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Military Deglobalization?

  • Joseph S.
  • Aug, 2020
  • 159
  • War of Words

Long-distance military interdependence is taking new forms

When people say that our era is defined by rapid globalization, they are quick to cite the usual evidence: a litany of impressive statistics such as the trillion-and-a-half dollars that flow daily across borders, the growth of trade as a proportion of world output, transnational industrial production chains, and, of course, the advent of cheap, instantaneous communication over the Internet. But in military terms, is this an era of deglobalization?

With so much focus on economic globalization, we sometimes forget that there are other forms of interdependence - ecological, social, cultural, military - that do not always vary in the same way. Discussions of global interdependence often require an adjective to be accurate. The period from 1914 to 1991 was one of extraordinary globalization, with two world wars and a Cold War that involved all inhabited continents. It is in fact hard to imagine anything more global than the strategic balance between the Soviet Union and the United States. Not only did it produce world-straddling alliances and interventions in distant local conflicts but either side could have destroyed the other with nuclear missiles in 30 minutes.

In that sense, the end of the Cold War has meant military deglobalization. In 1985, the two superpowers had more than a million troops abroad; today, that number has been cut by more than two thirds, and annual world military expenditures are down considerably from their 1987 peak of roughly a trillion dollars. In the 1970s, President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski declared that strategic-arms limitation talks died “in the sands of the Ogaden”; now the outside world seems largely indifferent to turmoil in the Horn of Africa. There are even faint signs of détente in that Cold War military remnant, the Korean Peninsula.

In earlier centuries, economic and military globalization went hand in hand. Nineteenth-century patterns of trade and finance depended on European empires on which “the sun never set.” As for the disruption of economic globalization during the 1920s and 30s, economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation reminds us that economic hardship came not just from war but from the inability of European polities to cope with the inequalities (and the disruptive responses of communism and fascism) that grew out of laissez-faire economic growth. Moreover, the roots of contemporary economic globalization go back to U.S. geopolitical strategy after 1945 and the belief that open economies and liberal institutions were necessary as a bulwark against communism.

Today, many observers describe the state of global military interdependence as “unipolar.” That is, only one country has truly global military reach, with air, naval, and ground forces that include almost 300,000 troops in Europe, Asia, and near the Persian Gulf. Even with a one-third reduction since the Cold War, U.S. military expenditures exceed the defense budgets of the next five countries combined. In today’s unipolar world, the Cold War strategic chessboard is gone. Instead, as journalist Thomas Friedman argues, an “electronic herd” of investors creates disincentives for conflict.

But there are some things wrong with this picture. For one thing, economic globalization is not everything. With the rise of social globalization, humanitarian concerns interacting with global communications have dramatized some conflicts and spurred military interventions in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. While highly selective and not purely altruistic, these military interventions cannot be explained solely in terms of classical strategy. Could social globalization be leading to some revival of military globalization?

Unipolarity is also misleading in that it focuses solely on the balance of power among states. But military technology continues to flow transnationally, and nonstate actors can use chemical, biological, or electronic technologies to exploit vulnerabilities in open societies. In addition, weak states can follow asymmetric strategies of supporting terrorists or manipulating transnational interdependencies to counter U.S. power. For example, young Chinese officers have written about using terrorism, drug trafficking, environmental degradation, and computer viruses to update Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for an age of globalization.

On the dimension of geopolitical competition among states, the world since the Cold War has been marked by military deglobalization. But the electronic herd is not fully in control. Long-distance military interdependence is taking new forms. And a geogovernance of military globalization is slowly evolving. Since 1945, the United Nations Charter has tried to limit war; peacekeeping forces have been in...

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