In times of coronavirus and climate change, we must rethink national security | Allan Behm | Opinion

The catastrophic summer bushfires incinerated the livelihoods and the lifestyles of so many Australians who live along our coastal fringe. And while the landscape is recovering, albeit slowly, their circumstances are not. Indeed, the arrival of the pandemic has smashed their personal and economic security even further. The hit to the national economy from the combined events will be comparable to that of the second world war, the debt taking decades to run down.

Australia has not been at war. We have not been attacked by an enemy using armed force to subject the nation to its will. Yes, some troops were called out in an act of political theatre, and the navy put to sea, but not a shot was fired, nor a bombing sortie flown. Yet millions of Australians are significantly less secure now than they were six months ago. And if our citizens are not secure, how can the nation be secure?

This is not just a local phenomenon. People around the world no longer feel safe. Nor are they confident that their governments can keep them safe. For the individual citizen, security now has more to do with managing a global pandemic, mitigating and adapting to climate change, preserving clean water, maintaining reliable food supplies and protecting individual and community wellbeing than with supporting the ability of the state to protect its sovereignty against threats from other states.

Prosperity and individual security are now key considerations in national security policy. If we are to deal with the disruption that now characterises the global economic, climate, health and political environments, it is imperative that we rethink the foundations of national security policy.

Social inclusion, the protection of rights, the promotion of values and resilience – all of them supported by a strong economic base – are basic elements of security policy. The scope of national security policy needs to transcend traditional defence and law enforcement models by comprehending climate change, human security against pandemics, environmental (and soil) degradation, food security, water shortages and refugee flows – to identify just a few issues.

A key challenge for Australia is to build these changing concepts of security into our national governance.

The traditional national security paradigm focuses on war between states, or in the case of terrorism, attacks on the state. Much less focus is placed on the consequences of war for populations. While protection of state sovereignty remains a key responsibility of national governments, their fundamental duty is to ensure the safety and security of their citizens against all threats, not just the threat of armed force.

And to see terrorism as an attack on the state is to misconceive it: terrorism is really an attack on the values that unite the community in common purpose. Terrorism attacks social cohesion and inclusiveness, not the machinery of the state. Indeed, strong, cohesive communities offer the best defence against terrorism.

A national security policy more responsive to contemporary security concerns needs to address the forces that are undermining the global institutions and rules that are the foundations of global security. An evolved national security policy must resolve a set of intersecting binaries that constrain national wellbeing rather than promoting it.

First, the relationship between the citizen and the state needs to be redefined, especially in a world where more people want protection from the state rather than protection by it.

Second, we need to move from the reactive planning dynamic that focuses on threats and risks to a proactive dynamic that builds harmony, inclusion, resilience, tranquillity and wellbeing – a dynamic that deals with threats not as things to be defeated but as things to be prevented.

Third, we need to replace the “control” mindset that addresses peoples’ problems for them with an “empowerment” approach that enables individuals and communities to take charge of their own lives and prospects – less enforcement and more encouragement.

And fourth, it is important that the “intervention” model of public policy design is tempered by a “prevention” model that emphasises prudent preemption rather than dramatic reaction.

The wellbeing of both the citizen and the state is the goal of all sound public policy. Traditional security thinking fails to deal with the new security issues presented by global warming, and now, pandemics. These constitute existential threats to human security that are not amenable to solution by military forces. Yet they go to the heart of national security in current circumstances.

For Australia, much of our national security effort needs to be redirected towards these issues domestically. Abroad, more effort needs to go into an energetic and properly resourced diplomacy, a focus on international institution building, and a development assistance program that invests in the human security of our region. Creating international coalitions is hard work. But that’s where Australia’s national security investment needs to be.

Allan Behm is head of the international and security affairs program at the Australia Institute

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