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The key to global security? It’s not just about security

Guest content

In his 900th column for openDemocracy, Paul Rogers shows how economics and climate demand a new approach to international security.

What will be making the world a more dangerous place in the coming two decades? There’s no shortage of looming threats: weapons of mass destruction; automation and artificial intelligence taking hundreds of millions of jobs; extensive surveillance and intrusion by states. But three core drivers of insecurity transcend these. They are:

  • a failing neoliberal economic system;
  • environmental limits, especially climate breakdown;
  • an entrenched security paradigm.

Neoliberalism puts us in danger by deepening socio-economic divisions, which marginalises many people and so increases the risk of violent revolts from those margins. Climate breakdown is of course a global danger and will be catastrophic if not prevented. And our military-industrial complex, with the use of force as its excuse for existing, has proved disastrous in the 18-year ‘war on terror’ and is incapable of responding to a divided and constrained world.

Economics, environment and security are not independent issues, however. They create vicious circles that could become virtuous if we approached them as a single integrated problem.

The failure of neoliberal economics

Neoliberalism is a term much used but not so well understood, so here is a definition. The neoliberal view is that a fundamental aim of a state must be to free up – liberalise – markets. It assumes that markets will then work more efficiently and thereby boost shareholder capitalism. Inequality is accepted as not only inevitable but as a positive good thing: it is believed to enhance competition while allowing some wealth to ‘trickle down’, leading to its limited sharing. However, faith in the overwhelming value of competition requires losers as an essential element in the system.

Neoliberalism embraces privatisation of state assets, financial deregulation, free movement of goods and services (except when this hinders neoliberalism), control of labour (especially of trade unions) and lower taxes for high taxpayers. Major public services such as health and education should be wholly or at least partially privatised.

Many people in the West aged under 40 will have known no other system, and it can be surprising to recall the more mixed economies of the post-war years. They had many faults, including a world trade system that systematically aided the northern industrialised consumer states as shown by the failure to implement the 1974 New International Economic Order. More positively, though, many countries had significant state welfare elements, not least because of the influence of the Soviet bloc and China. Nevertheless, mixed economies failed to respond well to the stagflation that followed the 1973-4 oil price rises. By the end of the decade they had been overshadowed by neoliberalism.

Two countries led the way, the US and the UK, with Reaganomics and Thatcherism to the fore. In the US the Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982 effectively reversed key elements of the post-1929 ‘New Deal’ Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. It freed movement of capital, eased leverage, minimised financial regulation and promoted credit default swaps – which reduced the risk of buying debt – and was accompanied by cuts in high-rate taxes.

In the UK, much of the emphasis was on suppressing and controlling organised labour along with lowering higher-rate taxes, selling major public assets such as social housing and extensive deregulation of financial systems in the 1986 ‘Big Bang’. These reforms were hugely eased by the profligate use of the once-in-a-lifetime bonanza of North Sea oil and gas. Without it, the Thatcherite revolution would have impossible in the relatively weak British economy.

The neoliberal system was further boosted by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the partial adoption of the free market by China. It was hugely boosted across the global south when it was soon embraced by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and many western development agencies through the ‘Washington consensus’.

Early warnings of neoliberalism’s problems came with the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995 and the Asian downturn two years later. Even so, the turn of the century saw it dominant in many countries: it could be recognised where money was in charge, tax avoidance widespread, inequality rising and greed accepted as good.

Bitterness, anger, and resentment are a common response from a majority who may be educated but are marginalised all the same

Within a decade those signs included endemic financial hubris and an excessive belief in ‘safe risk’ bolstered by mathematical ‘quant’ analysts and techies. This led to the 2008 crisis, which stemmed principally from toxic housing loans, especially in the US, initially disguised by an excessive reliance on credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations, which allowed people to invest in large packages of debt.

Today the neoliberal system dominates the world. It is not entirely global, but more than a decade after the crisis the growth in inequality is having a global effect. To take the UK as an example, the wealth of the richest thousand people in 2018 stood at £724 billion, up £66 billion on 2017. In other words, each of those people, on average, increased their wealth by £66 million (around £1.2 million a week) during that year. The average annual pay of the chief executives of FTSE100 companies is £3.9 million: that works out at £1,020 an hour, or 113 times the average British wage.

