This is a draft section for our forthcoming paper on “The Continuing Promise of the Noösphere and Noöpolitik — Twenty Years After.
Republished from Materials for Two Theories: TIMN and STA:C
Notes about the noosphere and noopolitik — #7: new hope for the noosphere and noopolitik — the global commons
UPDATE — May 4, 2018: Here’s my second draft for this section of our forthcoming paper on “The Continuing Promise of the Noösphere and Noöpolitik — Twenty Years After.” I’ve deleted what I originally posted here. This second draft contains considerable new material, but the analytical thrust remains the same.
Thus we’ve noted early cases of NGOs successfully using noopolitik — e.g., the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), a coalition of NGOs that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. And we’ve listed a range of issue areas where state-non-state cooperation can help foster the noosphere and noopolitik: e.g., human-rights, conflict resolution, democracy promotion, and the environment.
To this list, we now add the “global commons” — traditionally, the parts of Planet Earth that fall outside national jurisdictions, and to which all nations have access, such as the high seas, the atmosphere, and outer space. The global commons may turn out to be a pivotal issue area.
While the noosphere and noopolitik are not faring well in the power centers discussed in the prior section, the noosphere concept is progressing better among actors around the world who are concerned about the global commons. This concept is of interest here because it relates closely to the notion of the noosphere. Moreover, actors concerned about the global commons seem naturally attracted to noopolitik.
Indeed, it may well turn out that the noosphere and noopolitik concepts will fare better in the future, the more they are associated with the global-commons concept — and the latter will flourish, the more it is associated with the noosphere and noopolitik. This may be so partly because both the global-commons and noosphere are everywhere viewed as being linked to the biosphere. Recognizing the noosphere’s association with the global commons may then help put noopolitik back on track in various strategic issue areas, despite the negative trends discussed in the prior section.
What makes the global-commons concept potentially pivotal is that it has taken hold from two seemingly contrary directions: One is civilian, arising mainly at the behest of NGOs, IGOs, and other non-state actors who are motivated by environmental and social concerns. The other has been military, motivated by state-centric security interests. Furthermore, while the term “commons” has been used for centuries, the term “global commons” is quite recent. It first appeared in civilian environmental circles — implicitly in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) during 1973-1982, then explicitly in the Brundtland Committee’s report on Our Common Future in 1987. The term spread into military and strategy circles a decade later, notably in the National Defense Strategy document in 2008, then to greater effect in the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2010. Both these civilian and military views were important to President Obama and his Administration. (Among other sources, see Yan, 2012; Kominami, 2012; Ikeshima, 2018)
The “global commons” is thus bracketed by differences in its meanings in environmental science and civil-society circles, on one hand, and on the other, its meaning in military circles. In the past, these different circles rarely interacted; some pro-commons civil-society activists even objected to seeing the term show up in military circles (Bollier, 2010; Morris, 2011). Now, however, as more and more actors recognize the potentially adverse effects of climate change and other global environmental shifts, the views held in these seemingly contrary circles are starting to intersect, as are their calls for reforms and remedies.
In this section, we first discuss perspectives from the environmental science and civil-society circles. Next come military perspectives on the global commons. Finally, we highlight their intersections and the implications for policy and strategy, and particularly for noopolitik.
Environmental science and civil-society perspectives on the global commons:
Among civilians, interest in the global-commons concept comes from two different circles. One consists of scientists and associated actors (international organizations in particular) who are primarily concerned about environmental matters. They have grown into a large, influential circle (or set of circles) and have billions of dollars at their disposal. The other circle consists largely of pro-commons civil-society activists whose agendas include not only environmental issues but also the radical transformation of societies as a whole. This circle is growing around the world too, though in a low-key, low-budget, bottom-up manner.
The two circles have much in common regarding the protection of the global commons. But they are also distinct: The big environmental science circle generally seeks to have government, banking, business, civil-society, and other actors work together to protect the biosphere. This circle tends to lean in progressive liberal internationalist directions. In contrast, the social-activist civil-society circle is decidedly of the Left — but it’s a new kind of Left, for it wants commons-based peer production and other kinds of “commoning” to spread to such an extent that societies experience a phase shift to new commons-based forms of society. This circle has more on its agenda than environmental science and the biosphere.
