Ten theses on security in the 21st century

What have we learned from the openSecurity experience as the section goes into hiatus? A lot. But governments, police and military, surveillance agencies? Not so much.

Robin Wilson
6 July 2015

The openSecurity section of openDemocracy was established in 2012 with the support of the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (RNMFA). Norway has embraced a peace policy in international relations, as with the 1995 Oslo accords on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And its government reacted to the most lethal politically-motivated attack in Europe in the last decade, the Utøya massacre of 2011, not with ‘war on terror’ rhetoric but—as famously encapsulated by its then prime minister (and now NATO head), Jens Stoltenberg—a commitment to ‘more democracy, more openness and more humanity’.

But this has, sadly, been the exception which has proved the rule. On the wider canvas, the end of the cold war, which promised a world without dividing lines, has instead seen Islamism replace Stalinism as the ‘other’ to US-led imperial might in an increasingly Manichean struggle, in which the events of ‘September 11’ look more like a landmark than a beginning or an end. And the parallel snowballing crisis of globalised neoliberalism, which could yet issue in a more self-managed, networked society, has so far been matched only by a ratcheting up of the surveillance of the citizen and the suppression of NGO-led dissent, most dramatically in the bouleversement in the Arab world between democratic ‘spring’ and dictatorial ‘winter’.

Marx used the analogy of the camera obscura to describe how the world as observed could appear to be on its head. And if there is one thing openSecurity has done it has been to show that ‘common sense’ understandings of ‘security’ are often upside-down. Keynes explained the ‘paradox of thrift’ by which fiscal policies reducing demand, while apparently obvious reactions to economic shocks, could simply exacerbate them. And the hundreds of articles published by openSecurity over the years have demonstrated a ‘paradox of security’, whereby purportedly self-evident authoritarian reactions to threats to the state have merely fostered a spiral of violent regression.


Protecting the state over against the citizen doesn't make anyone feel safer. Flickr / Jackman Chiu. Some rights reserved.

This paradox can be captured in ten theses:

1. The focus of security in a democratic society should be the citizen, not the state. ‘Terrorist’ is a largely meaningless label, applicable only to those violent organisations which not only seek to dominate without popular consent but also attempt to intimidate the public at large by the deterrent effects of egregious violence. It has become, however, a catch-all concept in official discourse—except, critically, where one’s own government is implicated—fundamentally as a legitimisation of the abrogations of human rights and the rule of law characteristic of states of emergency. Yet states are only legitimate in as far as they provide collective solutions to problems which individuals cannot solve on their own—the ‘security dilemma’ being one—and so merely eat away at their own Weberian authority, as exercising a monopoly of legitimate force, by acting over and against the citizen, as our Whose Police? series showed in spades. And these problems must be defined from the standpoint of the citizen and her needs, not raisons d’état. This is the key insight of the notion of ‘human security’, which also points us to the portfolio of policies which can contribute to (or detract from) security, well beyond the sphere of policemen and soldiers.

 2. Mass surveillance is not only oppressive—it doesn’t even work. If the globalisation of communications, via the internet, has been facilitated by satellite and fibre-optic technologies, these have also allowed an unprecedented potential for mass surveillance, going well beyond national boundaries, as the Snowden revelations have demonstrated and our Future under Surveillance strand of publishing elaborated. There has been much argument since about the fundamental incompatibility of mass surveillance and individual privacy as a human right (not to mention the presumption of innocence), to which the proponents of the Big Brother state have wearily responded (in as far as they have felt obliged to do so at all) that it is only by collecting the ‘haystack’ of available information that the ‘needle’ of the ‘terrorist’ threat can be found. This misses the point that the best place to hide a needle is in a haystack and the best tool to find it is a magnet. In other words, as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has recognised, targeted intelligence-gathering, with the proper judicial constraints, is much more effective than collecting everything just because one can.

