Shared Security: Humans and Humanity in National Security Policy

In this article from a new volume on building a values-based foreign policy for the UK, Jonathan Cohen, Teresa Dumasy and Richard Reeve argue that a new security strategy should put at its heart the wellbeing of people and the shared security of the planet and humanity.

Investments by states in improving global security are failing; in 2020 the world feels a fragile and insecure place. In the United Kingdom alone, there are huge differences in the way people experience insecurity. These realities raise important questions for the UK Government about the nature and understanding of security and of the UK’s contribution to it. They also pose choices for the UK as it recalibrates its foreign, defence and security policies following its departure from the European Union.

‘National’ interests

This year, as every fifth year since 2010, the UK Government has committed to producing a revision of its National Security Strategy, the document informing the policy and practice of all government departments working to uphold the safety and security of the UK and its people. Unlike the last two iterations, in 2020 the plan is for a far-reaching and integrated review of the UK’s foreign, security, defence and development policies. Redefining the UK’s place in the world after leaving the EU is the prompt for this re-look at our priorities and approach to national security.

The starting point of the current National Security Strategy is that the first duty of the state is the security of its people, or of the state itself: two competing interpretations of the word ‘nation’. The Strategy offers no definition of ‘security’ and arranges its priorities in three telling articulations of the ‘national interest’.

The first is ‘protecting our people’, the defence of UK territory and people against foreign threats. This priority is standard fare, notwithstanding a heavy emphasis on military force and the anomaly of far-flung overseas territories to defend. The second and third definitions offer a more exceptional and elitist articulation of UK national interests: ‘projecting our global influence’ and ‘promoting our prosperity’, not least the trading interests of the British private sector. Herein lie some of the seeds of the ‘Global Britain’ idea of the UK as an almost transnational entity with interests unbound by geography and a special mission to project its benign influence. Its roots, of course, go far deeper into imperial Britain’s real and imagined past.

Shared security

A paradox lurks at the heart of the UK’s strategic approach. On the one hand, it is explicitly a national security strategy with the interests of a prescribed national population and territory at its core. On the other, it presumes a convergence of international interests with its own, what it terms the ‘rules-based international order’. This is an elastically liberal concept that the UK helped to create with its Global North peers in the mid-20th century and which it seeks to uphold through, inter alia, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the Bretton Woods financial institutions and various active military coalitions. Geographically, a special role is assumed for the UK in securing the global commons, not least international waters like the Strait of Hormuz. Arguably, this geographic privilege extends to the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons, the consequences of whose use would be inherently transnational.

The problem is not that the UK seeks to uphold an international legal order, nor that it favours the global leadership of strong multilateral institutions. Both ought to be at the heart of a values-based foreign policy. Rather, it is that the ambiguity of the ‘national interest’ permits selectivity in promoting global interests and a blindness to the UK’s privilege within an international system that it designed and upholds.

One way to address the tension between the UK’s presumed national and transnational interests and those of individual humans and humanity at large would be to adopt ‘shared security’ as an underpinning value for our future security, defence and foreign policy. We are, after all, globally interdependent when it comes to security. Pressing examples include climate change, conflict-induced forced migration, violent conflict and transnational crime; rarely is human insecurity contained by national boundaries.

Shared security principles

Peace is therefore only sustainable when we see the well-being of others as being as important as our own. This is both a moral and a logical point: from the mountains of Afghanistan to the oil fields of Arabia we see disregard for other humans’ well-being having real consequences for our own long-term security. To build sustainable peace the well-being of people in their social and ecological context should be the proper goal of security policy. The Rethinking Security network has suggested four principles for a sustained, shared approach to security:

  1. Security as a freedom. A shared freedom from fear and want, and the freedom to live in dignity. It implies social and ecological health rather than simply the absence of risk.
  2. Security as a common right. Security should not, and usually cannot, be gained for one group of people at others’ expense. Accordingly, it rests on solidarity rather than dominance – in standing with others, not over them.
  3. Security as a patient practice. Security grows or withers according to how inclusive and just society is, and how socially and ecologically responsible we are. It cannot be coerced into being.
  4. Security as a shared responsibility. Security is a common responsibility; its challenges belong to all of us and are too important to be entrusted to a self-selected group of powerful states.

A shared security approach would mean the consequences of UK policies on the rest of the world – whether trade (‘prosperity’), military (‘protection’) or diplomatic (‘influence’) – would be explicitly considered and measured as if the security of people beyond our borders mattered as much as the security of those within them. Such an approach would limit the impetus to engage in unilateral foreign military interventions, burn coal or seal borders against asylum seekers, to cite three examples of unsustainable security practice.

