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.Continue reading