National Security in an Age of ‘Shock and Aftershock’

Monitor Feakin

One of the most notable historians of recent times, Eric Hobsbawm, characterised the twentieth century as ‘The Age of Extremes’.[1] These extremes were viewed both in terms of the technological and social change that took place during that era, as well as in reference to the extreme political cultures that shaped two World Wars and a Cold War between ideologically opposed nations.[2] Yet, despite the magnitude and level of impact on global security that these trends had, the gestation was often considerable. Thus, governments had relatively lengthy periods of time to prepare and respond to security threats. Compare this to the unfolding twenty-first century, which could be characterised as ‘the age of shock and aftershock’. Unexpected events, aided by the speed of modern technology and media reporting, have shaped the international security picture dramatically in a very short period, changing the way in which both governments and citizens view their security.

The most prominent example of ‘shock’ and ‘aftershock’ was the impact of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on US national and foreign policy. Following the attacks on London in July 2005, the UK began to understand a terrorist threat that emanated from within its own population, leading to an overhaul of approaches to counter-terrorism by the government. The phenomenon of globalisation has meant that countries and the people that comprise them are interconnected in a way that has never been seen in history before; this leads to aftershocks of events being felt acutely by governments and their citizens even if the initial shock occurs on the other side of the globe. Thus rethinking, both in a conceptual and practical manner, how governments understand and respond to this new era of ‘shock and aftershock’ has taken on a new significance in recent times.

Over the past two years discussions about the changing nature of the national security agenda have gathered a great deal of momentum within both academic spheres and UK government circles.[3] This is by no means a new debate: indeed, the end of the Cold War allowed for a burgeoning of the security agenda to include aspects of economic and environmental security. Security thinkers and strategists entered a new period of relative freedom, exploring security issues away from traditional military spheres. However, the government’s first attempt [4] to conceptualise this new security environment, linking both the defence and security agendas in one document, did not appear until March 2008 when it published its first National Security Strategy.[5] This document laid the foundations for cross-departmental thinking on approaches to tackling the security issues of the day. In the government’s own words:[6]

This groundbreaking approach to tackling security challenges reflected a profound and developing shift in our understanding of national security: broadening the concept beyond the traditional focus of the protection of the state and its interests from attacks by other states, to include threats to individual citizens and our way of life.

In the breadth of security issues addressed, the document was certainly ‘groundbreaking’: very few countries’ national security strategies cover such a wide range of security and defence issues in one place. The document was criticised for being too general and not actually containing a strategy for how a response to new complex security threats in the twenty-first century should be met.[7] To a degree this is true: there were no clear planning guidelines and assumptions provided. However, the strategy did provide a valuable building-block towards creating pan-departmental thinking and potentially providing a more coherent approach to national security issues in the future.

Building upon this initial effort, an updated version of the strategy was published in June 2009, which expanded upon the first both intellectually and through the provision of planning assumptions to guide security priorities. The document has begun to look more like a strategy, yet is still some way off from outlining the kind of practical pathway a strategy should proffer. Nevertheless, two key factors are noteworthy: firstly, the global economic crisis is increasingly shaping government thinking in terms of conceptualising the types of national security threats that will be faced in the future, as well as the ability of government to adequately fund the responses to those threats. Secondly, there appears to be a linked focus on more traditional security issues, such as the large defence sector programmes, public and private sector espionage, and the growth and spread of serious organised crime. It demonstrates how a government’s national security priorities change quickly in the twenty-first century – in this case, in response to the ‘shock’ of the economic crisis facing the UK, which has re-focused thinking from counter-terrorist issues to issues that have short- to medium-term financial connotations.

The Question of Economics

With the UK economy currently in sharper decline than many countries around the world and government borrowing totalling more than half of GDP,8 there will no doubt be an impact upon future approaches to national security in the UK due to the burdens placed upon future budgetary expenditure. In a recent RUSI working paper, Malcolm Chalmers suggested that any future government spending cuts could potentially incorporate the areas of public order and justice (police, fire service, prisons, courts etc):[9]

The UK now spends much more in this area than other EU countries. Yet some argue that the rapid increase in spending since the 1980s has not been matched by increased efficiency … Spending on public order and safety has already risen from the equivalent of 42 per cent of defence spending in 1987/88 to the equivalent of 91 per cent in 2008/09.

