Beyond Borders

American foreign policy must look beyond the nation state and toward human security.

By Gayle Smith

Tagged Foreign PolicyInternational Relations

Anyone not immediately caught up in the whirlwind of today’s Beltway foreign policy punditry would be driven to hair-tearing at the back-and-forth between defenders of the Bush Administration and the multitude of critics arrayed against it. That’s because while President George W. Bush’s approach has obviously failed, too many of its critics refuse to focus on why. Their alternatives revolve around competence, with perhaps a bit of multilateral fence-mending thrown in. But they also assume as valid the fundamental tenet guiding the Administration’s approach, as defined by George Kennan during the Cold War, that securing the national interest lies in protecting “the continued ability of this country to pursue its internal life without serious interference.” While that approach might have been relevant to the era of Cold War containment, it is untenable today. In a globalized world, it is no longer enough to center our foreign policy on a narrowly-defined concept of “national security” that assumes the continued dominance of the nation-state. What is needed is a fundamental change in the terms of the debate to include a realistic assessment of a world that is both interdependent and increasingly fragmented. What is missing is consideration of human security–and why, if we are to promote effectively our sustainable security, it must be incorporated into a modern American foreign policy.

“Human security” is a concept more familiar to those in
the economic development field than the foreign policy world.
Some define it in narrow terms, referring simply to the challenges
posed by war and mass atrocities. But, increasingly, it is being more
broadly defined as a concept that goes beyond a singular focus on the
survival of states–as “national security” does–to include the survival
and dignity of human beings regardless of national origins. The UN’s
Commission on Human Security defines it as protection of “the vital
core of all human lives in ways that enhance human freedoms and
fulfillment,” while the Human Security Network–an alliance of
like-minded countries ranging from Canada and the Netherlands to Jordan
and Mali–describes its vision as “a humane world where people can live
in security and dignity, free from poverty and despair.”

There is a tendency among national security experts to
discount the human security paradigm as idealistic and soft,
while advocates of human security criticize those favoring national
security for placing too much emphasis on narrow nationalism and
military power. To be sure, the nation-state-based concept of national
security can provide the foundation for strategies to deal with state-based threats, such as those posed by Iran or North Korea. But it is
less relevant to the host of contemporary threats, ranging from climate
change and pandemic flu to money-laundering and the international drug
trade, threats that transcend state borders and affect people across
the globe without reference to citizenship or state affiliation. Only
by pursuing both national and human security can the United States hope
to achieve a level of security that is sustainable and durable in the
long term. This means adopting a strategy that takes into account
short- term threats and long-term challenges; that focuses on both
state-based concerns and global trends; and that reflects the simple
fact that we can no longer pursue our internal life without
interference from abroad.

Short-term vs. Long-term Security

With Iraq, Iran, and North Korea all posing greater risks
to our security today than when President George W. Bush
first lumped them together as the “axis of evil” five years ago, it is
tempting to put off the less tangible and seemingly distant trends that
are shaping the modern world and our future in it. And to be fair,
American leadership must focus its attention on the near-term, state-based threats to our security; to do otherwise would be negligent.
Successive presidents had to ensure that we prevailed in the
long-running rivalry with the Soviet Union, and Bush rightly chose to
prioritize the defense of America against terrorism in the wake of the
September 11 attacks.

Yet, the need to confront immediate threats to America’s security
must be balanced with efforts to manage our long-term security
challenges; in other words, we must do two things at once. The
short-term perspective considers how to deal with immediate threats and
discrete incidents simply defined; a long-term view defines how a
country wants an increasingly complex world to look in a generation and
then outlines strategic approaches to make it so. Both approaches are
necessary in a sustainable foreign policy package.

Bush, of course, would argue that his foreign policy will produce
real security because it not only focuses on the near-term goal of
success in Iraq, but also on the need to defeat “global terror.” But
even if he were to align his policies with his rhetoric, his vision
would not lead to long-term, sustainable security because his
fundamental assumption–that the events of September 11 changed
everything–is wrong. Central as the war on terror is to our current
security, it ignores the long-term human security challenges that
existed before September 11 and still flourish today, from a global
energy crisis and climate change to weak states and poverty. Responding
to these challenges is complicated by the fact that we are facing a
world in flux and, significantly, a shift in the arc of global power
and influence that makes the simple assertion of America’s prerogatives
difficult, if not impossible.

