It is difficult to imagine a phrase less interesting or eye-catching to the average citizen than ‘national security reform.' It is equally difficult to imagine something more vital to that same citizen's well-being.
The idea behind the movement for U.S. national security reform is that the nation's entire security system must significantly change. Not just the country's military, or its intelligence agencies, or its defense department-although elements of these institutions may need to come in for tune-ups. But rather all elements of U.S. power, and how they interact-this process needs to be significantly renovated at the broadest level.
The U.S. national security system was designed in an earlier era, and was designed to meet threats that are now obsolete. The laws governing national security date back to 1947. To give you an idea of the anachronistic nature of today's system, consider that in '47, Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play baseball in the U.S., Communists took power in Poland, and Cambridge University decided it would admit women as full students. In short, it was a long time ago.
But that's the system the US is working with. The CIA, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense-they all go back to when President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act.
Other nations have similarly outdated systems. The UK's government organization act, which created the Home and Foreign Offices, dates to 1782! The Foreign Office was "updated" to include the Commonwealth Affairs portfolio--in 1968. The French division of separate Ministries for Foreign Affairs and War dates to 1589. We're not dealing with contemporary institutions here.
The reality is that many countries have security systems ill-suited to the threats of the contemporary international environment. Terrorism, pandemics, transnational criminal organizations---most national security systems were designed long before these threats were as serious as they are now. In some cases, as in climate change, the threats didn't even exist. How can a system be expected to defend against a threat that didn't even exist when it was created?
It can't. Which is why the dysfunctional relationship between threats and capabilities inevitably leads to national security disasters. In the U.S., we've had the 9/11 attacks, the troubled stability operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina. These are not isolated errors-they are evidence of a systematic failure in government.
So, what is to be done? Well, the Project on National Security is hosting an international roundtable devoted to national security reform. Today, representatives from France, the U.K., Germany, Singapore, Australia and other countries will meet in Washington, D.C., to compare notes and strategies on security reform. Participants will include a diverse mix of 48 policymakers, practitioners and scholars.
The roundtable is designed to advance discussion of national security reform among leading nations of the world. And it's necessary. If there is one thing the swine flu panic shows, it's that our global security institutions are slower than the threats we face in transmission, adaptation and reaction speed. The nations of the world cannot wait for thousands to die before we realize the problem with the system is the system itself.
Jordan Michael Smith is a Press Officer at the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) in Washington, DC. His views are not necessarily representative of PNSR's.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Julia Galaski: Transatlantic Exchange of Personal Data: A Costly Experiment
- Mark Brzezinski: Renewed Alliances: How to Face Today's Threats
- Andrew D. Bishop: Understanding homeland security's transatlantic challenges