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The Struggle for the Commons

Ever since Barry Posen published his article “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundations of US Hegemony,” strategists have written volumes about controlling the strategic commons–the air, the sea, space, and cyberspace–in order to maintain strategic primacy. The concept of the “commons” is an holistic addendum to traditional geopolitics’ single-minded focus on land, sea, or air control that conceptualizes non-land environments as a unified zone. Department of Defense strategists Michèle Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, however, argue in a piece for Proceedings that US control of the commons is under threat.
      Flournoy and Brimley argue that failing states, rising powers, “hybrid” enemies, and emerging threats beyond the reach of states will ensure that US primacy in the commons will erode. Andrew F. Krepinevich reaches similar conclusions, arguing that precision-guided munitions are trickling down to sub-state actors and Third World armies. How should US grand strategy deal with this challenge? Krepinevich argues for a more modest foreign policy while Flournoy and Brimley opt for the multilateralist textbook answer of strengthening global institutions. Both also counsel a focus on developing more economical long-range strike capabilities and pursuing new areas of military advantage.
      It’s hard not to argue with Flournoy, Brimley, and Krepinevich’s conclusions, but here’s a few caveats: Throughout strategic history, thinkers have argued that a small, cheap, and effective weapon would make larger ones irrelevant. Towards the end of the Cold War, for example, strategists fretted that anti-tank weapons would destroy armor columns. The anti-tank threat failed to materialize. More recently, insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely failed to take advantage of handheld anti-tank and anti-air technologies, relying instead on mortars and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Examining weapon strengths alone can mislead without placing them into the larger contexts of use, doctrine, and organization.
      Also, if we accept the premises of Flournoy and Brimley’s arguments, does strengthening global institutions alone make sense? Both point out that rising powers may seek to challenge US leadership, overturn US-built institutions, or build their own. Obviously legitimacy is a key element of maintaining US power, but will that be enough? Krepinevich also correctly points out that US allies are unlikely to shoulder more of the security burden, and that states looking to free-ride on our alliances will be of little assistance.
      Nevertheless, it is quickly becoming clear that we are overstretched and cannot maintain our current posture, especially as our economic crisis continues to take a toll on our debt-fueled economy. If Flournoy, Brimley, and Krepinevich represent an emerging conventional wisdom, it is a sign that Washington is finally beginning to recognize the extent of what Krepinevich calls “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets.”