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Asymmetric Threats

Opening remarks before the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit Panel Global Security Challenges—National Security, Asymmetric Threats.

By David A. Andelman

We’ve chosen to focus on global security, certainly, but also on a fascinating concept known as asymmetric threats—an idea that, ironically perhaps, dates back to the late cold war years when it was coined in 1975 by Andrew J.R. Mack who was exploring why big nations lose small wars.

Ironically, he was referring to Indochina, a war first the French, then that very year, the United States, lost most decisively. I was in Cambodia and Laos in those days to watch that final denouement.

Today, I hope I’m not in the same position, watching as the democratic powers of the developed world lose far more complex conflicts with, perhaps, even larger stakes. A recent Defense Intelligence Agency report elaborates on two such global threats that seem especially real and immediate.

The first is nuclear—the world having swapped the binary threat of a great power standoff for a multi-polar threat that promises to be far more unstable and dangerous—nuclear powers or wannabee nuclear powers pitted against more active and deadly forces from the world’s most dangerously disenfranchised peoples.

The second set of threats is perhaps even more asymmetric—born by economic instabilities, pathogens, or terrorist attacks that could involve any or all such weapons or challenges.

What are the best strategic choices to avoid such conflicts? What new defenses, what weapons are most effective—can they be stemmed by international cooperation, by diplomacy alone, by economic weapons, boycotts seeming to be the most often invoked, though likely the least effective?

What alliance systems do we construct? How can we count on those systems when it really matters. What challenges do the defenses we choose pose to our own way of life and the freedoms we cherish? 

And how can we avoid distractions from the ultimate threat—a nuclear Iran—as we respond to the more immediate crises of the moment?

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David A. Andelman is Editor of World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of U.S Navy]

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