6th Annual CSPS Symposium on International Security

Global Commons

September 21, 2023

The Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies organizes an annual symposium on topics of enduring significance for international security.  Past topics have included the rise of Asia, nuclear weapons policy, the future of alliances, technology’s impact on the future of warfare, and the Artic.  This year, looking at the Global Commons, we discussed how states cooperate, compete, and coerce in the places that belong to all of us It’s all the places and domains that are not owned or controlled by sovereign states – so think about the oceans, the atmosphere, outer space, and new technology domains that affect us all.  The international system, from the UN and other international institutions, tries to set norms and rules for how these commons are used and sustained for the benefit of all. 

Welcoming Remarks

Dean Mark Rozell and Ellen Laipson, CSPS Director

Opening Speaker

Kathleen Newland, Migration Policy Institute 

Kathleen Newland is a Senior Fellow and Co-Founder of the Migration Policy Institute. Her work focuses on the governance of international migration, the relationship between migration and development, and refugee protection. She has served on the Boards of Directors of the International Rescue Committee, the Stimson Center, USA for UNHCR, and the Foundation for the Hague Process on Migrants and Refugees. She is also a Chair Emerita of the Women’s Refugee Commission. Ms. Newland is author or editor of nine books, including most recently All at Sea: The Policy Challenges of Rescue, Interception, and Long-Term Response to Maritime Migration (MPI, 2016). She has also written more than 50 policy papers, articles, and book chapters.

Kathleen Newland offered a sobering start to the symposium by framing the tragedy of the commons through the lens of maritime migration.  Maritime migration is unique because the refugees are not constantly under the jurisdiction of a state, often transferring between a number of states as vessels move between different zones of responsibility.  Ms. Newland noted the number of legal agreements that designate responsibility for refugees on the high seas, specifically the search and rescue areas that tend to overlap or are unclear. The maritime refugee crisis touches jurisdictions dealing with migration, criminal activity, and property rights bodies of law. Despite these legal delineations and responsibilities, countries and commercial actors are not acting on behalf of the refugees on the high seas.  Countries are unwilling and unable to enforce and operate in accordance with those responsibilities.  

The costs associated with the maritime refugee crisis are unequally distributed, falling primarily on countries receiving migrants with little international organization to distribute the burden.  Ms. Newland gave examples of islands in the Mediterranean, like Lampedusa, part of Italy but closer to Tunisia.  Lampedusa had 100 boats arrive last Tuesday (12 Sept 23) and is housing a refugee population equal to that of the residents, overwhelming resources. Non-governmental organizations attempt to assist in the crisis by sponsoring ships to rescue refugees, but nations are unwilling to allow those ships to come into port.  Disembarkation of migrants is often met with lack of support or is forbidden completely.  Ms. Newland provided the example of Australia as a nation exercising deterrence against maritime refugees. A Norwegian commercial container ship floated for weeks outside Australia while disembarkation was negotiated for only a few hundred migrants. To avoid this cost, nations are not appropriately searching their responsible areas and not responding to mayday calls.  Thus, putting migrants, often in flimsy and unseaworthy vessels, in even more danger.  Commercial vessels willingly turn off their transponders so they are not required legally to respond to mayday calls from migrant vessels. Commercial ships are bound by the country’s regulations with which they are flagged.  

Smugglers have taken advantage of the unwillingness to welcome refugees.  This exploitive behavior leads to a loss of human life.  Refugees pay upwards of thousands of dollars to smugglers using unseaworthy vessels to cross the high seas.  Instead of coming into contact with coastal defense vessels from of countries unwilling to accept these refugees, smugglers will scuttle the ship killing those migrants aboard.  Ms. Newland highlighted that an estimated 28,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in the last ten years.  Pictures, like that of Syrian 2-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body on the coast of Turkey, brought the world’s attention to the maritime migrant crisis.  However, continued unwillingness to share the burden of migration with so many sad examples has led to crisis-driven short-term responses instead of long-term international coordination. 

Prepared by Alexandra Gerbracht, CSPS Fellow 

Panel 1: “The Global Commons and Setting the Rules”

Topics to include: Ocean, Cyber, Space, and Climate Domains

Sally Yozell, Stimson Center 

Sally Yozell is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Environmental Security program at the Stimson Center. Her work focuses on ocean security, climate security and wildlife protection. Yozell leads a team of experts who explore the links between natural resources protection, environmental crime and global security issues to develop security strategies that combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, thwart illicit wildlife networks and increase transparency and traceability throughout the seafood supply chain.

