When it comes to global security threats, there has been no shortage of wake-up calls. Transnational criminals illegally traffic sophisticated nuclear technology to unstable regimes in the most conflict prone regions of the world. Terrorist groups who seek to inflict mass casualties are found with training materials for using biological weapons. Sea levels rise, droughts last longer and longer, and storms are more frequent. Skyrocketing energy prices lead to astronomical rises in food costs, prompting riots and warnings of food emergencies in poor countries. Economic turbulence and insecurity drain savings and jobs in large parts of the world. Deadly viruses cross borders, continents, and species.
This is the world of transnational threats where the actions — or inaction — of people and governments anywhere in the world can harm others thousands of miles away. It is a world where national security is interdependent with global security and where sovereign states acting alone are incapable of protecting their citizens. It is a world for which we are woefully unprepared.
The interdependence of national and global security
A profound but underappreciated truth about globalization is the extent to which national security and international security have become inseparably linked. This is true even in the most powerful countries. In the United States, for example, most Americans would agree on a short list of threats to their national security: transnational terrorism, proliferation of nuclear weapons, a pandemic of a new deadly disease, global warming and economic instability and crisis. What stands out on this list is that these threats can affect every country’s security.
Nor do the threats that preoccupy other parts of the world stand in isolation. Poverty, civil wars, regional conflicts — all of these are connected with what threatens the United States. Transnational terrorism uses ungovernable spaces for sanctuary and to gather recruits, capital, and weapons; and it uses a narrative of grievance stoked by protracted civil and regional conflicts. Climate change exacerbates the competition for land and water and places greater burdens on the poor. Poverty not only increases the risks of civil war and state failure, but also precipitates the emergence of deadly infectious diseases.
The interconnectedness of these threats and their cumulative effect pose grave dangers to the ability of states to protect their sovereignty. For many states the domestic burdens of poverty, civil war, disease and environmental degradation point in one direction: toward partnerships and agreements with international institutions. Entering agreements or accepting assistance is not a weakening of sovereignty; it is the exercise of sovereignty in order to preserve it. Even stronger states, to preserve sovereignty, must enter into agreements to counter transnational threats such as deadly infectious disease and nuclear proliferation that cannot be overcome in the absence of sustained international cooperation.
American foreign policy has yet to come to grips with the implications of security interdependence. Especially in the last seven years, Washington has elevated one threat — transnational terrorism — above global warming, poverty, deadly disease and other dangers, neglecting to notice that terrorism is the least salient threat to many states and that most of these threats affect each other. The United States hasn’t seen the wisdom of placing threats to its security in a global framework. And that neglect has cost it much in the way of international cooperation. The reality of a world of inter-connected and transnational threats is a simple one: you have to cooperate with others to get them to cooperate with you.
The Post-Cold War International Void
Our international institutions to promote cooperation for peace and prosperity were all designed in a different era of different threats and different power relations. This does not mean they are obsolete. Some have shown remarkable resilience, while others have adapted in rather ad hoc fashion to changing realities. It is better that we have them than not, but they are inadequate to produce the capacity and collective action to predictably address today’s new threats. Similarly, new international norms have emerged, but these have been norms of the “what should be done” as opposed to the “what will be done” variety. As a result, international order is now frayed; we have commitments without compliance, resolutions without resolve and we lack predictability and confidence in international responses to today’s challenges.
Historically it has taken war or crisis to bring about a fundamental transformation of international order. The failure to seize the opportunities afforded by the end of the cold war and 9/11 creates a much more difficult challenge: to use the urgency of looming existential security challenges to prompt global action before their worst consequences are felt.
Rebuilding international order will require focusing on specific institutions for addressing specific threats — and making them effective. But as a prerequisite it also requires a vision; a foundational principle that gives a moral value to order and brings coherence to expectations about how states should act across multiple issue areas. Such a principle must appeal to diverse populations in every region of the world, win the support of key states, and resonate with America’s self-image.
We believe that responsible sovereignty, or the injunction that sovereignty entails obligations and duties to one’s own citizens and to other sovereign states, is such a principle. In our book, Power & Responsibility: Building International Order in an Era of Transnational Threat, we refine and extend the concept and apply it to diverse transnational threats to formulate solutions. We argue that responsible sovereignty requires all states to be accountable for their actions which have impacts beyond their borders; and makes such reciprocity a core principle in restoring international order and in providing for the welfare of one’s own citizens. In a world of interdependent security, states cannot exercise their responsibility to their own citizens without also exercising it in concert with other states.
International order in an age of transnational threats requires power in the service of responsibility. Major powers must be convinced to exercise their sovereignty responsibly and weak states must become capable of exercising their sovereignty responsibly. Building this order depends on four prerequisites: effective institutions that provide legitimacy, mobilize resources and coordinate multiple actors towards common goals; negotiated understandings of the applicability of responsible sovereignty to different issues; institutionalized cooperation between the US and the major and rising powers, including through the G20 or a variant.
But above all it will require effective international leadership by the United States — leadership President Obama has a unique chance to provide.