The Lib-Cons’ national insecurity strategy

Just like the New Labour government, the Lib-Con coalition has no idea which interests to pursue or protect.

Tara McCormack

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Topics Politics

A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: that is the title of the UK coalition government’s new national security strategy (NSS), released this week.

There are two things that stand out about the document and the official commentary that has accompanied it. First, the government has wrongly suggested that publishing a NSS is something entirely original and unprecedented. Second, the NSS reveals, not that the Lib-Cons have a clear sense of the national interest or that they are pursuing a clear ideological agenda, but that there is a vacuum at the heart of the government.

When the NSS was unveiled, the international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, told the BBC that it was a first for a UK government – a claim that is also boldly made in the introduction to A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty. This is patently not true. In 2008, the New Labour government released the UK’s first ever codified NSS, and a series of related documents, such as a national register of risks. An update of the NSS was published the following year. Moreover, the content of the new NSS is, in essence, a rephrased version of the New Labour NSS.

Both the Labour and the Lib-Con versions state that the role of the NSS is to address how the government can assert and protect British interests in the world. Both stress that the threats the UK faces are complex, fluid, ever-changing and uncertain. The coalition government is a little late to catch on to the idea that we are entering an age of uncertainty – this has been the dominant motif of security statements since the end of the Cold War. The only certain thing in an age of uncertainty, states the current government, is that the unexpected will happen. So, that clears that up then…

Both the New Labour and Lib-Con strategy documents stress that, in this new uncertain era of flux, there is no longer a clear division between the domestic and the international spheres, and that a ‘whole government’ approach is needed. In place of the Cold War era’s overwhelming threat of nuclear attack from the USSR, both documents offer a wide and heterogeneous list of potential problems and threats, beginning with terrorism and moving on to nuclear proliferation, international crime, pandemic flu, coastal flooding, internal conflict in weak states, environmental change, population growth, energy scarcity, the rise of new powers, and so on.

The New Labour NSS was criticised for not being a strategy at all. It lacked an essential ingredient of strategy, namely a hierarchy of threats and priorities. It was simply a long list of all the bad things that could potentially be out there. The coalition government has clearly taken heed of this criticism as it has divided its list into three ‘tiers’. Yet each of those ‘tiers’ contains a heterogeneous mix of potential problems, from terrorist attacks to coastal flooding. Moreover, the new NSS stresses that all three ‘tiers’ are equally important. So, the critique made of the New Labour NSS applies to the Lib-Cons’ ‘strategy’, too: if everything is a security threat, then nothing is.

As spiked contributor Frank Furedi has pointed out, on a purely practical level, it is irrational to try and comprehend or deal with diverse concerns like pandemic flu, weapons of mass destruction and flooding as one continuum of threats or, indeed, to try and build resilience to all of the above at the same time, as the NSS states is necessary. This contain-all-potential-risks approach clearly suggests an inability on the government’s part to construct a security hierarchy.

But what is motivating the government to address ‘national security’ and ‘national interests’ anyway? Back in 1952, the American political theorist Arnold Wolfers pointed out that one of the problems with these terms is that, although they seem to clarify matters, in fact they only raise more questions than they answer. That is because the definition of national interest and, by extension, working out how to protect or pursue that interest through national security, is meaningless in itself and cannot direct foreign and security policy. The national interest is something that changes with time, as the state and society change. What each state’s national interest might be, and how it might protect and pursue them, must derive from the social, economic and political content of the state itself.

Therefore, national security has traditionally had a conservative function: to protect and promote a certain political and economic order. It is that political order that must come first and that must guide policy. The vast list of heterogeneous threats listed in the New Labour NSS suggested a government without any clear political or ideological programme. The new government’s NSS reveals the same about the coalition government. What the vast list of heterogeneous threats in the current NSS suggests is that this government does not have a clear idea of what it wants to protect.

Everything appears to be a potential threat in a world that is uncertain and fluid. But the world has always been changing. A clear ideological and political domestic framework is what enables the political elite to impose order on the external world – that is, to understand what is a threat to a specific set of political and economic commitments. Simply drawing up a large list of potential problems and sticking the label ‘national security strategy’ on it does nothing actually to direct a government in terms of policy.

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).)

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