Security and Governance in the Global Commons

This post was written by guest writer, Madison Parkhill. Madison recieved his B.A from Austin College in Sherman, Texas. He is currently an M.A. Student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, where he studies International Security Studies with a focus on Transnational Security. He hails from Lindsay, Texas a small town not far from Dallas. He enjoys sports and even played football in college.  

The world has evolved into a globalized system, leading to a greater desire to access the global commons and the resources found there. As desire has grown and technology has improved, the ability to access the global commons –– which refers to “resource domains or areas that lie outside of political reach of any one nation” –– has become easier. With this surge in access, states have become increasingly reliant upon the global commons for resources, transportation, information, and security. Currently, for example, over 90% of the world’s trade is carried by sea, and more than 3 billion people are now using the internet. As reliance upon the global commons has increased, so too has the need for states to ensure that the global commons remain open and protected from threats. Now, more than ever before, both the welfare and security of states are tied to unobstructed access to the global commons.

Throughout his campaign, President-elect Trump has advocated for putting “America First” in regards to foreign policy. He stated that he would attempt to renegotiate multilateral security and trade-based deals such as NATO and NAFTA to better benefit the United States. The national security and economic debates on the merits of those intentions aside, the global commons represent a foundationally different aspect of foreign policy. Unlike bilateral or multilateral deals, the global commons affect a variety of actors throughout the globe. They are not the property of any one state or non-state actor. They are open to anybody, at the state level or otherwise, with the capability to access them.

In regards to the global commons, President-elect Trump and his advisors would be wise to seek a mutually beneficial, cooperative governance framework. The global commons are not a zero-sum game where the United States –– or any other state for that matter –– should seek to “win.” Fair and unobstructed access to the global commons is of vital importance to most, if not all, states in the world. States and their respective economies are intertwined and are often granted mutual benefits through access to the global commons. The United States is reliant upon this access itself as exports are almost 13% and imports are over 15% of its GDP annually. While powerful both economically and militarily, neither the United States nor any state, can dominate, control or effectively protect the global commons unilaterally. States such as Russia and China have demonstrated their influence throughout the global commons with satellites and space stations, cyber hacking capabilities, and the building of islands upon the sea. Non-state actors such SpaceX, Lufthansa, and Møller-Maersk all operate in the global commons as well. In order to secure free access to the global commons for all parties, both state and non-state, continuing collaboration and cooperation among states is a necessity for effective governance.

Yet there are a multitude of challenges that potentially threaten unobstructed access to and protection of the global commons. Financial costs represent a significant challenge to the actors operating in the global commons. Non-state actors such as pirates operating in the maritime realm cost between 7 and 12 billion dollars to the global economy each year. The cost of cybercrime was estimated to have been 3 trillion dollars in 2015. That number could double to 6 trillion by 2021. Additionally, non-financial challenges threaten security in the global commons as well.

Recently, Russia demonstrated another challenge when it attempted to influence the U.S. election through the cyber domain of the global commons. The U.S. intelligence community assessed with a high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign that sought to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process and denigrate former Secretary Clinton, thus harming her electability and potential presidency. In response, President Obama ordered new sanctions on Russia that included the expulsion of 35 diplomats. This type of state-based attack on another state through the use of a global common, demonstrates the necessity for an improved collaborative governance. Interfering in a Presidential election was, at least in the eyes of U.S. leadership, justification for new sanctions and the aforementioned expulsion of Russian diplomats. Regardless of proportionality, the debate on how, when, and if the United States would respond speaks to the difficulty of governance in the global commons.

Currently, the cost of engaging in an attack or aggressive behavior via the global commons is arbitrary and even unclear in many cases. States are unsure of what is a proportional, proper, or effective response. The U.S. was slow to respond to Russia’s attempt to influence the election. Pirates have historically and continue to disrupt operations upon the seas that inflict serious damages to both state and non-state actors. An increasing number of states and private companies are sending satellites, shuttles, and stations into outer space. Outer space is currently a peaceful domain, but the international community needs a plan in case of aggressive action.

The reliance and desire of access to the global commons will continually increase as technology improves and the capability to operate in the realms becomes easier. In coordination with this surge of reliance and desire, a governance framework setting the proper and acceptable behavior by both state and non-state actors is essential. States such as the United States will be vital to the creation and implementation of a collaborative governance framework that would establish acceptable behavior and potential repercussions if an actor failed to operate properly. In doing so, state and non-state actors could fairly access and operate in the global commons without uncertainty or fear regarding illicit or aggressive behavior by other actors.