No. 5: July-September 2012

Frédéric Ramel

Global Commons

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present status of the global commons?

The 2010 Quadriennal Defense Review Report establishes a main priority for the United States defense policy: « Managing secure access to the global commons » (sea, air, space and cyberspace, i.e. all « areas that belong to no one state and that provide access to much of the globe »(1) ). Such a decision is part of a grand strategy in order to maintain American leadership « by providing global public goods » (2). It reflects, however, a major change, as a decade ago the United States still enjoyed the benefits of a monopoly. It is true that, as emphasized by Barry Posen, the USA « command » the commons. This « does not mean that other states cannot use the commons in peacetime. Nor does it mean that others cannot acquire military assets that can move through or even exploit them when unhindered by the United States. Command means that the United States get vastly more military use out of the sea, space, and air than do others; that it can credibly threaten to deny their use to others; and that others would lose a military contest for the commons if they attempted to deny them to the United States. Having lost such a contest, they could not mount another effort for a very long time, and the United States would preserve, restore, and consolidate its hold after such a fight » (3).

Now, emerging powers are not to be outdone because of the diffusion of technological capabilities and of the decline of the United States of America. Despite a strong dependency on the commons for energetic resources or exports, China is not the only peer competitor for Washington. India or Russia also aim at participating as challengers in the global commons’ management. Hence, « rising powers will not simply be content to simply acquiesce to America’s role as uncontested guarantor of the global commons. Countries such as China, India, and Russia will demand a role in maintaining the international system in ways commensurate with their perceived power and national interests » (4).

In order to share the costs of managing the global commons, the Unites States try to « share the responsibility ». For instance, they promote the concept within NATO. The Allied Command Transformation organized a far-reaching consultation process in order to discuss relevant concepts and practices. The final report emphasizes one main issue: access to the Commons. Since all enemies take a considerable advantage by restricting the movement of NATO forces, they certainly will attempt to deny access to global commons. By doing so, they prevent NATO to carry out operations, to sustain communication and, above all, to achieve its mandate for guaranting transatlantic security (5).

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

By taking the lead of advocating the global commons access, the United States seem likely to toughen polarization in the international system. Considering economic vulnerabilities of the US and perverse effects of military operations against rogue States, the “unipolar moment” comes to an end. A new configuration of several poles slowly emerges. However, contrary to a fully-fledged multipolarity (with more than 20 relevant actors), the international system becomes more and more oligopolar (between five and ten powers).(6) Even if NATO should claim the management of the global commons by granting other actors access and participation, it would nevertheless generate protestation by emerging powers. The latter deny NATO the right to act as the main strategic institution on global commons. By putting the topic on its agenda, NATO would entail growing tensions in regions such as Asia for instance. Oligopolarity may succeed to guarantee stability because in such a configuration no one can win against a coalition of all others. All actors are required to adopt defensive strategies so as to preserve the status quo. They yearn to reinforce their cooperation among themselves. On top of that, several allies of the USA are reluctant to adopt the concept, and bureaucratic rivalries increase between the US Air Force and the Navy about the implementation of new synergies in order to protect global commons. Thus, the US may cope with more external and internal oppositions in the next years.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

« Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all » (7). As ecologist, Garrett Hardin warned us in a famous article about the exploitation of shared properties or resources. By using them unconsciously, each man pursues his own best interest and expresses reluctance to guarantee commons’ reproduction in space and time. Selfishness entails pollution, degradation and also destruction of environment. Hardin suggested to recognize our responsibility towards nature. It sounds like an imperative for the future. To put an end to the tragedy, he asked for a central authority controlling the commons as a resource and also as communal spaces. Today, a new tragedy is about to appear in a structural long-term perspective. It results from competition in order to manage the global commons. If passivity or indifference explain the first tragedy identified by Hardin, proactivity of and appropriation by states unravel the second one.

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  1. (1)Barry Posen, « Command of the Commons. The Military Foundation of US Hegemony », International Security, Vol. 28, No. 1, Summer 2003, p. 8.

  2. (2)Joseph Nye, « Recovering American Leadership », Survival, Vol. 50,  No. 1, February-March 2008, pp. 64-65.

  3. (3)Barry Posen, op. cit., p. 8.

  4. (4)Michele Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, The Contested Commons, U.S. Naval Institute, Proceedings 135, No. 7 (July 2009),

  5. (5)ACT, Assured Access to the Global Commons, Final Report, March 2011, p. 3.

  6. (6)Jean Baechler, « La mondialisation politique », in Jean Baechler, Ramine Kamrane (dir.), Aspects de la mondialisation politique, Rapport de l’Académie des Sciences morales et politiques, pp. 6-10.

  7. (7)Garrett Hardin, « The Tragedy of the Commons », Science, No. 162, 1968, p. 1244.

Frédéric Ramel is Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po Paris and scientific director at the Institut de recherche stratégique de l’École militaire (IRSEM). As a specialist in strategy as well as philosophy of international relations he has recently published Philosophie des relations internationales (with David Cumin, Paris, 2011), La fin des guerres majeures ? (with Jean-Vincent Holeindre, Paris 2010), Les Fondateurs oubliés : Durkheim, Simmel, Weber, Mauss et les relations internationales (Paris, 2006).

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