In much of the world, the current security discourse is dominated by what might be called the control paradigm: an approach based on the false premise that insecurity can be controlled through military force or balance of power politics and containment, thus maintaining the status quo.
Security policies based on this paradigm are self-defeating in the long-term as they simply create a pressure cooker effect. The most obvious recent example of this approach has been the so-called war on terror, which essentially aimed to keep the lid on al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, without addressing the root causes in Western policy. Another example is the war on drugs, which attempts to keep the lid on the rising tide of cartel violence in Latin America without addressing the root causes of illicit drug consumption in North America. Such approaches to national, regional and international security are deeply flawed, and are distracting the world’s politicians from developing realistic and sustainable solutions to the non-traditional threats facing the world. A new approach is needed.
This new approach is what Chris and his colleagues at the Oxford Research Group (ORG) call sustainable security. The central premise of sustainable security is that you cannot successfully control all the consequences of insecurity, but must work to resolve the causes. In other words, ‘fighting the symptoms’ will not work, you must instead ‘cure the disease’. Such a framework must be based on understanding integrated security trends and developing preventative responses.
Since the horrific events of 9/11, Western leaders have held up international terrorism as the greatest threat to world security. However, the evidence does not support this claim. Sustainable security instead focuses on four interconnected, long-term drivers of insecurity:
- Climate change: Extreme environmental changes resulting in the loss of infrastructure, resource scarcity and the mass displacement of peoples and leading to civil unrest, intercommunal violence and international instability.
- Competition over resources: Competition for increasingly scarce resources, particularly food, water and energy.
- Marginalisation of the ‘majority world’: Increasing socio-economic divisions (both within and between countries) and the political, economic and social marginalisation of the vast majority of the world’s population.
- Global militarisation: The increased use of military force as a valid instrument of foreign policy and the further spread of military technologies (including weapons of mass destruction).
These factors are the trends that are most likely to lead to substantial global and regional instability, and large-scale loss of life, of a magnitude unmatched by other potential threats. The sustainable security analysis makes a distinction between these trends and other security threats, which might instead be considered symptoms of the underlying causes and tend to be more localised and immediate (for example terrorism or organised crime). It promotes a comprehensive, systemic approach, taking into account the interaction of different trends which are generally analysed in isolation by others. It also places particular attention on how the current behaviour of international actors and Western governments is contributing to, rather than reducing, insecurity.
Sustainable security goes beyond analysis of threats to the development of a framework for new security policies. In doing so, it incorporates and builds upon many elements of previous important attempts to reframe the way we think about security, including comprehensive security, human security and just security.
Sustainable security takes global justice and equity as the key requirements of any sustainable response, together with progress towards reform of the global systems of trade, aid and debt relief; a rapid move away from carbon-based economies; bold, visible and substantial steps towards nuclear disarmament (and the control of biological and chemical weapons); and a shift in defence spending to focus on the non-military elements of security. This takes into account the underlying structural problems in national and international systems and the institutional changes that are needed to develop and implement effective solutions. It also links long-term global drivers to the immediate security pre-occupations of ordinary people at a local level (such as corruption or violent crime).
By aiming to cooperatively resolve the root causes of threats using the most effective means available, sustainable security is inherently preventative in that it addresses the likely causes of conflict and instability well before the ill-effects are felt.
The framework was first set out by Chris Abbott, Paul Rogers and John Sloboda in a seminal 2006 report, Global Responses to Global Threats, and developed further in their popular 2007 book Beyond Terror. As a key architect of the sustainable security framework, Chris continued to work on these issues as the director of ORG's sustainable security programme until he left the organisation in 2009 and continued to write and lecture on these issues for a number of subsequent years.