The Military and the Commons: Why Would We Want the Military to Command the Commons?

A few days ago I received notice of a New America Foundation (NAF) hosted conference in Washington, D.C. called "Beyond Primacy: Rethinking American Grand Strategy and the Command of the Commons." At the conference NAF released a formal report on the subject: Whither Command of the Commons? Choosing Security Over Control.

A few days ago I received notice of a New America Foundation (NAF) hosted conference in Washington, D.C. called "Beyond Primacy: Rethinking American Grand Strategy and the Command of the Commons." At the conference NAF released a formal report on the subject: Whither Command of the Commons? Choosing Security Over Control.

The authors, Sameer Lalwani, Research Fellow at NAF and Joshua Shifrinson, Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School explained their perspective, "This paper...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." "Command of the commons", they explain, means "the ability to project military power and engage in trade at times and places of its choosing while denying the same privileges to others."

For us commoners the idea that we would take military command of the commons "as a given" is both infuriating and preposterous. Which raises the question. Why did they use the word at all? There was no pressing need. The thesis, that the United States can no longer afford to spend trillions of dollars to maintain an armed presence everywhere on the planet and can no longer dictate to the rest of the world and must devise ways to cooperate without undermining our security, could have been just as well presented without using the term. Substitute the words "the seas" for "maritime commons" and the argument doesn't suffer.

But NAF self-consciously did use the word "commons", indeed so extravagantly that it was repeated more than 200 times in this brief 21 page document, twice as many times, interestingly, as they used the word "military". So they are making a point. But what is the point?

A commons is widely accepted to have certain characteristics. Resources are collectively owned and shared. A commons is inclusive rather than exclusive. People can access it on a more or less equal basis. Benefits are equitably shared. A commons is meant to be preserved. The military has a structure and a mission antithetical to the preservation and expansion of the commons. To call for the military to command the commons is to call for its weakening and decline. Perhaps the authors recognize this since the piece talks only about commanding the commons. There is nothing about protecting the commons.

The NAF report focuses on the "maritime commons" but never mentions the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), a legal document the emerged from a movement to recognize the seas and the sea beds as commons to be used for the benefit of humanity, equitably shared.

In 1970, the United Nations declared the seabed, ocean floor, and subsoil to be "the common heritage of mankind.... (T)he exploitation of its resources shall be carried out for the benefit of mankind as a whole, irrespective of the geographical location of states, whether landlocked or coastal, and taking into particular consideration the interests and needs of the developing countries ...([It ensured) the equitable sharing (of its) benefits."

Given its support of the military commanding the commons would have been instructive to hear NAF's perspective on the U.S. involvement in negotiations over the UNCLOS. Carol Thompson Professor of International Political Economy at the Northern Arizona University offers insights into that history. She writes, "The apparent first act for enclosure of the seas was by President Harry Truman, who declared in 1945 that the United States had the exclusive right to exploit its territorial waters, defined as on or under the continental shelf. From 1945 to 1957, 41 other enclosure declarations or laws were enacted by various countries. In response, by 1956, landlocked countries started discussions for a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) to halt these national territorial claims."

The United States directed the discussions over the definition of territorial waters under UNCLOS. "Its delegations especially wanted to define the freedom of navigation, right of innocent passage, and over-flight rights in ways to facilitate the movement of its armed forces around the world", writes Professor Thompson. The U.S. military got its way.

But when it came to subscribing to the equitable sharing of benefits from the sea, the U.S. balked, bogging down negotiations for more than a decade. The United States successfully demanded the elimination of provisions in early drafts that required sharing deep-sea technology with other countries.

Even with all these concessions, the United States is one of only a handful of states that has yet to ratify UNCLOS. As a result U.S. is now barred from membership on the Law of the Sea Tribunal and the Continental Shelf Commission, and can no longer name members to arbitration panels.

As an antidote to a report explaining how the military can continue to command the commons, one might want to read the seven part series published in Truthout this summer. Written by Patricia Hynes a retired professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health and chair of the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice the series is entitled, War and the Tragedy of the Commons.

One interesting tidbit in Ms. Hynes' articles relates to the impact of the military on another commons, the sky. "The amount of land and airspace mandated by armed forces for war games, including bombing and shooting ranges, has increased by at least 20 times since World War II. Up to half of US airspace is used for military purposes."

One might argue that the military not only occupies disproportionate parts of the sky, it assaults the sky. According to environmental journalist Johanna Peace, the military accounts for a full 80 percent of the federal government's energy demand. Yet during the Kyoto Accords negotiations, the US demand, and received, an exemption from measurements or reductions of its military operations worldwide and all operations it participates in with the U.N. and/or NATO. In May 1998 the U.S. Congress passed a bill explicitly guaranteeing U.S. military exemption. And military activities continue to be exempt from an executive order signed by President Barack Obama that calls for federal agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Michael Renner may have best summed up the relationship of the military to the environment. "A world that wants to make peace with the environment cannot continue to fight wars or to sacrifice human health and the earth's ecosystems preparing for them."

I realize the New America Foundation did not invent the phrase "command of the commons". The term has crept into military writing over the last few years, perhaps beginning with a 2003 article by Barry Rosen entitled, "Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony".

But 2011 is a historical moment. A worldwide movement has arisen to defend and expand the commons at the same time strong sentiment exists in this country that we cannot continue to police the world. What we need now is a report that talks about the military AND the commons and explores whether the relationship between the two can become more supportive and less hostile.