01/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Secretary of Defense Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy was always a dark horse candidate for Secretary of Defense. For starters, the Senate would never confirm a dead Russian to such a critical post. More importantly, Tolstoy never would have accepted the appointment. A Christian pacifist, Tolstoy's writings on non-violence laid the intellectual and spiritual groundwork that would later inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. So the notion that he would take a job managing the most powerful military in human history stretches credulity a bit too far.

Nevertheless, let there be no doubt that the great novelist had the brainpower for the job. Consider the following reflection on Napoleon's invasion of Russia. "The campaign of 1812 proved that a battle won is not only not the cause of a conquest, but is not even an invariable sign of conquest; it proved that the force that decides the destiny of nations lies not in conquerors, not even in armies and battles, but in something else."

This "something else" referred to guerrilla warfare and nationalism, which were beginning to turn military doctrine - and history itself - on its head. But Tolstoy saw the trends shaping his world, and he spoke out against received wisdom. That's why he would have made an excellent Secretary of Defense.

Fortunately, our actual Secretary of Defense shares a similar characteristic. Knowing that today's national security threats require diplomacy and development as well as bullets and bombs, Secretary Gates has publicly advocated a bigger budget for the State Department. The call to provide funding to a major bureaucratic competitor is not only a mark of integrity. It's a proof that Secretary Gates understands that new threats call for new thinking.

Moving up the food chain to the President-Elect, Barack Obama's entire approach to foreign policy seems to be predicated on this principle. His selection of Robert Gates is a case in point, but it's not the only one. By tapping Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu for Energy Secretary, Obama has proven that he takes the national security threat of climate change seriously. His selection of Harvard physicist John Holdren as presidential science adviser and Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration make much the same point.

What we're seeing from the nascent Obama administration is a security philosophy that views the world in terms of threats and enemies. Enemies are flesh-and-blood human beings who wish us ill, such as al Qaeda. Military might is needed to defeat actual enemies and deter potential adversaries. Threats are impersonal forces that shape our security environment, and cannot be countered by military means. Governmental collapse in Iraq or Afghanistan is a threat. The existence of dual-use technology that can be used for developing weapons of mass destruction is a threat. The AIDS epidemic is a threat. Climate change is a threat.

These are problems that can only be solved through cooperation and consent with other nations, whether we like it or not. Theorists of international relations have long held that conflict between nations is inevitable because the drive for security leads countries to fear one another. In a world of melting polar ice caps and loose nukes, we now have more to fear from complex threats than rising powers. We have little choice but to band together to counter the threats that threaten us all.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Real enemies exist. Nations still have incentives to go to war with one another, as Russia and Georgia proved earlier this year. However, security will increasingly become a game of countering not only enemies, but threats. Conservatives in the Bush administration failed to recognize this development. Thankfully, President-Elect Obama seems to grasp this fundamental reality. Let us hope he doesn't forget it. And just to make sure he doesn't, let's get him a copy of War and Peace, stat.

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