We discuss each circle in turn, regarding the ways they approach the global commons.
The big science circle: The biggest advances in thinking about the global commons come from scientists and related actors focused on global environmental matters. They have formed into a global circuit of IGOs, NGOs, research centers, private individuals, and government, banking, and business actors — with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) serving as key collective network hubs. These scientists and their cohorts take the biosphere concept seriously (and at times allude to the noosphere or Gaia). Indeed, the GEF (2017, pp. 8-11) proposes to create a grand Movement of the Global Commons that will “develop a compelling story about needs and opportunities for the Global Commons” and engage people “from communities to corporations to cabinets.” (Also see unenvironment.org and thegef.org)
Initially, decades ago, environmental concerns were mainly about specific local matters, such as pollution. Late in the 20th C., after decades of seeing problems worsened by “global forces of consumption, production, and population,” environmentalists realized their challenge was planet-wide, involving what they began calling “the global commons” — “the shared resources that no one owns but all life relies upon” (Levin & Bapna, 2011) As the global commons-concept took hold, mostly after the Brundtland Committee’s report on Our Common Future (1987), its proponents came to identify the high seas, the atmosphere, Antarctica, and outer space as the resource domains of interest. And they did so “guided by the principle of the common heritage of mankind” and a sense of “common responsibilities”. Which makes for considerable overlap with the military view that the global commons consists of four operational domains: sea, air, space, and cyber.
Some proponents have wanted to expand the global-commons concept further. Thus, “Resources of interest or value to the welfare of the community of nations — such as tropical rain forests and biodiversity — have lately been included among the traditional set of global commons as well, while some define the global commons even more broadly, including science, education, information and peace” (UN Task Force, 2013, pp. 5-6). Proponents for including biodiversity often mention preserving the quality of soil and marine conditions. Which would mean expanding the global-commons concept in social directions that are most pronounced within the civil-society circle discussed in the next sub-section.
Throughout, their analyses (notably, Nakicenovic et al., 2016, pp. 16-17) urge viewing the global commons and “the large-scale subsystems of the Earth system — ocean circulations, permafrost, ice sheets, Arctic sea ice, the rainforests and atmospheric circulations” — as a complex system characterized not only by stable equilibria but also by “regime shifts, tipping points, tipping elements, nonlinearities and thresholds” that may experience “bifurcation points” and then “a new equilibrium state” or a sudden collapse. The threat is that “If one system collapses to a new state, it may set up positive feedback loops amplifying the change and triggering changes in other subsystems. This might be termed a “cascading collapse” of key components of the Earth system.” Which, as discussed later, overlaps with how the military has come to view the domains comprising their global commons as a complex interactive system.
Of particular note for the big science circle, Johan Rockström, Director of Sweden’s Stockholm Resilience Center, has provided seminal studies for years about “biosphere interactions” and “planetary life support systems”. He also formulated new concepts about “nine planetary boundaries that provide a safe operating space for humanity”. In his and his colleagues’ view, several boundaries have already been transgressed, and further slippage looms. Accordingly, humanity threatens to cause catastrophes that can overwhelm the biosphere and thus the Anthropocene age, for “The high seas, the atmosphere, the big ice sheets of the Arctic and Antarctica, and the stratosphere — traditionally seen as the Earth’s global commons — are now under suffocating pressure. Yet we all depend on them for our wellbeing” (Rockström. 2017, p. 26). (Also see Rockström. 2009, 2011; Nakicenovic et al., 2016)
As a result, not only further scientific research but also new global perspectives, narratives, organizations, and strategies are needed to assure planetary resilience, sustainability, and stewardship — if possible, to achieve a holistic transformation. According to Rockström and his colleagues, “Governance of the global commons is required to achieve sustainable development and thus human wellbeing. We can no longer focus solely on national priorities” (Rockström, 2011, p. 21). Looking farther out, they (e.g., Nakicenovic et al., 2016) insist that “all nation states have a domestic interest in safeguarding the resilience and stable state of all Global Commons, as this forms a prerequisite for their own future development” (p. 26). Therefore, “Stewardship of the Global Commons in the Anthropocene, with its three central principles of inclusivity, universality and resilience, is an essential prerequisite to guide national and local approaches in support of the Sustainable Development Goals for generations to come” (p. 46).
