Security through armed force?
Politicians often talk about “security”. It is often said that providing security for a country and its people is the “first duty of government”. But what do they mean by security?
Unfortunately, in the UK, as in the US and many other countries, what they usually mean is “national security”, with a powerful military equipped with all the latest advanced weaponry, ready to wage war in various parts of the world. It also means surveillance and control measures at home, supposedly to counter the threat of terrorism, and militarised controls at the UK’s borders.
This narrow way of thinking about security, which focuses on military responses, is part of a set of ideas often called “militarism“. The reality is that most of the threats people face, in this country and worldwide, cannot be dealt with by military means, and what really gives people security has very little to do with the firepower of their country’s armed forces.
In fact, attempts to solve global problems by military force this century have been total disasters for the security of people, most of all in the countries affected, but also in the UK and the West.
Alternative ways of thinking
The traditional “national security” way of thinking treats the nation as a single actor with clearly-defined interests, whose security is guaranteed by its power and influence in the world, especially military power.
The human security approach starts at the level of individuals and communities, and the things that threaten their security and well-being. These may vary a lot between different groups within a country. Threats include armed violence, from foreign countries, armed groups or criminal gangs, but also from domestic violence, or the country’s own security forces.
Human security also includes, for example, access to proper nutrition (food security), housing, clean water and healthcare, and security from threats like pandemics, and the impact of climate change.
Sustainable security builds on the human security idea, emphasising the need for long term thinking – policies and systems must provide security not just now, but in the future. The report Rethinking Security, by the Ammerdown Group (a coalition of NGOs and think tanks) lists the five main threats to sustainable security worldwide, below. Campaign Against Arms Trade would add pandemics to this list.
- climate, the devastating impact of climate change;
- inequality, along with marginalization and exclusion of large groups
- scarcity, namely the rapid depletion of the Earth’s natural resources;
- militarism, the increasing level of great power competition, as well as
the growing influence of militaristic values within society, and;
- violent conflict, which has increased worldwide since 2011, and which
military responses have frequently made worse.
Re-imagining security for everyone
The Rethinking Security report calls for a focus on the long-term, root causes and drivers of insecurity, and sees each nation’s security as interconnected with that of others’. Climate change and Covid-19 clearly show it isn’t possible for one country, or one group of countries, to have long-term security if the rest of the world does not.
Rethinking and re-imagining what we mean by security also means looking at security from the point of view of groups who are often excluded from the discussion, in particular people and communities of colour, refugees and migrants, and those bearing the brunt of the climate crisis (often the same groups). What politicians often think of as sources of security – such as policing and tightly controlled borders – often mean exactly the opposite for these groups, with for example disproportionate levels of surveillance, stop and search, prosecutions or deaths in custody.
Likewise, rethinking security must place the climate crisis front and centre, and go hand in hand with programmes, such as a ‘Green New Deal‘, designed to tackle it. As resources are shifted from military to sustainable security, and as we move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, efforts must be made to shift workers, and their vital skills used currently in these damaging industries, towards new and growing industries that can help provide the solutions that the world needs.