Saturday, February 14, 2009

Review of Great Powers

In his new book Great Powers:American and the World After Bush Tom Barnett provides some much needed perspective on where America stands almost 8 years after 9/11 and what challenges lay ahead.

Barnett begins the book by laying out perhaps the fairest reading of both the achievements and missteps of the Bush administration, including the single most realistic assessment of the invasion and occupation of Iraq offered by anyone. Barnett offers a point by point critique of the administration's blunders in both the post war and the attempted rerun of the WMD narrative on Iran while also maintaining that a world without Saddam is still preferable to a world with Saddam and giving the Bush administration credit for riding out the public disapproval and pushing ahead with the surge.

After offering a balanced assessment of recent history, Barnett reaches back in history a few hundred years to compare the current rise of the 3 billion new capitalist of the New Core with the rise of the American middle class across the 18th and 19th centuries and eventual spreading of the American model via the Atlantic Charter, Marshall Plan, etc, after WWII. Placing our current challenges in the context of American history is Great Powers single biggest contribution to our current understanding of public policy. Again and again Barnett backs up his point that our current challenges are a result of our success, not failure (i.e. moving from our primary national security threat being the Soviet Union to the primary threat being a dude in a cave is progress). A corollary to that point is this: the new global middle class will not accept being denied their opportunities anymore than the rising American middle class would have, and America can lead or get out of the way, but we cannot stop it (nor would we want to).

Great Powers is in some ways more and in some ways less ambitious than Barnett's last two books, The Pentagon's New Map and Blueprint for Action. Both PNM and BFA offered ambitious scenarios for possible future American military interventions (preferably with our New Core allies) abroad in hot spots such as North Korea. GP avoids such speculation and instead tracks the progress of the department of everything else. GP offers a pathway for that department to take as it grows out of DOD and eventually into its own cabinet level position - a clear pathway that I felt was lacking from his previous two books.

On the other hand, I found the lack of ambitious scenarios somewhat disappointing. BFA ended with a section Tom called "Blogging the Future" in which he speculates on everything from the collapse of North Korea to the expansion of the United States - GP offers no such wild speculation (as Tom says "nobody likes a wishy washy visionary") but teases with a brief mention of H.G. Wells Things to Come but fails to offer a Barnett branded look at the future.

Let me be clear, the lack of sci-fiesque ending in no way takes away from the important policy points made by Great Powers and should not dissuade anyone from picking it up. In fact I'd say GP continues Barnett's streak of writing outstanding single volumes (meaning you can read just one and get plenty - even if you're unfamiliar with his previous work and even if you don't make a habit of reading books about foreign policy). Add in the fact that Barnett offers probably the most balanced and reasoned view of foreign policy of anyone writing today and you have a book that is both highly informative and very accessible. Great Powers should be read by anyone who - given the topsy-turvy nature of the headlines recently- feels that they need a little realignment.

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