Europe must try to balance old threats with new risks

Europeans need to deal with a diversifying threat landscape while avoiding an unhelpful securitization of everyday life.

Expert comment Published 25 May 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 2 minute READ

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently said the 70-year-old NATO alliance had to be part of the response to the climate crisis as ‘the defining challenge for our generation and a crisis multiplier’. This statement came in the middle of an alarming build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border – so just as Europeans were being given a reminder of the security threat for which NATO was originally designed.

The coincidence of Stoltenberg’s statement about the security implications of the climate crisis and fears about a Russian invasion of Ukraine illustrates the increasingly complex and diverse set of challenges Europeans face. Their priority rightly remains deterrence, defence, and crisis management. But they have also been under increasing pressure to adapt to new threats such as cyberattacks, economic interference, and disinformation campaigns.

In addition, they must address the potential security impacts of complex transnational risks. As well as the climate crisis, there has also been much discussion about economic security, data security, and – especially since the COVID-19 pandemic – health security.

A diversification of threats

Applying the concept of security to a growing number of policy areas is an expression of an increasing feeling of insecurity among Europeans. European foreign policy analysts often say that the first sentence of the European Security Strategy published by the European Union in 2003 – ‘Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free’ – is now hopelessly out of date.

Thinking or framing in terms of ‘security’ has been used as a political or bureaucratic strategy to gain resources or win political battles without having a real impact on policy

However, although analysts and officials talk about a ‘deteriorating security environment’, it is far from certain that Europeans are actually less secure today than during the Cold War when populations lived in fear of a nuclear conflict. Europeans now see a wider range of challenges to their security in both civil and military spheres. In other words, since the end of the Cold War, threats have diversified rather than intensified.

Security and defence planners cannot simply wish these new risks away. Their role is to monitor the security implications of new challenges, assess and flag potential structural vulnerabilities, and incorporate these new considerations into overall defence planning. They must engage with policy areas which have often been on the margins of traditional security discussions, as addressed in Stoltenberg’s statement on climate change.

Increasingly, the risks stem from the way people live interconnected lives, which calls for a broad-based rethink of many things currently taken for granted, such as the way people produce and consume, interact as societies and as a species with each other and the environment. But as most of these new issues go beyond the defence and military realms, defence structures will not and should not be the first responders.

The pitfalls of securitization

This is where the tension lies. The need to better balance traditional threats with new risks is leading to an inflationary use of the concept of security which may not be helpful.

One good example of this is economic policy. As states question and even reject the economic liberalism which has been the dominant paradigm since the end of the Cold War, they are experimenting with new kinds of industrial policy, in part to gain or maintain an edge in technological innovation and to minimize dependencies in critical sectors.

But, perhaps in part because of the national security exception to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, these economic policy experiments tend to be framed in terms of security even when they are equally about creating jobs in ‘left-behind’ areas or reducing domestic inequalities.

A particular danger of considering an increasing number of challenges in terms of security is that it can lead governments to use military tools to solve problems for which there is no military solution

An excessive use of the term ‘security’ may also distort the risks Europe faces. Even if climate change is an existential risk, it is not necessarily helpful to think of it per se as a security threat. Climate change may lead to unrest and conflict but international relations theorists Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver argue that ‘securitization’ risks closing off avenues for rational deliberation and even subverting democracy.

A particular danger of considering an increasing number of challenges in terms of security is that it can lead governments to use military tools to solve problems for which there is no military solution, therefore producing bad policies. As Europeans have come to see migration partly as a security threat, there has been what critics say is a militarization of EU borders and migration policy.

In some cases, thinking or framing in terms of ‘security’ has been used as a political or bureaucratic strategy to gain resources or win political battles without having a real impact on policy. But doing so still risks devaluing the usefulness of the concept of security because, when everything is security, nothing is. It is questionable whether treating most of the risks faced as being security threats is conducive to dealing with them in a manner both effective and legitimate.

The challenge is therefore to find the right balance. Europeans clearly need to take new risks seriously and find the right responses to deal with them, inside and outside of defence structures – sometimes against the resistance of defence establishments, which can be reluctant to look beyond traditional challenges. But in doing so, they need to resist an unhelpful securitization of everyday life.