Gordon Brown’s register of risks? Rip it up

By labelling everything from terror to flu as a ‘security threat’, the PM is nurturing a jittery nation. PLUS: Rehabilitating Western meddling.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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Even by the standards of his recent unremarkable performances, British prime minister Gordon Brown’s statement last week, in which he outlined his New National Security Strategy, was unusually banal.

The only significant thing about the statement is that it provided a stark reminder that the Brown government lacks any kind of perspective that might be labelled ‘strategic’. If one carefully examines the PM’s comments on security, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Britain actually doesn’t have a national security strategy. All that Brown has offered is an arbitrary list of potential security threats, and a promise that in the future a ‘national register of risks’ will be made available to the public.

For some time now, officials on both sides of the Atlantic have found it difficult to conceptualise their national security concerns within a clear geo-political setting. Analysts are incapable of outlining a meaningful relationship between the defence of national interests and the promotion of security policies. Brown himself appears to yearn for the good old days, when ‘for most of the last half century the main threat was unmistakable: a Cold War adversary’. Today, the Western political elite finds it difficult even to name its adversary. Far from the clarity of the Cold War days, today governments seek refuge in a rhetoric that is both imprecise and lacking in any actionable orientation. So according to Brown, ‘the nature of the threats and the risks we face have, in recent decades, changed beyond recognition and confound all the old assumptions about national defence and international security’. That’s another way of saying: we haven’t got a clue.

Government policy is based on the idea that, in the absence of clarity about the nation’s adversaries, it is best to treat any source of insecurity as a security problem. As a result, there’s little to distinguish a ‘security threat’ from something that is just ‘uncertain’. This erosion of the distinction between insecurity and uncertainty has led to a situation where the meaning of security expands and expands until it encompasses virtually any ambiguous or risky human experience.

Indeed, the objective of Brown’s New National Security Strategy is to draw up a shopping list of what the PM describes as the ‘great insecurities’. The New Labour government hopes that by linking problems together, in the sense of putting them in the same insecurity basket, security policy will gain some semblance of coherence. There’s nothing surprising in Brown’s list of ‘great insecurities’; it contains all of the usual suspects: war, terrorism, climate change, mass migration, organised crime, disease, poverty. Unfortunately, by treating a diverse range of problems – which hitherto fell under the categories of social policy, policing, health, science and defence – as being qualitatively of the same order, security policy becomes deprived of both focus and meaning.

The New National Security Strategy’s shopping list of threats resonates with today’s cultural imagination, in which almost every human experience is seen as a potential risk and a threat to existence. Recently, debates about security have become a competition of claims-making, as different groups and individuals argue that their pet security concern poses the greatest threat to mankind. Terrorism has become the benchmark by which people measure their own ‘great insecurity’; many try to convince the public that there are even bigger threats to national security and safety than that posed by jihadist conspirators. So Sir Malcom Pitt, who headed a panel of experts looking into the threat of floods in the UK, recently argued that ‘we should be putting [flooding] on a par with the risk of terrorism or an influenza pandemic where we already have national frameworks in place’ (1).

Others disagree. Last year the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, told a criminology conference that ‘climate change would be the biggest security issue of the twenty-first century’ (2). Both the World Bank and the Pentagon have issued reports that suggest climate change is a greater threat than terrorism. A report published by the Oxford Research Group argued that ‘international terrorism is actually a relatively minor threat when compared to other more serious global trends’, including climate change (3). Others accept these doom-laden accounts of climate change but raise the stakes further by claiming that, actually, overpopulation is the principal threat to life on Earth and to the planet itself. In the UK, the Optimum Population Trust is devoted to promoting alarmist propaganda about the security threat of overpopulation (4).

