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International Security: We’re Doing it Wrong

UN soldiers provide water at a refugee camp in South Sudan. Photograph: Yna/EPA

UN soldiers provide water at a refugee camp in South Sudan. Photograph: Yna/EPA

Why it’s Time for the West to Lead a Rewrite of the International Security Playbook

Is a re-think of the Western-led international security enterprise needed to respond to a set of interrelated trends that have little to do with conflict between great states and far more to do with dysfunction within fragile states? The candid observer of global security trends might be inclined to respond in the affirmative given the mounting evidence that the West’s responses to vexing security challenges, especially those affecting fragile states, have yielded little positive results. In fact, in many instances, they have made matters worse.

Off-focus in an Age of Persistent Disruption

National security is the practice of protecting the state and its citizens against an assortment of threats through mixed-response statecraft, specifically, using the tools of diplomacy, defense and foreign aid. Conventional wisdom holds that the dominant and potentially most consequential threats to North America and Europe are bellicose nuclear armed rogue states like North Korea and Russia under Vladimir Putin, and of course, nuclear weapons aspirants like Iran. However, a national security orthodoxy centered on “rogues” and expressed in a grand strategy based on cold war logic is well off the mark given that today’s security landscape continues to be shaped to a far greater degree by the drivers of trends like mass migration, terrorism, and climate change than by great powers neo-colonialism.

Further, the West’s well-resourced military enterprise – led by the United States – cannot begin to mitigate, much less resolve, the root causes of the most consequential drivers of 21st century insecurity. In an era where great states conflict is most likely to be fought using the mechanism of finance and trade (e.g., sanctions) vs with destroyer squadrons and Army divisions, the convergence of political dysfunction, underdevelopment, and extremist ideologies, most now be recognized as the premier threat to international peace and stability.

An obsession with readily definable, deterable and trackable “rogues” is counter-productive in an era that is increasingly being defined by trends that have little to do with Putin and Khatami and everything to do with imploding states across the across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The toxic forces circulating within, and emanating from, failing states like Somalia, Sudan Yemen, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, et al., continues to spill across regional borders, and increasingly into the West’s own bowls of prosperity in the forms of terror and mass migration, spiking angst, or at the very least, deep concern, from Albania to Sweden.

Fragile States Spillage – A New Normal

The up until recently under-reported exodus of Western, Northern and Eastern African youth from their tumultuous homelands into Libya (itself a failed state), and across the Mediterranean sea, is an example of fragile states spillage that has the potential to cause chronic social and economic pain across Western Europe. Many Southern European nations with their already sky-high unemployment rates, dismal growth numbers and stressed welfare systems are not prepared to absorb hundreds of thousands of young, low-skilled migrants. Given the worsening conditions across the MENA — to include the deepening desperation — the waves of migrants will be persistent and perhaps even more intense in the years to come.

There is even concern that violent extremist individuals might be mixed in with legitimate African refugees on any of the numerous illegally-operated ferries making the crossing.  The specter of stowaway terrorists amid persistent waves of unskilled foreigners landing penniless and hungry at Europe’s doorway is a stiff wind in the sails of European xenophobia generally, but islamophobia more specifically. One British columnist, in response to the migration crisis, called for “gunboats” to be used on refugees – and referred to the migrants as a “plague of feral humans.” Though this is hardly a representative sentiment of the vast majority of Europeans it does underscore the potential for a nationalistic backlash that could lead to minor or major political reordering across some of the most affected nations.

Fragile states spillage has precipitated a revolution in geo-security affairs that has come as a surprise to national security practitioners. Here, many now find that they are increasingly planning more foreign humanitarian assistance operations than war-fighting operations. But although each of the human insecurity-linked trends are by themselves problematic, some are more concerning than others due to the sheer scope of the problems and their exceedingly long resolution timelines. But perhaps the trend of most concern – one that is the most underappreciated and underreported – is one that should be the easiest to understand and most important to mitigate.

