1. Great Power War – Many would call this old-fashioned thinking, but I still believe the greatest threat to global security is war(s) between great powers. Throughout human history, with World War II being the greatest example, physical conflicts between powerful nation-states has caused the most destruction and destabilization to our global society. Though in many ways the world has moved away from the tragedy of power politics, it still does exist, and as long as it does, it proves the greatest threat to a peaceful, cooperative existence.
To describe this danger more specifically, let’s look at the world’s current two behemoths, the United States and China, and how they individually or together (mainly meaning a war between the two) could destabilize the international system and bring great harm to millions. After all, with great power comes great responsibility.
A. United States – People often quote a poll conducted in Germany that concluded that a majority of Germans view the United States, with Iran a distant second, as the largest threat to global security. This poll was almost always referenced in conjunction with the Bush administration, specifically its decision to invade Iraq. I always thought of something else. First off, I find the poll’s results completely unsurprising (though the writer/speaker who brought them up always seemed to expect gasps). The sheer enormity of American power, especially in the military sphere, has to make it the greatest threat to international security. In 2003, no other state actor on the planet could go halfway across the globe and dispose of a government in power for 30 years with a sizable military in a couple weeks. And it’s not even close. If I’m Germany, Iran, India, Nepal, etc. I would be speechless. How did you guys do that? It looked so easy that every state had to now understand that it could be done to them.
This is not to ignore the troubles the US and its allies faced after the invasion of Iraq, but the point is made nevertheless. The sheer fact that most of the world does not fear American power, only worries about it being misused from time to time, shows the benevolent nature of American hegemony or great power status. (Here comes hypothetical ridiculousness) If a Nazi or Stalinist regime was in charge of the United States than every state (especially you Canada!) would have the United States easily atop their threat assessments. The US doesn’t even have to be ruled by thugs to shake up or bring back global stability as Iraq has shown us twice (1991, 2003)! Great power can be used for good as well as ill and that is why the behemoth that is the United States is a consistent threat to international security.
B. China – China deserves a mention under this category as well. Their economic rise,( they soon will be the 2nd largest economy in the world), sheer geographic and demographic size, and superpower ambitions portray a major power player in international relations and like we just said, with great power comes great responsibility. One can feel the presence of a rising Middle Kingdom in Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, Russia, India, and all the way to America’s shores. The 20 odd year run of American unipolarity will face in China, its greatest challenge yet. The current global status quo, US as a limited superpower with several smaller, yet critical global players (EU, Russia, China, Japan, etc.), may be upended in various unforeseen ways by a revisionist Chinese state. Interests between these two will inevitably clash in East Asia, Middle East (Iran already), Africa, and even in Latin America. Realist scholars have noted that the most dangerous, destabilizing periods in international politics have sprung out of battles between a status quo challenger (in this case, the US) facing a revisionist power (China) who desires a role in the world to match its perceived influence and power. I am by no means arguing that this US-China conflict, or for that matter China-India, will be physical or inevitable, but the possibility is there and it could get very, very bloody.
2. Failed States – Well I consider the destructive power of a war (both cold and hot) between great powers to be the most serious threat to international security, the presence of failed states across the globe is at this very moment already causing dramatic problems. Failed states such as Afghanistan (especially before 9-11), Somalia, Congo, Haiti, Sudan, etc. create numerous challenges to global stability and safety. Ethnic or sectarian conflict spilling over borders, weapon and drug smuggling, international terrorism, piracy, and millions of world citizens who do not have a local societal and governmental structure to give them a chance at a decent life are all threats to those close by and as 9/11 showed, sometimes those far away. It is not only those states that already failed that is a serious concern for us all, but those that may be failing, specifically Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea, parts of Mexico, Iraq, and Yemen. If any one of these states collapses the consequences would be far reaching.
