Oxford Research Group Director Dr. John Sloboda launches SustainablySecurity.org

Issues:Climate change, Competition over resources, Global militarisation, Marginalisation

 Swimming Upstream to Sustainable Security

“Extremist violence and terrorist attacks are often the final, murderous manifestations of a long process rooted in helplessness, humiliation and hatred. Therefore, any comprehensive approach has to also address the upstream factors, the conditions that help fuel violent extremism.”  These words come, not from a left-leaning NGO, but from the mouth of John Brennan, a long-serving CIA officer, who is now President Obama’s senior advisor on counter-terrorism.   They come in a major address given last month at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a highly ‘establishment-linked’ Washington think-tank.

These sentiments mark a huge shift in rhetoric and focus from the mindset of the post-9/11 Bush administration. For a spokesperson of the President to suggest that the USA is “committed to using every element of our national power to address the underlying causes and conditions that fuel so many national security threats, including violent extremism. We will take a multidimensional, multi-departmental, multinational approach” seems a million miles from George Bush’s assertion that, "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror." However, sentiment alone is not enough. New thinking requires new kinds of action on the international stage, and concrete signs of such action are few and far between.

Since 9/11 we  have seen year on year increases in military budgets, yet the dominant US-led project funded by these increases has yielded few unambiguous security gains. Despite US troops now beginning to withdraw from Iraq, the violence that has cost the lives of at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians continues; truck bombs and mortars killed 95 people on one day alone in August this year. General Stanley McChrystal, the top US Commander in Afghanistan, last week submitted a review to US and NATO commanders in which he outlined grave concerns about the failure of current strategy there.  The resurgence of the ‘Taliban’ is likely to lead to a separate request that the US administration consider allocating extra troops. For the time being, the focus is not on achieving long-term security, but rather on avoiding immediate and humiliating defeat.
The war on terror has created over 4 million refugees and resulted in the detention of over 120,000 people without trial, some for more than 6 years.  Despite this, the threat of terrorism is no doubt still real; al-Qaeda’s remaining leadership, which has most likely moved across the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan, still wields influence. The Somali al-Shabaab has perhaps come under the sway of such influence and lawless Somalia represents a potential future launching point for terrorist attacks. Although previous attempts to tackle the problem may have prevented terrorist attacks in the short-term, little has been done to eliminate the long-term threat.
It is being increasingly realised that to effectively tackle the security problems the world faces,  resources must be diverted away from military spending towards diplomacy and development to address the conditions that ferment radicalisation amongst the marginalised. But the specific details of how this should best be done are still some way from being articulated, let alone turned into workable policies.   The global financial crisis has meant that military budgets are now under greater scrutiny. In the UK, following the 2010 general election, the new government will hold a defence spending review. The review will provide a key opportunity to reconsider costly projects such as the replacement of trident and the building of two new Royal Navy aircraft carriers. But without clear and compelling alternatives, closely articulated in detail as well as commanding strong public support, governments may squander such opportunities and adopt a “business as usual” approach, tinkering at the margins rather than adopting a fundamentally new approach.   The disappointingly status-quo oriented governmental responses to the global banking crisis of 2008 shows what the default response is likely to be unless there is compelling and persistent encouragement to “step outside the box”.

One task is to demonstrate in necessary detail that diverting money from defence towards diplomacy and development will be cost effective in the long run.  It needs to be established beyond any reasonable doubt that responses that attempt to control the symptoms of insecurity have proved more expensive than responses that address the root causes. For instance, in the 15 years from 1990 to 2005 conflict had an economic cost to Africa’s development of $284billion. As the IANSA, Oxfam, and Saferworld report that identified this figure states: “If this money was not lost due to armed conflict, it could solve the problems of HIV and AIDS in Africa, or it could address Africa’s needs in education, clean water and sanitation, and prevent tuberculosis and malaria.” Whilst widening social divisions, poverty and injustice exist; radical groups are always likely to find recruits amongst the marginalised.

Even with increased resources, such issues cannot be tackled by one state alone, however powerful. Approaches to development must be collaborative. The often-uncoordinated actions of aid agencies and donor countries have at times proved counterproductive. For this reason, another task facing the world is to work out how to productively strengthen the capacity of regional and international organisations. More detailed attention needs to be given to showing how organisations such as the UN can better facilitate co-ordinated efforts of nation states to address the social, economic, and political problems that breed insecurity. Likewise, we need to examine closely how organisations such as the AU and ASEAN can be strengthened to address particular regional issues such as the absence of arms control architecture in the Asian region.

Climate change and competition over resources represent further key challenges to global security. As with marginalisation, there is an increasing realisation that these issues can only be tackled collaboratively.  It has now been broadly accepted that the Climate Conference in Copenhagen must result in an agreement from developed countries to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, and that strong targets are agreed in the short to mid-term (40% by 2020 from a 1990 base). But even these will not be sufficient unless developing countries likewise commit to ambitious reductions in carbon emissions. Is there yet sufficient clarity about how they will be given the appropriate support to do so by their more developed counterparts? 

We face multiple resource crises, of food, water, and energy.  The International Energy Agency has suggested that oil supplies are likely to peak as early 2020 and an ‘oil-crunch’ is likely to occur this decade.  Competition over resources may escalate and become more aggressive.  To avoid early resource conflict, ambitious proposals such as Professor John Matthews’ bio-pact need to be developed and promoted within the international system so that robust and credible solutions are to hand as the situation becomes more critical.

If we are to avoid future global disaster on an epic scale, then the step change in security thinking that has already begun must result in the adoption of sustainable security policies that encompass the principles of collective, human and just security.  Left to follow their own momentum, governments are unlikely to fully embrace sustainable security.  When seen primarily through the lens of national interest, sustainable security concepts will tend to be appropriated (and diluted) as means to sustain the status quo and existing power relations.   If sustainable security is to become an end, with the security of humanity in its totality as the goal then community groups, faith groups, NGOs, and many other elements of civil society (including journalists) must coordinate their efforts to promote such policies. John Brenner’s call for security policies to “swim upstream” is admirable, but unless this call propels us far beyond national interest, the rapid current of realpolitik is likely to dump us all far downstream.  We hope that this new website will provide a focus for swimming strongly and persistently upstream.