The Pentagon’s New Map by Thomas P.M. Barnett

Sometimes you sit in a meeting, a group meeting, and you see the impact of a well-chosen phrase. These days, we are more likely to recall the impact of a well-crafted PowerPoint presentation. All of a sudden, lights click on atop everyone’s head and out of the room they rush, eager to spread the words of wisdom they have just received.

There is more to Thomas Barnett’s book, The Pentagon’s New Map, than this but certainly it is one of the points illustrated by the work. For this and other reasons, Barnett’s book is a worthy read.

Barnett has conceived of a framework for understanding international relations in the post-Cold War world. Expressed first in a series of presentations given to high-level military, political, and financial officials, Barnett encapsulated his views in an article published in Esquire magazine. This public expression of his work launched Barnett on an upward trajectory of influence in national security decision-making circles. It also led to this book-length explanation of his world view, including its evolution since the early 1990s and maturation after September 11. To his credit, Barnett is quick to point out the various people he has encountered in his intellectual journey who have helped mold his outlook.

This framework rests on a single point, globalization. Barnett believes that globalization has swept the world in stages since the early 20th century. The primacy—some would say the hegemony—of the US in the early 21st century is actually not, in Barnett’s view, the simple outcome of a Cold War won. It is more the expression of globalization’s ultimate victory. It is a question of when, not whether, the world has accepted it.

Barnett further suggests that the world is currently divided between those nations which enjoy globalization (the Core) and those that don’t (the Gap). Nearly every source of armed conflict and bloody friction can be linked to tensions between these two sides of the world. It is the mission of the US, Barnett argues, to lead the Core in helping reduce the Gap; in other words, to bring as many nations within the Gap to a point where they, too, enjoy the fruits of globalization. Then, they become part of the Core. In what is the most sweeping of many sweeping assertions in the book, Barnett takes a step you’ll likely not hear very often—by shrinking the Gap, he maintains, the US and the rest of the Core can eliminate war from the earth. That is the vision which Barnett says should and must animate the US military and the national society of which it is a part.

The book exposes the reader to a world he or she will know little about. Barnett is a futurist and a national security strategist and thinker. He has served as a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and has held numerous positions in governmental defense agencies. His writings introduce the reader to meetings, sessions, groups, and people that rarely make news. The conspiracy nuts will say, “Aha, I knew it!” Barnett’s work shows, however, that these shadowy figures do not determine a secret policy. They are one of many different influences on the decisions in diplomacy, military affairs, and macro investment-financial strategies.

For me, the book has two important takeaways. First, the reader will see a breathtaking display of vision and strategy. Many of my alumni frequently want to be more effective “big-picture” thinkers. Barnett personifies such thinking. Second, Barnett offers the reader a journey into the power of a presentation. People who work in medium- or large-sized organizations will be familiar with this at once. A skillful presentation can sway things, can move people in a particular direction. Barnett provides several hints as to how he made his presentation more effective over time.

The reader will likely notice at least one thing more. I certainly did, and it’s this: Barnett has a monumental ego. Maybe everyone in his circle has a similar self-view. It’s possible that you have to or you don’t survive. Regardless, you can’t ignore it in Barnett’s book. A little humility—and that’s different from self-deprecation, which in Barnett’s case strikes you as disingenuous—would go a long way in seasoning Barnett’s framework with much needed wisdom. I define wisdom in this case as a healthy dose of where you know you’re wrong, of all the stuff you don’t know. Interestingly, you do gain sympathy for Barnett when he reveals parts of his personal life that are nothing short of tragic. That type of vulnerability ought to be applied in his thinking. I say “vulnerability” not as we tend to know it in the Oprah Age but rather in how you see it in the Lincoln Era.

From the standpoint of history, I can’t resist the temptation to urge Barnett to look at the rocks that have smashed so many grand theories and utopian constructs. History is full of wrong turns and broken dreams. I don’t think of myself as a pessimist or a cynic but you’ve got to expect your expectations must account for unwanted realities.