Redefining national security for the post-pandemic world

The world has spent the past 30 years trying to redefine ‘national security’ in ways that will allow nation-states to prepare for and tackle a wider range of threats to our existence and wellbeing. Alternatively, national security has been juxtaposed with ‘human security’, again in an effort to focus money and energy on dangers to humanity as much as to national sovereignty.

But those efforts have largely failed, and it’s time to try a new approach. Instead of widening our definition of national security, we need to start narrowing it. That means distinguishing national security from global security and putting military security in its place alongside many other equally important but distinct priorities.

We must begin by asking four essential questions: What or who is being protected? What threat or threats are they being protected against? Who is doing the protecting? And how is protection being provided?

In its classic form, national security involves protecting nation-states from military aggression. More precisely, as Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter states, it’s about preventing or countering ‘the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state’.

Nation-states now face other threats, including cyberattacks and terrorism, although such attacks generally must be sponsored by one state against another to threaten a country’s territorial integrity or political independence. Hence, these threats really qualify as subsets of military security. Climate change, on the other hand, poses an existential threat to many island states as a result of rising sea levels, and similarly endangers already arid countries by contributing to desertification and water scarcity.

Moreover, whereas the world of 1945 was almost entirely defined by nation-states, today’s security experts must also focus on threats that transcend national borders. Unlike military aggression, phenomena such as terrorism, pandemics, global criminal networks, disinformation campaigns, unregulated migration, and shortages of food, water and energy don’t necessarily threaten the political independence or territorial integrity of a particular state. But they do endanger the safety and wellbeing of the world’s people.

The distinction between national and global security is not just semantic. It goes to the heart of the third question: who is doing the protecting? National security is the province of national governments, and of a fairly small group of homogeneous people within them who traditionally have focused almost entirely on military security. Those establishments have expanded in recent years to take account of issues like cybersecurity, health security and environmental security, but only at the margins.

Thinking in terms of global security, by contrast, opens the door to participation by a far wider group of people—starting with mayors and governors, who are directly responsible for the safety and welfare of the residents of their states, provinces and cities. Since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, for example, US city and state officials have been actively engaged in preventing and protecting against future attacks. They are as likely to talk to their counterparts around the world as national diplomats or defence officials are.

Even more broadly, global security has no official designees. CEOs, civic groups, philanthropists, professors and self-appointed leaders of every description can launch and join efforts to keep all of us safe. Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis has provided many instances of effective leadership from sources other than national governments.

For example, while the US and Chinese governments have used the pandemic to ratchet up bilateral tensions, myriad international networks of researchers, foundations, businesses and government agencies have been working together to develop treatments and vaccines for Covid-19, with little concern for nationality.

Broader participation in global security efforts will also increasingly dissolve the boundary between ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ affairs and policy. Health, environment, energy, cybersecurity and criminal justice have all traditionally been seen as domestic matters, with foreign-policy and security experts regarding defence, diplomacy and development as entirely separate realms involving relations between countries and international organisations. But this distinction will progressively crumble.

These shifts will in turn create opportunities for a vastly more diverse range of people to sit at the table on global security issues. Despite some gradual changes in conventional military domains in recent years, far more women and people of colour occupy prominent positions in city governments and in fields like health and environmental protection, including environmental justice.

The final piece of the puzzle is how to provide global security. Traditional military security is ultimately focused on winning. But many global threats primarily call for greater resilience—that is, less winning than withstanding. As Sharon Burke of New America has argued, the goal is more to build security at home than to destroy enemies abroad.

We certainly still want to ‘win’, if winning means prevailing over a virus or eradicating a terrorist cell or disinformation network. But the deep nature of global threats means they can be reduced, but almost never eliminated. Arming people with the means to recognise and avoid danger, survive trauma and adapt to new circumstances is a better long-term strategy.

Nearly twice as many Americans have now died of Covid-19 than died in the Vietnam War. But many national leaders in the US and elsewhere remain focused on great-power competition, and appear less concerned with the pandemic’s mounting death toll than with distracting domestic publics by pointing fingers at other countries. And yet the lessons of this crisis will loom large in how we think about and provide for our security in the future.

That will be particularly true for younger generations. New America’s Alexandra Stark, for example, argues that Covid-19 is her generation’s 9/11. Instead of the highly militarised anti-terrorism response that the US adopted in the wake of those attacks, she calls for a new grand strategy ‘fundamentally oriented around human wellbeing’, refocusing on human health, prosperity and opportunity. That sounds like security to me.