The famous historian Will Durant once said, “Most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too little on the last six thousand years.” When times are tough, Durant’s observation may even be more true. Indeed, under the pressure of difficult circumstances, it becomes that much more tempting to set aside the expansive, long-term, panoramic perspective of history for the immediate, the short-term, the day-to-day. In so doing, we often fail to appreciate the profound power that historical context can provide when it comes to helping us respond to life in the here and now. We forget that when we don’t have a clear view of our past, we tend to draw erroneous conclusions about our present and to have a distorted view of what’s possible in our future.
It is with this enduring insight in mind that EnlightenNext is pleased to present the work of Dr. Thomas Barnett. Barnett is a unique geo-political strategist who combines a futurist’s sense of hope and optimism with a historian’s sense of sobriety and context. He first burst on the national scene in 2004 with the publication of The Pentagon’s New Map, a bestselling book that helped readers understand the confusing dynamics of the post-9/11 global landscape, shedding fresh light on terrorism, globalization, and U.S. military engagements around the world. He writes:
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. . . . 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.
With a Ph.D. from Harvard in a star-studded political science class of future pundits that included such luminaries as Andrew Sullivan and Fareed Zakaria, Barnett’s initial education was designed to prepare him as an arms negotiator, with expertise on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War, however, ended that career before it got started, and Barnett eventually landed at the Naval War College, where he studied the intricate relationship between geopolitics, economic globalization, and America’s military. With the success of The Pentagon’s New Map, Barnett’s profile grew within the Pentagon, and so did his influence. While his forward-looking vision of the U.S. military role in the world may have initially won him friends in the Bush administration, his strong, independent voice and progressive agenda eventually earned him enemies as well. He was critical of the military’s obsession with a future war with China and our strategic failures with Iran; he also argued against unilateralism and lamented the administration’s unwillingness to engage more positively in Africa. And though he was cautiously supportive of the initial invasion of Iraq, he was highly critical of the aftermath. He felt that the disastrous postwar strategy revealed the need for a new global peacekeeping force with a “SysAdmin” (system administration) function, a sort of “pistol-packing Peace Corps,” as he puts it, that would be staffed largely by non-Americans and help in the establishment of postwar order, from the Balkans to Iraq to Afghanistan to Rwanda. Eventually he was “sort of fired, and sort of walked away” from the military to become an entrepreneur, helping to found Enterra Solutions, a private company designed to help public- and private-sector organizations deal with the fast-changing realities of a globalizing world.
With his new book, Great Powers Barnett returns to the medium that originally marked him as a unique voice, elucidating a provocative and original conception of America’s role in the world. He has a gift for understanding the relationship between the evolution of economic, political, and military structures over the last several hundred years and the closely correlated evolution of culture. In Barnett’s hands, history comes alive as a powerful context in which to understand the ongoing development of our globalizing world society. He argues that America’s own underappreciated history of integrating fifty states into one united nation provides the starting point for appreciating the many challenges we face globally as we work to knit the entire world together in a more secure, peaceful, and prosperous network of nations. While his politics are hard to categorize as left or right, they are certainly nontraditional and post-ideological—his work challenges sacred cows on both sides of the aisle. Barnett’s idealism and activist-like passion for positive change have captured the attention of progressives, even as many struggle with his embrace of military power, his enthusiasm for globalization, and his positive conception of the U.S. role and responsibility in this young century.
“Most educated people at the beginning of the twenty-first century consider themselves to be specialists,” declares scholar Craig Eisendrath in his recent book, At War with Time. “Yet what is needed for the task of understanding our culture’s evolution . . . is the generalist’s capacity to look at culture’s many dimensions and put together ideas from disparate sources.” Barnett is that sort of generalist. His wide-ranging mind spots those larger trends that defy the expert, the specialist, and the narrow time frame. In a spiritual world enamored with the present moment, a business world enamored with short-term profits, and a political world enamored with election cycles, Barnett helps us lift our eyes from the distortions of the day and reflect more deeply on the developmental dynamics of our past, changing our perspective and helping us to more effectively change the world.