Actorless Threats

26 February 2021, 1330 EST

This is a guest post from Morgan D. Bazilian, Director of the Payne Institute, Colorado School of Mines; Andreas Goldthau, Franz Haniel Professor at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, and Research Group Leader at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies; and Kirsten Westphal, a Senior Analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. They tweet at @mbazilian, @goldthau and @kirstenwestpha1.

The age of actorless threats has arrived. Democracies need to re-imagine and re-tool their responses.

This is an age of the “actorless threats”. As Bazilian and Hendrix argued in a recent essay, “Mitigating or adapting to slow-onset, actorless threats like climate change…requires a reimagining of our national security priorities and architecture.” Climate change gives rise to cascading risks of habitat destruction, infectious disease outbreaks or biodiversity loss. These threats have already started to cause loss of life at significant scales. They have added friction to various aspects of geopolitics and the relationship between states and people. And they have put existing systems to their breaking point.

Such threats are not bound to a certain territory, but rather transcend borders and boundaries. They tend to threaten entire societal systems, with important second order effects for political or economic stability. They can be diffuse and long-term in impact. These traits vary between these threats, but these common archetypes often mean that cooperation is the only way to address them successfully. Actorless threats also do not lend themselves easily to specific current government departments or agencies, but rather require cooperation across government. And they are almost certain to become more prominent going forward, rather than less, exacerbating secondary effects.

The idea of non-traditional security threats is not new. Some of the defining terms include their transnational character. They are also typically conducted by non-state actors, rooted in social or cultural issues, and not bound to a specific territory. Non-traditional security threats do not only come with significant costs, which the Stern Report highlighted for the case of climate change already fifteen years ago. Because the global economy is deeply interconnected they also trigger cascading effects into other sectors and states. A well-known example here is a bursting real estate bubble spiraling into an international banking crisis.

Actorless threats display similar features, they are also man-made. Yet, their causality chain is even less traceable, immediate and direct. There also is a lag in time and space with regard to cause and effect. Think about climate change and pandemics. They come with tipping points which elude direct influence and are not gradually controllable. The melting of the permafrost, the slowing down of the jet stream, the spreading of zoonoses and virus mutations are not only transcending borders and boundaries. They transcend habitats, communities and generations. For example, the melting of the permafrost has given rise to the risk of anthrax transmission.

Non-traditional threats have questioned the territory as a principle of political order. New actorless threats go to the heart of our way of life and its underlying paradigms of growth and prosperity. They shake-up the fundaments of modern economies and societies. They relentlessly reveal that mankind has been living beyond planetary boundaries.


Actorless threats such as climate change and planetary overstretch have similar impacts across geographies. The 2020 forest fires in Brazil or the Congo were no less damaging than those in Colorado, California or Australia. The Texas cold snap in February 2020 and the subsequent energy outages unveiled the threat to public and health services, as did the polar vortex hitting Spain a month earlier. The COVID19 pandemic ran through the UK and the USA, as it did through China and Korea.

At the same time, actorless threats take very different forms. They move in varying locations and at various speeds. Just compare climate change with the onslaught of the global pandemic. Like the pandemic, climate change will likely have its greatest impact on the poor. But it will also cause havoc in the market economies of the OECD. The pandemic moved non-linearly through the global population over a matter of weeks and months. The changes in sea ice or heat wave frequency and droughts will take decades to become as stark.

The COVID19 pandemic illustrates the political imperatives stemming from actorless threats, given how quickly it unfolded compared to climate change. Think about loss of life. The comparisons between those killed by the pandemic and various wars or acts of terrorism have been rife. But COVID19 is surpassing all but the largest of these fights in death counts.

And they are happening to mostly civilians: during the pandemic the non-civilians are the medical personnel on the front lines. Some national security instruments should and could have been used during the pandemic—think the US Defense Production Act for personal protective equipment: But there has been an evident lack of national-level whole-of-government tools to address the immediate shortcomings in material and resources.

On the international level, there are some synergistic actions, such as protecting large forests that would help with both disease transmission and climate mitigation. But those are relatively rare occurrences. While the World Health Organization would have been best placed to deal with the pandemic, the shock brought to the fore selfish and particular reflexes. The EU’s attempts to override the Northern Ireland Protocol to control the exports of EU-manufactured vaccines drives home the point that instead of joint responses it is zero-sum thinking that prevails.

Actorless threats have implications for and beyond national security and foreign policy, just as it does for domestic policy and institutions. A recent report by the Council on Strategic Risks warns that Earth system stresses remain an underappreciated security threat and urges for a rethink of the US national security architecture. Indeed, the US military has recognized that climate change will change the way they operate and organize.

