Identifying the “Greatest Threat” that the World Faces
Ali Wyne is a researcher at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2008 with bachelor’s degrees in Management Science and Political Science, and, as a senior, received the Institute’s highest honor for students, the Karl Taylor Compton Prize. Prior to joining the Belfer Center, Ali was a Junior Fellow in the China Program (now the Asia Program) at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ali is a member of Chatham House, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs (CENSA), and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He also serves as a discussant at Bloggingheads.tv and a Next America Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ali’s articles have been published in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Foreign Policy, and theNational Interest, among other outlets. He contributed an essay, “Public Opinion and Power,” to the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy (London: Routledge, 2008), and will be contributing another to a book that is forthcoming from CENSA in early 2013, American Strategy and Purpose: Reflections on Foreign Policy and National Security in an Era of Change.
In 2011, Ali delivered the welcome address at the 41st St. Gallen Symposium and joined Big Think’s inaugural class of Delphi Fellows.
When asked last Tuesday what he considered to be the “greatest threat” to U.S. national security, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, replied:
I try not to pin myself or the country down in that regard….We live today under the threat of global terrorism….Cyber is probably the threat least known, most ignored…and eventually…could be the most catastrophic….[Nuclear] is the one capability that could literally alter our way of life and take massive casualties….I avoid oftentimes the words “greatest threat”. It’s kind of a quilt or mosaic of threats that for me adds up to something I call the security paradox: so there hasn’t been a world war in a long time, and so everybody says “whew”…unless you know what’s out there.
A more surprising answer comes from the former commander of ISAF and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal: citing low high-school graduation rates as well as the prevalence of obesity among adolescents, he argued that the greatest threat is “in our schools.”
The gap between Dempsey and McChrystal’s responses suggests how little consensus there is among Americans on what constitutes the greatest threat to U.S. national security; last November, in fact, Joshua Keating posted 17 different assessments. I was curious to see how the picture changed when one extended one’s purview from U.S. security to global security. Below are some of the notable assessments that I found, grouped into five rough categories:
The threat that a given phenomenon poses is generally defined as its likelihood times its impact. Here are some questions that might help to get at how individuals gauge those two variables:
To folks who’re reading: what questions would you suggest for explaining why people’s threat assessments differ? What do you think is the greatest threat that the world faces?
Photo Credit: pixagraphic/Flickr.com
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