Military globalisation is nothing new

Global interests are protected, as history has shown, by worldwide circulation of military and security forces.

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Globalisation requires hard labour and, consequently, security, to ensure its unchallenged drive for profit [EPA] 

For true believers, globalisation is a force for peace. This is globalisation as communications technologies. People are brought closer together in a multicultural utopia, where tweets and posts bring down authoritarian rulers.

For critics, globalisation is the iron cage of neoliberalism. Here, executives in suits jet about in business class, while workers are penned in in maquiladoras, denied union representation, and subjected to punishing labour regimes.

Rarely is the military, the supposed bastion of conservative nationalism, associated with globalisation. But soldiers have been circulating the globe for centuries, and were visiting exotic places long before cheap air travel.

When the military and globalisation are brought together, it is usually in terms of private security companies. An example is R2’s new venture in the United Arab Emirates, where a foreign battalion composed largely of Colombians is being trained.

As so often the case with globalisation, what seems new actually reflects much older patterns and histories. Bamboozled by patriotic war movies and memorials, and by the efforts of nationalists everywhere to claim the military as their own, we forget that armed forces are often composed of foreigners. Indeed, there are few institutions as cosmopolitan as the military. Where else would you find Arabs, Colombians and US citizens working together?

Naturally, foreign troops are very useful when a government is threatened by its own citizens. Bahrain did not have to hire R2, because its army is already largely composed of Baluchis from Pakistan who were willing to fire when ordered. Along with Saudi assistance, this fact proved decisive in saving the regime in the recent unrest.

But foreign troops are not just praetorian guards for the local potentate. Bahrain, like the UAE, is a crucial node in global networks of military, economic and political power. The UAE has the world’s sixth largest reserves of oil, while the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain.

The steel frame of globalisation

These global networks, initially erected by European and US imperialism, require pliant, friendly local rulers who respond to international concerns. In turn, those rulers require security forces to maintain them in power. And so every imperial power devotes considerable resources to training, advising and assisting foreign armed forces. Many of Bahrain’s officers are trained in the UK and the US, while other Western security specialists are hired privately.

In the era of formal colonies, the Europeans raised large colonial armies officered by whites. The British held India with an Indian army, while France ruled North and West Africa with regiments raised from these very places. But with decolonisation, military advice and assistance became more complicated and often covert.

In the 1960s, Britain’s client, the Sultan of Oman, was faced with a rebellion in the Dhofar region. The first step, of course, was to redefine this rebellion as “communist”. Like “terrorism” today, this was the catch all term for everything that threatened Western interests in the Cold War (R2’s UAE battalion is, in part, justified by the threat of “terrorism”). But even so, to openly assist the Sultan would have made him appear a Western client and weakened him further.

What was needed was a force that could appear “Omani”. A British officer was seconded to command the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF), along with British officers and NCOs who volunteered for service. Other British officers were privately hired into the SAF, many having recently been discharged from the Indian army which had continued to employ British officers after 1947. Due to feudal rights, the Sultan could recruit Baluchis, who made up 67 per cent of the SAF in 1961, while Indians and other foreigners were hired into the navy and air force.

The Dhofar rebels pointed all this out in their propaganda. In response the Sultan proclaimed in a speech in 1972 that “everyone knows the air force is an Omani air force, and that the navy is an Omani navy, and that our Omani army is the only force which protects the land of our nation”.

Once they broke the back of the rebellion, the Sultan and his British advisors set about creating an “Omanisation” program for the armed forces, recruiting more Omanis. Like Vietnamisation, Iraqi-isation, and Afghanistan-isation, creating indigenous security forces that can hold the country on their own is the key to Western withdrawal and empire on the cheap. When necessary, the local forces are stiffened with foreigners, while their officers are trained abroad.

Needless to say these projects of order making do not always succeed. But in various ways these examples begin to lay bare the steel frame of globalisation, the worldwide circulation of military and security professionals who see off local armed challenges to global interests.

Another of the announced purposes of R2’s battalion is to put down unrest among the legions of migrant workers in the UAE. From the earliest days of European expansion onwards, globalisation has always required back breaking, soul destroying manual labour, on sugar plantations, in mines and elsewhere.

Then, as now, the workers occasionally revolted, while lines of communications with markets and suppliers had to be secured. Then, as now, the cheapest way to do so was to train up indigenous armed forces.

The modern, interconnected world has been made and maintained by getting brown and black men arrayed in warlike order to kill other brown and black people. Whether as economy or as communication, globalisation has required a great deal of “security”.

Tarak Barkawi is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge. he specialises in the study of war, armed forces adn society with a focus on conflict between the West and the global South in historical and contemporary perpective. He is the author of Globalization and War, as well as many scholarly articles.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.