Managing the Global Commons

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for

A major challenge for current socio-economic interaction at the global level is constituted by the fragility of the management system of the global commons.

Global commons can be defined as those domains that 1) serve as channel of transnational intercourse for individuals, goods, and ideas; and 2) are outside the jurisdiction of any specific national sovereignty, are simply un-owned. Scholars of the law of nature would have likely called them res nullius, though today we tend to see them rather as belonging to or common heritage of mankind.

Global commons are resources for interchange, are infrastructure for interconnectedness in an ever more globalized world. Four domains are usually associated to the notion of the global commons: high seas and Antarctic, airspace, outer space, and, more recently cyberspace.

In practice, the designation of these domains is tightly linked to technological developments and strategic interests. Historically speaking, for a long time sea was the only common taken into consideration. Later on with technological innovation and the subsequent possibility for exploitation for the sake of national interest came Antarctica, air, outer space, and just very recently cyberspace.

Two principal interpretations of the global commons are present in the public debate. In the environment-related discourse, the focus is on the conditions to avoid the overuse, the so called over-grazing by free-riding actors. In security studies, the focus is instead on the conditions to guarantee access to these domains for commercial or military reasons. In both interpretations, access to the common is expected to be ultimately unrestricted, and yet somehow paradoxically this may lead to accelerated consumption or degradation of the specific resource so much so that access may end up being not freely available anymore after a while: the classic “tragedy of the common” eloquently depicted by Hardin.

In a world ever more integrated, access is a crucial condition for the sustainability of the high level of global interconnectedness. Today over 90% of global trade travels by sea; 2.2 billion passengers travel through air; enormous quantity of data is exchanged every second on internet and through satellite communications. Were any of these domain disrupted, exorbitant costs would be imposed globally.

Until recently, only localized disruptions took place. Piracy in the Horn of Africa, cyber-attacks to Estonia and Georgia are examples of this kind of geographically limited troubles. Arguably, the recent PRISM scandal on the NSA net of control over data may potentially have a much larger negative impact on the cyber activity worldwide.

Free access to the global commons is crucial. These global infrastructures arguably remain a building block, a fundamental resource of the current global transformations and thus need to be adequately governed in order to increase the efficiency of the global interactions.

At the same time, we cannot stress enough that access to the global common has not only the value of free interconnectivity, but also the value of military dominance. In this latter case, access to the common means also control of the common, i.e. the power to let it free and to prevent intrusion of those who would threaten its accessibility.

Geopolitical thinkers have long argued for the control of the sea as a key to the control of the world. Part of the American military supremacy of the second half of the XX century (but also of the British supremacy of the period between the XIX and the XX century) was precisely due to the unrivalled control of commons. Controlling the sea, the airspace, and more recently the outer space and especially the cyberspace proved to be a military enabler of the US global hegemonic power position. The two-fold face of the value of the global commons needs to be always taken into account when assessing the significance of them. And in both cases, the issue of access is crucial.

A traditional way to solve the issue of access to the common resides in enclosure, which through state control or property right is expected to regulate the free passage in the most effective way. Enclosure constitutes a trend in international affairs and can be better observed in the domain of the sea with the ever growing ambitions of states to enlarge their sovereign rights. But this is no solution for a number of different reasons related to state competition and the subsequent unreliability of the system in terms of access to others.

A more promising strategy for safeguarding free access to the global commons consists instead in the further development of the governance structure already existing in each of the global commons. A considerable set of binding treaties, governance mechanisms, and stakeholder initiatives are already in place. They are incomplete, they are contested, and yet at the moment they provide a relative good degree of coordination in the protection of the global commons.

Major issues of contestation concerns on the one hand the distributions of the financial burdens attached to the control and implementation measures for the policy of free access, and on the other the legitimacy of some of these institutions. Related to the former, USA (and to some extent the EU) complain for the massive resources they are currently investing to keep the system going. Related to the latter, emerging powers complain about the allegedly partisanship of some institutions. Typical in this regard is the dispute over the management of the internet standards. USA and the EU defend the centrality of the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number) a private company based in California that has been running the business since its inception and has allegedly the most up-to-date expertise and flexibility to deal with internet governance. Conversely, other countries such as Russia and China maintain that the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), being a universalist intergovernmental organization part of the UN, is better equipped for managing a critical task such as that of internet governance. The dispute is still very much open.

The current governance of the global commons is the result of a large number of regulatory mechanisms which are at times interlinked and at other time independent one from the other. Behavior is regulated by a set of prohibitions, norms and rules whose effectiveness depends on a number of different factors. Ultimately what counts is the nature of the agreement. If the agreement is about coordination, i.e. it is a common-aversion mechanism with different points of equilibrium, then actors will have self incentives to stick to the rules once these are set. On the contrary, if the agreement is about cooperation, i.e. it is a common interests mechanism with no point of equilibrium, then the risk of free riding, of unilateral defection is always present and the need for enforcing measure to attain compliance will be consequently much higher. In sum, coordination agreements on issues on which there is a common perception of mutual interdependence are more likely to be effective in regulating state behavior.

Ultimately the issue of legitimacy remains central. Both in the classical intergovernmental arrangements and in the more recent hybrid stakeholder formula, what it essential in order to guarantee a legitimate management of the global commons is the input legitimacy. Setting in place a mechanism that exclude important actors from the management of the global commons is a recipe for failure. In a world in which power is more and more diffused, the challenge is to create avenues for the inclusion of all major actors involved in any common. Only by doing this, the management of the global commons will remain as effective and sustainable as possible. To make a long argument short, it is not enough to guarantee free access to the global commons. What it is also essential is to guarantee free access to the management itself of the global commons.