 3. A gender perspective is not an optional extra: security cannot be understood without it. In March 2015, Sweden’s (female) foreign minister announced that, on feminist grounds, an arms deal with Saudi Arabia was to be abrogated. While this represented a rare intrusion of gender considerations, eyebrows were only raised because the security domain is so suffused by patriarchy—and not just in Gulf autocracies—that this has become entirely taken for granted. The imbrication of masculinism with nationalism (state and secessionist), organised violence and violent crime means none of these phenomena can be adequately analysed in isolation from it. Equally, the application of ‘men in uniforms’, and their instruments, as the default response to security challenges—even when sub-optimal or even counter-productive to do so—can only be properly scrutinised, and better alternatives advocated, using a gender-sensitive lens. Otherwise, a purblind pursuit of conflict will follow, making spirals of futile violence much more protracted and much more difficult to exit than should be the case, as our Conflict in Context: Colombia case study shows.

 4. Social policies may be far more productive of security than ‘security’ policies. Violence on a social scale is a product of two phenomena, which face their most severe outworking in cheek-by-jowl urban milieux, as our Cities in Conflict series spelled out. First is a stretched social hierarchy (including as stretched by gender), which permits those in elevated positions to believe violence against the Untermenschen is necessary or even legitimate to keep them in their place and those at the bottom thrash out inchoately—often against each other rather than the unreachable elite. Second is social mistrust, which exacerbates security dilemmas as individuals club together under convenient ‘ethnic’ banners and aim to get their retaliation in first. Put the two together, so that members of one ethnic group dominate the state, and the result is the horror—now recorded courtesy of the smartphone—of the routine killing of African-American young men by white police officers. Seen in this context, ‘law and order’ responses which aim merely to shore up a crumbling hierarchy and do nothing to enhance social glue fail to make anyone safer. Hence the United States, for all its prosperity, comes 101st in the Global Peace Index, topped by the egalitarian and socially-comfortable Iceland and Denmark. Indeed, all five Nordics are in the top 11 (out of 162—Syria, inevitably, comes bottom). Not only do their universal welfare states flatten the unequal distribution of market incomes but also they favour high levels of social trust. Austerity policies across Europe have not only undermined welfare and reduced security in the labour market—in the most extreme way in Greece—but have inevitably stimulated street protests and associated oppressive ‘security’ measures.

5. Building walls to keep humanity out makes for less security than hospitality. In the face of the collapse of states in Syria, Libya and elsewhere, massive population movements in search of security are inevitable. Imagining that this is instead due to the ‘pull’ factor of access to a hostile Europe has only led to Canute-like efforts to stop the tide. Within Europe itself, this ‘fortress’ mentality has perversely only fostered insecurity, exploited by xenophobic movements like PEGIDA in Germany—even though this is wholly disproportionate to the minor refugee intake, dwarfed by Syria’s neighbours like Lebanon, which has reacted far more equably with much more modest resources. Even beyond humanitarian considerations, Europe’s refugees by definition contain a high proportion of ‘entrepreneurial’ individuals, given the resilience and improvisation required to make such a risky and demanding journey, who have a major contribution to make to societies willing to welcome them—the dynamism of the US economy in the 20th century was of course built on those celebrated seaborne ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’.

 6. Impartial public authority is key to rebuilding collapsed states, rather than ethnicising government. The default approach of the ‘international community’—the most powerful global powers of the moment—to societies riven by ethnic polarisation following state collapse has, oddly, been to invite ethnic leaders into government, with the predictable effect that the latter treat politics as the continuation of war by other means. Hence the disappointment that ‘peace processes’, such as in Bosnia and Macedonia, have failed to realise expectations. Worse still, the ‘ancient hatreds’ perspective which often underpins such approaches leads merely to avoidance of what are then perceived as intractably ‘tribal’ conflicts in Africa, such as in the Central African Republic and South Sudan—left largely to burn themselves out. What such collapsed states need, above all, is externally-guaranteed impartial public authority—such as well-functioning independent judiciaries—so that ethnic state capture, and its fear, can not continue to sustain antagonism and violence.

