Whither Command of the Commons?

Choosing Security Over Control
  • and Joshua Shifrinson, International Security Program Research Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
September 13, 2011 |

Introduction: Command of the Commons and U.S. Primacy

In 1805, British Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet off the coast of Spain that threatened to deny Britain command of the sea around Western Europe. Nelson’s success ensured that the United Kingdom retained what analysts would today refer to as “command of the commons”—the ability to project military power and engage in trade at times and places of its choosing while denying the same privileges to others. Command of the maritime commons guaranteed British participation in the wars against Napoleon would continue and ultimately contributed to Britain’s success in the Napoleonic Wars.

Two hundred years later, the United States enjoys a similar ability to exert command over the commons. Yet, unlike Nelson’s day when the ocean was the only “common” that mattered, the modern commons involve the sea, air, space, and cyber domains through which information, goods, commerce, and people flow. The commons, in short, constitute the sinews of modern world politics. In its modern guise, command of the commons means the United States can credibly threaten to deny other states access to the commons in a crisis and can defeat another state’s efforts to deny the U.S. access to the commons in wartime.1 By commanding the commons, the United States simultaneously protects its own interests and provides a series of global public goods in the form of secure, stable modes of commerce, communication, and correspondence.2 

Command of the commons is a critical feature of U.S. grand strategy, and as American grand strategy has expanded, so too has the U.S. approach towards commanding the commons. For much of the last 30 years, the United States has pursued a grand strategy of “primacy,” particularly after the Cold War.3 Primacy, as Barry Posen and Andrew Ross have argued, “holds that only a preponderance of U.S. power ensures peace.”4 American economic and military preeminence preserves the peace, it is believed, by dissuading potential threats from challenging U.S. interests and simultaneously reassuring alliance partners they will be defended. Primacy thus calls for the United States to retain its dominant economic and military position relative to other states for as long as possible and mandates intensive U.S. involvement in international affairs to maintain the status quo.5 

Such an ambitious grand strategy requires an equally ambitious approach to the command of the commons. On one level, command means the United States can undertake complex operations such as rapidly invading Iraq and Afghanistan, intervening in civil wars in the Balkans, and engaging in “immediate deterrence” when crises erupt around the world. By signaling the exceptional military resources available to the United States, it also (presumably) gives other states pause when considering whether to challenge U.S. interests. Yet, at the same time, a grand strategy of primacy pushes the United States to retain command of the commons by investing in a large, rapidly deployable military that is far more capable than those of potential opponents. It further requires the United States to dissuade or deter prospective challengers from taking steps that might make it difficult for the United States to operate around the globe. In a type of self-fulfilling cycle, the pursuit of American primacy both enables the active pursuit of U.S. interests around the world and reinforces the desirability of retaining command. 

Although the command of the commons is integrally related to American grand strategy, there is no single formula for maintaining the commons. As the United States rethinks its grand strategy in the face of economic constraints and growing political and military competition, it will also need to rethink its approach to the command of the commons. This paper thus takes U.S. command of the commons as a given, but asks whether there are less costly and more appropriate ways to achieve it in an increasingly multi-polar world.

Our analysis starts from the proposition that, while the United States enjoys command of the commons, the means by which it pursues this objective can vary. From the collapse of the Soviet Union through the present, the United States has pursued command of the commons by trying to control the commons—preventing the emergence of plausible threats to U.S. command by state and non-state actors alike, well ahead of their actual manifestation. We argue that this approach, while successful for most of the post-Cold War period, is becoming increasingly costly militarily and economically. Equally important, this approach has the potential to trigger counter-productive reactions—insecurity, counter-balancing, and backlash—that may themselves come to pose challenges to U.S. command of the commons. Indeed, control carries in it the seeds of its own eventual unraveling. 

This paper offers an alternative approach to control, one we term “security of the commons.” Under a security of the commons approach, the United States would maintain sufficient command of the commons to defeat military threats to U.S. interests and ensure the provision of global public goods such as trade and commerce. But it would recognize that America’s current commitments and force capabilities far exceed what is necessary to achieve these goals. The United States therefore can scale down the reach of its international activities and force presence without jeopardizing the key objectives of the command of the commons. It can do so because the United States faces few unequivocal challenges to its command of the commons. Moreover, by pursuing a security of the commons approach, it can actually increase U.S. national security while lowering its costs. This is the case because under the current control approach, the U.S. tendency to over-provide the military forces to retain command can trigger “spirals of insecurity” and breed the very challenges to command of the commons it seeks to prevent. By contrast, a security of commons approach offers the possibility that by doing less, the United States can encourage other regional powers to do more in protecting the commons, thereby discouraging free-riding. Yet, at the same time, the United States would retain more than ample military capability to defend the commons should a credible threat emerge by scaling up in critical regions, thus acting as a security guarantor of last resort. 

This paper proceeds in eight parts. Following this introduction, in part two, we define the scope of our analysis. Third, we offer a brief analysis of the origins of U.S. command. Fourth, we discuss the present state of U.S. strategy towards the commons and the military enablers of the approach. This section also discusses the costs of the current U.S. approach and the reasons the United States may want to change this strategy. Fifth, we contrast the control of the commons approach with our proposed “security of the commons” strategy. Sixth we examine the regions of the world where U.S. command of the commons is believed to be under stress to evaluate what would best maintain U.S. command. The seventh section then discusses some policy shifts required to follow a security of the commons approach. We conclude by highlighting additional implications of this argument.

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