2020 has given us all much to think about. The year began with the charred remains of the 2019 bush fires still blistering through the heart of our nation. We had known bushfires before- Australia is the land of fire and storm; of droughts and flooding rains. As the fires dissipated, a grieving nation assessed the damage, dusted itself off and drew on the strength of its people to recover.
Then came the pandemic that swept through Europe, Asia, North America and our own fortress Australia. The virus named COVID-19 does not respect borders. It does not form an orderly line. It does not discriminate. It cannot be shot at, bombed, arrested, turned back or sent home.
Our frontline of defence does not wear army fatigues and carry a gun. The second decade of the 2000s has given us much to think about- not least the fact that contemporary threats to our security and wellbeing come from unconventional sources.
It is not that long ago that the international security environment was largely characterised by the dichotomy of the Cold War. It is astonishing to look back at that time and ponder how relatively simple that seems compared to a new world order where nation states are no longer the major actors in the international security landscape. Non-state actors, individuals, non-government organisations and private corporations play a larger role in conflict and security now than they have in the past. Growing tensions between the United States and China have raised some concerns that the world is entering into another Cold War phase- one where China and the US as major super powers face off on trade, technology, military capabilities and regional influence.
But this view fails to recognise that the international security landscape has been transforming for decades and is likely to continue along a trajectory marked by diversity of actors and threats.
While inter-state conflict continues to be an enduring factor, it is no longer the defining concern for international and national security. Intra-state conflict and the collapse of fragile states, climate change, mass population displacement, extreme economic events, cyber security, energy and resource security, transnational organised crime, terrorism and pandemics are likely to continue to present as primary current and future concerns.
How well we weather contemporary and future challenges to our security depends on how adaptive we are to change. If history is anything to go by, we are not well equipped to face these new challenges - not because the international community lacks the insight or doesn’t know how to defeat modern enemies but because we lack the political will to mobilise soft power. In this regard, the decades long fight against international terrorism offers an instructive example.
In the fight against terrorism, Western allies deployed conventional warfare against a non-conventional enemy, in the, perhaps naïve, belief that terrorism could be defeated by bombs and bullets.
The prolonged war on terror failed to eradicate the threat of international terrorism. It is reasonable to deduce that the ‘War on Terror’ has actually led to a proliferation in the use of terrorist tactics by non-state actors in conflicts. In fragile states and those currently in conflict, indiscriminate terror attacks have become part of warfare.
The wisdom of employing a conventional ‘hard’ military response against an unconventional enemy whose regenerative capacity relies on its ability to employ ‘soft’ strategies of influence and mobilisation has, rightly, been questioned. Had we utilised soft strategies and mobilised civil society in novel ways to combat the threat of terrorism, we may have seen a different outcome - one where terrorism threat was excised at its root and where individuals and communities were empowered to resist the lure of ISIS and its affiliates.
The current theoretical framework for conceptualising counter terrorism has its origins in the school of thought of international relations and politics where approaches have been understood in terms of the exercise of power to obtain outcomes either through coercion (hard power) or attraction (soft power).
Hard power instruments include military, financial incentives, economic sanctions, and legal options. Soft power on the other hand encompasses a rather broader range of instruments that either directly or indirectly improve relations between nations or bring about desired social change. Most governments possess soft power diplomatic tools. Beyond government, soft power also resides in the institutions that promote cultural or educational exchange.
Hard and soft forms of power are not neutrally wielded and are often seen to be in opposition to each other, with proponents vying for resources and influence. Hard power advocates argue that hard power is the most effective means of achieving desired results particularly when dealing with rogue states. Soft power proponents on the other hand, argue that it is a more ethical approach not only limited to government, but that can also be employed by NGOs, corporations, institutions and transnational networks. Unlike hard power tactics, soft power measures are much harder to quantify and often take years to implement before any measurable results become evident.
Hard power and soft power are far more nuanced than simple definitions of coercion versus attraction. Soft instruments can be used in hard ways and vice versa. It is instead more useful to think of hard power as being purposeful in its application and finite in its effect. Soft power can be both purposeful and non- purposeful and potentially infinite in its effect.
Neither soft power nor hard power alone is very effective in achieving the goals of international or national security. The integration of hard and soft power into a single framework has eluded Western nations, particularly in the counter terrorism space where target hardening, military intervention, intelligence and punitive measures have been the predominant feature of our counter terrorism responses.
Punitive measures introduced in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere respond to the phenomenon of foreign fighters in ways that reflect hard power. The confiscation of travel documents of those suspected to be planning to travel to Iraq and Syria in support of the Islamic State is implemented by state institutions and law enforcement agencies who have limited authority or interest in prevention and intervention. Meanwhile, broad-based prevention initiatives that have the potential to interrupt radicalisation in the early stages are reliant on the capacity of the non-government sector.
The ‘traditional’ hard strategies involving military, policing, intelligence and legislation, have proved insufficient for establishing an effective long-term strategy, though they should not be entirely discounted. Rather, hard power measures should be used in combination with soft power in ways that effectively respond to the root causes of violent extremism. Such an approach also considers the social, economic, political and historical contexts in which violent extremism arises.
This kind of holistic and balanced approach to security can only be achieved through an integrated strategy, resource base and tool kit that draws from both hard and soft power. It is the kind of approach that will take us into the future and will meet the demands of an ever changing and transformative security landscape that presents new challenges, new foes and potential new alliances. Without a comprehensive and integrated framework, we are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past - to continue to fight novel enemies with conventional forces and deploy our efforts in ways that have limited impact.
Now is the time to reflect. Now is also the time to act. The past year has made it abundantly clear that all of us contribute to our security. Security in the modern age is no longer about military might alone. To understand this one salient point is the start to recognising that the future of security must be a collective effort.
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 1
Author: Anne Aly MP