The last decade has clearly demonstrated that the nature of threats to international security has changed significantly. Structural challenges, such as terrorism, cyber-attacks and nuclear proliferation, have created an entirely new security environment. National states’ monopoly on using force is eroding, state boundaries have lost much of their relevance and private actors have increasingly become powerful in international security.
The widely shared objectives of peace, prosperity and participation have been threatened for centuries by the military conflicts between states brought about by competing ideologies and interests. The world now faces three additional threats — nuclear proliferation, terrorism and cyber-attacks that have different characteristics from classic military conflict between states, and create an entirely new security environment. The monopoly of military force that makes nation states the dominant force in conventional war is eroded by the new threats that empower sub-national groups and make national boundaries less relevant.
Political leaders must act to reduce these threats and adopt concrete measures that will reduce risks, and consequences, of violence. The traditional instruments of deterrence — intelligence, diplomacy, defence and intervention must be adopted for each of these threats. There are some linkages between these threats: organized terrorist groups are interested in acquiring nuclear materials or devices and are developing cyber capability to use against enemy states. But differences in the nature and the maturity of the ability of nations and international organizations to reduce the dangers of the threats are more material in determining how the instrument of deterrence is best deployed.
The world has been dealing with nuclear proliferation for many decades and many effective international mechanisms are in place. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) plays an important role in controlling the spread of nuclear materials and sensitive technology. International treaties are in place such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), or are under consideration such as the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), to slow the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states. Considerable attention is being placed on effective custody of materials, devices and technology in nuclear states to preclude the possibility of diversion to non-state actors. Ultimately, success here depends on understanding the security concerns of those states that seek to acquire or retain possession of nuclear weapons. Meeting these security concerns, rather than international treaties, can be the most effective way to solve this problem as the experience of having South Africa and states of the former Soviet Union give up their nuclear arsenals tells.
This threat probably receives more attention from the public and political leaders than the other two, because of prominence of the 9/11 attacks on the United States and a number of other acts of violence by militant groups. But, there is considerable confusion about the nature of the terrorist threat and this confusion leads to faulty policies, misallocation of resources, and not striking a proper balance between individual privacy and community security. There is confusion about whether terrorism is a law-enforcement or a national security matter, whether terrorism is, inevitably, a byproduct of religious fundamentalism, whether the terrorist threat would be greatly reduced if there is an Arab-Israel peace settlement. Often the characterization does not adequately distinguish between the massive political, economic and cultural differences that exist in the Muslim world.
Despite this confusion on fundamentals, it is surprisingly true that the United States, the European Community and developed Asia have avoided experiencing more catastrophic terrorist events. This success is almost certainly due to the increased capacity for counter-terrorism in a number of countries and the cooperation between countries, although there is no data to support this view. One hopes this trend will continue in the future as well.
Cyber-attacks whether mounted covertly by states or by terrorist groups present the greatest challenges to prevention. First, the techniques of cyber warfare are rapidly evolving. The cost of protecting information infrastructures is much higher than the cost of an information attack that disrupts critical information or communications in a country. These attacks are difficult to trace, and the fact that cyber-attacks do not directly kill people, restricts the range of retaliatory actions that can reasonably considered. Generally, the level of cyber security in the civil sector is much lower than in the government or military sector, even in technologically advanced countries. Although there is a good deal of talk about the need for international cooperation and possible international agreements, at present, the level of understanding and capability indicates that emphasis should be laid on exchange of information and technical assistance on information security.
In a sense, the electron is the ultimate precision weapon; properly controlled and directed in destroy the proper function of civil and military entities imposing tremendous economic and security cost without directly harming innocent bystanders. Since cyber technology is easily accessible and does not require an extensive infrastructure, the implication is that groups having the intention to harm will increasingly make use of cyber attacks. Accordingly, since the dimensions of this threat are still unknown, cyber attacks make the greatest threat to future international security and will command the most management attention of governments and private entities.