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Security in the 21st Century
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What does it mean to be secure in the 21st century?

Mark Beeson argues that some of the most influential ideas about national and even global security reflect untenable, anachronistic strategic views that are simply no longer appropriate for contemporary international circumstances.

At a time when climate change poses an existential threat to the continuation of life itself, Beeson argues that there is an urgent need to rethink security priorities while we still can. Providing an explanation of the failures and dangers of the conventional wisdom, he outlines the case for a new approach that takes issues like environmental and human security seriously.

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Security is ultimately a very personal thing. If you don’t actually feel secure for one reason or another, then it is not unreasonable to ask whether this is a measure of the failure of public or strategic policy and the ability of our leaders to keep us safe. The chances of feeling secure are also still significantly greater in some parts of the world than in others: who your parents are, where they live and the sorts of cultural beliefs they seek to pass on to you are all key determinants of our life chances, our expectations about what it means to be secure and – most importantly of all – the chances of actually achieving it. To be sure, the percentage of people living in absolute poverty around the world had demonstrated a pleasing decline – until COVID-19 struck, at least – but the chances of living a long and fulfilling life are still notably lower in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, than they are in most other parts of the world.1 This is bound to affect the way people view the world and their place in it. Lots of people feeling unhappy about their situation is not a recipe for domestic or international harmony, especially if they are young.2

Yet, despite this rather banal truism, the psychological aspects of security have not been given the attention they deserve. This is simultaneously rather surprising and entirely predictable.

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Even before COVID-19 plunged the world into the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, it was evident that economic security or, more precisely, its absence, was a major issue. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more fundamental or direct threat to human material and psychological security than extreme poverty. The links between unemployment and social unrest are long standing and widely understood.1 Likewise, unhappiness about economic inequality, and a concomitant lack of social equality and justice, have driven some of the most important social movements in history, sometimes with catastrophically disruptive consequences.2 Yet, despite the importance of economic issues, they are often noteworthy for their absence in conventional accounts of security, other than as the basis of national power and the capacity to acquire advanced military hardware.

Many accounts of material reality in the IR literature have, ironically enough, been rather impoverished as a result. Now, however, a failure to take economics seriously is, to use another suitably appropriate adjective, indefensible. Not only is economic inequality a source of insecurity in general, but there is an even more fundamental problem that flows from our collective attempts to realize our material wants: there are very real and enduring questions about the carrying capacity of the planet, especially when the economic system is based on continual expansion and the exploitation of finite resources.3 As we have seen, these sorts of questions have been around for a long time, but they have assumed renewed importance as a consequence of our collective impact on the natural environment, as human beings transform the biosphere upon which we all ultimately depend.

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Books inevitably reflect the ideas, prejudices, background and the obsessions of their author. As I have no wish to put off prospective readers by indulging in a tangential autobiographical digression, let me just say that I didn’t mean to become a ‘security expert’. Hitherto my principal interests were ‘international political economy’ and, more recently, the politics of climate change. I should confess that I cannot claim specialist knowledge in the underlying science of global warming, but that has not stopped me from thinking about the political and security implications of climate change and the impact it is having on the natural environment upon which we all ultimately depend. It shouldn’t stop anyone else either. On the contrary, one of the animating ideas that run through this book is that many of the policymakers and strategic thinkers who shape security policy have a remarkably impoverished and limited view of the nature of security in what we now call the Anthropocene. Such views were arguably always problematic; now they are indefensible.

It is the recognition that our collective impact on the natural environment presents the greatest security threat we have ever faced as a species that has encouraged me to think about its increasingly obvious security implications. To be fair, the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change have not escaped the notice of mainstream strategic thinkers, or the policymakers they advise. Their responses are often depressingly familiar, however, and reflect their intellectual assumptions and prejudices, even if they are often unrecognized.

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Whatever you may think about the various models of IR theory that have been developed to conceptualize security, one thing is clear: the very possibility of achieving security of any sort is highly dependent on the context in which it is pursued. Even the best-intentioned and most enlightened of policymakers must play the hand they are dealt by history. Providing a degree of security for the citizens of Singapore, for example, is a very different challenge from trying to do the same thing in Burkina Faso. History, geography and implacable biophysical realities constrain the options available to even the most capable and uncorrupted of leaders. But where leaders are incompetent, ignorant, self-serving and/or corrupt, the likelihood of even the most naturally blessed of countries achieving sustainable security outcomes becomes significantly less.1

My own adopted homeland, Australia, illustrates this point rather clearly. Despite a host of natural advantages, a combination of mediocre political leadership and the geopolitical constraints that inevitably confront a ‘middle power’,2 the overall security context has unambiguously deteriorated. Although most analytical attention from Australia’s strategic elites in this context continues to focus on traditional security threats such as the rise of China and a shifting distribution of power in the region, these are arguably not the principal threats that faces the people of Australia. On the contrary, the wildfires that attracted global attention in the summer of 2019–20 highlighted just how vulnerable the people and economies of even the most prosperous of countries now are to changes in the natural environment.

