Know Your Enemy: Why We Contemplate Catastrophe

Harvard International Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Know Your Enemy: Why We Contemplate Catastrophe


As the world reflects on the fifth anniversary of September 11, the prospect of another catastrophe looms. From the explosion of a nuclear weapon in a major city to a pandemic that could kill millions, potential disasters inspire fear from citizens and political action in the name of preparedness.

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But our perceptions are sometimes amorphous, uninformed fears of the worst-case scenario. And the policy response--as exemplified by widespread reports of inadequate US preparedness for an Avian flu pandemic--sometimes offers more posturing than prevention. What catastrophes might we witness that we have yet to imagine? What approaches can help states manage disaster, whether or not forecasting proves accurate?

This symposium provides first a general framework for preventing and managing potential catastrophes through risk assessment and action by international organizations. It then attempts to identify some transnational threats that could occur in the next 10 years. The aim is not to alarm but to inform. Nonetheless, this information may be alarming.

The threats we have chosen to discuss are particularly problematic because of their complexity and transnational quality. Nuclear material used in an attack against Paris may be created in one state, turned into weapon with technology provided by another state, and transported and detonated by a global terrorist network. A Saudi oil supply shock would reverberate in petroleum-dependent societies from Canada to Malaysia. Catastrophes with global consequences must be prevented, but no state can do the job alone. …

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