If you are wondering what it means to rethink security or a talking about it with others, these questions and answers might help.

Why rethink ‘security’?

Some hard questions

Why rethink ‘security’?

Why is change needed?

The security of the people is an important duty of a society, but governments tend to understand it narrowly. We think there are five main problems with the way the UK and some other states approach this:

  1. Most security risks are long-term and come from underlying problems like economic inequality, climate change, and political exclusion, but the government has a short-term outlook, and believes that physical threats such as mass atrocities and the actions of the Russian state are the main issue.
  2. We cannot expect to enjoy peace at home unless the same conditions exist abroad, but many actions taken in the name of national security—wars, arms sales, support for autocratic governments—routinely generate insecurity overseas, which then ‘blows back’, generating insecurity for everyone. One fundamental problem is that states tend to assume that the needs of people abroad are worth less than their own.
  3. Real security exists when everyone can meet their basic needs; it is in the public interest. But the prevailing approach today is based on ‘national interests’, defined by the government, and skewed towards big business and a small social elite, rather than people in their communities.
  4. A wide division between rich and poor is always bad for security, which depends on building societies that flourish equitably. Instead, richer states often try to control and dominate the world around them. This further widens divisions between people.
  5. Security strategy is decided by a small and exclusive group. Other voices are excluded, including those the strategy harms.

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How could the problem be approached differently?

We don’t have all the answers, but we think that four principles should be a guide:

  1. Security is a form of freedom. Rather than defining security as the absence of risk, it should be understood as a shared freedom from fear and deprivation, and the freedom to live well.
  2. Security is a common right. It depends on solidarity between people, rather than dominance over them.
  3. Security takes time. There are no quick fixes for insecurity. It takes patience and cooperation to build the conditions in which security can develop; it cannot be forced into being.
  4. Security is a shared responsibility. It is democratic by nature, and cannot be left to a small group of powerful states determined to extend their power over others.

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What could a different security policy look like?

For our thoughts on first steps towards a more effective security policy, have a look at our parliamentary briefing (2018).

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Is Rethinking Security a pacifist idea?

No – it’s a recognition of the insecurity that people face at home and abroad. Our common security depends on individuals, communities, and countries being willing to work together so that everyone can meet their basic needs. That does mean relying less on armed forces, not using them to project power abroad, and not trying to profit from war through the arms trade. It means tackling the underlying drivers of insecurity like economic inequality, political exclusion, and climate change. And it means developing peacebuilding approaches to handling conflicts before they erupt into violence, and during and after any violence also.

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We’re not so badly off, so why fix what’s not broken?

After the end of the Cold War, more countries became more democratic, fewer people were killed in war, refugee flows abated, the human rights framework was strengthened, and some progress was made to support the very poorest people out of abject poverty. All this was a step forward for peace and security.

Since the turn of the millennium, these gains have stalled or suffered reversals, while the greatest threats to future security—climate change, economic inequality, and political exclusion, for example—have continued unchecked. Meanwhile, the national security strategies of the most powerful states, including the UK, have relied heavily on coercive capabilities like ‘expeditionary’ armed forces, the use of which has been hugely destructive and increased insecurity worldwide.

So the case for change is both moral and practical. A business-as-usual approach is very likely to make the world less safe for all its people, and, as the world becomes more interconnected, the effects of insecurity will be widely felt.

For more about the changes since the turn of the millennium, see the Rethinking Security discussion paper, section 2.4.

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War and poverty have been the historical norm, so can anything really be changed?

Violence and insecurity affect the whole world, but some societies have been able to make choices that have helped them to become less violent and more peaceful than others. These societies tend to value cooperation over conflict, do not harbour ambitions of ‘world power’ status, and are economically more equitable. For more about the attributes of peaceful societies, see the Positive Peace Reports of the Global Peace Index.

Certainly, war is the shame of humanity, but it can be prevented and it can also be ended. Various treaties have helped to bring peace to societies wracked by violence, to safeguard human rights, to abolish certain weapons of mass destruction, to constrain justifications for war and the way it is fought, and to de-escalate tensions that could have led to catastrophe. So yes, the problems we face are severe indeed, but the history of many major gains shows that, individually and collectively, we have the wit to make better choices… if we want to.

