NATO Misconstrues the Commons

So now NATO is interested in the commons!  Or at least, it’s interested in what it thinks is the commons.  In September, a group of NATO brass, security analysts and other policy elites held a conference called “Protecting the Global Commons.”  Attendees were mostly unknown to us commoners, but they are 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.” 

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 the sponsors apparently don’t regard the commons as a self-organized system designed by commoners themselves to serve their needs. 

No.  To NATO decisionmakers, the “global commons” consists of those empty spaces and resources that lie beyond the direct and exclusive control of nation-states, yet which are necessary to fruitful intercourse among nation-states.  So, for example:  space, the oceans and the Internet.

The problems posed by these “global commons,” conference organizers imply, is that they must somehow be dominated by NATO countries lest hostile countries, rogue states and pirates use them to interfere with commercial and military activities.  These spaces are seen as no-man’s land without governance.  Hence the need for NATO’s attention. 

Here’s the self-stated purpose of the conference: 

“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 it relevance in 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 the “vital connective tissue in a globalized world.”  However, the question that didn’t seem to get asked at the conference (based on the program agenda), is:  How shall civil society (for lack of a better term) participate in these deliberations and make sure that commons governance structures will serve its interests?  That, after all, is what a democratic society is all about – the interests of the people.  NATO conveniently conflates the interests and priorities of commoners with the interests and priorities of nation-states aligned with NATO. They aren’t necessarily the same, however, as the WikiLeaks case is now vividly demonstrating.

Based on the conference agenda and list of participants, it's safe to say that the geo-political advantage of NATO-aligned governments was more on the minds of conferees than the empowerment and protection of the world’s commoners.  The program notes for one section says it all:  “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?”

It’s hard to know if NATO is deliberately attempt to co-opt the term “the commons,” or whether they are merely using the term in ignorance.  Probably the latter....or both.  There is a long history of misconstruing the commons, after all.  Garrett Hardin’s erroneous use of the term poisoned its meaning a generation.  NATO seems to be perpetuating Hardin’s error.  It seems to regard oceans, space and the Internet as “commons” because no one owns or controls them – i.e., because they are a free-for-all. 

Has no one at NATO read Professor Elinor Ostrom’s work on the commons?  Hardin himself admitted to his error years after the fact, confessing that he had in fact described an “open access” regime, not a commons. 

Please, NATO:  Why not just admit your narrow geo-political aspirations for your member states with respect to space, oceans and the Internet, and refrain from using the word “commons”?  You’re mis-using the word and wrongly conflating NATO’s interests with those of the commoners.  

Alternatively, why not begin to imagine a genuine global commons that could transcend the parochial, self-serving interests of national governments?  Why not build some creative new international governance structures that could truly represent the commoners, and not just commercially driven, often-corrupt national governments with little genuine interest in democracy, accountability or the integrity of the common resource in question? 

After all, we’ve seen how nation-state management of the planetary atmosphere has been manifestly deficient and could well be catastrophic for human civilization.  And we’ve seen how the U.S. Government has gotten on the wrong side of history on countless occasions by building alliances with tyrannical governments and ignoring the commoners who later rose up to reclaim their countries.  If NATO really cares about long-term strategic stability of space, oceans and the Internet, it would do well to learn from Garrett Hardin’s error and get serious about the commons.  Start by talking to some real commoners.

Update, December 30:  NATO has released a "pre-decisional, interim report" on the commons.  Click here for a pdf download of the 16-page report.