Freely and with Confidence: Assessing Britain’s Security Strategy

Monitor Omand

There are powerful forces at work reshaping the international security environment, which affect the security of the UK itself, and which we need to understand better. In the recent final report from the National Security Commission of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR),[1] on which both I and the Director of RUSI sat, we highlighted the way that no state today can provide for its security needs by acting alone – a central conclusion for any national security strategy – and the way in which the global financial confidence and liquidity crisis has narrowed, at least for the immediate future, the options open to address these needs.

We can all see the way that globalisation is changing the nature of global power. It is diluting the control of national governments, deepening interdependence across borders and empowering a far wider range of actors emerging on to the world stage. Beyond states, these include private companies, NGOs, terrorist organisations and transnational criminal networks that corrupt state governance and facilitate and profit from violent conflict, amongst others. We are already seeing how the effects of climate change, global poverty and inequality have amplified instability, conflict and human rights abuse. Disorderly, fragile and unstable states today outnumber strong, accountable and stable ones in the international system by more than two to one. The overall result is increased licence for some to disrupt or destroy within a framework of reduced state dominance of the security environment.

In the UK we are directly affected by the globalised neo-jihadi ideology that has emerged as a significant driver of international insecurity and terrorist atrocities. Those risks would worsen greatly if terrorists or other non-state criminal groups succeeded in acquiring significant means of mass disruption, as they might if international action is not mobilised to stop further proliferation.

Less well appreciated, perhaps, are the vulnerabilities generated by rapid advances in information and biotechnologies, making cyber crime, and cyber terrorism more likely. The dangers from pandemics and of new forms of biological warfare are a more dangerous possibility given global urbanisation. Complexity has entered the physical infrastructure of modern life in the UK and our reliance on stretched and interconnected critical national infrastructures has increased.

Keeping Shared Values at the Heart of Security

The priorities for a strategic approach to national security planning should emerge directly from such an analysis. The risks to national security must be defined widely in current conditions to cover major man-made threats or natural disasters. It makes sense in this environment for government to set out its responsibility to tackle the full range of threats to individual citizens, families and businesses. It is a primary duty of government to try to mitigate those risks and thus provide for public security; there is also a heavy responsibility on government to level with the public about the limitations of any feasible and affordable security measures.

There is no absolute security to be had in this world, and at every stage a balance must be maintained within the framework of human rights based on the time-honoured principles of proportionality and necessity. All strategies involve making choices over ends, ways and means. Central to sound strategy is having a clear statement of principles and values to inform the inevitable trade-offs and to highlight what cannot be compromised: the importance of human rights (including the absolute ban on torture), justice, the rule of law, legitimate and accountable government and the maintenance of freedoms of assembly and speech. The words ‘freely and with confidence’ in the present government’s own strategic security aim[2] (‘so that people can go about their daily lives freely and with confidence, in a more secure, stable, just and prosperous world’) are both significant qualifiers and a significant reassurance to all sections of the community that, in seeking security, governments hold on to their fundamental values.

No state today can provide for its security needs by acting alone. The UK has benefited over many years from being part of a collective defence alliance, NATO, based on shared democratic values embodied in the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. At a time of global shifts in power the case for retaining the North Atlantic Alliance at the heart of UK security strategy – thus linking the security of Europe to that of North America – should hardly need to be made. But there are wider pre-occupations and dangers to security to be faced for both North America and Europe. The best strategy to maintain a strong and relevant Alliance would be to pursue a major strengthening of European defence and security co-operation – not as an alternative to NATO, but so as to produce a re-invigorated transatlantic alliance based on deeper and more effective European co-operation and a more equal relationship between Europe and the United States.

Prioritising Foresight

Another important idea that should drive modern security thinking is the value of anticipation, in the proper sense of that word. Not just to be able to make predictive judgments about the future course of events, but also to realise what the world would then look like so as to be able to identify and implement policies today that would mitigate the risks to society of such trends.

A major increase is needed in current levels of multilateral co-operation in order to achieve this approach in relation to risks arising overseas. This must be a strategic priority for the UK and its allies, even when this sometimes means compromising on short-term national preferences. In a world where problems and destinies are shared, measures to promote international peace and stability and address fragile political climates will often be the best course of action in our own defence. Well-targeted conflict prevention policy based on a good understanding of the dynamics of emerging problems saves money, lives and political relationships. Demonstrating and establishing legitimacy of state action is a strategic imperative in current conditions since it is central to securing partnership and the co-operation of others.

An anticipatory approach increases the importance of having strategic notice of emerging trends and the capability to produce pre-emptive operational intelligence as threats develop and materialise. Maintaining community confidence in the actions of the state, in that regard, will become more important than ever in the years ahead. Good pre-emptive intelligence reassures the community by removing extremists and by disrupting potential attacks without having to fall back on the sort of blunt discriminatory measures that alienate moderate support within the community – support on which effective policing and counter-terrorism depends. Being able to demonstrate proper legal authorisation and appropriate oversight of the use of such intrusive activity may become a major future issue for the intelligence community if the public at large is to be convinced of the desirability of such intelligence capability.

Strengthening Resilience

Even given strategic notice and good intelligence, there will be some threats and hazards that cannot be headed off. Sound strategy will therefore include the need to invest in building up national resilience, including educating and increasing the self-reliance of our communities so that the impact on the public can be minimised as far as possible. This preparation is in itself a form of deterrence and defence. Extensive partnership working at home, with the private sector, with community groups and with citizens as individuals must likewise be a feature of security policy implementation. Resilience is an increasingly important element of any sound security strategy, since advanced societies are more vulnerable to disruption, especially as they become more networked and IT-dependent. Even relatively modest means of attack can lead to significant cascading failures in interconnected networked systems. In the future, such attacks may well be delivered through the Internet.

Smart Security – The Future

Let me conclude by returning to our final IPPR National Security Commission report. Having reviewed in detail the full range of international and domestic security developments, we are optimistic about the prospects for the continuing development of sound national security strategy whilst at the same time being realistic about the inevitable and unavoidable nature of many of the risks ahead. We are clear that we cannot, in these conditions, continue with business as usual. We must work smarter: think strategically, prepare for the worst, ruthlessly target resources at risks and work with our allies and partners to anticipate and prevent threats before they become real.

Both in domestic security and resilience, and in working effectively overseas, there must be co-ordination of government effort that spans many departments and institutions, integrating a wide range of policy instruments. This means fundamental changes to government structures, the strengthening of strategic decision-making at the centre and the breaking down of departmental stove-pipes. The administrative arrangements of the last century are no longer appropriate for the multi-layered and interlocking challenges we face. We must change not just what we do but how we organise ourselves to do it.

David Omand
Vice-President, RUSI
Visiting Professor, King’s College, London


[1] To read the full analysis that underpins these observations, see the final report of the IPPR Commission on National Security in the 21st Century: ‘Shared Responsibilities: A national security strategy for the UK’ (London: IPPR, 2009).

[2] The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an Interdependent World, Cm 7921 (London: Cabinet Office, March 2008).

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