Rockström (2017, pp. 26-27) goes so far as to predict that, if the right steps could be taken on behalf of the global commons, then “planetary intelligence could emerge on Earth by 2050.” His language sounds much like that of Teilhard and Vernadsky — but falls just short of explicitly mentioning the noosphere:
“Here’s a prediction: planetary intelligence could emerge on Earth by 2050. …
“… planetary intelligence emerges when a species develops the knowledge and power to control a planet’s biosphere. …
“For planetary intelligence to emerge on Earth within three decades we need to change our worldview, our goals and our rules. …
“… we must redefine the global commons. In these new circumstances we can now define them as a resilient and stable planet. That is every child’s birthright, and our common heritage; but it is now at risk. The Anthropocene and the new global commons represent a new worldview — a paradigm shift — as fundamental as Darwin’s theory of evolution or Copernicus’s heliocentricity. …
“If we take the biosphere positive pathway, then the signs are good that we’ll find intelligent life on Earth by 2050.”
As for steps yet to be taken, Rockström (2017) and many of his colleagues believe “We desperately need an effective global system of governance” (p. 25). The concern is that “In a period of increasing interdependence and complexity, global governance remains fragmented, hampered by loud national interests, and unable to address global risks that present non-linear dynamics and repercussions.” What’s needed for the global commons are: new legal norms about planetary boundaries; stronger roles for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP); stronger commitments by “governments, private actors and the international community” to adopt innovations to safeguard the biosphere; along with “a recognition that transformative change requires engagement and mobilization “from below” … endorsed by the population” (Rockström, 2016). And while much work is focused on defining thresholds and rights for using the commons, other work, notably by the Global Thresholds & Allocations Council (GTAC), is focused on defining fair allocation mechanisms, in a “partnership between leading organizations and individuals from science, business, investment, government, and civil society” (From reporting3.org/gtac/).
Again, these sound much like points made by some military proponents of the global commons, as discussed later.
The social activist circle: For the military, the sea was the first global commons. But, for civil-society activists, “the commons” concept originated centuries ago in England to refer to open land shared “in common”. By now, according to pro-commons civil-society theorists and activists, the concept includes not only natural physical commons — land, air, and water, as “gifts of nature” — it also extends to digital commons (online terrain and knowledge). More than that, some activists include social commons — e.g., cooperatives, where creative work amounts to a shared asset. Culture is sometimes viewed as belonging to the commons as well.
Pro-commons proponents in civil-society circles define commons as shared resources, co-governed by a community (users and stakeholders), according to the rules and norms of that community. All three components — resource, community, rules, in other words, the what, the who, and the how — are deemed essential. Together, they mean “the commons” is not just about resources or terrains; it’s about a way of life called “commoning”. Furthermore, an eventual aim of these “commoners” is to create a new “commons sector” alongside but distinct from the established public and private sectors. If/as this develops, a revolutionary societal transformation will occur. Indeed, a goal of some pro-commons theorists and activists is to “build “counter-hegemonic” power through continuous meshworking at all levels” so that “the destructive force of global capital and its predation of the planet and its people can be countered.” (See Bauwens et al., 2017; Bauwens & Ramos, 2018; Ronfeldt, 2012)
Fifty years ago, the commons concept had no clout in advanced societies — especially not after Garrett Hardin famously wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968). Today, however, pro-commons social movements are growing around the world. They were inspired initially by people experiencing the Internet and Web as a kind of commons, even as a harbinger of the noosphere. Then Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990) and her Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 enabled many people to realize, contrary to Hardin and other critics, that common-pool resources can indeed be managed productively. By now, commons movements are slowly, quietly expanding throughout North America, Western Europe, and Scandinavia, gaining inspiration and guidance from a host of new civil-society NGOs, notably the P2P Foundation led by Michel Bauwens, as well as from individual theorists, like David Bollier and Yochai Benkler. In some instances, further impulse comes from Green political parties. In comparison to the big environmental science circle, this is not a hugely influential circle (yet); but it is generating a social movement that is helping raise interest in the global commons and the noosphere.
