In my previous three posts, I argued that the world today is more dangerous than it was during the Cold War because the threat from Russia and China is still present, on top of which we face new threats from new nuclear autocracies hostile to the United States, including North Korea, soon Iran, and possibly Pakistan.
In addition to the old-fashioned state-centric threats of hostile nuclear powers, the United States now faces a whole new category of threats that simply did not exist during the Cold War: the threats that come when state failure meets globalization, when non-state actors can operate with impunity outside the write of any law but act with global reach because of new technology. These are the threats that are the current fads of IR and security studies: pirates, organized crime, drug cartels, human traffickers, WikiLeaks, hackers, the global Islamist "pansurgency," and, yes, terrorists. (Throw in pandemic disease and ecological disaster and you get all the research funding you want.)
There is nothing new about the existence of many of these actors, of course. Pirates and terrorists have existed for centuries. However, their ability to present an immediate and large-scale threat to the United States is new, or at least greater than during the Cold War. Travel and communication is easier and weapons technology is more lethal, state failure is more widespread (giving them more space to operate with impunity), while U.S. and allied border, port, and infrastructure security has not kept up.
I earlier argued that the faddish, new-fangled theories about non-state actors were overstated. They are, but that doesn't mean they're completely wrong. Osama bin Laden and Julian Assange clearly did massive and irrevocable harm to the United States in ways literally inconceivable for a non-state actor during the Cold War; the same may be true of the drug gangs in Mexico today. Coupled with the United States' almost complete lack of homeland security, and there is a very real possibility of large-scale, massive, direct harm to the U.S. homeland from a globalized non-state actor.
The preeminent threat of this type is, of course, the global campaign by violent Islamist militants and terrorists to eject the "west" from "Muslim lands," overthrow secular governments and replace them with Islamic regimes, and establish the supremacy of their brand of Islam across the world. (I agree here with David Kilcullen's characterization of the conflict as a global insurgency). Violent Islamist movements have done most of their direct damage to people and states across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. But those attacks certainly don't make the world safer for the United States, nor would their victory in, for example, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. And the movement has, of course, directly attacked the United States and our European allies. Note that violent Islamist groups-whether al Qaida or Hamas or Hezbollah or al Shabaab or Lashkar-e Taiba-typically flourish in and around weak and failing states.
The only thing comparable to the global proliferation of Islamist insurgencies and terrorist movements over the last two decades was the Soviet Union's sponsorship of communist insurgencies around the world during the Cold War. But the Islamist insurgencies are likely to be more resilient, harder to defeat, and more dangerous because they are decentralized, because their ideology is not linked to the fate of one particular regime, because globalization has made it easier for them to operate on a global scale, and because of the higher risk that Islamists will acquire and use weapons of mass destruction since they are not accountable to a deterable sponsoring power.
Even setting the threat from violent Islamism aside, a host of other non-state actors threaten the world order and make American leadership more costly. In fact, the aggregate effect of state failure multiplied across scores of states across the world is so great that "failed states may eventually present a systemic risk to the liberal world order, of which the United States is the principal architect and beneficiary," as I argue in the current issue of PRISM. State failure and the rise of non-state actors-a problem non-existent during the cold war-is a threat to American national security.
Essentially, the United States thus faces two great families of threats today: first, the nuclear-armed authoritarian powers, of which there are at least twice as many as there were during the Cold War; second, the aggregate consequences of state failure and the rise of non-state actors in much of the world, which is a wholly new development since the Cold War. On both counts, the world is more dangerous than it was before 1989. Essentially take the Cold War, add in several more players with nukes, and then throw in radicalized Islam, rampant state failure, and the global economic recession, and you have today.
I recognize that the world doesn't feel as dangerous as it did during the Cold War. During the Cold War we all knew about the threat and lived with a constant awareness-usually shoved to the back of ours minds to preserve our sanity-that we might die an instantaneous firey death at any moment. We no longer feel that way.
Our feelings are wrong. The Cold War engaged our emotions more because it was simple, easily understood, and, as an ideological contest, demanded we take sides and laid claim to our loyalties. Today's environment is more complex and many-sided and so it is harder to feel the threat the same way we used to. Nonetheless, the danger is real.
The next question is, if this is true, what implications should this have for our grand strategy and force posture?
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.