The cluttered security agenda
8 Jan 2015|

Swan PathwaysI’m grateful to Kym Bergmann for his recent post on the Prime Minister’s surprise visit to Iraq during bushfire season here in Australia. For one thing, Kym puts on the agenda the whole issue of how we weigh different sorts of security threats and why some get more attention and others less. I take Kym’s post as a plea for greater attention—and resources—to be devoted to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. And he’s likely correct that if it was my family’s lives and home in danger from approaching bushfires I might well think saving them a greater priority than combatting a radical extremist group in Syria and Iraq.

Still, I find myself in broad disagreement with his argument. And that’s because I think challenges from actors who are deliberately trying to change the strategic order are different to those from events (or ‘actors’) who are indifferent to change in the order. I think that judgment remains true even when the indifferent actors kill more people. For example, compare World War I with the 1918-19 Spanish flu. The flu killed more people than WWI, indeed, roughly twice as many, though statistics vary wildly. And its effects were felt across broad swathes of the globe, including Asia, largely untouched by the war. But students in school today are still much more inclined to learn about the war than about the flu. Why? Because one is a geopolitical event and the other a health issue. Putting it in more Clausewitzian terminology, one’s about violence that has political meaning and the other’s about sickness and death.

Death, even in large numbers, isn’t by itself sufficient to get strategists excited. Strategy isn’t about putting a stopper in death. People die every day. It’s politics that gets strategists excited and, in particular, the prospect that orders might change as an outcome of the deliberate and calculated use of force. Why that fixation on order? Because, from an Australian point of view, a stable, liberal prosperous security order is a good thing in and of itself. In the long run, it improves—and saves—lives. And it gives us the time and resources to respond to other issues.

That doesn’t mean strategists are negligent as to whether their country has a robust health system, or good fire-fighting capabilities, especially during bushfire season. Nor does it mean they believe sensible preparations to minimise loss of life and property are wasted. But a bushfire is what it is. A flu virus is what it is. Neither ‘actor’ intends to impose a new strategic order—whether on a country, a region, or the world.

Still, Kym is surely correct that a wider range of issues are now making their presence felt on national and international security agendas. Indeed, since the 1980s two trends have become steadily more prevalent in academia: a ‘broadening’ of the definition of security to include non-military threats alongside military ones, and a ‘deepening’ of the security referents to include a focus on individual security, group security, regional security, and global security alongside the more traditional interest in the security of nation-states. The argument in favour of broadening and deepening is that security should be about more than military threats to states. The argument against it is that it makes for a cluttered, unwieldy agenda.

Australia has to take an interest in the strategic transformation under way in Asia: new great powers are rising, shifting intra-regional balances and prospectively the regional security order. Moreover, it can’t be indifferent to developments beyond its region, particularly in relation to the rise of revisionist great powers or the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And it has to react to the rise—courtesy of power diffusion—of a new strategic player: the militant non-state actor, empowered by globalisation and technology, able to reach out through social media to inspire other individuals and groups half a world away. Now add to that list the worries that typically make it on to the expanded security agenda, including transnational crime, unregulated people movements, natural disasters, and epidemics. Globalisation typically makes those problems worse too—as we’ve recently seen in relation to the Ebola epidemic in west Africa.

So, the agenda’s cluttered. What’s to be done? I’d recommend approaching the problem via Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. Briefly, the law states, ‘the larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate’. In short, the answer to every problem can’t be ‘let’s use the ADF’. As security challenges mount, we’ll need to have in place the variety of institutions and responses that let us cope with them. Thankfully, we don’t need to start from scratch. Australia already has in place a range of emergency services and institutions that help to spread the load, as it were. But there’s no such thing as perfect security. And disengaging from distant problems the better to fight bushfires at home might not be a recipe for a more secure Australia.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user danbruell.