Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power

The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power by Patrick Porter Porter - Global village myth

A good academic book will usually have two stories contained inside. First, it needs an academic contribution that helps explore with careful logic and substantial detail a specific aspect of world affairs. The second story is the public/policy implications. That is, an attempt to say why this matters, and how the refined understanding of the ideas and issues in the first story, can translate into a clear path forward that completes the second.

The Global Village Myth is a persuasive, fascinating, important, and extremely well written book. But unfortunately its two stories don’t quite balance each other. The policy story unfortunately tends to dominate the academic one, which in turn limits the power of the analysis, which then constrains the power of the policy recommendations.

Porter’s thesis, and one I broadly accept, is that thanks to globalisation and technology we have seen a consensus emerge that the world has ‘shrunk’. This however has not helped the nerves of security analysts. Rather, the tyranny of distance has been replaced by the peril of proximity. To those who accept this view, security requires a global approach. No threat can be left alone, no bad guy untouched, no distance sufficient to give breathing ‘space’. And so perpetual war needs to be waged to have perpetual peace.

Through three case studies of Al-Qaeda, the Taiwan strait and the rise of cyber and drones, Porter shows that on the ground, distance still matters. In all three cases, the lines on the map are still vital for how the issues will play out. To the extent they are overlooked or downplayed, our ability to sensibly understand and resolve them is reduced. Even in the information age power is still shaped and stopped by geography.

This argument is not just a simple effort to show the map matters. Instead Porter offers a a refined understanding of how space is both material (Oceans and the Himalayas have the own obvious effects), but also constructed (how near is ‘near’, who owns what, how does space shape our perception of location, security, wealth etc). I found this an extremely compelling argument, but I finished this book somewhat disappointed.

Porter rightly focuses on the way actors in the United States understand and adopt this argument (what he terms ‘globalism’), especially ‘liberal’ ideologues such as B.Clinton, Bush 2 & B.Obama (and unquestioned by H.Clinton, Bush 3 and virtually all serious 2016 contenders). But this focus on the US tends to overwhelm and shrink the space for the academic analysis of the concept of strategic space. I never quite felt all the important threads of how geography, ideas and strategy interact were drawn out. Ironically the US focus also underplayed the importance of the idea by downplaying just how globally accepted the ‘globalism’ thesis really is. The US may be an advanced case, but it is far from the only one.

For example: In Australia there seems a real divide between analysts who accept the globalism idea and want a Defence force designed around the threats we face (global). And their critics who want a Defence force designed around the things we want to protect (local). It’s not hard to see many other countries who supported international actions without considering enough how geography will shape their actions. From those who support R2P and humanitarian intervention through to the struggles Russia and China are facing trying to push out the boundaries of their control.

Porter’s concern however is to show why a lack of appreciation for geography has harmed american policy making. As such the over-stretch and challenges of the US end up dominating most of the book. This is an important tale, but one I felt could have been made more powerfully with a slightly greater focus on the academic analysis and if pushed less centrally and consistently throughout. It also risks getting lost in the crowd critiquing current US policy, when it should stand a cut above most of what is out there. It also felt slightly under-done. Given the focus on the US, I’d have been keen to see more policy advocacy rather than just criticism from Porter. As his twitter handle is @offshorebalancer, I kept wondering what some of the implications were for US policy in Asia. Could offshore balancing even work if distance is still so huge a factor (i.e. if the US gave up many of its bases in Asia as offshore balancers want, could the US still have a say in Asia?).

You’ll note my concerns here aren’t actually critiques of the central argument of the book, so take these as the lesser order concerns they are. The Global Village Myth is an important contribution to the Strategic Studies literature. Too many have too readily accepted the demise of geography to great cost. The counter-view however isn’t a banal geographic determinism as some push (See Robert D. Kaplan’s ‘Revenge of Geography’) but rather a recognition that space is both material and ideational and we need a more nuanced and advanced understanding of their interconnection in this interconnected world.

The Global Village Myth is a great read for anyone interested in global politics, especially on the strategic side of the ledger