Global Enclosures in the Service of Empire

David Bollier

In September 2010, a group of NATO brass, security analysts and other policy elites held a conference called “Protecting the Global Commons.” Attendees were described as “senior representatives from the EU institutions and NATO, with national government officials, industry, the international and specialised media, think-tanks, academia and NGOs” – surely one of the oddest group of “commoners” ever assembled.

The event, hosted by a Brussels-based think tank called Security & Defence Agenda, had its own ideas about what the commons is. Let’s just say it doesn’t regard the commons as a self-organized system designed by commoners themselves to serve their own needs. No. To NATO decision makers, the “global commons” consists of those empty spaces and resources that lie beyond the direct and exclusive control of nation-states. In other words: NATO sees these spaces as no-man’s land without governance. To NATO, the key “global commons” are outer space, the oceans and the Internet. The problems posed by these “commons,” conference organizers suggest, is that they must somehow be dominated by NATO countries lest hostile countries, rogue states and pirates interfere with US and European commercial and military activities. Hence the need for NATO’s military supervision.

A bit of accuracy is in order: Outer space, the oceans and the Internet are common-pool resources. They don’t belong to anybody individually nor to any state individually. But they are not commons. Commonsrequire the active participation of the people in formulating and enforcing the rules that govern them. Or “the consent of the governed,” as the US Declaration of Independence puts it. That’s not really a NATO priority. Instead, as the conference program put it:

What are the political, policy, and operational challenges faced by NATO in the Global Commons? Is the Alliance adequately prepared to execute its responsibilities in a world where the space, maritime, and cyber domains are increasingly vital to the interests of member states and to the day to day peacetime and wartime operations of the Alliance? What capabilities and responsibilities will the Alliance need to develop to sustain its relevance in a world where the global commons are increasingly important?

In a sense, NATO gets it right: space, the oceans and the Internet must be available to all. They are, in its words, the “vital connective tissue in a globalized world.” However, the question that didn’t seem to get asked at the conference, at least according to its stated agenda and available documentation, is: How shall ordinary citizens and their representatives participate in these deliberations and make sure that governance will serve their interests? That, after all, is what a democratic society is all about.

NATO misconstrues the meaning of the term “commons” by casting it as an ungoverned free-for-all – precisely the error that biologist Garrett Hardin made in his famous 1968 essay on the “tragedy of the commons.” Hardin’s error poisoned the meaning of the commons for at least a generation, something that NATO may in fact be eager to perpetuate; defining oceans, space and the Internet as “commons” in Hardin’s sense of the term, would give it license for dominating these resources. Geopolitical supremacy is the goal. As the program notes put it, “Oceans today are as much a chess board for strategists as a global common. What are the key dynamics of today’s maritime domain? What are those of tomorrow? What are the implications for the Alliance?”

NATO’s misuse of “commons” is starting to get some traction. In 2011, MIT political scientists Sameer Lalwani and Joshua Shifrinson held a Washington policy briefing at the New America Foundation that proposed that the US “pare back its forward-based naval presence in many regions while retaining ‘command of the commons.’ It can accomplish this by relying more on regional powers to help in securing the freedom of the seas while maintaining sufficient over-the-horizon naval power to serve as the security guarantor of last resort.”

Has no one at the Pentagon, NATO or defense think-tanks read Elinor Ostrom’s work? Please, NATO: Simply refrain from using the word “commons.” Alternatively, why not begin to imagine new types of global commons institutions that could transcend the parochial, self-serving interests of national governments and their concern for commercial interests over ecological or civic interests? Why not build some creative new transnational governance structures that could truly represent the commoners?

This will not be the last time that commercial or governmental interests attempt to co-opt the term “commons.” Which is all the more reason why we need to point out Hardin’s error yet again, insist upon the real meaning of the commons, and get institutions like NATO to talk to some real, live commoners every once in a while.