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Transnational Security Challenges: Threats without Enemies, Security without Borders

The world is interdependent in areas as diverse as financial markets, infectious diseases, climate change, terrorism, nuclear safety and security, product safety, food supply and water tables. In addition to their potential for provoking interstate military conflict, these are all drivers of human insecurity in the threat they pose to individual lives. According to the International Rescue Committee, a US-based private aid agency, the death toll from actual fighting on all sides in the Democratic Republic of Congo was “a few hundred thousand” by 2001. By contrast, the number of people killed by disease, deprivation and starvation in the 32-month conflict (until then) was three million.1 In some historical civilizations, too, there was over-exploitation of land, forest or water in different parts of the world to the point where the civilizations died out. In the industrialized countries today, the by-products of business and farming enterprises poison soils and waterways. In developing countries, growing populations, shrinking ecosystems, deforestation, industrialization and urbanization are all contributing to massive environmental degradation from which industrialized countries are not immune.

The changing security discourse has thus moved beyond protection of a state’s territorial integrity, political independence and sovereignty to embrace such issues as failed states, internal social cohesion, the plight of children and women in armed conflict, terrorism, trafficking in arms, narcotics,and people, the spread of infectious diseases, and cross-border environmental depredations.

The security problematique has morphed from defeating national security threats to risk assessment and management and being prepared—intellectually, organizationally and operationally—to cope with strategic complexity and uncertainty. Most contemporary global perils do not fit neatly into the traditional security paradigm of threat and defence organized around territorial borders. For example, the failure of a poor or fragile state to contain an emerging mass infectious disease can have a devastating impact on the life and security of the citizens of the most affluent and powerful state—hence the subtitle of my talk tonight. Collective security and global governance are necessary because today’s threats cannot be contained within national boundaries, because they are interconnected and because they have to be addressed simultaneously at all levels.

Terrorism is never an acceptable tactic, even for the most defensible of causes and must be condemned clearly and unequivocally by all. Tackling international terrorism requires a good balance between immediate threats and root causes, short term tactics and comprehensive strategies, assistance and sanctions, local, national, regional and global efforts. It also calls for a balance between military and police action against those who put their questionable causes and skewed priorities before the lives of civilians, on the one hand, and nation-building through repairing and stabilizing war-torn countries, establishing the institutions and structures of government and the rule of law, consolidating civil society, and building markets. I could make an argument that the war on terror, which makes an enemy of a tactic, has actually posed a bigger threat to our security than the problem it was meant to address.

Terrorism backed by nuclear weapons is a particularly frightening nightmare. Marrying realism to idealism, we must combine the nonproliferation and disarmament agenda by skilfully integrating minimization of numbers, role and visibility of nuclear weapons in the short and medium term with their elimination in the long—but not indefinite—term through a nuclear weapons convention. The task is to delegitimize their possession, deployment and use; to require no first use and sole purpose commitments; to reduce their numbers drastically over the next decade; to reduce reliance on them and their inherent risks by introducing further degrees of separation between their possession, deployment and use, for example by physically separating warheads from delivery systems and lengthening the “decision-making fuse” for the launch of nuclear weapons; to bring into force the CTBT and a new fissile materials cut-off treaty; to strengthen the IAEA’s authority and capacity; to establish a multilateral fuel cycle; to toughen up supply side restrictions; etc. But then, for once I am preaching tonight to the already converted.

Staying with the religious metaphor, it remains an enduring mystery to me why those who worship the most devoutly at the altar of nuclear weapons are the fiercest in denouncing as heretics anyone else wanting to join their sect. If nuclear weapons did not exist, they could not proliferate; because they do, they will. As long as any country has them, others will want them. As long as they exist, they will be used one day again, by design, accident or miscalculation. We must make the transition from a world in which the role of nuclear weapons is seen as central to maintaining national and international security, to one where they become progressively marginal and eventually entirely unnecessary.

Either we aim for controlled nuclear reduction and abolition or we learn to live with slow but certain nuclear proliferation and die with the use of nuclear weapons. In public debate, we must confront all who dismiss us as naive and utopian dreamers to confront this stark reality. If, rather than commit to nuclear abolition, they are prepared to sign on to a world of cascading proliferation with many more countries acquiring nuclear weapons, including North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others as their preferred alternative, let them say so publicly and accept the resulting public opprobrium. If not, force them into the corner of asking: so who is being unrealistic? The idea that a self-selecting group of five can keep an indefinite monopoly on the most destructive class of weapons ever invented defies logic, defies common sense, defies all of human history. With realists like these…


To the poorest people in the poorest countries, the risk of being attacked by terrorists or with weapons of mass destruction is far removed from the pervasive reality of the so-called soft threats—hunger, lack of safe drinking water and sanitation, endemic diseases and lack of good and affordable health care—that kill millions every year, far more than the so-called “hard” or “real” threats to security.

