When It Comes to National Defense, Globalization Makes Us Stupid
A review of ‘The Global Village Myth’
by REED PEEPLES
The protection of America itself will assume a high priority in a new century. Once a strategic afterthought, homeland defense has become an urgent duty. For most of our history, America felt safe behind two great oceans. But with the spread of technology, distance no longer means security. — Pres. George W. Bush, Charleston, S.C.
When did distance no longer “mean security?” Taken in isolation, we’d probably assume Bush was describing the national-security landscape after the 9/11 attacks.
Yet George W. Bush didn’t deliver these remarks as a wartime president. He was the governor of Texas, and he was discussing ballistic missile defense. In 1999.
Two years before 9/11, Bush already perceived a world where technology trumped geography and distance was obsolete as a means of national defense.
But wasn’t he right? Bush spoke the same year Thomas Friedman released The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, one of the first mass-market books to describe “globalization” in the sense that we understand it today.
If we were to list the major political ideas on which an evangelical Texas governor and a New York Times essayist will agree, we would have to include at least one item. That distance has become irrelevant, and that technology beats terrain.
Patrick Porter dissents. In 2015's The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power, Porter challenges the idea of globalization both as a framework for understanding the security landscape and as a starting point for crafting a national security strategy.
He argues that globalization is an abstract and poorly-substantiated concept, the natural result of which is stupid wars, dead soldiers and declining empires.
So where did this idea come from? Porter’s brief intellectual history of globalization is the foundation of his argument. Most advocates of globalization would explain that after the end of the Cold War, communications and transportation technologies reached a critical mass, connecting people and civilizations to a magnitude that marked an abrupt departure from earlier progress.
Porter shows us that not only is this conclusion demonstrably false, but that it’s one we often arrive at when we predict how new weaponry will change warfare. As the rate of technological progress has increased, so has our anxiety about unconstrained, ever-present predatory violence.
That anxiety, Porter argues, stems in large part from a failure to distinguish between “physical distance” and “strategic distance.” Distance, he explains, “generated by the interplay of terrain and technology.” As we develop new weapons, we’re not so much overcoming natural obstacles — oceans, mountains, deserts, etc. — as we are renegotiating our relationship with them.
Yes, an army resupplied by railroad can generate combat power faster than an army sustained by mules. But how much do our mule-train logisticians need to worry about mountain roads with five-degree gradients? Does a train engineer need to be concerned about 20-knot gusts at a train station?
No, but imagine if he were trying to land a C-17. It’s a fun thought experiment. Consider it for a few minutes, and you may begin to wonder how many “distance denialists” have personally been responsible for moving heavy objects over long range.
We also dismiss distance because we learn bad lessons from poor history. Unexpected, traumatic attacks can lead us to conclude that all perceptions of safety are illusory.
Americans looked over the smoldering, tangled wreckage of the World Trade Center and saw a world in which their enemies could strike wherever and whenever they wanted, without warning and without constraint.
That perception is understandable, but it’s also false. Porter shows us how the most critical events in the lead-up to 9/11 happened — and had to happen — in close geographic proximity to the physical objectives. A similar attack planned, resourced and launched from a “failed state” would have had drastically reduced effect. More likely, the operation would’ve failed.
Of course, our enemies often do fail even when they enjoy the advantage of proximity. The reasons Porter cites are not sexy, but they do work. Closer screening of visa applications, tighter border security, vigilant local law enforcement and watchful citizens. To achieve the advantages of proximity, terrorists must accept the risk of operating in a more high-threat, “hardened” environment.
There’s also the practical problem of discipline and command and control. Even if we ignore the problem of digital surveillance, jihadi leaders are still responsible for training and disciplining scattered groups of young men on the other side of the world.
Did they actually reconnoiter the objective like you told them to? Are they really going to the range and working on their marksmanship? Who’s been working out and eating right, and who’s already put on 25 pounds since arriving on his student visa?
Imagine being responsible for managing hundreds of equally tedious and critical leadership task, then imagine doing so via email. The indiscipline of strong-willed young men, it seems, may be one of our most reliable defenses.
The Global Village Myth reminded me of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life from 1963, in that I experienced the same, rich satisfaction of reading a nothing-but-net defense of an original, consequential idea.
As with Anti-Intellectualism, the most frustrating aspect of reading The Global Village Myth is knowing that the people who need to read it won’t do so. It’s is a book written by an academic for his peers. It’s brief and well-organized, but it assumes familiarity with concepts and methodologies that’ll alienate many readers who don’t make a living thinking and writing about national security policy.
See how long you can keep someone’s attention discussing a RAND Corporation study of hypothetical Taiwan Strait amphibious assault scenarios.
That’s a problem. Globalization is an idea that needs to be put on trial in the public forum. The evidence is weak and the stakes are high. When our understanding of the world deviates from reality, we navigate it poorly.
A national security strategy that fully embraces globalization will produce stupid wars and crushing debt. The result will be “homeland defense” that’s engaged everywhere except the actual homeland.