This tendency to package problems as ‘global threats’ leads to the ever-expanding definition of global security. For example, anxieties about international terrorism are no longer mobilised merely to promote the ‘war on terror’ – they are also activated to promote awareness of problems that have little to do with terrorists. So when a report concludes that the spread of HIV is ‘as big of a threat as terrorism’, it is drawing on the cultural resources of the post-9/11 era (5). In the same way, other fear entrepreneurs present their campaigns to reduce poverty as a way of helping to curb international terrorism (6). Even relatively ordinary health problems can be re-branded as major security issues these days. An article on a new study into skin cancer insisted that: ‘Sunbathing is more dangerous than terrorism or crime.’ (7)

How a problem is viewed, and whether something is represented as a problem or a threat at all, is influenced very much by the cultural outlook and the prevailing attitudes of the day. According to one account, HIV/AIDS is a ‘military and security issue’ since it inhibits some governments from sending peacekeeping troops around the world ‘for fear that soldiers deployed abroad may further spread the virus or bring it back to their local communities’ (8). This argument is echoed by Peter Piot, director of UNAIDS, who compares AIDS to terrorism on the basis that the disease can cause poverty and unrest which can lead to cross-border conflict (9). And yet, why AIDS should be conceptualised as a security rather than a health problem is far from clear.

Similarly, infectious diseases such as avian flu have the potential to kill large numbers of people – but why discuss the threat of such diseases as a national security issue rather than as a public health problem? Environmental degradation and climate change, too, may well represent major challenges to human ingenuity. But they are not problems that require military or security solutions – rather they demand technical and political responses.

The mutation of risks into threats

The expansion of the meaning of security is driven by a powerful mood of risk-aversion. Today, uncertainty is looked upon with dread. Instead of regarding future uncertainties as a source of new opportunities, the Western political elite sees only menacing threats. As a result, ‘risk’ has been fundamentally redefined to mean ‘hazard’. From officialdom’s point of view, there is no longer any such thing as a ‘good risk’. The word risk no longer refers to the probability of outcome: instead the r-word has been turned into a danger sign that must be avoided at all costs. Brown’s register of risks sums up today’s worst-case thinking, where a variety of unconnected trends are brought together to legitimate the idea of a new species of risk: New Global Threats.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a growing tendency to link together a wide variety of disparate problems in order to construct a new security agenda. However, by branding every source of insecurity as a ‘security problem’, governments become incapable of developing clearly targeted policies that can deal with the challenges their societies face. Labelling a flu pandemic, flooding, global warming, the epidemic of obesity and, incidentally, terrorism itself as ‘security problems’ does little to assist with the formulation of security policies. Tackling the threat of infectious diseases, for example, requires a very different approach to that taken to engage a military threat against national security.

The danger of Brown’s risk-register approach is that in continually focusing on security, people will start to think of their everyday lives in terms of insecurity. Brown tried to claim that this will not be the case. ‘Our new approach to security also means improved local resilience against emergencies, building and strengthening local capacity to respond effectively in a range of circumstances from floods to possible terrorism incidents’, he said last week. But this is clearly rhetoric without content. The idea that there is a generic capacity to ‘respond’ – which could be utilised to deal with a flood one day, a suicide bomb the next, and climate change the day after that – is testimony to the banalisation of security.

A civilised society would try to define security policy as narrowly and specifically as possible. It would not confuse political and military threats with health and environmental problems. Security comes from having something positive to believe in, something worth protecting, worth fighting for. It is not top-down policies that make communities resilient. Communities demonstrate a capacity to deal with challenges when they understand what it is that binds people together, and when they draw positive meaning from those common bonds. That requires treating people as intelligent grown-ups who possess the potential both to take and to manage risks. A ‘register of risks’ only treats us as fearful children.

Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terrorism: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

by Lee Jones

In their New National Security Strategy, Britain’s disoriented securocrats, desperately ‘scanning the horizons for threats’ to justify their own continued existence, freely admit that their newfound obsession with ‘transnational’ threats and ‘non-state actors… result[s] from the absence of a state-led threat to the UK, which leads us rightly to focus elsewhere’.

