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International security is a political, not a technical, question

Commentary, 4 March 2009
Global Security Issues, Intelligence

By Christopher Coker and Greg Mills

This article first appeared in Business Day, South Africa on 4 March 2009

THERE is never any difficulty getting security practitioners — soldiers, sailors, pilots, police and even the intelligence services — to agree on the mechanics of co-operation. For the common views of security establishments are a product of training, technology and, of course, occasionally sharing mortal danger.

Those at the sharp end of implementing security policy can happily sit down and devise tactical systems to provide networks to support policing, governance and the free passage of trade on which prosperity and, ultimately, security depends. Even a common ranking of the priority of security problems is possible. As speaker after speaker at the recent Bahrain Security Forum noted, a common security agenda should focus on dealing with transnational crime, terrorism and extremism, state failure, piracy, drug smuggling and the scarcity of water and other environmental shortages.

A consensus is also at least rhetorically possible on the means to resolve these problems. Hence platitudes about improving global and regional co-operation, integrating different branches of service (police, intelligence, military), and to developing effective multilateral institutions. Most seem to agree on the need, in fighting terrorism, to drop the language of a 'war' on terror and instead to emphasise strengthened police action.

Instead of a clash of civilisations, there is a set of 'clear challenges that all civilised nations face together'. Speakers thus emphasised the presence of common interests and values, despite the existence of different cultures, history and legal systems.

But all the general agreement hides the three big, if virtually silent, bears in the room: political co-operation, the global economy and the existence of non-state actors.

A spat between the secretary-general of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and the Iranian interior minister hinted at the challenge of politics — of those outside the security services — in seeing the world in the same way. In the light of recent statements in Tehran about Bahrain once being Iran’s 14th province and referring to the Persian nation’s dispute with the United Arab Emirates over three islands, the GCC official warned Iran to curb its 'hostile declarations and irresponsible policies'. The Iranian diplomatically countered by arguing that the 'legitimate' achievement of peace in the Persian Gulf could only be the result of actions by the states of the region — a reference to the presence of the US fifth-fleet base in Bahrain.

Although the Iraqi minister of the interior said that future security 'has to be based on vision and optimism', his colleagues in the region and further afield routinely spend a lot of time focusing on the past in justifying their positions. According to the Iranian, thus, the Gulf’s security problems were due to the presence of the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 'Israeli entity'.

The global economic downturn presents two different challenges, little appreciated — for the moment. It will worsen the fragility of many states, especially in Africa and the Middle East. It will also reduce the means — the cash — available for their resolution. And finally, non-state actors such as Al-Qa'ida — even when state-sponsored — go by different rules, outside the legislated constraints on state behaviour from the United Nations to the World Trade Organisation.

Dealing with these three bears — politics, the economy, and the power of non-state actors — means realising that international security is the art of the politically possible. The military will also have to get used to doing more with less. And if state fragility becomes failure, non-state actors are likely to be an increasing and less tractable part of the global security landscape.

• Drs Mills and Coker attended the Bahrain conference at the invitation of the Royal United Services Institute which co-organised the event.

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