Technology & Trade

International security: the James Bond school of thought

in Program

The world has been shaken-not stirred-many times since James Bond ordered his first vodka martini in Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale 60 years ago. On Sunday, at the Oscar’s Gala, the Academy Awards will honor the movie franchise about the British fictional spy-extraordinaire as it is the longest running in history.  Despite being in her majesty’s secret service for over half a century, Bond has adapted to dramatic changes in the global political and security environment, making his film adventures today very different from his exploits in the 1950s and 1960s. Governments need to adapt to these changes too.

In older Bond flicks danger stems from the strength of nations, most prominently super and great powers, and the threat of those nations going to war with one another.  When it comes to non-state menaces, earlier Bond editions feature SPECTRE, a global terror group.  Its key characteristics are its centrally organized features and abundance of resources, which it employs in pursuit of world domination.  Bond’s strategy to fight SPECTRE is to stop its nefarious plans and try to cut off the snake’s head by killing Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the group’s “Number 1.”

To the contrary, newer Bond pictures point to weak and failing states as the definition of danger.  Poorly or ungoverned communities around the world are breeding grounds for myriad transnational criminals.  Today’s films depict more opaque threats in a world of decentralized non-state actors. Their motivations are equally diverse-from personal enrichment to religious fulfillment, but always far less grand than ruling the world.

In Skyfall, the most recent film, it boils down to revenge and a personal vendetta.  In other instances, profit interests or infected regional dynamics motivate the non-state actor to wreak havoc. And they can do so by capitalizing on a world interconnected by 30 years of globalization.  Bond still manages to kill the bad guy and characters like himself remain critical to saving the day, but in a world of increasing interconnectedness, the viewer is left with the unsettling feeling that Bond’s feat is just one small piece of a larger and more complex global puzzle.

Indeed, the Bond of yesteryears and the Bond of today are instructive when defining contemporary global politics and the trajectory ahead.  In contrast to the Cold War, today, it is not one or a few national adversaries, or a few large threats, that challenge international peace, security and prosperity.  Instead, danger increasingly stem from the intersection of highly sophisticated transnational illicit networks and weaker nations’ lack of “societal security.”

Societal insecurity, defined by states’ inability to combat myriad challenges that are interconnected and transcend borders and governments, leaves nations vulnerable to serious challenges, including trafficking in arms, drugs and humans,  piracy, the spread of dangerous technologies, expanded markets for counterfeit goods and cybercrime.  Many of these aspects have been featured in older Bond films, but in newer ones, like Skyfall, it is the ease, vastness, decentralized nature and government inability to stop or manage the illicit global flows that drives the plot line and generates suspense.

In the real world, as well as in Bond movies, illicit organizations facilitate these undercurrents of globalization. In turn, they only help fund terrorist activities and fuel armed conflict and crime, but also undermine democratic principles, public health standards, and labor markets, while threatening to stifle the economic growth that over the last few decades has helped millions of people worldwide improve their lives.

Ironically, the same mechanisms that have brought about positive change over the last few decades are also the ones that threaten continued progress.  In the words of U.S. President Barack Obama: “During the past 15 years, technology innovation and globalization have proven to be an overwhelming force for good.  However, transnational criminal organizations have taken advantage of our increasingly interconnected world to expand their illicit enterprise.”

Illicit enterprises today are highly adaptable and expert at finding new partners in crime-corrupt governments, corporations, and nongovernmental actors alike. As in Bond thrillers they use modern information technology to forge partnerships beyond borders and between networks.  For instance, today, drug syndicates use GPS technology to keep track of traffickers on the ground and guide them away from law enforcement officials.

In short, illicit enterprises are using advanced 21st century business models to leverage globalization to their advantage-utilizing economic and technological innovations to both extend their reach while further obfuscating their footprints. To combat them, governments need to be equally innovative and leverage the full spectrum of global stakeholders.

These are central tenants of global affairs today, and in between shaken Martinis, James Bond is here to tell the story.


A similar article was first published by the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences

Photo Credit: Barbara.Doduk via Flickr


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