The rapidity with which some diseases can spread to become global pandemics, the emergence of new, deadly, and highly contagious diseases, the lack of border defences to protect against them, and the greater vulnerability of poor countries and poor people owing to risible preventive and negligible therapeutic care are among the dark sides of globalization. The back-and-forth movement of people in large numbers as business travellers, tourists, traders, soldiers, migrants, internally displaced, and refugees; the modes of transport they use; the incubation periods which ensure that most outbreaks develop symptoms only after borders have been crossed; and the jump across plant, bird, and animal species of some diseases all add up to a deadly cocktail of exotic diseases that cross borders free of passport and visa regulations.

HIV/AIDS is a particularly good example of how the planet is united by contagion.2 It’s a human security issue because of the vicious chain of infection, communal devastation, and social-national disintegration. It is a personal security issue in that as prevalence rates reach 5-20 percent, gains in health, life expectancy, and infant mortality are wiped out, agricultural production and food supply fall, and families and communities start breaking apart. In sub-Saharan Africa women make up the majority of victims and face additional risks of poverty, stigmatisation and social ostracism. It is an economic security issue in that a 10 percent HIV/AIDS prevalence rate can reduce the growth of national income by one-third. It damages communal security by breaking down national and social institutions and decimating the ranks of the educated and mobile, such as civil servants, teachers, health professionals, and police. It damages national security by enfeebling the security forces and corroding the pillars of economic growth and institutional resilience that protect nations against external and internal conflict. And it is an international security issue both in its potential to exacerbate international security challenges (disintegration of any one state has potential cross-border implications for neighbours through economic dislocation, refugee flows, and communal violence), and to undermine international capacity for conflict resolution, for example with respect to peacekeeping.

Poverty contributes to epidemics of infection and curtails access to health professionals and medicines. More than half a million women die every year in pregnancy and childbirth, 99 percent in developing countries. Failing health in turn exacerbates family poverty and retards national development, thereby fuelling a vicious cycle that destroys the lives and livelihoods of millions around the world every year. These are failures not of science but of policy, politics, and governance.

The lessons for global governance include globally interlinked national surveillance systems of infectious diseases, emergency medical controls over outbreaks, rules that inhibit the spread of diseases across borders, financial and material assistance to facilitate long-term health programs, and speedy resolution of negotiating deadlocks on intellectual property rights to provide access to health programs and affordable medicines to the poor people in the poorest countries.

Environmental Security and Climate Change

Environmental damage can aggravate food, water, and health insecurities; this can generate restiveness against the government and outbreaks of instability; the deteriorating food and political situation can provoke an outflow of large numbers of people; if the exodus is sufficiently large, the burden on receiving countries can be heavy enough to raise cross-border tensions to the point of armed conflict; in the resulting war, food, water, and other environmental assets can become tools and targets of fighting, as the multidimensional crisis gets trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle.

Water—which is both indispensable and unsubstitutable—can cause warfare. Over 150 river systems are shared by at least two countries. As water tables and stocks of arable land fall, disputes over them could multiply, intensify, and provoke conflict. Upstream states can use water as a tool of warfare by manipulating shared river basins to inflict pain on other riparian states. The infrastructure of water supplies—dams, irrigation systems, desalination plants and reservoirs—can be the targets of attack in times of war.

In the other direction, responsible stewardship of shared resources, ecosystems and physical environments can be impeded by interstate tensions. In South Asia, for example, regional bodies to regulate waterways, manage river systems, establish water usage and distribution norms, monitor water tables and pollution indices, control deforestation and oversee reforestation, encourage biodiversity, preserve ecosystems, etc. are held hostage to intractable political conflicts.

Based on scale, magnitude, and irreversibility, climate change constitutes a critical security issue. There is a need for action by all and a need for action now. Delay in acting on climate change now will mean that the costs of addressing it later will be significantly greater. The technical challenges will also mount with growing complexity. Along with steps to combat climate change, action is also needed urgently on energy efficiency, conservation and diversification.

There is no scientific certainty with respect either to the magnitude of the problem of environmental degradation, for example global warming; or to the anthropogenic causes of the problem. But the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that we do have a serious problem, that the causes of the problem lie at least in significant part in human activity, and that on the precautionary principle efforts to resolve the problem must be undertaken now, for it might be too late to undo irreversible damage if we wait until we are certain of it all. Moreover, scientific uncertainty goes both ways: the problem could be more acute than we fear. And the earth’s climate system may be nonlinear, so that small changes could trigger sudden and large changes to the ecosystem.

Unfortunately, agreement on climate science does not compute into agreement on climate policy nor trump climate politics. Those who question the fine details, highlight the occasional errors, or impugn the motives of scientists do neither themselves nor their cause any favour. But it is not unreasonable to ask for a full cost-benefit analysis of taking effective action on climate change ahead of other policy priorities.

Policy makers are required to make choices and establish priorities among many competing demands. They need to examine the different issues, the resources that will be required to tackle the different problems, the timescales involved, the opportunity costs of alternative allocation of resources, and the diminishing versus increasing marginal returns of allocating resources to the different problems.