Jamil Jaffer, National Security Institute 

Jamil N. Jaffer is the Founder and Executive Director of the National Security Institute, and an Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the National Security Law & Policy Program and Cyber, Intelligence, and National Security LL.M at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. Jamil is also a Venture Partner at Paladin Capital, a leading technology and national security venture capital firm, and is on the board of directors or advisory boards of a number of startup companies, as well as a range of other organizations and nonprofits.  Jamil previously served in senior leadership positions in the private sector and government, including heading up strategy, business development, and partnerships for a leading cybersecurity startup for over six years, and serving in senior national security positions during the Bush Administration at the White House and Justice Department, as well as later at House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Stephanie Epner, Climate Imperative Foundation 

Stephanie Epner is the Senior Director for Global Initiatives at the Climate Imperative Foundation and a member of the Advisory Board for the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks. She comes to Climate Imperative from the Biden Administration, where she recently served on the White House National Security Council (NSC) staff. During her NSC service, Stephanie led the directorate responsible for coordinating the Administration’s international climate and energy policy. Prior to that, Stephanie served as senior advisor to Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and as the climate and energy lead on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. She also served as the co-lead for international climate and energy policy on the Biden-Harris Transition Team. 

Moderator: Ron Marks, George Mason University, Schar School 

Ronald “Ron” Marks III is a 38-year veteran of the U.S. Intelligence Community. A former CIA case officer, he was a CIA Senate Liaison and Capitol Hill staffer who has served on a number of advisory groups at the Central Intelligence Agency and in The Office of the Director of National Intelligence 

Moderator Ronald Marks asked—given the size of the global population, the proliferation of internet and social media users, the number of states in the international system, and the formation of powerful nonstate actors—how states might “cooperate, compete, and coerce” in the different arenas that comprise the global commons.  

Sally Yozell began the panel discussion with a focus on the maritime domain. After a brief overview of the size of global oceans, their centrality to food, energy, trade, and transportation systems, and their role in regulating the earth’s climate, Yozell addressed the preservation of fisheries. Illegal overfishing threatens a wide range of fisheries across the seas; Yozell emphasized the case of the threat to West African fisheries in the Gulf of Guinea, where an enforcement deficit, legal loopholes, bribery, and power imbalances coalesce to form a severe threat to the sustainability of the fisheries as a common resource. Illegal fishing in these waters, led by China and its expansion of its commercial fishing industry and activities abroad, saps some $9.4 billion from the economic product of local African states. Yozell warned that the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude is unsustainable if such common resources as fisheries are to be preserved and protected. Civil protests have started to spring up against the exploitation of nearby fisheries in response to the dire economic consequences generated by such predation; eventually, Yozell said, such uprisings may veer from peaceful to violent. Local leaders should heed these warning signs and begin to address underlying issues. 

Stephanie Epner shifted the conversation to climate change and global policy responses. Principles of state sovereignty chafe against binding legal provisions in international climate treaties; late-developing economies point to hypocrisy in the ranks of developed states lecturing on emission standards; and balancing concerns of mitigation with loss-and-damages compensations in both conceptual and financial senses requires innovative and comprehensive policy ideas. Despite these challenges, there was some room for cautious optimism. Agreements like the Paris Climate Accord send powerful signals of international cooperation to relevant actors and stakeholders, while the idea of smaller regional frameworks or “climate clubs” begins to incubate and gain traction in the policy community. Epner warned, however, that the politicization of climate issues had begun to spread from its place of inception in the United States to other traditionally supportive countries in Europe and elsewhere. As the world continues to feel increasingly harsh effects of climate change in the form of natural disasters, heatwaves, etc., such developments should be taken seriously. 

Jamil Jaffer contrasted cyber as a global commons concern with oceans and climate change, noting that there are first-order disagreements about what constitutes “problems” and how states might attempt to solve them. Two competing blocs—with competing visions—dominate the global cyber landscape. The first camp, populated by democratic states like the US, UK, and EU members, prioritizes open access to information in the cyber realm; the autocratic states of the second camp, however, view cyber quite differently. In addition to creating threats to regime stability through widespread connectivity and information dissemination, cyber tools also offer opportunities for domestic control and surveillance of populations. With such stark differences between the rival blocs, Jaffer remained pessimistic about the prospects for global consensus on rule-setting and maintenance of the cyber commons. Moreover, the failure of the US to respond effectively to cyber incursions from members of the latter bloc prevents the establishment of deterrence. By not responding to provocation with force, Jaffer argued, the US was inadvertently creating a norm that such behavior is tolerable in the international system.  

