The Most Perilous Time Ever in Human History
When Globalization Fails: The Rise and Fall of Pax Americana. James MacDonald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power. Patrick Porter. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2015.
A Dangerous World?: Threat Perception and U.S. National Security. Christopher Preble and John Mueller, eds. Washington DC: CATO Institute, 2014.
The new century is full of rapid change. It is complex. It is more dangerous than ever before. Such is the conventional wisdom that we hear from political leaders and senior military officers, we read from scholars and policy experts, and is repeated unthinkingly in the media for the benefit of the world. But what is it about the twenty-first century that makes things so different from the past, so much more challenging and threatening? A single answer regularly floats to the surface: globalization.
Globalization has many proponents and describers. From Tom Friedman’s favorite cab drivers to noted international relations scholars, we hear about how the economics of our times make things different than before. These differences are frequently described as making things more difficult or more dangerous for governments and citizens who are trying to navigate such a world. Communication is faster, so threats transmit across the world more quickly. Travel is easier and geography doesn’t matter anymore, so physical threats will find their way to our doorsteps with blinding speed. The world is a more prosperous, but a more dangerous place. But is it true? Three new books look at the subject and can help inform our discussions and debates over the matter. They all view the subject through a different prism and as such they point us to interesting questions that challenge this conventional wisdom.
Economics and Security
Alfred Thayer Mahan is best know for the lessons we are taught about battleships and sea power. However, beyond the caricature and lecture notes about the navalist and strategist, he wrote quite a bit about relationships between nations and about geo-politics. In his book Retrospect and Prospect he explained that the interactions between countries are governed by three elements of power: economic/commercial, diplomatic/political, and military capability/strength. Today’s discussion of the dangers of the globalized world seem to commonly focus on the military dangers and the political complexity, but make a conflicted and potentially perilous assumption about economics. James MacDonald’s book When Globalization Fails: The Rise and Fall of Pax Americana offers readers a chance to question those assumptions about our economic reality, and to consider a broader understanding of national policy in the economics of globalization.
The interplay between politics and economics rarely enters into the discussion of today’s challenges or dangers. But it should. Whether known as “The Walmart Effect” or “The Big Mac Thesis,” there is a common shibboleth that modern capitalist economies will naturally work together and cooperate. We are told, for example, that because the Chinese and American economies are so intertwined it is all but impossible for the two nations to come into military conflict with one another. James MacDonald offers readers a history of the economic elements of globalization which goes a long way toward pointing out the opposite. Beginning in the late 19th century, when the world experienced increased globalization, he traces the history of commerce and conflict through the 20th century and into the present day. In doing so he demonstrates that the economic and financial choices which countries make are rarely governed by the rationalism and logic which economists use as the foundation of the their analysis.
…economic competition between countries that should have been cooperating led to a century of the largest wars the world had ever seen.
In clear and relatively simple narrative, MacDonald relates how economic competition between countries that should have been cooperating led to a century of the largest wars the world had ever seen. Under MacDonald’s tutelage our surface level knowledge of the economics of the First and Second World Wars is expanded to include a better understanding of credit markets, tariffs and import controls, and conflicts between countries who were ostensibly friends. The quest for raw materials and markets, as well as the domestic desire for self-sufficiency and protectionism versus the genuine pursuit of open and free trade, don’t seem to care about historic alliances or politically compatible systems of government. While financial and commercial considerations commonly drove countries toward conflict, MacDonald also shows how they created opportunities for peace; opportunities that were all too frequently ignored.
It appears, from MacDonald’s history, that globalized economics can have a calming effect and can help encourage peace. Notice the repeated use of the word “can.” He also demonstrates quite clearly that those effects do not occur naturally or systematically. Instead they appear only as the result of conscious choices, cooperation and compromise between governments, and focused leadership. Those choices, cooperation, and leadership are what stitch together the seam between economics and politics. As the economics of globalization give way to the political theory and diplomatic relationships involved, Patrick Porter’s new book The Global Village Myth: Distance, Water, and the Limits of Power offers a stunning and smart assessment of globalization’s impact on international security.
The Perils of the Globalist Mindset
Porter sets out to examine what the political, military, and strategic implications of globalization really are. He identifies globalization as a legitimate economic phenomenon and then illuminates the growth of “globalism” as political theory that is connected to it. He describes the globalism ideal as the policy choices made by those who genuinely believe that today’s speed of communication and rapidly advancing technology increase danger across the globe in a new and extreme way and make geography irrelevant. He tells us that, “in these categorical and melodramatic terms, globalists prophecy a new era, arguing for a change so profound as to alter the very scope and nature of security.” (p. 13)
The Global Village Myth’s greatest strength is the way Porter lays out the history of globalist thinking and defines the assumptions at its foundation. Drawing from past thinkers Angell, Kennan, Morgenthau and more, he looks to Kagan, Rice, and Clarke in the present day. He draws the intellectual connections between those who advanced the globalist ideals and those who disputed them. As he describes the development of globalist thinking from the inter-war years through to the modern day the reader can’t help but notice how many of these assumptions conflict with the economic history offered by MacDonald. Instead, Porter demonstrates how they rely on faith in theory and future projection as opposed to realistic study of past human experience. Porter chronicles the intellectual, academic, and practical development of the political ideals of globalism with clear and revealing prose built upon an impressive depth of research. He then challenges three specific areas where globalists make extreme assertions of insecurity and danger: the rise of Al-Qaeda, the threat of mainland China invading Taiwan, and the perils of cyber-war and drones. In each of these studies he shows how the severe claims of some globalists fail to hold up to critical scrutiny.