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Isn’t this kind of approach too utopian for the real world?

One of the problems of some ‘utopian’ visions is that they expect people to behave well, as if human nature will be better in the future than it is now. Rethinking the meaning of ‘security’ does not mean wishing away problems, however, but dealing better with the ones we have. We are not proposing a utopian blueprint, but a set of principles that could guide a positive shift in the way major choices are made in future, so that the fundamental needs of people and planet are met more effectively and more humanely.

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Some hard questions

How can abusive governments and armed groups be stopped?

There is rarely a quick fix. Opportunities to end violence or abusive practices depend on many things: the unique characteristics and culture of a society, the underlying factors that drive violence, and external influences. Relying mainly on military means for political change is rarely successful and normally makes the situation worse, as interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have shown. Powerful states also often manipulate an armed conflict for their own ends; much international involvement in the war in Syria is an example. They may also actively support repressive governments – UK arms sales to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, for example, signal to these states that repression of their people has no real costs internationally.

Instead, external actors should consider carefully how their actions can help to de-escalate violence and challenge oppression, while strengthening incentives for peace and justice. This should include efforts to stem the flow of resources to abusive governments and armed groups. External actors should also support locally-led peacebuilding initiatives, which work with all parties to tackle underlying causes of conflict and require sustained support over time. Peacebuilding approaches do not always work, because no approach comes with a guarantee, but with time they can achieve more than coercive military action, and are far less harmful and costly.

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How can acts of terror be prevented?

There is no way to eliminate the risk of atrocities by groups determined to cause harm, but it can be reduced over time. The fanatical action of such groups flourishes where legitimate grievances against dominant power are widespread. By selling arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, ignoring widespread human rights abuses in Israel-Palestine, and marginalising minority groups at home, some British policy risks exacerbating widely-felt anger at the harmful effects of western dominance.

In addition to good policing and public vigilance, a counter-terror strategy has to make sure that currently marginalised social groups are included socially, economically and politically, at home and abroad. The conditions of a just peace, and a more equitable global economy, are the only real defence against the risk of atrocities in the long term. For more about this, see Saferworld’s work on countering terrorism.

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How much of a threat is Russia?

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has repeatedly defied international law, not least by annexing Crimea, invading Georgia and Ukraine, and committing war crimes there and in Syria. This has led some senior political and military leaders to argue that Russia could now threaten NATO or EU members, including the UK. In turn, Russia has protested that NATO has extended its power unreasonably by expanding its territory right up to its border.

The situation is better characterised as a tussle for power and influence between Russia and the United States, which has little to do with the best interests of the public in either country. But while each side is wary of the other, neither wants—or can afford—an open military confrontation between nuclear-armed rivals. Instead, the two sides spar in rhetoric, vie for the allegiance of other countries, manoeuvre against each other in cyberspace, and conduct proxy wars, most obviously in Ukraine, but also to some extent in Syria and Libya where Turkey is also increasingly competing for influence.

This intensifies tensions and increases the risk of a serious escalation, which could happen by accident rather than design. So, while Russia has increasingly become the more aggressive party, the risk is not generated by Russia alone, but by a dangerous stand-off that, so far, neither Russia nor the US has wanted to resolve.

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Many jobs depend on the current approach to security—what would change mean for them?

The British armed forces employ approximately 200,000 people, and a similar number depend directly or indirectly on the UK arms industry, so certainly a large number of jobs currently depend on business as usual. But these jobs are propped up by the taxpayer.

An ‘expeditionary’ military is very expensive; scaling back the armed forces would release a substantial sum, which could be used to improve education and civilian job opportunities for young people. Similarly, the arms trade relies increasingly on government handouts to keep going; ending these subsidies would bring financial savings that could be used to generate new jobs. The UK has huge potential as a pioneer of renewable technology, for example; the arms industry contains many highly skilled STEM workers (science, technology, engineering, maths), whose expertise could be transferred to the renewables sector. For more about this, visit Campaign Against Arms Trade.

