Sustainable security and the challenges of 2014

openSecurity's newest column explores the drivers of global insecurities and addresses their root causes. We look ahead to 2014 and the planet's unsustainable state. 

Richard Reeve
27 January 2014

Sustainable Security is a concept that has been around for almost a decade now. It was first conceptualised by my colleagues Chris Abbott and Paul Rogers, whose thoughts on the subject have appeared many times in these pages. In 2000, Paul summed up what looked to many commentators like a surprisingly quiet decade of US hegemony as characterised by an unsustainable ‘control paradigm’, in which the symptoms of global insecurity were suppressed with force while their root causes were ignored and left to fester. The 9/11 attacks and subsequent ‘war on terror’ served to confirm Paul’s hypothesis that military domination would not be sufficient to ‘keep a lid’ on security challenges, even in the world’s most powerful states.

The Sustainable Security paradigm has been developed by the Oxford Research Group as an alternative lens through which to view global security, identifying the underlying drivers of conflict and insecurity rather than its symptoms, such as violence, organised crime or radicalisation. The point is to understand how unmet human needs and feelings of insecurity interrelate and lead to violence, then to work to prevent conflict by addressing its root causes. The aim of this new monthly column on openSecurity is to facilitate precisely this kind of understanding through contributions from the Sustainable Security Programme’s network of experts on non-traditional security issues.

Taking a sustainable security approach requires some thought about the future of our planet as well as its current unsustainable state. Changes to climate, demography, economic production and consumption, political and national identity, access to information and military technology will all condition the future security of our world. What, then, does 2014 hold in the way of challenges and opportunities?

2014: the end of the war on terror?

By the end of 2014, the last NATO combat troops should have withdrawn from Afghanistan. Does this mean that the alliance’s war on terror will end where it began 13 years earlier? I doubt it. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives later, Afghanistan looks about as stable as Iraq. Pakistan, India, Iran and other powerful actors will continue to play their own cards at the Afghan table and it is barely conceivable that the US and its allies will not seek to use their own military influence and proxies to keep the Taliban down, however appalling the post-Karzai elections this April.

As much as President Obama has sought to distance himself from the toxic Bush legacy of overt and unilateral interventionism, the nature of the ‘Obama doctrine’ is war on terror-lite. It is covert, stealthy, and still the wrong side of international law. Obama’s strategy relies on the use of ‘remote control’ warfare: special forces, private military contractors and, above all, armed drones, or unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs). Since 2009, US drone attacks have escalated dramatically and killed hundreds, including civilians, in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, where the UK also increasingly uses UCAVs. Withdrawing combat units does not mean that NATO states will cease to pursue war by remote control in Afghanistan.

Arguments that UCAV systems and operators are more offensive or inclined to kill civilians miss the larger legal point that the US is increasingly pursuing undeclared wars and targeted assassinations, whether it employs drones, special forces, mercenaries, manned gunships or cruise missiles. The backlash to such action is demonstrable through the further radicalisation of communities living in fear of constant surveillance and attack from the unseen. It is employing terror against terror.

2013 was something of a break-out year for UCAVs. Israel set many of the precedents that the US has followed in drone warfare as well as targeted killings. The technology is simple and easy to imitate. While the UK and France invest in US systems and test indigenous prototypes, China and Iran have flown their own first UCAVs. Russia and others are not far behind. Even very modest air forces like Nigeria’s have built their own rudimentary drones. Non-state constructors cannot be far behind. Drone proliferation may define this decade as wireless communications defined the last.

Militarisation of the greater Middle East

If 2013 was the year that the democratic hopes of the Arab Spring unravelled, 2014 may be the year that it turns to regional war. Libya appears to be at the vanguard, although there remains a chance that it could follow Yemen’s path of dialogue and isolate its increasingly prominent radical fringe. Egypt’s generals have learned nothing from Algeria’s tragic past and the leaden Mubarak years. Iraq’s Maliki regime still believes it has nothing to learn from Syria’s sectarian implosion, continuing to marginalise a Sunni minority.

