21st Century Threats to Global Security

Story by Mary Chen, chen.mary@husky.neu.edu

Amid rising tensions with Russia, Max Abrahms, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern who researches international security, claimed that Russia’s approach to combating terrorism in Syria was better than the U.S.’s strategy.

“In order to stop ISIS in the Middle East, we need to follow Russia’s policy of supporting [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad,” Abrahms said.

On Oct. 11,  Northeastern’s Center for International Affairs and World Cultures hosted its second annual panel event for its “Controversial Issues in Security and Resilience Studies” series. The panel featured two Northeastern experts — Abrahms and Denise Garcia, an associate professor in the political science department and international affairs program — as well as the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research’s Chief of Operations Kerstin Vignard.

Garcia partitioned the conversation into three thematic concepts: terrorism, cyber-security and lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) — and their combined threat to global security. Terrorism as a mega threat affecting the decline of global peace, Garcia said, is exacerbated by the lack of concrete international frameworks governing cyber-security and the development of LAWs, which are fully autonomous systems that can select and fire upon targets on their own without any human intervention.

In the wake of 9/11, the majority of the country favored the invasion of Iraq with the promise of regime change. Abrahms — a member at the time of the DC political community which he affectionately terms “the blob” — was no different. However, the minority academic community quietly expressed doubts about the success of the operation, Abrahms said.

After the failure of Operation Enduring Freedom, Abrahms said he became disillusioned with the effectiveness of a regime change in the region and returned to the life of academia to study why. He cited Libya as another example in which “the blob” championed regime change as a multilateral campaign to instill democracy. Operation Freedom Falcon, as the intervention was termed, aimed to stop conflict and human rights violations caused by the Libyan Civil War. Instead, the results were disastrous: the United States and its allies were criticized for the triumph of imperial motives and their failure to include proper support for the new regime they installed. Consequently, the new government collapsed, the economy tanked and the country became a much more dangerous place with the rise of ISIS in North Africa. In a BBC panel he attended on the subject, Abrahams recounted how the Libyans responded to questions about how life changed when the dictator was removed.

“There was a very long silence,” he recalled “That just said so much.”

In support of his theory, he criticized the U.S. for failing to analyze within-country variation to see if regime change actually works. Without concrete research to prove its efficiency, the United States is doomed to repeat its mistakes, he said. Furthermore, Abrahms said there is an endogeneity problem in U.S. foreign intervention. Placing the origins of ISIS in the 2003 Iraq War, Abrahms suggests that regime changes in Iraq and Libya caused problems that catalyzed the conflict in Syria.

“Syria is a mess because of what we did in Iraq and Libya,” Abrahms said.

The U.S. tried to fix problems in Syria by supporting the rebels; however, the funding of weapons and fighters is misplaced, he said, since most of these weapons and fighters eventually lead to ISIS, thus exacerbating the problem. Additionally, the controversy of attempting to predict results in Syria is most evidenced by the media presenting “a bunch of mislaid facts,” he said. Abrahms accused “the blob” of underestimating Russia’s positive influence and strong position in Syria.

“[Russia has] killed hundreds of terrorists, cut off the oil revenue and fortified its border with Turkey,” he said. “Can we really say we’ve done the same?”

Based on these findings, Abrahms has consistently insisted in both academia and in the media that the United States should follow Russia’s footsteps in supporting Assad. In fact, he said, Assad sustains substantial local support; unlike Russia, the United States was not invited into the country and its interventionist policies in Syria are often considered violations of international law.

“Assad and ISIS are not friends,” Abrahms said. “He’s stronger than he’s been in years and ISIS has been virtually wiped out under his control.”

The bottom line, according to Abrahms, is that the United States should reconsider their foreign policy in the Middle East. In order to affect long-lasting democratic change, Abrahms said the U.S. should move away from the faulty practice of regime change and take another look at the success Russia has had the region.

“We need to avoid regime change and team up with Russia,” he said.

Bringing the conversation back to the bigger picture Vignard agreed with Abrahms on the definitional pegging terrorism as a 21st century threat to global security. However, Vignard told students that as important as it is to examine external threats, more research needs to be done on internal threats like dual-use technologies. In diplomacy, dual-use technologies are technologies used for both military and civilian purposes.

She specifically warned against narrow thinking in approaches to technologies like LAWS and their frameworks, which hold the potential to increase violence and terrorism. Dismissing commonly-used monikers such as “disruptive technology” and “killer robots,” Vignard stated that researchers and policymakers must be cautious about what she calls “broad brushstroke categorization.”

As part of the hardware and processing systems of LAWS, Vignard said they have set goals and constraints that guide actions during deployment.

“It’s an ‘if this, do that’ software,” she said. “These systems have learning capabilities. They can evolve.”

As a result, much of what they can do relies on software programming, which in some cases can be vulnerable to outside intervention, thereby causing these technologies to be potentially unpredictable.

“The weaponization and exploitation of these weapons can intentionally cause harm,” she said. “In which case, traditional security measures aren’t acceptable responses anymore”.

Terrorism and dual-use technologies provide two distinct lenses through which researchers view the advancement of cybersecurity. The idea that we face threats from not only the physical world around us, but also the virtual world that humans built is a subject of critical discussion in the international affairs community today. The attributability of legal and ethical concerns becomes crucial to the building of frameworks when deciding who takes responsibility for these policies, their consequences and their evolutions.

Given the rapid changes in the world around us, these perspectives are necessary to discover effective and innovative solutions to these problems. With the increasing power of globalization to connect the world, it is more important now than ever to establish the groundwork for sustainable approaches to 21st century threats to global security.