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Wouldn’t the UK be at risk if its armed forces were smaller?

The UK is the largest military spender in Europe (including Russia) and one of the largest in the world, yet the government acknowledges that the country faces no serious risk of a conventional military attack. There remains little prospect of such an attack from Russia; as of 2021, NATO exceeded Russia’s military spending by more than 17 times and had far greater military manpower, equipment and technologies.

The risk of atrocities by non-state groups is real, as shown by the Manchester and London attacks of 2017, among others, but the risk is not reduced by large armed forces. The risk of a nuclear attack is also real, but that is because a nuclear-armed UK would be a priority target in any nuclear exchange between the great powers.

So, the UK would suffer no loss to its national security from relying less on large armed forces and nuclear weapons; if anything, it could become a safer place to live.

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How viable is security cooperation when the UN is deadlocked?

The UN Security Council was set up to provide for the peace and security of the world, so it is scandalous that its five Permanent Members (China, France, Russia, UK, US) are the world’s largest military spenders and arms exporters, and between them have started more wars this century than any other states. The main reason for frequent deadlock at the Council is that each of these five privileged states has the power of veto over its decisions; this is anti-democratic.

Without reform of the Council, deadlock is likely to continue and states will resort to their own ‘solutions’ to international problems outside the framework of international law. This is in no one’s interests. The bombing of Syria by France, the UK, and US in April 2018 is but one of many examples of this since the end of the Cold War. Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and it’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, as well as China’s occupation, expansion and militarisation of islands in the South China Sea since 2013 are other recent examples.

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Does deterrence have a role in peace and security?

Throughout history, all kinds of societies have hoped to deter a potential aggressor by ensuring that the cost of an attack would outweigh any benefit. But this logic is also dangerous. The more that states lean on deterrence for their security and status in the world, the more that they will vie for power and the greater the risk becomes of an arms race. Then, if deterrence fails, the consequences become catastrophic.

This risk can be reduced by progressively reducing reliance on large armed forces, in concert with others. Regrettably, powerful states still rely on military force to project their power abroad, but this is not the global norm; the armed forces of most states are configured for territorial defence or peacekeeping (like most European countries), and some states are strategically neutral (like Switzerland). Almost all states worldwide do not have or want nuclear weapons; those that do are making the world more dangerous.

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Doesn’t the UK-US ‘special relationship’ bring benefits to the world?

Britain and America have frequently referred to a ‘special relationship’ between them, which is said to benefit the prosperity and security of their people. Some believe that the ‘special relationship’ helps to increase British influence in America, and that the UK helps to ensure that the US does the right thing on the world stage.

In fact, the relationship is not so special to the US, which chooses its alliances on an ‘America first’ basis. The US wants the UK to support American and NATO interests, but its strategy documents barely mention the UK, and its armed forces are so big that it can manage without help from the British military. Nor has the relationship helped to bring peace. Acting together, the UK and US have been responsible for disastrous wars, particularly in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

British service to American interests has been an impediment to a more progressive approach to security, which would involve working more closely with other states. For example, the UK could opt in to the nuclear weapons ban treaty, which now enjoys widespread support across the world, but it is still too attached to the US to do so. Read more about the ban treaty at CND.

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Are refugees and asylum-seekers a security risk to the UK?

Most of the more than 82 million people across the world who have had to flee their homes are accommodated as displaced persons and refugees in the world’s poorest countries, not the richest. Even by the standards of Europe, Britain takes in very few asylum-seekers relative to other countries, receiving three percent of all applications; France, Germany and Italy each receive at least twice as many applications as the UK.

Some have claimed that asylum-seekers entering the UK are a risk to national security. In fact, around 25,000 people seek asylum in the UK each year, yet all but one of the major attacks in Britain since 2000 have been perpetrated by people born in the UK.

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What else?

What hard questions do you have? And do you have any answers for them? Let us know.

Want to find out more?

Check out our short video on the home page, or download the Rethinking Security discussion paper.