What is the foundation of economic strength and power? Every society needs transportation, communication and resources. Wars are won through superior logistics and the economy grows for the same reason. The technology and needed resources change through time.

The Information Age is about the control of the Global Commons and this will be the battlegrounds of 4th generation warfare.

In the modern world, territorial wars have decreased in number very sharply, but there is increasing tension and conflicts over the commons. This is not because mankind suddenly grew peaceful, but because land-based territory is no longer as valuable.

The Global Commons contain resources and assets outside of national jurisdiction. The Commons may have natural resources or provide access to other people in the world. These commons are the foundation of “Globalization.”

I’ve identified five areas of the Commons: 1) Oceans 2) Airspace 3) Space 4) Cyberspace 5) Ideology.

One of the problems with the “Commons” is that many nations of people can access it, but the resources and access are exclusive to a single party. The traditional means of solving this problem was to “nationalize” the resource by taking ownership and denying access to rivals. Not everything can be nationalized given current levels of technology.

In the past, hunter-gatherer tribes feuded over control of hunting grounds and water access. Pastoralists and herders fought over the best grazeland for their herds. Both were nomads who roamed in search of best land. They could not share – the land could not support two tribes.

Agricultural societies needed to control good farmland, water resources, and population. Farming is exclusive use of land by one community. Whoever had more farmland produced more food, had a larger population, and became more powerful. Rulers fought wars to expand their lordship over territory and win control of the serfs and slaves who worked the land.

The Industrial era reduced the need for farming territory. Industrial Empires more selectively captured scarce natural resources abroad for manufacturing at home. For instance, Europeans required rubber which could only be found outside of Europe, so they conquered tropical countries which grew rubber.

Not all territory can be nationalized. Some, like the oceans, are too difficult to secure exclusive access. These remaining territories remain global commons.

Agricultural societies were the first to recognize and use the global commons. Ships transported merchandise across seas and rivers and the first navies emerged to protect shipping. Command of the sea provided economic trade and military access to distant regions. If you command the seas, you became wealthy and powerful.

The foundation of American Power today is based on its Command of the Commons

Barry Posen argues that American power is not based on its raw military power or GDP advantages. It is based on its mastery of the global commons, which enable it to access any region of the world quickly and decisively while also being able to deny access to hostile nations.

“The U.S. military currently possesses command of the global commons. Command of the commons is analogous to command of the sea, or in Paul Kennedy’s words, it is analogous to “naval mastery.” The “commons,” in the case of the sea and space, are areas that belong to no one state and that provide access to much of the globe. Airspace does technically belong to the countries below it, but there are few countries that can deny their airspace above 15,000 feet to U.S. warplanes. Command does not mean that other states cannot use the commons in peacetime. Nor does it mean that others cannot acquire military assets that can move through or even exploit them when unhindered by the United States. Command means that the United States gets vastly more military use out of the sea, space, and air than do others; that it can credibly threaten to deny their use to others; and that others would lose a military contest for the commons if they attempted to deny them to the United States. Having lost such a contest, they could not mount another effort for a very long time, and the United States would preserve, restore, and consolidate its hold after such a fight.

Command of the commons is the key military enabler of the U.S. global power position. It allows the United States to exploit more fully other sources of power, including its own economic and military might as well as the economic and military might of its allies. Command of the commons also helps the United States to weaken its adversaries, by restricting their access to economic, military, and political assistance. Command of the commons has permitted the United States to wage war on short notice even where it has had little permanent military presence.”

Competition over the Commons occurs between the four global powers: US, Russia, China, and the European Union. India and Japan are rising players in certain spheres, but are not general competitors.

There is a second threat: Parasitism by non-state actors. They do not seek to wrestle away command of the commons – they just hijack a portion of it for their own ends.

The United States controls the surface of the seas through its navy. The US created international organization, such as the World Trade Organization, to create rules and regulations for international trade. The Navy protects and enforces this global trade regime. There are lingering questions about how to mine the seabed resources.

Airspace is controlled by the USAF. No nation-state can challenge American dominance of the air. Americans dominate all forms of air travel, from UAVs to advanced stealth fighters like the F-22. Airspace is dominated in more subtle ways, from Boeing’s power in the airline construction industry, to the use of the English language as the lingua franca of universal air travel.

