Re-thinking security, part 1

On 25 february UTSYN (Forum for foreign and security policy debate in Norway) in cooperation with NOF (Norwegian Officer Association) hosted a seminar addressing the most recent proposal for Norway’s long-term defence plan. The debate, which is the first of a series, is an important one. It should attract the attention of many people, well beyond the «particularly interested» or armed forces geeks.

Given that the focus of the debate Norwegian long-term defence plan, the discussion might be forgiven for resembling debates of the Cold War era, hearkening back to territorial defence, sufficient troops and materiel, and the role of a small state caught between two greater powers. Though these concerns are all still relevant, «the times they are a changin.’»

Journalists and scholars suggest that levels of regional and global insecurity are higher than they have been in years. A form of US-Russia confrontation is back, though the relationship is significantly different than before. Other states including China and India are increasingly becoming grand geopolitical players, most recently on display with the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. What is the relevance of average people in these high power games?

Conflict, defence and security are no longer the sole purview of militaries. Indeed, as much as our borders need defending in the (thus far) unlikely event that they would be breached by a foreign power, there are much easier and cheaper ways to create conflict today than using a tank.

In many cases today the goal is not necessarily to conquor or occupy another state through the use of force. Rather, the goal is to destabilise. Destabilisation means to weaken the capacities of states, societies, and people to negotiate and manage their security needs. Destabilisation is cheap in cost, and difficult to attribute responsibility. Today’s threats and attacks that lead to destabilisation are commonly referred to as «hybrid». Today’s target is as much people and societies,  as it is borders.

Security perspectives need to include our «everyday» lives, as security involves everyday people. Security is about being free from worry. This pertains to all of us, not just states. We often hear about the worries and fears of the state machinery, which responds to such fears through the use of force. Comprehensive understanding of security, which state security perspectives usually are not, include not only security perspectives from the citizenry but also security responses that do not rely on force. Non-force based responses are relevant when attacks themselves do not use force, but other means to create instability.

Different state and non-state actors are flexing their «muscles» and using a variety of means – and increasingly non-military means – to increase political instability within states and societies. These threats are «under Article 5 threshold», meaning that they do not immediately mobilise a NATO response because though destabilisation may occur, it is very difficult to identify the source.

It is difficult to know who is the attacker, either because they are not obvious, or it is easy for accused attackers (state or non-state) to deny it because the link between threat and attacker is not clear. Threats or attacks are not necessarily single events, but can be a combination of disinformation events that wear down trust in authorities and society. It can include sporadic cyber attacks on services and infrastructure, recruitment drives to extremism or violence, and contribute to societal and/or political unrest.

Our reliance on well functioning and immediate services including electricity, water, everything we do on the internet including personal data sharing and our banking, can make us vulnerable when these services are down or hacked. Our politics can also make us vulnerable if we do not have the skills and mechanisms to deal with disagreement, and we become a polarised, fragmented and contempt-based society as a result.

Though propaganda and targeting of civilian infrastructure is not necessarily new to warfare, it is now more pervasive than before. Access across borders, to diverse interests groups and populations, is easier than ever due to digital means. These means for creating threats are increasingly non-military in character, attempting to destablise societies and increase vulnerabilities by exacerbating political cleavages, often targeting vulnerabilities that already exist in a society. Militaries cannot defend against this. And average citizens are easy targets.

For example, malware attacks on mobile devices are on the rise. Personal data information is leaked through apps to which we give enormous permissions (think about all that long text you don’t want to read and just click «I agree»). Unsecure wifi and phishing attacks (links contained in legitimate-looking emails but are not) make mobile users more vulnerable. These attacks target us because we are the weak spot.

This means we need a comprehensive understanding of security that goes beyond the narrow perspectives of the state. Individual, local, regional and national insecurity cannot be easily separated, especially in crisis situations. These different security perspectives may not always be complementary – indeed, perceptions of security at local levels might not coincide with national perspectives, depending on how a crisis evolves. As well, defence against such threats or attacks are not just military, but rely very much on civilian capacities.

Norway has dusted off a Cold War defence concept, Totalforsvarskonseptet, which attempts to address the important interplay and coordination between the military and civilians in national defence. The concept assumes that militaries and defence departments are not fully equipped to handle potential threats without civilian assistance. It is also a powerful acknowledgement that solely military solutions to conflict are inadequate. It remains to be seen however how well the concept functions in a heavily digitalised and civilian-targeted environment.

In part 2 of this editorial I will raise questions about assumptions regarding “civilian resilience,” what is needed for “modern deterrence,” and how this might affect preparations for “total defence”.

This text is also available in Norwegian here. 

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