The Briefing

The Three Most Dangerous Things About Threat Lists

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The New Year is always a time for making lists, and presidential inaugurations crank the Beltway list-making machine into overdrive. We've got prediction listschallenge lists, and even foreign-policy-problems-the-president-could-solve-right-now lists. The thing is, the most serious foreign policy challenges are often unlisted surprises.

In 1995, President Clinton issued a Presidential Decision Directive that demanded intelligence priorities be placed into tiers. They were, and Afghanistan was near the bottom. In 2000, a self-appointed bipartisan Commission on America's National Interests tried a similar drill. They ended up assigning counterterrorism and democracy promotion outside the Western hemisphere as second- and third-tier interests. In 2011, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets, "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more -- we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged."

Why do these lists have such an abysmal track record? Because they tend to focus on hot spots and bad guys -- the places and adversaries that make headlines rather than the underlying forces that ignite and inflame conflict. Instead of lists of challenges, the Obama administration should think much more about drivers of challenges, understanding better the forces that are likely to amplify and multiply security threats now and over the longer-term. Think of these drivers as "threat multipliers." They don't make the threats. They make the threats more dangerous, numerous, and intractable. In my view, three threat multipliers are critical and deserve much more systematic thought in Obama's second term: institutional mismatch, climate change, and technology.

Institutional Mismatch

Within states and across them, institutions are slow to adapt to new global political realities. This matters. Effective governance is the key to both global economic development and security, tamping down instability, and responding quickly so that small crises stay small and big problems get the attention they need.

Governments and international organizations are changing. The problem is they aren't changing fast enough. At the state level, we are in the midst of three races. In the Middle East, the race is whether new democracies can be institutionalized fast enough to stave off instability. It doesn't look promising. History suggests that building and sustaining democracies takes time. Since 1950, only 22 countries in the world have been continuously democratic. In China, the adaptation race is whether the communist regime can deal with massive social disruption triggered by the country's breakneck economic development. For all the talk of China's rise, a weak China could be vastly more dangerous, stoking nationalist flames and adopting a more aggressive foreign posture to divert attention from domestic woes. In the United States, the race is to transform a creaky 1940s national security architecture to deal with a skyrocketing number of actors and crosscutting issues. So far the U.S. government has responded to this rising complexity by adding complexity, creating scores of coordinators, czars, and special envoys right alongside the existing bureaucracy. When policy coordination is so important, creating more offices to coordinate is not a winning design.

Multinational institutions are also showing their age. The European Union may be coming unstuck. NATO is struggling to find relevance. The U.N. Security Council and IMF are mired in governance schemes that are out of whack with current power realities. The G-20 is a new player but its aspirations exceed its capabilities. Improving and modernizing these organizational arrangements is vital because the United States cannot lead alone and because international security problems increasingly require collective action. When institutional arrangements don't reflect power realities, cooperation becomes more difficult. Coalitions become more fleeting, ad hoc, and time consuming. And problems are left to fester, often growing more difficult with time.

Climate Change

Climate change is a second threat multiplier that affects both traditionally stable places and exacerbates instability in some of the world's most volatile regions. The direct effects of global warming are well-known: more extreme weather events like hurricanes, prolonged drought, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and melting of the Arctic, which is already generating conflict over newly accessible shipping routes and natural resources.

The indirect effects of climate change are less discussed but equally severe. Climate change threatens to inflame social stresses and undermine governance in already fragile states, creating "ungoverned spaces" that are the breeding grounds for international terror, crime, and unrest. Consider this: Climate change is expected to produce up to a 30 percent drop in agricultural yields in Central and South Asia; severe water stress which will affect two billion people, including many in South Asian and African nations already on high alert for state failure; increases in disease outbreaks as water-deprived populations rely on unsafe sources of drinking water; and an estimated displacement of 200 million people living in low-lying coastal areas, particularly in Asia. Importantly, climate change also diminishes response capacity because its effects are regional, making neighbors less able to aid one another.


The third threat multiplier is technology. The one sure thing about technology is that nobody can predict just how it will be used or by whom. Facebook began as a Harvard student social site and ended up toppling regimes in the Arab spring. Drones used to be the surveillance and killing tools of advanced industrialized states. Now they are being used by rebel groups and built by teenagers. Will drones prolong civil conflict by enabling both sides to see who's around the corner and pick their battles more carefully? Or will they strengthen international peacekeeping by providing a low-risk substitute for "boots on the ground?" Nobody really knows.

What is known, however, is that we live in the early days of a profound new technological era that has three key attributes: lower costs of collective action, which gives civil society far more power against the state; diffuse, often unrecognized vulnerabilities as more systems -- from banks to dams to weapons -- become networked; and technical capabilities that have developed far faster than laws, policies, and international frameworks to manage their use.

In Washington, it is often said that the urgent crowds out the important. Unless the Obama administration does more serious thinking about how to handle these three threat multipliers, the White House's urgent list will only grow bigger.

“The Three Most Dangerous Things about Threat Lists,” by Amy Zegart, was originally published by Foreign Policy, in its national security online newsletter, January 16, 2013; copyright © 2013 by Foreign Policy Group llc, a division of the Washington Post Company. The article appears here with the permission of the copyright holder.