7. ‘National security’ is a chimera in a world of ‘really existing cosmopolitanisation’. The ‘realist’ tradition in international relations was based on the same logic as the absence of gun control in the US—in the former president Theodore Roosevelt’s parlance, ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’. Far better, of course, to have no guns at all (as Europe’s far lower murder rate shows) and on the international canvas to agree to ban nuclear weapons, rather than try to sustain the hypocrisies of the nuclear powers vis-à-vis the crumbling Non-Proliferation Treaty. Of course if, as in much US discourse, based on too much exposure to the Hollywood western, violence (by other people) is just an expression of the inherent ‘evil’ of ‘bad guys’, then irrational security policies, such as endless bombing, or policies which just prevent ‘good guy’ casualties, such as drones, will be pursued ad nauseum—despite the ‘collateral damage’ of civilian deaths, which not only breach the laws of war but also act as a recruiting agent for the very forces under attack. A world of ‘really existing cosmopolitanisation’ makes such ‘realism’ profoundly unrealistic: recognition of our interdependence and common humanity is indispensable to building trust on regional and world scales. Absent such trust, only fragmentation, factionalism and fundamentalism beckon.

 8. Universal norms are the only alternative to renewed cold war and a ‘clash of civilisations’. If diplomacy is not merely to be the continuation of war by other means, it requires a common language that can transcend cultural relativism and cui bono considerations. That can only come from universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. These are not ‘western’ values: they are not universally upheld in the ‘west’ (think CIA torture for starters) and nor are they absent in the ‘east’ and ‘south’ (the world’s largest democracy is India). They provide the only consistent moral benchmark against which states (and non-state actors) which believe they can defy accountability for their crimes—illustrated case by case in our States of Impunity series—can be brought to book. They are the essential antidote to ‘west versus the rest’ thinking, whether the alternative be an assertively authoritarian-populist Russia with its masculinist ‘traditional’ values or the misogynist ‘caliphate’ of Islamic State. They are the only basis on which the International Criminal Court can play its full role—for instance by bringing the Israeli state, and Hamas, to account for war crimes in Gaza.

 9. Only global citizenship can make for global security. Syria, on which openSecurity threw a spotlight in our 2013 conference, Syria’s Peace, represents not only a humanitarian disaster. It also encapsulates the incapacity of institutions of global governance to intervene effectively even in protracted conflicts of egregious proportions, given the mutual vetoes in the United Nations Security Council exercised by the great powers emerging seven decades ago from the chaos of the second world war—a process compounded by the retreat into ‘western’ unilateralism embodied by the illegal, and hugely costly, intervention in Iraq. Reform of the UN to match a more polycentric world and a global civil society is unavoidable (and the next secretary-general can not just be another man emerging from a behind-closed-doors deal) if collective solutions are to be found on the world level to states in vertiginous collapse. And while the international ‘responsibility to protect’ has been sullied by the NATO push beyond the UN no-fly mandate in Libya to force ‘regime change’ it remains key to defending civilians under assault from (strictly) terrorist states. If such global intervention, backed by universal norms, is absent, the vacuum will be filled—as by the Saudi air assault on Yemen.

 10. Climate justice is key to a safer world—never mind one that remains liveable. Last but not least is a critical theme openSecurity would have wished to pursue (along with the ‘insecurity of austerity’) had funding permitted. The threat of ‘climate chaos’ hangs over the globe and particularly over the global south, already feeding conflicts like that in Darfur. The Copenhagen summit of 2009 became a classic, bipolar stand-off between the US and China, with the rest of the world—including more ambitious Europe—looking on aghast. This year’s ‘COP 21’ summit in Paris represents something of a last chance for humanity but the huge demonstrations across the globe to coincide with the 2014 summit at the UN showed how the notion of ‘climate justice’ can be a key mobilising agent to unify the global community, too often divided by the co-ordination dilemma of fairly distributing cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. As with gender considerations, a ‘security’ discourse which fails to address ecological questions will lack a complete vocabulary to tell the full story.

openSecurity would like to express its sincere gratitude to the RNMFA for its repeated funding of the section over three years. It is also very grateful to the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust for a further six months of support while attempts to secure successor funding were exhausted. Alas, these came to nought in the end. But it is evident that, even in its brief existence, openSecurity has mapped out, in some depth and detail, a new security paradigm which does not fall foul of the evident empirical failures and normative shortfalls of the hitherto-dominant discourse.

I would like to pay tribute to the staff team I enjoyed, as well as my predecessors as lead editor of the section, the international advisory board and of course the plethora of contributors to openSecurity across the world. Their work is sufficient unto itself as an archived body of material. But let us hope that the baton can be picked up again at some point, as so much more remains to be done.

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