A shared security approach would also have implications for the development, timing, resourcing and coordination of national security policy. First, for a security strategy to serve people rather than elites or an abstract state it must be open to consultation and critique by the people in whose name it is generated. Second, its timescale must be long-term, potentially open-ended, since peace and well-being must constantly be nurtured from deep roots to transform conflicts and prevent violence. Third, a shift to an approach that actively seeks to prevent violent conflict rather than suppress it would require an intentional shift in priorities, resources and strategies towards building human and ecological security and away from controlling and containing threats by military and security means.

Finally, shared security would provide a lens to improve coherence and coordination of policies pursued by different arms of government. It could, for example, address the dysfunctionality of one branch of government fighting a war while another patches up the resulting humanitarian crisis in the same country, or the tension between UK counter-terrorism laws impeding the work of UK-funded humanitarian and peacebuilding work.

Shared security practice

Adopting shared security as the lens for the new National Security Strategy could translate in practice into the central pursuit of peaceful, just and inclusive societies within UK foreign and security policy. This would follow through on leadership shown by the UK in 2015 in pressing for a comprehensive agenda in the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address the drivers of extreme poverty, including through Goal 16 and peace-related commitments. The current number, persistence and sheer scale of violent conflicts and their far-reaching consequences demand it too – the impact on human suffering, lost human and economic potential and regression in sustainable development are immense.

The UK has existing assets to deploy in pursuit of a more peaceful world. There is extensive and respected expertise inside and outside government on diplomacy, conflict prevention and peacebuilding – a long history of thought leadership and global practice in this area. Moreover, it is an area that commands significant support from the UK public. In a national public opinion survey commissioned by Conciliation Resources in 2017, 71 per cent of respondents believed that peacebuilding plays a vital role in ending violent conflict; 60 per cent said that the UK should invest more in it. The overriding justification for this was a moral one: ‘human beings have the right to live in peace: free from conflict’.

Peacebuilding is the long-term process of understanding and addressing the underlying drivers of conflict, of transforming relationships that have been broken by violence, changing attitudes and establishing fairer institutions. It recognises our interdependence and is inclusive, involving everyone from communities to governments working to end fighting and prevent the recurrence of violence. It is the expression of patient practice in this vision of shared security.

More importantly, given the right policy environment and resourcing, it works. For all the visible examples of high-level success – peace agreements in Northern Ireland, Colombia, the Philippines after years of violence – there are countless, everyday successes achieved by people in all walks of life which go unnoticed, but which make up the long path to peace, and our mutual security.

In defining the ambition of the UK’s next National Security Strategy its authors would do well to learn from the humility of these everyday peacebuilders. They should recognise that the UK’s greatest contributions to national security could be to support over the long-term those people in societies who are building the foundations of inclusive and sustainable peace.


This article was originally published by the Foreign Policy Centre and Oxfam in Finding Britain’s Role in a Changing World: Building a values-based foreign policy.

Jonathan Cohen joined Conciliation Resources in 1997 and has been its Executive Director since May 2016. Previously Jonathan served as Deputy Director of the Foundation on Inter-Ethnic Relations in The Hague, working with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. In 2007 he was awarded an OBE for services to conflict prevention and conflict resolution in the Caucasus. In 2018 Jonathan became Chair of the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office and an Associate of the Imperial War Museum’s Institute for the Public Understanding of War and Conflict.

Dr Teresa Dumasy joined Conciliation Resources in 2010, and is its Director of Policy and Learning. Teresa is also Chair of the BOND Working Group on Counter-Terrorism and Sanctions and plays a leading role in efforts to reduce the impact of counter-terrorism legislation and sanctions on humanitarian and peacebuilding work. From 1998 to 2010 Teresa worked at the FCO and DFID. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Conflict Analysis and Research Centre at the University of Kent.

Richard Reeve has been the Coordinator of Rethinking Security since October 2019. Between 2014 and 2019 he was Chief Executive of Oxford Research Group. Previously he was Head of Research at International Alert. As a conflict researcher, he has also been a fellow of Chatham House’s Africa Programme and King’s College London’s War Studies department, an editor and analyst with Jane’s Information Group and other risk consultancies, and worked with the African Union, ECOWAS and Arab League.


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Written by Richard Reeve

Richard Reeve is the Coordinator of the Rethinking Security network. He has worked in peace and conflict research for over 20 years with specialisms in West Africa and UK security policy.
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