Toward Cooperative Security

Toward Cooperative Security

When President Bush announced to the nation and the world that the United States would "fight and win this war" on terrorism, he put forward a new orienting principle for American foreign policy. That principle is no less ambitious than was the containment of Communism. But over one year later the Bush Administration has yet to put forward a coherent long-term counter-terrorism strategy.

By every indication, the administration is appropriately focused on the war against terrorism. The President maintains that going to war with Iraq will not set back efforts to fight the campaign against Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with global reach. This may well be true, but only the development and articulation of a credible, comprehensive strategy will clarify for the American people and the international community how we intend to proceed as the military campaign in Afghanistan winds down. A coherent long-term counter-terrorism strategy should be developed before a war in Iraq distracts the attention of senior officials and the Congress.

Much work needs to be done. The basic tenets of U.S. counter-terrorism policy have remained virtually unchanged since their introduction more than twenty years ago. But the strategic environment has changed dramatically since their introduction during the Reagan Administration. The transnational nature of modern terrorist organizations enables their members to slip through the cracks of national enforcement efforts. This frustrates the efforts of states with even the best-developed intelligence and law enforcement capabilities. And since their membership is comprised of religious fanatics seeking violence and long-term destabilization, adherents of these groups are both undeterred by the prospect of criminal prosecution and unsatisfied by near-term political concessions.

The extent to which the United States should act alone in defense of its vital interests constitutes the starting point in the debate over reformulated counter-terrorism policies. To most Americans, the sheer horror of 9/11 compelled a decisive, immediate and comprehensive U.S. response-multilateral where possible, unilateral if necessary. But over the long-term, unilateralism cannot sufficiently and holistically address root causes, buttress our defenses, and combat attacks.

This reliance on the efforts of others extends to other critical, non-military fronts in the war on terrorism. Alone, the United States has extremely limited capabilities to act abroad to build secular education systems, create hospitable political and economic environments, put forward a compelling public diplomacy and coordinate international law enforcement actions, among other steps that can effectively counter terrorism.

A unilateralist approach to countering terrorism would entail more of what we have already seen. U.S. military actions would predominate. The United States will be constantly involved in suppressing insurrections at the far fringes of the civilized world, from the Philippines to the Pankisi Gorge. Without other forms of constructive bilateral engagement, perceptions of imperialistic impulses will harden, and comparisons to a declining Roman Empire will be inevitable.

A cooperative security strategy grounded in energetic bilateralism has the best chance to bind nations together in a shared effort to counter terrorism and to enhance U.S. security over the long term. In addition to the use of military force, cooperative security requires, among other things, new forms of intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, stepped-up diplomacy, both the reorganization and reorientation of parts of the national security bureaucracy, and new forms of foreign aid. All of these steps will be necessary to fight and win the war on terrorism. None are being undertaken in the form and fashion that will be required.

How then to proceed? Cooperative security follows three guiding principles: first, our diplomatic corps and national security infrastructure would shift away from the country-team paradigm to a regional approach suited to combating threats that transcend national frontiers; second, all U.S. government agencies and departments with a stake in global counter-terrorism efforts would participate in far more frequent, formal and meaningful bilateral counter-terrorism meetings with counterparts in cooperative countries; and third, the United States would substantially increase the development and funding of non-conventional approaches to countering terrorism and addressing root causes over the longer term.

Modern terrorism is by nature transnational, yet the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy remains organized along the "country team" paradigm. While this relic of the Cold War will continue to be useful, the organizational framework of the U.S. government must evolve with the times if the United States hopes to counter transnational threats effectively.


While groups like Al-Qaeda are global in scope, at an operational level they are also distinctly regional phenomena. They rely on sub-networks that operate across borders in discrete theaters of operation. Within each region, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations exploit pockets of anti-Americanism. They move carefully and deliberately from one nation to the next, brokering support and, after conducting strikes or surveillance, frequently seek safe-haven and logistical support in neighboring regions. In sum, they operate along the seams of national frontiers-and domestic intelligence services and law enforcement authorities-in regions of the world most vulnerable to their influence.

