Blueprint for Action

Blueprint for Action

Thomas P.M. Barnett

Review by DNI Editor Chet Richards

November 21, 2005

Let’s get one thing out of the way: those of you worried that Tom Barnett would be a one-hit wonder can relax. Blueprint for Action is a better book than The Pentagon’s New Map, an achievement made more remarkable by the short interval between them. Given his brutal travel schedule, Barnett must set the standard for productivity in an airline seat.

The purpose of Map was to find something for the Pentagon to do in the post-Cold War world, and what it found was a program of employing American military force against Third World states. True, it did propose a follow-on “systems administrator” (Sys Admin) force, but it was made up of older troops and reservists. In Blueprint, Sys Admin moves to the forefront, with Leviathan playing the limited role of enabler. And the Leviathan concept itself has changed. Whereas before, we would employ Leviathan whenever the mood struck us, in Blueprint Leviathan acts only within an internationally sanctioned framework. As Barnett notes, our military is capable of winning any war, but without substantial international backing, which we will not get if we alone make the decision for war, we will inevitably become bogged down in the resulting “peace.”

Barnett’s concept of that “peace” is also developed beyond what he described in Map. Rather than dead-ender die-hards of the former regime, Barnett adopts the more nuanced notion of “fourth generation warfare” (4GW). For the purposes of his book, Barnett’s treatment of 4GW is more than adequate, encompassing not only the usual “asymmetric” aspects but also concepts not often seen in non-specialist publications, such as shifting the operational focus to the moral level within state opponents. He gives credit where credit is due, basing his approach on TX Hammes’ excellent history and survey, The Sling and the Stone, and accepting Hammes’ depiction of 4GW as “evolved insurgency.” His description on pages 34 and 35 of how insurgents, evolved or otherwise, oppose Leviathan-type incursions is superb.

This is another of those “love it or hate it but you can’t ignore it” books. I’ll raise some reservations later, but there is a lot to like in Blueprint:

  1. We need to get over state-vs.-state warfare, and this includes against Russia, China, and India.

  2. Connectivity rules! It’s going to happen because closed systems cannot compete with open systems (this isn’t the way he says it, but I think it describes his – and my – argument nonetheless).

  3. The Department of Homeland Security needs to be shut down.

  4. We won’t become more secure by trying to limit the amount of oil we import from the Middle East.

  5. We don’t need to invade the Middle East in order to secure our supply of oil.

  6. National missile defense is the Pentagon's biggest "boondoggle" ever [which is some accolade, given the level of competition].

  7. Iran is going to have the bomb, so we better start figuring out how to turn this into a win-win situation.

  8. Hip-hop is our best weapon in the “war on terror.”

  9. Domestic politics in all countries, particularly the Old Core, forms the strongest barrier to globalization. Agricultural subsidies are among the worst.

  10. We need to add a 51st state and the sooner the better.

His recommendations for the Department of Defense have finally reached the “radical” level. Essentially, he wants to shrink it down to the special operators (SEALs, Green Berets, Rangers, etc.) plus airpower and put the rest of the Army and Navy and the entire Marine Corps into a new Department of Everything Else. In other words, all of the Marine Corps and about 95% of the Army would become part of Sys Admin. I am truly in awe.

Pattern for success

Like John Boyd, whom he references several times in the book, Barnett considers the range of human conflict from the national aim or vision down to tactics. Putting Barnett’s scheme into Boyd’s pattern would give us something like:

  • Vision: End “terrorism” and war as we know it; alleviate suffering and poverty world wide.

  • Grand Strategy: Shrink the Gap – connectivity everywhere.

  • Strategy: Six point process for “processing politically bankrupt states” (to be critiqued below) featuring internationally-sanctioned preemption when necessary.

  • Grand Tactics: Build support among a designated group of Core states to sanction attack for removing offending regime and funding reconstruction.

  • Tactics: Airpower-intensive network-centric warfare (NCW) to take out organized military forces and eliminate or capture indicted members of regime; then, actions to preclude fourth generation warfare including armed counterinsurgency and timely reconstruction of state with connectivity and "New Core" status.

So where are the weaknesses? His purpose in this book is, as he admits up front, to sell you both on his vision and on his proposal for achieving it. This means that he will select material and give it emphasis to support his case. You can expect opposing arguments to be ignored or attacked. This is fair enough, so long as you keep his purpose in mind.

Barnett’s case rests on two unstated assumptions. The first, and the lesser in significance, is that a Leviathan whose conventional combat capability consists almost entirely of airpower will always win. The second is that we know how to rebuild failed states without turning them into repeats of Iraq. I’ll examine both of these in turn.