Much of this innovation is occurring on the Left. German commons advocate Silke Helfrich (quoted in Bollier, 2014) has noted accurately that “commons draw from the best of all political ideologies” — for example, from conservatives, the values of responsibility; from liberals, the values of social equality and justice; from libertarians, the value of individual initiative; and from leftists, the value of limiting the scope of capitalism. Yet this is still largely a set of movements from left-leaning parts of the political spectrum. So far, few conservatives have realized the potential benefits of allowing a commons sector to emerge. Indeed, on the Right, separation from the commons is a central theme — from “America First” to Brexit, the Alternative for Germany, and others.
At first, say two or three decades ago, pro-commons activists focused primarily on local and national matters. But as visions have evolved, more and more activists are redirecting their focus beyond local and national commons toward expansive “global commons” concepts. This turn is well underway. For example, German economist Gerhard Scherhorn (2013) would include in the global commons not only natural resources, but even “employment opportunities, public health systems, educational opportunities, social integration, income and wealth distribution, and communication systems such as the Internet.” A further example is James Quilligan’s analysis, as an international development expert and commons advocate, that,
“While watching markets and states mismanage the world’s cross-boundary problems, it has dawned on many individuals, communities and civil society organizations that the specific objectives we are pursuing — whether they are food, water, clean air, environmental protection, energy, free flow of information, human rights, indigenous people’s rights, or numerous other social concerns — are essentially global commons issues.” (Quilligan, 2008)
Meanwhile, many leftist pro-commons civil-society proponents have sought organizational changes that resemble those from the big science and military circles. For example, James Quilligan proposed “that we would gain considerably more authority and responsibility in meeting these problems by joining together as global commons organizations” (2008). In his view, “The challenge is to assemble international representatives from all regions and sectors to discuss global commons issues in a negotiating format which integrates these three [geosphere, biosphere, noosphere] streams of evolution” (2010). He, like others, has also recommended that local communities of users and producers agree to new kinds of “social charters” and “commons trusts” to assure their hold on commons property. If more and more people do so, then “commons management would be deliberated through local, state, interstate, regional, and global stakeholder discussions” — ultimately leading to systems of “global constitutional governance” that favor the commons (2013). However, an early 2008-2009 to create a Coalition for the Global Commons evidently foundered, and no new formal grand movement has re-emerged since.
In contrast to the big science proponents of the global commons, few leftist civil-society actors are so willing to envisage cooperating with today’s government, banking, and business actors. Yet they do generally want to see shifts to network forms of global governance — to network-based governance systems — for they know that uncertainties about global governance mean difficulties for protecting and preserving the global commons. Indeed, encouraging for us to see, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has remarked that “Right now, the nation-state is no longer a key instrument of change, so we must focus on building transnational open source communities of collective intelligence, i.e. a noopolitik for the noosphere” (Bauwens, 2018).
Military perspectives on the global commons:
The military idea of a commons is uniquely American. It originated from the sea — notably in 1890 when naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote about the sea as “a wide common, over which men may pass in all directions.” Over time, the ensuing construct, “command of the sea,” was expanded, with the identification and inclusion of air and other domains, into “command of the commons” — the construct that prevailed during the mid- and late-20th C. The term “global commons” — hence, “command of the global commons” — arose in U.S. military thinking quite recently, notably with the National Defense Strategy of 2008 and especially the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2010.
