April 7, 2020

Four considerations towards a new ‘people first’ security order: a women’s perspective

WIIS Brussels recently embarked on a self-reflection exercise to better define its own voice in the security debate. “Who is WIIS-Brussels” and what resonates with us in the current security debate? “What is missing” and “where can we best contribute” to help shape a new security order. This is the first piece of a series of written and oral contributions that we will share over the next few months.

Behind the international scene dominated by conflicts and strongmen politics all too visible, there is an emerging cultural shift happening in the security field today. Defence business is changing for the better, although various generations will have different reference points. For ages, States have operated on the basis of national interest, short-term electoral goals, led by elites interested in perpetuating their own leadership at the expense of people, purpose, and the planet. This has been the main paradigm in a world dominated by an operating system focused on survival through command and control, asserting power over violence and chaos. In the background, change is afoot. A parallel order is shaping up, less focused on “survivability” and moving towards “thrivability.”

In the business world, the wellbeing of people is becoming a driving force in western societies, and this is no longer exclusively for personal gains but increasingly for the benefits of communities and the planet. Shareholders increasingly demand new codes of conduct and policies on inclusion, diversity, and eco-friendliness. This is also true in the field of security, but we have been slower in identifying what a new security order should look like. Beyond the language of power based on domination, violence, command and control ensuring survival, could there be room for a dialogue over a new approach to security allowing human beings and the rest of the planet to thrive: favoring security “for” over security “against”?

What could be the voice of women in this dialogue? Is there a specific women’s voice in the field of security that men’s interests may not serve directly? What is it that resonates for women when it comes to security? What is not yet articulated today that women feel strongly about? Clearly not all women think alike, and this is hardly a mere issue of women versus men. We urgently need to think together: security for whom? Here are four considerations worth pondering in developing a “people first” security order ensuring that we can all thrive from a safe place. The idea is to grow a new progressive concept of security through connectivity, inclusion, and diversity, which resonates for men and women alike, and where human security is paramount and respectful of the planet.

1. Re-centering on community and personal connections

The security order we have known in our lifetime was essentially built upon the long-standing belief that the world was not safe; that we cannot trust anyone but ourselves; and ultimately that we were responsible to look after ourselves. This was the result of a world driven by growing individualism and capitalism, which fed toxic competition, and zero-sum game with winner-takes-all mentality. This model was essentially driven by fear. Time has come to reconsider our thinking patterns, overcoming our fears of the unknown and our definition of the enemy, who essentially personifies that which stands out and has not yet been understood.

The importance of community predates the ascension of individualism/capitalism. In the development of our security order, communities did not disappear. They played a key role through, for instance, the development of a transatlantic community and the European community. Security organizations have developed around a shared vision, identity, and culture that were able to mobilize people towards a higher purpose, such as responding to a common threat or creating an inclusive community. This sense of community is losing momentum, why?

Older communities drawing on indigenous practices placed the self as inherently interconnected with each other and with the planet. Our hyper-individualistic societies in recent times severed those ties with each other, losing sight of the unique contribution each individual brings to the community, and the ability to empower each other and move more effectively towards a shared vision. Some of us within society, perhaps less involved with ensuring security or maximizing profits, and more focused on nurturing, educating, and other communal functions have rediscovered or remained more connected to the community, acknowledging that “it takes a village to raise a child” or that “we do not become our best selves by ourselves.” While this will resonate for many women around the world, it will also be recognized by many men.

As we consider our communities in the field of security, we might ponder on women’s particular approach to power, acknowledging that women do not have a single view. Some might actually align more with the command and control approach to power that many (not all) men will resonate with. Nonetheless, and admitting the limits of generalizing, feminine power seems based on three specific pillars: the power of self-reflection creating their own story; the power of self-actualization through partnering with others; and finally the power to co-create with others something new and make a contribution to the world. Ultimately, women draw power from each other and rely on a community to connect them to their full potential. It seems based on deep personal connections through three circles: the self, the others, and the planet.

As we develop our thinking towards a new security order, the emphasis on community needs to be re-centered, not away from the importance of the individual, but towards the need to empower each other in pursuit of a shared vision. This type of community centered on individual unique contributions rather than purely collective goals might increase people’s potential when working together towards a common purpose in creating a world that works for all.

2. Seeking balance: the difference between equality and equity

One should distinguish between equity and equality. These words cannot be used interchangeably. The distinction will ultimately ensure that we mitigate discrimination of all kinds, inequality, and close the gender gap. In a nutshell, equality is a promise – an aspiration, where everyone is given a fair chance, while equity is a practice, acknowledging that we are not all the same and that this is okay. In fact, we can usually draw from higher rates of diversity a higher level of creativity, innovation, and profit. The fact that we are all different allows us to identify multiple strategies around ourselves and choose the one we prefer to move toward greater equality.

In the security field, we have practiced equity in some organizations and ensured through the practice of consensus, where each member of the community has a voice without pretending that everyone is equal, a certain balance among various positions where everyone can recognize themselves. We have thus avoided discriminating against smaller countries, and we have given the same voice to women ambassadors as to men ambassadors in full respect of their differences.