Prepared by Connor Monie, CSPS Fellow  

Panel 2: “Hard Cases and Enforcing the Rules”

Topics to include: the private sector on cyber, AI and disinformation, interests of small states and major power, and spoilers and criminal nonstate actors

J.D. Maddox, George Mason University, Schar School 

J.D. Maddox is an internationally recognized expert on the subjects of influence and political violence. He is the CEO of Inventive Insights LLC, a small national security consultancy, and is an adjunct professor of national security studies at George Mason University’s Schar School. He is also a frequent author of national security commentaries. J.D. recently developed the US Government’s premier counter-disinformation technology testing and implementation effort. 

Luis Rodriguez, George Mason University, Schar School 

Luis Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of International Security & Law at George Mason University’s Schar School for Policy and Government. His research centers on international security, with a focus on the approaches of the Global South during the negotiations of nuclear, humanitarian, and cyber governance. His work has been published in International Affairs, the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Third World Quarterly, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Washington Post, War on the Rocks, the North American Congress on Latin America, among other outlets. 

Moderator: Ellen Laipson, George Mason University, Schar School 

Ellen Laipson is the director of the Master’s in International Security degree program and the Center for Security Policy Studies in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She joined Mason after a distinguished 25-year career in government and as president and CEO of the Stimson Center (2002-15). 

The panel covered two different topics that revealed some of the challenges in governing global commons. Professor JD Maddox addressed the impacts of generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), which acts through the cyber commons and can amplify the danger of disinformation. Professor Luis Rodriquez discussed how different sized states can influence global governance of the commons, with a particular emphasis on the views and activities of countries in the global south. In combination the two topics drew attention to the challenges posed to both developing and updating the norms, rules, and structures that govern the global commons.

Professor Maddox began his remarks on generative AI by explaining how the technology is a game changer for information and influence operations, particularly in the new capabilities it brings to disinformation efforts. This challenge is enhanced by the difficulty faced by multilateral institutions and actors, including the UN, OECD and G7, as they try to establish international regimes to govern its use. Most likely these efforts will provide formulations of ethical principles rather than legal prohibitions on uses of AI. One cause of this slow progress is that the leading states in the international system and the states leading in AI research are seeking to ensure that they and their economies can benefit from the technology and are not unduly restricted by new international rules and norms. With effective multilateral regulations slow in coming practical countermeasures to AI enabled disinformation will be increasingly important. Such countermeasures include technologies that enable better authentication, inoculation, and digital investigations. Professor Maddox predicted that the United States’ approach will likely focus on enabling US companies to benefit from AI while working with them to develop their own regulations. 

Professor Rodriquez focused on how smaller states and states in the global south approach the governance of the global commons.  Their views and actions are often overlooked when analysts often focus on more powerful actors. One cause of this lack of attention is the large diversity of interests and views within the global south.  However, even with this diversity there are several commonalities: a desire for rules and predictability, and the need to share both the benefits of the commons and the costs of maintaining them.  This means prioritizing collective and not unilateral action, ensuring that first-movers are unable to monopolize a commons, prioritizing the peaceful resolutions of disputes, and not securitizing the commons. Areas of disagreement include how much they can and should trust developed countries and leading powers, what degree of inequality between states is acceptable, to what extent leading states should have flexibility in applying the rules governing the commons, how much differing states should sacrifice for maintaining shared benefits, and over the question of what should happen as the capabilities of states in the global south improve.  In sum this amounts to is a general desire to work together to address shared challenges regarding the global commons but disagreements on the best way to do so and the best forum to do it in. 

The difficulty in regulating emerging technologies such as AI reveals some of the challenges states, particularly in the global south, face in collectively shaping international rules and standards for their own conduct in regards to the global commons. A central challenge in applying international rules is how to deal with spoilers, which are understood to be actors that either violate the rules or prevent effective rules from emerging.  In AI,  an added challenge is determining attribution in the case of some malign uses. Such challenges may be exacerbated by leading AI firms’ concentration in the US, Europe, and China and potential skepticism amongst states of the global south that those leading states will easily agree to rules that may not wholly benefit them and their firms. 

Yet progress is possible.  In regards to AI, Professor Maddox explained that segmenting different kinds of AI capabilities and developing unique approaches to each was likely the best way to reach potential solutions. Furthermore, despite the challenge posed by generative AI we will need to continue efforts to develop some form of rules and regulations for its use as while AI may lead to notable benefits, serious risks can result from its misuse. Professor Rodriquez also described how countries in the global south can strengthen their influence in governing the global commons through demonstrating their competence in policy areas, such as climate change or denuclearization, that they are concerned about.  

Prepared by Steven Wachter, CSPS Fellow

Panel 3: “Ethical Dilemmas in the Commons”


Patrick Smith, Georgetown University 

Patrick Smith is a Resident Fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, part of the United States Naval Academy. His work is on social and political philosophy, with a special focus on the concept of global and intergenerational domination in the context of climate change. Currently, he is working on a book project developing an account of justified revolution in the face of climate injustice. 

