With so much scary upheaval shaking the world, it’s hard to say where Americans should focus our attention. Just a few months ago, the worst things we had to worry about were a heavy-handed Russia, a recalcitrant Iran, and an ambitious China. Today we face a fanatic mini-state in Mesopotamia, a collapsing Libya, devastation in Gaza, a surge of child refugees from Central America, and an outbreak of Ebola in Africa.
Moments of seeming world crisis like this one present a hidden danger beneath the turmoil we see. They rivet our attention so fully that we forget about our longer-term challenges. Sudden new emergencies, however, should teach us the danger of being unprepared. That makes this an ideal time to step back, reflect on what kind of “threat matrix” we will face in the future, and ask what we can do to prevent the next explosions.
For most of modern history, the principal threat to states came from other states. State-versus-state conflict still happens, as Ukrainians can attest, but it is increasingly rare. Today’s security threats come from “non-state actors”— supra-national forces that do not concentrate on building regular armies, defending borders, or fighting set-piece battles. These comprise the new challenge: Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and now the Islamic State, the fundamentalist militia that has seized a swath of the Middle East as large as Jordan.
We were slow to recognize this latest threat, in part because it is easier to see the world through a familiar prism than through a new one. Years or decades from now, the threats we now face will have faded. What will replace them?
Globalization and the increasing inter-dependence of nations have made territorial war nearly obsolete. Today people fight over religion, as they have spasmodically through history, but that phase too will pass. If wars are raging in the mid-21st century, they will probably be “resource wars” — conflicts over access to food, water, and energy.
Fighting over resources is hardly new, but wars like these will become more common and more intense. The first reason has to do with rising standards of living. As huge numbers of people emerge from poverty in Asia and Africa, they will want to live better, which means consuming more.
The second tectonic factor will be climate change, which may severely disrupt networks on which humanity depends for food, water, and energy. Climate change will shape the fate of nations. Its effects will inevitably turn some against others.
From this clash arises the central security challenge of our century: Growing demand for food, water, and energy coinciding with shortages caused by climate change.
How can we assure that, in this new world, Americans are not dragged into “resource wars?” We could take some steps abroad, like re-imagining our food aid programs so they help farmers in other countries rather than American agri-business and shipping firms. The real key, though, lies at home. We — and other nations — will stand or fall according to our ability to manage our sources of food, water, and energy. Reducing our reliance on foreign resources, and more sustainably using those we have, are urgent security as well as environmental challenges.
In the last few years, Americans have learned that security threats now come more often from militias and insurgents than from rival states. But it took too long for us to make that shift in mind-set. We did not recognize the new threat until it was upon us. Now is the time to broaden our focus again and deal with the threat that looms ahead.
To imagine that resources rather than weapons will drive future conflicts requires rethinking the nature of national security. Preparing for threats that do not seem imminent runs counter to the American character and, perhaps, all of human psychology. Yet if we fail to address the food-water-energy triangle now, we guarantee that our grandchildren will live in a world more turbulent than any we have known.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.