Against this backdrop, existing U.S. counter-terrorism efforts are hampered both by the failure of diverse agencies of the U.S. government to coordinate effectively with each other and by each agency's failure to think and act in regional terms. U.S. officials with responsibility for Malaysian affairs do not work in an integrated fashion with their counterparts with responsibility for the Philippines. Washington-based officials responsible for intelligence liaison in each country may not even know their U.S. law enforcement counterparts.

To combat terrorist cells effectively, the United States must assume a regional approach to policy development and implementation. It will need to create new mechanisms through which diverse agency representatives can coordinate policy at a regional level. The formation of Regional Counter-Terrorism Coordination Teams (RCTs) should be the centerpiece of this effort. RCTs would be led by one senior diplomat and one senior CIA officer from the directorate of operations. They would be positioned centrally within respective regions to maintain close contact and coordination between and among deployed U.S. country teams and host country counterparts. The RCT leadership be familiar with each region's historical, diplomatic and other complexities and be acquainted with the local bureaucrats whose assistance is so essential to achieving progress.

Simply having regular bilateral meetings with key foreign partners would be an important first step toward more effective U.S. policies. "Bilaterals" afford U.S. officials a unique opportunity to build meaningful relationships with their counterparts, and meaningful relationships contribute to successful policies. Even more exceptional would be "bilaterals" focusing exclusively on counter-terrorism policy.

There is currently no formal approach to scheduling and conducting bilateral meetings. They are instead often announced at the last moment or occur informally between plenary sessions at ministerial and international conferences.

U.S. officials must find the time for meaningful bilateral counter-terrorism meetings. The agenda for these meetings would be set in close coordination with RCTs. The U.S. government must empower these teams to succeed. To do so, it will need to develop new and streamlined declassification criteria for foreign intelligence liaison services that both protect sources and methods and provide enough information to assist friendly nations in advancing common objectives.

International development is a critical and underappreciated component of U.S. national security. President Bush acknowledged as much when he declared that "persistent poverty and oppression can lead to hopelessness and despair… when governments fail to meet the most basic needs of their people, these failed states can become havens for terror." Organizations like the World Bank, UNHCR, any number of prominent NGOs, and our own USAID must assume a new degree of responsibility for addressing the root causes of terrorism.

To make other countries comfortable with American intentions, the United States needs to demonstrate through its actions that it has their best interests at heart. Accordingly, the United States should support objectives that our allies and potential allies have identified as important. These include reducing poverty, malnourishment, and the spread of infectious disease; attacking corruption and political oppression through education and development efforts; and advancing programs that are aimed at preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The United States should help advance these objectives regardless of whether a direct link can be drawn to the promotion of our vital national interests. The links between terrorism and the hopelessness of a hungry, alienated population are intuitive. Terrorism breeds in vacuums of assistance, attention and interest. This is reason enough to bolster significantly U.S. assistance efforts abroad. The United States should immediately increase the percentage of its GDP invested in international aid and development programs from the current .13% to the United Nations target of .7%.

Substantially increased funding should also be made available for U.S. technical assistance programs that advance the front line of defense abroad. These range from programs to train foreign police officers, customs officials and judges to programs that seek to create broader institutional capacities to combat terrorism. Helping vulnerable nations build their capacity to govern effectively and enforce the rule of law must now be considered part of an integrated counter-terrorism approach.

Cooperative security will lighten the U.S. military burden since additional instruments of U.S. power will be used to advance counter-terrorism objectives. It will have a greater potential to build trust and confidence among friends and allies while reducing tensions and misconceptions about U.S. intentions. The State Department's share of the counter-terrorism burden would increase if this strategy were implemented, as the operational tempo for the diplomatic corps and the intensity of coordination required both across the federal government and between and among friendly nations would increase.