The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The unconquerable village

March 5, 2012

I’m very much looking forward to attending this year’s International Studies Association conference in lovely San Diego. This is partly because I can fight a losing struggle against its declared theme for this year:

‘Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message,” and coined the term “global village.” McLuhan died in 1980, but his insights are even more relevant today. The information environment is drastically different from that of even a decade ago, as new forms of information flows come into existence almost annually.

Facebook now has over 500 million users, and Twitter, a service barely in existence three years ago, counts over 175 million users. These tools are not only for finding long-lost school friends or sharing pictures of loved ones: they often are used for political purposes. For instance, both text messages and tweets served as vital communication tools during the 2010 post-election protests in Iran. Indeed, Reuters reported that United States government went so far as to ask Twitter to postpone maintenance and maintain service during this time.’

This is a crisp re-statement of what has become an orthodoxy for our time: the myth of the global village. In my own field, it is inflected as the myth of the global battlespace, shrunken by technology to the point where distance is virtually obliterated, along with the distinction between ‘over here’ and ‘over there.’ Franklin Roosevelt, in fact, summed it up neatly when he instructed Americans that after Pearl Harbor, they could no longer measure their security in terms of miles on a map. This body of ideas has reached the status of a self-evident objective truth, more often affirmed that measured or tested. Globalism has taken a battering in critical revisionist works in economics – it deserves a little more scrutiny in other fields.  For what it’s worth, I’ve been suspicious of it for a little while.

Sure, technology has an effect, whether the invention of bridges to cross water, the invention of railways to cross land, the invention of TVs or phones or cyber space to accelerate movement, transmission or exchange. But has it really conquered space to the point where we inhabit a virtual village? Has it generated a world so interconnected that it is lethal, or alternatively, given us tools that can conquer space and liberate as never before?

First, visitors flying to the conference (or driving long distances) will not turn up fresh and immaculate. The miles traveled through the global village will exert themselves on their bodies and minds. They will have to endure the increasingly humourless and tiring experience of the airport, at both ends, a level of scrutiny and control that travellers in the nineteenth century would have found absurd. There are borders, all right. Once they get there, the ability to tweet and facebook will not be a substitute for being in the room with their loved ones. Being on the road means that life will get more expensive for those staying in hotels and making calls, dining out, booking cabs – the traditional logistical cost of those projecting themselves faraway. Distance will have its day, and reimpose its tyranny in all sorts of material and psychological ways.

Second, it is just so very fashionable. Let’s question the source. Who is telling us about this revolution? Who are the believers in Globalism? Could it be an international class of folk whose experience of the world is atypical, compared to everyone else, who fly a lot, who cross borders regularly, who buy exotic imported goods, and who fancy themselves the enlightened post-national citizens of the world?

Its actually not clear that Twitter was the vital agent in the Iranian uprising. There was an awful lot of tweeting about it, but apparently not much in Iran itself, according to one of the few serious inquiries into it, and it wasn’t so central to the development of resistance. The US government might have decided that twitter was a crucial means of revolt, but that is only evidence for what the US government thought. It turns out that many foreign observers who spoke and blogged in utopian terms about the revolutionary impact of gadgets were…those who tweet. To defy the state publicly, it took raw courage, social solidarity and old-fashioned organisation. The internet was a useful but limited tool. But it was also double-edged, as the regime in Tehran also exploited it. Not for the first time, Westerners gazed on others fighting a battle and making their own history, and didn’t miss an the opportunity to talk about themselves.

Third, can we really speak of a global village in the world of armed conflict? Territoriality still seems to matter a great deal. Go tell Palestinians and Israelis fighting it out in the West Bank about the borderless world of ‘flows’ and the quaint backwardness of frontiers and strategic depth. Go tell ISAF forces just trying to operate and stay running by getting their supply through the resistance of the terrain and armed adversaries in Central Asia. If we think of distance as a shifting mix of space and cost and as a gravitational force, the costs of operating are immense, from bribing double-dealing entrepreneurs, to the wear and tear on vehicles, and the sapping of morale in fighting a war in a land that still feels – and in many ways is – very remote. Fighting ‘over there’ in what is still a limited war for our side, we run out of political will as it goes, while the enemy finds an existential stake in the crisis, fighting on their turf for everything. That was Clausewitz’s warning to any invader.

In terms of major war capability, it is tempting just to assume the distance-destroying power of offensive weapons. But intercontinental missiles, access denial techniques, nuclear stockpiles – these have widening as well as narrowing effects. China can inflict grave punishment on any maritime adversary from further and further away. Long-range aggression might technically be easier- but expansion and encroachment is potentially more costly than ever. In that respect, Napoleon had a greater capacity on foot and horseback to conquer distance than would-be aggressors today.

Just as the strategic bomber in World War Two did not conquer space but instead ran up against defensive air power, a very bloody competition in technology and doctrine, so too is cyber capability running up against cyber defences. Stuxnet, hailed initially as a game-changing tool of long-range subversion, postponed Iran’s nuclear programme, perhaps only by a matter of months. The damaged centrifuges were quickly replaced. The new tool had a delaying nuisance effect, but it was not a technological solution to a deep and entangled diplomatic problem. Even if the cyber-warrior gets through more often, the evidence to date suggests that the breaches they create in systems defences are temporary, localised and quickly fortified. The guerrillas of the Information Age are not exempt from the endless offence-defence cycle.

In the realm of terrorism and ‘netwar’, the down-low on how to make a bomb might be a click away. But expertise, experience, group cohesion and operational security is not. In fact, the internet is such a dangerous highway that Osama Bin Laden did not dare use it himself. He relied on couriers. Moreover, the ability of his network to strike Western targets on 9/11 was dependent partly on practical, territorial organisation, namely flight schools in Alabama and meeting houses in Hamburg. There was not a straight line making Tora Bora and Manhattan proximate neighbours. And having lost a secure ‘base’ in Afghanistan as well as being shut down in  alerted Western states, Al Qaeda’s capacity to launch complex, mass casualty attacks has been disrupted as it has dispersed. That is the tradeoff of surviving as a network. And the grievances of Al Qaeda, for all their mutability and flexibility, have a territorial and geopolitical complaint at their core: the cause of restoring a lost empire, of uniting and purifying particular lands – giving geographical expression to the ‘Muslim nation’ -corrupted by the apostate regimes. So too is their remedy: taking the war to the ‘far enemy.’

Globalism, at least as it is articulated in strategic studies, often reflects two older obsessions: the optimistic  view of humanity’s ability to master space or nature with its tools (or wonder-weapons), and the deep pessimism that this could be turned against us, showing our fragility in the face of instruments against which there are no shields. But maybe instead of being the solution, the notion of the small world is part of the problem. Maybe we need to expand our mental maps instead of shrinking them. Maybe the planet is not reducible to our iphones.

A synthesis of classical geopolitical thought, with its emphasis on the material constraints of geography, and critical geopolitics, with its stress on the ideologically-loaded nature of what often passes for geographic knowledge, can help us I think.

Whatever the case, I will be at the conference bar to chat about this with anyone willing to take the edge off their travels over a beer. There’s some things that never change.

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Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.