Mind the Gap

I’m not sure how I missed this gem of an article by Thomas Barnett at the US Naval War College that was recently published in Esquire, in which he argues that our battles will increasingly be fought in the holes in the global networks.

Show me where globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security, and I will show you regions featuring stable governments, rising standards of living, and more deaths by suicide than murder. These parts of the world I call the Functioning Core, or Core. But show me where globalization is thinning or just plain absent, and I will show you regions plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and�most important�the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists. These parts of the world I call the Non-Integrating Gap, or Gap.

Somebody get that man a copy of Wallerstein’s Modern World System! In fact, I am sure that Barnett is familiar with Wallerstein’s idea of a functioning Core surrounded by a Periphery and a mediating semiperiphery. But “attack the periphery” just doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it.

So, Barnett’s idea, at its core, is that by invading and occupying Iraq we will be connecting it back up with the rest of the world, and thereby we will be assured of its political stability and economic participation, by “the rules.” It is an interesting, if frighteningly simplistic, idea.

Interesting, because the question of how the communication and exchange lines are set up is a worthwhile one. Frightening, because it suggests a very strange version of military creative destruction. Even Barnett would not suggest that blowing things up closes gaps. But, he implies, it opens up connections to the core. I would go a step farther, and suggest a US occupation would drop barriers entirely between the very center of the core and Iraq.

There are several problems here. First, the human suffering involved in such a war is left out of the analysis. Clearly, when he says “security” he means “good for US policy.” Perhaps the “Gaps” are so dangerous because the US is so apt to attack them!

Second, it assumes that war/occupation is the most effective way to close these gaps. It took decades of occupation in Japan to bring trade back up to the pre-war period. If people are dead, they make poor nodes in your network.

One also has to wonder if these are, indeed, “gaps.” Cuba does not make his hit list, but certainly, from the perspective of America, Cuba constitutes a “gap.” From the eyes of a Cuban, America is equally gappy. Cuba’s internal networking and communications are extensive. It is, in other words, highly networked, just not to the US. Iraq does not follow this analogy: it lacks the infrastructure needed to be internally connected. But a war is unlikely to help that.

If we assume Barnett is right, the ideal state of the world is one in which we are a random or complete network. I take issue with this. Network specialization leads to innovation. We want some gaps in the network, if we want to encourage a dynamic world system.

Finally, our actions in “closing the gap” in Iraq are leading to gaps elsewhere. Americans are becoming despised, and we are threatening financial ties with our allies. Will this be enough to tear apart Barnett’s “Core”? Not likely. But it isn’t a binary arrangement — it’s not the “connected” and the “unconnected” — it’s more complicated than that. I can only hope that Barnett and those who listen to him understand that, to some degree.

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