Sunday, November 14, 2010

Political Issues on the Horizon, Part 2

In my last entry, I explored two political issues that I expect to grow in importance in the United States over the next decade: privacy and bioethics. Today the focus is on two issues which already have a firm hold on the political landscape, but will nevertheless continue to evolve and grow in importance.

Terrorism. Ever since 9/11, American political discussions about terrorism have tended to boil down to two main components: Airport security and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that either component has actually done anything to prevent terrorism. Changes in airport security have been less about improving safety than creating the illusion of heightened security for travelers. And the grossly mismanaged wars have succeeded only in pushing terrorism across an arbitrary national border (in the case of Afghanistan) or actively creating terrorists where they were not previously a problem (in the case of Iraq). With these issues so completely dominating the discussion of how to fight terrorism, little attention has been given to important questions, such as how to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists, and how to quickly respond to a WMD terrorist attack to minimize the devastation.

In the future, the United States will not have the luxury of being able to ignore these questions. Today’s terrorists typically have access to only the crudest weapons: bombs capable of killing, at most, a few hundred people. Spectacular attacks like 9/11 are vanishingly rare, making the current level of funding, military commitment, and political capital spent on terrorism vastly disproportionate to the actual problem. But it remains to be seen how long that will be the case. Weapons of mass destruction may soon be available to terrorists, which could pose a much more serious danger than traditional terrorist attacks. The most worrying threat in the near future is nuclear proliferation, as a growing number of unstable regimes acquire nuclear weapons. In the slightly more distant future, biological weapons may pose an even greater danger to the world, as the necessary ingredients and know-how will be available to nearly any university student. Governments need to begin developing serious plans for how to minimize the spread of weapons of mass destruction, or failing that, rapid response plans after a massive terror attack. To date, the United States has done neither.

As a political issue, I worry that debates over terrorism will continue to be dominated by those seeking to eliminate "terrorism" as a concept, with conservatives favoring an aggressive foreign policy to combat known terrorist havens, and liberals preferring more targeted nation-building efforts to eliminate the conditions in which terrorists typically arise (e.g. poverty and lawlessness). While this debate is not entirely unproductive, it is of secondary importance since terrorist attacks are relatively rare anyway. My hope is that the debate will shift from how to prevent "terrorism" as a whole, to how to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. This is a much more focused and achievable goal. But regardless of how the debate evolves, terrorism does not seem likely to disappear from the political landscape anytime soon.

Globalization. 20 years after the end of the Cold War and 15 years after the birth of e-commerce, it is almost a cliché to say that the world is becoming more interconnected. The nations of the world depend on one another more than ever. Wars between national governments are on a terminal decline, as the cost of waging these wars (in terms of being cut off from neighboring markets) continues to grow relative to the benefits. Many developing countries have found that globalization is the quickest path to economic development, with many hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese escaping poverty in the last 20 years.

Many nations are seeing strong political backlashes against globalization. In the United States, this has manifested itself in debates over immigration and outsourcing. There does not seem to be any clear-cut ideological division on globalization. Traditionally, the Democratic Party has been friendlier toward immigration, and the Republican Party has been more receptive toward free trade, despite the fact that these policies are two sides of the same coin, pitting globalists against nationalists. However, even within these policies, the partisan lines are blurry: some Democratic politicians have been staunch supporters of free trade (including President Bill Clinton) and some Republican politicians have been ardent defenders of open immigration (including President George W. Bush).

As developing countries open up their markets and continue to grow richer, and rich countries become more dependent on economic rivals like China, the debate over globalization will continue to grow louder. The specific objections will vary depending on the specific policy: In some cases the opposition will be fueled by concerns over environmentalism, and other times by fears of rising income inequality. In some cases, nations may not like the fact that their economic well-being is so dependent upon their trading partners' policies, with economic problems in one nation spilling over to others. In 1999, labor activists in Seattle successfully disrupted a meeting of the World Trade Organization, largely motivated by fears that their jobs would be outsourced.

As globalization grows in importance as a political issue, it is likely that the advocates and opponents of globalization will firmly drag the political parties toward opposing viewpoints. One party will probably come to represent open immigration and trade, while the other becomes more nationalistic and inward-looking. At the present time, it is difficult to determine which party will be which.

In my next entry, I will look at two political issues which I think will fade in importance over the next decade.

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