Some thoughts on James Mittelman’s “Hyperconflict”

As globalization increasingly impacts the global system of governance and statecraft, traditional analytic frames of sovereignty, power and risk are increasingly unable to account for the emerging challenges of the modern security environment.  James Mittelman describes this new brand of risk as “hyperconflict”, driven by “hyperpower” and “hypercompetition”.  While he does not use the same systematic approach favored by political scientists such as Posner, who focus on carefully defining a dynamic within a case and testing its transferability, Mittleman does effectively draw on cases of global change during the 1990s and work them into a theoretical framework of social change that more effectively defines the complexity of risk in hyper-powerful and hyper-competitive global political economies.

Mittelman starts his argument from the perspective that the increasingly micro-level analyses and stove-piped methods for understanding conflict are not sufficient for understanding the intricacies of a hypercompetitive and hyperpowerful environment.  In the hyper environment, security is less defined by state power and the interactions between states but instead is defined by the ways that state, non-state and extra-state actors all interact across an increasingly amorphous global political economy.  At the root of this economy is the projection of influence from hyperpowers.  As the space around inter-state politics shifts, and non-state and extra-state actors are able to project influence and impact global processes through illicit and licit participation in the political economy of violence, hyperpowers must respond by promoting peace as a function of towing the neoliberal democratic line.  Within this space, access to arms, the monopoly of violence and notions of who participates in the protection and definition of security ceases to be about states interacting in a Westphalian system; it is instead replaced with a hypercompetitive economic system where stability is increasingly limited and security (both human and military) is increasingly tenuous .

Mittelman takes us through the process how we reached a hyper stage of conflict, starting with the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) through the Asian bubble and crash, the anti-globalization movement and into the modern war on terror and “super empire” that the U.S. has become.  The MAI, meant to create open markets for investment and promote free trade and privatization, became an opportunity first for states to compete over notions of access and regulation, then for non-state and sub-state actors to voice concerns and disagreement.  Definitions of sovereignty were stretched during the negotiations, and the U.S. was particularly focused on driving the MAI forward in a way that circumvented local restrictions on investment.  The open flow of cash that come out of these negotiations led to the bubble in Asia and when this bubble collapsed, in an effort to protect its interests, the United States provided investment and expanded its military reach eastward to provide security.  The hypercompetition that came from the MAI had begun to feed the hyperpower of the United States, since private investment, political economy and military projection were beginning to merge.

Out of this came a global anti-globalization response, particularly focused on the power and reach of U.S. military-economic interests.  As the impacts of the MAI spread, disparities in wealth increased as Americanism expanded into cultural and social norms outside the U.S.  9/11 offered the chance to push American reach even further, simultaneously driving economic instability and expanding the impact and reach of American violence and super empire.

In this analysis, Mittelman succeeds in a way that a traditional offensive realist like Mearsheimer cannot, since Mittelman’s approach encompasses modern financial and economic factors lacking in an offensive realist model.  By viewing the space of conflict as a table of interactions involving state, sub-state and extra-state actors and economic and resource access, we see a model that describes the realities of the modern global political economic system.  Never have we been so rapidly able to invest, travel or communicate; conversely, never have we been so able to compete and project power.

Unfortunately Mittelman leaves the reader a little desperate for answers, and hope for the future is less likely in Mittelman’s scenario.  While he makes a point to say that this is not a predictive analysis, the weight of the argument leads the reader to the conclusion that hyperconflict is increasingly inevitable.  While he avoids prescription, he does at least give a sober analysis of where the political economy of power is taking us, and in this space policy makers and the general public should be able to make better informed decisions about leadership and policy.

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