This rise in spending may well be reasonable in the context of responding to threats within the UK from crime and terrorism, as well as making much needed improvements to elements of the UK’s public order and justice system. However, the blend of economic contraction over the next five years, and the potential public perception that there is a lack of high-impact security threats in the UK to warrant such high spending in this sector, could well lead to decreased spending on UK national security. This could mean that future governments begin to examine avenues of incorporating the private sector increasingly into the national security mechanism. Already, many areas of public order and justice work are contracted out to the private sector: prisons have private security firms running them and crowd management duties at sporting events are partially conducted by private contractors. Could we see increasingly large parts of the government digital network being entirely contracted out in an attempt to make them more cost effective? With the inevitable public spending cuts that will arrive in the coming years, could we begin to see an increasing number of security responsibilities being pushed into the private sector, such as low-level policing duties or protection of infrastructure, for example? This is certainly an area that warrants increased political and public discussion.

Vulnerabilities of Interconnectivity in the Cyber World

It was interesting to note that alongside the publication of the second incarnation of the National Security Strategy, the government took the opportunity to publish a Cyber Security Strategy which aimed to lower the risk to the public, business and government from online threats. As the UK Government aspires to provide more online services and streamline work practices as part of its ‘Digital Britain’ programme, the new strategy is much needed.[10] To a degree, this strategy acknowledged the relative vulnerability of the digital networks that now underpin our way of life; responding to this vulnerability is imperative, due to the inherent financial risks that exist. Attacks in the cyber world are both easy to execute and come in multiple forms, many of which have significant financial costs for all involved. In this time of increasing economic fragility, considerable efforts to mitigate risk are required:[11]

With over £50 billion spent online in the UK every year and 90% of our high street purchases made using electronic transactions, new technology is vital to our national prosperity. But with modern life increasingly dependent on computers and communications technology cyber space is a new area where hostile states, terrorists, and criminals can all threaten UK security interests.

In many ways the online world is the perfect embodiment of today’s rapid, globalised, interlinked world, where communication and financial transaction are almost instantaneous. However, it also demonstrates the locus of extreme weakness: the state’s capacity to adapt to such an instantaneous world is slower and less flexible than a terrorist group or organised criminal gang due to unwieldy institutional mechanisms and decision-making processes.

Citizen-Centric Security – The Issue of Trust

Within UK national security documentation there is an increasing onus upon the individual to take responsibility for their own security by being prepared and aware of potential threats and hazards in their immediate vicinity or online. Sharing responsibility between the state and society is a sensible approach to security. However, this is difficult in light of increased civic independence and decreased trust in state functions since the end of the last century. At the community level, the government has actively sought engagement with regions at risk of natural disaster through the Civil Contingencies Secretariat; Local Resilience Forums also conduct workshops to raise awareness of emergency preparedness. Yet people who attend these workshops are those who are likely to be actively involved in community projects already. The question of how the government reaches those who do not engage is still to be answered.

A more problematic issue is the poor level of public trust that exists in the government’s strategic risk communication. Public trust in the parliamentary system and the MPs that preside over it is at an all time low, and this presents a problem. The government has chosen to place the citizen at the heart of security, in so far as the citizen is encouraged to take responsibility for their own security whilst trusting the government to ensure other areas of their safety. How can this position be reconciled with the public’s distrust of the government and its messages? One of the most pressing issues in the national security debate right now is how the current government – and the one that follows after next year’s general election – begins to re-establish trust in their policies and public communications. In the coming months, the answer to this question will be pivotal in enabling real national security advances to be made, otherwise there is a danger that the government will suffer from the ‘aftershock’ of an electorate who have little faith in the decisions that they make.

Tobias Feakin
Director, National Security & Resilience


[1] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 1994).

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (London: Abacus, 2007).

[3] See IPPR Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, ‘Shared Responsibilities: A national security strategy for the UK’ (London: IPPR, 2009); Charlie Edwards, ‘The case for a national security strategy’, Demos Report (London: Demos, February 2007).

[4] Notwithstanding the Strategic Defence Review which examined the linkages between foreign and domestic policy from a military perspective.

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

[6] The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom - Update 2009: Security for the Next Generation, Cm 7590 (London: Cabinet Office, June 2009).

[7] BBC News Online, ‘Brown unveils security strategy’, 19 March 2008,; Paul Cornish, ‘The national security strategy of the United Kingdom – How radical can Britain be?’, Chatham House Experts Comments, 26 March 2008,

[8] BBC News Online, ‘UK government borrowing at £90bn’, 22 April 2009,

[9] Malcolm Chalmers, ‘Preparing for the Lean Years’, Future Defence Review, Working Paper 1 (London: RUSI, July 2009).

[10] Cabinet Office, Cyber Security Strategy of the United Kingdom – Safety, Security and Resilience in Cyber Space (UK Crown Copyright, 2009).

[11] Ibid.

Dr Tobias Feakin

Senior Associate Fellow

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