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Thoughts on the Security Crises in Today’s World

Feb 19, 2020
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

In a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives’ foreign affairs subcommittee on the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, on Feb. 5, three experts recommended that the U.S. government cease its unfriendly policy toward China, increase technical and material assistance and join the fight against the epidemic. They put forward proposals for the short, medium and long terms and argued for their necessity.

In a time of intensifying nontraditional security crises, countries are finding ways to overcome their political and economic differences as they support one another and collaborate for the people’s well-being and the stability and prosperity of the international community as a whole.

During the Cold War, nontraditional security problems were largely suppressed and diluted. While traditional security is mainly about a state’s military security, its regime and territory — with the state the bearer and main actor — nontraditional security involves not only the state and the nation but also groups and individuals. It covers a much wider range of topics, including the economy, energy, ecology, climate, information, citizens’ lives and health (as affected by terrorism, transnational crime, human trafficking, drug trafficking and infectious diseases), separatism and illegal immigration.

The Cold War featured all-around confrontation between social systems and ideologies — primarily those of the United States and the Soviet Union. It featured fierce geopolitical competition with a strong flavor of military confrontation.

Although most Third World countries outside those two blocs supported and participated in the Non-Aligned Movement, a significant number of them entered into military alliances with either the U.S. or the USSR.

Underdeveloped countries had to choose a development path that embraced a social system and economic model. As a result, the overarching theme of the era overwhelmed nontraditional security issues.

For each state aligned with the two blocs and every developing country with close ties to the U.S. or the Soviet Union, its policies and efforts to address its own economic and energy security were subordinated, to varying degrees, to the leading country’s global strategies. Meanwhile, the consequences of food shortages, protracted poverty and the spread of infectious diseases were seriously neglected by the media and people amid the threat and reality of wars.

Moreover, the intellectual and material resources that could have been used to address nontraditional security problems were seriously wasted in the Cold War. For example, according to the Institute for Strategic Stability of the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, the number of Soviet nuclear warheads reached its highest level — 45,000 — in 1985. The U.S. had 23,500 in 1984.

Since the end of the Cold War, nontraditional security problems have surfaced for many reasons and become increasingly extensive and complex. Dramatic changes in the international political and security arena have been accompanied by the increasing severity and harm of nontraditional security crises.

Competition over social systems and ideology gave way to the awakening of nations and the return of traditional self-identity, which further triggered separatist moves leading to, for example, the disintegration of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the division of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic and the separation of South Sudan from Sudan. The quest for faster economic development has become the undisputed theme of the times, along with ecological damage brought by resource exploitation and climate change caused by the massive use of hydrocarbons. Globalization and increased connectivity have fueled the rapid spread of infectious diseases and increased the difficulty of controlling them.

Because nontraditional security crises respect no national boundaries, the international community must strengthen multilateral cooperation. Admittedly, countries’ governance capacity has never been stronger as a result of economic development. Yet these crises often occur unexpectedly, spread rapidly and are highly technical. They have the potential to span national borders, which requires that members of the international community — especially the major economic and tech powers — should reject unilateralism and strengthen multilateral cooperation.

Increased non-traditional security crises also necessitate an improved civil society. On one hand, a strengthened rule of law will curb drug trafficking and drug abuse, the spread of AIDS in the sex trade or poaching and eating wildlife. On the other, with a fully developed civil society, every citizen’s rights to freedom of speech, knowledge and expression will be truly secured. Nongovernmental professional associations are in a better position to provide rapid social mobilization and highly specialized technical support with regard to the early acquisition and evaluation of crisis-related information. These two aspects will undoubtedly play an important role in the rapid and effective management of crises.

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