The Transnational Threat

29 May 2012


Recently in Grand Strategy in the Pacific I discussed the change of command at Pacom — US Pacific Command — and some remarks by the incoming admiral, Samuel J. Locklear III, in an article on the DOD website, Locklear: Pacom’s Priorities Reflect New Strategic Guidance.

In the article cited above we find this explicit evocation of transnational threats:

Transnational threats pose another concern and area of emphasis for Pacom. Locklear identified cyber threats as the most daunting, noting the importance of secure networks not only for Pacom’s military operations, but also for regional stability and economic viability.

After a quote on the transnational threat posed by hackers, Admiral Locklear is quoted as follows:

“In the terrorist world, as you squeeze on one side of the balloon, it pops out somewhere else. [Terrorists] look for areas of opportunity. And they find areas of opportunity in places that are disenfranchised, that have poor economies and opportunity to change the mindset of the people looking for a better life but don’t know how to get it.”

The DOD article cites three specific transnational threats: cyber threats, terrorism, and drug trafficking. The UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE previously cited in Grand Strategy in the Pacific cited transnational threats as one of five “Focus Areas” along with “Allies and Partners, China, India, North Korea.” Specifically, the strategic guidance document says this regarding transnational threats:

5. Counter Transnational Threats

i. Work with Allies and partners to build capacity and share information to counter violent extremism, transnational crime, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
ii. Disrupt violent extremist organization networks and defeat the threats they pose.
iii. Partner with other nations to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and associated technologies.

The January 2012 strategic planning document, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, does not mention exactly the same mix of threats found in the Pacom strategic guidance or Admiral Locklear’s remarks, but it does prominently refer to “violent extremists” on page one:

“…violent extremists will continue to threaten U.S. interests, allies, partners, and the homeland. The primary loci of these threats are South Asia and the Middle East. With the diffusion of
destructive technology, these extremists have the potential to pose catastrophic threats that could directly affect our security and prosperity. For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.”

The concern regarding “violent extremists” is repeated on the next page:

“Our defense efforts in the Middle East will be aimed at countering violent extremists and destabilizing threats, as well as upholding our commitment to allies and partner states. Of particular concern are the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).”

While the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense document makes no explicit mention of “transnational” threats, in the above discussion of violent extremists these extremist movements are mentioned in conjunction with “non-state threats.” This is a theme that continues later in the same document:

“To enable economic growth and commerce, America, working in conjunction with allies and partners around the world, will seek to protect freedom of access throughout the global commons –– those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system. Global security and prosperity are increasingly dependent on the free flow of goods shipped by air or sea. State and non-state actors pose potential threats to access in the global commons, whether through opposition to existing norms or other anti-access approaches. Both state and non-state actors possess the capability and intent to conduct cyber espionage and, potentially, cyber attacks on the United States, with possible severe effects on both our military operations and our homeland. Growth in the number of space-faring nations is also leading to an increasingly congested and contested space environment, threatening safety and security.” (p. 3)

Compiling the remarks on particular threats from UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, and the quotes from Admiral Locklear, we get this list of presumably transnational threats:

Cyber threats, cyber espionage, hacking

terrorism, violent extremists, non-state threats

transnational crime, including drug trafficking

WMD proliferation, ballistic missiles, “the diffusion of destructive technology”

While I think few people would argue that these listed transnational threats are serious problems facing the world, and indeed most are recent threats that emerged as strategic trends in the late twentieth century and are only now coming into their own as major threats that could disrupt life and commerce in the major nation-states of the world (being threats to “regional stability and economic viability”), even from a purely conventional standpoint there are some problems with this strategic laundry list. I admire the concision and focus of these strategic guidance documents, but I am troubled by the overall strategic incoherence of the goals outlined.

The threats identified superficially present themselves as appropriate concerns for the world’s powers to seek to counter, but which fail to cohere as a grand strategy. The failure of a grand strategy to be coherent means that efforts can end up being at cross-purposes, dissipating themselves to little effect, meaning in turn that the threats may not be decisively met. Worse yet, if a threat comes under pressure, it will buckle and disappear if it was inconsequential, but if the threat is real and growing, and it meets with just enough pressure to stimulate it, to force its leadership to weld the organization into a disciplined force, a weak and insufficient effort to counter a strategic threat can be worse than no effort at all.

There is no question that transnational crime, especially highly profitable crime such as drug trafficking and human trafficking, often comes together with terrorism, violent extremists, and non-state threats to create a toxic and difficult to eradicate force. Violent extremists have no intrinsic objection to crime, and crime can be employed to pay the bills for ideologically motivated violence. The destabilizing effects of pervasive transnational crime creates further criminal opportunities in an escalating cycle of criminality. It is a legitimate strategic concern that networks of violent criminal elements will traffic in WMD and all manner of destructive technologies, but it must be understood that the primary threat here is trafficking, and not the employment of such technologies.

