Theme: France and
the UK have just released their national security and defence
strategies in 2008. For Spain the case for a national security
strategy is growing because it shares the same complex and uncertain
Summary: At the beginning of the 21st century, governments across the globe
have struggled to keep up with the growth and complexity of the
challenges facing them. The Spanish government is no exception and
finds itself exposed to the changes across a global system that often
reverberates unpredictably throughout Spanish society. To ensure the
government takes a holistic approach to national security a strategy
should be developed. A strategy would aim to: (1) articulate a vision
of the current and future security environment; (2) communicate
Spain’s values in the 21st century; (3) develop a framework for
collaboration across the government on national security and identify
policy areas where departments and agencies can be more efficient and
effective in working together; and (4) prioritise national security
policies and initiatives and the allocation of resources.
Analysis: It has become something of a cliché that the beginning of
the 21st century is marked by increasing complexity and uncertainty,
on a national, regional and international scale. Yet it is an
intriguing paradox of the post Cold War world that national security
has become, if anything, more frantic while the world around has
become relatively more peaceful and benign than in previous decades
(G. Treverton, Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of
Information, CUP, 2003).
This sense of vulnerability is further perpetuated by an information revolution
that has powerfully influenced expectations around the globe.
Twenty-four hour news, seven days a week, has shortened time
horizons, and governments have found it increasingly more difficult
to request time to deliberate when television and online media report
the latest unfolding tragedy minute by minute. It is an environment
in which European governments find themselves ever more
interconnected, where changes anywhere in the system reverberate
unpredictably –and often chaotically throughout society–.
Cause and effect are no longer close in time and space (C. Edwards
and S. Parker S., Futures Thinking (And How to Do It, Demos,
Towards a Networked Approach to Security
The strategist John Bryson suggests that this increasing
interconnectedness is perhaps most apparent in the blurring of three
traditionally important distinctions between domestic and
international spheres, between policy areas and between the public
and private spaces. This blurring can be seen most obviously when you consider the mass of trends and events affecting the EU from terrorism, immigration,
pandemics, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD),
the impact of fragile states on the international community and the
growth of serious and organised crime.
The challenge faced by Spain, France and the UK is that these diverse
trends are marked by complex interactions that link, rather than
divide, streams of events in the present and the future. Governments
may by default remain linear, but life can no longer be understood or
dealt with in such terms (L. Fuerth, ‘Strategic Myopia: The
Case for Forward Engagement’, The National Interest 83,
Spring 2006). Threats and hazards –two different terms to
distinguish between natural disasters, like the Hurricane Katrina,
and human-inspired risks, such as terrorism– cannot be
adequately dealt with solely by a single government department or
even by a national government. As threats become increasingly
interlinked, such as terrorism and organised crime for example,
joining forces across governments and with the EU has become an
Increasingly, governments will have to take a ‘networked approach’ to
national security, shaped and directed by an overarching strategy.
This will lead to greater interdependence among departments and
agencies, demanding a more holistic approach to security policy. The
ramifications will become increasingly apparent as the
responsibilities of departments blur, along with traditional lines of
accountability, creating further opportunities for collaboration
between public servants and enhancing the prospects for innovation
For Spain, the case for a national security strategy is growing. In the absence
of a clear framework it is difficult to prioritise security policy at
the national level given the lead times needed for the procurement of
equipment, to allow initiatives to mature and be evaluated and for an
overarching strategy to be accepted by the Spanish public.
Defining ‘National Security’
With the expansion of the concept of national security comes a major challenge
to the organisations on which we rely for the management of security
policy. Thus, we need to expand the operational definition of
national security from its core interest in physical protection
towards a comprehensive definition that embraces the sources and
realities of power in the 21st century.
The debate about what is and is not a concern of ‘national security’
is long overdue. Defining the concept of national security is an
urgent requirement, as threats and hazards mutate over time, becoming
more interconnected and thus more difficult to respond to by a single
government department or agency. As recent events have shown, Spain
faces a broad spectrum of threats and hazards to its national
security. For instance:
Serious and organised crime. Organised crime is increasingly becoming
part of a globalised network. It is estimated that each year, 700
million smuggled-in packs of tobacco are sold in Spain and US$4
billion is laundered in the country. Key areas of activity include
big cities as well as the Mediterranean seashore.
Terrorism. This includes state-sponsored terrorism, domestic extremism,
religious extremism and violent secessionist movements.
Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The threat does not come only
from countries of concern, but also from non-state actors (eg
terrorists and criminal networks).
