It’s Time to Abandon the Global Village Myth


The world is increasingly dangerous, we are told, because technology has made it smaller. In this “global village,” the costs of transport and communications have fallen to the point where predators have easy access to our vulnerable points.  For instance, they can lay waste to our cities through nuclear terrorism or an “Electronic Pearl Harbor.” The sentiment is everywhere in Western security debate. It pervades formal strategic documents like the National Security Strategy of the United States and that of allies like Australia. Fear of the dangerous interconnectedness of things has rung loudly, from Tony Blair’s Chicago speech in April 1999 to the “Bush Doctrine” of first strikes and regime change to Barack Obama’s claim that America should bomb Syria to protect American children in the long run.

But the world is not small. Technology may accelerate movement and compress physical space. But it does not necessarily shrink strategic space, the ability to project power affordably across the earth.

The deadly cliché of the global village stretches back at least to World War Two. George Orwell questioned it in 1944, after the rapid, mobile war machines of the Axis powers had been blunted across the English Channel, the frozen wastes of the Soviet Union and the waters of the Pacific. Orwell mocked “the automatic way in which people go on repeating certain phrases,” like “the abolition of distance” and the “disappearance of frontiers.” He might have been writing of today.

The myth took root in American strategic minds on December 7, 1941, when Imperial Japan attacked at Pearl Harbor. Its Pacific Fleet in flames, America awoke to discover that predators could strike from afar out of the blue. In the age of naval aviation and the long-range bomber, President Franklin Roosevelt warned that Americans could no longer measure their safety as “miles on a map.”

Almost 60 years later, Arab Islamists headquartered in Afghanistan brought down skyscrapers in Manhattan and torpedoed the Pentagon. Again, the world seemed violently interconnected. Pondering the assault on America’s financial and military nerve centres, the 9/11 Commission believed, like Roosevelt, that there was no longer “home” and “away.” In the age of the mobile phone, cheap travel and digital finance, “the American homeland is the planet.”

After “12/7” and 9/11, Americans and their allies took away a grand lesson: their enemies were unconstrained by geography. Because the security of Americans rested on the security of others, no longer could they tolerate even remote dangers. Like a contagion, threats can spread.  Or, they could strike from afar. Or, like dominoes, eruptions even on the outer periphery could trigger a chain reaction of threat. Hence, Americans are obliged to embrace “national security,” the projection of power far beyond its hemisphere with no obvious limit, and tame the world back into order.

Pearl Harbor’s lessons still dog our imagination. Today’s leaders scan the horizon for silhouettes of enemies who might bring the fire to our heartlands. Future Pearl Harbors might take the shape of a WMD attack, as Australian Prime Minister John Howard warned, or a cyber assault taking out electrical grids. The West, observers conclude, must take radical steps. To secure itself, it must replicate its institutions and expand market democratic regimes abroad, while strengthening the national security state at home.

In the name of taming the dangerous “Global Village,” governments resort to anticipatory war, extraordinary rendition, torture, continual drone strikes and mass surveillance. Instead of containing threats in pursuit of affordable security, the US-led coalition sought to eradicate them in pursuit of absolute security. It set out to destroy rogue regimes, fix broken states, to wipe out terrorism itself. Some now argue that the American President should have an internet “kill switch,” creating a cyber as well as nuclear monarch. The stakes are high.

Without doubt, this American view of threats has made life harder for Al Qaeda, thinning its ranks of talent and scattering it. But the costs have been heavy and unsustainable. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined have cost trillions of dollars. This approach has left an increasingly authoritarian regime in Baghdad, where sectarian violence is hitting new crescendos. Grinding war in Afghanistan leaves behind a weak kleptocratic government in Kabul. The stepped-up program of drone killings devastates Al Qaeda ranks but in its promiscuity kills innocents and, by raining down violence from the skies, lends credence to Islamist propaganda that America is “a distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor of death.” Fear of the “small world” has driven the United States and other countries to the dangerous attempt not to contain threats, but rather to eradicate them.

At home, the same fear has thrown off the delicate balance between the principles of security and liberty, damaging habeas corpus and spawning state surveillance that our forbears would find absurd. Crusading for democracy abroad has endangered it at home.

