2020 — now entering, mercifully, its final days — presented a whole spectrum of disasters: Apocalyptic wildfires in Australia and California; protests and violence from the U.S. to Hong Kong to Thailand to Nigeria; a conventional war in the Caucuses; a likely Russian hack of American government departments so massive its implications are still far from clear; and hovering over all of it, the COVID-19 pandemic which shut the world down starting in February and has since sickened and killed millions worldwide.
And underneath it all there is a through line: governments failing to protect their citizens. From enacting insufficient, delayed, or incoherent measures to contain the spread of a deadly virus — a failure made apparent in comparison with the countries which did manage to get things mostly right — to failing to adequately regulate tech firms entrusted with priceless government networks and the enormous quantity of aggregate data of citizens, to failing to manage the increasingly sharp consequences of runaway climate change, the story of 2020 is largely one of societal resilience and individual heroism leavened by official incompetence or worse.
So how, in a word, can we do better in 2021?
One approach is to broaden the definition of “security threat” to include more than just conventional attack or terrorism. The appeal of this solution is that it might in the short term allow the reprogramming of some of the enormous sums spent on conventional security to address the issues that are actually manifestly damaging the lives and livelihoods of people now, rather than hedging against future threat.
But there is reason to be cautious about this approach. First, complex challenges are not necessarily responsive to the kinds of solutions that securitization has to offer: militaries should be aware of climate change and take actions within their remits to limit their emissions and be prepared for disaster-response operations, for example, but there is little role for an air force or a naval formation in changing incentives for carbon-intensive commercial energy generation or long-haul trucking. Nor is it helpful for managing conventional security threats — which will not go away as unconventional challenges mutate and multiply — to dilute the concept of “threat” to include the full panoply of structural and environmental challenges along with human actors. Analytical precision is important; so is keeping institutions focused on core and achievable goals.
Nor is the solution as simple and glib as “listen to science!” Science does not speak with a unitary voice and is it not static. More importantly, science does not translate directly into desired policy outcomes. The science of epidemiology might suggest that keeping schools closed will help limit the spread of a respiratory virus; but studies of human development would in turn suggest that doing so will cause lasting and unequally distributed harm to children and their parents in societies which already are weighed down by escalating inequality. Similarly, computer security researchers know with a high degree of confidence what the best practices are to prevent malicious intrusions into secured networks, and yet those measures are often uneconomical to implement or simply too complex and frustrating for users to adhere to sufficiently. (Not to mention that science is not morally neutral; it reflects the biases and blind spots of the individuals and societies that produce it.)
An inherent characteristic of complex problems is they do not have simple solutions. The pandemic provides a good example. Even our apparently highly effective vaccines will not automatically overcome logistical hurdles or anti-vaccination sentiment to end the COVID-19 pandemic immediately; nor can they fix the extraordinary social, economic and human damage it has already wrought. There is no silver bullet technology, approach or policy which will prevent the emergence of future pandemics, put the planet’s climate on a sustainable trajectory, or make citizens safe from the predations of hostile forces outside their nations — or within their own governments.
The messy and imperfect work of balancing those imperatives satisfactorily is the realm of public policy. And for all that governments and international institutions have ignored, failed and broken faith with their constituents in 2020, there is no getting around the fact that the threats to human lives — conventional and otherwise — cannot be managed by science or technology alone. Fixing those institutions, making them truly representative and fit for purpose, and giving them the ability to adjudicate as best as possible between competing interests is the only way to make sure future years are genuinely safer for all of us than this benighted one has been.
Jacob Parakilas is an author, consultant, and analyst working on U.S. foreign policy and international security.