Beyond the Battlefield: Obama Cabinet Takes on Human Security

01/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Marie Wilson Founder, Take Our Daughters to Work Day; Honorary Founder and President Emerita, Ms. Foundation for Women

Mumbai's devastation came to American airwaves just as the Obama administration prepared to unveil its national security team. As I watched the images of burning buildings and police standoffs, I was reminded of a little-known parallel in our nation's own history: a time early in Janet Napolitano's career as governor of Arizona, when she was faced with what became the longest running prison siege in U.S. history. For fifteen days, while correctional officers were held hostage by violent prisoners, Napolitano resisted public pressure to go in shooting, and instead utilized expert negotiation to ensure that everyone got out alive.

On the heels of Mumbai's bloodiest hostage situation in memory, the recollection of Napolitano's poise, patience and competence in the face of such pressures is ever more significant for the American people, as she prepares to head up the department of Homeland Security.

The skills which Napolitano employed in Arizona -- from artful negotiation to taking an unpopular stance in the public's interest -- are surely what President-elect Obama hopes that she will bring to Washington. And in joining Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, these three women will shoulder vast responsibility and influence over the security of our nation and the world.

Their selection is part and parcel of Obama's move to institute what the New York Times has called "a sweeping foreign policy shift." And while their personal courage and wisdom may account for why these particular women are being offered what not long ago would have been unthinkable positions to be held by women -- especially in tandem -- their ascendancy is also the result of two marked changes. The first is the public's growing acceptance of women in non traditional roles, and the second, a long overdue shift in the understanding of what makes for a secure world.

Since Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State in 1996, eight of the last twelve years have seen a woman occupy that role. Her tenure, along with Condoleeza Rice's service, have helped to normalize women as foreign policy leaders. While a recent Pew Survey shows that foreign policy is one of only two issues that the public still feels are better held by males, the same study reveals that American's put much greater stock in women leaders when it comes to working out compromises, employing honesty and creativity, representing the public's interest, and standing up for what they believe. These are the skills that many would say are essential for effective policy making and relationship building.

Equally important is the shift that is taking place in our understanding of what will make our nation and world more secure. In this age of globalization and nontraditional international threats, it is increasingly apparent that conventional approaches of military and national defense are not enough to ensure the safety of the people and the state.

One needs only look at the staggering economic cost of the Iraq war (estimated at nearly $600 billion dollars to date) to see that over-reliance on military solutions diverts resources, both financial and human, away from solutions that favor prevention and persuasion over coercion and force. And while security is customarily equated with preventing traditional notions of physical attack; issues like pandemic disease, terrorism, environmental degradation and grinding poverty all threaten national security and require new policy tools and platforms to effectively confront them.

To be sure, we want a strong military with an intelligence infrastructure and helpful law enforcement across the globe, but military is just a part of the solution. Women have traditionally accepted that security is all-encompassing, involving economic, diplomatic and social solutions. They have long known that real security is not only found on the front lines of the battlefield, but also hits close to home, in terms of daily needs like clean water, access to doctors and schools, protection from rape and disease, and sustainable usage of natural resources. Without these safeguards, security rapidly devolves, threatening the stability and safety within state borders and across them.

At a recent gathering at the Aspen Institute, The Honorable Margot Wallstrom, Vice President of the European Commission, was asked what the incoming U.S. President should know about women. Wallstrom immediately referred to last November's International Women Leader's Global Security Summit, where nearly 100 women world leaders gathered in New York to re-envision the traditional security paradigm, asserting that the demands of the 21st century require a shift to real, or human, security. His recent national security team selections may be President-elect Obama's strongest indication yet that he is on the same page as the women of this world.