No. 1 - Jan. 1997
Vol. 45 - pp. 27-30

Security challenges for the 21st century

Gwyn Prins
Fellow in History at Emmanuel
College, Cambridge

To be prepared for the security challenges of the 21st century, the author argues that we need to begin now to devise new strategies and structures. The scope of what is considered "security" will have to be expanded as well as the means of addressing new problems. This requires a multidimensional strategy encompassing such issues as the impact of socio-economic changes; the phenomenon of the global financial and economic system; and transboundary environmental issues. These matters will have to be addressed through a collaborative approach among the states and institutions affected.

The world in which we live, while chronologically still the 20th century, has in important ways already embarked upon the 21st. We need strategies for this new century which, so keen to begin, has barged into the tail-end of the present one.

It is not automatically popular to make this sort of observation in the NATO context, where we have one of the firmer security structures and more successful institutional strategies of recent times. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is usually good advice. NATO may be a bit battered but, as we have seen in Bosnia, "it ain't broke". However, NATO - like other international security institutions - cannot ignore the transformation of the security environment which it inhabits, or it soon could be "broke". Forewarned is forearmed; and that is the subject of this article.

My belief is that we face collectively at this moment the most difficult challenge of our lifetime in constructing new institutional and analytic approaches to security. Furthermore, I believe this is a task which we have not really started but are only about to engage; bluntly, all the upheaval of recent years, what we have been doing since 1989, wasn't the main event. How to handle it is the main event, and it is going to be taxing for a set of new reasons that I will explain below. But let me say at once that the nature of the challenge is not new.

Our challenge is to start addressing future security problems with today's way of thinking and today's institutions, because those are what we now possess: this is called "cultural lag". Every generation experiences it; we always face the future with a set of instruments and ways of thinking which are not necessarily the ones that, ideally, we would choose, especially with hindsight!

What is new? Four things: the timing; the range of the security problems that we are now going to have to engage; the institutional demands that those two first requirements will set; and finally, the analytic requirement that must underlie any sort of robust institutional transformation.

Near-term challenges

Day-to-day policy-making reacts to the immediate. At the time of writing, it is focused on Russian President Boris Yeltsin's health (and, by near extension, that of Russian politics), the new configuration of the NATO operation in Bosnia, and the issue of NATO's enlargement and its future relationship with Central and Eastern Europe. These are, to some extent, influenced by the broken condition and spirit of the Russian army.

But too often, the focus of policy-makers is myopic. For example, the near term political implications of the approaching block obsolescence of Russian military equipment are not fully grasped. This impending crisis is a consequence of the manner in which the Soviet system procured weapons. Soviet weapon systems had low capital cost, were supplied with a warranted period of operation, and included all spares, etc., for that period. When the warranted hours were consumed, the equipment was returned to the factory to remanufacture. This system, applied on a very large scale, has now entirely broken down; or the factories are now in foreign countries. So, by the turn of the century, even with very low levels of usage, there will be a sudden collapse of availability of weapon systems across a wide range of Russian forces. Coming on top of the crisis in morale, this sets a clear delimitation on the time available to take initiatives.(1)

The future shape of Russia and of Europe are profoundly in question as we move towards the end of the 20th century. It is no longer safe to presume that Jean Monnet's vision of European integration is going to develop in the way that even as recently as five years ago at Maastricht, seemed obvious and clear. No one knows what the future of the former Soviet Union will be either. But I do know that we have to address those questions.

At the same time, we have two other prior questions, namely the durability of the Bosnia settlement and the issue of NATO enlargement, both now very much to the fore. These are 20th century questions and how we answer them before the turn of the century will shape how NATO in particular is going to be able to respond in the 21st century.

New kinds of security problems

Weighty in themselves, these issues carry additional burdens arching above all these and which are not yet as widely appreciated. There is a series of non-traditional security issues which are increasingly recognized as impacting both on the institutions as well as on the ways in which security issues are considered by policy-makers, including within NATO.

An apt example is the crisis of an ageing population, leading to a welfare crisis that will apply in much of the industrial and developed world. A social security issue, through its erosion of society's fabric of trust and obligation, it is also a political and security issue. On top of this is a crisis of frustrated and rising expectations in the countries of the former Soviet Union and of Central and Eastern Europe. Then there is the question of China and the Asian "tiger" economies of the Pacific Rim and whether they will be rivals or allies, which stands at the back of the medium term security horizons, for Russia, for the US and for Western Europe.

