The following were my comments to a global ‘freedom and democracy’ group last week. After arguing that the world is slowly getting safer especially as viewed from 1945 or even 1990, here is the 7-minute list of the big ‘new’ problems:
1. Proliferation. This has been slow-boiling for awhile now, but 9/11 threw the hysteria into overdrive. W was right when he argued that the nexus of WMD and fanaticism is the single biggest threat to global security today. I tend to think that this a problem we have to live with, rather than something we can solve. But regardless, it would probably be better if fewer states had WMD (although deterrence theory says maybe not). But we really don’t have good tools for addressing this. No one wants to invade every nuclearizing state (more Iraqs anyone?). The Non-Proliferation Treaty regime doesn’t work too well, primarily because the nuclear-haves have reneged on their end of the deal. (They are supposed to give up WMD eventually in exchange for others not going for them, but the allure of nuclear discrimination is too much to resist.) AQ Khan-types will try and try to hawk this stuff, and they only need to succeed once for WMD to find their way to terrorists. And the Proliferation Security Initiative is only just be tested now, and honestly, makes me kinda nervous. I heard a nuclear theorist argue a few weeks ago that the PSI is a neo-con/John Bolton idea cooked up to provoke incidents on the high seas with rogues in order to justify the use of force. Finally, I think the biggest proliferation issue, that no one ever talks about, is actually small arms. The AK-47 has killed more people than all the high-tech toys you see in the Transformers. If you really want to reduce global killing rapidly, how about a small arms embargo on much of Africa?
2. China’s gangster pals. This too is a growing issue. My thinking on China is in flux. I still think that a conflict with the democracies is likely, but China is so variegated now, its foreign policy language and behavior so mixed, it is d— hard to make an educated guess. But we do know that China is looking the other way on some of the world’s worst nasties, whether for geopolitical interest (thwarting the US in NK and Iran) or for its neo-mercantilist resource scramble (Sudan, Zimbabwe). FP had a good essay on this recently. It will only make global security problems worse if the world’s rogue states feel that they have a new backer (the old one being the East bloc), who will bail them out and block UN votes. But then the US sorta has this coming by enabling Israel’s worst instincts too.
3. Pushy middle powers. A clutch of ‘rising’ middle powers are increasingly defining their interests as poking a finger in the eye of the leadership of the liberal trading order. Mead has nice piece on this; here is the book-length version. No one minds if others get rich. So much the better. Many of these ‘second world’ powers had terrible poverty in the past, so their rise is a net good. Many people are wealthier, healthier, better educated, etc. as Brazil, South Africa, etc, get their act together. But prestige is a big driver in IR, far bigger than our research indicates. The primary interest of these states, newly brought to the top table as a part of the G-20, is to gain stature acceptance from the older, more prestigious states. Wealth and military power are nice, but they are getting those now, so their real interest is getting attention – getting their diplomats interviewed on CNNi, photographs with Obama at the White House, posturing at Davos about the ‘power shift away from the West,’ etc. The best way to get this sort of attention is to provoke the hegemon. Hence a truculence toward the US and the world order it backstops will be a growing problem. In going from the G-7 to the G-20, you increase the number of players at the top table, so it will become that much harder to organize efficient, coherent action to security threats like civil war in Africa, terrorism, piracy, trafficking, etc. Game theory predicts ever greater coordination problems as the number of players rises, contrary to Obama’s belief that the G7-to-G20 shift will bring greater burden-sharing. Unipolarity was safe and easy (even if it was unjust), and it is starting to look like the game theorists were right.