At the other end of the inequality scale, a recent UN study predicts a 7% increase in child poverty by 2022 in this wealthy country, and 1.5 million people are destitute – that is, they don’t have the money for their basic necessities.

In global terms the richest 1% of the world’s people control nearly half its wealth. In 2018 the 110,000 ultra-high-net-worth individuals – those with over $50 million – increased their wealth by 8%, as did the world’s 2,158 dollar billionaires. At the same time there have been many welcome improvements in international development, including progress towards the UN Millennium Development Goals – but the global south has also seen many small financial elites suddenly growing and getting richer. Bitterness, anger and resentment are a common response from a majority who may be educated but are marginalised all the same.

How does all this relate to security? In that those emotions find expression in a variety of ways, from populist movements in many western states where fear of migrants often looms large, through to extreme movements in parts of the global south where religion, nationalism, neo-Maoism or race may motivate opposition and even revolt.

The wealthy are not blind to the problems that neoliberalism brings but are not in general motivated to change the model. In the UK, for instance, a number of ultra-rich individuals and families are planning to protect their wealth from the leftist government that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party makes possible. The Economist recently pointed to a sell-out event organised by an investors’ club titled ‘How to Corbyn-proof your wealth’ and quoted the chair of a FTSE100 company who said that the rich “would take all the money offshore, wait for the economy to collapse, and come back and get richer”. It also reported a move to buy property in Guernsey in the Channel Islands, with its flat 20% income tax and absence of capital gains and inheritance tax.

Some might respond by demanding violent revolutionary change but all too often such revolutions merely change the accents of the elites. Those who long for a peaceful progressive revolution to reverse the damage done by neoliberalism may have some reason for optimism, but as even modest reform would require many significant changes. In the UK for example, they would include a minimum of:

As it is, the neoliberal economic system is becoming unfit for purpose and politics and societies are changing rapidly, if not in a progressive direction. This can be seen in the rise of populist movements and leaders, and in violent revolts from the margins. These are huge global issues in themselves but their full significance becomes clear only when they are seen combined with the potential for climate breakdown in an era of security rooted in the control paradigm.

Climate breakdown 

Climate change was recognised as a problem in the 1970s, but those early concerns were largely discounted as neoliberal economics, focused on economic growth and shrinking the state, grew in dominance throughout the 1980s. By the 1990s the scientific evidence of impending danger was becoming overwhelming but key states and the global fossil carbon industry ignored it. US-dominated multinationals were at the centre of this, joined by oil-rich Gulf states, Russia, Canada and Australia to prevent the necessary action.

The neoliberal market-based system cannot handle radical and rapid decarbonisation of economies

The climate breakdown problem stems from the rapid combustion of fossil carbon as the current primary energy source to fuel economic growth. Given the decades that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, radical action has to be undertaken at least two decades in advance.

The sheer number of indicators reported each month powerfully illustrates the urgency of the issue. In April, for example, the latest data showed that 2019 is on track to be one of the three warmest years – along with 2016 and 2017 – since accurate records began over 150 years ago. Even more striking was the report that ocean heat content has set a new record since measurements began in 1940. Given the capacity of water to store heat this means that curbing temperature increases is an even greater task than most people realise. Further evidence comes from the Antarctic, where sea ice hit record lows earlier in the year and the fact that there has been an acceleration in emissions of methane – a climate change gas more powerful than CO2 – since 2014.

Although international negotiations have resulted in partial agreements to curb carbon emissions, far more radical and rapid decarbonisation of economies is required by 2030, substantially exceeding all current plans. The neoliberal market-based system cannot handle this, not least because market forces focused on shareholder capitalism will resist the making of changes now to prevent problems in a decade or more’s time. Furthermore, neoliberalism is concerned with shrinking the power and size of the state. Because of this it is a huge hindrance to preventing climate breakdown.

Even so there have been two very positive developments in recent years. First, far more people recognise that climate breakdown is a problem. Civil society is increasingly active and even some of the larger political parties are at last responding with greater commitment. The sudden growth and early impact of Extinction Rebellion and other nonviolent actions are building on decades of activism and may prove to be a tipping point in public awareness in many countries.

Second, there have been very impressive technical developments in renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power. These make it more possible that rapid decarbonisation can be achieved.

