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Security and Globalization in History

Has global integration made us less — or more — secure?

September 9, 2004

Has global integration made us less — or more — secure?

Global economic integration, it is said, has made wars between countries much less likely. But it has also spawned new dangers, such as global terrorism. This begs the question: Has globalization made the world more or less secure? For a historian's perspective, we turned to Emma Rothschild, the director of the Center for History and Economics at the University of Cambridge and visiting professor at Harvard University.

Is today's rapid integration of the global economy really unprecedented?

"No. If you look at the mid-18th century, you find an epoch of expansion in long-distance commerce, communications and investment. It was also a time of tremendous expansion in information about events in other countries — and of quite self-conscious reflection on the political importance of this information."

What kind of developments helped this process along?

“The commercial expansion of the mid-18th century was a matter of undramatic changes — including improvements in packaging, reduced inventory costs, the development of storage facilities, increased information about tides, prices, credit histories and distant markets. But added together, these seemingly small changes laid the foundation for a dramatic increase in trade."

What was the core reason for this acceleration of global integration?

"More generally, the extension of individual security was at the heart of the economic progress of the mid-18th century."

In what sense does the world today face similar challenges as it did back then?

“One such challenge is that security of information — as it was in the 18th century commercial revolution — is essential to the global economy of the early 21st century.”

Has global integration made us more vulnerable — or more resistant — to the risks of insecurity?

"We need to recognize that today's world economy is likely to impose a new — and even greater — tolerance for insecurity."

Does that also apply to the military sphere?

"I expect that military security will be far more like human security — that is, far more disparate and indistinct — than it was in the Cold War.”

What exactly has changed with the end of the Cold War?

“In the Cold War, military power was widely assumed to be relatively little affected by the globalization of commodities, investments and movements of people. But in the new wars of the early 21st century, the routine movements of individuals, freight and funds are of quite new significance. They constitute a new theater or medium of conflict.”

What conclusions should military planners draw from this insight?

“They could reflect that overwhelming power is likely to be of less than overwhelming usefulness in the wars of the future."

How so?

One of the oldest strategic choices is over what sort of war to fight — or in which 'medium'. For example, the air was the new medium of conflict of the early 20th century. Space — or the atmosphere — was the new medium in the epoch of Cold War deterrence."

What then is the new battlefield of the 21st century?

"The global economy— with its myriads of civil or civilian exchanges — is likely to be the medium of new wars. But it also holds out the promise, eventually, of a different and more resilient security."

To learn more about Professor Rothschild's views on globalization and security, read her Jerome E. Levy lecture , delivered at the Naval War College in September, 2002.