Young boys are usually recruited from within the locality, lured by money and a sense of purpose in fighting for the community [Al Jazeera Media Network & Reuters]

Young boys are usually recruited from within the locality, lured by money and a sense of purpose in fighting for the community [Al Jazeera Media Network & Reuters]

The Raw Materials of Terror

The youth bulge is a stage of development where a country reduces infant mortality but birthrates stay the same or increase. It is a trend that is compounding instability over large swathes of the MENA. In Sub-Saharan and North Africa about 40 percent of the population is under the age of fifteen, and almost 70 percent is under thirty years old. It’s not surprising, then, that there exists a tremendous imbalance between young men in need of meaningful employment and available jobs. Frustrated youth don’t have productive options to choose from, so many are compelled to leave their home countries, join a local illicit network (e.g., gangs), pledge to a terror group or resort to petty crime (the gateway to not-so-petty crime) to satisfy their unmet needs. The net outcome is that before age twenty, many young men become national liabilities versus national assets.

Boys with unmet psychological, spiritual and physical needs across the MENA are ripe for recruitment into violent religio-political groups like Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But this is not the narrative that the architects of the counterterrorism fight want to hear. It causes no small amount of dissonance to learn that the foot soldiers of terror (really, at-risk youth whose communities and countries have failed them) are not innately evil and that most are even be redeemable. However, the itch to be seen as doing something (normally that “something” is lethal) must be scratched in order to appease a fearful public which is largely not aware of the key ingredients of which the transnational “terrorism” concoction is composed.

The youth bulge and other drivers of national instability and insecurity cannot be responded to with the West’s security apparatus. There’s no denying that a robust set of traditional military and intelligence capabilities is needed to deter great states aggression as well as to eliminate bad guys who are imminent threats, however, hard power should be the lesser applied compound in the prescription designed to cure terrorism. Developmental and national capacity building goods and processes  (often referred to as soft power) aimed at improving affected population’s human security represent a way forward that is likely to achieve the best security results over the long term.

President Obama in his 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS) stated, “The use of force is not, however, the only tool at our disposal, and it is not the principal means of U.S. engagement abroad, nor always the most effective for the challenges we face.” Though the administration persistently promises that hard power is not the “principal means of U.S. engagement abroad,” one could be forgiven for being skeptical of this pronouncement after even a cursory review of the national security balance sheet.

Uncle Sam’s military expenditures come in at over twelve times the spending of diplomacy and foreign humanitarian and development programs (more precisely, $610 billion to $50 billion). Surely, the U.S. administration and Congress can do a better job of adjusting spending priorities so that there is a more reasonable balance between hard power spending and the soft power tools that can effectively address the drivers of expanding insecurity in key parts of the world.

A Smarter Approach

Smart Power is a concept first introduced by Joseph Nye (former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Clinton) and centers on investing in alliances and institution building as a means to enhance stability and achieve sustainable security outcomes. When practiced wisely, it is inspired by American core values and informed by scholarly analysis of observable trends versus biases towards a familiar set of threats and trends. Nye shared in a Huffington Post article in 2007 that, “Though the Pentagon is the best trained and best resourced arm of the government, there are limits to what hard power can achieve on its own. Promoting democracy, human rights and development of civil society are not best handled with the barrel of a gun.”

For smart power to gain traction, conventional notions of national security must yield to a far broader, nuanced and fact-fueled understanding of threats to international security. New goals, doctrines and strategies together would form the basis of a new international security orthodoxy, which brings closer to its center human security concerns. The premise that international security can be preserved principally with conventional war prowess must be discredited and more balanced and sensible framework for understanding (and responding to) security threats be brought to the fore. A policy of strategic patience which resists reflexive kinetic responses and is expressed principally through conflict resolution and development efforts must be sold to the American public as the most prudent way forward.

Lastly, President Obama’s NSS states that the solution to the fragile states challenge “rests in bolstering the capacity of regional organizations, and the United Nation system, to help resolve disputes, build resilience to crises and shocks, strengthen governance, end extreme poverty.” Such an approach (clearly not yet fully implemented) is smart power manifest, where victories are harder to quantify, take a long time to achieve, but are ultimately more effective than costly and controversial approaches like the target lists centric counterterrorism program. It’s time for the international security playbook to be revamped so that a human security centered smart power approach becomes America’s grand strategy for leading the world into an increasingly tumultuous 21st century.



Oliver Barrett

Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a multi-lingual researcher and a decorated retired military officer specializing in the inter-play between fragile states and national security matters. A former U.S. Marine, and Naval aviator, Oliver is a veteran of several notable U.S. military operations, to include: Operation Restore Hope (Somalia); and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines). His functional areas of focus include: U.S. Diplomacy; U.S. Defense; and Climate Change. His geographic areas of focus include: Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).