The New Atlantic Century?

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A new report on the future of western security was published on 10 January 2008 under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and the Noaber Foundation. The media coverage it received focused mainly on its recommendation that Nato retain the option of a first-use policy on nuclear weapons. This is understandable, but also a pity: for the report - in its omissions as much as its main propositions - is more deeply revealing of the true condition of "western security" in the first decade of the new century.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

A "radical manifesto" is the unlikely description of a document with such an official-sounding, even portentous title (Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World: Renewing Transatlantic Partnership) and list of contributors (former defence chiefs from the United States, France, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands). The combination of political profile and military authority they bring to a discussion of the west's security concerns helps explain why the media has chosen to highlight the nuclear issue in its reporting; and it is true that some of Nato's leading member-states (for example, Britain) are determined to maintain the first-use option even as they plan a replacement of current missile systems.

At the same time, the very emphasis on the nuclear aspects of the report carries the risk of missing some of the much wider issues it raises. This would be a pity, for the report deserves to be read as a whole: it is of great value in explaining the dominant western security paradigm, proposing an ambitious extension of its scale, and indicating (albeit unwittingly) why it is so flawed.

The west's assumption

The central concern of Towards a Grand Strategy... is with the security of one section of the human and geopolitical community: the states of the north Atlantic. It addresses problems that arise out of processes of globalisation - such as transnational terrorism, climate change, energy security and mass migration - and demands radical changes in the north Atlantic alliance to meet these threats.

The introduction makes the perspective clear:

"In their long-term agenda the authors propose abandonment of the two-pillar concept of America and Europe cooperating, and they suggest aiming for the long-term vision of an alliance of democracies ranging from Finland to Alaska. To begin the process, they propose the establishment of a directorate consisting of the USA, the EU and NATO. Such a directorate should coordinate all cooperation in the common transatlantic sphere of interest."

The entire report is written from the standpoint of "the common transatlantic sphere of interest", and develops the view that only a "super-Nato" can guarantee security for its members and order in the wider world. The key assumption underlying this approach deserves to be brought out. This is that the north Atlantic is a fundamentally civilised community that is under threat from the forces of disorder - by implication, the barbarians at the gate.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 and why a new security paradigm is needed

This notion of an essentially benign order is at the core of the western security paradigm: "we" embody liberal democracy rooted in the free market, which together represent the current apogee of world civilisation. In code, Towards a Grand Strategy... implies that a "new Atlantic century" is required to rescue the "new American century" from its recent problems.

The hidden injuries

From within the confines of the institution and political world that shapes and informs the document, it can appear convincing. From a global perspective, however, it simply will not do. An alert listener might even be able to hear an echo from graduates of the John McEnroe school of international relations: "you cannot be serious!"

What the report fails properly to consider is vital to a proper assessment of its argument. A reference to the impact of western policies (including security policies) in the first decade of the 2000s in two areas - the global environment and the war on terror - make the argument.

On the global environment, a new compilation of World Bank and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments - published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS]) - concludes that the environmental damage done by the world's richest states to their poorer counterparts is more than the entire global-south debt of $1.8 trillion (see "Destruction sans frontières", Conservation /Journal Watch Online, 22 January 2008). This outcome - supported too by data from the United Nations's millennium ecosystem assessment - has stemmed from the differential causes and impacts of greenhouse-gas emissions, ozone depletion, deforestation, overfishing and other environmental effects.

The richest states which have inflicted this damage now demand that the majority world reconfigures its own development aims to prevent a worldwide environmental catastrophe in the future. China and Brazil, among other leading states in the global south, are all too aware of the likely effects of climate change on their own environments and the need for collective action; but this is accompanied by accumulated bitterness at the elitist attitudes of the Atlantic community, which also lie at the heart of the Towards a Grand Strategy... report.

On the war on terror, the effects of United States-led campaign on the middle east and southwest Asia have been severe, seen in these regions (and to a considerable extent across the majority world as a whole) as part of a project of control and subjugation. More than six years after the attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, two countries (Iraq and Afghanistan) are under western military occupation, with every prospect of remaining that way for decades. The number of forces involved is huge: there are over 175,000 foreign troops in Iraq and 55,000 in Afghanistan (see "The war of the long now", 18 January 2008). The US stations another 40,000 troops in Kuwait, and France's Nicolas Sarkozy announced on 15 January plans to establish the country's own first permanent military base in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

There is also a "hidden" occupation, with an estimated 180,000 private contractors working for the United States in Iraq and thousands more in Afghanistan. The contractors essentially have free reign in countries where the foreign military exercises significant and in many cases decisive power (see Ali Gharib, "Iraqi Contractor Abuses Rarely Punished, Groups Say", IPS, 21 January 2008). There have been numerous instances of abuses by contractors in Iraq, yet Human Rights Watch estimates that only one prosecution has resulted.

The other's telescope

The 9/11 atrocities in the United States killed almost 3,000 people. The results of the policies pursued by western states in the aftermath have carried a human toll far in excess even of this terrible number. The joint World Health Organisation/ Iraqi health ministry survey published on 9 January 2008 estimates that 150,000 civilians were killed in Iraq alone between March 2003 and June 2006 (see Michel Thieren, "Deaths in Iraq: the numbers game, revisited", 11 January 2008). The numbers injured will far exceed this total; and the deaths and woundings continue. This direct, measurable cost is compounded by the fact that the parlous state of medical facilities in many parts of Iraq has meant low standards of care, persistent lack of pain relief and life-long impacts of injuries that might otherwise have been treated.

In the security field, at least 30,000 people are currently detained in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere (there are fewer records of the numbers held without trial or due process). Since 2001, over 100,000 have been imprisoned for various periods - some for more than six years. In addition, there have been numerous instances of rendition, torture, and other forms of abuse.

Many of these facts, and the wider narratives that offer an explanation of them - which are very different from those recycled in most of the west's media - are familiar across the majority world. The consistent reporting on al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and the other "new generation" media outlets (including innumerable websites) means that citizens in the global south have access to sources of information and opinion that challenge perspectives from the western establishment . This is one ingredient of a long-term rebalancing of the world's order that will define the real security agenda of the 21st century.

The global environment and the global war present challenges so grave that they require in response an aspiration not to a new Atlantic or American century but one to worldwide human security. In this harsh light, the viewpoint of the authors of Towards a Grand Strategy... seems skewed to an almost comical degree.