The Duck of Minerva

On the Word ‘Global’

24 February 2013

The word ‘global’ has become so frequently used in Western strategic debate that is has almost become background music. On one level, overuse robs it of resonance. But on another, it might be contributing to the conceptual and rhetorical overstretch that has led the US to overextend itself.

Consider just one recent example. In making the case recently for maintaining the Pax Americana, the expansive grand strategy in which the US tries to hold on to unipolar supremacy with a worldwide military presence, Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry and William Wohlforth deploy the word ‘global’ (or words based on it) 24 times in about 5000 words. Typically, the word functions in several ways, apart from expressing America’s sheer size as a superpower:

1) It implies ‘responsible.’ Going on the assumption that the world is globalized and everything is interconnected and fragile, it is code for the need for a guardian to police and tame it;

2) In some versions, more vulgar than the article I’ve linked to, it suggests that alternative visions of America’s role in the world are not only anti-global but provincial or even isolationist. Thus it encourages an absurd reductionism. To argue for a narrowing or shrinking of America’s strategic horizons or a retrenchment of its commitments is n0t only to move towards a contraction of America’s sphere, but a retreat from the world. One unfortunate aspect of grand strategic debate in US domestic politics is the framing of difficult choices as a cartoonish clash between global ‘leadership’ and fatal isolation. This wipes out the wide spectrum of intermediate choices that major states always end up having to consider – and to argue for a more prudent reduction in America’s commitments and spending is not to insist on a retreat to the water’s edge.

3) It conflates a number of distinct ideas, jumbling ‘global’ with ‘international.’ This resists a sober appraisal of perceived threats. Al Qaeda, for example, is not a global network, either in its membership, attraction, or the distribution of its power and capabilities.

4) It does something more profound that has already been nicely analysed by critical geographers like Neil Smith and historians like John Lewis Gaddis – it identifies the whole planet as America’s security domain, marking the point where the ranking and limitation of interests becomes almost impossible as an open-ended, endlessly expanding concept of borderless and absolute security takes over. The 9/11 Commission did this in plain language. Calling for a global strategy, it declared that the American homeland ‘is the planet.’ A mentality such as this, with its endless view of security threats, will tend to lean forward towards endless war. The word helps to make this dangerous logic a matter of common language and defines ‘common sense.’