Fragile states. The growing number of failed or failing states is one of
the most disturbing of recent security developments. These states
contribute to instability and can be a haven for terrorists and
organised crime groups that exploit weak or corrupt governing
structures to pursue their nefarious activities.
Natural disasters. Spain has been subject to natural hazards such as
earthquakes and hurricanes, as well forest fires and severe heat
Pandemics. Examples such as the SARS epidemic or Avian Flu (H5N1) demonstrate
how accelerated international travel patterns have amplified the
risk of pandemics and related health threats to the security of
Other key risks include energy security, in particular Spain’s
dependence on North Africa and the wider European critical
infrastructure which has become increasingly fragile.
Adapting to the New Security Environment
The development of a national security strategy for Spain would provide
the government with an anticipatory view of risks. Long-range
strategic thinking is imperative if the government is to prepare for
future uncertainties and is a crucial process in allowing individuals
in government to question organisational assumptions about the
direction of policy. For example, so much of what goes down in
history as ‘intelligence failures’ results from
assumptions, ones that are often derived from mirror imaging –asking
what we would do if we were in someone else’s shoes–. If
getting the questions right is the first task, being clear about what
is an assumption and what is a critical variable is the second. There
are a number of methods that allow organisations to attempt to
understand the future, including forecasting and scenario planning.
Techniques such as scenario planning, for example, are useful because they allow
organisations to develop strategies that will work in all conceivable
futures –the key question they answer is not ‘what will
the future look like?’ but ‘how can we prepare for all
likely futures?’–. Once completed, scenarios serve two
main purposes. The first is protective: anticipating and
understanding risk. The second is entrepreneurial: discovering
strategic options of which you were previously unaware (P. Wack,
‘Scenarios: Shooting the Rapids’, Harvard Business
Review, November 1985).
Good scenario planning also allows a diverse range of perspectives to be
aired in public and private, a crucial factor given the more diffuse
range of security challenges of the 21st century, when ‘it will
not be possible to accumulate the breadth and depth of understanding
which intelligence collectors, analysts and users built up over the
years about the single subject of the Soviet Union’. The failure to entertain different perspectives can lead to ‘group
think’. The importance of not becoming trapped by our own
assumptions and thinking is further highlighted by Geoffrey Vickers,
as he suggests: ‘A trap is a trap only for creatures who cannot
solve the problem it sets. Man traps are dangerous only in relation
to the limitations of what men can see and value and do... We the
trapped tend to take our own state of mind for granted –which
is partly why we are trapped–’ (G. Vickers, Freedom in
a Rocking Boat, Penguin, 1972).
Individuals and organisations are also very bad at learning the right lessons
from random or unpredictable events. There is a clear place for
learning operational lessons from events such as the 11 M bombings on the Madrid train network in order to prepare ourselves
for a similar event next time. However, this should not be at the
cost of ignoring other potential scenarios; the strategic aim should
be to better prepare for unpredictable events in general. As Nassim
Taleb suggests: ‘Our track record in predicting [random events,
such as 9/11] is dismal; yet by some mechanism called the hindsight
bias we think that we understand them. We have a bad habit of finding
“laws” in history (by fitting stories to events and
detecting false patterns); we are drivers looking through the rear
view mirror while convinced we are looking ahead’ (N. Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random
Finally, some of the biggest threats to organisational survival are often not
shock events but slowly building pressures and trends. Like the
British and French systems of government, the Spanish government’s
ability to foresee and respond to increasing threats and hazards is
often handicapped by an archaic and compartmentalised system. The
ability to plan for the long term will become an ever-greater
priority as domestic and international politics, and policy areas
blur, creating ‘wicked problems’.
The Emergence of ‘Wicked Problems’
There is a growing literature on how governments across the globe lack a
strategic approach to ‘wicked problems’. ‘Wicked
problems’, like national security, are ‘problems which
are unbounded in scope, time and resources, and enjoy no clear
agreement about what a solution would even look like, let alone how
it could be achieved’ (J. Chapman, System Failure: Why
Governments Must Learn to Think Differently, Demos, 2004).
National security relies on a multitude of departments, agencies and,
increasingly, private sector and voluntary organisations in a growing
network of collaboration and coordination. Bryson suggests that this
requires organisations to adopt four approaches:
Organisations must think, act and learn strategically as never before.
They must translate their insights into effective strategies to cope with
their changed circumstances.
must develop the rationales necessary to lay the ground work for the
adoption and implementation of their strategies.
