What are the biggest security threats that the United States will face under its next president, no matter who wins the November election?
Several hundred high school students tackled that question as part of a unique online course on global challenges the next U.S. president will face.
The first week of the month-long course, managed by Global Online Academy, focused on defense and security, and News-Decoder correspondent Alex Nicoll offered his views in an online seminar, hosted by the Greenhill School in Texas, before fielding questions from many of the 400-odd students.
What did Nicoll list as the five biggest threats to U.S. security? Here are the first four:
- nuclear weapons
- Middle East turmoil
- Russian aggression
- violent extremism/terrorism
The fifth threat took some of the students by surprise and sparked fervent debate: Gun violence in the United States.
Nicoll acknowledged that gun violence is really a domestic political issue.
“But if the level of deaths from gun violence that we see in the U.S. were occurring in another country, the U.S. and others would probably treat it as an international problem,” he said, adding that more people are killed by guns every year in the United States than in any of the world’s current armed conflicts except three: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Do Americans want the risk of being shot to be much higher than in other countries?”
An online discussion forum set up for the course was quickly flooded with questions and comments from students on gun violence in the United States.
“The culture of guns within the United States is highly detrimental to America and especially to poor and minority communities that suffer gun violence,” one student wrote.
“I do not think that guns are the root of the problem, rather it is the people into whose hands they fall,” said another.
One student noted that Switzerland has a high rate of gun ownership. “Despite the prevalence of guns, there are only about 0.5 gun homicides per 100,000 people,” the student wrote.
“The best thing for America to do would be to ban guns flat out,” a student wrote before another chimed in: “We need to find some common ground between the liberal and conservative stances on the issue of gun control in order to make any real progress.”
Here’s what Nicoll had to say:
“To me it seems a question of attitude and culture. Do Americans really want a situation where the risk of being shot, or having your children shot, is so much higher than in other countries? The answer, to me, is not more guns!”
“In a democracy, people can change things.”
Two other topics stoked especially robust debate: immigrants and nuclear weapons.
“By allowing the small risk that immigrants could be terrorists to dominate our perception of all immigrants,” one student wrote, “Islamophobia and an irrational fear of strangers grow more widespread throughout the American public.”
“The problem I have with refugees is that they cannot and will not adapt to (our) way of life; instead, they expect us to adapt to their way of life,” another student wrote. “I don’t think that the U.S. should be taking in refugees in large amounts. We have enough problems at home to deal with.”
“The risk of terrorist attacks carried out by new immigrants is very small. The vast majority of immigrants are looking for a better life for their family, a job, etc, just like the ancestors of almost all present-day American citizens…. There are many, many more attacks by Americans on other Americans than there are acts that you would class as foreign-inspired terrorism.”
On nuclear weapons, students debated whether it is realistic to seek a total ban or whether efforts should focus on preventing proliferation.
“I think it is in the interest of the U.S. and the whole international community to stop any new country from developing nuclear weapons,” Nicoll said, calling last year’s agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program “a significant step forward.”
Summing up, Nicoll had this to say about the students’ contrasting views on critical issues:
“These are not simple issues, and I respect the counter-arguments. But if people like you feel strongly, full discussion and expression of views over a sustained period of time is the only way to alter a situation. In a democracy, people can change things.”
Alexander Nicoll is a writer on defense and European issues. From 2003 to 2015, he was on the staff of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, where he was editor of the London think-tank’s annual review of international affairs. Previously he spent 18 years as a reporter and editor at the Financial Times, including as defense correspondent from 1997 to 2002. He began his career at Reuters as a correspondent in Hong Kong, Paris, Tehran and New York.