Security is about more than just military spending

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Europe must practice what it preaches


Security is not just about strong armies, aircraft carriers and boots-on-the-ground. Peace and stability in the 21st century demand that we tackle so-called ‘soft’ or non-traditional security challenges including development, governance, and environmental degradation.

The new President of the United States, Donald Trump, is clearly a hard security man. He talks and tweets tough. The men surrounding him are hardened ex-military officers – and even those who are not clearly think wearing a uniform is the best thing in the world.

Not surprisingly, Trump’s 2018 budget seeks to boost defence spending by ten percent, or US$54bn. The increase is going to be at the expense of aid and environmental programmes.

The US President is hardly alone. Hard security is also the name of the game in many parts of the world. Spending on arms is on the rise worldwide as countries anxiously seek to flex their military muscle.

Soldiers can defend borders against invading armies – or unwanted refugees and migrants – but they can’t fight climate change or pandemics

But some are taking a broader approach. While still spending money on classical defence, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are looking at non-military challenges to peoples and states posed by a host of problems: climate change, cross-border environmental damage and resource depletion, infectious diseases and natural disasters. They are also examining the link between security and irregular migration, food shortages, people smuggling, drug trafficking and other forms of transnational crime.

As the ‘hard’ vs ‘soft’ security debate climbs up the transatlantic agenda, with Washington warning that its support for NATO hinges on increased European defence spending, let’s listen to recent warnings from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that security cannot be “narrowed down” to military spending. Development aid and humanitarian assistance also count as contributions to global security.

Investing in development and in the fight against climate change is not charity. As Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, insisted recently, it is also “an investment, a selfish investment, in our security”. Also, long-term stability is the result of strong societies, not strong men.

Juncker, Merkel and Mogherini are right. Security and development are inextricably linked: there can be no sustainable development without peace and security, while development and poverty eradication are crucial to a viable peace. That is why implementing the Sustainable Development Goals is important.

Investing in development is not charity

Soldiers can defend borders against invading armies – or unwanted refugees and migrants – but they can’t fight climate change or pandemics. Those seeking asylum in Europe are fleeing not only war and conflict but the devastation caused by climate change, bad governance and a lack of economic opportunities. Terrorist groups like the self-styled ‘Islamic State’ (or Daesh) and al-Qaeda cannot be defeated through military action alone.

But Europe must practice what it preaches. The definition of development aid is becoming wider and more fluid than many like. European aid organisations criticise EU governments over the growing use of foreign aid budgets to meet refugee costs at home. Many EU countries are backsliding on their aid spending commitments.

The OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, meanwhile, has expanded the definition of overseas aid to include limited forms of counterterrorism and military activities or training. British ministers are reportedly eager to divert aid from “wasteful” projects in Africa and Asia to allies in Eastern Europe in a bid to get a better deal on Brexit.

Security is an important priority for European citizens and will continue to climb higher up the agenda as the world becomes even more volatile, unpredictable and inter-connected.

Europe, with its still-large development budget, is well-placed to combine hard and soft power to tackle an array of new and old challenges. It should continue to do so smartly and without apology.

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