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Strategy Review: Turnings Theory and the Crisis Era

Strategy Review: Turnings Theory and the Crisis Era

In January I posted a series of “Strategy Reviews” where I examined the thinking of several authors who analyzed the state of politics and war at the beginning of this century. These were Thomas P. M. Barnett with the Pentagon’s New Map that divided the world between Core and Gap, Philip Bobbitt and the market state as defined in The Shield of Achilles, and John Robb with his Brave New War fought in a networked world. Each author’s viewpoint provided a way of understanding the tumultuous events of our time.

I would now like to reexamine these interpretations, but from another viewpoint – that provided by the generational theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe. This is a theory that I have been studying since I discovered it in the early 1990s, when I picked up the book 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? at a book store. That book spoke to my personal experience, and I continued to explore generations by reading the other works of the authors. I won’t expound on the theory to a great degree in this post; you can read a review I wrote here, where you will find links to even more information.

The important thing to know about Strauss and Howe theory for the purposes of this posting is that they identified different social eras called turnings, which are characterized by particular social priorities and proclivities. In the United States of America, we are currently in a Crisis era which began with the financial crash of 2008. Previously, we were in an Unraveling era, which began during the Reagan years.

The Crisis Era

In an Unraveling, society is inward-driven, focused on the individual and loosely regulated. This changes in the Crisis, as a sense of urgency grows over problems which were allowed to remain unresolved in the previous era. Society becomes focused on the community, and more restrictive in what it allows of the individual.

Since the strategists mentioned above are primarily concerned with security and with international relations, we should examine what the implications of the Crisis are in these realms. The main consideration is that, in a Crisis era, society seeks to close itself off and insulate itself from perceived threats. This is apparent, for example, in the crackdown on illegal immigration which began during the Obama administration and continues bitterly into the Trump administration.

Another way in which the United States is closing off is by withdrawing from the rest of the world, changing its posture with respect to international security relations. This began with Obama’s pullback from the wars started by the previous administration, and continues with the more drastic policies of Trump, who has pulled out of international agreements and adopted an overtly nationalist stance for his administration. “America First” couldn’t be a more fitting slogan for a Crisis era.

Trumpism repudiates the idea of the United States as a responsible global hegemon promoting democracy and free-market capitalism – the role the country took on in the aftermath of the Cold War, albeit a role which proved costly, unpopular – and perhaps hopeless. Trumpism also repudiates economic globalization, which came at the price of high-paying working class jobs in the United States. These Unraveling era policies could be labeled the “neo-liberal regime,” which in the Crisis era has become delegitimized. In fact, John Robb specifically describes the Trump victory as rolling back neo-liberalism.

Thomas Barnett acknowledges this fact about Trump’s appeal in his own election post-mortem post. Barnett’s vision of the United States securing peace by maintaining military overwatch while helping to connect the world into a global economy of functioning, developed states, is not suited for the Crisis era social mood. Americans see the problems that grew in the era of globalization, particularly the erosion of the middle class, as no longer endurable. It is telling that both the Trump and Sanders campaigns in 2016 called for reversing trade policies that are perceived to have driven down wages in the United States.

In his work, Thomas Barnett cautioned against the urge to “firewall the Core against the Gap,” instead promoting the idea of greater connectivity among nations. But that was an idea better suited for the Unraveling era. In the Crisis era the desire is to “circle the wagons” and protect what remains of the social order from further collapse. To the political left this means addressing wealth inequality through government largesse (which the right calls socialism). To the political right this means restricting travel and immigration, even to the point of building a wall on the southern border (which the left calls racism). For neither side, however, is the status quo acceptable.

The New Form of the State

So what of the fate of Philip Bobbitt’s market state? According to Bobbitt, it is a form of the state that derives legitimacy from maximizing opportunity for its citizens, not from advancing their welfare. But in turnings theory, maximal opportunity for the individual is a priority of the Unraveling era. In the Crisis era, community takes precedence, hence the return of nationalist rhetoric into politics. So is the nation state, which the market state was supposed to supplant, making a comeback?

John Robb isn’t the only way who sees the market state being rolled backed; in another post, a pseudonymous author argues that the failure of the market state paradigm comes from the agency problem: market state elites have not been looking out for the best interests of the citizens they ostensibly serve. This is indeed a primary criticism of the old neo-liberal regime, particularly from the extreme political right, who would go so far as to call internationalists traitors.

The irony of Trump’s electoral victory, of course, is that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was arguably a champion of neo-liberalism, and yet she still received more popular votes than Trump in the election. She was, in fact, the second most popular U.S. Presidential candidate in history, after Barack Obama. The accusations that there was meddling in the election, in Trump’s favor, by hackers sponsored by the Russian government, segues into another area covered by our strategists – network warfare.

