A world in need: the case for sustainable security

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 September 2009

A hurricane of crises across the world - financial meltdown, economic recession, social inequality, military power, food insecurity, climate change - presents governments, citizens and thinkers with a defining challenge: to rethink what "security" means in order to steer the world to a sustainable course.  The gap between perilous reality and this urgent aspiration remains formidable.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studiesat Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy

Bradford's peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch since 26 September 2001 here

After years of steep rises in defence spending in the United States, a plateau is now being reached under Barack Obama. This still means that spending will continue at a level close to the peak years of the cold war. In Europe there is a marked contrast between west and east. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that military spending in eastern Europe rose by 143% from 1999-2008, whereas in western Europe the increase was just 5% (see Andrew Chuter & Pierre Tran, "Financial Crisis Creates Bleak Spending Outlook", Defense News, 9 September 2009).

A part of the explanation for the contrast is the relatively higher priority given to public spending on health and education across western Europe; but it also implies that defence budgets were already under some pressure in the run-up to the current financial crunch, a situation reinforced by the very heavy levels of government borrowing that the crisis entailed.

As a result, many analysts see a tough period ahead for the military, especially in Britain and France. Indeed, the Defense News analysts cited above liken "France's defense budget" to "the cartoon character who runs off a cliff and stays up as long as he does not see the gaping void below. The moment the character realizes there is nothing underfoot, he plummets into the abyss".

Some of the smaller countries, becoming aware of what is - or is not - "underfoot", have already begun to retrench. Belgium, for example, is expected to close up to a dozen of its thirty military bases; its armed forces, which numbered 44,000 in 1994, are likely to drop to 34,000 by 2013 and possibly to 30,000 by 2015 (see "Further Cuts Expected for Belgian Military: Report", AFP/Defense News, 9 September 2009).

Britain faces a defence review, whoever wins the general election due by early June 2010. The review will be substantially finance-driven and the defence industries are already lobbying hard to protect major programmes. The CEOs of Britain's largest companies, including BAE Systems, QinetiQ and Rolls Royce, held a press conference in August 2009 to call for increased defence spending if Britain was to hold its own as one of the world's leading states and not "lose its position at the top table" (see Tim Webb, "Defence firms make plea for more spending", Guardian, 1 September 2009).

The British have a particular problem in that the next government will be looking for tens of billions of pounds of savings in public spending, at the very time that spending commitments on large military projects will reach a peak. These include the replacement for the Trident nuclear-missile system, thousands of new armoured vehicles for the army and, above all, the two massive new aircraft-carriers and the prohibitively expensive American F-35 multi-role aircraft that will be deployed on them (see "Gordon Brown‘s white elephants", 26 July 2007).

A timely search

In such circumstances, and especially in the light of the conduct of the highly controversial  "war on terror" in Iraq and Afghanistan, it might seem sensible to conduct a much more general security analysis rather than a traditionally narrow defence review. In some respects Britain's national-security strategy (updated in June 2009) has started to do this, since it does pay serious attention to issues such as climate change, socio-economic divisions, marginalisation and mass migration. The trouble is that the framework and conclusions remain constrained by a narrow attitude of protecting the state from the impacts of such trends rather than addressing the underlying issues - "old thinking" always rules (see "The politics of security: beyond militarism", 2 July 2009).

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 books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming

For some of the military think-tanks this is perhaps to be expected. These may well be quite innovative in analysing new threats; but their standpoint, reflecting the professional military perspectives that inform them, is to safeguard the homeland using familiar strategies and tactics honed over many years. They are rarely in a position to say to government that long-term security - which must include avoiding the potentially catastrophic global impacts of climate change - requires preventative action that has little or nothing to do with military strategy and much more to do with the transition to a low-carbon economy (see "A new security paradigm: the military-climate link", 30 July 2009).

Similarly, trying to maintain security in a deeply divided world in which marginalised majorities can so easily be radicalised simply cannot be done by what amounts to "liddism", i.e. keeping the lid on things. This is especially the case in an era of irregular warfare. After all, a few thousand insurgents tied down nearly 200,000 of the world's best equipped troops in Iraq for six years, and the reinvigorated war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year in October 2009.

Here and there some attempts at new thinking can be found, but even relatively progressive think-tanks have to depend on support from defence industries. Two of the British centres, the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) and Demos, have each produced quite interesting studies on security - though both were part-financed by defence companies. There are hardly any sources of funding for truly innovative work apart from a handful of trusts, often with Quaker connections; but these are desperately trying to fund many different activities from a very small pool of money.

There are however some welcome signs of fresh thinking, many of which revolve around the idea of "sustainable security". The Center for American Progress in Washington has published a useful paper entitled In Search of Sustainable Security, which seeks to link "national security, human security and collective security to protect America and our world". This week, the Geneva Centre for Global Security issues a study of what it terms "national sustainable security" as part of its programme on globalisation and transnational security.

A prime resource

The Oxford Research Group (ORG), a small independent think-tank in Britain, started a project in 2006 called "Moving Towards Sustainable Security". An early result stemmed from work commissioned by Greenpeace International, explicitly underpinned  by a request for some "blue-skies" thinking from the ORG.

The result was a paper, Global Responses to Global Threats. This sought to link the issues of socio-economic divisions, marginalisation and environmental constraints as the major future determinants of insecurity - and to respond to them not with militarised policies but with a security approach focused on the underlying causes. The paper circulated quite widely and a more popularised version, Beyond Terror: The Truth about the Real Threats to Our World, was subsequently published in German, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese (see Chris Abbott, "Beyond terrorism: towards sustainable security", 17 April 2007).

In order to widen knowledge of this kind of approach, ORG launches a new website on 10 September 2009. This - http://www.sustainablesecurity.org/ - highlights the interconnected drivers of insecurity and provides many examples of different approaches; in terms both of analysis and policy recommendations, it is an invaluable resource guide to new ways of thinking about and practising "security".

This is the kind of initiative that could make a substantial contribution to promoting more effective, sustainable and emancipatory approaches to security. But even to get this far, for a project with very modest funds, is an uphill struggle. To put it in perspective, the cost of a single F-35 strike-aircraft would finance the Oxford Research Group's entire programme of work, including its sustainable-security project, for more than a hundred and fifty years. It is to help ensure that the world lasts so long - and the current hurricane of crises is reversed - that the group's work is so important.

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