And they must build coalitions that are large enough and strong enough
to adopt desirable strategies and protect them during
The Case for a National Security Strategy
Until the early 1980s, strategic planning in governments was primarily
concerned with military strategy and the practice of statecraft on a
grand scale, according to Bryson. And while there is not the space to
discuss the transformation of the term strategy across the
military–civil divide we should bear in mind the suggestion of
Michael Howard, the British military historian, that the term strategy needs continual definition. In the case of national security the role of strategy is important in
a number of respects.
First, it is crucial to articulate a vision of the environment in which Spain
operates, both for individuals and organisations working in
government and the public at large. Often policies and missions
pursued by government departments are in conflict with each other,
resulting in poor coordination, failure to meet policy goals and
objectives, and a sense of confusion in government.
Secondly, a national security strategy should offer scope to arrive at a
political assessment of the risks on which to prioritise and allocate
funding and direct resources. Developing a government-wide framework
therefore would promote greater synergy between the relevant
departments and agencies, thus enabling a more strategic approach to
national security, while ensuring the Spanish government was able to
anticipate future threats and challenges.
In order to do this, such a strategy would also have to:
Define the remit of national security and Spanish security interests.
Assess the national and international security environment.
Identify the risk factors within the national and international environment.
Outline the goals and objectives that would contribute to safeguarding and
asserting national security and Spain’s wider interests.
Identify courses of action and means for ensuring national security.
A third reason for such a strategy would be to provide some form of
integration and consistency with the strategies of international
organisations such as the EU (European Security Strategy), the UN,
NATO and the OSCE.
Publishing an agreed document would also follow a global trend of national
governments publishing their national security strategies. The
British, French and Dutch governments have, for example, all
published national security strategies in the past three years. In
his statement to the House of Commons, the British Prime Minister
Gordon Brown argued that a radically updated and more coordinated
response was now required and that ‘today, no country is in the
old sense far away when the consequences of regional instability and
terrorism –and then also climate change, poverty, mass
population movements and even organised crime– reverberate
quickly round the globe’.
In France, Francois Heisbourg has argued recently that the French government
must ‘adapt to globalisation, with its potential for systemic
upsets, be they the result of real threats –such as the attacks
of September, 11 2001– or from unintended disasters whose
ripple effects rapidly reach every corner of the earth. At the same
time globalisation is being de-westernised, increasingly driven by
the rise of Asia, limiting the Atlantic world’s ability to
write the rules. The old crises of the Middle East are converging,
aggravated by the proliferation of nuclear weapons’.
A Coherent Approach
The risks associated with the lack of a holistic approach by government to
national security were recently identified by the Netherlands
national security strategy steering group, many of which can be
applied directly to the British system of government, including:
The lack of a suitable framework. Current national security policy
is also fragmented and compartmentalised, which stands in the way of
adequate proactive policy development.
Failure to recognise the initial signs or early warnings. Threats or
hazards may come from unexpected sources –this is not to say
the latter may be prevented entirely but the capacity to distinguish
and recognise such signs could be increased–.
Deficient risk analysis and identification –though this is becoming
a central plank of the British government’s protective
security and resilience planning–.
Insufficient opportunity to prioritise.
Leadership. Structures are fairly well organised for an adequate approach to
large and small-scale incidents in the response phase. The current
British approach, for example, is to convene meetings of senior
officials and ministers in the Civil Contingencies Committee
colloquially referred to as COBR (Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms).
Members vary according to the issue being dealt with and a diverse
set of issues is discussed. It is seen as a model of how effective
government coordination in a crisis can be, especially in the
definition of strategic goals, options and risk appraisal, and the
allocation of work to secure those goals.
Conclusion: There can be no greater role for government than the protection and
safety of its citizens. But managing national security without a
strategy is like running an orchestra without a musical score: a
recipe for an ill-coordinated and out-of-tune response. A national
security strategy is not a panacea for joined-up government, and
there are limitations to strategy: a strategy by no means renders
national security invulnerable to threats. Nor does a strategy
eradicate all risks. It would, however, enable the government to
communicate clearly concerning its ability and inability to safeguard
The Spanish government must see the development of a national security strategy in terms of an investment in the future; in terms of responding to the uncertainties and complexities of the current
and future security environment and helping shape and influence the
government’s agenda. Creating a national security strategy is a
critical step towards organising the government’s response to
the challenges of the 21st century. The results of this process
cannot remain solely in a white paper, but must provide for a
revolution in how the government protects the Spain. Present and
future challenges demand it.
Senior Researcher and Head of the Security Programme at the London think-tank Demos