The Contested Commons

In a Democracy Arsenal post on what’s missing from the discussion about American strategy, Shawn Brimley ties together a variety of disparate events into a coherent whole that he calls the “era of the contested commons,” combining threats to the integrity of both new commons (e.g. cyberspace and satellites) and more traditional ones (e.g. maritime routesand unclaimed territories like the Arctic). Brimley argues that in focusing too narrowly on the conduct of two wars, we’ve ignored the role that was the centerpiece of our global leadership position:

American power and influence are derived principally by providing the key global public goods that overlap with U.S. vital interests: stability in key regions; a vibrant global economy; and fair access to the global commons.

Brimley identifies mainly state actors as the source of the challenges, but significantly both cyberspace and the open seas are vulnerable to disruptive non-state actors as well (hackers and pirates). So the need for some sort of coherent strategic response to the new threats is as complicated as the need to revitalize the system of global governance that Brimley also identifies. Take, for instance, Lakhdar Brahimi’s report on UN internal security, which among other things concluded that attacks against UN facilities in Iraq and Algeria reflect a changing perception of the UN:

A growing part of the public no longer perceives the U.N. as impartial and neutral. At the core of this is the perception that the United Nations has become an instrument of powerful member states.

International legitimation of an intervention doesn’t necessarily make it more popular among the intervened upon, and the more the UN is used as multilateral cover for stability and nation-building operations, the more it will take on its own identity as an “intervening power.” Put another way, the global governance system is still a governance system, and there is an increasing contestation (from both within the system and without) of the rules and regulations which guide it.

Brimley has posed questions for which there aren’t easy answers. The range of challenges is broader than most doctrinal schools acknowledge (some conventional, some asymmetric, and others we haven’t yet conceived of) and they will almost certainly come in unexpected forms and locations. That plus the fact that, as Nikolas Gvosdev put it, there’s no “reset” button in American foreign policy means that what worked before won’t necessarily work in the future. So how we (and the rest of the world) adapt to the changing global order will involve as much improvisation as careful planning.

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