Doyle Hodges, George Mason University, Schar School 

Doyle Hodges is the Executive Editor of Texas National Security Review (TNSR). A retired Naval officer, his research interests include civil-military relations, defense planning, ethics in international relations, and technology and national defense. In addition to his work at TNSR, he teaches at Princeton University and George Mason University.

Professor Hodges began the discussion by observing that “the topic of ethics in the commons is at the heart of security studies and ethics in [international relations].  Where do the rules come from and who enforces them?”  

Hodges outlined four different types of commons. First are the commons that are a place, a defined physical space.  Second  are the “commons that are a place, but where there are resources, and the depletion of those resources [is] what needs to be regulated.” The oceans are an example of this second type of commons. Third are the “commons that are intangible” such as the cyber domain. The final type of commons as laid out by Hodges is “where the rules themselves are what define the commons” such as “the rules that govern AI, commonly accepted medical practices, and banking rules.” Hodges then restated his question, “Who determines the rules that themselves are important?” 

Professor Smith considered the question of “Where do the rights and duties come from in the commons?” by saying that the “ethics of various cases depend upon which commons you’re in.” According to Smith, the classical commons (from the “Tragedy of the Commons”) has a number of distinguishing features: 1. It has something that can be overconsumed. For example, in space, there are only so many safe orbits for satellites, 2. The use of that resource is “rivalrous” and characterized by being a zero-sum game, 3. The use of that resource is non-excludable, and no individual can stop others from using it. Smith noted that in such a system such as the food resources of the ocean, one’s own overfishing doesn’t affect whether others overfish. “In fact,” he pointed out, “the more people don’t overfish, the more it’s rational for me to overfish,” highlighting how the system’s incentives pose a challenge to cooperation and sustainable resource exploitation. “Do I have an obligation to be a sucker? Do I have an obligation to forbear while others overconsume?” he asked. 

Smith pointed out that “people only think of two cases in the Tragedy of the Commons. They act as if there is already governance: I need to forbear; or anarchy: I can have as much fish as I want.” An alternative, according to Smith, is for one to choose to create the relevant institutions that would allow for fair and equitable use of resources. 

Do developed nations owe reparations for harming the environment to promote the West’s economic growth at the expense of countries at an earlier stage of development?  

Smith considered whether the US and other advanced industrialized countries “owe” the Global South more emissions allowances because the developed world took more than their share for so long. He pointed out that if they gained resources by wrongdoing, and that the worst of the resulting effects of climate change will be imposed on others, then they can’t complain if their gains are reduced as a result of the wrong imposed on others. In fact, he asserted that “there’s an obligation to give back.” 

Smith described the Kuznetz curve where the poorest countries care more about the environment because they rely on it, as do the richest countries because they want the luxury of a beautiful environment. He describes how middle, growing countries are those that care more about growth than about preserving the environment.” 

One other thing that can be morally culpable is if you think there may be harm from your behavior, but you do not investigate, or try to make it harder for others to determine the harm. The tobacco industry is an example of this. 

There may be cases where you know there are ill effects but the benefits outweigh the ill effects. Atmospheric nuclear tests would be an example.  “It’s not that we didn’t know we were doing harm, it’s that we rationalized that the harm was okay given the context.” 

Hodges raised maritime migration as “one of the defining challenges is that there is a space where there is no agreed authority or set of rules.” “The problems aren’t problems of the commons, but rather problems of reluctance to take responsibility for things that are ‘your’ problem.” “What are the ethical obligations? How do universal rights and obligations interact with the legitimate rights of my own citizens?” 

Smith pointed out that there are certain ethical duties that are convention, like the duties of rescue. He used the example of a drowning baby in a pond: “It doesn’t matter – you have the save the drowning baby.” Translated to nautical migration, he said that “cases like the Greek government are just fundamentally failing their moral obligation.” 

Hodges pointed out that “it’s not costless to conduct the rescue. Am I obligated to jump in if it costs me?” 

Smith responded that “the EU has laws that strongly place the obligation of immigrants to the border states.” States like the Netherlands say it’s the border states’ job to conduct rescues. In this case, he said that “the Netherlands has also failed in its moral duty” by failing to share the burden and costs of rescue. He returned to the example of a drowning baby and said “If there are a bunch of people around the pond with the drowning baby, just because none of them save it and say its not their job, doesn’t change your moral duty to save the baby.” 

Hodges: “Are there interests in the commons that rise to the level of justifying the use of force by a state on another state?” 