This is true firstly with respect to different goals: climate change, education, health, growth, poverty eradication, energy and national security, and so on. It is true secondly with respect to alternative strategies for tackling an agreed goal, including climate change. What is the best mix of adaptation and mitigation? Should there be voluntary guidelines or binding emission targets and, if so, for all countries or variable targets for different groups? How generous should industrialized countries be on technology and financial transfers to developing countries? How do we choose between cap and trade, an emissions trading scheme, carbon capture and sequestration? Between investing in cleaner technology for existing fuel sources versus alternative, renewable clean and green fuels? Nuclear power?

Even among those who agree on the science, there are significant differences on policy. The benefits of action taken now will not flow through for some considerable time. Owing to emissions already released, the climate will continue to warm for several decades still. In terms of the mix of known and unpredictable risks, the likely consequences, the timescales and resources required, and the costs and benefits involved, one could make a plausible argument that we will achieve greater gains at less pain by focussing on nuclear abolition as a higher priority goal.

Which takes us into the politics—domestic and global—of climate change. The US system in particular leaves the process open to capture by a determined minority of spoilers and rejectionists against the majority wishes. Current US politics seems especially dysfunctional in terms of making long-term strategic decisions in the public interest against vested interests with deep pockets. Politicians the world over prefer gain now and pain later for their successors in office. Climate change requires them to reverse the equation.

The global politics is even more complicated. How do the Chinese and Indian governments persuade citizens to accept permanently lower lifestyles compared to Westerners? How do Western governments convince citizens to accept substantial drops in living standards when the developing countries are contributing the most to emission growth but are not prepared to accept binding emission targets?

Western countries refuse to acknowledge culpability for failures to honour Kyoto and Bali pledges, instead pointing a collective finger at developing countries’ rejection of binding emission cuts. The latter blame the present crisis on the West’s past industrialization. Westerners highlight present and future growth in energy consumption by China and India as the main factors taking us to and beyond the tipping point. Developed countries talk of net national emissions, developing countries of per capita emissions.

Western leaders and commentators pinned the blame for the Copenhagen fiasco on China and, to a lesser extent, India. Yet like China, the US came not to negotiate but to sign an agreement on its terms. Both were equally constrained by domestic growth requirements and political compulsions.

The problem of global warming was created by the developed countries who have deeper carbon footprints and greater financial and technological capabilities for mitigation and adaptation. Their per capita emissions are substantially higher than that of developing countries, with an American emitting fifteen times as much CO2 as an Indian. Unfortunately, the deadly impacts of climate change—with regard to weather extremes, natural and environmental disasters, rising sea levels and food and water scarcities—will not be distributed in proportion to those responsible for global warming. The poorest will suffer the most.

Moreover, while per capita emissions have been falling slightly in the industrial countries, they have risen steeply in developing countries. The problem will worsen not because developing countries aspire to Western affluence but to affordable food, housing, clean water, sanitation and electricity. Westerners must change lifestyles and support international redistribution. Developing countries must reorient growth in cleaner and greener directions.

Eliding the science of climate change with its policy and politics correlates is not helpful.

Global Governance

Finally, the global governance challenge is simply stated. Like several other pressing problems—financial crisis, pandemics, nuclear weapons, terrorism, food, water and energy scarcity—climate change is global in scope and impact and requires global solutions. But the policy authority for tackling it is still vested in sovereign states, as is the capacity to mobilize the necessary resources. The result is that states have the capacity to disable decision making by global bodies like the UN, but generally lack the vision and will to empower and enable their own global problem-solving and coordinated collective action that is timely, decisive and effective. This is why the key decisions impacting on climate change will be made, not by the UN Secretary-General, but by the finance—not environment—ministers of China and India.

Our overriding challenge is to structure national, regional, functional and international governance institutions such as to make them:

  1. robust, so they can withstand both exogenous and endogenous shocks;

  2. resilient, so they can bounce back even when they do sometimes buckle in the face of some particularly severe shocks;

  3. equitable, incorporating a balance of privileges and responsibilities between those who caused the problem, those most impacted, and those who can contribute the most to its solution; and

  4. flexible and adaptable, so they can deal with the rapidly changing nature and source of threats.

At the time of the first UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, for example, neither global warming nor ozone depletion was on the international agenda. We cannot be prepared, but we should expect, as yet unknown ecological surprises in the next 20-30 years of comparable magnitude and gravity, or the so-called black swans: unpredictable, unavoidable, and with large systemic consequences.

Ramesh Thakur is an Adjunct Professor at Griffith University’s Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Brisbane, Australia and the former director of the Balsillie School of Interational Affairs, Waterloo, Ontario.


1 Karl Vick, ‘Toll of Congo War is Called Apocalyptic’, International Herald Tribune, 5 May 2001. ^

2 Mark W. Zacher and Tania J. Keefe, The Politics of Global Health Governance: United by Contagion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). ^

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