I am often asked what keeps me awake at night after nearly 40 years as a Navy officer, including four years as supreme allied commander for global operations at NATO. There is no shortage of frightening issues: Iran, North Korea, the insurgency in Afghanistan, civil war in Syria, cyberthreats, chemical weapons, terrorism.
But my one-word answer may surprise: convergence.
Convergence may be thought of as the dark side of globalization. It is the merger of a wide variety of mobile human activities, each of which is individually dangerous and whose sum represents a far greater threat.
The most obvious example of this kind of convergence is narco-terrorism. Drug cartels use sophisticated trafficking routes to move huge amounts of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. Terrorists can in effect “rent” these routes by co-opting the drug cartels through money, coercion or ideological persuasion. These organizations can then move personnel, cash or arms — possibly even a weapon of mass destruction— clandestinely to the United States.
Other globally trafficked illicit goods can also be found constantly moving on these routes: stolen and counterfeit intellectual property, illegal migrants, human slaves, laundered cash, sophisticated armaments. Meanwhile, in laboratories in North Korea, Iran and Syria, sophisticated weapons of mass destruction are in production or being researched. When global trafficking routes and weapons of mass destruction merge, the result will be catastrophic.
A special case of this kind of convergence is emerging in the cyberworld, where the greatest mismatch between the level of threat to our country (high) and our level of preparation (low) is evident. High-threat packages move through the world’s servers, fiber-optic cables and routers in the service of nations, anarchic organizations and garden-variety hackers. Trillions of dollars’ worth of cybercrime occurs each year; if the cyber-capability and the resultant cash converge with terrorist groups or pariah states such as Iran and North Korea, the potential for catastrophe is high.
So, what can be done? First and foremost, the United States and the international community must recognize the threat this kind of deviant globalization poses. Convergence of these mobile illicit activities can rapidly undermine global security norms. Too often the focus is on single-point threats — drugs, money laundering, human trafficking, weapons trading, production of weapons of mass destruction — while the true threat lies in their convergence. The Obama administration’s Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, published in 2011, is a step in the right direction.
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