The corollary of this is the claim that while past ‘threats to global security came from strong states’, now ‘most of the major threats and risks emanate from failed or fragile states’. Britain’s security and its enjoyment of the liberal peace has allegedly become inseparable from the need for ‘good governance’ abroad, and the key is now held to be the ‘prevention’ of problems, justifying pre-emptive intervention in the affairs of other states, before anything even affects Britain’s security. This has sinister implications for poor, weak states, who can expect from the new National Security Strategy yet more hectoring, interference and intervention.

The strategy document says that Britain ‘support[s] a wide range of interventions’ in weak states to impose the liberal peace, ranging from ‘human rights monitoring’, mediation, and conflict management, ‘using international levers’ to impose peace settlements, ‘supporting reforms’, ‘making clear’ that groups like Hamas must ‘travel away from violence’ to participate in government, and outright ‘military intervention’. And because the strategy is based on ‘values’, not interests, there is no objective limit to where Britain might interfere – only that imposed by the power of other states to resist, like China, with whom engagement is ‘not an option, but a necessity’.

Britain will use multilateral institutions where possible for the ‘legitimacy’ they bestow, declaring its intention to push the EU, UN and NATO to implement Britain’s goals, and to strengthen the World Bank and IMF, two of the most intrusive instruments by which the West regulates the politics and economies of weak states. London demands that the UN develop better ‘criteria’ and a ‘rules-based framework’ to make it easier to intervene to protect ‘vulnerable populations’, to ‘prevent state-breakdown and the descent into violence’. However, because of the UN’s low ‘level of ambition’ and slow ‘response to crises’, Britain retains the option of launching intervention via ‘more flexible alliances, coalitions or bilateral relationships’, which is code for continued ‘partnership’ with Washington, with whom UK forces should ‘be capable of operating closely’.

If this sounds familiar, consider that the strategy document says that ‘strengthened’ EU foreign policy should be based on the ‘successes’ achieved in Bosnia, which has been subject to the rule of EU viceroys, including Paddy Ashdown, while the increasingly futile Afghanistan war has merely ‘reinforced our view that security threats… are best tackled early, at source’. Iraq barely merits a mention in the report, but it is clear that the securocracy has learned nothing from its adventures in the Middle East, either. With this recipe for more interference in weak states, Gordon Brown’s government has announced its intent to be just as interventionist as its ill-fated predecessor.

Lee Jones is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at Nuffield College, Oxford.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi argued that Britain is making itself a target by advertising its vulnerability. In conversation with Brendan O’Neill, he described the war on terror as a symmetry of confusion. Elsewhere, Brendan O’Neill suggested that long before Gordon Brown became prime minister, he was obsessed by security. He also said the 2007 car bombs in London and Glasgow were packed with nihilism. Tim Black reported back from the book launch of Furedi’s Invitation to Terrorism. Munira Mirza showed how ‘homegrown terrorists’ are a product of Western self-loathing. Mick Hume suggested Islamic terrorism is real but overstated as a threat to our society. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

(1) Flood threat on par with terrorism, says expert, Guardian, 18 December 2007

(2) Greenhouse mania, Australian, 29 September 2007

(3) Abbott, C., Rogers, P. and Sloboda, J. (2006) Global Responses To Global Threats; Sustainable Security For The 21st Century, Oxford Research Group

(4) Overpopulation ‘is main threat to planet’, Independent, 7 January 2006; Population Growth ‘Bigger Threat Than Climate Change’, Optimum Population Trust, 20 March 2006

(5) ‘UNAIDS Executive Director Compares AIDS pandemic to Threat of Terrorism, Says E.U. “Has failed” to Deal With Diseases’, The Body, 20 April 2004

(6) Abbott, p.18

(7) Sunbathing ‘more dangerous than terrorism or crime’, Daily Telegraph, 5 August 2005

(8) Abbott et al, p.17

(9) ‘UNAIDS Executive Director Compares AIDS pandemic to Threat of Terrorism, Says E.U. “Has failed” to Deal With Diseases’, The Body, 20 April 2004

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Topics Politics


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