top of page
< Back
The Hill - Five keys to combatting violence: Advice for the Biden administration

The Hill - Five keys to combatting violence: Advice for the Biden administration

This article was originally published in The Hill.

“America is back” means that President Biden faces a slew of foreign policy challenges as he modifies the course of US national security. From confronting Putin on cyber-based attacks against the American people to competing with China’s ambitions under Xi Jinping, to searching for a path toward honest diplomacy with Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rohani. Moments like these with fresh eyes and leaders without the sunk costs of last year’s decisions can make big and important changes.

With years of experience working in national security -- from war zones to the U.S. Senate to federal law enforcement -- I have learned that the simplest and most effective way to make sense of the complexity of these moving moments is to treat these issues as firms and entrepreneurs acting in competitive markets.

To change the behavior of a criminal, terrorist, or tyrant, offer something in exchange. Offer a ‘good’ – money, political support, market access, etc. – or a ‘bad’ -- kinetic force from military or law enforcement, trade sanctions, denial of access to currency or banking, etc. The key idea is to think of Putin, Xi, and Rohani and their critical supporters as humans, and not just Russia, China, and Iran.

To help make this shift to thinking in markets -- considering heads of state as entrepreneurs leading firms in competitive markets -- I suggest this framework of five vectors of national security policymaking:


People want the best for themselves and their people, defined decreasingly as family, communities, and nation. People tend to base their involvement in an activity on the expectation that the involvement will somehow bring about what they want. Entrepreneurs can lead commercial or political organizations, make resource allocation decisions for that organization. The organization can be called a firm: a state, an insurgent organization, a mafia. Whether a president, a criminal, a terrorist, or a tyrant -- or a president engaging in crime -- the first rule to keep in focus is this: each human seeks to optimize these personal goals.

Resource constraints

Resources like wealth can constrain a person’s chosen behaviors for a given a set of goals. A tyrant’s power may be limited by the wealth he can pay to his internal police forces, for example. Increasing or decreasing the wealth available to a leader/entrepreneur often produces powerful impacts on human behavior. Sanctions from the Treasury Department, trade promotion from the Commerce Department and the United States Trade Representative (USTR), and development assistance from USAID have proven powerful tools in the past and must be considered in the context of incentives to change the behaviors of entrepreneurs such as Xi and Putin.

Institutional constraints

Institutions are the human-devised set of rules and associated enforcement of those rules which further constrain or enable human behavior. Laws and norms of behavior promoted by institutions like the Financial Action Task Force, World Customs Organization, or World Bank, for example, can define standards of behavior and exercise or moral suasion like ‘name-and-shame’ policies of the Treasury department that identify individuals providing financial support to terrorists.

Information Asymmetries

Information feeds a person’s expectations, and leaders, like all other people, make decisions based on expected outcomes. But leaders make decisions with imperfect information, so their decisions can be wrong as well as influenced.

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, UBL orchestrated attacks on people in the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and Pablo Escobar bombed a commercial airliner, but each of the three likely did not expect to be killed shortly after these actions.

In the coming year, the Biden administration should communicate clearly with both our friends and adversaries around the world to avoid information asymmetries. What consequences could the Iranian leadership expect to suffer if they violate weapons agreements. If President Biden cannot provide information convincing his Iranian counterparts of real negative consequences, then the agreement will have no good impact.


Time horizons act as an enabler or constraint on a leader’s decision making. This time horizon may be different based on age, health, or expected political term. An elected official may expect a four-year term, but a dictator may expect a lifetime term and the ability to pass on power to her heirs.

All those who would threaten the public safety and security of the American people, are people, so this framework from economics can inform our national security protections and countermeasures. Seeing global threats as firms led by entrepreneurs acting in competitive markets, makes clear that national security isn’t just a job for the military and law enforcement. All levers of U.S. power (kinetic, financial, trade-based, cultural, diplomatic, etc.) comprise the tools of national and homeland security. Crafting U.S. foreign policy in market terms provides the framework regaining balance following any shifted priorities.

Gary M. Shiffman, PhD, is an economist working to solve problems related to human violence. A Gulf War veteran and former Senate National Security Advisor, Chief of Staff at US Customs and Border Protection, DARPA Principal Investigator, and Georgetown University professor, he founded two technology companies, Giant Oak, Inc, and Consilient, Inc. He is the author of The Economics of Violence (2020), and his essays have appeared in media outlets such as The Hill, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, TechCrunch, and others.

bottom of page