U.S. Navy / Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Casey H. Kyhl / Handout / REUTERS A U.S. helicopter carrying humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies in the Philippine Sea, south of Japan, March 2011.

Rethinking U.S. National Security

A New Role for International Development

Much of the United States' focus on national security involves dealing with great powers, especially China and Russia, and terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, or ISIS. But there is a growing consensus among foreign-policy makers that instability in the developing world complicates these challenges, and produces others, too. The refugee crisis, fed by instability in the Middle East and North Africa, is one example: it has driven apart European nations even as they must work together to deal with a resurgent Russia. The 2008 crisis in global food prices is another. It played a significant role in the political uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and continues to threaten the stability of many developing countries today. Terrorist and criminal groups use failed and fragile states as launching pads, since they can recruit more easily from suffering populations that lack supportive communities and reliable institutions. Diseases such as Ebola, AIDS, SARS, and Zika often emanate from less developed nations with weak governments incapable of preventing their spread. All of these challenges affect the national security of the United States.

Left unaddressed, these problems will probably worsen in the coming decades, thanks in part to the pressures population growth will place on food, water, and energy resources in developing countries. The world adds around 80 million people each year, and conservative estimates suggest that the global population will exceed nine billion by 2050. Much of this growth is occurring in unstable regions in Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, where the combination of swelling ranks of young people and limited economic opportunities creates breeding grounds for terrorist groups and criminal gangs. Until population growth rates level off, which is expected to occur around the middle of this century, developing countries will continue to come under increasing stress. This could contribute to a cycle of violence and migration that will accelerate the breakdown of fragile states.

We write as former officials who have served four U.S. administrations from the U.S. government’s development and humanitarian-relief institutions with the resources and status of a cabinet department. The department should have the capacity to devise and recommend a government-wide plan to support international development cooperation, post-conflict transitions, and relief operations. It should guide the United States' efforts to reform the international organizations that specialize in related missions, such as the UN voluntary agencies and the Bretton Woods development banks. And the department should have a permanent seat at the principal’s level in the National Security Council, independent of the Departments of Defense and State.

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