The problem with dispensing with Bobbitt’s theory of the market state is that, while he missed the fact that social priorities would alter because of generational change, he is probably correct in identifying a new strategic landscape. Assuming that nuclear weapons really have rendered conventional war between Great Powers obsolete (the M.A.D. doctrine), warfare has shifted to the level of network exploitation. The new threat environment is rife with computer hackers and social media trolls. This is no joke – these bad actors can sway public opinion, influencing election outcomes and paralyzing governments, and can radicalize young people in far-away countries, prompting them to commit mass murder. They can even penetrate the computer networks responsible for operating vital infrastructure.

So the state will still need to adapt its strategy for protecting its citizens, in order to maintain legitimacy. The question of what form it will ultimately take remains open. It is particularly unclear in the United States, since the country is so deeply split along partisan lines. Will Trumpism become entrenched, or will the political tide turn against it, as Trump-resisters hope? Either way, turnings theory predicts that the institutions of government will transform. If the “nation state” returns, it won’t have the same form as the nation state of the World War era.

With the United States having abandoned global leadership, there is now more open competition among the Great Powers for determining the best internal order for surviving in the new international strategic environment. Momentum likely favors what Barnett called the “New Core” – the nations which more recently joined the developed world. All bets seem to be on China as the new world leader – though this thinking could reflect the West’s anxiety more than reality.

The old liberal, international regime which attempted to thwart and contain authoritarianism in the previous era has been hamstrung, and authoritarianism is on the rise, even in formerly liberal nations. The international order will continue to break down, as individual nations become more focused on their own affairs. The Crisis era is characterized by a lack of trust, and it is the misfortune of the United States that this includes a lack of trust across the partisan divide.

A new mode of competition over cooperation clearly presents dangers. There is no ironbound guarantee that the late twentieth century paradigm that rendered WMDs for deterrence use only will prevail. There is no sublime, unbreakable bond keeping the United States united. But whatever events lie ahead, it is likely the Crisis era will last at least another decade, and that the world will look much different when we emerge from it. We are on a journey through one of history’s great turning points.


The Crisis Era in Turnings Theory Terms

The Crisis Era in Turnings Theory Terms

Here is a quick explanation of the recent political upheavals in Turnings Theory terms. More on this in a future post.

In Search of a Consensus

The Third Turning triumph of capitalism and the global hegemony of the United States culminated in the dominance of the political ideology of neoliberalism. The private sector was favored over the public sector, along with an ethos of diversity and inclusiveness. U.S. elites became globally oriented, and to many it seemed that both major political parties were simply pawns of wealthy corporate interests.

Behind the facade of this New World Order, a Culture War was being fought within American society. Hard lines were drawn on issues like gun control and abortion, as the nation split into polarized opposing camps.

A disastrous war prompted by a terrorist attack soured the country’s outlook on global military intervention. Then a financial crisis precipitated by shady lending practices only exacerbated the sense that elites were simply exploiting the system for their own benefit.

Eight years into the Fourth Turning, a contentious Presidential election led to the downfall of the neoliberal regime and the rise of a new American nationalism, fiercely anti-global and tinged with white supremacy. The opposition entrenched and adopted the language of resistance. It seems a consensus was farther away than ever.

Strategy Review: Brave New War

Strategy Review: Brave New War

In my most recent posts I looked at the strategic theories of two different authors. The first was Thomas P. M. Barnett, who divided the world into functioning, integrated Core states, and their danger-producing opposites, the Gap states. His mantra was “disconnectedness defines danger.” The second was Philip Bobbitt, who divided history into epochs in which different forms of the state ruled. He taught us that the nation state is on its way out, and the new market state is taking its place.

John Robb is an author who actually references both of the previous authors, in his book Brave New War. He springboards off of Bobbitt’s concept of the market state to argue that the nature of warfare has changed, becoming network-focused, and refutes Barnett’s mantra. Basically, in the globally networked world, connectedness defines danger, so good luck finding peace through integration. Better to develop doctrines of fighting networked war.

A war fought between social networks is exactly how Robb portrays the current Crisis Era in American politics. He calls this “open source warfare” in that anyone can participate in an era when the Internet gives individuals powers of surveillance and intelligence gathering that were once reserved for governments. You can follow more of John Robb’s analysis of current events here at his blog.

The Crisis Era in Market State Terms

The Crisis Era in Market State Terms

My last post looked at the strategic theory of Philip Bobbitt, and his idea that we are in an era of transition from the nation state to the market state. Here is how I think he would explain the recent political upheavals.