At the same time, we have yet to seek equity among various communities, acknowledging that the security of one cannot be at the expense of the security of others. The goal should be to decide on our own security framework without imposing our model to others; to take from each other what suits us best and let others thrive with their own model; and to ensure that our concept of security is not at the expense of someone else’s security. Seeking equality and imposing our approach to security is discriminating, opening gaps, and ultimately perpetuating inequalities.

3. Celebrating our differences

Validating peoples’ different experiences is at the heart of feeling safe, heard and valued. At the same time, as diversity increases, sources of conflict rise. A new concept of security will need to establish the right balance between enhancing diversity within a community and keeping inner conflicts under control to avoid destabilizing the community. Inviting disagreements to be expressed, diversity of perspectives and dialogue must be balanced by the commitment to building a culture where everyone feels safe, heard and a valued member of the community.

The willingness to talk about our differences within and overcome our own internal biases is a central feature for developing an inclusive and safe culture, which encourages collaboration and fosters creativity and innovation. Whatever happens internally within the community with regard to differences will also be reflected externally in interaction with other communities. The more inclusive a community, the more collaborative it becomes with other communities. Indeed, the better a community can deal with internal conflicts, the more cooperative and innovative it will become in dealing with external challenges.

The balance between diversity, creativity, and safety will be worth exploring as we seek to develop a new concept of security. Building on diversity and inclusion within an organization and ensuring that this organization is a safe workplace for its employees will also have a direct impact on its ability to project security to external actors. As we think of a new security concept, the importance of organizational culture is to be monitored closely. A safe workplace becomes a cradle of innovative ideas and solutions to new challenges and conflicts. The organization that ensures our security will need to be vigilant and abide by a set of principles that is reflected in its organizational culture. Should it stand for unity, its organizational culture will have to reflect an internal culture where the sense of unity is shared by all staff. We can no longer pretend to offer security if our own people do not feel secure within their own organization.

4. From sustaining to regenerating: a new security cycle?

Ensuring our survival as an individual, a nation, or a species has focused on sustaining efforts to continue existing and avoid eradication. While these efforts have been most evident in matters of war and peace over centuries, addressing the increasingly devastating effects of climate change has shifted the focus towards a broader sense of security. Despite the new conversation about how to build a green and sustainable future, or the trap of maximizing profits over a healthy planet, this broadened approach to security has not moved beyond the illusion of sustainability.

It has remained plagued by our zero sum approach to security for some at the expense of others. There is little accountability to the waning resources and mounting ecological disasters and, in terms of conflict, we are endlessly replicating the old patterns. It is no longer enough to simply uphold the status quo on how security and economic business has been run in the past.

We need to think beyond sustainability into regenerative and restorative strategies, which will serve people and the planet for future generations. There is a need for new concepts regarding the security and the economic spheres, but also a requirement for new ways of operating. The focus on protecting and sustaining our way of life, expanding beyond our own needs, exporting our ways of doing things and growing beyond our frontiers is not sustainable unless we learn to recycle our goals and purpose to fully respect the dignity of all people and the planet. The need to thrive should replace the need to ever expand and grow. Considering the virtues of cycles, working collaboratively to ensure that we each thrive, according to various phases in life, ensuring that we each have a fighting chance to shape the future of the planet, where everyone matters and everybody wins.

5. What does that mean for WIIS?

For WIIS Brussels, helping shape our security order starts at home. WIIS is a community of security experts, which thrives on its sense of community around a shared vision: empowering women to contribute their voice in addressing current security challenges. It is highly connected, networking and nurturing the feminine leaders of tomorrow through its training and mentoring program. The need for a vibrant community where everyone matters is fundamental to its approach of security.

WIIS is actively seeking a more diverse membership to learn from differences and find the right balance between masculine and feminine energies in defining security for all. There are different energies behind the concept of security, which need to be smoothly integrated to formulate a concept that resonates with all. Security can no longer respond to the needs and sensibilities of only part of the world population, albeit powerful.

WIIS builds on its multicultural background, and brings together various approaches to security, from experts with a scientific or military background, to experts with a broader well-rounded perspective having studied or worked in international assistance, as well as environmental security. Its membership reflects both the public and private sectors allowing everyone to learn from their differences. A concept of security that resonates with many women will require taking full account of core issues of diversity and inclusion, and ensure the necessary connectivity between people to reflect a vibrant sense of community. Ultimately, this should translate into a “people-first” security order that resonates for “the other half” of the world population.

Finally, over the past decade, WIIS Brussels has engaged in many activities and became an active association with a “can do” attitude. As it looks to its future, constant growth and expanding activities is not a sustainable model. It recently embarked on a reflection about “who is WIIS-Brussels” as a way to better define its own identity, focus its activities, and increase its impact. Reflecting on our security order today begs the question: are we in a new cycle? Is our way of approaching international security no longer sustainable? What would a new security order look like if we were to think of it in cyclical terms? Can we imagine a new security concept that could be regenerative, allowing us to thrive without having to seek maximum security for us at all time? These are all interesting questions to the Brussels Chapter of WIIS, willing to support new ideas, formal and informal dialogues between opposite views, and learn from our differences. Let us be the change we want to see in the world!

Isabelle François is the President of WIIS Brussels

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Isabelle François

Isabelle François

WIIS Brussels President

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