The Shield and the Cloak

The 21st century demands a more expansive understanding of national security.

Imagine the 21st century as a three-dimensional chess game. One dimension represents the United States. One dimension represents the world of nation-states. The third dimension—a new one— represents stateless nations.

In the 20th century, national security was mostly two-dimensional. The United States and its democratic allies, the white pieces, faced off against other nation-states (imperialist, fascist, or communist), the black pieces. The democratic nations, the white pieces, prevailed because our pieces together were more powerful and, in most cases, we moved them more cleverly. In the 20th century, security was achieved by the clever positioning of powerful forces according to the rules of the traditional two-dimensional game.

As of 9/11, a new third dimension, nonstate actors, imposed itself on the security chess board. Nonstate actors do not play with the same figures or pieces. No knights in uniform. No rooks sheltering stable national wealth. No kings and queens enthroned in national capitals. They also will not participate on the old two-dimensional chess board. Most of all, they refuse to play by the rules. Thus, security cannot be achieved in this new century by using the same pieces and playing by the old rules.

Security can be won only by creating imaginative new pieces, deploying and maneuvering them much more creatively and swiftly, and consolidating the forces of the traditional two dimensions into a global commons: a figurative arena in which collective security interests are deployed for the common good. The United States must also be willing to welcome new players (for example, by engaging China as it did in containing the North Korean nuclear threat) and to use its collective genius and wisdom to create new security rules for this new multilayered global chess game.

The knights, or military forces, must look different, like the Delta Forces in Afghanistan, and be trained and equipped differently. Wealth must be brought out of its protective national castles and invested more wisely in mastering new sciences and technologies to reduce threats of climate change and pandemics. The kings and queens, political figures out of touch with 21st-century realities, must be replaced by leaders smart enough to fully understand the new dimension and bold enough to define new rules for the new game. It also would not hurt if the bishops, the religious leaders, played a more enlightened and constructive role.

The new security will be national and international, defensive and offensive. It will require a shield and spear, representing new kinds of military forces, as well as a cloak that protects the global commons from nonmilitary threats. The old security required containing the Soviet Union within its borders. The new security requires a shield protecting the homeland from terrorists’ threat and a spear to pin the terrorists in their caves. The old security required cooperation among Western armies. The new security requires cooperation among intelligence services. The old security required massive weapons in massive numbers. The new security requires special forces of individual warrior teams searching for terrorists in tunnels and caves. The old security required economic dominance. The new security requires economic integration in a world of international markets, trade, and finance. The old security meant prevention of nuclear war. In addition to that goal, the new security is a cloak composed of security of livelihood, security of energy, and security of the environment.

Consider the collection of new developments, almost all of them neutral on any security scale, that together create huge insecurities. Technology itself is at the top of the list. Technology as applied to destruction is producing increasing numbers of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons capable of mass casualties and mass destruction of property.

Nations have yet to use biology in the form of viral plagues or other maladies against each other, although testing and experimentation with such agents have been known to take place. In an age of suicidal terrorism, it is certainly quite easy to conceive of any number of attackers willingly infecting themselves with a highly toxic, highly contagious virus and fanning out through subway systems, sports events, and shopping malls in the United States to create epidemics. And Hiroshima and Nagasaki tell us all we need to know about nuclear destruction in cities.

Technology is also miniaturizing and privatizing the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. Until recently the province of nation-states, the production of such weapons by nonstate actors in small laboratories, particularly in the case of biological weapons, is rapidly becoming more feasible.

In some ways, weapons of mass destruction represent dual threats: from their use and from the technology democratizing their production and ownership. This simply means that when the genie of mass destruction escapes the lamp, it cannot be put back in by nation-states negotiating treaties to do so. The political equation based on the state monopoly on violence is being fundamentally and perhaps permanently altered by technology.

Other new realities are, or soon will be, threats to security. Mass migrations from Africa to Europe and from Latin America to the United States are fundamentally changing cultures and societies. Europe’s Muslim population is exploding from such migrations and from its own huge birth rates. By 2020, one-quarter of all U.S. citizens will be Hispanic. Neither is, by itself, a bad development, but each will have consequences that must be understood. A society that receives a large and rapid inflow of people may or may not retain its historic values, beliefs, customs, and cultures. Probably not. And as this trend accelerates, the demographic, social, and political changes will create a sense of insecurity among those who find comfort in their traditional cultures.