Neither, though, is enough to bring the changes we need as fast as we need them. Strong political leadership backed by even stronger public determination is essential to restructure the neoliberal system and engage in radical decarbonisation. The latter is not feasible without the former. Nor will it happen without seriously new thinking on security.

An obsolete security paradigm

Worldwide, the dominant approach to security is to keep control through force. This paradigm gives little weight to understanding and responding to the causes of conflict. And this is where security depends on economics and the environment, because the causes of conflict lie in the marginalisation and exclusion of most people in a society, a problem now being made worse by climate breakdown.

The West has applied the control paradigm to the world since 9/11 and it has proved a disaster. It has left a trail of weak and failing states, hundreds of thousands of people killed, millions displaced and a legacy of bitterness and resentment. Yet few military and political leaders recognise this failure.

Viewed from within the control paradigm, revolts from the "majority margins" must be controlled where necessary by force.

The early responses to 9/11 included the deployment of well over 200,000 troops in the Middle East and South Asia. When that failed, we moved into the era of remote warfare with far greater reliance on strike aircraft, armed drones, special forces and private military companies. That, too, is failing as violent paramilitary groups persist across the Middle East, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, arms production remains very big business with world-wide sales of well over $400 billion a year and three companies – Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Boeing – accounting for over a third of them.

Arms exports are essential for most arms companies and some countries, with corrupt payments (AKA ‘commission’) all too often essential components of contracts. In countries with sizeable arms industries there is also the pervasive influence of the ‘revolving door’ between the companies and senior military and civil servants, as well as a persistently cosy relationship between defence interests and think tanks as well as with university-based research.

At root, however, is the failure of the paradigm itself, not least a military-industrial complex that serves a political establishment which cares mostly about the short term and focuses on state power. An elite owns the narrative on security. It dismisses alternative agendas and concentrates power in a few highly profitable businesses and their associated lobbies, all in a pervasive environment of hegemonic masculinity and western ethnocentrism.

Viewed from within the control paradigm, revolts from the ‘majority margins’ resulting from the failure of neoliberalism and made worse by climate breakdown, must be controlled where necessary by force, despite the recent grievous failures. It doesn’t help if some military analysts seek genuinely to look long-term and even recognise that the combination of this marginalisation and environmental collapse will result in mass migration, societal pressures and failing states. For them the responsibility of the military remains ‘defence of the realm’ rather than address the reasons for revolt.

What is actually required is a human-rights dimension to security, the need to see it as a common right to freedom from fear and want, rooted in socio-economic and ecological awareness. Otherwise, the current control paradigm will do no more than exacerbate the risk of serious instability and violence. More powerful elite communities will seek to retain their position, with the ‘barbarians at the gates’ held back by force when necessary. The 9/11 attacks demonstrated all too well that castle gates cannot keep you safe. But that is a lesson still to be learnt.

Putting it together

The interconnections of the three trends mean that the responses must also be integrated. Climate breakdown will not be prevented without an economic transformation away from the short-termism and divisions of neoliberal economics. Neoliberalism is a failing system, yet the current security paradigm emphasises the need to suppress revolts and social and environmental instability, not address their underlying causes. Both are primarily focused on the short term and maintaining the status quo.

This may seem an insurmountable problem, but if we do recognise the connections then we also see that the widespread and welcome thinking and action on these individual challenges is part of the much more general response needed. Whether the concern is with the arms trade, peacekeeping, nonviolent social change, environmental action, tax reform or many other issues, it is also best seen as part of a whole.

Furthermore, it is now obvious that one of the challenges, that of climate breakdown, is much more immediate than previously acknowledged. No one person, group or even movement can do it all, but it is hugely empowering to recognise that, by taking action on any one of the challenges, you are part of something very much greater and hugely needed.

Worldwide, the dominant approach to security is to keep control through force. This paradigm gives little weight to understanding and responding to the causes of conflict. And this is where security depends on economics and the environment, because the causes of conflict lie in the marginalisation and exclusion of most people in a society, a problem now being made worse by climate breakdown.

The West has applied the control paradigm to the world since 9/11 and it has proved a disaster. It has left a trail of weak and failing states, hundreds of thousands of people killed, millions displaced and a legacy of bitterness and resentment. Yet few military and political leaders recognise this failure.

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