Book Review: Hyperconflict, Globalization, and Insecurity

James Mittelman describes what global conflict will look like in the not-too-distant future .

By Anand Datla
May 14, 2012

Hyperconflict by American University Professor James Mittelman explores the changing nature of international conflict that faces us today. In the coming decades, we are likely to witness a transition from conflict between nation-states to a decentralized contest of the commons. Though the title at first indicates a book with a post-9/11 theme, within the first few pages it becomes apparent that this work follows another trend. Mittelman does not simply conclude as other authors following 9/11 that national security will be forever challenged by asymmetric threats and non-state actors. Instead, he makes the case that the parameters of international conflict have been blurred to include new points of friction and a revision of old rules. The result of these changes will lead to an altogether different meaning of international conflict.

Mittelman asserts that transformation in international conflict is taking place because of the increasing exertion of two forces: hyperpower, the influential power of the United States through its military and economic clout; and geopolitics, the difference in capacity between the United States and other countries. The distance that exists from the changes in these forces is fanned by the geographic distance between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Thus, the stage is set for “hyperconflict” between a variety of new players that will have to struggle with the new forms of competition, conflict, and cooperation.

The immediate question for the reader is why hyperconflict has become more prevalent today. The answer has its roots in the end of the Cold War. In Mittelman’s view, Cold War political and military conflicts empowered states to an elevated level of importance and subverted other actors from becoming influential. Since the war, the United States’ hyperpower role continues to evolve through globalization. This has further pushed the world to an increasing risk for economic conflict among states, businesses, and other actors across the global commons. For Mittelman, the emergence of these different groups pursuing goals in tandem with states has resulted in an unprecedented number of actors on a common field. This has proven to be problematic as the terms of international conflict are recast.

According to Mittelman, the reason for this transformation is Washington’s inability to accommodate new actors within the system it created, and the ramifications of globalization mean the entire structure is coming close to collapsing. To make this case, Mittelman devotes the first half of the book to explaining the emerging hyperconflict. By no means is it a light read. Mittelman draws from such diverse authors as Adam Smith, Emanuel Kant, and Jurgen Habermas to describe the new shape of this clash. The second half of the book is devoted to illustrating examples of hyperconflict today. The selected examples prove to be invaluable, and include topics of world trade, interstate friction, terrorism, and protests. Each example is short yet descriptive of the problem and how hyperconflict alters one’s understanding of international conflict.

There is no institution that is immune to the effects of hyperconflict. In a recent conversation with Mittelman, he shared a few insights on how hyperconflict would affect institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. In the author’s opinion, these institutions will likely need to find new ways to alter their agenda to survive in the coming new environment. For instance, the G-20 today adheres to no one governing body. Although this allows for greater flexibility, it also opens up a number of policy questions. Furthermore, institutions such as the UN and WTO do not have the same cache as in the past with sub-regional groups (ASEAN, for example) or even citizen movements. If the power shifts to new blocks of groups, it is unknown if the UN or WTO will continue to be influential.

Readers are likely to find themselves comparing Mittelman’s concept of hyperconflict to the events surrounding the Arab Spring. Although the topic is not covered in the book, this comparison proves surprisingly valid. Mittelman’s work illustrates that through globalization, new actors have found themselves on the same stage as nation-states. And, as discussed above, institutions such as the United Nations have been challenged to find a way to make sense of the complex dynamics at hand.

A truly captivating work, Mittelman’s book will be difficult to put down for any reader with an interest in international affairs. Be warned: readers will likely find themselves looking for examples that validate or invalidate the books hyperconflict premise even after completion. This happened to the book’s publisher. Even after Mittelman had completed writing the book, Stanford University Press felt the parallels to the financial crisis were too great to not include. The result is an epilogue found at the end of the book.

About the Book: Mittelman, James H. Hyperconflict: Globalization and Insecurity. (Stanford University Press, California) 256 pages.

Anand Datla formerly worked at the U.S. Department of Defense on strategic planning, policy and operations. He also served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee. He is currently a consultant based in the Washington, D.C. area.

Photo courtesy of Christian V. via Flickr.

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