The “commons,” taken from grazing land in old England held in common by the community for public use, refers to a public good, such as air. We live in an era of rising complexity of the international political system, which means that our mutual dependence is rising. The danger of forgetting that lesson was underscored by 9/11 and the events that have since flowed from it. In this situation, security needs to be viewed as a common good – shared by all mankind – because walls can no longer be built to protect one society from another.
Viewing national security as a common good entails an entirely new paradigm of national defense that implicitly rejects the three-century-long post-Westphalian Western tradition of state sovereignty. Rather than it being the duty of each state to maximize its own security at the expense of that of other states, if national security is viewed as a common good, it becomes the duty of each state to define national security in a comparative perspective that recognizes the impossibility of making one state truly secure in the modern age without providing security for other states as well. This is not at all a matter of alliances; alliances that compete with each other merely extend the outdated state sovereignty concept while in no way overcoming the fundamental issue of defining an opponent. According to the new perspective of international, rather than national, security, there are no enemies.
This is of course not to assert that in reality no enemies exist, but to set as a goal the achievement of an international political system that all mankind can buy into. Setting this as the goal instantly replaces the zero-sum concept of one state enhancing its security at the expense of another state with the question of how security can be defined inclusively. The slow rise of “international law” has constituted a halting series of initial steps in this direction via the establishment of rules that slowly chipped away at unrestrained state barbarism by attempting to persuade all states to accept certain actions (e.g., unprovoked aggression, wars of prevention, nuclear attacks on non-nuclear powers, collective punishment, attacking non-combatants, the use of particularly outrageous weapons such as poison gas and cluster bombs) as unacceptable. But international law, even as accepted by modern, “civilized” states before 9/11, was primarily negative – a definition of forbidden actions without a fundamentally new way of viewing world affairs that would replace national sovereignty.
Security as a common good provides this new perspective by defining this most basic state function as something too basic to be left in the hands of individual states for their own selfish purposes. It asserts that, just as a state would, for example, lack the moral right to use up the earth’s atmosphere, it also lacks the moral right to establish a security regime for itself at the expense of other states.
The practical problems of achieving this will of course not be straightforward, any more than the practical problems of creating an international nation-state system in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War over three centuries ago were straightforward. The point here is simply to argue that we need this new mindset as the foundation for changing our behavior.
Before dismissing this as ridiculously idealistic dreaming, it is worth recalling how ridiculously idealistic, back in the 16th century era of kingdoms, the revolutionary new idea of governments of the people based on a shared self-identification as a “nation” would have sounded. Even more to the point, in an age when one individual can cause enormous international suffering through any of a virtually infinite number of ways against which reliable defense is impossible, we have no choice.
Simply stated, security today requires balance: it cannot be perfect. The best we can do is to maximize security, knowing that total success is impossible. And maximizing security requires the participation of everyone else.
Security is real only if stable, enduring. No one would be satisfied to have perfect security that only lasted for five minutes. The whole point of worrying about security is to achieve lasting security. Yet policymakers all too often do precisely the opposite – setting in place policies that provide extremely short-term security at the expense of exacerbating longer-term security risks.
Unfortunately for those who seek simple solutions, shared security in an adversarial environment cannot be perfect because perfect security for Side A means perfect insecurity for Side B. Stable security in an adversarial environment therefore requires a balance in which all sides have sufficient security to tolerate the situation. Acquiring too much can be as dangerous as having too little because too much on one side will be perceived as a threat by the other, provoking countermeasures.
Stated abstractly, this need for balance between Side A’s security and Side B’s security seems too obvious to need belaboring. In the real world, however, forgetting this simple concept causes endless conflict.
A population denied any security at all, totally dependent for survival upon the forbearance of a hated and feared enemy, will have little incentive to engage in moderate discourse and every incentive to arm to the teeth and take all manner of desperate risks to destroy the “perfect” security attained by the opponent. This remains the case even if the opponent is not engaged in any hostile action because the threat remains. Thus, utterly insecure groups cannot be held to the same standards of behavior as secure groups. For the secure to make such demands as a precondition is both unrealistic and hypocritical. Security is the precondition that must be given before a group can be expected to accept international standards of behavior. The more interdependent we become, the more security becomes a common good that we either all share or all do without.