The Tyranny of Distance

We live in a small world. How many times have you heard that? How often have you heard that we are hopelessly bound together in a globalised and interconnected village?

In all its different incantations, how much have you been told that twitter, the internet, cheap travel, digitised finance or pandemics mean that we now inhabit a borderless globe, where there is no ‘over here’ or ‘over there’?

And, most importantly of all, how often have we been told that our intervention abroad, especially our armed intervention, is crucial because of the new proximity of security threats, and possible because we have the technology to return fire?

I’ve long distrusted this idea. Partly because it has led to so much mischief. Preventative wars like Iraq, the expansion of the Euro-Atlantic alliance and the resulting confrontation with Moscow, the wearing down of our overstretched military forces, and more deeply, the way an undifferentiated kind of ‘globalism’ damages our ability to think strategically, to separate the vital from the peripheral, to rank our interests and husband our resources.

But above all, it is a minor personal experience that also leaves me doubtful. Once every so often, I fly to Australia to visit my family. I love seeing them. But the flight on both legs always leaves me exhausted. Twenty hours across time zones, in all weathers, takes its toll. Our capacity to cross space may be faster than ever. But distance still exerts its depleting effects. Geography, it seems, always finds a way to get its revenge. Historian Geoffrey Blainey was so taken by distance that he organised his interpretation of Australian history around it – the Tyranny of Distance.

As trendy as it sounds, the obliteration of distance and the ‘shrunken world’  is in fact an old idea. Franklin Roosevelt  invoked it to justify America’s war against the Axis. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor showed that Americans could not afford to measure their security by miles on a map anymore. The coming of new tools, such as the aircraft carrier, and predatory ideologies of endless expansion such as fascism, meant that American security could not be territorial. It had to become universalist.

As it happened, World War Two saw the revenge of geography. It turned out that airplanes could be a shield as well as a sword, used to defend as well as attack urban targets. Strategic bombers could met out horrific violence, but took grievous losses in the process of striking thickly defended cities.  It turned out that despite some predictions, water still had a stopping power if defenders could project force over it. General Keitel announced that invading Britain would just be a ‘large river crossing.’ With Britain’s surface fleet, it turned out to be an unpassable moat, even for the new revisionist Germany and its bid to create its version of ‘One World.’

Getting close to Japan in order to break its will was a hard task indeed. Hopes that China could be a staging post were dashed because of terrain, weather and vastness. Getting real estate for forward air bases required bloody battles over islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, costing America casualties that it could not repeatedly sustain. As for Operation Barbarossa, it turned out that the dynamic package of armoured forces, high tempo and Auftragstaktik could not conquer freezing temperatures, vastness, hopeless roads and the strain on logistics, not to mention the iron indefatigability of Russians who wouldn’t yield.

Nevertheless, the idea of a shrunken world lived on. Roosevelt was continuing a strategic tradition embodied by Woodrow Wilson, and it was handed on to the architects of American grand strategy in the Cold War and beyond.

The interconnectedness of everything was at the heart of what became of the containment strategy, it underpinned the domino theory, it led to internal inquests into fifth column menaces at home. It lies at the foundation of the Bush doctrine, and the notion that classical strategic doctrines like deterrence and containment are no good in the dangerous planetary neighborhood. In short, it has helped turn the West from a watchful guardian into a wandering vigilante. Its latest battlesite is the cyber-realm, which supposedly is ageographical and all the more deadly for it. And it is the intellectual basis for what seems like the unquenchable appetite of Republican politicians for war, both threatening it and lowering the threshold for it.

As well as writing something on US strategic thinkers, I’m writing an argument about globalism and distance, and the confusion that the doctrine of globalism and the forgetting of distance has wrought on our collective mind. To be sure, technology has a shrinking effect of sorts. But it has in other ways expanded the world strategically. Nuclear weapons, new tools and techniques of access denial (such as long-range anti-ship missiles) and the diffusion of wealth and technology amongst growing states means that we might be able to fire a long way, but its much harder to expand and subjugate.

Even the cyber-realm is a trickier beast than often assumed. It relies on a very physical property: the network of oceanic cables without which it would vanish. The internet is not a dark portal that enables easy and quick offensives. Against prepared defenders, it is more like the ocean – a deadly medium or highway where the aggressor can be identified, watched and targeted. Consider twitter, whose revolutionary and shrinking effect is so wildly overblown by its fans.

As Evgeny Morozov has shown, most of the tweeting about Iran during the Green uprising was taking place abroad. Its significance was overstated by internet commentators who…are twitterers, for whom self-absorption is not unknown. More fundamentally, it became part of the apparatus of the state, that targeted and hunted down twitterers and their sympathisers. Just as the printing press was harnessed by the counter-reformationists as well as Protestants, so too is our shiny wondrous gadgetry being exploited by regimes that are not about to be shown the door by the generation of internet chatterboxes.

In the field of economics and international politics, there are good critiques to be read, showing that globalisation (the circulation of people, things, capital and ideas around the world) is as much a choice as a fact. It is reversible, fragile and partial. Most people stay where they were born. Most people trade regionally or locally. Nationalism has not died out, not has the state surrendered its jealous hold over sovereignty. The return of walls in Baghdad, the US-Mexico border, or in Israel shows that many of the most powerful actors do not act as though the world is borderless. Emigration is now harder than it was in the nineteenth century, and illegal emigration is getting more and more dangerous. A similar revision is needed in the field of strategic studies.

Closer to home, it remains true that the Falklands islands are almost 8000 miles from London. Geography is not fixed, exactly – land does erode, drift, burn, and flood. And mediating between us and the world are the ideas we select and use or abuse to map that world. Nevertheless, the islands are a long way away from its ‘metropole’ by any decent measure. This brute fact conditions Britain’s strategic situation and debate. And indeed, the perceived legitimacy of this asset. The remoteness of the contested islands poses an awkward question for Britons: to liquidate the commitment, to reinforce its garrison and defence, or to take a risk by holding on to the status quo in the face of other locals getting more and more displeased.

My rough argument is this: to restore coherence to our strategy (and lets face it, something has gone wrong: a debt-deficit crisis, disastrous peripheral wars, national defences groaning under overextension, inflation and attrition), we need to restore some conception of distance to our thinking. We might be able to traverse space faster – but it still exacts its tolls. Physically, militarily, economically, psychologically. Just think about the difficulties and costs of supplying ISAF forces in Afghanistan over the long grinding route from Karachi into the interior, and the double-dealing entrepreneurs they must bribe just to get their supplies over land.

Of course, there is change. But its not the seismic change of geography disappearing. Its the shifting ways in which it reimposes limits on our power.

Futurists and prophets of ‘new wars’ characterised Osama Bin Laden as a guerrilla of the information age, orchestrating a shadowy network of Islamist militants, the terrorist mastermind without borders who could export his  mayhem at the click of a mouse or a tap of his encrypted software. But when US troops finally stormed his compound, we found out something surprising and embarrassingly unfashionable. He didn’t dare use the internet himself. It was too dangerous. He relied on couriers. Warfare always has been a hard slog. Its time to pause our twittering, and draw bigger maps in our minds.

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