Does technology kill distance? So often we hear it. The cumulative message of our news cycle, of debate about foreign and defence policy, is the fear that the global spread of ideas, capital, weapons and people makes our world ever more dangerous.
We see conflict and disorder in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and intensifying rivalries in East Asia, and fear that the trouble will strike us deadly blows in our heartlands.
We hear the idea often from national security authorities as well as leaders of universities and business. The idea has gotten so strong that it makes the long, dangerous and unpredictable contest with the Soviet Union seem simple, and the collapse of that heavily armed totalitarian opponent inconsequential.
The former head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, warns of a ‘much flatter’, and therefore ‘more dangerous’ world. The former Chief of Defence Staff, David Richards, remarks that ‘the world today is not a safer place and the distinction between home and abroad is strategically obsolete.’ The Investor’s Business Daily claims that ‘It’s hard to remember a time of greater danger for the world than today.’ So much for the Cold War.
So what exactly is Globalism? In the field of security, ‘Globalists’ often tell us that technology has reduced the world into a fragile and dangerous place. A revolution in information, communication and technology, they say, has reduced the transaction costs of interaction over space and linked the world to the point where it has collapsed distance, creating ‘offence dominance’ and making the United States and its allies increasingly vulnerable to violent threats. Human inventions create new pathways, from cheap travel to the internet to instant communications. Those pathways, people fear, convey terrors that once seemed far away. For political scientist Robert Keohane, the barrier effects of distance are now ‘thoroughly obsolete’.
Today’s predators, Globalists fear, have easy access, laying waste to our cities through nuclear terrorism or an ‘electronic Pearl Harbour’, using the web to learn the dark arts of mass destruction and networking worldwide.
On the flip side of the coin, this is an ideology of power as well as weakness. Distance-destroying technology, some policymakers hope, makes waging war easier, and reinforces the West’s capacity to project power and tame a chaotic world back into order.
All of this matters: we wage wars in the name of combating borderless enemies, our strategic documents define our security interests as universal, and the fear that globalisation makes us uniquely vulnerable prompts ever more radical proposals. Only recently, some congressmen proposed to give the President an ‘internet kill switch.’ The ultimate logic of such a world view is perpetual war, for perpetual peace.
But how true is it? Of course, on a banal technical level it must be true. Technology can and does compress physical space. People couldn’t instantly text each other, or launch intercontinental missile strikes, or hijack planes before those things existed. But too often, we confuse and conflate physical and strategic space. I argue that technology may accelerate movement and compress physical space. But it does not necessarily shrink strategic space, the ability to project power affordably across the earth.
Anxiety about the shrinking world is actually old, and can be traced well before the smart-phone and the cheap flight. It grew out of the rapid changes wrought by the industrial revolution, as strategic minds wondered about the transformations that would come with the telegraph, the railway and the airplane. George Orwell grew sick of the idea during World War II. And it lives on, reinvented in the wake of every shock. It makes the United States, what should be the most secure state in history, feel perpetually insecure, haunted by rumours of chain reactions and falling dominoes.
The Global Village Myth takes aim at Globalism, or the idea of the ‘death of distance’ in the world of conflict. And it takes aim at the dangerous policies it tends towards. I argue that even in a supposedly ‘globalised’ world, distance matters.
I grew suspicious of ‘Globalism’, this brew of claims, myths and images, for several reasons. First, it is often uttered as a statement of faith, assuming what it should prove. A glance at the world suggests that exporting violence effectively might be getting harder, not easier. Catastrophic violence by non-state armed groups on western soil is considerably less frequent, and less easy, than it was decades ago. And western faith in the power of its own immaculate technology is often frustrated by determined enemies, from Kosovo to Iraq.
Second, it seems naive to assume that globalisation just happens mechanically, independent of politics, as a stateless force. Or in the fatalistic words of Anthony Lake, former National Security Advisor to President Bill Clinton, ‘globalisation is like the weather: it simply is.’
Great powers may fancy that the global strategic orders they dominate are
the natural order of things, preordained and independent of politics. But historically, such orders with their trading protocols and monetary regimes, sea lanes, commercial routes and control of raw materials, are designed and imposed by the strong. In the world of
security, as in the world of economics, globalisation is ‘a choice, not a fact’. This means that open pathways can be narrowed, or closed down. Even the hunted Osama Bin Laden didn’t dare to use the internet himself. Global capitalism, and those who would subvert it, depend on the infrastructure and functions provided by the state, the airports, seaports, or telecommunication arteries of transport and production.
Above all, Globalism is suspicious because of the disastrous wars waged in its name. Iraq and Afghanistan were fought to combat ‘borderless’ enemies in a shrinking world, in the belief that our security interests are now universal, and from the confidence that we
can project power effectively and export our institutions at will. Recall how the Libyan intervention was justified and enacted, as a move to arrest insecurity in a fragile global world. Again, the results have been disappointing. An idea that in practice has
results that are uniformly bad is probably a bad idea. The spread of torture, the empowerment of an imperial presidency, and unchecked state surveillance were also the dividends of the myth.
My book takes the argument into three areas which should be an ‘easy test’ for the theory, where Globalism should perform well: ‘Netwar’ (or war by ‘global guerrillas’ like Al Qaeda), amphibious conquest (or the attempt to invade from water to land, a kind of conflict that pits technology against terrain), and new disruptive instruments, such as cyberwar and ‘drones.’
In all three cases, it turns out that Globalism badly overstates the death of distance. Technologies are often double-edged in their functions. The state intrudes to reinvent and stretch the spaces over which people fight, and war itself remains a hard slog. Its skills must be learnt through experience, through intimacy and under fire.
As British troops return from a tragic struggle to project power into the Hindu Kush, and as we debate once again our security interests and level of power, it would be wise to note that we are less powerful, but more secure, than we think.
Patrick Porter is Academic Director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter and author of The Global Village Myth.