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U.S. must avoid isolationism to address global risks

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The United States must become more engaged with the world, according to former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Mr. Ridge, whose career also includes stints as governor of Pennsylvania and a member of the House of Representatives, offered his assessment at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America's annual meeting on Monday.

Being more engaged with the world “is in our sovereign interest,” he said. Around the world, expectations of the United States are much higher than they are for any other country, but the United States often slips into isolationism, said Mr. Ridge. For Republicans, the isolationism tends to be of a geopolitical nature; for Democrats, it's of an economic nature.

He asked rhetorically how the country can withdraw from the world when the globe is so connected. If the United States does not act, someone else will, he said, citing Russia's intervention in Syria as an example.

He also said the way to lose international respect is to fail to back up words with actions. Mr. Ridge, a Republican, said the current administration said years ago that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had to go but did nothing to achieve that end. He said that the administration then drew a “line in the sand” saying it would react if the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in its civil war, and then did nothing to back up the words.

Mr. Ridge, who now serves as president and CEO of Washington-based consultant Ridge Global L.L.C., expanded on his theme by saying the United States and the world face two new permanent conditions. The first is the “global scourge of terrorism.” After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on New York and the Pentagon and the downing of a plane in rural Pennsylvania as hijackers attempted to fly it to Washington to carry out an attack, Americans thought of terrorism in terms of al-Qaida, he said. But the threat has now “metastasized” to include operations such as the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing Syria and Iraq, he said. The reason is the instability caused by al-Qaida and the Islamic State, according to Mr. Ridge. In addition, he called Iran the central bank of global terrorism, adding that the United States had just sent Iran a “big check” by easing economic sanctions in return for a pledge that Iran would not develop nuclear weapons.

The other new permanent threat is what Mr. Ridge called the “digital forevermore.”

In a few years, the Internet will be like electricity; it will be everywhere, he said – and the greatest threat to U.S. security and the economy is the digital world, according to Mr. Ridge.

“Our infrastructure generally is exposed,” and a successful cyber attack on the nation's infrastructure would have dire effects, he said. He predicted that private cyber insurance will play a bigger role in managing cyber risk.

During questions after his presentation, an attendee asked Mr. Ridge what role the federal government should play in the cyber security insurance market. Mr. Ridge said he believes the government will begin looking more closely at the private cyber insurance market and didn't know whether the government would eventually step in with an insurance backstop as it has for terrorism if the private sector can't provide enough coverage.