societies, would ever have been developed, or even taken seriously, by American, European, or Chinese experts from abroad. I suspect not. I think it is no accident that it’s founder, Muhammad Yunus, is neither Chinese nor Western. Finally, again from American experience, even institutions that work often have to be developed locally from the ground up in order to establish the personal relations of trust, and knowledge of local conditions and personalities, needed to establish viable institutions able to genuinely improve people’s lives. James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State offers important cautionary tales here, as well as a useful way to think about these issues.

There is still another dimension to this problem. Even if such engineering were in principle possible, do we have the institutions needed to implement them? Again, our own history is instructive. Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious program for urban renewal as designed by confident urban engineers did not work the way it was intended, and lack of knowledge was not the only problem. Congress diluted the funds going to any city, and expanded the number receiving them, to get the needed political support. Once funds were available, they generally served those who needed them least. Yet the program began with all the right buzz words about getting the locals involved and all the rest. Iraq makes urban renewal look efficient, with corruption on an unprecedented scale, at least in American experience.

There is little reason to believe the Chinese or anyone else would be better in this regard. Authoritarian systems often look efficient and organized because that is the image their rulers want to project and alternative views are suppressed. But we know today that Communist Russia and Nazi Germany were both corrupt beyond almost anyone’s expectations. China is having its own problems in this respect, and they are not minor.

So then what?
In conclusion, I am not sure what is needed to enable the region of failed states to enter on good terms into relationship with the rest of the world. But one thing I am certain of is that to the degree they do so, it will be done most effectively and humanely when they build on and modify their own indigenous ways of life, adapting them to the challenges they see as they encounter the rest of us.

I do agree we need to make the price paid by the gangsters who operate in those regions unacceptably high when they engage in local genocide or support terrorist acts elsewhere. Basically, the principle should be established and enforced that such rulers will die. Always. And we can offer fair terms of trade to farmers in these parts of the world,. That will probably do more good than all the platoons of experts we can send anywhere. Beyond that, I am skeptical that we can do much beyond assisting the peoples of those regions when they ask, and on their terms.

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