Weapons proliferation is a growing threat, but the spread of nuclear weapons technology and ballistic missiles may not be the gravest danger facing free people everywhere. The biggest problem could well be governments that increasingly want to classify every global challenge as a "security" issue.
In the wake of World War II, "national security" became a popular term of art. In 1947, the U.S. government created a National Security Council in the White House based on the idea that protecting the nation from its enemies required more than just military force.
All the elements of national power (political, economic, diplomatic, etc.) had to work together to keep Americans safe, free and prosperous. It also was understood that nations competed on more than battlefields. Enemies had to be confronted in places such as the marketplace and minds of peoples.
When the Cold War ended, many began to question the old defense paradigms. Increasingly common wisdom argued that national security meant protecting the nation from all kinds of ills. Thus, whatever the danger of the day, it became a "national security" problem. Potential pandemics, such as SARS and bird flu, for example, required the same treatment as enemies of the state.
To make matters more confusing, international organizations such as the U.N. have created terms such as "human security," arguing for a collective responsibility to keep people free from want and fear.
Human security suggests international organizations have the right to order states to intervene when the collective wisdom of these unelected bodies considers it appropriate to meddle in a nation’s internal affairs.
The upshot is that, increasingly, everything centers on security. The problem with that approach is the tendency, in dealing with security interests, to centralize power and decision-making, and restrain individual freedoms and free markets.
The centralization of power is worrisome enough in time of war (remember the hyperbole over the Patriot Act.) Now at the same time folks who cried foul over creating a Department of Homeland Security to fight terrorists that want to kill us want to make their pet projects security issues, too.
Dealing with the world’s challenges as a threat to national security often produces destructive results that may be more of a threat than the ills allegedly being addressed. It turns out abandoning the checks and balances that govern free societies often wind up depriving people of liberty and making their material condition worse, not better.
We are in such a vicious cycle right now. Hysterical concerns about "energy security" have prompted governments to offer enormous subsidies and mandates to produce "bio-fuels." Next came frenetic demands to deal with global warming — and more government emphasis to expand bio-fuels, regardless of the balance of the costs and benefits.
In the end, the rush for bio-fuels has done nothing to stem the rising price of gas or affect global climates. It has, however, coupled with the increasing cost of a barrel of oil, helped drive up the cost of growing food.
China, for example, has mandated a benchmark of producing 15 million tons of bio-fuel by 2020, replacing almost 10 percent of its demands for oil. The rush by China and other countries into corn-based ethanol has led to a doubling of the price of the grain worldwide in less than a year and a half.
In turn, governments are concerned about "food security," to the point that some are banning exports of rice to ensure adequate supplies and keep prices down. Government interventions are helping create a food crisis, not stem one.
Meanwhile, long-standing government interventions from agricultural subsidies to export barriers prevent global markets from adjusting quickly to global needs.
World leaders could learn a lesson from all these statist policies — driven by popular fixations about the danger of the day, demanding that governments do something. When doing something becomes treating every problem through the rubric of national security, tragic mistakes get made.
Energy and food are problems of the marketplace — best solved by markets, not by government intervention that warps market behavior. Instead of learning these lessons, many argue that interventionist policies are even more important than ever.
Making every global challenge a security issue trumps free markets and limits personal freedoms. The concept of national security needs to be put back in the box, reserved for moments of peril in dealing with people (either states or non-states) who threaten through the use of violence to take away the political freedoms that governments are supposed to protect.
Security shouldn’t become an excuse to take away the power of individuals and communities to decide how best to cope with the challenges of life.
James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow in national security issues at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), is the author of "G.I. Ingenuity."
James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.