Bombing them back to the Stone Age

Ever since Giulio Douhet proposed the doctrine of victory through airpower in the 1920s people have been trying to make it happen. Didn’t it work in Afghanistan? Well, yes, but: 1) hard to imagine a weaker enemy than the Taliban; 2) even then, they weren’t defeated so much as melted back into the woodwork; and 3) it’s too soon to tell how Afghanistan will turn out. What about the NATO-Serbian War? NATO bombed Serbia from March 24 to June 10, 1999 – for 79 days, the world’s mightiest military organization had free rein over this remnant of the former Yugoslavia. After all of that, it took a credible threat of ground invasion and Russia’s withdrawal of support before Milosevic caved. Both Gulf Wars also required ground attacks to deliver what “shock and awe” had promised, and Saddam in 2003 was only a shadow of what he was even in 1991. If more evidence were needed, consider that we dropped more tons of bombs on Southeast Asia than we did in all theaters of World War II.

Arguments such as these suggest that Barnett’s Leviathan would need some residual ground combat capability, so add perhaps three armored cavalry regiments or one Marine Division back. In other words, I think Barnett got this one wrong, but it’s easily fixed at least as far as the getting-in phase is concerned.

Processing politically bankrupt states

The second assumption – that we know how to rebuild invaded states – is the crux of the book because we cannot afford many more Iraqs. As positive evidence, Barnett cites the cases of Kosovo and Bosnia and from these two, extrapolates a six-step “A-Z rule set” that he claims can be applied anywhere. The first question is how solid are the cases that Kosovo and Bosnia were repeatable success stories? Neither are incontrovertible, I’m afraid. For one thing, both are works in progress. In Kosovo, once the ethnic Albanians got the upper hand, they began ethnically cleansing Serbs – understandable, perhaps, but is that an outcome we want to export to other Gap countries? And economic progress has been slow in coming, with unemployment in Kosovo holding at around 50% some six years after the war.

Bosnia is a much more complex case. Signs are encouraging, but it is far too soon to declare it a model. For example, indicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic remain at large, apparently shielded by a sympathetic population within a state fifty miles from NATO. Corruption in Bosnia does finally appear to be declining, but according to Transparency International, only because the Office of the High Representative was granted executive powers. For a war that ended in 1995, and for a country in Europe, bordering EU candidate Croatia, and within shouting distance of members Hungary and Slovenia (certainly not a repeatable condition for countries in the Gap), one might have expected more progress by now.

Even if Kosovo and Bosnia eventually develop into Core states, a six-step formula based on just two data points has little validity. There are too many factors unique to them. Culturally and linguistically, Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia are part of Europe, not the Middle East or Africa, and Serbs and Croats share common religions with the occupiers (and the Muslims of the Balkans are hardly Wahhabi fanatics).

Iraq and the non-case for Sys Admin

Now let’s turn to the one acknowledged failure – Iraq. For Iraq not to blow his case out of the water, Barnett has to declare it a “no-test,” the term used in programs like missile defense when you don’t want an obvious disaster to end support for the project. Barnett’s explanation for Iraq is that we didn’t follow his six-step formula, so it doesn’t represent a failure of it. He is obviously correct that there was no Sys Admin (it was 2 months after the capture of Baghdad before we cut orders for the first military police unit) – but this observation is not conclusive. The fact that we had no Sys Admin and Iraq is a debacle does not imply that having such a force would have led to a more favorable outcome.

Barnett should put his considerable talents to work exploring the conditions favoring employment of a large Sys Admin force as well as indicators that the Core should use other approaches or maybe just stay out. Instead, he proclaims the need for a massive Sys Admin as a fact and calculates that around 250,000 of them would have done the trick in Iraq, admonishing the Russians for not supplying 40,000.

Is there any reason to suspect that with enough troops on the ground, we couldn’t have precluded an insurgency? Against this is the argument that the occupying force itself is a catalyst for insurgency and so one of the ingredients in successful counterinsurgency is keeping as small a footprint as possible. A large Sys Admin force, particularly a multinational one with varying proficiency in handling insurgency – and comprising different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds – adds complexity, increases the potential for misunderstandings and provocative events, and provides a target-rich environment. For these reasons, 250,000 largely non-Muslim Sys Adminers, some with experience fresh from Chechnya, might not have been the panacea Barnett claims. [And I have to admit that this is a significant change from my own critique of Map here on DNI, where I argued for such a force].

First, do no harm

There are passages in the book where Barnett appears to be insisting that ends can justify means. On page 204, he notes that “That’s what is so exciting about crafting a strategic vision: if you do it right, it unleashes so much pent-up energy—especially among the young.” Baldur von Shirach, late leader of the Hitler Youth, would have heartily concurred. Then on the next page, Barnett states that “Once people agree on the destination and the essential need to make that journey, everything else begins to fall into place.” True, but heading us through Heaven’s Gate and into Jonestown territory. Both of these, and any number of other utopian movements, agreed on their respective destinations and on the need to make the journey. Same conclusion fits the Communist Party, the Nazi Party, and al-Qa’ida. Paradise of some sort lies just ahead, so lead, follow, or I’ll blow you out of the way: “So yes, I do account for nonrational actors in my worldview. And when they threaten violence against the global order, I say: Kill them.” (282) Making a desert and calling it peace is, I grant, the one time-tested method for shrinking the Gap.

