Mencius Moldbug vs. Thomas P.M. Barnett
By Arnold Kling
I’m Kindling The Pentagon’s New Map, an infamous book from 2004 by Thomas P.M. Barnett. I liked this paragraph (on p. 129).
A Chinese friend of mine who had been active in the democracy movement explained…”Before Tianenmen, we believed that freedom is 90 percent political and 10 percent economic. A few years later, we came to realize that freedom is 90 percent economic and 10 percent political.” You may find my friend’s change of heart troublesome, but think about your own daily life and then try to tell me that second formula isn’t a better description of how things really work for the vast majority of Americans.
Agree or disagree?
By the way, I’m still not sure how I feel about Kindling. Something tells me I would have absorbed Barnett’s book in an hour or less if I’d had the paper version. With the Kindle, I’ve spent a few hours with it, and I’m still less than half way through.I find Barnett quite irritating. He reminds me of McKinsey consultants. He is in love with PowerPoint decks and thinks of briefings, particularly his own, as world-historical events. He reeks of Harvard.
Still, he does have the McKinsey skill of coming up with snappy formulations. For example, he describes three layers, which he calls system, nation, and subnational entity. Systems are broader than a nation state. Think of the international trading system, which he incorrectly associates with the WTO, rather than also including the many informal rules and standards that have been developed by the private sector. Or think of the international communication system, including the Internet. I also think of major religions and major social movements (such as women’s liberation) as phenomena of the system level.
Barnett’s big claim to fame is his view that the trouble spots in the world are failed states that are disconnected from the key systems (largely economic and information flows). These states are prone to violence, either committed by the leaders or by subnational entities that are beyond the leaders’ control. The trend is for U.S. forces to be engaged in these failed states (what he calls the Gap). Barnett is a big advocate of retooling our military and related foreign policy instruments to be more effective at intervening to fix the countries in the Gap.
The way I would describe it is that Barnett’s thesis is that failed states are like swamps, and terrorists are like the mosquitoes that breed in swamps. He wants to drain the swamps by whatever means works best, including occasionally the military. (Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion overlaps in several places with Barnett.)
Barnett says that his view is a “middle way” between: the goody-goody left, which in my terminology wants to give foreign aid to treat the malaria but does not want to try to drain the swamps; and the isolationist right, who wants to stay out of the swamps and take steps at our borders to keep out mosquitoes.
Which brings me to Mencius Moldbug, who in this post argued for the isolationist right view of how to achieve whirled peas.
every government is legitimate and sovereign. All governments are de facto. Their borders are defined by the power of their military forces. If two states disagree on their borders, it is up to them to settle the dispute.
Moldbug would have us focus on the nation-state, and ignore the system layer that crosses nations as well as the subnational entities. So, if a subnational entity in Gaza fires a rocket at Israel, Moldbug would have Israel treat the rocket as if it were launched by the nation-state of Gaza, at which point all restraints are off.
The basic principle of classical international law is that every citizen of an enemy state is an enemy.
I suspect that this solution would not work in practice. For one thing, hardly any country’s government (least of all, Israel’s) is Jacksonian enough to operate that way.
More broadly, I just don’t think that the nation state is up to the job that this “classical international law” assigns to it. Barnett’s other layers, the system and the subnational entity, are indeed much more important nowadays. The system makes us so interdependent that drawing lines at national borders is undesirable in many ways. I would not want to have the U.S. have to go it alone in terms of intelligence gathering or tracking terrorist finances, for example.
The subnational entity is another complicating factor. Even if the Russian mafia were to attack several Americans, I do not think we would want to declare war on Russia. If a Palestinian faction launched a rocket that killed an American visiting Israel, would we declare war on Gaza? It could make more sense to declare war on Israel, for failing to protect the American in its territory.
I’m not ready to sign up for Barnett’s program to cure the world’s trouble spots. Fortunately, this is not a foreign policy blog, so I don’t feel I have to come up with a better idea.
Going back to the quote about economic and political freedom, I think it raises very interesting questions. I could see the United States heading toward (or already being) its own type of oligarchy, with a powerful, corrupt government that nonetheless allows us enough economic freedom to get by. Will the U.S. and China converge?