Even though the threat of AIDS seemed to have been contained for the moment, albeit at a very high level, in the United States and most of Europe, it continues to decimate the populations of many Asian, African, and Latin countries. In addition, almost as many people, particularly children, are dying of malaria in these same countries. Though these may seem distant threats to an uncontaminated American, they destabilize nations and whole economies, and create almost unbearable mountains of human misery. And they contribute to state failure. Into such voids flow religious fundamentalism, clans led by warlords, mafias seeking control of vital resources, and terrorist organizations offering identity and at least limited security to stateless, rootless, hopeless people.

Not all biological danger is created or spread by humans. Virologists are concerned that highly contagious pathogens are capable of outrunning our efforts to contain them. Almost a century ago, an influenza epidemic killed roughly 50 million people worldwide before burning itself out. In the minds of some, the Asian bird flu represents at least the same potential. Commenting on the mounting threat from the bird flu virus, a World Health Organization official said, “We at WHO believe that the world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic,” a global pandemic that could kill millions. Needless to say, modern transportation will hasten the spread of any disease.

After the end of the Cold War in 1991, and particularly since September 11, 2001, the United States has more often than not taken its sole-superpower status to mean that the world has no choice but to follow it; that it is the U.S. way or the highway. The facts suggest that this attitude is swiftly becoming illusory. The European Union is consolidating its political and economic power and is beginning to discuss a collective defense strategy, with its own rapid deployment capability, separate from that of U.S.-led NATO. Led by China, Japan, and South Korea, East Asia is forming the largest trading bloc in the world, without U.S. participation or even U.S. consultation. And the U.S. domination of space for military and communications purposes is being challenged by Europe in cooperation with China.

The more the United States goes it alone, with the expectation that the rest of the world has no choice but to follow, the more the rest of the world is beginning to prove otherwise. Instead of ignoring the aspirations of other nations and collections of nations, the United States should encourage them. Otherwise, it will soon find itself in the unenviable position of being the world’s cop, troubleshooter, shield, and target, while other nations collectively pursue the cloak of better and more productive lives.

To explore new methods of threat reduction—“drying up the terrorist swamp” is one colorful metaphor—requires international alliances and a U.S. example. The first has a better chance of achievement if accompanied by the second. If globalization is made inclusive and expanded to developing and undeveloped nations, it can be a great opportunity to replace hopelessness with hope. Likewise, if access to information technologies held by advanced societies is shared, it will narrow the gap between advancing nations and the rest of the world and can revolutionize lagging national economies.

In many ways, success in achieving security in the early 21st century will be measured by the imagination shown by the United States and nations of good will in inventing opportunities to convert global revolutions into threat-reduction policies for the commons. Information technologies, such as low-cost wireless communications, can transform even the most rural economies and help markets to develop. In the 1990s, I helped a major U.S. telecommunications company to develop telecommunications projects in Eastern European and post-Soviet markets and helped to overcome political hurdles in order to pioneer in these regions. The transformative impact of modern communications was demonstrated in Hungry, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other Eastern European Soviet satellites in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when advanced Western communications systems, quickly installed, revolutionized stagnant economies and created vital urban and rural markets.

There is a direct correlation between a nation’s willingness to open its doors to other nations and the degree to which it is seen as a threat to others. Every nation has secrets even from its closest allies and friends. There are very large parts of the United States that are not only inaccessible to friendly foreigners but also to U.S. citizens.

The security of the commons in the future will be achieved in direct proportion to humanity’s ingenuity in reducing the causes of insecurity. It is possible to use technology, modern science, the communications revolution, and globalization and trade to improve the lives of billions. It is possible to stabilize fragile states and improve economies, thus reducing the causes of mass migration. It is possible, at least for a few years to come, to reverse dangerous climate change. It is possible to control epidemics and attack new and old diseases. It is possible to bring the vast majority of the global population who are committed to good will closer together and further isolate and suppress radical fundamentalists, suicidal zealots, and forces of destruction and death. It is possible to dramatically reduce the proliferation of destructive technologies. These and many other historic achievements, some not conceivable before, are all now possible.

The hard part is not in knowing what must be done and how to do it: The hard part is generating the political will to do what must be done.