Porter chronicles the intellectual, academic, and practical development of the political ideals of globalism with clear and revealing prose built upon an impressive depth of research.
Porter lays out a well reasoned and exhaustively documented case that today’s changes in the character of conflict, new technology and 21st century political developments, don’t inescapably make things more dangerous or insecure. He shows that the world is still quite large and geography does still matter. He shows that while advances in information technology and globalization create opportunities for the rise of non-state actors and the embrace of hybrid tactics by antagonistic nation-states, it also correspondingly increases our ability to collect intelligence and to respond to those dangers, whether diplomatically controlling escalation or responding with our own military strength. Porter makes a compelling argument the United States simply needs to take advantage of its own strengths while learning to identify and confront its opponents’ weaknesses; whether diplomatic, economic or military.
Evaluating the Threats
Identifying those areas of strength and weakness requires analytical thought and the willingness to make unbiased assessments. Christopher Preble and John Mueller’s edited collection A Dangerous World? offers an intriguing series of essays that examine the threats faced by the modern world. Published by the CATO Institute, the book offers delightfully contrarian views of many of the issues that rise out of our national security discussions. Preble and Mueller state in their introduction that the essays “seek to put today’s perceived threats and dangers in full context and consider as well those that no longer loom. Together, they chip away at the common perception that U.S. national security is severely threatened and getting worse.”
The chapters of A Dangerous World? address a multitude of perceived threats and the admission of some very real challenges. Austin Long’s chapter on confronting substate threats furthers the examination of Al Qaeda which Porter tackled one of his chapters. Long creates a useful taxonomy as a baseline to help build responses to them. His contention that the perils introduced by rebels, terrorists, and bandits are something that should be managed, but that cannot really be eliminated, is well supported by the long history of irregular warfare and international crime. His examination of the subject reinforces the importance of defining the threats and setting priorities when confronting the global hazards of non-state actors. The other chapters range the spectrum of issues involved in economic, political, and military power which Mahan suggested a century ago. Essayists discuss balancing our view of the hazards posed by a rising China, making a fresh assessment of American dominance of the global commons, and rethinking the economic impacts of globalized trade.
…perils introduced by rebels, terrorists, and bandits are something that should be managed, but that cannot really be eliminated, is well supported by the long history of irregular warfare and international crime.
In the final section of the book Preble and Muller have included essays on how and why threat inflation seems to be such a recurring part of American foreign policy. Christopher Fettweis offers an interesting survey of how faith in certain American ideologies, as opposed to rational study and logical conclusion, drive collective behaviors. He illuminates the historical roots of American fear of the “dangerous” outside world and demonstrates some of the ways that fear has impacted policy. He also examines how Americans have come to these beliefs, including the roles of elites and politicians in how we view our security. His goal, which is one that all strategists should aspire to, is “the task of inspiring gradual improvement in U.S. foreign policy performance.”
It is likely that readers won’t agree with some, or even most, of the chapters presented by Preble and Mueller. However, this is a book that should make the reader think. The ideas discussed compel us to reassess some of our assumptions. Even if that reassessment doesn’t bring us entirely to the positions that some of the authors stake out, the process will greatly benefit our strategic outlook and policy development. As these essays remind us, overreaction to threats and risk can be just as dangerous in the globalized world as under-reaction.
Globalization and Risk
These books offer a starting point for challenging many of the assumptions in today’s national security discussions. As with most books, there are areas that each of them could have been improved. MacDonald remains moored in the secondary literature, as compared to some of the essays in Preble and Mueller which at times get mired in social science theory. Since the first is a product of the financial industry, and the second a collected academic work, that is to be expected and doesn’t really hurt the intent of either book. None of the books does a particularly good job of laying out a convincing way ahead. MacDonald asks important questions in his conclusion, questions that are vital to finding the balance between economics and politics in the future. However, he proposes little of practical value to help us begin answering his questions. Porter makes more of an effort to offer a perspective on how his observations can impact the future of strategy, but the reader is left skipping across the wave-tops and wanting more. Preble and Mueller make no attempt to tie together the observations made by their contributors with a conclusion, instead allowing the individual subjects to stand on their own.
The world is a dangerous place. But that truth is as historic as it is futurist. From the pages of Thucydides and Thomas Hobbes, among others, we have seen that the world has long been a dangerous and brutish place. In the 21st century we hear the refrain that things are different now, that there are greater threats than ever before. But we rarely hear proof beyond our increased awareness from the twenty-four hour news cycle. With the proclamations of danger come a great deal of hand wringing and the potential for overreaction in policy and strategy. Taking a step back to make a clear-eyed assessment is part and parcel of a strategist’s responsibility. In doing so, we not only challenge underlying assumptions in a healthy discourse but we also begin to realize the threats and challenges our opponents and competitors face. These are just as important as our own threat perception.
The world is a dangerous place. But that truth is as historic as it is futurist. From the pages of Thucydides and Thomas Hobbes, among others, we have seen that the world has long been a dangerous and brutish place.
Globalization is real, and it plays a vital role in the world today. However, its existence is not prima facie evidence of violence and danger. It also offers opportunities for greater security and increased peace. Each of these books offers, in different ways, the notion that balancing the risks and the possibilities of globalization requires reasoned study, thoughtful strategy, and leadership.
BJ Armstrong is a naval officer and researcher with the Laughton Naval History Unit in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. He is editor of the “21st Century Foundations” series from the Naval Institute Press, which includes his book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era.” The opinions expressed are provided in his personal and academic capacity.
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