A closer look shows that the belief in a small world misconceives the security environment. Consider terrorism, supposedly borderless. On 9/11, Al Qaeda attacked under open skies. Yet Bin Laden’s pilots hit America not from Afghanistan, but from forward operating bases such as flight schools in Arizona and meeting houses in Berlin, bases that America quickly shut down. Its training camps and sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the US-led coalition destroyed. The unspectacular steps of intensified police work, tighter border controls, international collaboration, the strengthening of the Nunn-Lugar program for locking down “loose” nuclear material, and strengthened airport security widened the space between Al Qaeda and America. For the budding nuclear terrorist, America the “far enemy” has effectively become more distant.

Al Qaeda then fragmented into a network. Theorists of “netwar” hailed this as an inspired move. But increased flexibility cost AQ the ability to direct its jihad. It lost its coherence, attracted indiscriminately brutal figures, and provoked the angry blowback of Muslims from northern Iraq to Algeria. The guerrillas of the information age can still inflict atrocity, but our resilient nation-states have reduced their ability to inflict mass casualty terrorism on Western soil. No longer do they pose a first-order threat.

Militant jihadists of Southeast Asia have a similar story. The likes of Jemaah Islamiyah thrived during periods of relative openness. But their terror aroused adversaries like the government of Indonesia, which tightened its control of the infrastructure of seaports, highways and railroads that guerrillas rely upon to shift their guns, explosives, and contraband. As Justin Hastings argues, its fighters were forced into the forbidding terrain of jungles, islands and mountains.

Strategic space is not a politically uncontested thoroughfare of climate and terrain simply to be moved through. (That is not even true of tourism!) Space is a medium into which other humans intrude, through which (and for which) violent political struggle takes place. Amidst the white noise of globalisation rhetoric, this distinction has been lost.

Nowhere is this more true than along Asia’s maritime peripheries. New weapons and instruments have widened, rather than shrunk, the Asia-Pacific space. Surveillance assets in the hands of watchful defenders make it harder to inflict a sudden surprise long-range attack like Pearl Harbor. Tools of “access denial”—such as long-range anti-ship missiles—make it easier for states to fend off enemy fleets and raise the costs of aggression. Even weaker enemies can inflict a devastating, even fatal sting on aggressors. This makes it harder for America to intervene in a war with China—but harder also for China to expand. Conquest has become an expensive rarity.

Such are the material demands of modern navies for resupply and maintenance, that forward bases are now more important, not less. Paradoxically, modern tools of access denial place those bases in the cross-hairs. As Toshi Yoshihara argues, the sophistication of modern military technology that puts such a high premium on bases with their storage tanks, ammunition depots or repair facilities also renders bases at Yokosuka or Okinawa increasingly vulnerable. China’s stocks of long-range ballistic missiles such as the DF-15 and the DF-21 threaten to disable American naval and air bases in the “first island chain” of the western Pacific, in Japan and Okinawa, forcing the US to operate from thousands of miles further eastward, thereby depleting its forces’ staying power.

The enlargement of the world can also be seen in the return of an ancient institution in both literal and metaphorical form: the wall, now electronically enhanced, or the fortification in updated form. Concrete barriers, metal fences, and land mines reimpose territorial control from Mexico to Iraq, Georgia to the Kashmir. China boasts a vast underground “great wall,” a complex of hardened subterranean facilities and underground air bases, which ensures its defenses and its nuclear capabilities can survive an onslaught. Israel’s new anti-missile shield, “Iron Dome,” makes successful missile strikes by guerrillas much harder and gives some breathing space to a country traditionally frightened by its lack of strategic depth. Conversely, when it invaded Lebanon, Israel found a dug-in, savvy, hi-tech Hezbollah equipped to destroy its tanks, intercept its radio transmissions and win the propaganda war. Virtual walls matter too. Thanks to the increasing sophistication of cyber defence, the equivalent of an electronic Pearl Harbor is hard to execute, and cyber aggressors would have to pull off a virtual “commando raid into enemy territory defended by superior forces.”

Globalisation happened and continues to happen. But it is not like the weather. It is something states make and unmake. Historically, global orders, with their trading protocols and monetary regimes, sea lanes, commercial routes, and control of raw materials, are designed and imposed by the strong. At the core of the “small world” argument is this myth, that technology mechanically transforms the world independent of human politics and the struggle for power.

Projecting power affordably over space is now more difficult, not less. This constrains the superpower and its adversaries. It makes us all less powerful, but more secure, than we think. It’s time to abandon the Global Village Myth.


Dr. Patrick Porter is a reader in War and International Security and Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Reading, and a fellow of the UK Chief of the Defence Staff’s Strategic Forum.  His book, The Global Village Myth: Distance, Strategy and Modern War, will be published this year by Hurst & Co.


Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond