Back to the NATO drawing board: How to make our security sustainable

Hannah Brock, of the Oxford Research Group, looks at how a sustainable security strategy would deal more effectively with the root causes of global instability.

Hannah Brock is a Project Officer on Sustainable Security and Support Relations Coordinator at the Oxford Research Group

Last week, while announcing NATO’s new Strategic Concept at the Lisbon Summit, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared:

“NATO is an unparalleled community of freedom, peace, security and shared values.”

A less extravagant definition might regard NATO as a tool for western governments to control threats using military means. NATO is in fact a model example of what Paul Rogers refers to as the control paradigm: ‘keeping the lid’ on threats, whilst neglecting the root causes of conflict (the War on Terror being the most pertinent example of this).

This strategy is unsustainable. A progressive approach to insecurity would instead seek to address the drivers of conflict – treating the disease, rather than throwing bad medicine at the symptoms.

The root causes of conflict are rarely well-managed by unilateral policies. Thus, a multilateral body such as NATO would in principle be well-placed to address the issues likely to drive insecurity over the coming decades. There are new kinds of threats, unpredictable and potentially unparalleled in their impact.

Groups such as Oxford Research Group identify four key issues that are most likely to instigate and compound future tension:

• Climate change: loss of infrastructure, resource scarcity and the mass displacement of peoples, leading to civil unrest, intercommunal violence and international stability;

• Competition over resources: competition for increasingly scarce resources – including food, water and energy – especially for unstable parts of the world;

• Marginalisation of the majority world: increasing socio-economic divisions at the political, economic and cultural marginalisation of the vast majority of the world’s population;

• Global militarisation: the increased use of military force as a security measure and the further spread of military technologies (including chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.)

For these threats to be resolved and mitigated at their roots, cooperative and wholly international working will be required.

A sustainable security strategy that worked to address these four drivers would need to take global justice and equity as the key starting point, together with progress towards reform of the global systems of trade, aid and debt relief; a rapid move away from carbon-based economies; bold, visible and substantial steps towards nuclear disarmament (and the control of biological and chemical weapons); and a shift in defence spending to focus on the non-military elements of security.

There is little either in the recently reviewed National Security Strategy (NSS) or the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to suggest that these sustainable measures are replacing the traditional brand of threat management.

It seems also that thinking is not consistent between the two documents, with the threat analysis in the NSS (e.g. small chance of inter-state warfare and increasing risk from non-traditional threats like natural disasters and cyber attack), having little impact on the defence strategy outlined in the SDSR.

However, there is some cause for optimism: the NSS recognises poverty, climate change and resource management as catalysts for ‘conflict, instability and state failure’ (p. 16), and the SDSR stresses the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) desire to tackle threats at source’ (p. 44).

These small steps towards a more sustainable approach to security in the UK need to become leaps that influence our NATO colleagues. Amongst the MoD’s own analysts there are signs that non-traditional threats are being understood. Sustained civil society persuasion needs now to swing into action, to ensure these drivers of insecurity are mitigated – rather than adapted to.

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