In the U.S. view, the global commons contains four military domains: sea (or maritime), air, space, and cyber (five if land were added, by counting Antarctica). What makes them a “global commons” is that they are “areas that belong to no one state and that provide access to much of the globe.” And since no single entity owns or controls them, they become “assets outside national jurisdiction.” Of these military commons, access to and use of the sea domain has been crucial for centuries, air for a century, outer space for about six decades, and cyberspace for about three decades. (See Posen 2003; Jasper, 2010, 2013; Denmark & Mulvenon, 2010; Barrett et al., 2011, p. xvi)
The global commons is thus a multi-domain concept, and many military strategists prefer to view them as a “a complex, interactive system” (Redden & Hughes, 2011, p. 65). Its domains, though not exactly an integrated system, are so interconnected and interdependent that, in operational terms, they function as a whole, not just as an assemblage of parts — thus, “Their value lies in their accessibility, commonality, and ubiquity as a system of systems.” (Barrett et al., 2011, p. 46) Moreover, a weakness or loss in one domain (say, cyberspace) may jeopardize operations in another (say, for an aircraft carrier at sea). Accordingly, “the global commons only functions effectively because each aspect is utilized simultaneously” (Denmark & Mulvenon, 2010, p. 9). With a few word changes, this is not unlike how environmental scientists and civil-society activists view their global commons as a complex adaptive system. (Also see Brimley, 2010)
What makes the military’s global commons strategically important is that they amount to “the underlying infrastructure of the global system … conduits for the free flow of trade, finance, information, people, and technology”(Jasper & Giarra, 2010, p. 2). Our world is so intricately connected across these four domains that “dependable access to the commons is the backbone of the international economy and political order, benefiting the global community in ways that few appreciate or realize.” (Denmark & Mulvenon, 2010, p. 1) Thus, as often pointed out, these commons should be treated as “global public goods” and “global common goods”. It’s even been said —perhaps in an overstated manner — that “every person’s fate [is] tethered to the commons” (Cronin, 2010, p. ix). (Also see Brimley et al., 2008; Edelman, 2010)
Because of the nature of America’s values and interests, the U.S. military has had strategic interests, especially since the end of World War II and throughout the Cold War, in assuring that U.S. military capabilities suffice to keep these commons openly accessible and usable by all actors, especially our allies and partners. What began as “freedom of the seas” evolved into favoring freedom in all the commons — most obviously for vessels, goods, and people, but also to spread neo-liberal values and ideas about openness, freedom, and democracy around the world. U.S. strategy for the global commons thus favored inclusion, not exclusion. All quite reflective of what Teilhard might have recommended, though it’s doubtful that military strategists were thinking about noosphere construction at the time. (See Flournoy & Brimley, 2009)
In that period, U.S. presence in the global commons was so powerful, pervasive, and singular that military strategists commended our primacy, superiority, dominance, and/or hegemony as being of enormous benefit — e.g., as “the key military enabler of the U.S. global power position” (Posen, 2003, p.8 ), “an important enabler of globalization” (Posen, 2007, p. 563), “intrinsic to safeguarding national territory and economic interests” (Jasper and Giarra, 2010, p. 5), as well as “a source of US primacy and also a global public good that supported general acceptance of the unipolar world order” (Edelman, 2010, p. 77). Indeed, most of this has been true, especially in light of the opportunities that U.S. command of the commons provided for acquiring transit rights and forward bases that compounded the ability to operate as a global power and contain the ambitions of adversaries.
Today, however, as the world has become even more globalized and multipolar, the era of the United States as guarantor of the global commons looks increasingly compromised, even jeopardized. As often noted, all four domains have become congested, competitive, and contested; contact in any domain often risks confrontation now. The challenges are conceptual and political as well as military and technological, for apart from NATO, many nations — notably China and Russia — disagree with U.S. views that a “global commons” really exists and the world benefits from U.S. maintenance of it. Such states have laid claims to nearby sea and air spaces, objected to treating outer space as a commons, and/or denied letting cyberspace be a commons, instead asserting sovereignty over portions of it — thereby expanding their security perimeters into all domains. One nation in particular, China, has ambitious plans to extend its political, economic, and military reach abroad, notably via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in ways that are sure to create problems in all domains of the global commons, alarming India above all. Other new challenges for the commons come from armed non-state actors — pirates, smugglers, and terrorists. Meanwhile, most all actors, state and non-state, are strengthening their capacities for access-and-area denial by acquiring advanced weapons and communications systems — a lesson they’ve learned from watching recent wars and conflict and seeing “how much U.S. power projection has depended on its dominant access to and use of the global commons” (Denmark & Mulvenon, 2010, p. 15). (Also see Brimley, 2010)
No wonder lawfare expert Craig Allen cautioned a decade ago (2007, pp. 15, 18) “that an aggressive command of the commons posture may backfire and motivate other States to undertake measures to reduce the would-be commander’s access or transit rights” — for “claims to a “command of the commons” seem unnecessarily provocative.” No wonder defense analyst Patrick Cronin (2010, p. ix) wrote a few years later that “Securing freedom in the global commons may be the signal security challenge of the twenty-first century.” No wonder moreover that former Secretary of State George Shultz (2017) warned recently, as he has for many years, of a looming “breakdown of the global commons” — for “that commons is now at risk everywhere, and in many places it no longer really exists.”
