Certainly for many decades and arguably for most of history, security policy has been an overriding priority of major governments, and large scale forms of deliberate aggression have been the dominant concern. In response to that concern large investments have been made to create military forces prepared for immediate use, and the resulting balance of national military capability has generally been considered the principal determinant of international order. Over the past decade, however, that traditional conception has been continuously eroded by circumstances that do not readily fit the presumptions. The idea of belligerent opponents has been preserved, but the list of candidates has receded to a small number, none of whom are plausibly capable of the classic forms of massive aggression. The extensive violence that does continue to occur is episodic, small in scale, and widely dispersed. In the United States at least, the phenomenon of terrorism has been depicted as a global enemy, but the damage directly caused by terrorist actions has so far been a small fraction of that resulting from civil conflicts and ordinary crime. The capacities and characteristics of the largely anonymous perpetrators seem to be less relevant than the underlying causes. At the leading edge of practice, security officials are being driven to contend as much or more with dangerous processes as they are with deliberate opponents, although the distinction has yet to crystallize in the formulation of policy.
It is, of course, notoriously difficult to appreciate a fundamental shift in historical circumstance if you are caught in the middle of it, but there are some very strong indications that a major redirection is occurring, having to do with the aggregate pattern of human development. With economic growth in recent decades concentrated among the wealthier segments of all societies and population growth concentrated in the poorer segments, the global distribution of resources appears to be too inequitable to be indefinitely sustained without generating potentially unmanageable amounts of civil violence. Although the connection between violence and economic performance is neither simple nor well understood, it is prudent, even mandatory, to assume that accumulating grievance combined with increasing access to information and destructive technology poses a major threat to the preservation of consensual order necessary to operate the global economy and to manage the interactions it generates. Not even the most advanced military establishments could expect to cope with a general breakdown of legal order. They could not deny access to any major society by people determined to wreak havoc and they certainly could not identify and preemptively destroy all those who might wish to do harm if their numbers were large. Assuring at least minimally equitable global standards of living and achieving the political accommodation necessary to support that objective is the foundation of security. No amount of traditional military capability could compensate for the failure to establish those determining conditions.
John Steinbruner is director of the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland.
Nancy Gallagher is the Associate Director for Research at the Center.