Technology and Tensions in the Global Commons

Kristi Govella
Content Type
Journal Article
Fletcher Security Review
Issue Number
Publication Date
Summer 2019
The Fletcher School, Tufts University
For most of history, the domains of the global commons were unclaimed, largely because the technology to access and utilize them did not exist.[1] In areas such as the high seas and outer space, it was impossible for states to establish and maintain sovereign control. Even as the relevant technologies developed, costliness and controls kept them initially concentrated largely in the hands of just a few major powers such as the Unit- ed States and the Soviet Union. For the United States, “command of the commons” became the military foundation of its hegemony, granting it the ability to access much of the planet and to credibly threaten to deny the use of such spaces to others.[2] Bipolar competition between the United States and the Soviet Union strongly influenced developments in the maritime and outer space domains. In the case of cyberspace, a more recent addition to the traditional global commons, the United States was also initially dominant due to its role in pioneering associated technologies. However, over time and particularly since the end of the Cold War, continuing technological innovation and diffusion have made these domains accessible to a growing number of countries. ​ This technological progress was born of both cooperation and competition between states. While some states chose to develop certain technologies indigenously, many acquired knowledge and equipment from abroad. Globalization of industry has made it easier for states to obtain a variety of foreign technologies, even lowering the threshold for them to procure disruptive military capabilities. In addition, over the last two decades, American primacy has been increasingly challenged by the rise of China, which has impacted the dynamics of technological development and diffusion across multiple domains. As China has acquired the technology to become more active in the commons, it has prompted major regional powers, such as Japan and India, to accelerate their own technological advancement, and other mid-sized and smaller countries have also become increasingly engaged.[3] ​ The consequence of this multiplication of technologically sophisticated actors has been the erosion of American primacy in the global commons. Although the United States still remains the most dominant player, it is faced with a more densely populated field, and management of these spaces has become more difficult. This article examines this trend in the high seas, outer space, and cyberspace since the end of the Cold War, with attention to the ways in which the rise of China and the relative decline of the United States have catalyzed greater engagement with the commons, particularly among the countries in Asia that find themselves most affected by this power transition. I argue that advances in and diffusion of technology have transformed the global commons into increasingly crowded domains characterized by interstate competition and heightened tensions. Whether these tensions prevail depends on the creation and strengthening of regimes to manage interactions and promote shared rules and norms...
International Relations, Security, Globalization, Science and Technology
Political Geography
China, Global Focus, United States of America