Thus, even though U.S. military strategists might wish to continue exercising, if not imposing, a unilateral U.S. role in the global commons, the time for that appears to be passing. A very uncertain new era is emerging. Many analysts still recognize the value of the global commons for America’s global power and influence, but they also increasingly see that new conceptual and organizational approaches are needed to protect and preserve its value. As one report put it, in the heyday of such analysis during the Obama administration:
“These trends are … harbingers of a future strategic environment in which America’s role as an arbiter or guarantor of stability within the global commons will become increasingly complicated and contested. If this assessment is true, then a foundational assumption on which every post-Cold War national security strategy has rested — uncontested access to and stability within the global commons — will begin to erode.” (Flournoy & Brimley, 2009)
The disposition of the Trump administration toward the global-commons concept is far from clear. But in military circles, it’s still alive. In late 2016, the Pentagon superseded its years-old Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept with the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), enshrining the concept in the title. Whereas ASB focused on defeating an adversary’s anti-access//area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, JAM-GC lays out a much broader approach — a “unifying framework” — for assuring freedom of action in all five warfighting domains (including land). Accordingly, “JAM-GC acknowledges that “access” to the global commons is vital to U.S. national interests, both as an end in itself and as a means to projecting military force into hostile territory.” Moreover, besides military elements, JAM-GC recognizes that “other elements of national power — that is, a whole-of-government and coalition approach — including diplomatic, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement should also be well integrated with joint force operations.” This document is supposed to help determine strategy and doctrine for the rest of this decade and into the next. (Hutchens et al., 2017, pp. 137, 138, 139)
However, following the change of administrations, the Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (DOD, 2018) never mentions the “global commons” per se, referring only to “common domains” in a couple spots. Thus, “Ensuring common domains remain open and free” is in the list of defense objectives (p. 4). And — to Beijing’s subsequent rebuke — the document states that “We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains” (p. 9). At least the global-commons concept lingers here by implication — but as we note below, challenges have begun to loom from outside military circles.
Against this background, analyses about how to continue preserving and protecting the global commons to the benefit of U.S. military and security interests now mostly conclude with calls for negotiating the creation of new multilateral governance regimes, international agreements, and norms of behavior to assure the openness of the commons. Most analysts would prefer that these efforts reflect U.S. leadership, for it’s a widely held view that “America must take a leadership role to ensure that access to the global commons remains a public good” (Brimley et al., 2008, p. 15). But, at this point, the United States is not in a position to impose such regimes, nor would it want to use hard power to do so. It’s become a matter of having to share responsibility and work with allies and partners, in diplomatic soft-power ways akin to noopolitik.
The challenge is that efforts to establish governance regimes for the global commons have to involve not only other countries’ militaries (e.g., NATO) but also various public and private actors. That can result in complex network cooperation and coordination problems. As Jasper & Giarra (2010, p. 3)observe,
“It is misleading to conceptualize or deal with the interests of stakeholders in the global commons independently, that is, to differentiate between the military, civil, or commercial spheres, or to segregate military service roles. This is because the domains of the commons are inherently interwoven — military maritime, space, aerospace, and cyberspace operations overlap with civilian and commercial activities — and because the networks that enable operations or activities in the various overlapping sectors are themselves threaded together.”
Denmark & Mulvenon (2010, p. 2) further clarify the challenge by concluding that “the United States should renew its commitment to the global commons by pursuing three mutually supporting objectives:
“• Build global regimes: America should work with the international community, including allies, friends, and potential adversaries, to develop international agreements and regimes that preserve the openness of the global commons.
