Nuclear Weapons

Confronting Emerging Security Challenges: A Call for Ontological Coherence

04.21.13 | 3 min read | Text by Michael Eddie Walsh

By Michael Edward Walsh

The concept of emerging security challenges is not new. Mankind has always had to adapt to novel scientific and technological innovations that have changed the nature of war and violence within society. The sudden focus on emerging security challenges is then not driven by their mere emergence but rather by the context in which they are emerging. For this reason, it is critical that security experts not delink the external world from the conversation.

In the last two decades, it is safe to say that international security has been radically transformed by far more than novel scientific and technological innovations. For starters, the real and imagined structural constraints imposed by bipolar superpowers on the international system were lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But, more importantly, so too was the collective faith in classical and neo-realist notions of security. The consequence has been a widening and deepening of the very concept of security as the levels of security have expanded to account for non-military threats and the units of analysis have extended to include non-state actors.

This shift would have occurred regardless of the September 11th terror attacks. However, high-profile non-traditional security incidents like 9/11 have served to reinforce this theoretical move. From the ricin attacks in the United States to the Fukishima nuclear disaster in Japan to the Somali pirate attacks off the coast of East Africa, international security has come to be defined as much by non-military, non-state actor security threats as the “traditional” ones that dominated the Cold War.

Unfortunately, the scientific and technological breakthroughs of the last decade have not garnered equivalent attention in the international security discourse. Although there have been a few notable exceptions (i.e. cyber warfare; drones; anti-satellite weapons), the international security implications of paradigm shifting sci-tech advancements like the so-called NBRIC (Nano-Biotech-Robotics-Information-Communications Technologies) revolution have been relegated to specialist (often classified) communities out of the public eye. As a consequence, the general public remains unaware of many of the emerging and future security challenges that are being discussed behind closed doors, including genetic tracking, biosphere modification, 3-D weapons printing, designer pathogens, asteroid strikes, sub-speciation, space/deep-sea mining, and space colonization.

Likewise, public discourse often glosses over the changing role that the commercial, educational, and non-governmental sectors are playing in the defence and security sector. In just over a decade, these actors have seriously encroached and at times displaced state agents from many traditional commercial activities tied to national security, including products and services related to space and deep-sea exploration, policing and surveillance activities, and private military contracting. This has in turn led to a major shift in the balance of power away from state actors.

The international security discourse must better account for these “external world” developments when discussing emerging security challenges. Security experts cannot simply equate science and technological breakthroughs with emerging security threats. The two are not synonymous and a stark line must be drawn between scientific-technical (scitech) capabilities and emerging security threats. Scitech breakthroughs are not emerging security challenges on their own – they are emerging security challenges because a specific state or non-state actor can use them to pose a military or non-military threat to a specific referent object of concern to an actor or actors in the international community. And, not all emerging security challenges arise simply from scitech breakthroughs.

To move the discourse on emerging security challenges forward, there is a desperate need then for ontological coherence. This starts by resolving the foundational question: “What is an emerging security challenge?”


Mr. Walsh is the Director of the Emerging Technologies and High-End Threats Project at the Federation of American Scientists. This article in the first in a series of his personal reflections on the topic of emerging security challenges which will run on this blog over the next few months.