International Threats, National Security

Monitor Rogers

Britain’s national security has traditionally been seen as an issue of defence policy. When there have been defence reviews these have concentrated on the make-up and purpose of the armed forces. There has been some change in recent years, not least with the publication of the National Security Strategy. Even so, it is still probable that the defence review that will follow the next general election, whichever party wins power, will place by far the greatest emphasis on the armed forces.

Three issues could change this and ensure that we look much more broadly at our understanding of national security. One is the experience of recent years, with the 7/7 bombings and several other attempted terrorist attacks, which caused great anguish yet involved the use of crude devices that are far removed from modern military operations. The second is the experience of the War on Terror – the post-9/11 actions by the United States and its coalition partners that were expected to bring peace to Iraq and Afghanistan while dispersing and much diminishing the Al-Qa’ida movement.

Instead, a six-year war in Iraq cost over 100,000 lives, at least twice that number of serious injuries and 4 million refugees. Well over 100,000 people were detained without trial; prisoner abuse, torture and rendition sullied the reputation of the United States; and, even now, the war may not be over. In Afghanistan and western Pakistan the conflict is proving to be even more protracted, while radical Islamist movements increase their influence in Somalia and across North Africa.

The final issue is the impact of two global trends – the financial crisis and the rapidly growing recognition of the risks from climate change. These, along with the experience of the War on Terror, may make for a rethink of Britain’s approach to homeland security. They may indeed be indicators of the inadequacy of old thinking and of the need to address the major issues for the next half century.

Embracing the New Security Paradigm

These issues stem from three trends. The first is that we are now entering an era of profound environmental constraints on human activity. This is a global issue which must concern every country and every community and is simply not amenable to an attitude that sees security as a national concern alone. While problems of energy, water and strategic mineral resources will become more complex, the overriding issue will be climate change.

Again, the UK situation is misleading. Recent Met Office predictions point to a much warmer and windier country in the coming decades, but Britain has an economy that can cope with such changes. The real problem is that climate change is a global process that will radically change the climates of the most populous and poorest parts of the world, pushing hundreds of millions of people right to the margins of survival and beyond. It may be easy to argue that Britain will be isolated from this chaos ‘beyond the castle gates’, but the essence of globalisation is that you simply cannot close out the rest of the world. The attacks in New York, Washington, London and Madrid demonstrated that in stark terms.

What makes the issue of environmental constraints so serious is the interaction of two other clear trends. The most basic of these is the abject failure of the globalised market economy to deliver socio-economic justice. The last three decades have been prosperous for about one fifth of the world’s people who have surged ahead in their wealth compared with the great majority. One recent UN study estimated that the concentration of wealth is even more dramatic, with just 10 per cent of the world’s population (around 650 million people) owning 85 per cent of household wealth and half the world’s people (over 3 billion) left with just 1 per cent.

One particular feature of the global situation stands out: the socio-economic divide has been getting steadily worse over the past forty years. It is not that the poor are getting poorer, although malnutrition has doubled since the mid-1970s. The globalised market economy has been broadly successful in delivering economic growth but has been a dismal failure in delivering economic justice.

The final trend results from what is actually a major success story. Over the past forty years there has been a very impressive improvement in levels of education across the majority world of the South. Compared with the immediate post-colonial period in Africa, for example, a far higher proportion of children now get primary education, and even the gender gap is at last closing as girls begin to share more equitably in educational opportunity. The improvements in education and literacy have also been accompanied by great progress in communications from radio and television through to mobile phones and, even more recently, the beginnings of internet access.

The Crowded, Glowering Planet

These welcome improvements have an undesirable effect if they are accompanied by the increasing marginalisation of the majority of people: they can all too readily result in anger and bitterness. Thirty years ago sociologists talked of the ‘revolution of rising expectations’ as the benefits of a consumer society became much more widely available. Now the more likely prospect is of a ‘revolution of frustrated expectations’ as prospects for advancement are hugely constrained.

This is a prospect made worse by the current economic downturn that is pushing many more millions of people to the margins. But even before that there were numerous signs of dissent. They included the renaissance of Sendero Luminoso (‘Shining Path’) in Peru, the unexpected rise to power of the Maoists in Nepal, deepening unrest in China and the extraordinary comeback of the Naxalites in India, described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the greatest security threat to the country.

What should be at the centre of the study of global security is the developing impact of the combination of environmental constraints, especially climate change, with the deepening economic divide. Thirty-five years ago the economic geographer Edwin Brooks wrote of ‘a crowded glowering planet of massive inequalities of wealth, buttressed by stark force yet endlessly threatened by desperate people in the global ghettoes’. The fundamental mistake will be to see this fractured world system as one that cannot be ameliorated but will have to be controlled, if need be by military force. The appropriate term is ‘liddism’ – keeping the lid on problems rather than addressing the underlying causes.

In a very real sense, the response to the 9/11 atrocities is a remarkable example of liddism. A determined paramilitary group, essentially armed only with parcel knives, took over passenger jets and turned them into weapons, with one of these being used to attack the headquarters of the world’s strongest military power. The response was not to see the perpetrators and their backers as transnational criminals but as enemies to be defeated by the massive use of military power; the consequences have been an endless war.

The central problem is that methods of irregular warfare along with the innate vulnerabilities of advanced industrial economies mean that ‘revolts from the margins’ are likely to prove increasingly sustainable and potent. The difficulty is that this, along with the global trends identified, means that traditional analysis of security from an essentially state-centred standpoint, or even within alliances such as NATO, is increasingly inappropriate if not actually obsolete.

Pushing the Security Envelope

Financial constraints and the enduring problems in Afghanistan mean that the defence review, announced in July and due to take place following the general election, will be largely a waste of time if it fails to embrace these wider issues of security. What is essential is that it recognises the need for innovative thinking on national security in the global context that is appropriate to the problems of the next two or three decades. Here and there one sees some ‘new thinking’ underway,[1] but there is need for more.

In one sense, the UK is particularly well-suited to encouraging the development of new ideas, not least because of the unique combination of its place in the North Atlantic community, Europe and, perhaps most under-rated of all, the Commonwealth. The next couple of years present a rare opportunity to engage in the kinds of responses required by current world trends; responses that have more to do with economic co-operation and environmental management than traditional thinking on national security. If the opportunity is grasped, then the UK’s role in addressing the difficult global security issues facing us could be considerable.

Paul Rogers
Professor of Peace Studies
University of Bradford


[1] The recent IPPR study shows some evidence of this, as does RUSI’s work on climate change and security, and Oxford Research Group’s current studies on sustainable security.

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