“• Engage pivotal actors: The United States should identify and build capacities of states and non- state actors that have the will and ability to responsibly protect and sustain the openness of the global commons.
“• Re-shape American hard power to defend the contested commons: The Pentagon should develop capabilities to defend and sustain the global commons, preserve its military freedom of action in commons that are contested, and cultivate capabilities that will enable effective military operations when a commons is unusable or inaccessible.”
Of potential interest here, their first two recommendations are commonly found not only in military circles but also in civilian circles concerned about the global commons, as discussed above. Variants of their third point also appear in civilian circles, but without the bit about reshaping hard power — unless that reshaping were interpreted to mean a conversion into soft-power measures.
By some accounts, there are also serious organizational challenges at home. Several reports during 2010-2011 advised strategists and planners to revamp their approach to the global commons. One proposed to “depart from the domain-centric mindset” and “employ a holistic approach that breaks down domain stovepipes and treats the global commons not as a set of distinct geographies, but rather as a complex, interactive system” (Redden & Hughes, 2011, p. 65). Another, to reform our “decentralized system of responsibility, in which dozens of agencies and departments are charged with securing specific aspects of the air commons” (Denmark & Mulvenon, 2010, p. 23). Yet another, to overcome “inadequate governance, insufficient norms and regulations, a lack of verification measures to ensure compliance, and more often than not ineffective mechanisms for enforcement” (Barrett et al., 2011, xvii). We’ve found no indications that these organizational challenges no longer exist at home.
So, what we can start to say here is that U.S. military perspectives on the global commons have evolved in directions we’ve been forecasting about the noosphere and noopolitik. What may make this more interesting is that the U.S. military and Department of Defense have lately determined that climate change is real, and that it has potentially threatening security and military implications for the global commons, not to mention other matters. It’s deemed a “threat multiplier” and “an accelerant of instability or conflict”. Key concerns include ways that climate change may affect the military’s roles in humanitarian and disaster relief missions — roles that may require accessing and using all the commons quickly and efficiently. (La Shier & Stanish, 2017)
However, we may have to remain patient about our hopes that positive attention to the global commons will favor a turn to noopolitik anytime soon. For one matter, as pointed out for years, “Washington has yet to articulate a diplomatic strategy to sustain access to the commons.” (Denmark, 2010, p. 166) Making matters worse, the current administration and its attendant policymakers and strategists have so far shown no interest in the global-commons concept. To the contrary, one administration appointee, National Space Council director Scott Pace, recently disparaged it in harsh dismissive terms:
“Finally, many of you have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating: outer space is not a “global commons,” not the “common heritage of mankind,” not “res communis,” nor is it a public good. These concepts are not part of the Outer Space Treaty, and the United States has consistently taken the position that these ideas do not describe the legal status of outer space. To quote again from a U.S. statement at the 2017 COPUOS Legal Subcommittee, reference to these concepts is more distracting than it is helpful. To unlock the promise of space, to expand the economic sphere of human activity beyond the Earth, requires that we not constrain ourselves with legal constructs that do not apply to space.” (Pace, 2017)
Could this be a position that the current administration will extend to the other domains? Will it be touted as another purported repudiation of Obama (even though prior administrations also favored the American role in nurturing the commons)? Too soon to tell. But if so, it augurs a return to a neo-mercantilist approach to taking hold of territories and resources in all four domains, a denial that the global-commons concept has validity or legality, the alienation of the pro-commons environmental science and civil-society movements, a further repudiation of U.S. allies and partners, and new difficulty if not confrontation with China as it expands its global reach to all domains.
If the current White House does indeed go in this direction, it will interrupt America’s long positive progression from supporting freedom of the seas to securing the global commons. Instead, it will mean an inadvisable return to realpolitik, and a further decline in America’s capacity for public diplomacy. We will have to put our hopes for the noosphere and noopolitik on hold for a few years.
Intersecting implications — a new combination of forces for the future?
