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Rethinking security

Chris Donnelly highlights new threats to security and urges the adoption of robust strategies to combat them.

Chris Donnelly is NATO’s special adviser for central and eastern European affairs. The views expressed are purely personal and do not represent the views of NATO or of any of its member nations.

Armed intervention: Organised crime is an issue of national security because of its international nature, its links with former hostile intelligence agencies and its capacity to subvert the governmental process. (Reuters photo - 219Kb)

It is more than a decade since the threat of a super-power clash in Europe disappeared. Although many people have since died in civil wars and local conflicts, on-going reductions in the size and strength of armed forces are testimony to the fundamental change in perceptions of what constitutes a security threat. As conventional and nuclear arsenals shrink, and the demands of peacekeeping force a reappraisal of the roles and duties of soldiers, attention has largely been focused on the associated military reform, the restructuring of defence industries and consequent strains in the relationship between military and society. However, as traditional security threats have receded, other non-military threats have become more virulent.

What is under attack is not the territory of the state but its fabric, the nature of its society, the functioning of its institutions, and the well-being of its citizens. These threats, which include corruption, organised crime and terrorism, are more difficult to define than purely military ones, and therefore more difficult to counter. Moreover, in some instances, the cure for such threats can be worse than the disease. Indeed, state action to combat a threat to democracy risks bringing in dictatorial processes that restrict personal liberties more than the threats it was designed to prevent. If, therefore, these new challenges are to be dealt with wisely, a great deal of clear thinking and sensitivity is necessary.

Many of these threats have not traditionally been viewed as security matters. It is, after all, only 20 years since the concept of national security crept into general usage in the West, and less than ten years since it has been properly understood in the new democracies of central and eastern Europe, where security to most people meant state security, that is, the work of the secret police.

Since state bureaucracies are by nature slow to change, the structures of defence and interior ministries generally reflect older approaches and concepts. They are set up to deal with defence and public safety rather than national security issues. The delay between recognising changing demands and the creation of appropriate structures to satisfy them often creates a security gap. Although the European Union was expected to evolve to meet non-military threats to security when they were first identified, this has not happened. The wars of Yugoslav dissolution have distracted attention from these new security threats that today affect all countries and pose a particular risk to the fragile democracies of central and eastern Europe.

The most basic threat to the stability of most central and eastern European countries today is the lack of effective crisis management. Although this has been recognised as a problem, the legacy of communist rule in the region leads most governments to try and solve it by creating a new central command structure, which a crisis management team would occupy in event of emergency and from where it would manage the crisis. While such a command cell can be useful, it is not in itself a solution. This is because of the internal failings of many central and eastern European governments. Governmental shortcomings include an inadequate legal division of power and responsibilities between agencies of governance, the offices of the key political leaders, ministries and parliaments; ineffective and non-transparent functioning of those agencies and, in particular, the ministries of defence, interior, justice and finance; a shortage of officials with appropriate expertise; and failure to ensure popular support for policies. Many central and eastern European governments are brittle and lack flexibility, with the result that a serious crisis, internal or external, could shatter what appears outwardly to be a stable system. In the absence of good governance, no amount of computers in an impressive command centre will provide effective crisis management.

Corruption is a security threat in its own right, as well as a contributory factor to the governmental failings considered above. Indeed, it is the single most serious threat to the viability of several countries of the former Soviet Union and a severe problem everywhere. Its origins are many and complex, but it is universally pernicious and must be tackled if new democracies are to fulfil their potential. Despite talk of a new, borderless European security architecture, lines are already being drawn. However, they are not being drawn on the basis of NATO or EU enlargement, but on the basis of administrative and business practices, and the extent to which these meet established standards of honesty and transparency. Sadly, corruption in many countries starts at the very top, with ministers and even presidents not being immune from its influence.

Organised crime is the non-military security threat that attracts most attention. Yet, were it not for the inadequacies of the governmental process and the extent of corruption, it would not exist, at least not on a scale that makes it a security threat. Organised crime has a higher profile than other potential security threats because it has such an obvious and immediate effect on peoples lives and is exported so easily. Indeed, it is often the interface between internal and external threats that makes many of the security threats considered below so real.

The ground for organised crime was fertile in central and eastern Europe because of the regions communist heritage. Because the medium of wealth was Party privilege rather than money, policing systems in the region were under-developed. Moreover, they were based on a discredited philosophy of public order, which undermined their authority in popular eyes. This permitted already well-established criminal organisations to flourish. Worse still, these groups were encouraged by the lack of an ethical base for security; the absence of an effective legal system to set the parameters of business practices, muddying the lines between mafia activities, legitimate business practices and government; and opportunistic Western partners more interested in short-term returns than long-term stability.