Germany has firmly established the climate-security nexus on the UN agenda during its 2020 term in the Security Council. Yet although a key defense actor and a UN body have drawn the right conclusions, comprehensive foreign policy approaches have been slow to emerge. It simply is unfamiliar ground, and highly uncertain in terms of international relations implications.

For both for the U.S. national security and foreign policy apparatus it remains difficult to address threats that are non-linear, and which do not have a clearly defined instigator, enemy, or location. For a UN body, used to think in terms of states, warlords or insurgency, “actorlessness” isn’t a thing. In short, the toolbox so far simply does not exist. Nor does the institutional mindset. It is time that changes, and rapidly. Actorless threats demand us to reimagine security.


Actorless threats put the individual front and center of how we need to think about policy responses. The pandemic makes painfully obvious: the traditional concept of national security is as much an anachronism as an illusion. Therefore, classical concerns of security—freedom from violence (Hobbes) or threats to the safety of states (Machiavelli)—need to give way to both environmental and human-centered notions of security.

In short, the rise of actorless threats requires sustainable security, which bridges human and collective security, individuals, communities and societies. The respect for planetary boundaries has to receive more respect and a broader commitment in security thinking.

These concepts have been around for a while. It is time they now enter (hard) security debates. It is not the soldiers in theater primarily fighting the battles of the future, but others like doctors and nurses, or scientists and school children. How to enable, train, and support this kind of “troops” requires completely different approaches to national security and foreign policy.

Instruments of classic defense and state diplomacy therefore need to be complemented by a much more strategic thinking about economic aid, institutional capacity building and human development. Addressing and managing actorless threats therefore requires significant financial and political investment.

The decisionmakers and decision-making processes are very different, too. For a direct military engagement, there is a well-constructed chain of command, ways to monitor the engagement, and means for staffing and funding. Not so for a local council seeking to fight a wildfire or undertake forest management. Political processes need to put emphasis on governing, managing and hedging events of low probability but high impact, threats which require adaptive responses on all levels of command. Actorless threats therefore refocus security strategies towards risk governance and institutional resilience.


Building back better is the call of the day, combining an economic recovery agenda with the aspiration to improve equity and social divides. Yet, for it to be future-proof, this leitmotif urgently need a second leg: build a common sustainable security agenda. Such an agenda needs to fully embrace the imperative of sustainability and at the same time blend human and traditional security agendas.

The world is becoming more interconnected, despite the best efforts of nationalist movements and governments like the Trump Administration. That we are more intertwined with other peoples and countries can be used as a strong foundation for realigning our domestic national security and foreign policy approaches. There are at least four ways to do that.

First, any security calculus needs to include an appreciation of planetary boundaries, intra- as well as intergenerational justice. This requires mainstreaming sustainability into the institutional DNA of the national foreign and security architecture.

Second, we need to change the organization of responses both organizationally and how they are resourced—human and financial. Actorless threats must be prioritized in the staffing and budgets of organizations, as well as their missions at home and abroad. The “traditional” threats will still be viable, but the new ones need separate and different approaches.

Third, we must firmly align security, development and foreign policy decisionmaking. Actorless threats warrant a holistic approach to the external relations toolbox, so as to enhance the resilience of fragile nations, mobilize timely and internationally concerted action and buffer possible security consequences.

Fourth, the call is to create international institutions, where altruism is built in. Climate security – the recognition that diverse linkages exist between climate change and (human) security – has been elevated to UN security council level. Now the multilateral architecture needs further re-invigoration. That can be done through better coordination, shared leadership, shared intelligence and relationships, and – importantly – by way of embracing distributional justice as an integral guiding principle.

The US together with other democracies is best placed to take a lead. Authoritarian regimes build reputations of effective and fast action and seem to have won a certain credit in addressing the COVID19 pandemic. China may well deploy carbon-neutral technologies more effectively than Europe or the US. But this arguably comes at great social costs, particularly for vulnerable communities. Efficient responses to such new threats may also not be palatable in all political systems. Most importantly, however, democracies may have the more sustainable answers to these new actorless threats.

The lifeblood of democracy is transparency, participation and accountability. All these are major features required for addressing sustainable security: monitoring, reporting and common standards and certificates, which will be major tools to cope with actorless threats. Think about life cycle assessment of emission and environmental footprints. Moreover, the commitment of democracies to individual rights as well as empowered societies and preserved global commons may emerge in the long-term as a strength.

It therefore is important for them to identify credible ways to respect and work within planetary boundaries when heeding the call of a sustainable security paradigm addressing actorless threats. Finally, democracies have the procedures to restore and renegotiate consensus over values. This will prove invaluable for recalibrating global governance so as to embrace the challenge of actorless threats on all levels. The Biden administration is therefore well-advised to make this a signature agenda of the planned summit of democracies.