January 20, 2022

Rethinking international security in post-covid world

Have we reached a point with COVID19 where we need to rethink security rather than update our old concept?

In 2021, WIIS Brussels offered a platform to bring together different approaches and investigate what security meant to us personally. Throughout 2021 we organized consultations every other month for the broader WIIS Brussels community and its friends, inviting all to reflect on changes in the way we relate to security today. Beyond the question of what security in a post-COVID environment is, we quickly became aware of the importance of how to redefine security in today’s world. We felt the need to bring together personal views from vastly different experiences; offer a safe space for women to exchange on their own stories around security; go beyond what is voiced around the decision-making table and Western media. The process of enquiry helped us unpack our understanding of security and define the necessary conditions to allow for a new understanding and a different path to emerge.

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, a growing perception of personal and societal insecurity is meeting an emerging awareness that our traditional military, state-centered, institutional approaches to security failed to prevent violence, manage conflicts, and deal with the consequences of great power competition. Debates questioning public security policies are gaining voice globally and locally, prompted by academic circles, policy makers, individuals and groups of citizens and creating a public enquiry challenging traditional approaches to security. Critics of classical approaches are increasingly concerned by the tendency of the security apparatus towards a culture of control and obedience, that limits freedoms and the free exercise of human rights, and exploits vulnerabilities, thus generating new sources of violence.

WHAT IS SECURITY TODAY?

WIIS consultations were less about defining the concept of security today, as we hear increasingly about human security, economic security, health and mental security. The point of the exercise was more to share perceptions and compare experiences, finding resonance in each other. Looking at the full spectrum, from the level of the individual to the international scene, the focus of our community of experts, analysts and practitioners seemed to be less about international security at external borders. It appeared to have moved closer to home, to our personal space, even to our psychological sense of safety. Security was essentially understood as the absence of fear, the ability to trust in the future for ourselves and our families, pointing to the need for ‘caring communities’. Security seemed also underpinned by the freedom of expression and movement, along with personal liberties that had become fundamental to our way of life.

The key elements that seemed to define our sense of insecurity ranged from disinformation and technology to hate speech and domestic violence, health including mental health issues, economic and work-related challenges around teleworking and the “great resignation”, state surveillance and freedom restrictions, the polarization of politics, lack of trust in public services, the inflexibility of the public and international institutions that dominate the debate. This pointed to the importance of self-enquiry and awareness building (including for institutions), the need for increased solidarity, and the role of communities. The complexity of our sense of security/insecurity (as a spectrum) today seems to defy our ability to address it, as in the past, through the sole defence and security sectors. The attempt to develop a security approach combining military, economic, and social aspects was just as challenging, given the multi-dimensional reality of security. It required addressing simultaneously the needs of citizens to feel more secure and the responsibilities of states to secure borders and address global issues, such as climate change and migration, in addition to managing great power rivalry.

The risk of oversimplifying the debate to provide concrete responses, relying on existing structures to address change is real. The need to understand security as a full spectrum thinking exercise, however, begged the question of how to proceed.

The complexity in defining security today calls for a greater diversity of responses and approaches with the humility to consider what is not working. It demands for a greater diversity around the institutional security table, at leadership level, and a new balance between the respective roles of individuals, national and international players – perhaps a new social contract between citizens and states.

CREATING THE CONDITIONS FOR A NEW WAY FORWARD TO EMERGE

In launching its consultation, WIIS Brussels focused on the process, creating a conducive environment – a safe space – to engage the conversation. The content – the definition of security in today’s environment was of lesser immediate importance. The process was kept deliberately open. We had no specific goal in mind. This was meant to be a creative process, an experiment, where setting the conditions was more important than delivering an end product.

We discovered five key conditions worth considering as we collectively rethink security in a post-COVID environment. To ensure diversity in the process, to be ultimately reflected in a new concept of security, we needed:

Self-enquiry. We started from the individual perspective, a self-enquiry process, pushing us to reflect on how today we are both creators of security and insecurity at the same time, providing for the security of our children and being a risk to our own families by possibly transmitting a virus. Similarly, states and other actors may be offering security, but are also creating insecurity. The security of one is often at the expense of another. This self-enquiry mode invited the necessary humility to accept our own responsibilities in the current perception of insecurity, the doubts necessary to question and to open to different approaches and greater solidarity.

Community. We offered safety as a community, free from the pressure to provide the “right” answer or perspective, allowing participants to join our consultation and feel a sense of belonging and purpose in a general environment marked by uncertainty. We discovered for ourselves that the greater the connections, the less judgment and the more secure we feel.

Empowerment. We highlighted the link between a sense of security and the feeling of having control over our environment, underlining the need to empower people to confer a sense of security. Powerlessness characterizes unsafe environments.

Empathy & compassion. The importance of empathy and compassion with those experiencing unsafe environments pointed to the clear understanding that insecurity of one is insecurity for all. COVID19 was a clear message in that regard: no one would be safe until everyone was safe from this global pandemic.

Trust. Finally, looking at our institutions and traditional providers of security, we reflected on the importance of trust. Trust is at an all time low when it comes to the traditional providers of security, begging for a redefinition of power and leadership around a pluralistic model of security, working towards maximizing security for all, but allowing for different ways to reach it, thus pointing to the fundamental relationship between diversity and security. Structural inequalities often perpetuated by institutions can only breed selective security and unravel trust.

WAY FORWARD

Through this consultation on security, WIIS Brussels brokered a new informal way to shape our understanding of security that is human-centric, that brings together those who have worked tirelessly to “protect and defend” against various risks and threats through long established institutions with those who are looking at security as “life giving”, providing safety for life to grow and connections to be nurtured.

The post-COVID security environment will require a different mindset, more inclusive and diverse, with equity and equality as driving principles, less authoritarian and categorizing, more flexible and bottom-up. We have learned a lot from the old path. We also have to be mindful of the die-hard divides between policy-makers and practitioners, between those framed by institutions and those in the field in various regions of the world. But we cannot address contemporary problems with old thinking and practices, and we have to become more inclusive.

In 2022, we will therefore build upon our emerging understanding of security today by reaching out to different communities beyond WIIS, in different regions of the world, extending our “safe space” to diverse communities to enrich the conversation.

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