The Spy Who Loved Globalization

James Bond was wrestling with forces of integration and fragmentation decades before political scientists invented the ideas.

A group outside the world’s established state system exploits tensions among sovereign countries to advance a pet cause. Heads of state attempt to coordinate their instruments of government to curtail that group’s power. Meanwhile, the tensions between sovereignty-bound governments and this sovereignty-free rival threaten dire consequences for all humankind. To contemporary globalization theorists, it is a familiar story. But it is also the central plotline of practically every James Bond movie — many of which were written by novelist Ian Fleming and adapted by screenwriters decades before scholars ever pondered such ideas.

Art doesn’t just imitate life, as the cliché goes, it anticipates it: The first signs of the coming "century of war" were manifest in the popular novels of the late 19th century, such as Sir George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871). The earliest indicators of the contemporary Space Age appeared in science fiction and comic strips published decades before the 1950s. Given our modern celluloid sensibilities, it makes sense that television and motion pictures should presage how the 21st century will unfold.

But Bond, James Bond? Espionage is the most Cold War of genres. Even 007’s boss "M" dismisses him as a "relic of the Cold War" in Goldeneye (1995), echoing the sentiments of many movie critics. But as early as the 1950s, before Sean Connery first brought Fleming’s hero to the screen, James Bond’s world was shaken, and stirred, by phenomena we’ve come to identify with globalization. Indeed, compared with the real crises of the 1960s and 1970s, Bond’s world seems strikingly modern.

Each story consists of several fundamental, predictable elements: The antagonist is a sovereignty-free actor — either a person or an organization — that threatens the welfare and security of a society or perhaps the entire world. This sovereignty-free actor thrives within the folds of the sovereign state system — areas of activity that states are unable or unwilling to regulate, such as international organized crime, arms trade, terrorism, or international commerce. To combat a challenge to their authority and protect and provide for the common welfare, state officials must put aside their disagreements and cooperate.

Consider 007’s nemeses. The most memorable of Fleming’s villains is an organization called SPECTRE, the "Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion." Campy, to be sure, but not unfamiliar in its methods. This sovereignty-free actor seeks to squeeze money from states and to humiliate governments, either to create fissures in international alliances or to spark popular unrest and political instability. In Thunderball (1965) and Never Say Never Again (1983), SPECTRE hijacks nuclear weapons to pry a hefty ransom from world powers. The tensions of the space race almost explode into armed conflict when SPECTRE steals U.S. and Soviet spacecrafts in You Only Live Twice (1967). While these goals may be crude in literary terms, they prophesy the methods of contemporary sovereignty-free actors such as millionaire and alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden or the various Colombian drug cartels. These groups thrive by exploiting the inability of states to cooperate and maintain control of transnational technological, financial, commercial, and migratory flows.

Other Bond villains seem even more modern: A financier tries to hoard gold to sow instability in foreign exchange markets and ruin industrial economies in Goldfinger (1964), much like financier George Soros — if you believe his critics. Multinational corporations seek to monopolize markets and use international conflict to create demand for their products in A View to a Kill (1985), a vision of the world that demonstrators at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle would have found familiar. Millenarian mass murder appears as a theme in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and Moonraker (1979), anticipating the recent mass murders and suicides in Uganda and outside San Diego (not to mention Jonestown two decades earlier), and highlighting the persistent inability of states to protect their citizens from violence. The ironic message of these films is clear and prescient: States are better at protecting their citizens from the violence of other states than from the violence and exploitation of sovereignty-free actors, whether they be cults or corporations.

Without fail, tensions among sovereign states provide Bond’s villains with opportunities to challenge state authority. Just as military rivalry keeps countries from cooperating on issues of mutual interest, it helps keep terrorists armed and financed; just as international economic competition prevents states from agreeing on trade and tariff regimes, it empowers corporations to engage in damaging regulatory arbitrage. This dynamic of state competition enables sovereignty-free actors, be they fictional Bond villains or actual narcoterrorists and multinational corporations, to exploit international politics and further their own agenda.

It is startling that Fleming developed this insight long before many scholars of world affairs began to analyze the problems and consequences of globalization. Whereas international relations theorists of the 1960s and 1970s focused on superpower security struggles and international regimes, Fleming recognized an evolving second world of politics populated by authorities free from the domestic and international constraints and responsibilities of governments. Much like in Bond stories, the clash between that world and the world of sovereign states has produced integrative and fragmenting dynamics that some contemporary international affairs theorists have labeled "glocalization," "chaord," and "fragmegration."

If Bond films have taught us one thing, it is that popular awareness of globalization and its attendant tensions and paradoxes predates by decades serious scholarly treatment of the subject. That a British author of fiction in the 1950s and Hollywood scriptwriters in the 1960s and 1970s identified themes that resonate so well — across not only four decades of movies but also across cultures — should stir humility in every international affairs scholar.

Ironically, among those today who question whether globalization is a new phenomenon, many do so as a means of arguing against the utility of globalization theories. We are led to the opposite conclusion: If the features of globalization have been around so long, why didn’t we develop our theories sooner? It seems that, as in the movies, James Bond is a step ahead of us.

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