An appeal for strategic thinking in security strategy

President Obama will be giving his State of the Union Address tomorrow (Tuesday) night, his chance to outline his national strategy. Americans will be looking for forward-looking inspiration from their Commander-in-Chief. Less in the spotlight, on Thursday the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be giving evidence in front of the parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, where he is expected to discuss the operations of the National Security Council and his plans for the next National Security Strategy to be published after the next election in 2015.

The UK National Security Council appeared to be a bold initiative when set up in 2010, designed to bring government departments together for more effective coordination of security matters in a forward-looking, preventive, strategic manner, in recognition of the broad, systemic interconnections that do not respect traditional departmental boundaries. Bureaucracies, politics and day-to-day reactive approaches mix, however, to stymie efforts at such coordination, and there are very real open questions as to how successful the NSC has been. It takes more than setting up an institution for its purpose to be met, and it is this that the committee will be exploring.

The need for strategic direction ought to be uncontroversial. Emerging security challenges along with a tight fiscal posture demand difficult choices and a willingness to make difficult decisions that create winners and losers. Whether right or wrong, it is clear from the size of the defence cuts over the coming years that this government is prepared to revisit priorities and to see major and difficult transformation. The question remains, however, whether these changes have been made in a strategic manner, or whether the political leadership has simply moved forward in a piecemeal fashion. The feeling amongst many within the defence sector is that the last strategic defence and security review (SDSR) in 2010 soon after the last election was driven more by the need to make financial savings than by a sense of strategic direction, a suspicion fuelled by the fact that the National Security Strategy, the SDSR and the 2010 Spending Review came out simultaneously barely six months after the election in parallel, but barely related, processes. It also was not helped by the decision then taken that the renewal of Trident be shielded from the process (though a separate review and value for money exercise on the project was undertaken in parallel), suggesting that some sacred cows were not up for consideration.

It will be a more constructive meeting on Thursday if the Prime Minister and members of the joint committee were to avoid getting into the weeds of detail, and attempt some greater clarity on the core issues facing the UK – what are the key challenges, where are our priorities, what are the key relationships, how can we mobilise our existing and potential strategic assets in the genuine interests of national and global security, and how do we let go of legacy attitudes and assumptions that hold us back? For my money there are three key simple indicators around whether the government gets this:

  • whether it approaches these issues rationally, by starting with a coherent National Security Strategy and then consulting widely on how this Strategy then informs its implementation: the SDSR, in a manner that is more transparently about strategy driving the process;
  • whether it is able to really galvanise the public in a debate about Britain’s role in the world and approach to strategic relationships; and
  • whether it is prepared to include all major strategic systems in this holistic approach, including Trident renewal, in a zero-based budgeting approach, so that all capabilities can be properly assessed one against the other, in terms of their service to the national security objectives.

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect politicians to approach these issues without the politics complicating the picture. When Barack Obama gets up to speak tomorrow, any international security issues are likely to make reference to Syria and to Iran and to reassuring those fearful of appeasement, rather than any strategic assessment of the U.S. approach to global security in the 21st century. When David Cameron addresses the committee he will have more than a passing eye on defence chiefs and lobbies when considering his responses. But it is equally irresponsible for politicians to ignore the importance of the deeper issues at stake, and the opportunities that have all too often been missed in the past to move beyond the politics of interest and fear.

These are the opinions of the author.

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