First, today’s centers of power and influence are growing in number
and diversity. With growing economic and military power, China and
India have established themselves as new and potent powers. The pursuit
of nuclear weapons has rendered Iran, North Korea, India, and Pakistan
decisive players on the world stage. Latin America is fast realigning
as a left-leaning bloc eager to counter the United States. And as the
recent collapse of the Doha Round of world-trade talks has made clear,
even the world’s poorest countries, by uniting among themselves and
with emerging-market nations, have newfound influence.

Second, ours is a time of stunning political upheaval. Since 1974,
the number of democracies worldwide has increased by a factor of
three–a positive gain to be sure, but one that has yet to be locked in.
The vast majority of these countries–Nigeria, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and
even a large part of Eastern Europe–remain exceedingly fragile as they
grapple simultaneously with profound political transition, the legacies
of war and repression, and the strains of poverty. In the increasingly
volatile Middle East, Africa, and Asia, the failure of rulers to
deliver, economically or politically, has hastened the rise of a new
political construct shaped by Islam. And where political Islam has
grown more hostile, two other trends have emerged: the rise of a
contrary, transnational political identity combined with a potent and
dangerous extremism.

Third, we live in an era characterized by the economic
marginalization of a near-majority of the world. Almost half of the
world’s six billion people live on less than two dollars per day, and
more than a billion survive on half that amount. More than 50 countries
are poorer today than they were in 1990. Low-income countries account
for only three cents of every dollar generated through exports in the
international trading system, and less than 1 percent of the total
global flow of foreign direct investment is going to the world’s
least-developed countries. At the same time, the world’s ten wealthiest
nations, which constitute only 14 percent of the world’s population,
are 75 times richer than the ten poorest, and account for 75 percent of
global GDP. With the expansion of the Internet and satellite
television, these disparities become more visible–including to those on
the bottom–and can easily fuel discontent.

Finally, sweeping demographic changes are poised to alter further
the contours of the global socio-economic landscape. While the
developed world soon will incur the economic burdens imposed by an
aging population, the developing world is grappling with an expanding
youth bulge. By 2025, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in
cities, with many of them–like Cairo, Lagos, Nairobi, and
Mumbai–ill-equipped to provide the jobs, housing, and services that
this expanded population will require. These vast demographic
convulsions are exerting increased pressure on already overstretched
natural resources. Fossil-fuel-based energy supplies are already
proving insufficient to meet our own demands, let alone the new demands
posed by rapidly emerging markets like China and India. To top it all
off, unchecked climate change threatens to trigger violent global
weather patterns, exacerbate water stress, provoke mass migrations, and
induce famine that could kill thousands of people and displace 150
million more by 2050.

These challenges are unique not only in scope but also in nature, as
they are all transnational threats. They affect all of the world’s
people, not just a handful of states. They cannot be defeated by
military power. Managing them requires more than a strategy focused on
defending and protecting the United States. It also requires a focus on
human security to guide the United States as it attempts to manage
globalization to its advantage and modernize the international system
to serve our collective interests.

Toward a Sustainable Security Strategy

By complementing the traditional concept of national
security with human security, America can craft a strategy
that is more sustainable for the simple reason that it would afford the
possibility of dealing simultaneously with short-term,
nation-state-based threats and the global challenges that transcend
state borders. But getting there requires three core elements: an
organizing principle that can unite a majority of the world’s people;
the elevation and strategic utilization of the full range of our
foreign policy tools; and a revitalized international system that
reflects not just the challenges that existed when it was created in
the wake of World War II, but also the realities of today.

America is currently without an organizing principle to unite an
increasingly fragmented world. During the Cold War, it was the struggle
between freedom and communism. Today, however, an ill-conceived and
poorly managed “global war on terror” has divided America from much of
the world rather than uniting it behind our ideals. To address
transnational challenges, then, we must replace at the center of
foreign policy the promotion of the universal values that in the past
have enabled America to assert its power and influence. And these
values must be more than just “American values”–in the eyes of much of
the world, what the Bush Administration describes as the projection of
American values is interpreted as the assertion of American

What is needed is a vision for a global common good that looks
beyond nation-state interests to address the conditions that all people
seek for themselves: dignity, good health, and a future for their
children. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy does talk about the
importance of “human dignity,” including in its definition the rule of
law, limits on the absolute power of the state, freedom of speech and
worship, equal justice, respect for women, religious and ethnic
tolerance, and respect for private property. It’s a laudable list, but
one that is more striking for what it omits than for what it includes.
In his second inaugural in 1937, Franklin Roosevelt said that “the test
of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those
who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too
little.” And this is what is missing from the administration’s concept
of human dignity–access to economic opportunity or, from a human
security perspective, freedom from want. These are priorities that sit
at the core of the progressive vision and are in serious need of
attention at home and abroad.