Neither the US, UK nor France is likely to want to overtly intervene in the inferno of Syria or the escalating crises of Iraq, Libya and Egypt; plenty of others will. Meanwhile, the Sahara is becoming steadily more militarised. France has just announced a major repositioning of its forces in Africa out of their urban and coastal bases and into the Sahel to hunt and destroy al-Qaida affiliates. Ever since 2009, US special forces, drone operators and private contractors have been quietly moving from Djibouti across the Sahel and Horn, increasingly sharing facilities with France.

Transition tensions

Away from the Middle East, 2014 could be a year of democratic consolidation among rising powers. No less than eight of the 15 largest emerging economies expect to hold elections this year and a couple more are already polarising around polls due in early 2015.

India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Thailand and Egypt all plan to hold elections this year, in the wake of major protest movements in 2013. New parties from the margins are shaking up politics in India and South Africa, potentially increasing instability as the establishment fights back. Thailand is already politically paralysed as its metropolitan establishment lashes back at the populist aspirations of the rural majority. Turkey could see something similar if, as expected, conservative premier Erdogan seeks the presidency in August. Emerging giants Brazil and Indonesia will probably weather their elections better but nonetheless will be distracted.

While 2014 may not be a peak year for economic growth or political stability among regional powers, overall the longer-term trend looks positive – marginalised groups, whether from the middle or working classes, asserting their rights and taking a stand against corruption and environmental degradation.  With notable exceptions in Egypt, Thailand and perhaps Turkey, there is a deepening of democratic culture, whether or not civil society is fully respected, in many major developing states and significant incidences of demilitarisation and respect for rights.  However, many of the biggest of them – Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Argentina to name just the democracies – are major oil, food and timber exporters with structural incentives to resist, for example, international efforts to restrict carbon emissions. 

Elections to the European Parliament in May and the US Congress in November may be less encouraging. The Tea Party trend and the rise of populist nationalism will continue squeezing progressive policy options on both sides of the North Atlantic.

2014 as prelude to 2015

Finally, 2014 is the year in which much of the work has to be done to prepare for the potentially landmark policy processes of 2015, each of which will have significant impact on future global security. For the UK, this includes the political parties setting their manifesto commitments ahead of the May 2015 general election and preparations for the ensuing review of National Security Strategy and Defence and Security Review. Three international processes also stand out.

For arms reduction there is the quinquennial Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, due next May. Difficult debates are expected given the Obama administration’s focus on superiority in strategic conventional weapons.

For climate change the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is to set a new universal climate agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions after 2020. This will extend emissions targets from industrialised to developing countries but faces huge hurdles in overcoming resistance from energy lobbies and climate change sceptics in the most powerful states.

To address development there is also the culmination of the Post-2015 Development Agenda process to supersede the Millennium Development Goals and forge a new agenda with the Sustainable Development Goals. This is a massive project and there remains much to be done to ensure that conflict-affected states are not left behind, as they have been by the MDGs, and that the new agenda tackles inequality as a crucial part of achieving sustainable human security and development.

2014, then, is a time for looking backwards and forwards. While the dynamics of the war on terror are still very much in play, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the re-escalation of violence in Iraq and Libya present an opportune context for sincere reflections on the disastrous consequences of war without borders. Such inquiry needs to look forward too, to the implications of the current administration’s ‘war-lite’ and the unstoppable proliferation of remote control technologies.

This is also the year where we have the chance to get the agenda right for the big international policy decisions of 2015. Looming elections may make it a difficult year for politicians in the US, Europe and many emerging powers to show leadership on such controversial issues. Thus, 2014 will be an important year in deciding whether we continue to control the symptoms of global insecurity or whether we begin to address seriously the inequalities and injustices that underlie it. 

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