Birth Pangs Of The Market State

The U.S. victory over the U.S.S.R. marked the end of the nation state era. Even as this final conflict resolved, the new market state was coming into existence, a reaction to the change in the strategic landscape wrought by the very technologies that had allowed the U.S. to prevail – weapons of mass destruction, global communications, and advanced computers.

Where the nation state derived its legitimacy from managing the national economy to advance the welfare of its citizens, the market state seeks to maximize economic opportunity for its citizens while advancing their safety and security. Nationalist economic policy was no longer viable in a world of information overload and superempowered individuals.

The governments of the world are straining as this regime transformation takes place. In the United States, a TV celebrity con artist exploited the anxieties of the public to rise to the office of the Presidency, with a corrupt and kleptocratic agenda that threatens to bring about a Constitutional crisis. The young and fragile European Union is near collapse, and the old alignments, alliances and conventions of the nation state order are in question.

What form will the market state take in the end?

Strategy Review: The Emerging Market State

Strategy Review: The Emerging Market State

Although the books were published around the same time, it wasn’t until some time after reading The Pentagon’s New Map that I discovered The Shield of Achilles, by Philip Bobbitt. Bobbitt is a constitutional law expert, and this very long book (usually described as “magisterial”) formulates a theory of the evolution of the state as proceeding through periodic “epochal wars” which redefine the constitutional order. As each new form of the state is legitimized, the seeds are planted for the growth of the form which will come to replace it. Thus he describes a kind of historical cycle, to join many others which have been postulated.

Bobbitt traces the emergence of the state to Renaissance Italy and the philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli. He then describes an evolutionary sequence from the first “Princely states” of the Renaissance to the modern nation state. Each time the state transforms, it is because after a constitutional order is legitimized by victory in the epochal war, the very factors which led to that victory proceed to undermine and delegitimize it as future events unfold. In the case of the “nation state” order, Bobbitt identifies its legitimization with the West’s Cold War victory, the culmination of a Long War against first Fascism, and then Communism, both constitutional orders competing with the Liberal Democratic Western order. It was advancements in high-speed computing and telecommunications which eventually secured this victory.

In the 21st century, these very advancements have empowered individuals, diminished the state’s ability to influence the economy, and generated new security threats which are immune to the nation state’s conventional means of deterrence. Now delegitimized, the familiar nation state of the 20th century is giving way to what Bobbitt calls the “market state.” A key difference between the two orders is that whereas the nation state serves the welfare of the nation through public services and social safety nets, the market state maximizes economic opportunity for its citizens, while protecting them from environmental degradation and network-infiltrating dangers such as infectious disease and terrorism. The state’s role has evolved from managing the system for the benefit of the people, in competition with other states with different ideologies (the Cold War status quo), to protecting the system’s perimeters while allowing the people to manage themselves in a loosely controlled consumer marketplace of global extent (the Washington Consensus and the “End of History.”)

There is even more to this work, as it covers not just constitutional orders but also theories about international law, which necessarily transform in accordance with the evolving forms of the state. Bobbitt identifies a boundary or membrane between the realm of law, which orders society within the state’s purview, and that of strategy, which orders the interactions among states. The victory which legitimizes an order of the state amounts to the successful application of strategy, but with it comes an alteration of the international milieu, which renders that strategy untenable. In competing for the new strategy which ensures survival and dominance, states must necessarily evolve their own internal orders.

So, for example, the nation state strategy of massive conventional armed forces became obsolete in an era of WMDs (which can take out massed forces) and advanced computers (which make smaller forces much more effective). The United States responded by switching to a volunteer armed force, and developing theories of network-centric warfare.

Bobbitt sees the 21st century War on Terror as the epochal war driving the transition from nation state to market state. Presumably one of the Great Power civilizations will discover a successful strategic response to the security threat created by network-exploiting “bad actors,” one which has eluded the world so far. Whichever power does so will determine the ideal model of the market state.

The Shield of Achilles was followed by the equally magisterial Terror and Consent, which elaborates on the interplay between strategy and law in the case of the challenge of combating global networked terrorism. Bobbitt’s opinion is always worth seeking, because of his erudition and legal expertise, so I always look for his latest opinion pieces and interview. He has no regular column or web site that I know of, but here is a recent interview. As the world order continues to transform radically, I will keep searching for more of his insights.

The Crisis Era in Core versus Gap Terms

The Crisis Era in Core versus Gap Terms

In my last post I reviewed the strategic theory of Thomas P. M. Barnett. Now I want to look at the current Crisis Era in the U.S., particularly the recent political upheaval, and how it can be described from the perspective this theory provides. Luckily, Barnett himself does so in a blog post. What follows is my own summary.