For more than half of the world’s population, basic human dignity is
compromised by rampant unemployment, the inaccessibility of
affordable health care and education, chronic hunger and malnutrition,
and a lack of access to affordable energy. Like in the United States,
the current antidote to economic decline is increased borrowing;
developing-world debt increased to almost $3 trillion early in this
decade, and developing countries spend on average $13 for debt
repayment for every $1 they receive in development assistance.

In response, the United States must start to think boldly–and
globally–about the issues that transcend national borders and are
confronting not just the United States and our allies but people all
over the world. Today, for example, we stand at an impasse on global
trade, with negotiations under the Doha Round of trade talks having
collapsed because of disagreements over the massive agricultural
subsidies paid by the United States and European Union to our
agricultural sectors. The current debate about the way forward is constrained by a false choice between two unworkable options. Some argue
that we should stay the course and attempt to get the best deal
possible for the United States, regardless of the impact on hundreds of
millions of poor producers in the developing world. The countervailing
view is that because a global agreement remains elusive, we should
abandon the Doha talks and instead focus on securing multiple,
bilateral trade agreements. Both options assume that what is best for
the United States is to prevail over other trading partners, but
neither option will result in what is needed–a rationalized global
agricultural system that provides fair market prices for all farmers.
In addition, both would result in a global trading system that fosters
more division than unity. Instead of viewing trade as an all-or-nothing
proposition for individual states, a human security focus means
approaching these negotiations as an opportunity to promote global
stability by ensuring that the benefits of globalization accrue to a
global majority of individual people.

Even bolder would be to take on the global energy crisis as a
vehicle for acting on the global common good, rather than just national
security, and leading a worldwide effort to develop renewable energy
markets and the jobs and savings that those new markets would generate.
For much of the world, the cost of oil dependence is captured less in
terms of security or expenditure to meet increasing demand and more in
terms of lost economic potential. As the bipartisan Energy Future
Coalition points out, of the world’s six billion people, only one-third
enjoy the kind of access to energy that we take for granted and another third have only intermittent access. The remaining third–some two
billion people–are fully without modern energy services and thus lack
the lights by which to read, the refrigeration needed to store vital
medicines and food, or the transportation capacity required to move
goods to market.

Against this backdrop, ordinary producers at home and abroad are
ill-served by the existing system. In the United States, despite $2
billion in annual subsidies, 300 family farms are shutting down each
month; while in Africa, farmers cannot compete with the heavily
subsidized crops produced by America and Europe. Despite the common
problem faced by family farmers at home and halfway across the world,
however, current international deliberations on agriculture find
American farmers pitted against their counterparts in Africa and Latin

The alternative is to start from the premise of shared transnational
interests, plan with an eye toward the future, and recapture the spirit
of innovation that has made America a world leader throughout our
modern history. A grand bargain, for example, through which the United
States would make significant investments in the domestic production of
biofuels and share with the developing world our expertise and
technology, would lay the ground for a new global agricultural economy
and change fundamentally the debate about agricultural trade. Such a
plan would lead to the unraveling of America’s complex subsidy program
and be a boost to the developing world’s agricultural sector, while
seeding a new biofuel industry in the United States. This would not
solve all of the problems that currently plague global trade talks, but
it would shift the debate from a battle to divide the spoils of a
system that is not working to one premised on a win-win scenario.

Acting from a human security perspective would also mean using the
full range of our power to ensure that a global majority is able to
participate in and reap the benefits of globalization. To be sure,
sustained military power is critical to our security in the short and
long term. But only when we couple our defensive might with an ability
to make offensive moves–using both “hard” and “soft” power–can we truly
protect America. Take the issue of development assistance, one of our
most potent but least contemplated foreign policy tools. To its credit,
the Bush Administration has supported an almost threefold increase in
overseas development assistance since 2000 and launched such major
initiatives as the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief
(PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). But, even with
these gains, our foreign aid program remains an afterthought rather
than a core element of our foreign policy. A sustainable security
strategy–one that incorporates human security–would adopt a
fundamentally different approach to how the United States employs
development assistance, using it to bolster investments in the future
stability and prosperity of countries that, because of weakness,
conflict, poverty, or the mere facts of history, are not yet integrated
into the global community.

This is not a new concept. Under the Marshall Plan, the United
States invested $13 billion, or approximately $100 billion in today’s
dollars, in the reconstruction of postwar Europe, an investment that
yielded stability, the emergence of new trading partners, and alliances
that have provided the basis for greater global and American security
for over a half-century. Development assistance today is a powerful
instrument for making sure that we actually deliver on the values we
promote; for shoring up weak states and consolidating emerging
democracies; and for making sure that the world is made up of a
majority of capable, democratic states.