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The possibility that our personal preferences, biases, values, psychologies and even emotions might influence the sorts of ideas we find attractive is not entirely surprising. The key question is whether we are drawn to less plausible or even inaccurate explanations of reality as a consequence. In other words, is it possible to claim that some ways of thinking about the world actually provide explanations that are closer to the ‘truth’, however unpalatable it may be? Even to raise such a question will be regarded as decidedly old fashioned in some circles, but if we are to make any ‘progress’ – another loaded and some would say outdated idea – in making ourselves and the world we inhabit more secure, then deciding on the best ways to think about our current collective predicament would seem wise. Indeed, thinking about thinking is arguably a necessary part of this, as we shall see in Chapter 4. At this stage, however, it is useful to consider some of the other more influential and potentially enlightening theories of IR to see if they can guide us toward salvation.

Given the historical development of intellectual traditions such as liberalism, which I consider first in this chapter, we might hope that the answer to this question ought to be ‘yes’. After all, liberals generally take an essentially optimistic view of humanity’s capacity for progress, problem solving and the conscious creation of a peaceful political order.

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We live in surprisingly turbulent times. To be sure, plagues, conflicts, even cataclysmic environmental change, are not unknown in human history. On the contrary, they are the familiar accompaniment to the struggle for existence that continues to define life for so many on our overcrowded planet. It is hard to think of a period of human history when at least part of the world hasn’t been subject to some sort of apocalyptic crisis or another, not least because of pandemics.1 Whether it was ‘natural’, or the result of megalomania, miscalculation, or our collective mistreatment of the natural environment doesn’t make a great deal of difference to those on the receiving end. Despite all the remarkable advances that have taken place in economic and broadly understood social development, for many people, life can still be ‘nasty, brutish and short’, as Thomas Hobbes cheerily observed. The good news is that there is nothing inevitable about anarchy, nor is it necessarily the best way of thinking about IR; the world is still surprisingly orderly and rule governed. The bad news is that actual anarchy or old-fashioned chaos and mayhem are real possibilities if we don’t act collectively to address our common problems.

Realists might say that it was ever thus. And yet the remarkable thing about the times we inhabit is that, for a not inconsiderable number of people, something approaching ‘the good life’ is – or was – a reality. Significantly, in many parts of the world it is not only privileged elites who have benefited from the sorts of economic and technological developments that have underpinned truly astonishing increases in social welfare and standards of living.

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What does it mean to be secure? One might be forgiven for thinking that security ought to be relatively easy to define, even if there’s less agreement about how best to actually achieve it. One of the problems is deciding quite what the ‘referent object’ might be when deciding whether someone, or more commonly something, is secure or not. At the outset, therefore, it is important to recognize that not only are some of the issues to be discussed often theoretically contested and reflective of the normative preferences of the observer, but they are also inherently political and anything but objective. At one level, this is a manifestation of the nature of material reality and our interaction with it, especially at the most infinitesimally small scale. At another comparatively mundane and familiar level, what we consider to be causally significant is – in part, at least – a judgement about what matters, in every sense of the word. As Colin Wight puts it, ‘politics is the terrain of competing ontologies’.1 Despite the not unreasonable expectation that theory is supposed to help us understand something, in the academy theory frequently contributes to the confusion, not least because different people think that security should be defined in relation to different things.2

While this may sound like an unpromising prelude to the sort of arcane discussion academics are often accused of indulging in, the debate is important and surprisingly interesting. It even has major consequences in the much-invoked ‘real world’.

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Realists are right about one thing, at least: by definition, great powers have more capacity to influence the behaviour of other states in the international system than do their less-powerful counterparts. Indeed, in the case of so-called ‘super-powers’ their actions can shape the system itself, even if that was not their intention. The surprisingly peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union is the quintessential recent example of this possibility. Not only was this development entirely unexpected, not least by the Soviet leadership, but it had the effect of transforming the structure of the international order from bilateral to something else – although there is still some debate about what it actually is.1 What we can say with some confidence is that no one really saw this coming, not even the structural realists who, as the name suggests, focus intently on the principal ‘poles’ of the prevailing system. There are plainly limitations to an atomistic, Newtonian worldview when it comes to thinking about IR, even if it’s not clear that any other perspective is likely to give a more accurate explanation of current, much less future, behaviour.

These initial observations are not intended as yet another argument for taking domestic politics seriously – although they are inevitably that, too, of course – but as an illustration of the limits to the conscious, goal-oriented power of even the most consequential of countries. They also illustrate how difficult it can be for policymakers and analysts everywhere to recognize underlying changes in key parts of any system, and the possible impact these may have.

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