3. International Terrorism – Connected to failed states, but by no means only relegated to them, international terrorism is a scourge on international safety and stability. Attacks on major financial centers such as New York and London shock the global economy costing billions in losses for millions of people. Terrorism breeds insecurity and forces states and societies to spend huge amounts on homeland security, hurting not only global commerce, but also slowing the transportation of ideas and talents across the planet. Looking outside the West, one can clearly see what terrorism and the threat of it does to such states as Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Palestine and Israel. Terrorist attacks are not good recruiting tools for foreign investments. When it comes to the threat that terrorism brings to the international system, the greatest fear is a nuclear/biological/chemical attack, or even a valid threat of their use. If there ever comes to be one of these attacks on a major population and political center (New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Beijing, New Delhi) it could shake the international system in ways we can’t imagine.
4. Iraq/Iran – An Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear weapons and an Iraqi state that is falling apart are two scenarios that are both possible and frightening. Though I do not believe an Islamic Republic government will behave irrationally enough to actually launch a nuclear attack, I do fear their policy shifts and regional stance that would come with them knowing that they now have a nuclear deterrent. Their acquisition of such weapons would also require either Arab states to reply in kind with their own programs, or more likely, blatant American security umbrella commitments. Either way it would seem to even further the Iran-United States battle for influence and control of the vital Middle Eastern region.
I have long argued that losing Iraq would be more catastrophic for American and global security than if US/NATO lost Afghanistan (Obviously it would be best to lose neither). Iraq is a key state in a vital and volatile region. Its border touches Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and therefore has the ability to negatively or positively affect these other critical states. The state of Iraq is of course home to one of the greatest oil reserves in the world and the country’s stability and ability to get this vital resource to market will affect energy prices everywhere. Lastly, an Iraq that is functionally democratic (not like Western liberal democracies, but still ten times more free than its neighbors), stable, and friendly to its neighbors, the West, and the United States, would be not only a terrific (or terrifying if you’re a neighboring autocrat) example to the peoples of nearby states who lack such an open, productive system, but would also provide an integral link between the West and a strong Muslim state, which could bring much promise to both sides. In either case, much is at stake.
5. Pakistan/India – The conflict between these two states over the region of Kashmir is one of the most vibrant and potentially explosive in the world. The two sides have fought 3 small border wars over the past 50 years and remain militarily-ready for more. Did I mention that each side has nuclear weapons? Of course, many Realists would argue this is keeping a major war at bay. Thankfully, the two sides have in the past week begun officially speaking again. Still, the inability, or the purposeful allowance, of the Pakistani state to control violent extremists in their midst that have perpetrated attacks against the Indian people and state (with Mumbai 2009 being the latest major attack) will continue to make these contentious neighbors a threat to regional and international security, as a major brouhaha between these two actors would bring in outside great powers (US, China, EU, Iran) and unknown consequences. This case rates below Iran/Iraq because it is much less likely to actually occur.
6. Russia – I’ve spoken about Russia’s still vibrant, if limited globally, power for some time now. Moscow’s willingness to use its military (hello Georgia 2008) to protect or further its interests in its perceived ‘sphere of influence’. While great powers like the US, China, Germany, etc. downplay their great power status in order to calm the international community, Russia speaks openly about its regional and global aspirations (see Cuba, Venezuela, bomber flights, Ukraine, etc.). The Russian bear’s main threat to global stability is its continuous presence as a threat to Europe.
7. Israel-Palestine – Lastly, this seemingly endless territorial conflict has troubling implications beyond its bloody borders. The entire Middle East sees this as the central foreign policy issue and outside powers such as the United States, UK, EU, and Russia are constantly embroiled in the dispute. The status of the Palestinians is a common complaint, or raison d’etre, for many Islamist terrorist groups and actions. Finally, the contentious cold war between Israel and Iran could become a hot one at any moment and nuclear weapons held by each side may bring an uncomfortable truths between the two states, or it could lead to catastrophe.
What do you think of the list? What did I miss? What did overrate? Underrate?