But, for all of its potential power, our development assistance, as
currently structured, is neither efficient nor relevant to the
challenges we face today. It remains tied to the nation-state model and
to reinforcing our immediate rather than long-term interests,
reflecting an overwhelming bias in favor of buttressing short-term
policies over managing long-term trends. Egypt, for example, today
receives in excess of $1 billion per year, while we have allocated only
$300 million over four years to promote democracy in the entire Middle
East. Our aid to Pakistan far exceeds any investment we are making in
bolstering the capacity of weak states in the developing world to
contain or withstand an outbreak of pandemic flu. And the hundreds of
millions of dollars we have spent on emergency relief and peacekeeping
in Liberia far outstrip any investments in that country’s long-term
capacity to function. To be fair, we will always need to use foreign
aid to enhance our chances of short-term policy success. But only when
we balance the equation to include substantial and parallel investments
in preventing crises and consolidating positive trends will we be able
to lay the ground for greater security.

Rationalizing our investments and giving development assistance the
prominence it deserves would also require a change in how it is handled
within the federal government. Development assistance today resides in
the State Department, where it is readily subjected to short-term
imperatives, while the Defense Department is increasing its own role in
the delivery of foreign aid. When the president convenes his Cabinet,
he needs to have at the table an officer with the skills, expertise,
and authority to craft and implement development policies that balance
short-term imperatives and long-term interests. To start, a new,
stand-alone development agency should be established, headed by a
Cabinet-level secretary and mandated to direct policy and coordinate
all economic assistance. Moreover, the optimal utilization of
development assistance would require a new, forward-looking Foreign
Assistance Act to overcome the constraints imposed by the existing
guiding legislation, which was written for a far different time some 45
years ago, has been amended to include multiple and competing
objectives, and is loaded with earmarks.

Finally, a human security strategy must give shape to a new global
architecture that champions fairness, is relevant to our times, and
governs international cooperation. The Bush Administration and its
allies have abandoned a long tradition of American support for the
multilateral system, portraying it as a threat to our sovereignty
rather than as a vehicle for our leadership. As a result, even the most
passionate critics of the Administration have retreated in the face of
the Bush Administration’s passive-aggressive stance toward the UN,
allowing the debate to focus more on whether the UN is totally or only
partially ineffective rather than on how we might fix it. Clearly, the
United States–like any country–must reserve the right to defend itself,
even absent the support of the international community. Upholding that
right, however, does not mean that there is wisdom in weakening our
international institutions.

That our international system is not as effective as we need it to
be is less a matter of will than of relevance, for the UN was designed
for an era defined by the nation-state. And it is a fallacy that our
participation in a robust, effective, and empowered UN would erode our
sovereignty, as globalization has already altered state sovereignty in
fundamental ways. Individual states no longer control global trade, for
example, which is today dominated by commerce conducted between
multinational corporations and not national companies. States acting
alone cannot control the spread of disease, the international drug
trade, the movement and financing of terrorist networks, or the
spillover effects of armed conflict. In fact, the international
community, including the United States, has endorsed a principle rooted
in this changed notion of state sovereignty–the “responsibility to
protect”–which posits that when states are either unwilling or unable
to protect their own citizens, the international community has an
obligation to step in to safeguard them from harm.

In the realm of transnational threats and challenges, a human
security strategy would thus put America in the lead in efforts not
simply to reform the UN, but to transform it and other institutions,
ranging from the World Trade Organization to the World Bank and
International Monetary Fund, while also building the new forums for
international cooperation that are necessary to manage the challenges
of the future.

Beyond Bush

America is growing less, rather than more, secure
because Bush operates on a one-dimensional view of the globe as a Cold
War chessboard, changed only by the fact that our enemy today is not
the Soviet Union but the “axis of evil.” The world was changing even
before September 11, and is changing still. Progressives must shift the
terms of the debate from one that assumes a static world in which
America’s security rests exclusively on our ability to dominate to one
that assumes that our security rests on our ability to lead and manage
an extremely fluid and interdependent world.

By pursuing both national and human security, America can achieve
more sustainable security over time. By aligning our interests with
those of others, we can deliver on a common good that can prevail in
the war of ideas. By using the full range of our power to integrate
more countries into the global system, we can make that vision
available to all. And by crafting a new, fair, and more effective
global architecture, we can foster a world that is more united than

Read more about Foreign PolicyInternational Relations

Gayle Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. She served as Senior Director for African Affairs at the National Security Council and as Senior Adviser to the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton Administration.

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