Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning staff at the Department of State is exploring the new “foreign policy frontier” at the Atlantic. In one post, she describes how this “frontier is deeply social, as messy and unsatisfactory as that may be.” The proposition is not as controversial as it seems.

Thinking about foreign policy interventions of the last 20 years, we certainly recognize that social malaise leading to weak or failing states triggers foreign policy responses. Interventions in East Africa, Southeastern Europe, Central Asia, and North Africa have underlying social causes that impact the foreign polices of other countries. The same can be said about U.S. security force assistance programs that are designed to reinforce governments that struggle with internal stability.

In fact, U.S. foreign and defense policy has been embracing the importance of underlying conditions to understand and mitigate conflict. In the 2002 National Security Strategy, for example, President Bush declared that the United States is threatened more by weak states than by conquering ones. President Obama reiterated this strategic approach when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009.

It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine and shelter they need to survive. It does not exist where children can’t aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.…

Slaughter undoubtedly sees the importance of underlying social causes to national security, but her column has relevance for both foreign and domestic policy. Up until now, the national security establishment has largely addressed human security and social challenges within developing countries. But my colleague Nick Gvosdev recently wrote in World Politics Review that might have to change. “The riots this past week in the United Kingdom, coming on the heels of the terrorist attack in Norway last month, the protests in Greece and the tsunami and subsequent nuclear accident in Japan earlier this spring, should be a wake-up call to Europe and the rest of the developed world that it cannot ignore the domestic side of the national security equation. It is time to dispense with the hubris of thinking that natural disasters, civil unrest or terrorism produces instability only in countries like Haiti or Iraq.”

The challenges Gvosdev highlights in developed countries are no less complex than we find in places like Somalia, Libya, or Afghanistan. Writing about the recent British social protests, Jeffrey Murer sees “the events in England were not caused by something. They have no single cause. Rather, the tensions that built over years and explored over the past week were brought together through complex social interactions.” We saw the impact of underlying social conditions materialize in violence and expected security institutions to restore stability. However, experiences in conflict zones throughout the world illustrate that this is rarely true.

With this in mind, NATO countries may need to rethink the Alliance’s strategic concept and their own national strategies. By and large, national strategies tend to ignore security issues within their own borders and NATO places a premium on global security. We tend to think that developed states are more immune than developing states to the negative aspects of globalization or internal social challenges. Yet, natural events like tsunamis, earthquakes, and disease can challenge even wealthy countries to recover. Or in the case of social protests that turn violent, traditional state institutions can be ill-equipped to restore social harmony and policymakers lack the proper frame of reference to support societal reform.

Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is the author of Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the U.S. Military. He is currently on leave from the Naval War College. These views are his own.