The New War

Who are we fighting? Is this a war or not? Do we devote more resources? Less? These are the questions that we've asked in recent weeks about our effort in Libya. They are the same questions we asked as we slipped into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are the same questions we still ask about both of those wars as they continue all these years later. In Iraq, Afghanistan and now in Libya, we've entered the country in an effort to oust dictatorial regimes. All three countries were run by tyrants who had long been lightning rods on the international scene. Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi and the Taliban, along with Kim Jong-Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are the kinds of leaders that keep diplomats up at night. They have the potential to cause serious global disruption, while being highly unpredictable and in some cases mentally unstable.

Handling these leaders is a challenge -- from the careful dance that led Mubarak to step down, to sending Bill Clinton to rescue Laura Ling and Euna Lee at Kim Jong-II's demand -- and we always move with calculated risk when dealing with them. While we might not always be able to get the perfect outcome, we've usually been more or less successful. In the post-9/11 world non-state actors have become a powerful force, but the events of the past few months in the Middle East suggest that state actors and leaders are just as central as ever. However, there are more signs that rogue terrorists and dictators -- both of which we now know how to manage -- aren't the enemy in the new war that is raging around the globe.

The past several years have seen a string of devastating events around the globe including the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the 2004 South Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake and the 2010 Pakistan floods. Never before have we seen so many natural disasters, so large, in so many different regions, in such a short period of time. While the occurrence of natural disasters around the world is normal, these catastrophes are clearly out of the ordinary. These disasters are now the reality of our world; we can no longer afford to ignore them. Perhaps now is the time to ask the same questions we asked of Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan about this war.

The collective damage done by these disasters exceeds the damage done in the wake of many armed conflicts. In Japan, the latest estimate by government analysts project the total costs at $309 billion, if accurate, that would make it the most costly natural disaster in history, the human cost is equally stunning, over 12,000 deaths (expected to ultimately rise to tens of thousands), over 2,800 injured, and more than 15,000 missing. It will take Japan, a key player in world economic and political affairs, decades, if not more, to recover from this. Katrina resulted in over 1,600 deaths and more than $100 billion worth of damage to the New Orleans economy, seven years later the city is nowhere near recovery. In Haiti, 316,000 dead, 300,000 injured, 1 million homeless, and an estimated cost of $14 billion. The Pakistan floods cost the region 5.3 million jobs, over 2,000 deaths, and up to $43 billion worth of losses to their economy. The Asian tsunami saw more than 220,000 casualties along with irreparable environmental damage.

Even with significant philanthropic and government resources none of these areas have yet come close to making full recoveries. It's certainly possible that some of these regions may never fully recover, with the results of the devastation giving way to further conflict. Like military campaigns, repeated natural disasters of this magnitude are simply unsustainable.

You can't talk to or negotiate with nature like you can with a leader, it has no emotion and it is unforgiving. While natural disasters often give us warning before they are about to strike, they can't be stopped before they hit. We can't have any impact on a natural disaster while it strikes, after it strikes we can only perform damage control. Our only recourse is to develop a stronger and smarter global emergency response network so that before and after a disaster strikes the international community can act instantly and efficiently. A case by case process to deliver aid and volunteers for each individual crisis can't go on forever.

The economic, environmental and political instability that these disasters cause is a major global threat. It's time to recognize this as a new international war. We can't merely accept this as nature's way. We need to fight and prepare for this enemy with the same determination, focus, and force that we've put into our wars in the Middle East. More than ten years into the 21st century, it seems clear who our biggest enemy will be and just how hard it will be to fight them. The war is on and we haven't begun to create our battle plan.