Governing the Global Commons: Challenges and Opportunities for US-Japan Cooperation

December 19, 2022
Kristi Govella
John Bradford
Kyoko Hatakeyama
Saadia M. Pekkanen
Setsuko Aoki
James Lewis
Motohiro Tsuchiya
97 min read
The global commons—domains beyond the sovereign jurisdiction of any single state but to which all states have access—are essential to the stability and prosperity of the international order.

In addition to the high seas, outer space, the atmosphere, and Antarctica, which are defined as global commons by international law, analysts have also suggested that other domains such as cyberspace may also qualify as potential commons. These domains provide essential public goods such as trade routes, transportation and communication networks, fish stocks, satellite imagery, global positioning, and e-commerce infrastructure that benefit countries around the world.

To successfully manage the resources of the global commons and ensure open access to their spaces, effective governance structures must exist to accommodate and integrate the interests and responsibilities of state and non-state actors. Consequently, states have tried to come to agreements in each domain about how to enable broad access, avoid conflict, and enable cooperation. Over time, these discussions have resulted in the creation for each domain of a “regime,” a set of implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge (see Box 1). These regimes can take shape in the form of international law, national law, local regulations, private standards, and institutional bodies. They differ dramatically in maturity and complexity: the governance regime of the oceans has developed over the course of centuries, while the rules and norms of cyberspace have only had a few decades to coalesce. However, all these regimes attempt to solve similar dilemmas surrounding shared access and resources.

Box 1: Components of Governance Regimes

Regimes are sets of implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given area of international relations:

  • Principles are beliefs of fact, causation, and/or morality.
  • Norms are standards of behavior defined in terms of rights and obligations.
  • Rules are specific instructions for or against action.
  • Decision-making procedures are practices for making and implementing collective choice.

Source: Adapted from Stephen Krasner, “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables,” International Organization 36, no. 2 (1982): 185–205.

In recent years, the governance regimes of the global commons have faced intensifying challenges due to shifts in the international political, economic, and security environment. In particular, the maritime, outer space, and cyber domains—areas that are crucial for both military and commercial purposes—are under stress due to the rise of China, advances in technology, the multiplication of state and non-state actors operating in the commons, and the emergence of behavior such as gray zone tactics that are difficult to regulate.[1] The result is an increasing crowded and contested set of global commons.

The United States and Japan have been drawn closer together by these issues—by their common interests in maintaining a rules-based international system as well as by their shared values. Both countries stand to benefit from strengthening the governance of the global commons in ways that will continue to support their own security and prosperity.[2] Both countries also recognize that there is need for reform of existing regimes, and in some cases, construction of new ones. This volume brings together US and Japanese experts on the maritime, outer space, and cyber domains to examine the challenges that both countries identify in the global commons and to provide insights as to how they can jointly address these challenges. What are the key pillars of the existing governance regimes that need to be maintained in each of the three domains, and where are the key areas for reform? In cases where regimes are nascent, what are the best ways to shape their rules and norms? Where are the areas of convergence and divergence in US and Japanese perspectives on governance? What scope do policy makers and experts in the United States and Japan see for bilateral cooperation, and how can bilateral cooperation produce global change?

This volume addresses these questions through two parts. Part 1 comprises this paper, which provides an overarching analysis of challenges across the maritime, outer space, and cyber domains. It draws on interviews, primary materials, and academic research, as well as insights from experts who attended a workshop convened by The German Marshall Fund of the United States in May 2022. The resultant analysis reveals clear and persistent differences in the governance regimes of these domains, reflecting their different stages of maturity and the varying nature of the spaces and resources that they seek to govern. However, despite the many differences that exist across these three domains, there are also striking commonalities. In each of these domains, central issues of access to space and to resources continue to be debated, reflecting persistent tensions in stakeholders’ preference for enclosure or openness. In addition to challenges to national security across the three domains, problems related to sustainability and human rights are also increasingly discussed.

This analysis also clearly demonstrates that there are strong synergies in the values and interests of Japan and the United States in the maritime, outer space, and cyber domains. While differences in viewpoints exist between the two countries, there is potential for cooperation, coordination, and consultation on a wide range of matters. In the maritime domain, the paper discusses the potential to address issues related to freedom of navigation, rules for maritime zones, regime legitimacy, fisheries management, human rights at sea, and green shipping. In the outer space domain, it examines space situational awareness, space traffic management, space debris, anti-satellite tests, and space resources. In the cyber domain, it addresses the conflicting norms of openness versus enclosure, privacy and data flows, artificial intelligence, cybercrime, human rights and digital authoritarianism, cognitive warfare, cyber defense norms, and sustainability. While this list of issues is not exhaustive, it offers a starting point from which to begin thinking holistically about governance regimes across the three domains, which is further discussed in the conclusion of this paper.

Part 2 of the volume contains six policy briefs, which examine specific issues in a single domain. Beginning with the maritime domain, John Bradford discusses ways that the coast guards of the United States and Japan can become agents to improve global maritime governance, while Kyoko Hatakeyama focuses specifically on the importance of supporting governance related to freedom of navigation. Moving on to the outer space domain, Saadia Pekkanen examines developing state practice for the governance of outer space resources, and Setsuko Aoki emphasizes the importance of banning direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) tests for the safety and sustainability of the domain. Finally, with respect to the cyber domain, James Lewis discusses emerging structures of governance, and Motohiro Tsuchiya explores the emerging challenge of cognitive warfare.

Overall, the two parts of this edited volume demonstrate the importance of the global commons to the United States and Japan and the potential for these two countries to work together to shape a rules-based international order that creates a more sustainable basis for their long-term security and prosperity. In addition to formulating joint tactical responses to specific challenges in the global commons, promoting good governance is an essential part of ensuring that their spaces and resources remain available to state and non-state actors around the world.[3] Discussions of principles, rules, norms, and decision-making procedures must be put at the forefront of diplomacy. While the United States and Japan cannot solve the problems of global commons governance on their own, they have the capacity and influence to make a significant contribution. Moreover, US-Japan bilateral cooperation can serve as a building block for broader regional and international coalitions to achieve their shared governance goals.


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