Using principles such as civic membership as a foundation, the pieces of a new security structure begin to appear. The U.S. Commission on National Security chose early in its deliberations to define security more broadly—to include cloak with shield—than in the narrow military sense inherited from the Cold War. Our equal numbers of progressive and conservative members understood that a mighty army and a weak government, or better weapons and worse schools, or greater firepower and a rejection of public service made no sense. So our reports urged a major increase in education investment, particularly in the sciences and mathematics, as necessary to a prosperous information-age economy and as the basis for a strong and secure nation.

After the creation of a new national homeland security agency, recapitalizing U.S. strengths in science and education was the next-highest priority. “The scale and nature of the ongoing revolution in science and technology, and what this implies for the quality of human capital in the 21st century, pose critical national security challenges for the United States,”we advised the new Bush administration.“Second only to a weapon of mass destruction detonating in an American city, we can think of nothing more dangerous than a failure to manage properly science, technology, and education for the common good over the next quarter century.”

Strong words, but carefully chosen. We found that the U.S. need for the highest-quality human capital in science, mathematics, and engineering is not being met. And we argued that this is not merely an issue of national pride or international image; it is an issue of fundamental importance to national security. Despite our calls on the president and Congress to double the U.S. government’s investment in science and technology by 2010, five years later we have not even begun. We found that 34% of public-school math teachers and almost 40% of science teachers lack even an academic minor in their primary teaching fields. We proposed an additional 240,000 teachers of science and math in elementary and high schools. It has not been done. We urged more scholarships for science and engineering students. Five years later, we have yet to make a start. We proposed detailed plans for scholarships and low-interest education loans, forgiveness of student debts for those entering military or government service, a national-security teaching program to train very large numbers of new teachers, and the financing of professional development and lifelong learning—all in the national security interest. None of this has been done.

We linked education to economic prosperity, economic prosperity to national security, and national security strength to world leadership. The divergence between stark new realities and the nation’s lack of response to them illustrates the central point of this argument: Either U.S. leaders come to understand the new dimensions of security or the nation is doomed to insecurity and eventual decline. Beyond doubt, China’s inevitable challenge to U.S. economic and therefore political leadership will be seen by those who today refuse to take the steps necessary to guarantee our vitality as Chinese aggression rather than U.S. lassitude.

In the 21st century, the engines of economic growth will be science and technology. The United States is not producing enough scientists, mathematicians, physicists, or engineers or those qualified to teach in these fields at the K-12, university, or graduate school levels. Much of the research that created the basis for U.S. security in the Cold War era was produced in the national laboratory system. Since the end of the Cold War, that system has been in decline. Other nations in Europe and Asia, especially the Chinese, are increasing their investments in all fields of science and in scientific and technological research.

In January 2001, the commission recommended doubling the U.S. government’s R&D budget by 2010 and instituting a more competitive environment for the allocation of those funds. It also recommended elevating the responsibilities of the president’s science advisor, resuscitating the national laboratory system, and passing a new national-security science and technology education act to produce a dramatic increase in the number of science and engineering professionals and qualified teachers in science and math. Much of this thinking mirrors the transformation in science and technology brought on by the dramatically increased U.S. investment stimulated by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in the 1950s. None of these things has been done or has even been begun.

Rather than invade Middle Eastern countries whose possession of weapons of mass destruction or whose threat to the United States is at best dubious, we should encourage the nation in directions that will strengthen it by stimulating economic growth and reward it for pursuing the objectives required to keep our nation on science’s and technology’s cutting edges. Despite its great power, the United States neither could nor should prevent other nations, including China and Russia, from succeeding and growing. Indeed, there is no stronger deterrent to war than a ringing cash register. And increased economic interdependence reduces the likelihood of conflict. In the 21st century, neither isolation nor empire is an option for the United States.

Somewhere among these ideas—the republican ideal of civic virtue, the sense of commonwealth and the common good, and a U.S. civic nationalism that is internationalist— rest the secrets to achieving security’s shield and cloak.

When we restore the idea of the commons, the sense that security is both a shared obligation and a shared right, we will emerge from our individual heavily fortified homes and castles into that commons and defy any threat, terrorist or otherwise, to defeat us. Together we will be strong, we will be unbeatable, we will possess security’s cloak and its shield. For this is security’s web.

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Cite this Article

Hart, Gary. “The Shield and the Cloak.” Issues in Science and Technology 23, no. 1 (Fall 2006).

Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Fall 2006