Beyond terrorism: towards sustainable security

Chris Abbott
16 April 2007

The sight of planes flying into the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001 has become an iconic image of our times. Forever burned into the public consciousness, it seems to have affected many world leaders in a profound way: they are now convinced that international terrorism, particularly international Islamic terrorism, is the greatest threat to world security.

However, is international terrorism really the overwhelming threat it is made out to be? If not, how can the "war on terror" possibly help us deal with the real threats we face? These questions are extremely important in today's global security environment. Governments only have finite resources, and must deploy those resources in ways that best ensure their citizens' security. To do this though, they need to properly understand the nature and extent of the various threats to that security and, importantly, respond effectively.

A longer version of Chris Abbott's argument is to be found in his book (co-authored with Paul Rogers & John Sloboda), Beyond Terror: The Truth About the Real Threats to Our World (Random House/Rider, 2007)

Also in openDemocracy on the Oxford Research Group and "sustainable security":

John Sloboda, " Saving the planet and ourselves: the way to global security"
(12 June 2006)

Paul Rogers, " Global security: a vision for change "
(12 April 2007)

It is not enough to simply insist that international terrorism is the greatest threat to the world, when the evidence simply does not support this claim. A recent book from the Oxford Research Group (ORG), Beyond Terror: The Truth About the Real Threats to Our World, paints a very different picture of the fundamental threats that we all face, with these threats coming from four interconnected trends:

  • climate change
  • competition over resources
  • marginalisation of the majority world
  • global militarisation

There are, of course, other trends to consider, but these are the ones that the Oxford Research Group concludes are most likely to lead to large scale loss of life - of a magnitude unmatched by other potential threats - and have the greatest potential to spark violent conflict, civil unrest or destabilisation that threatens the international system as we know it.

Climate change

The effects of climate change are likely to lead to the displacement of people from island, coastline and river-delta areas, to severe natural disasters and increasing food shortages. This would contribute to increased human suffering, greater social unrest, revised patterns of living and the pressure of higher levels of migration across the world. This has long-term security implications for all countries which are far more serious, lasting and destructive than those of international terrorism.

Competition over resources

Industrialised and industrialising states are increasingly dependent on imported resources, especially oil and gas. Oil is currently the main marketed fossil fuel and the Persian Gulf is the dominant region, with two-thirds of world reserves. It is a deeply unstable region with continuing potential for conflict as the United States seeks to maintain control against opposition from regional state and sub-state paramilitary groups.

Marginalisation of the majority world

While overall global wealth has increased, the benefits of this economic growth have not been equally shared, with a very heavy concentration of growth in relatively few parts of the world. These divisions are being exacerbated by increasing oppression and political exclusion, coupled with a growing sense of marginalisation as a result of improvements in education and modern communication technologies, leading in places to increased levels of political violence.

Chris Abbott is the programme coordinator and researcher at the Oxford Research Group (ORG). He is the lead author of Global Responses to Global Threats (ORG, 2006) and Beyond Terror: The Truth About the Real Threats to Our World (Random House/Rider, 2007). His articles on global security issues have appeared in various publications in Britain and abroad

Also by Chris Abbott in openDemocracy:

"The Blair doctrine and after: five years of humanitarian intervention"
(22 April 2004) – with John Sloboda

Global militarisation

The cold war showed that there is a persistent tendency by the authorities to maintain an aura of control and responsibility, when this is very far from what is actually happening. The current focus is still on maintaining international security by the vigorous use of military force combined with the development of both nuclear and conventional weapons systems; the first five years of the "war on terror" suggest that this is failing. Post-cold-war nuclear developments involve the modernisation and proliferation of nuclear systems, with an increasing risk of limited nuclear-weapons use in warfare - breaking a threshold that has held for sixty years.

The "control paradigm"

These trends will be major security concerns in the medium-to-long-term. However, in the short term, it is actually our response to international terrorism, rather than terrorism itself, that will be a major cause of insecurity. The so-called "war on terror" is not reacting appropriately to the key trends identified above. In fact, in many instances the policies and abuses of the "war on terror" - Guantánamo Bay, extraordinary renditions, civilian casualties - are actually increasing the likelihood of future terrorist attacks.

This is because the "war on terror" is based on the false premise that insecurity can be controlled through military force, thus maintaining the status quo. It is an example of what Oxford Research Group calls the "control paradigm". This approach essentially aims to "keep the lid" on insecurity, without addressing the root causes of that insecurity. This will not work in the long term and, in fact, is already failing in the face of increased paramilitary action and asymmetric warfare. Even when judged by its own goals, it becomes clear that the "control paradigm" simply is not working:

  • support for political Islam is increasing worldwide
  • the number of significant terrorist attacks is on the rise
  • peace and democracy are elusive in the middle east
  • the price of oil remains volatile and increases with every new crisis
  • Iraq is in a state of bloody chaos nearing civil war
  • Iran, Syria and North Korea are increasingly emboldened
  • US strategic influence is waning, especially in Africa and the Middle East
  • the United States is increasingly viewed as the greatest threat to world peace.

The current approach to security is deeply flawed, and is distracting the world's politicians from developing realistic and sustainable solutions to the non-traditional threats facing the world, among which terrorism is by no means the greatest or most serious.

Sustainable security

In contrast, the Oxford Research Group proposes a new system of "sustainable security". The central premise of sustainable security is that you cannot successfully control the consequences of insecurity, but must work to resolve the causes. In other words, "fighting the symptoms" will not work, you must instead "cure the disease".

This approach to security does not - as some claim - underestimate the impact of the terrorist threat. A truly effective counter-terrorism strategy would tackle and police immediate dangers whilst implementing policy changes to address longer-term trends that fuel terrorist recruitment, finance, legitimacy and effectiveness. The current approach prioritises the former; a sustainable approach would commit as many if not more resources to the latter. A sustainable security approach to terrorism would therefore include:

  • rapid coalition troop withdrawals from Iraq, replaced by a United Nations stabilisation force, with United states recognition that a client state or puppet regime cannot be sought there
  • the closure of Guantánamo Bay, the cessation of "extraordinary renditions", and the observance of the Geneva convention on detainees
  • sustained aid for the reconstruction and development of Iraq and Afghanistan
  • a genuine commitment to a viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and third-party brokerage of the wider Arab-Israeli confrontation
  • a firm and public commitment to a diplomatic solution to the current crisis with Iran
  • police targeting of the international funding networks that support terrorism
  • an opening of political dialogue with terrorist leaderships wherever possible
  • intelligence-led counter-terrorism police operations against violent revolutionary groups.

By aiming to cooperatively resolve the root causes of threats using the most effective means available, sustainable security is inherently preventative in that it addresses the likely causes of conflict and instability well before the ill-effects are felt.

Over the next decade a radical shift towards sustainable approaches to security will be hugely important. If there is no change in thinking, security policies will continue to be based on the mistaken assumption that the status quo can be maintained: an elite minority can maintain its position, environmental problems can be marginalised, and the lid can be kept on dissent and insecurity. In this scenario, little attempt will be made to address the core causes of insecurity, even if failure to do so threatens the elite minority as well as the marginalised majority.

Alternatively, a change in thinking could lead to an era of substantial progress in developing a more socially just and environmentally sustainable world order.

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