Getting to grips with the post-Cold War security threat

November 6, 2009


-John Reid, formerly the UK Defence Secretary and Home Secretary, is MP for Airdrie and Shotts, and Chairman of the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies at University College, London. The opinions expressed are his own. -

The fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989, was one of history’s truly epochal moments. During what became a revolutionary wave sweeping across the former Eastern Bloc countries, the announcement by the then-East German Government that its citizens could visit West Germany set in train a series of events that led, ultimately, to the demise of the Soviet Union itself.

Twenty years on, what is most striking to me are the massive, enduring ramifications of the events of November 1989. Only several decades ago, the Cold War meant that the borders of the Eastern Bloc were largely inviolate; extremist religious groups and ethnic tensions were suppressed, there was no internet (at least as we know it today) and travel between East and West was difficult. The two great Glaciers of the Cold War produced a frozen hinterland characterised by immobility.

Today’s world is a vastly different place. When one of the great Glaciers – the former Soviet Union – melted it helped unleash a potential torrent of security problems. We now live in an era characterised by huge mobility and instability, in which issues such as mass migration, international crime and international terrorism have a much higher prominence.

The end of the Cold War, together with subsequent conflicts across Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East, for instance, has led to many millions of people migrating the globe in hope or fear. In the West, this has given rise to pressure on jobs, healthcare, education, housing and cultural identity, causing local populations to feel threatened.

While international migration has generally been culturally enriching and beneficial, it has nonetheless also increased the range of threats to our societies. For instance, the 48 radical Islamicists implicated in terror plots in the United States between 1993 and 2001, including the 9/11 hijackers, all used legitimate immigration devices (e.g. “green cards”, student/tourism/business visas, and amnesty and asylum) to get into the country.

Getting to grips with this specific threat is a major challenge and the reason why, as UK Home Secretary, I placed so much emphasis on the need to overhaul our immigration system. Key elements of the changes I championed include a new points-based system — which represents the biggest reform of UK immigration procedures for more than half a century; electronic border controls (all UK entry visas, for instance, are now based on finger prints); and the National Identity Scheme which features compulsory fingerprint biometric identity cards for foreign nationals.

It is globalisation that lies at the heart of our transformational post-Cold War World. This inexorable process has extended the opportunities of world-wide interchange. Driven by technological advances in transport, communications, and electronic networks, globalisation has delivered massive opportunities in terms of mobility, movement and exchange of people, ideas, values, resources, commodities and finance.

But this same globalisation process and associated technology has also brought major new threats, or intensified existing ones, rendering everyone increasingly inter-dependent and vulnerable. The threat we face is seamless, running across the boundaries of defence, foreign affairs, domestic and social life. For instance, it has left nations and peoples ever more vulnerable to phenomena ranging from international crime and terrorism through to cyber-attack, health pandemics, energy-politics, resource shortage and financial crises.

The net result is that there are far more sources of insecurity than during the Cold War. The uncertainty this generates means that crises (defined as crucial turning points in events rather than as catastrophes) are more recurrent. Moreover, this bias towards instability is exacerbated by the fact that the nature of the potential crises we face is constantly evolving. In the context of international migration, for instance, terrorists and other international criminals are constantly trying to find new ways to evade our security safeguards.

Given the complexity of the threats we face, it is essential as a nation that we continually upgrade our capacity to deal with them by identifying, exposing and remedying our deficiencies. If we are to be able to keep up, and potentially be one step ahead of our adversaries, we will increasingly need to pool our ingenuity to innovate and deliver solutions.

This is a relatively uncontroversial ambition, shared by many. But I believe it requires nothing less than new thinking, new urgency and a new approach to studying tomorrow’s security problems today.

That’s partly why we are establishing the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies at University College, London. The new Centre will address projects of vital importance to national and international security arising from globalisation in the post-Cold War World. The goal is to assess and embed resilience as well as analysing threats; and to extend this analysis into action in outlining policy options to shape our preparation, response and recovery to crises.

This insistence on “embedding” resilience throughout organisational structures and culture is essential given the nature of contemporary society. Where there is, for instance, now a global availability of information through the internet, satellite and mobile communications, resilience to threats must be embedded in a decentralised way (rather than top-down). To the degree that resilience can ever be said to have depended on an elite management at the top of organisations, this is no longer the case — hence the need to bring together practitioners from the public, private and third sectors with academics in order to combine theory and practice in targeted projects.

The goal must be nothing less that ensuring that government, business and society can not only cope with, but flourish, in the increasingly uncertain times in which we live. The fall of that wall symbolised the emergence of a world offering both unparalleled opportunities and unprecedented insecurities. The challenge of maximising the first and countering the latter is a legacy demanding an ingenuity and endurance from the next and subsequent generations to match that of their predecessors.


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