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In times of uncertainty

April 01, 2013

THE term “national security” is heard often but there is little comprehension of its integral component, the concept of national security uncertainty.

This refers to the presence of ill-defined or ill-understood threats that can arise to challenge states, usually after paradigm shifts (such as the events of 9/11) or major turbulences in history.

One of the main problems is that if a state is unsure about the intent of its opponent, it will not be adequately prepared to meet the challenges presented by the opponent’s goals, interests and capabilities. A state facing such a dilemma will not be able to make a decision as to when and how to prepare for a war, counterinsurgency, engagement or any other challenge.

The dilemma escalates when there are other challenges facing the state as well, such as economic problems. This will exacerbate the uncertainty horizon, since what may be a perfectly viable option for a financially secure state may not be feasible for one facing an economic crunch.

Socio-cultural factors also result in limited choice, such as the influence of religion in a state facing national security uncertainty, ethnic or nationalist violence etc.

National security uncertainty is not usually the result of a single factor but is often multifaceted, with an overlay of socio-cultural and socio-economic factors that can increase or decrease uncertainty in conformity with the changing context.

A state that has made no enemies within and without may still have to make choices about its national security. A classic example is the traditionally neutral state of Norway, which has joined the Nato alliance in the most dramatic shift possible and away from its neutral posture.

Together with a burgeoning immigrant population, acceptance of the fact that porous borders allow insecurity in Europe to permeate the state’s physical and ideological borders has promoted this shift. This has arisen from increasing national security uncertainty more than anything else, since Norway does not have a clearly defined enemy. Asymmetric attacks such as the one perpetrated almost two years ago by a local man exacerbate the environment of uncertainty.

As regards national security uncertainty, when the threat is ill-defined or ambiguous, it is harder for states to explain clearly to the public who the enemy is. This lack of clear explanation makes it more difficult to mobilise support for any national security strategy meant to counter the uncertainty.

In this dimension, the sort of societal support scholar Michael Howard terms the “forgotten dimension of strategy” is absent or lacking in depth.

A theory that explains why it is so hard to get support from the public when there is ambivalence about the enemy is the prospect theory. The prospect theory states that people will react differently to prospects of gains or losses.

In case of losses which seem imminent or probable, or when a choice needs to be made to accept losses, people will be more amenable to taking chances.

When gains are within grasp, or when a choice is to be made to accept gains, people will not be ready to accept the risk of losses. In other words, people will be more amenable to accepting the prospect of losses if they go for a risky venture than if they go for one where the chances of gains are higher.

The human condition is programmed to be “risk acceptant” for losses and “risk averse” for gains. Incorporating the prospect theory into national security paradigms would mean that citizens are more accepting of losses when they can see a clearly demarcated opponent of the state especially in the face of imminent terrorism.

Thus, public opinion can be mobilised even when a state tells its citizens that acts of terrorism are inevitable. There just needs to be a clearly demarcated enemy, with the state admitting that there will be human or infrastructural losses along the way but that it will fight back with all its might to eventually eradicate this menace.

Goals such as minimising losses in the face of threats can be more acceptable to the public if they are communicated to the latter, rather than the state going on and on about positive goals such as becoming a terrorism-free progressive nation.

The latter will not gain traction with the public in countries facing turbulence. Noble as these positive goals are, and certainly worth aspiring for, they may not help a state gain credibility when besieged by terrorism, an economic crunch and a general deterioration in law and order and governance.

Especially in a state beset by troubles, the people are pragmatic in their outlook — no matter what their level of education — and would be able to conceive in better terms what will be lost than what might be gained.

Of course, when the threat is more or less eliminated, then people will be more amenable to accepting themes that focus on the ideals to which states aspire.

However, once an environment of low threat has lasted for some time, people will not be that willing to take losses along the way for the realisation of positive goals.

In times of insecurity, issues that do not present a clear picture, such as that of an identifiable opponent, it is certainly easier to have a national counterterrorism strategy as compared to a counter-extremism strategy, even though evolving a clear counterterrorism strategy can prove problematic.

This is partly due to the fact that few people will study vague and diffuse threats until they actually materialise. However, there are definite ways in which different theories can coalesce so that national security doctrines remain fluid in the face of diffuse threats. It is time, perhaps, to start studying them.

The writer is a security analyst.