Similarly, and more pressing for Europeans, is the question of the Maghreb populations in North Africa where disturbances can have trans-Mediterranean consequences. But violence in and emanating from the Islamic world is not a unique phenomenon. There is no titanic "clash of civilisations" in prospect, unless we choose to make it so; it is part of the re-emergence of ideological confrontations worldwide - less often unified, state-based and Marxist than in the past, more often fragmented, group-based and fundamentalist.

Beyond that already crowded agenda, there is a horizon which embraces global issues of limitation and socio-biological change: limits on the availability of energy and food; change in the patterns of disease and damage to the environment. While the details are still not yet clear, there is increasing certainty about some of the basic parameters of these issues, as the July 1996 Geneva Review Conference on issues of climate change established.

Many of the decisions that will shape structurally how we can deal with security in the 21st century will have to be addressed in the next three to four years - before we reach the end of the 20th.

"Soft states" and pollution

The second factor which promotes the case for new approaches to new security challenges is the range of issues to be addressed. I have identified four categories of new problems in this regard.

The one that is already most visible is the question of the "soft state", with weak or eroded civic identity. It was Tom Paine who first articulated the important distinction between "civic society" and the state in his pamphlet Common Sense. He made the requirement of assent to state power with a true popular mandate a cornerstone of the American revolutionary cause. Today, 200 years later, we can see that essential bond between state and society under strain around the world. How do you address societies which have either experienced a collapse of civic society or have never had this to start with? Where does all the power lie? We have to learn to look in unexpected places.

We also have to think about the role of sub-state violence as practised by various groups that use terror. All these are issues which, within the current framework of security thinking, are already engaging and taxing us.

The next set of challenges goes a step beyond and grows out of the first: this is the deeply ill-understood phenomenon of the global financial and economic system within which we now live. It still comes as a bit of a shock to hear of the sheer volume of exchange transactions that pass through computers in lower Manhattan every day as part of the operation of the financial system. Among computer experts there is a great deal of disagreement about what would happen in the event of a catastrophic breakdown in this system. It might have considerable security implications.

Every time that the market wobbles, the financial press sees a crisis looming. This is within a context which in well-regulated society would be alarming enough; but we now have to deal with a world that contains "soft states' whose systems of regulation are only still developing.

Accountability is the third issue. Electronic "firewalls" in the globalized economic system have proven to be vulnerable to clever criminals. But the problem goes beyond people who gain unauthorized access to systems that we think of as being only in the control of state or corporate organizations. This is the problem of the criminal state, or the state suborned for criminal purposes, and it raises a set of security concerns which go a big step beyond the simple fact of the "soft state".

The issue of accountability leads us into the final realm: that of transboundary pollution. Transboundary pollution, arising from the ways in which the command economies have been run over the last 60 years, is leaving a dreadful inheritance. The "Black Triangle" - the heavily polluted area that straddles the German, Czech and Polish borders - is indeed black; Chernobyl is still a radioactive wreck smouldering in its mouldering sarcophagus, and there are other potential Chernobyls.

A recent study, designed by Professor Reiner Huber and his colleagues at the Armed Forces University in Munich (the COBOLD series of simulations) was fascinating and disturbing when it took the hypothetical example of a reactor accident in Ukraine combined with an unwillingness by the Russians to allow refugees to cross the border. It then looked at and began to consider what might be the local and then the wider security implications of such a situation. These things are unhappily all too conceivable.

So, too, when we read the Bellona reports documenting the possibilities of what could happen to the 80 hulks of the Russian submarine fleet which are still afloat and which still have nuclear fuel cores in them. (2) It is almost as alarming as what could happen if the reactors were taken out. A study carried out three years ago by a joint Russian and British team looked at what could be done with the reactors that had already been dumped; some of these reactors were dumped fuelled and are now sitting on the bottom of the Kara Sea. The scale is such, and the technologies demanded for dealing with that latent threat are such, that they are not going to be handled by the Russians alone. As Commander Ash and his colleagues argued, one could make a virtue of necessity in conducting international retrieval. (3)

This leads to the inevitability of cooperation in order to be able to confront these security problems. The 1996 Geneva Review Conference on issues of climate change considered the way in which we have or have not managed to keep the undertakings made during the Earth Summit at Rio in 1992. The US Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs, Tim Wirth, and the UK Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, clearly affirmed that there is a problem and expressed a commitment to tackling it. But more interesting than the diplomacy was the publication of the second report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change.