Smith answered, “Yes, but people can also be justified in trying to stop them.” He observed that in such cases both sides can be justified as moral values operation on different levels. “One side defends a universal value while the other defends a particular value.” 

Hodges: “There is the case that international law is just a way of getting states to do what the powerful states want them to do. How do you address this critique?” 

Smith: “Two things. Some lenses can make it look like clearly, the rules benefit one party. But you need to discern if the rules are offered in good faith or not.” 

Hodges: “One version of the law is that law is rules backed by force. Is it conceivable to you that there can be an effective regime that promotes stewardship and responsibility without someone using force to make those operative?” 

In response, Smith decided to dig into a deeper question: What constitutes genuinely egalitarian relations? “If the answer is equal consideration of interests then a consequentialist system is good enough.” Another view he put forward was that “partly, being subject to the authority of another is a disrespectful relationship.” In light of this, he said “you need a system where nobody is under the arbitrary will of another person.” “So that would mean you need a democratic system that would guarantee that everyone is free.” 

Prepared by Kevin Park, CSPS Fellow

Closing Speaker: Challenges to the Global Commons

Jamie Metzel , Technology and Healthcare Futurist

Jamie Metzl is a leading technology and healthcare futurist, geopolitical expert, author, investor, entrepreneur, and media commentator. Founder and Chair of the global social movement OneShared.World and an Atlantic Council Senior Fellow and Singularity University expert, Jamie previously served in the U.S. National Security Council, State Department, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as a Human Rights Officer for the United Nations in Cambodia, and was a member of the World Health Organization expert advisory committee on human genome editing. He is the author of a history of the Cambodian genocide, the historical novel The Depths of the Sea, the sci-fi thrillers Genesis Code and Eternal Sonata, and the non-fiction bestseller, Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, which has been translated into 12 languages.

Futurist Jamie Metzl closed the Sixth Annual CSPS Symposium on International Security with a clear image of the stakes of better governance in the global commons: “The future of human habitation on earth comes from if we can develop a strategy for the global commons […] Unless we can build a politics to match the world in which we live, we’re kind of doomed.” 

Metzl, the author of the upcoming 2024 book Superconvergence: How the Genetics, Biotech, and AI Revolutions Will Transform Our Lives, Work, and World, observed global governance issues intertwined with the global commons issues discussed throughout the symposium. Metzl drew a stark contrast between the apparent unity of the United Nations and its actual output: “Everybody has [Sustainable Development Goal pins […] you could there’s such thing as a functioning international community that can prevent catastrophes. You would be wrong.” 

Once an enabler of the “greatest period of human growth,” the United Nations, per Metzl, is experiencing a “total failure of this system.” Amid global conflicts, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic, Metzl asserted that structural issues with global governance bog down the United Nations with “whack-a-mole” responses to conflicts. Drawing from the last few years, Metzl claimed that it was not enough to coordinate international efforts of just COVID-19, or of just pandemics in general, when the framework of those solutions is not replicable to a fix for climate change. 

The core issues, per Metzl, stem from a mismatch between the nature of these problems and the nature of global institutions. Drawing further from the COVID-19 pandemic, Metzl drew a continuum of state-level issues, from China’s lack of transparency from the onset, to issues with the U.S. response that amplified concerns, to the WHO being unable to “pierce the veil of sovereignty” to truly challenge initial narratives on the virus. This sovereignty point was a crucial shortcoming for Metzl, who pointed out that global institutions created after World War II were steered by states that did not want their sovereignty infringed upon. 

However, Metzl observed that conflict like World War II has historically been the catalyst for significant governance changes. After describing institutional evolutions following the Thirty Years’ War and World War II. Metzl gave a stark picture of the types of conflicts that could arise amid the insufficiency of current global governance: nuclear war, or ecosystem collapse. 

Metzl still claims that  “the future is not written.” Rather than wait for devastation to drive change, he laid out a framework under which global governance could evolve. This included: 

Conceptualization: While global crises manifest differently, Metzl described the need to look at the common threads between them and treat those commonalities. Metzl described a need for thought leaders at universities to conceptualize what system-wide solutions could look like, rather than reacting to one-off manifestations of global governance issues. 

Socialization: As part of the worldwide infrastructure needed to counter collective action problems, Metzl highlighted the need to convey “global interdependence” at the community level, including in schools and faith communities. Metzl recognized the difficulty in this, pointing to the U.S. COVID-19 vaccine deployment. Metzl claimed that the U.S. would have been politically unable to adopt a vaccination strategy that involved sending its stock abroad before using it at home, even if vaccinating other areas of the world could have had greater system-wide benefits.