It is the nature of transnational and non-state threats to be amorphous, flexible, evolving, geographically scattered, unstructured, and non-hierarchical. A transnational or non-state threat holds and defends no territory, has no permanent relations with other political entities, has no formal economy, has no permanent installations, no permanent personnel, and possesses no industrial plant and no infrastructure. It is a pure fantasy to attribute the pursuit of ballistic missile technologies to non-state actors. Ballistic missiles are a large and bulky technology that requires permanent facilities and a substantial industrial plant to produce or operate. It is only slightly less of a fantasy for a non-state entity to acquire WMD. If a non-state entity wanted to acquire WMD, they would seek the smallest, lightest, and most portable instances of WMD, and these would, for obvious technology reasons, be the most advanced versions of the technology, therefore the most difficult to acquire and the most expensive.

Further, the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense document speaks of, “directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary,” and this of course has great appeal, but is precisely what is most difficult when it comes to transnational and non-state threats. I discussed this previously in The Political Context of Striking a Carrier, where I wrote:

“[A] response is not so much about what is possible as it is about what is sustainable and can be integrated into a comprehensive grand strategy. Just as Thomas Barnett pointed out, a dedicated adversary can sucker punch the US at any time; so too the US can strike back at any time, but for either the sucker punch or the retaliatory strike to have any meaning they need to be located in a political context. If the adversary is a non-state actor, the response becomes highly problematic. A reactive US response undertaken under domestic pressure simply to show that the US can strike back might satisfy voters but will mean almost nothing in a strategic context.”

A comprehensive grand strategy is also (ideally) a coherent grand strategy, and there is little either comprehensive or coherent about claiming to target groups with no permanent territory, personnel, assets, infrastructure, or industrial plant. One can expect the ongoing targeted assassinations of key personnel and charismatic leaders, as is currently the case, but the effect of such strikes is limited and local, whereas a truly transnational threat is non-local, non-regional, and non-individual. The criminal and terrorist network will repair itself and go on with its business, since it has little or no structure or hierarchy to destroy.

It is easy to find someone to kill, or a target to bomb, but this approach, if iterated irresponsibly, will do far more harm than good, especially when it comes to winning hearts and minds. Just as Mao said that a guerrilla moves among the people like a fish in sea, so too terrorists and criminals also move among the people like fish in the sea, and when you try to strike back at the moving, amorphous, adapting transnational threat hiding among the people, you hit the people far more often than you hit the threat. And every time you hit the people instead of the terrorist or the criminal, you create new enemies whom the terrorists and criminals will seek to recruit.

On a deeper level, if transnational threats become the all-purpose category of military threat (which seems to be the case here, with ballistic missiles and WMD thrown in the same grab-bag with non-state actors), there is the potential danger of calling any threat a transnational threat, and deriving the converse implication that any transnational movement is a threat. In the long term, such an attitude will serve any nation-state poorly, since one of the major strategic trends of our time is the rise of non-state actors, and not every non-state actor is maleficent. It has been said that, if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The danger, then, is seeing every non-state actor as a nail. In a strategic climate of opinion where “transnational” becomes a synonym for “threat,” there is the very real danger of stigmatizing as a threat that which may be the key to future peace and prosperity. And with the growing role of non-state entities in the international system, committing yourself to a course of action of opposing non-state entities means putting yourself in on the losing side of history and taking on a fight you cannot win.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “The Transnational Threat”

  1. MisterEgo said


    Every organisation bigger then 10 people has support from the people/population in the current area it operates in. If you kill those nervecenters and or recruit the people that support it to your cause, small cells in enemy territory can do little damage without proper support, if they can even get to that territory.

    That’s why it’s such a problem when drones fly over pakistan. You are creating support. But you already know that.

    A nutjob with a semi automatic can kill 66 kids with a riffle, like Brevik did, but he had to create a major distraction. Such loosely guarded targets are the real problem. I’ll come back to this.

    Regarding WMDs, i thought that you thought that “loosely guarded” Russian stockpiles would be easy to plunder? At least for a dirty bomb. Do you still share that opinion or have you changed your mind?

    Now, terrorists fight with with terror, not destruction. They don’t need to destroy a whole town, a building or two is enough (ok, that one was a masterpiece, but still nothing to what they could have done)…

    I won’t spell it out in case some nutjob with bad english reads this, but just start thinking about all the services coming to your home that could be targeted, both to kill/mame you and to disrupt you and your town. The amount of terror that would generate (deaths + a total communication cutoff).

    Now thing about how well those services are protected at it’s weak points (except maybe powerplants).

    They are still too stupid in their strategy for their potential. I.E. people still think they are not going to be affected once a bomb goes of… And you should thank god for the fact that they are as stupid as they are (now that I think about it, I should too, though last terror attacks here happened over 25 years ago)…

    So, Russian nukes, are easy to steal, or not?


    P.S. To idiots running searches for terrorism related keywords, we are not terrorists.

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