This includes the ability to place communications and satellites in space as well as explore and possibly colonize territory in space. The Americans command space access. For instance, The Global Positioning System. The American GPS is vital for accurate international navigation. A modern nation-state cannot wage war without American permission. The US will deny them access to GPS data and satellite communications – which reduces the belligerent to pencil-and-paper navigation and archaic land-based telephones.

A brand new Commons is the Internet. This revolutionary new communications tool is critically necessary for businesses and military affairs. Online transactions, data-sharing, email, etc – provide access to the entire world, but without national control. There is a ticking time bomb embedded in the Internet – the First Amendment.

The US dominates the Internet in an unintentional way. Many data servers are in the US and the ICANN corporation assigns IP addresses and domain names. This has the curious effect of enforcing American Free Speech across the world while creating a signals intelligence utopia. Many foreign communications and websites interact through American servers – so they come under the protection of the American First Amendment and pass under the noses of the spooks at the National Security Agency. The United States refuses to censor material on the internet as desired by the rest of the world, like the Europeans, Chinese, Russians, and Muslims. Not only that, it can read everyone’s mail whenever it chooses. The idea that “information wants to be free” is realized.

Ideologies are sets of ideas and ways of life which spread across national boundaries. Religion was, perhaps, the first commons ideology. Ideologies are competitive and usually exclusive. Today this includes secular political ideologies and perhaps scientific advances.

I don’t like the word “ideology” since it is really a subset of a broader idea of memetic diffusion across nations.

The US has mastery over military use of the Global Commons. To secure cooperation, it provides security for other nations to use the commons for peaceful economic and scientific use. Other nations agree to this because they no longer have to pay to secure their own economies – they become free-riders on the global gravy-train.

The Commons are the basis of future economic growth, yet international law ineffectively regulates their use. American imperial command of the Commons keeps the global economy running at the moment, but hostilities may bring the entire edifice down. And we can say with certainty that future wars will be fought over the command of the commons.

The first Cyberwar likely occurred when Russians attacked and shut down Estonia’s internet service. The Americans and Chinese are leading the world in Cyberwar preparation. There is so much criminal activity that state attacks can be blamed on criminals to evade responsibility.

Financial markets and currency are also in the Commons. Currency speculation can be used to damage the value of a currency. George Soros used insider trading to launch speculative attacks against the UK and East Asian countries to make a profit. States could use financial intel and time speculative attacks – not for profit, but to disrupt an enemy economy.

In Space, the other powers – Russia, China, and the EU – tried to produce their own alternative to the GPS, like the EU Magellan, but have been less successful than the US. China is experimenting with satellite destroying missiles, just to try and mitigate American dominance in case of conflict.

Even seemingly settled regulations and laws are being overturned as the economy changes and new powers emerge. One long-standing question in international law is the control of resources in the ocean sea-bed. In the 1970s la-la mentality, the seabed was declared to be the heritage of mankind and the resources were to be shared. This created a kind of international absentee land-management. Into this vacuum, the Great Powers vie for control while ignoring the nonsensical international law.

Russia is claiming the seabed resources in the Artic. A Russian expedition sailed to the North Pole and literally planted a Russian flag on the seabed to declare ownership.

“Putin asserts his nation’s ownership of 460,000 square miles of Arctic territory – and its huge reserves of oil and gas – after exploration feat of ‘unimaginable difficulty’”

But the expedition raised the hackles of Russia’s neighbours, who also have their eye on the vast mineral deposits that could lie under the Arctic area, and who consider the Russian move as a brazen land grab. “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory’,” said Peter MacKay, Canada’s Foreign Minister.

Yes, you can, and Russia just did. What are you going to do about it?

Russia and China plan to become naval powers this century (true enough, they’ve been planning to become naval powers for many centuries). Perhaps not with the intention of directly challenging the much more formidable US Navy, but they will use this their naval power to carve out their Sphere of Influence in the Global Commons.

Even more interesting is how the Global Commons empowered non-state actors like transnational criminal organizations and global insurgents such as the Islamists. They hijack the international economic and communication flows for their own ends. Likewise, ideologies are spreading through the Internet seeking to undermine existing governments and institutions. The Nation-state system is no where near as strong as international law pretends.

The great wars of the future will be fought to maintain control of spheres of influence in the global commons. These conflicts have already begun.

International Law is failing because it is based on Industrial Era practices which are now antiquated and no longer followed. Whenever there is a technological revolution, new powers exert themselves and new laws replace the antiquated ones. The world is undergoing such a transition today.