Saturday, March 09, 2013

National Security Policy, Nontraditional Threats, and Other Things

It's always interesting attending a Stammtisch gathering at the home of Les Johnson. There is no lack of interesting discussion material or vocal opinions. Tonight's edition featured a guest speaker, Dr. Kathy Hawk, who discussed "National Security Policy and Nontraditional Threats." Dr. Hawk has an interesting background, covering experiences as varied as the U.S. Navy, the Strategic Defense Initiative Office (SDIO), the U.S. Foreign Service, and teaching at UAHuntsville.

Any discussion of contemporary U.S. policy has to start with World War II and the Cold War, both of which presented relatively straightforward national security concerns. The Cold War, especially, provided a relatively easy problem for our national security apparatus: protect ourselves from communism overseas and at home by keeping ourselves strong on both fronts. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. experienced several new challenges:
  • Many more independent state players appeared on the scene (as opposed to facing a "bipolar" world)
  • Advanced or dangerous technologies became more available to more people
  • Unstable or failed states became homes to criminal and terrorist actors with no nation having a clear mandate (or will) to do anything about them
  • Individual criminals or terrorists were increasingly pursuing agendas hostile to American interests, with or without the support of a nation-state
The most dramatic example of this multipolar world is perhaps the 9/11 attacks, which set the paradigm for national security in the 21st century. Internationally, the U.S. and other Western nations launched a "War on Terrorism" while domestically they centralized their domestic security apparatuses through agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The mandates for Western nation-states didn't change--keep the nation safe from threats foreign and domestic--the challenge has become identifying the best way(s) to do that. DHS was built to bring down the "walls" between various intelligence agencies that allowed Osama bin Laden to slip through the cracks and his followers to seize control of four airplanes one day in September. Unfortunately, in reacting to similar types of threats, DHS has come to impinge on freedoms here at home.

Which begs the question: if you keep the people "safe" from terrorists but regulate and police them relentlessly, is that way of life really worth protecting? Needless to say, with a group of opinionated adults in the room, there were plenty of sidebars and other topics brought up in response to that line of discussion. My comment along these lines was that as national security threats have moved from state actors (Communist Russia) to individuals, governments have tended to target their protective measures down to the size of the actor involved. If the threat is from another country, you set up an army; if the threat is from individuals, you try to regulate individuals. That isn't the best way to ensure freedom, necessarily, but it is a natural consequence of how most governments operate.

Another important topic Dr. Hawk covered was what we mean by power. I was curious to see that her definition of power matched my own: the ability to make someone else do something they would not do otherwise.

In addition to terrorism and international criminal activities (anything from narcoterrorism to slaving), the world community faces potential threats from cyber attacks, unconventional weapons (e.g., nukes), environmental issues (global warming/cooling/climate change), and infectious diseases. If the U.S. is going to obtain cooperation from other nations on how to handle these issues, it will need a combination of hard (military) power and soft (diplomatic) power. These issues are complicated enough when negotiating with national governments that have some control over what things are done by their citizens or on their behalves; it gets much more complicated when national or local governments have little to no control over their populations or if those governments are compromised by criminal elements or corruption. It's one thing for Chinese People's Liberation Army launches a cyber-attack against U.S. information networks, it is something else when individuals like Osama bin Laden or Julian Assange pursue their own agendas without any clear support from anyone.

Another sidebar topic (I somehow doubt it was in Dr. Hawk's prepared remarks) was on the general decline in American power in the last X years--pick your timeline--and the potential sources of that decline. Explanations ranged anywhere from cultural rot to slacking youths to military decline to a general failure of national will to our own success. This last argument was forwarded by Les, who suggested that the rest of the world saw what hard work, capitalism, and technology could do, and decided to imitate our success. Having built our nation up to a certain level, we want to relax and enjoy ourselves while other nations are hustling to catch up to us. The world might be less admiring of the values that we claim to hold most dearly: freedom of speech and action, for example, since Hollywood regularly puts out movies and TV shows that depict a nation of people using or abusing their freedom badly--not the best "advertisement" for the American way of life.

The topic of global warming brought up all sorts of side chatter, ranging from the veracity of the climate models to the real efficacy of "going green" when China and India are building the equivalent of a coal plant a day. Say the U.S. was able to completely electrify its economy and switch to other power sources, but the world's two most populous nations continue to burn fossil fuels. What have we done to help the world in that case, and what could we do from a political power perspective to get those nations to "go green?"

One theme Dr. Hawk returned to as we wound down the evening was the danger of failing or failed states, which become a magnet for bad actors. Corruption, crime, and instability in such places (Afghanistan, Somalia, Zimbabwe) make those nations much less able to respond to issues that require coordinated international effort, such as climate, disease, or space-related threats (I brought up asteroids as a case in point). Someone asked, "So you're suggesting we take on international crime as a way to combat global warming?" It sounds convoluted or counter-intuitive, perhaps, but it made sense to me. In a nation with stable political, social, and physical infrastructure, it is more likely for the citizens of that country to feel safe enough to become politically engaged and make positive contributions to their nation and the world at large.

But lots of questions remain: is it the duty of the U.S. or some other great power to police or stabilize the Somalias of the world? Do we merely contain those areas or use hard/soft power to bring things under control? This being a Stammtisch of engaged citizens, not the U.N., we didn't have any immediate answers or solutions, but as always, a really good conversation.

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