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Openness and security: an editorial introduction

openSecurity's editor explores the themes of openness and security in an introduction to the new section.

Openness and security seem two diametrically opposed states of being.

Security has been at the heart of the idea of statehood since people organised themselves into collective groups. Hobbes went so far as to claim that the quest for a sense of security is the key to understanding the foundation of all nations. We were driven to reject the anarchic state of nature by insecurity, Hobbes claimed, and although Rousseau led a long line of objections to this view, it is Hobbes who prevails. Willingly or not, we have submitted the task of our protection to the leviathan that is the state; a blank cheque with the single condition that we are preserved from intolerable levels of violence. 

While security in the philosophical cannon is understood as that which brings us together and defines the meaning of statehood, it is perhaps the most concealed and exclusive activity in the practice of politics. War remains a prerogative of the executive in the UK and in that of many other claimants to the title of democracy. Access to information is denied 'for security reasons'. "Security" has been the reason offered for all sorts of infringements of liberty since 2001. In less politically free societies, budgets for defence have remained off limits to parliamentary, let alone common, scrutiny, and the mere public mention of 'the army' can prompt arrest. We have the greatest stake in the thing in which we have the smallest say. The contemporary function of security is thus also paradoxical.

Does this lack of openness make us more secure? The paternal state takes all manner of actions, we are told, to 'keep us safe'. Certainty in the ethics and purpose of our representatives, essential for our common security, can only be achieved by openness and dialogue. What is needed; since it is our security that is at stake, is to open up the actions states take on our behalf to public debate and to provide a point of interaction between the relatively closed group of people who can be said to have any influence on the course of security policy and the great mass of people in whose name they act. That is the what openSecurity aims to do.

By cultivating a place for the exposition and examination of ideas, it is hoped that change will be effected, and that this change will be beneficial. All policy is based on the ideas held by the class that make policy. To pick up on Tony Curzon Price's editorial earlier this week, realism, whatever its advocates claim, is in this sense as much an example of idealism as have been the hopes of utopians throughout history. It is only its dominance that makes realism a reality rather than a partisan ideal.

To change the order of the world either the people or the ideas must be replaced. The two cling to eachother, entrenched by bureacuracy and tradition. Ideas assume their place in the landscape of the state and become so engrained that it is difficult to envisage that landscape without them, a perennial disadvantage to idealists. Overturning the assumption of power is difficult, whether it is a political elite or an idea that is the target, but it is possible.

The significance of an idea to the international pattern of human activity is illustrated well by an example from economics. Mercantalism was the dominant economic ideology of states before the era of free trade. The economic role of the state as a maximiser of its own prosperity at the expense of others was revolutionised by an idea, however we might want to revise it in the light of global recession, that open markets would benefit each and every economy and that the sum would exceed the wealth of the parts alone. Incredible structures have grown up to support the life of such an idea and make it a reality, changing the world beyond recognition. The idea of the free market has morphed into an assumption built into the fabric of the economic world.

Whether such an open model can be attained in the world of security is doubtful, but there are in small and privileged corners of the globe signs of hope. Belgium, a country once renowned as the battleground of Europe, is now the heart of a geographically small domain where peace has become an assumption and the violent resolution of interstate rivalry unimaginable. Yet its states do not deign to allow outsiders the same privileges they afford one another, and those who seek refuge here from the storm outside are discouraged and maltreated. When European states look outward, the opposition of openness and security reasserts itself, and Europeans are told they can have secure borders or they can have open borders, but that the two are again incompatible.

openSecurity exists to promote engagement with these ideals of openness and security, their meaning and the ways in which both can be maximised without infringing on one another. We will seek to continue to engage with these ideas, while providing accurate and incisive information on more immediate threats to security and openness around the world.

About the author

Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal is a journalist, security analyst and historian. His research centres on intercultural perceptions in the near and middle east and their impact on British imperial policy. He is the editor of openSecurity, openDemocracy's international security coverage section.


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