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Globalization, Strategic Distance, and Policy

It is a tenet of modern strategic theory and practice that globalization has made local problems international. An ethnic revolt, tyrannical dictator, environmental disaster, or criminal gang’s operations in a distant land can have repercussions in Miami, Los Angeles, or New York. The problem is that these analyses start by stating a threat and then proceed to strategies for dealing with them. Rather, we ought to begin to think about our policy.
      There is a rich literature on globalization and security, ranging from Thomas Friedman’s popular canon to academic studies. The common element of these works is a pervasive sense that globalization has shrunk the strategic distance states once enjoyed and the protection that comes with it. This is the source of Friedman’s famous and influential concept of the “flat” world. In policy, prominent post-9/11 strategy documents such as the successive National Security Strategies of 2002, 2006, and 2010 also have generalized discourses on global threats.
      The strategic literature on globalization is correct in its estimation of the evolved forms of interdependency in today’s world. The problem, however, is that not all threats are worthy of American attention and many of them are beyond our ability to influence. Adding to this prioritization problem is a pervasive sense that we are more exposed to globalized danger than ever before.
      Regardless of the accuracy of the globalization literature and its impact on security studies, today’s rhetoric often obscures a mundane truth: the world is always changing. The rise and fall of empires, shifts in economic mode of production, and disruptive social and political changes tend to produce conflict. Winners, losers, or those who erroneously perceive themselves as such come to blows. Some conflicts cannot be settled by peaceable means and boil over into conventional or irregular warfare. It is the role of policy to interpret these changes and formulate a response that strategy can in turn implement.
      The topic that preoccupies today’s security theorists is the fusion of internal security threats with global issues such as terrorism and global insurgency. Security thinkers conceptualize a wild global “frontier” of failed states, criminal gangs, and undergoverned zones, and a “homeland” potentially under risk from the power projection of non-state forces. To many, the September 11 attacks are a reminder that the two cannot be meaningfully separated in policy debate. The stated aim of contemporary security policy either pacify, mitigate, or co-opt the threat to the “homeland” from the global frontier.
      However, the link between the global “frontier” and the homeland is still largely a matter of debate. The famous Bruce Hoffman-Marc Sageman discussion over “al-Qaeda Central” vs. “Leaderless Jihad” is a case in point. Are terrorists abroad in ungoverned spaces still the primary threat, or is the domestic threat of radicalization more plausible?
      Frontier threats and internal threats also demand different methods, capabilities, and logics. Warfare along the frontier has always been a haven for maverick personalities and rarefied skillsets, whereas internal security challenges in both democratic and authoritarian societies are usually a bureaucratic police and paramilitary affair. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the police, not Central Intelligence Agency drone fleets, handle domestic terrorism. In contrast, we have become largely reliant on a high-tech variation on the British military’s “air control” operational concept to strike at the Taliban across the Afghan-Pakistani border.
      To add to the confusion, the “frontier” and the “homeland” are not exclusively binary categories. It is ironic that we employ the rhetoric of globalization in security debate without accepting what Friedman meant when he talks of a “flat” world: the blurring of political, cultural, and economic boundaries. So how might we sort out this confusion? There is, of course, strategy—and we have debated strategy, grand or otherwise, extensively since the end of the Cold War.
      The most foundational issue, from a Clausewitzian perspective, is to determine the policy. Strategy (and its subsidiary operational and tactical mechanisms) is an artificial mechanism to accomplish the policy. Criticism of the drone warfare, for example, rarely examines how it flows from the strategic consequences of the overall policy of committing strategic landpower to Afghanistan. One of the consequences of the way we have configured our present Afghan policy is that we lack a viable means of suppressing enemy operations across the border. The drones are a tactical stopgap measure, and criticism of them must acknowledge the policy straitjacket that we have inserted ourselves in regarding Pakistan and the Taliban.
      How might we come to a better policy? Perhaps it might involve asking a series of questions. How much risk is the American public willing to tolerate from the frontier in return for reduced involvement? What is the nature of the connection between the frontier and the homeland? What should the role of force—“repetitive raiding” perhaps—be in the managing frontier threats? And most importantly, what threat do “frontier” threats pose to the fundamentals of American national security?
      A policy to set priorities about frontier and internal security threats does not have to be static, uniform, or set in stone. But it should meaningfully delineate a hierarchy of threats and possible responses. History shows us that we will always worry about the global frontier. Disruptions arising from change are a constant of the global strategic environment. But a meaningful policy will differentiate which threats are important, what tools should be employed to deal with them, and what limits we have on our ability to influence and mitigate them.