What this shows us is not that there is absolute proof positive that we have got a problem that will be with us tomorrow morning (the criterion for action demanded by sceptics); what the recent reports are saying is more subtle, but in many ways more alarming. We have enough evidence now that global warming is moving out of the realm of statistical obscurity: it is a real phenomenon and we can begin to track part of its impact. This much Messrs. Wirth and Gummer stated; but we can also see the possibility of "non-linear excursions", meaning repetition of episodes which have happened in the past, like the shifting of the Gulf Stream. While nobody knows under exactly what circumstances this could occur, that it can occur is a rising possibility. Weakening circulation of "ocean pumps", documented in the Scott Polar Research Institute's work on the Odden Feature, (4) points our attention this way. These are the sorts of issues which our present security institutions are spectacularly ill-equipped to grasp, and yet which will have to be grasped.

Common features - simple and demanding

Therefore, if we sum up the common features which we see across this range of new security threats, they are simultaneously simple and demanding. One is the presence of unexpected synergism, that is, interactions between things which common sense would suggest would not interact with each other: aerosol propellants and stratospheric ozone; cattle feeding practices and human degenerative brain disease, for example.

The second phenomenon is that the commanding structures of power are increasingly powerless when addressing the range of new security problems that we have to face. This is not to say that the commanding structures of power are powerless, period; it is to say that they are powerless faced with the new security agenda.

The third phenomenon common to this new range, as indicated by the Gulf Stream example above, is that there is an increased potential for phase changes: for change to occur not smoothly but turbulently and then in an unpredictable and exponential manner. All of these demand some form of collaborative action if we are to respond to them successfully. They are not things that can be dealt with on a unilateral basis by individuals, states or alliances.

Therefore, the third new requirement consists of the institutional demands placed by the first two. In this regard, a dialogue is necessary between the European Union and NATO because the security remit of NATO is now expanded (the issue which we have just established) while the European Union now finds itself under increasing democratic and social demand to become active in areas which had not previously been seen as part of its mandate.

What is interesting is how infrequently positive reference is made to the global institution - with all its defects and benefits - of the United Nations. That becomes important, because if we are going to achieve what Guido Lenzi of the Western European Union (WEU) calls "participatory multilateralism", based not only on shared values but also on shared interests, then we are going to have to think about using the whole of this spectrum of institutions.

In particular, the tangled and sensitive question of NATO expansion involves thinking about how to integrate the Russians in ways which they find attractive, which others find acceptable and where they can perform a useful role. This means considering much more seriously the United Nations context. (5) None of these institutions is perfect; and if we wait until they are, we shall do nothing. But we can work with imperfect, evolving structures - we always have. So let's get on with it!

Underlying all of this is the fourth requirement, that of a better, more robust and realistic way of conducting an assessment of people's attitudes and political judgements. Was it rational for the Russians to vote as they did in the 1996 election? This is a vital question for the rest of us to be able to answer; but we cannot begin to do so unless we can imagine ourselves, credibly, in their boots. This has been the thing that we have done conspicuously badly during much of the last 40 years. Capabilities do not equal intentions. If we are going to be able to build the sort of effective collaborative structures for security which the present situation demands, it means that we are going to have to develop the ability to take systematic account of other people's ways of analysing the world, and that perception would be an active ingredient in any institution building.

I believe that that is an achievable task, once we accept that we do not have all, or even many of the answers at present.


  1. See C. Donnelly, K. Brower, "The future of Russian national security policy and military strategy", Appendix I, "The Warranty System" in (ed.) G.A.S.C. Wilson, British Security 2010, 1996, pp. 153-154.

  2. Further information on the Bellona reports can be obtained from: The Bellona Foundation, Boks 8874, Youngstorget, 0028 Oslo Norway. See also S. Høibraten et al, "NATO and Partner Countries study defence-related radioactive and chemical contamination", NATO Review, No.1, January 1996, pp. 11-16.

  3. J. Ash, with Y. Golubchikov and M. Koniakhin. "Cold Water Legacy: Radionuclide Contamination in the Barents and Kara Seas", GSP Occasional Paper 3, February 1994.

  4. P. Wadham et al. "The development of the Odden ice tongue in the Greenland sea during winter 1993 from remote sensing and field observation". The Journal of Geophysical Research, 101, 8 August 1996.

  5. For exploration of this, see further G. Prins, "The applicability of the NATO model to United Nations Peace Support Operations under the Security Council". UNA/USA International Dialogue on the Enforcement of Security Council Resolutions, Paper No. 2, New York, July 1996.

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