Barnett also cites the Copenhagen Consensus as justifying preemption since if we could make it work, it would result in a huge saving of resources for the world as a whole. But Copenhagen also concluded that “Civil wars [note – the only kind they consider] typically last for seven years. Unfortunately, there is no systematic evidence of the effectiveness of either financial or military intervention by the international community.” International military intervention can make a difference in the post-conflict environment, but only if the host government “makes deep cuts in its own military expenditure.” So there are a whole lot of “ifs” and the apparent possibility of another Iraq if all the dominoes don’t fall in our direction.

If we are not sure that we know how to build nations, then all a strategy of preemption is likely to accomplish, no matter how appealing its ultimate promise, is additional suffering in the Gap, fracturing of the Core, and a return to isolationism and endemic warfare, likely of the fourth generation variety. The lingering problems with ethnic and communitarian violence in Kosovo and economic stagnation accompanied by corruption there and in Bosnia – let’s don’t even bring up Haiti – suggest that we still have a lot to learn.

Beyond preemption?

Before you get too worked up over this, there is a saving grace to the book. Turns out that although Barnett talks a tough, preemptive game, Blueprint contains several intriguing suggestions for shrinking the Gap that could produce better results at far less cost and risk:

  1. We have any number of clever ways of dealing with Gap dictators. His scenario for Kim Jong Il is worth the price of the book (pp. 183-185), and you get the strong feeling that something like this would have worked on Saddam. In any case, the list of “big men” we need to take down has shrunk to Kim Jong Il, Hugo Chavez, and Robert Mugabe.

  2. Pull works better than push (pp. 234 ff.) In fact, given time, pull never fails, with the old USSR/Warsaw Pact as a shining example and China on the way. Unfortunately, as the case of agricultural subsidies shows, Old Core countries would generally prefer voter-pleasing pork and military theater to the sacrifices needed to entice Gap countries up the food chain.

  3. The path to go-fast globalization runs through Old Core ballot boxes. To keep up support for shrinking the Gap, politicians will have to sell the process as fair for the majority of their citizens. The key word is “fair,” not economically optimum or producing the highest bonuses for Fortune 500 CEOs. Fair. This is a weak area for Barnett, whose advice for workers laid off from US companies that have outsourced their jobs is to quit whining (p. 151). I’m not sure that a 45-year-old employee of General Motors with kids in school and faced with losing his or her health insurance will see the humor. Solve this problem, though, and the lure of low-cost, well made products and services flowing in from the Gap and New Core will provide the motor for go-fast globalization.


Style is personal, of course, and here is one of my gripes. Barnett, like most everybody who is trying to sell a concept that he fervently believes in, has a tendency to belittle the arguments of infidels. This is particularly distracting in the case of Martin van Creveld, author of some 19 books on military history and the nature of conflict. Several of these – Command in War, Fighting Power, and The Transformation of War – are classics that will be taught in war colleges long after Barnett and I are reduced to footnotes. Van Creveld does indeed paint a dark picture of the future, which he sees as a likely consequence of the decline of the influence many states have over their citizens. People in parts of the world – the same parts that could harbor 4GW groups in the future – are transferring their primary loyalties to tribes, clans, criminal enterprises and other non-state entities. You may or may not accept this, but it is a well-reasoned argument (see, for example, “The Fate of the State”), and by attempting to dismiss it with a couple of flippant sentences, Barnett leaves the impression that he cannot counter it in any other way.

The notion of state decline, by the way, lies at the core (pardon the pun) of the argument for 4GW. If states throughout some significant part of the world are not experiencing a crisis of legitimacy, then 4GW reduces to “insurgency on steroids,” as one prominent Army thinker recently dismissed it. Arguments can be made both ways, but to the extent that van Creveld’s forecast proves correct, attempting to turn Gap countries into New Core states becomes a sisypherian task.


There are a couple of factual errors. Barnett, Wisconsin cheesehead that he is, has demoted George E. Pickett to colonel. Now I have nothing against that rank – still hold it myself in retirement – but Pickett, as any son of the South knows, was a major general commanding a division in Longstreet’s Corps. Geez.

And Barnett has called me the “self-professed keeper of the Boyd flame.” This is simply wrong. I’ve never professed anything. I could accept “universally acclaimed.”


If you like the idea of expanding connectivity and shrinking the Gap, but are put off by Barnett’s residual fascination with preemption, then just ignore it. The Gap is shrinking before our eyes anyway – only about a sixth of the entire world lives in truly abject poverty – and most of Barnett’s ideas for accelerating the process, especially those involving pulling Gap and New Core states along, will work even better once we forego the easy lure of bombings and invasions. Plus the odds of another Iraq go way down.

My advice: get the book. Whether you also buy all of what Barnett’s selling or none of it, it’s a great read and is going to have an impact on policy for years to come.

Buy Blueprint for Action at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

[Chet Richards is the author of A Swift, Elusive Sword, Certain to Win, and the forthcoming Neither Shall the Sword – Conflict in the Years Ahead. He is a retired colonel in the Air Force Reserve.]

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