Comparing the views held in civilian and military circles about the global commons leads to noticing significant overlaps and intersections:
• All their definitions overlap as to the meaning of “global commons” — essentially, material and immaterial terrains and/or resources located outside national jurisdictions, tantamount to global public goods, thus available for mutual sharing and governance.
• All view the global commons as a set of interconnected interdependent domains that, together, comprise a complex interactive if not adaptive system, or system of systems, that girds Planet Earth.
• All see crucial interests in protecting and preserving the global commons, some for humanity’s sake, others more for security’s sake. At the same time, all detect that the global commons are under increasing pressures, if not threats, as a result of people’s behaviors of one kind or another.
• All believe that current governance regimes are inadequate for preserving and protecting the global commons, and that work is urgently needed to create new global governance regimes, associations, and frameworks that are multilateral in myriad senses — they’re inter-governmental, state–non-state, public-private, IGO-NGO, civil-military, local-global, and/or combine hierarchical and networked forms of governance — for purposes that include mutual stewardship and shared responsibility.
• All regard the global commons as strategic resources and/or assets, essential factors for humanity’s future, around which grand strategies should be formulated, at least in part. For military as well as civilian actors, a strategy based on applying soft-power, not hard-power, is considered the way to pursue whatever grand strategy is proposed — in other words, noopolitik, not realpolitik.
There’s something else which all global-commons proponents seem to agree deserves greater attention: sensors to detect and monitor what’s transpiring throughout the global commons. This isn’t missing from current discussions, but it’s rarely highlighted as a crucial matter, especially compared to the attention devoted to organizational matters. Yet the two matters are related — networked sensor arrays and “sensory organizations” look to be part of what’s urgently needed, for social as well as scientific monitoring, including to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.
In addition to these overlaps and intersections, two significant differences stand out between civilian and military intentions toward the global commons:
• The military’s intentions are focused on domain security matters; they say nothing, or very little, about societal matters. In contrast, the civilian circles discussed above do intend to transform societies, in order to make them better suited to living with, and from, the global commons. The big environmental science circle has issued proposals for myriad social, economic, and political reforms, some quite radical. The leftist civil-society social-activist circle foresees societies being radically transformed, entering a next phase of social evolution, as a result of pro-commons forces.
• Both military and civilian proponents of the global commons talk about the importance of “hegemony” — but in opposite ways. An oft-mentioned goal of the military has been hegemonic command of the global commons (though less so now). In contrast, an oft-mentioned goal of civil-society commoners is “counter-hegemonic power” — seeing pro-commons forces grow so strong that they can counter the hegemonic power of today’s established public and private sectors, indeed of capitalism itself. This makes it difficult to imagine today’s pro-commons social activists relating well to today’s global-commons military strategists. But the day may come, especially if/as climate change and its effects become a mutual concern.
These findings support our up-front observation that the noosphere and noopolitik concepts will fare better in the future, the more they are associated with the global-commons concept — and the latter will flourish, the more it is associated with the noosphere and noopolitik. This may be so partly because both the global-commons and noosphere are everywhere viewed as linked to the biosphere. Recognizing the noosphere’s association with the global commons may then help put noopolitik back on track in various strategic issue areas.
True as that may be, optimism and enthusiasm are barely warranted right now. Looking ahead with the current political environment in mind — especially the orientations of today’s leaders in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow — what may be most in need of near-term protection and preservation are not so much the global commons and their domains per se, but rather the very concept itself — “global commons”. The current administration in Washington seems poised to deny and disparage this long-standing strategic concept — hopefully not, but if so, it could play into the hands of Beijing and Moscow, who have never accepted the concept and would rather pursue their grand strategies without it. Leadership on behalf of the global commons — and thus the prospects for the noosphere and noopolitik — would then fall more than ever to the mostly non-state circles we identified earlier.
David Ronfeldt: Professional status: retired. Fields: first 20 years, U.S.-Latin American security issues (esp. Mexico, Cuba); last 15 years, worldwide implications of the information revolution (cyberocracy, cyberwar, netwar, swarming, noopolitik, the nexus-state). Goals: finish “STA:C” framework about how people think; and finish “TIMN” framework about social evolution (past, present, future). Publications: mostly online at rand.org and firstmonday.org.