Mission Aborted

The end of the Cold War saw the United States emerge as the global hegemon and sole superpower. The U.S. system of free market capitalism had prevailed over the statist central planning system of the U.S.S.R. An important factor was swinging the emerging New Core state of China toward the U.S. system.

In the new order, the world of superpower-led blocs transformed into a world of Core states (integrated, stable) and Gap states (non-integrated, unstable). Guiding the integration of the Gap into the Core in concert with the world’s other Great Powers was the new mission of the United States. In this way, threats emerging from the Gap could be contained and capital could flow freely to where it would do the most good for humanity.

This task proved to be beyond the creative capacity of the nation. Hampered by a dysfunctional political system and hung-up on old strategic paradigms, the United States abandoned the mission. It gave up its world leadership role, turning inward to nurse her grievances. The Globalization III era came to an end.

While the U.S. sorts out its internal issues, violence rages in the Gap, and authoritarian and nationalist movements make headway around the world.

Strategy Review: Core versus Gap

Strategy Review: Core versus Gap

Some time in the early 2000s I became acquainted with the thinking of Thomas P. M. Barnett, author of the book The Pentagon’s New Map. In this book he outlined a new paradigm for the deployment of U.S. military power in the post-Cold War era. Barnett was a strategist working for the Naval War College, and his geopolitical theory was radical, even – from the Pentagon’s perspective – apostate.

Basically, Barnett took a look at the post-Cold War military conflicts in which the United States had engaged, from the invasion of Panama in the waning years of the Soviet Union, up to the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His titular “New Map” divided the world into a “Functioning Core” of developed nations which were successfully integrated into the global economy, and a “Non-Integrated Gap” of failed nations where bad actors ran rampant and the U.S. was compelled to intervene militarily. From this simple concept a theory emerged of a new era of globalization in which the security threats to which the United States was responding arose from the disconnected status of the Gap nations – as he put it, “disconnectedness defines danger.”

The primary strategic goal for this new age was integrating the Gap with the Core, and as sole superpower America had a natural role to play in this process. Her conventional military force with its overwhelming power was what Barnett deemed a “Leviathan” force, and in conventional warfare the U.S. had no equal, as the recent invasion of Iraq had demonstrated. But what was also needed was a “Sys Admin” force for post-conflict stabilization (winning the peace); this is where allies with strong traditions of peacekeeping might come into play. With the right rule set for military intervention in the Gap, the end result would be increased connectivity with the Core. The military would just be kick starting this process; once the umbrella of security was provided, the private sector could take over. Globalization would spread, the Gap would shrink, and the world would be safer.

Barnett gives great presentations, and his “New Map” Brief is a classic. It was made in the early 2000s, at the heyday of his theory. The post-9/11 mind set was still fresh, and the U.S. security establishment was energized, as it struggled with the problems unleashed by the shock of 9/11 and subsequent U.S. response. In the brief Barnett preaches against the urge to throw up barriers to immigration and travel, to “firewall the Core against the Gap,” as he puts it, and encourages embracing globalization. As the 2000s continued, two sequels to the book followed which further developed his ideas.

Meanwhile, the Iraq War fiasco played out, and post-conflict stability proved elusive. I think Barnett’s theory lost its luster as a result, even though it never supported the careless invasion with no follow-up strategy practiced by the Bush administration (what he called “drive-by regime change”). Barnett never advocated that the U.S. become a “global cop” or act unilaterally (I remember him supporting Kerry in 2004), but rather that, with her preponderance of military power, the U.S. would inevitably end up shouldering much of the burden of conventional military action when it was necessary. But to shoulder that burden requires will, and after the long drawn-out suffering of the Iraq post-War, America lost that will, and through the Obama era and into the Trump era has withdrawn from the world.

At heart, Barnett’s theory is not militarily but economically deterministic, as he confirms in a blog post about a historian’s review of the third book in the trilogy. America as the victor of the Cold War had gifted the world with a free-market system which was elevating the bulk of humanity in the formerly impoverished Third World into a global middle class. In a world leadership role, presumably natural for a superpower hegemon, she could guide the development of that system and reap the most benefit from it. But after withdrawing into isolationism (“navel-gazing”), which is the choice the country has made, the system will continue to develop without her, its rules determined more and more by the new rising powers.

It’s nice to see that Barnett is still thinking strategically and creating briefs; there are links to a 2015 presentation up on his site. I recommend checking them out, because he is brilliant, a frank and humorous speaker, and he always makes you see things in a new light, or points out a trend or relationship that you weren’t aware existed before. Just the sort of thinking we need for the 21st century.