by Johan Bergenås
On Sunday, at the Oscar’s Gala in Hollywood, British spy-extraordinaire James Bond will be celebrated as the Academy Awards will feature a special tribute to the longest-running movie franchise in history. “Skyfall” was the 23rd installment in the series, but 007 still killed at the box office, grossing near $1 billion globally last year. In a world of endless entertainment options, why do people stick with Bond, James Bond?
Truth is that Bond flicks are so much more than familiar one-liners, improbable action scenes and bold lessons on how to woo the ladies. The true allure of Ian Flemming’s fictional super human is that while we recline and reach for the popcorn, James Bond teaches us a great deal about yesterday and today’s global politics.
Older franchise ventures define danger as being 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 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, which in turn not 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.”
Indeed, 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, modern, real world 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.
These are central tenants of global affairs today, and in between shaken Martinis, James Bond is here to tell the story.