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The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power

The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power by Patrick Porter. Georgetown University Press, 2015, 240 pp.

Many are the works, serious and not so, that attempt to explain why the United States rejected two centuries of near isolationism and continental defense and became the world’s policeman after World War II. Generally, these works find the consequences dire, and The Global Village Myth, written by Patrick Porter, professor of military history at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, is no exception.

The global village myth is that technology (military technology in particular) has changed the once vast planet wherein Geoffrey Blainey could decry the remoteness of Australia as the Tyranny of Distance (Macmillan, 1975) and replaced it with a world so small that there is no longer any possibility of isolation or any safe distance—not even an ocean apart. Logic says that the best way to counter the inescapable threat is to confront it from as far away as possible.

From at least World War II, mainstream thought has been that the globe is shrinking due to the inexorable march of technology. As the maps showed a shrinking globe, those who argued for containment and a smaller footprint in the world—George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and other strategy intellectuals of the fifties—lost the argument in an environment dominated by Joseph McCarthy, a Red scare, dominoes, and an overall feeling that safe space no longer existed, not since weapons acquired world reach. The climate of fear produced globalism, a strategic concept that demands massive and aggressive defense because short distances take so little time to cross. According to the author, it’s not true.

If anything, Porter asserts that closeness makes for greater security, but before explaining how that is possible, he offers a lengthy introduction explaining what the myth is and how it arose. The author is not the first to note the importance of switching from the Mercator projection to the polar-view map during the war. Matthew Farish’s The Contours of America’s Cold War (University of Minnesota, 2010) did that some years ago. Although Porter does not reference Farish, he agrees about the significance of misreading the map, especially by the military, based on the wartime misconception of the fearsome menace of airpower and its ability to shrink distances, transforming the Atlantic and Pacific into wadeable streams.

Even after postwar studies indicated the ineffectiveness of large-scale bombing, already nervous strategists had nightmares of massive waves of unstoppable bombers wreaking havoc and bringing previously invulnerable nations (read America) to their knees. The current buzzword is globalism, a subset of the broader globalization that deals with trade, communications, and the like. Globalism deals with military strategy, the behavior of defense forces in a tighter battlefield with less room for false steps.

Potentially, globalism is dangerously wrong because it leads to ill-advised behaviors associated with imperial overreach as warned against by Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House, 1987) back in the Cold War. Even the wealthiest and richest power in the world has finite capacity and eventually will overextend and enter a period of decline. In the meantime, as others note, imperial hubris will put the emperor’s nose into other people’s business and generate Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback (Metropolitan Books, 2000), a retaliatory sneak attack for desecrating a holy land, for example. From there, events can spiral downhill—one little preventive war, one presidential usurpation of congressional prerogative after another—until the United States is fighting trigger-happy in accordance with Dick Cheney’s One Percent Doctrine. If there’s even a 1 percent chance—and there is always at least a 1 percent chance—then shoot first and ask questions later. Such doctrine is dangerous, destructive, and a distraction from the real world and its problems.

Furthermore, it is all unnecessary because the globalists misconstrue distance. By looking at the small stream where once was a mighty ocean, they fail to see that the stream is an alligator-infested moat supported by barbed wire, land mines, nuclear drones, and suicidal robot soldiers. They confuse geographic distance with strategic distance. Those who attempted to cross no-man’s-land during World War I could have pointed out the difference, as could those who rode to certain death with Pickett and an endless assortment of foolhardy leaders over time.

One moat worthy of mention because the author uses it as a major component of his argument is the Formosa Strait, the narrow body of water between Taiwan and China. The strait is a globalist nightmare because it is nowhere near the distance that Taiwan would require for safety. At the snap of a finger, should China be so inclined, the Chinese flotilla of landing craft could cross it under air cover and land ground troops with virtual impunity. The globalists, however, fear wrongly. China has not attempted such an action, thus raising the question why? The author’s answer is that the geographic distance is insignificant but that the strategic distance, the relevant measure, is vast. Taiwan has that alligator-filled moat and a sophisticated defense sufficient to make China think that perhaps the price of conquest might be too great. A small globe is not necessarily a more dangerous one, particularly when smallness allows concentration of defenses. Just ask the Luftwaffe about the Battle of Britain.

Another argument is that the globe isn’t that small anyway, not for logisticians. The example—the long and deliberate move of an army to the Middle East to liberate Kuwait—illustrates the constraints of moving modern American armies, amenities and all, with a limited air cargo capability and a fleet restricted technologically to about 25 knots per hour. Geography in the old sense still matters. For materiel, the Atlantic is as vast now as it was for Britain in the American Revolution.

So globalists can relax. The old barriers still work, and new ones add to the difficulty of the offense. Rather than pre-positioning materiel and troops throughout the world just in case some small brushfire might flare up, a wiser use of resources is withdrawal from all of the bases that unnecessarily expose the face of the force to a terrorist-administered black eye that provokes overreaction.

Oddly enough, after his sustained argument against globalism, the author does note almost in passing that globalism is a theory that has largely passed its prime. If it is so discredited, then why does he spend so much time debunking it? And why doesn’t he bother to explain why he thinks globalism is passé? Is globalism too tightly tied to neoconservatism? Have globalist ventures proved too expensive and painful, as in Iraq and Afghanistan? Possibly, but he doesn’t say.

Another shortcoming is that the work is academic, not real world. In theory the world is safe enough for containment to be a viable option, particularly since no major foe threatens the continent. Nevertheless, lurking in the background is always the question of any untested theory. What if it’s wrong?

The bookshelf of works seeking to explain how the United States has gone astray and become a military-driven wastrel is massive, but mostly the literature deals with the economic, political, social, and other damage that being the world’s policeman has caused. The major strength of this work is that it is one of the best to explain how it happened and why it is so unnecessary. Realistically, Porter will join the others in the wilderness where their cries will remain unheard as Andrew Bacevich’s The New American Militarism (Oxford, 2005) remains the American way.

John H. Barnhill, PhD
Houston, Texas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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