What makes organised crime so great a security problem is not only its scale, exportability and the absence of national and international institutions to deal with it, but also its acceptability. Although laundering the proceeds of organised crime is universally condemned, most western financial centres welcome money from central and eastern European countries and do not examine its provenance too closely. Many national security services relegate organised crime penetration to their police forces. They should, however, appreciate that its international nature, its scale, its links with former hostile intelligence agencies and its capacity to subvert the governmental process make it truly an issue of national security. Israel was one of the first countries to suffer from the influx of Russian mafiosi and the Israeli security agencies now regret not paying greater attention to this phenomenon earlier.

Ethnic conflict and nationalism have contributed to the erosion of the concept of the nation state during the past decade. In many places, this has already resulted in greater local autonomy, reduced power for central authority and, in some cases, even the break-up of countries. The issue today is how much further this disintegration can go and at what level the process can or should be halted. Many states have to deal with minority groups struggling for greater autonomy or even attempting to change national borders. At one end of the scale, in, say, Chechnya, these groups can threaten the state with secession. At the other, they may, for example, pressure a government seeking membership of NATO or the European Union, by threatening to create internal problems that tarnish the countrys image abroad. Migration, which is often a consequence of ethnic conflict, is already one of the most politically sensitive issues in Europe and likely to become an even greater problem as the wealth gap widens between countries at Europes core and those on its periphery.

The issue of proliferation is often considered a military matter. However, the task of addressing it has increasingly been entrusted to security agencies other than the defence ministry, that is the interior ministry, police and border guards. Moreover, the issue has evolved during the past ten years. Whereas proliferation once referred exclusively to nuclear weapons and materials, this is no longer the case. Advances in other scientific fields and the corresponding difficulty of identifying military from civilian uses of this technology has extended use of the term to cover chemical and biological fields. Moreover, since new technologies have become weapons in themselves, proliferation must now be taken to include technology of all types. The damage to national security that can be inflicted by a well-organised group of computer hackers, for example, needs no further elaboration. Poor nations can acquire this technology, and may have nothing to lose by using it.

New threats, like old, can also be subject to political manipulation. This is all the more the case because new threats have often not been adequately defined or contained, public sensitivity to them is high, and existing mechanisms for dealing with them are weak. Exaggerated or spurious threats include, among others, fundamentalism, terrorism, and information security. While the threat of all three can be real, all three examples can also illustrate how the political manipulation, exaggeration or misunderstanding of a threat may undermine capacity to deal with it.

Take terrorism. Countries must and should cooperate to reduce its impact and prevent its spread. Yet, when we look at what terrorism is defined as, controlling it can in some countries be a cover for repression of what, in others, would be seen as a legitimate movement for self-rule. Similar considerations apply to fundamentalism. This can be a serious problem but, because the threat has been so exaggerated in the past, it has been debased. Politicians crying wolf have, to some extent, desensitised their populations to this threat, at a time when it may now actually be becoming more serious.

Information security is likewise of real concern to all nations. However, in some central and eastern European countries, what is understood by this term is very different to what it has come to mean in the West. Indeed, information security may even be abused as a catch-all justification for state control of information, where a government fears free expression and would rather reimpose authoritarian control.

These three examples highlight the potential for political manipulation of some new, non-military threats to security. More study of this problem is necessary, as well as more education of policy elites, journalists and the public so that the measures taken to protect society are appropriate, effective, and not counter-productive. Gauging where to draw the line between the legitimate expression of ideas and interests and unjustifiable threats to the health or existence of state and society requires serious analysis. Where we draw this line depends upon our definition of democracy, legality and human rights.

Since non-military threats to security are new, international institutions have not yet evolved to meet them. Although they are recognised in NATOs most recent strategic concept, these threats fall outside the Alliances traditional remit and NATO has not yet developed the mechanisms to deal with them adequately. The European Union has the mandate to address most of the issues, and has made progress in some areas, such as strengthening border regimes and justice ministries in central and eastern Europe. But many areas are yet to be addressed and it will be some years before the European Unions central institutions are equipped to deal with them. Meanwhile, other international institutions, such as Interpol and Europol, work to encourage operational concepts, but have to date done little to help central and eastern European countries reform their existing institutions or create the necessary new ones. Bilateral police and customs contacts, good though they may sometimes be, are in the same situation.

Anti-corruption programmes have been run successfully in several countries and the basic principles are well-established. The need to invest in and develop police forces and reform internal security forces from Soviet models to Western-style gendarmeries has also been recognised, although progress is slow in some countries. So much has been achieved in improving customs and border regimes in some central European countries that there is no excuse for not extending this model further eastwards. Legislation is perhaps the most sensitive issue because it touches on the relative positions of parliaments and governments. But enough experience is already available to help countries keen to establish appropriate legal frameworks. Tackling non-military threats to security requires robust strategies. These can only be developed if key people from government, law-enforcement agencies and research institutes come together to develop a comprehensive approach to these problems, which today constitute the most immediate and fastest-growing threats to the safety and survival of new democracies.

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