Our national security experts confront many threats to order and stability in the world. In this column, I touch on a few of the most urgent of them.
Terrorism. While there is no universally accepted definition, we typically use the term to refer to the use of violence, usually by nonstate actors and targeting civilians, to achieve political objectives.
Terrorism has been a fact of international life for a long time. Governments denounce it, even declare war against it, but they have not been able to eradicate it. The challenge is to ensure it doesn’t disrupt a country’s way of life, seriously endanger its people, or damage its economic wellbeing.
Nuclear proliferation. Another critical threat is the spread of military technology, especially nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction. Arms control agreements are one tool for deterring this threat.
President John F. Kennedy predicted that as many as twenty countries would have nuclear capability by 1964. Today, however, only nine countries are known to have nuclear weapons, and they have not been used since the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. So, in some ways, we have done better than expected. But can we keep it up?
Climate change. The shift in global climate due to the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere is an existential threat. It results in rising sea levels, more frequent and damaging storms, higher average temperatures, expanding deserts and other threats.
Climate change is real, scientists say, and it is caused largely by human activity, primarily the consumption of fossil fuels. Efforts to slow it down have met with limited success, and it is likely to become more severe. Some call it the defining issue of the century.
Migration. The movement of people, usually across international borders, is another serious threat. There are 250 million international migrants in the world today.
Migration is a major source of innovation and talent, but it can have drawbacks, including increased competition for jobs and services. The United States, a magnet for migration, has more immigrants than any other country. More than forty million people living in the U.S. were born in another country.
Cyberspace. The internet has transformed our lives, facilitating the flow of information, and keeping us connected, but it is vulnerable to abuses. Hackers and scammers prey on the vulnerable. Privacy has eroded as our actions are tracked online.
Regulating cyberspace effectively is difficult, as online technology evolves quickly.
Health and health care. The good news is that global health is probably better than at any time in history. The world has seen improvements in diet, technology, education, and diagnosis and prevention of disease. Life expectancy is increasing.
But the gap between where we are and where we want to be is huge. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than three million people, reminds us that global health remains a foremost threat.
Trade. The buying and selling of goods, products and services across borders is mostly positive. It creates jobs, improves efficiency, and strengthens the economy. But it can produce winners and losers.
Every nation wants to have a trade surplus, which is, of course, impossible. Nations compete, and they argue over what constitutes fair trade. Negotiating and enforcing new trade agreements will remain a challenge.
Development. Economic growth, population increases, the distribution of wealth and quality of life are encompassed in the category of development. Elaborate indexes attempt to measure it.
How can we best achieve it? We Americans link development, not just with economic progress, but with an improvement in our values such as freedom, democracy, and human rights. China advances a different model based on state control of economic life.
This list of threats is not meant to be comprehensive. I have not mentioned, for example, the difficulty of creating alliances to address global issues – or the greatest threat of all: war. But it suggests the breadth and difficulty of the issues we face in the years ahead.
By Lee H. Hamilton