One of the biggest holiday gifts last year was the Sony PlayStation2 video game console. Good luck trying to find one. Hundreds of thousands of gamers around the world are still waiting to get their hands on the elusive item. But, according to news reports, one customer managed to collect about 4,000 of the goodies over the past year. The lucky gamer is the government of Iraq, and it is not interested in racking up high scores.

Baghdad reportedly wants to link the consoles together to make a supercomputer with military uses, including control of missiles or development and testing of weapons of mass destruction. Experts challenge the claims. They say PlayStations cannot work in parallel, which is required to make a supercomputer. Sony officials say it is unlikely that anyone could have bought that many consoles.

The PlayStation problem highlights the complexity surrounding security planning. “Dual-use systems” — items that can be used for both civilian and military purposes — have been around for years. But the growing sophistication of ordinary, everyday devices has made it more difficult to guard against the proliferation of technology that can be used to make weapons. International mechanisms exist to check the spread of technology, but the list is potentially too long for any system to be foolproof. No parent can wait for international approval before picking up a last-minute stocking stuffer.

The availability of new technologies is part of the new security environment. Just as significant are the new antagonists; governments are no longer the only enemies. Individuals, such as Mr. Osama bin Laden, are the chief danger. New communications technologies give them unprecedented freedom of maneuver and put unprecedented power at their fingertips. Japan got a lesson in this new world of terror in 1995, when Aum Shinrikyo launched its attacks on Tokyo subways.

Technology also creates new vulnerabilities. Information war is a growing concern. There were more than 22,000 electronic attacks on U.S. defense computer systems in 1999 and about 14,000 in the first seven months of this year. The Pentagon has estimated that 30 experts with $10 million could bring U.S. infrastructure to its knees. In the defense draft budget for fiscal 2001 released last month, the Defense Agency requested 400 million yen to research such cyber-terrorism.

The new technology-related threats do not replace traditional security problems. Sadly, conventional war continues to blight the planet, as struggles in Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Colombia confirm. The new government in Yugoslavia might help ease tension in the Balkans, and the dialogue on the Korean Peninsula is long overdue, but there are plenty of other flash points around the globe. The Middle East threatens to boil over, India and Pakistan are a long way from detente and the danger of miscalculation still hangs over the Taiwan Strait.

Indonesia is threatened by internal chaos and the possibility that the country could fracture. The governments in Russia and China have made a virtue of strength, but it is unlikely that any government can govern those sprawling states. Congo, in the heart of Africa, is under similar strain. Even though most experts think that North Korea will muddle through, the threat of implosion remains. In each case, security planners must be ready for destabilization and the inevitable spillover if a power vacuum is created. Several governments are already working to prevent that situation from emerging in Central Asia, but the danger, as always, is that those efforts will create new tensions as well.

While the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a worry, U.S. plans to build a national missile-defense system could also prove destabilizing. As in physics, among security planners, every action prompts a reaction. In this case, other countries may expand their arsenals or move to launch-on-warning systems to counter the U.S. move. It is far from clear that real security will be enhanced.

If that were not enough, governments have to be prepared for dangers of a completely different sort: financial shocks like those that reverberated around the globe in 1997 and 1998. The Asian financial crisis began in Thailand, but its effects were felt in Russia and Latin America as well. With the prospect of a U.S. economic slowdown on the horizon, governments have to be ready for the tremors.

In other words, uncertainties are growing every day. The only thing we do know is that there is a premium on coordination among governments. Whether the threat is a specific terrorist or some amorphous force in the international economy, governments must work together. Preparation is more than half of the battle; video games do not count.

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