Britain’s national insecurity strategy

UK government policy is built on a long list of potential risks ‘out there’, but that’s no substitute for a political programme.

Tara McCormack

Topics Politics

Though it has attracted little comment, the development of the United Kingdom’s National Security Strategy (NSS) is a significant new aspect of British foreign policy.

Unlike the US, the UK has traditionally not had an official, codified national security strategy. Yet over the past two years the UK has not only published the National Security Strategy, but has also followed this up with a number of important, associated documents: the National Risk Register, the Strategy for Countering International Terrorism (known as Contest II), and the National Security Update 2009. It is currently preparing the National Security Strategy II, which will develop themes from the NSS and is due to be released later this year. A Cabinet Secretariat for National Security has also been set up.

Central to these documents is the presumption that the contemporary security environment is dominated by great complexity and uncertainty, and so the government must be ever vigilant and prepared for the worst. The Conservative Party appears intent on adopting a similar approach to national security. It has also talked about the need for a comprehensive security strategy and reform. Indeed, party leader David Cameron’s main critique of the NSS is that it would not be effective without a proper national security council.

The idea that crisis and potential catastrophe might actually serve as an opportunity for political action rather than as something to be avoided is not new, having become an increasingly important motif in contemporary Western politics from the 1990s onwards. However, this is a form of politics that can only further erode the legitimacy of states, which are already increasingly uncertain about the way forward. Unfortunately for our political elites, the question of what is ‘out there’ (or potentially out there) cannot in itself generate a programme for action. What is missing in all of this is a clear, domestic political programme that can direct the state about how to react to, or pre-empt, events.

While critics of Western foreign policy have focused on the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the Iraq debacle, uncertainty, risk and the need to act pre-emptively in order to avert potential catastrophe have dominated thinking about foreign policy and security since the end of the Cold War. The idea is that a myriad of new security threats and problems in the post-Cold War era has eroded the traditional division between domestic and foreign policy and that states will therefore need a strategy of pre-empting problems.

For example, in 1991 the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) announced its New Strategic Concept in which the Cold War institution reorientated itself towards uncertainty, instability and risks that are ‘multi-faceted in nature and multi-directional, which makes them hard to predict and assess’. In his inaugural address in 1993, President Bill Clinton warned that, although the post-Cold War world might be freer, it is less stable. New security problems such as AIDS and environmental collapse had rendered irrelevant the old division between foreign and domestic policy. Whilst the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, such as NATO’s involvement in Kosovo, are generally contrasted positively with the later interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rhetoric was largely the same back then: problems ‘over there’ were linked to ‘our’ security. In his famous ‘Doctrine of the International Community’ speech delivered during the Kosovo intervention in 1999, Blair made these points clearly. Our security, he claimed, now depends upon us taking decisive action in the domestic problems of other states in order to ensure that their problems do not spread.

The NSS and related documents carry on these familiar themes. In place of the threat from nuclear war that Britain faced during the Cold War, it is argued that today’s security threats today are heterogeneous, increasingly complex and unpredictable. The security threats presented within the NSS include terrorism, nuclear weapons, organised crime, global instability and failed states, and civil emergencies (which include flu and other infectious disease pandemics, extreme weather events and so on).

In addition to this extensive list, broader ‘drivers of insecurity’, such as climate change, poverty and bad governance, competition for energy and increasing population, connect the threats to each other and to us. The traditional conception of national security as the protection of the vital interests of the state from military attacks by other states is now regarded as anachronistic. Instead, the NSS framework, taking an ‘all risks’ approach, monitors all potential threats, including threats to individuals as well as state structures.

This form of policy reflects a lack of a clear domestic political programme. This might seem paradoxical initially. However, a major problem for contemporary Western political elites since the end of the Cold War has been the absence of a strong political vision. The 1990s were marked by what might be understood as a withdrawal of the ‘public’ from public life in Europe and America and the erosion of old collective institutions, as discussed by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone.

In response, New Labour (and Clinton’s Democrats) sought a political centre ground, eschewing the old class-based politics. While the term ‘third way’ has fallen out of favour, the underlying description holds true for Gordon Brown’s New Labour and David Cameron’s Conservatives, the latter now operating under the strange banner of ‘progressive conservatism’. However, in the absence of an overarching political programme or outlook, what exactly is the state defending?

It is in this context that an ‘all risks’ approach seems to make sense. The assumption is that by identifying a long list of potential threats, some kind of strategy will present itself. Unfortunately, foreign policy does not work like that; foreign policy is not about what is ‘out there’, but primarily about what is ‘in here’. A policy based upon uncertainty and potential catastrophe cannot provide any firm foundation for strategy.

Rather, because policy becomes entirely fluid, dependent on any threats that arise, this risk-based politics ultimately serves to increase uncertainty. Such a flexible outlook may seem endlessly useful, putting a government in the happy position of being able to claim success for things that did not happen. But it also leaves the government open to criticism that, for example a military intervention, has itself created new threats. Hence many critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles have argued that far from increasing our security, such pre-emptive interventions have damaged it by creating radical, angry Muslims with a desire to attack the West.

The NSS and related documents may ultimately undermine a government’s legitimacy. The vast list of potential threats will either increase broader feelings of insecurity, or will be largely ignored, placing the government in a position where it must continually issue strategy updates and ever more shrill claims about security threats.

It is not just in terms of foreign and security policy that the language of risk and potential catastrophe has been eagerly adopted as a policy framework. Environmental politics is a good example of the same dynamic. And recently, the economic crisis has also seemed to present Western governments with a sense of purpose. During the early months of the Obama presidency, when the financial crisis was at its height, Obama’s pugnacious chief of staff Rahm Emanuel quipped that you should never let a serious crisis go to waste. What he meant was that a crisis gave one the opportunity to do things that one might not otherwise be able to do. At the start of the financial crisis Gordon Brown also seemed positively to embrace the imminent collapse of capitalism, arguing that it provided an opportunity to remake the world order. French president Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that the financial crisis could serve as a vehicle to reinvigorate and rescue the Western state.

However, the hope that a crisis in itself can serve to generate a clear direction for policy is based upon a misunderstanding of the relationship between politics and events. With their emphasis on reacting to circumstances, both the Obama administration and the New Labour government have found themselves unable to generate any long-term enthusiasm or clear political direction.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Tara McCormack looked at how America has consistently sought moral authority through foreign affairs. Frank Furedi argued that Britiain is making itself a terrorist target by advertising its vulnerability. In conversation with Brendan O’Neill, Furedi described the war on terror as a symmetry of confusion. Elsewhere, O’Neill suggested that Gordon Brown was obsessed by security long before he became prime minister. Munira Mirza showed how ‘homegrown terrorists’ are a product of Western self-loathing. Mick Hume suggested Islamic terrorism is real, but overstated as a threat to our society. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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