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Strategy, Geometry. Whatever.

September 20, 2011

By now, everyone has read Whither the Commons? Choosing Security Over Control, right? If you didn’t, and relied solely on my summary and accompanying editorial, then caveat lector. No, in all seriousness I think I presented it well; it’s just worth reading in its entirety. I got a lot of positive feedback on yesterday’s post—and some new followers on twitter—but want to remind everyone that positive feedback should be reserved for the authors, not me. That plea stands in light of what you’re about to read—my criticisms of the paper.

I don’t want to leave everyone with the impression that I swallowed the paper like a glass of 18 yr old single malt—smooth and without question—because it’s not perfect (unlike scotch). The first problem is methodological. Lalwani and Shifrinson chose to restrict their analysis to the maritime commons and do not specify how a scaled back strategy for command of the commons works in the other commons—air, space, and cyber. The reader is left to assume alternative approaches to securing these other commons would closely resemble their control approach to the maritime commons. The second problem is epistemological.* The paper’s realist framework—in the sense that rational and interest maximizing states are the only actors that matter—neglects the social experience of state behavior and the diffusion of power among societies and non-state actors. The last problem is political. This criticism is not directed so much at the argument itself as it is at the political obstacles to implementing the paper’s recommendations. Such a shift in strategy will require a Herculean effort in order to overcome America’s own perceptions (and interests) of its role as the indispensable nation. We’ll call this the “We’re #1 and if we’re not, then we’re effed” mentality.


The paper only examines the maritime commons; it does not evaluate air, space, or cyber domains. The authors’ argument for doing so, laid out in the beginning, is compelling and makes sense. In short, the authors limit their scope because of (1) the centrality of maritime commons to international trade; (2) U.S. dependence on maritime commons for economic security and power projection; and (3) the increasing contestation of the maritime commons by state and non-state actors. By the way, this critique isn’t really a critique, more like food for thought.

A security of the commons approach a does not easily translate into the other global commons, particularly cyber. How exactly does the U.S. rely on regional partners to maintain the freedom of the cyber commons? The very idea of the cyber domain broken down into regions does not seem to accord with reality. After all, cyber connects everyone, everywhere, all the time. And what about the space commons? How comfortable is the United States relying on China or Russia to maintain freedom of access to the space commons, particularly given U.S. reliance on satellites and the gravity of the threat posed by intercontinental ballistic missiles?

I do not believe that the U.S. is ready to cede control of the space and cyber commons. Moreover, I’m not even sure that we should. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the concept of securing the space and cyber commons; my thoughts are not fully formed and I’m open to being convinced one way or the other. Cyber, I do think, represents the toughest nut to crack though. Having engaged in multiple discussions on the subject with my friend Gulliver (@InkSptsGulliver), securitizing the cyber domain, given the extent and nature of the private sector’s involvement in it, can be seen as the beginning of a slippery slope that ends in the securitization of fat kids and pets.

If the United States is not prepared to cede control of the space and cyber commons, that’s okay, but then it should be prepared to cede control of the air and maritime commons, those areas where we can accept more risk. Thus, the United States will be able to reduce overall defense expenditures or at the very least keep them constant. Such an approach, choosing to reduce force posture in one area (maritime) in favor of another (space, cyber) is exactly how strategy is supposed to work. The strategic process is half the battle. Let’s see if the boys and girls in the White House, Capitol Hill, and the Pentagon can go do it. Holding my breath in 3…2…1.


The security of the commons approach requires that regional partners and allies secure the commons in their immediate neighborhoods. The U.S. will necessarily cede some relative power to these states. Thus, the U.S. will want these partners to largely share our interests. In East Asia, for example, the U.S. would expect and prefer that Japan provide security for the commons, rather than China. This case exposes the limits of the security approach.

Can anyone imagine a world where China or South Korea willingly stands by and watches Japan rebuild its navy? Japan’s imperial treatment of both the Chinese and the Koreans during the 1930s and 40s certainly hasn’t been forgotten in Beijing or Seoul. The security of the commons approach neglects to account for the social experience and human perceptions that shape state behavior. As an aside, this is ultimately what prevents me from claiming full-fledged membership in the realist school—it does not allow for the social, human component that impacts international politics in unpredictable and, dare I say, irrational ways.

The other problem is that the paper neglects the power of societies and non-state actors. Lalwani and Shifrinson dismiss non-state actors as a non-factor. While I believe this dismissal is warranted from a military perspective, I’m not so quick to dismiss their power to shape international politics, particularly as it relates to narratives, ideas, and information. While I disagree vehemently with Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s (@SlaughterAM) notions of sovereignty, her piece in yesterday’s The Atlantic was excellent, particularly her discussion of complexity theory and the power of social forces. (For a solid rebuttal, see my man Dan Trombly @stcolumbia.) Lalwani and Shifrinson do not account for these things at all. Like any good realist, I bestow state actors the prominence they rightly deserve in international relations, but I also at least recognize the increasing power of social forces.

A few months ago, I rhetorically asked on Twitter why U.S. policymakers continue to view Russia or China as a threat. My mother’s response—yes, my mother is on Twitter (I can’t believe I’m doing this… @ruemom) and she responds to her eldest son’s liberalism with ice cold neoconservatism**—was perfect. Because they are. Now, my mom has an epic 31 year hitting streak of dropping knowledge on me, no surprises there. Little did I know—as my good friend Erin Simpson (@charlie_simpson) pointed out—that she was actually a constructivist.


The final problem—and this one concerns implementation and not the argument itself—is political. As one of the panelists during the paper’s presentation last week pointed out, the United States has spent the last twenty years convincing itself that the current strategy of U.S. primacy as the means to controlling the commons is the correct approach. This is the whole “We’re #1 and if we’re not, then we’re effed” problem. Americans have conditioned themselves to accept a world where the United States is the sole guarantor of world security. Can they live in one where it’s not? Can they accept a world where the United States is but one of several great powers (militarily)? Most importantly, can its political leaders accept this reduced role without conflating it with isolationism? (I’m looking at you Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman.) If so, is there enough political willpower to overcome the bureaucratic interests at stake in maintaining the status quo? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I suggest we start asking them of ourselves and our political class, uh, soon.

All in all, there’s a lot more to like in this paper than there is to dislike; the strengths of a security of the commons approach far outweigh the weaknesses, and I highly suggest everyone read the whole paper soon. Lalwani and Shifrinson have done something special. As for each and every member of the National Security Council, Senate and House Armed Services Committees, and OSD Policy… hopefully you’re too busy thinking about and writing your own vision for U.S. national security to read this one. Hopefully.

* I struggled throughout my master’s program LSE with the whole ontology / epistemology thing. Even my thesis advisor admitted to me once that even she got confused by the whole epistemology thing. Yeah. So, that gave me the confidence to throw around the word however I pleased. That said, I really do think this is the appropriate context and I’m not using it to sound smart. Correct me, politely, if I’m wrong.

** The women in my family, as noted here, are ice cold.

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