Monday, May 15, 2006

Book Review: A Blueprint not worth reading

Blueprint For Action - A Future Worth Creating, by Thomas P.M. Barnett

Blueprint For Action is Thomas P.M. Barnett's sequel to his blockbuster work of international strategy,The Pentagon's New Map. It is a sequel in the truest sense, since it is extremely difficult to understand this new book without first reading New Map.

Cursed with one of the most boring titles one can imagine for what is in fact a very creative and exciting work, The Pentagon's New Map, published November 2004, is a very clear and understandable outline of Barnett's view on how American and Western foreign policy should proceed, in our post Iron Curtain, post 9/11 world. In it, Barnett argues that the main division in international affairs is no longer ideological, as it was during the Cold War, but economic. He divides the world into the 'Core' states and 'Gap' states. Core states are connected and economically advanced, such as the G20 states and rising economies like South Africa and Chile. Gap states, on the other hand, are unconnected Third World states, such as Sudan, Iran and Colombia, which are isolated from the modern world, either by choice or circumstance. Barnett divides the world neatly into these two camps, and argues that the world's route to a lasting security lies in expanding the Core and connecting more of the Gap states to the rest of the world, bringing them prosperity and democracy, with its benefits of human rights and justice in the process.

In New Map, Barnett lays out a strategy for the achievement of peace and stability in the world in our lifetimes. He sees a particularly vital role in the stabilizing nation-building prowess of the Core states, especially in combination with the huge military power of the United States. Importantly, he defines China, Russia, and India as Core states, meaning they are America's natural allies in helping Gap states make the transition to functioning prosperous societies. Barnett wrote this book from the perspective of an insider in the U.S. military. A fascinating subtext in the narrative is his story of how he has had his ideas largely accepted in the American military, to the extent that the phases 'Core' and 'Gap' are now commonly used in American strategic discussion.

In Blueprint for Action, Barnett follows up on the ideas he first laid out in The Pentagon's New Map. But Blueprint has meandering writing and a fair number of non-sequiturs. The author spends too much time talking about how successful his earlier book was. Blueprint has a surprising number of personal asides, first person mentions and even detailed discussions about the author's family, with a lot of detail about his adoption of a Chinese girl. It contains a segment on the short period as a teenager when he was into New Wave music. There is a lot of chaff here, as the author mistakenly assumes that the readers are as interested in him as much as his ideas.

Interspersed within the meandering, the non-sequiturs and the personal indulgences, dedicated readers can still find fascinating passages about how the world could work, along with some very compelling analysis. But it's not up to the standard of his first book. The Pentagon's New Map merited a recommendation. Blueprint does not.


The Truth, by Al Franken

This book is presented as the follow-up to the bestselling and very funny Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, a book that received a very strong endorsement from this column.

This time, comedian and political satirist Franken has shifted his target, away from the right-wing commentators like Ann Coulter, who vocally and dogmatically support the Bush Republicans, to the Bush Republican regime itself. And while Franken has not really altered his style or format, this seemingly subtle shift in focus has resulted in a far less entertaining work.

Franken's standard method is to use his well honed satiric gifts to expose the errors of his chosen targets, most of whom are ranking Republican politicians. What sets him apart, and makes him of interest to those who follow politics, is that he uses rigorous research methods, and backs up all his assertions with verifiable facts.

Franken, however, is also an unrepentant Democratic partisan. When attacking hysterical right-wing commentators, this actually gave his work a welcome edge. When attacking Republican politicians, however, this partisanship renders the critiques merely partisan and the humour is lost. Lying Liars stood out as a unique, drop-dead funny, original critique of the U.S. right-wing media elites, while The Truth reads as a tired and only vaguely humorous polemic.

While The Truth is at times an interesting enough read, it simply does not stand out in the crowded field of left-wing satires of the Bush Republicans. The overall tone is like being cornered at the end of a cocktail party by someone who is bitter, tired and in need of a drink.

Though the events and issues Franken tackles in The Truth may be worthy of our scrutiny, he has failed in his primary task to entertain the reader.