What is Security?

Author: Gary Hart

What is security?

National SecurityIf there has been a dominant phrase in the political vocabulary of my generation it has been “national security”.  Very few of those who threw the phrase around bothered to define it.  During the Cold War, and even beyond, national security was a phrase used by foreign policy and defense insiders, a priesthood with its own language and common understandings.

In a perfect world, sometime between the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the era of terrorism in 2001 there would have been a national discussion about what national security actually meant.  Now the default meaning is defeat of terrorism.

But, assuming terrorists are kept in their cage, literally or figuratively, would we therefore be secure?  It is doubtful.  For there are new realities that threaten or at least challenge our security: pandemics (swine flu); climate change; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; failed and failing states; mass south-north migrations; and quite a number of other disturbances to the peace that we didn’t have to deal with previously.

One of the purposes of this web site is to stimulate thought (including by its operator) regarding what it means to be secure in an era where the United States has no peer competitor and where new threats do not lend themselves to military solution or solution by one nation, including the U.S., alone.

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10 Responses to “What is Security?”

  1. Gary Hart: What Is Security? | Obama Biden White House Says:

    [...] Posted from Senator Hart’s new blog at Matters of Principle. [...]

  2. Gary Hart: What Is Security? | Obama Biden White House Says:

    [...] Gary Hart: What Is Security? Posted from Senator Hart’s new blog at Matters of Principle. [...]

  3. Michael Says:

    What does it mean “To be secure in an era where the United States has no peer competitor and where new threats do not lend themselves to military solution or solution by one nation?”

    I think we’d do ourselves a favor if, when we talk about security, we looked inward as much as at external threats.

    When you look at all the damage that has been done to this county over the last 30 years, whether it be tax policies that resulted in a massive redistribution of wealth from the working and middle classes to the very top; or the deindustrialization of the country, taking with it with the corresponding number of good-paying jobs and resulting in huge current accounts imbalances; or the deregulation of the banking and financial sectors that became an unquestioned fetish and resulted in the destruction of trillions of dollars of our national wealth; or the consolidation of the media, which resulted in the dumbing down of the news to the point where corporate “journalists” never ask tough, probing questions of our leaders, or even call them out on statements they make that are outlandishly and demonstrably false, all these wounds are self inflected. No foreign power did these things to us. All these things we did to ourselves.

    And the resulting carnage of it all: a middle class under unprecedented stress; an immoral profit-driven healthcare system that reaps well-documented suffering and hardship; hard- earned retirement savings forced into the casino of a deregulated Wall St, and wiped away overnight; a crumpling and insufficient national infrastructure that we can never seem to pay to maintain; a military-industrial complex which has spun completely out of control beyond all reason – all these things resulted from a fanatical adherence to one political ideology: the conservative ideology. Yes, Democrats were culpable too. Far too few had the courage to stand up to the prevailing winds blowing from the Right, not even when they were leading us into an unnecessary war.

    You can’t talk about national security without mentioning all this because it seems we are our own worst enemy.

    You want the equivalent of a foreign nuke attack on the US? It’s called President Sara Palin. And the MAD scenario won’t put the breaks on this one.

  4. Jack DuVall Says:

    Like all priesthoods (an apt analogy by Senator Hart), the policy leaders of the national security establishment have an aversion to straying too far from their prevailing dogma. I’d submit that such dogma, however it’s expressed in regard to specific policies, reflects these default beliefs: (a) State actors make the important international decisions, (b) State action takes the form of diplomatic or defense initiatives, and (c) Material and political relations with other states should serve the state actor’s national interests.

    These beliefs are no longer well-adapted to understanding a fast-changing world. One example: Non-state, nonviolent indigenous actors, such as civilian-based movements using mass resistance, are sapping the power of governments that have lost or never had their people’s consent. So, for example, civil resistance in Iran, Burma, Egypt, West Sahara, West Papua and about 20 other countries today have decimated the legitimacy of the governments or occupiers in these lands. Such movements have become the chief agency by which the political structure will eventually change, dramatically or gradually. In 50 of 67 transitions from authoritarianism to democracy between 1970 and 2005, civil resistance was the decisive factor. Yet talk to virtually any senior people in any foreign affairs ministry or intergovernmental NGO and they will see nonviolent non-state actors as aspirational amateurs at best but typically as a sideshow. The green movement in Iran was a complete surprise to them.

    To the extent that the very concept of “national security” helps to preserve the dogmatic thinking that inhibits seeing critical new changes, perhaps we need to find an entirely new paradigm for determining what should guide our public policy-making when it comes to international affairs.

  5. Jim Ludes Says:

    I’m a historian by training, so I find that a lot of my views are informed by broad historic patterns. So when I look at defining “national security” I start by asking myself what is it that we have always sought to protect?

    A few things endure over time: lives, property, our economic health, and our institutions of government (including the Constitution). These are, in fact, our way of life.

    If you begin with that framework, it’s easier to understand the broadening set of threats that we face. Climate change, for example, won’t defeat the 3rd Infantry Division, but its impacts will pose profound threats and challenges to our security–challenges that our Department of Defense is ill-suited to address.

    Unfortunately, “security” is so intertwined with “defense” in our daily parlance that we tend to focus on the kinetic power of the American military (and the threats it was built to address) at the expense of America’s other powers–diplomatic, economic, and moral–and the challenges they face.

    The sad result is that we are less secure, despite the billions we spend to protect America, from a multitude of likely threats.

  6. Amy Pond Says:

    Defining national security:

    One topic that has always interested me is the supposed tradeoff between “national security” and “personal freedom.” After September 11th, I took for granted that maintaining security from external threats, i.e. terrorism and nuclear proliferation, would require Americans to give up some of their civil liberties in order to give the Justice Department, the CIA and the myriad of other agencies charged with maintaining national security, the capacity to find and punish anyone who threatened America. I now see this view as shortsighted and misguided. These violations of civil liberties and human rights actually compromise the very American ideals that so many have fought and suffered to uphold. They also fuel resentment towards America, bolstering support for organizations like al Qaeda and making us less safe. I now adhere to a much broader definition of national security, which includes upholding human rights and civil liberties.

  7. Michael Says:

    I think it is also important to note that we are no longer in “an era where United States has no peer.” We are a nation deeply in debt with a huge and unwieldy military establishment that we can no longer afford, but is impervious to reform. We have become a nation with a systemically corrupt political system (see the current health care debate) who has lost the trust of even our allies. If we use the traditional definition of “superpower” as the combination of economic, military and political power; our economic power is about to be challenged by China, our military power will have to be curtailed because of our wrecked finances, and we can expect that our political power will wane as it presupposes the first two. I think we should be talking about what security means in an era when US supremacy is being challenged on multiple fronts.

  8. Gary Hart Says:

    To Michael I respond that I am attempting to move a term, “security”, that has almost always had a military connotation, to the broader plane that you suggest and, yes, some threats to security are internal and domestic. But they too cannot be solved by military means. Dr. Ludes reaffirms this conviction as does Jack Duval who has sought means involving peaceful interaction as avenues toward dispute resolution for a very long time. And to Ms. Pond, this site is dedicated to the proposition that if we sacrifice our principles to achieve temporary “security”, we lose our soul.

  9. Colbert Says:

    You should embed a tintchat room on your blog so we could all chat and talk via voice/video.

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