Managing the Global Commons

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= this article takes an the 'imperial' view of the commons, i.e. as those global but unowned global resources, the oceans, space, cyberspace, that are necessary for the global system to function, and to which access and use has to be safeguarded.

* Paper: Managing the Global Commons. Abraham M. Denmark. Washington Quarterly • 33:3 pp. 165-182, July 2010


From the introduction, by Abraham M. Denmark:

"The geopolitical theorist Sir Halford Mackinder once observed that democracies find it difficult to think strategically in peacetime. It should not be surprising then that one of the United States’ core peacetime strategic objectives for more than half a centuryÑthe development of a robust international system based on free trade, international law, and international institutionsÑwas born in wartime. The 1944 Bretton Woods agreement laid the foundation for this system to reconcile and reconstruct the Axis powers and avoid another world war. This strategy was further developed in 1950 with ‘‘NSC 68,’’ which claimed that the development of a healthy international community should be pursued by the United States even without the existence of a Soviet threat.

The international system is inextricably interwoven with the continued openness and stability of the world’s common spaces.2 Open commons allow large container ships to connect manufacturers to customers all over the world, like- minded individuals to share information as well as ideas, and global militaries to coordinate movements over vast distances. These capabilities did not happen by accident; they are the result of decades of effort by governments and private corporations to build a ‘‘system of systems’’ that allow for global commerce. These systems exist within and between the global commons: the sea, air, space, and cyberspace.

Today, over 90 percent of global tradeÑworth over $14 trillion in 2008Ñ travels by sea.3 Every year, 2.2 billion passengers and 35 percent of the world’s manufactured exports, by value, travel through the air.4 Governments, militaries, and corporations around the world rely on space for communications, imagery, and accurate positioning services. Any computer in the world with access to the Internet can access and transmit information to any place in the world within seconds, allowing unprecedented connectivity for global financial transactions, social networks, commercial enterprises, and militaries.

Since the end of World War II, and especially since the end of the Cold War, the openness and stability of the global commons have been protected and sustained by U.S. military dominance and political leadership. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have dissuaded naval aggression and fought piracy around the world, ensuring unprecedented freedom of the seas. The United States led the creation of international agreements on air transportation, enabling the creation of a global air industry. Washington also forged an international consensus on the openness of space, ensuring that all countries with the means to do so can utilize orbital space for scientific, commercial, and military purposes.

Lastly, research funded by the U.S. government led to the creation of a decentralized network of connections now called the Internet, which connects physically dispersed markets, capital, and people.

For the past 65 years, U.S. power has been derived in part from providing global public goods that also service vital U.S. interests, including stability in key regions, a vibrant and interconnected global economy, and open access to the global commons. Leading American theorist Joseph Nye has argued that considering the relationship of U.S. power to global public goods helps to unveil ‘‘an important strategic principle that could help America reconcile its national interests with a broader global perspective and assert effective leadership.’’5 Geography made the United States a natural sea power, while successful exploitation of air, space, and U.S. technological prowess made the United States a power in the other commons as well. Yet, globalization, by lowering trade barriers, spreading advanced technologies, and enabling the rise of new economic powers, has given birth to new military powers capable of changing the military dynamics within the global commons, heralding a new era in which unilateral U.S. military power alone will be insufficient to preserve their openness and stability.

To address these changes, the United States must adapt its military and diplomatic approaches to the global commons. While U.S. hard power is already being adjusted to account for these threats, Washington has yet to articulate a diplomatic strategy to sustain access to the commons. Just as the Obama administration has emphasized ‘‘mutual interest’’ in pushing initiatives from nuclear nonproliferation to engaging the Muslim world, Washington should now emphasize the international system’s dependence on the global commons in order to build support for international regimes and agreements that bolster their openness and stability"

Author data

Abraham M. Denmark is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He is the coeditor and coauthor of ‘‘Contested Commons: The Future of American Power in a Multipolar World’’ (CNAS, January 2010). He can be followed on twitter: @AbeDenmark.