Real & Imagined Security Threats in an Uncertain World

Project Description

We are inundated by images of global threats in the mass media, whether it is terrorism, transnational organized crime, mass migration, pandemic disease, cyberwar or climate change. While fear has always been an effective tool of political elites to consolidate power, technological innovation (notably the rise of social media) has made this tool even more effective. The populist movements that swept many countries in recent years, from Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Donald Trump in the United States, deftly employed social media to advance their fear-based political agendas.

In spite of the “culture of fear” that seems to dominate the Western media and political landscape most evidence shows that we live in the safest period in human history. From 1945 to 2014, the death rate from conflict declined from 22 per 100,000 to 1.4, and the incidence of extreme poverty — often a driver of conflict — has declined by almost 75 percent since 1990. It is instructive to look at the issue of terrorism, one of the focal points of attention for the security establishments and mass media in the West and beyond. Looking specifically at the United States, between 2001 and 2014, 3,412 Americans were killed in acts of terrorism, almost 3,000 of whom were in the 9/11 attacks alone. In Canada, between 2010 and 2015, seven Canadians were killed in domestic terrorist incidents. In both Canada and the United States, an average citizen is more likely to be killed in a car crash or get hit by lightning than die in a terrorist incident. This is not intended to dismiss the threat terrorism poses, but to demonstrate that the perception of threat and resources invested to address it far outstrip the actual danger it poses.

These statistics raise significant questions about how we assess international threats and tailor responses to them. For instance, there is a tendency to prioritize and inflate direct or proximate threats, specifically those perceived to be particularly “spectacular” in character, such as terrorism or the impacts of different forms of transnational organized crime. By contrast, more distant and creeping threats, such as climate change and pandemic disease, tend to receive less attention. This multidisciplinary research stream will explore the politics of fear and the actors that drive it. It will also develop a threat matrix that will identify and evaluate the real and imagined international threats that confront Canada. This will inform a broader discussion on how Canada should better assess and communicate threats to the public and tailor effective responses to them.


Among the threats that will be analyzed are:

  • International Terrorism
  • Cyber Security
  • Climate Change
  • Global Refugee Crisis
  • Pandemic Disease
  • Transnational Crime
  • Financial Crises and Economic Inequality
  • Fragile, Failed and Conflict-affected States
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction
  • Interstate Conflict and Competition