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Human Futures

What Do We Mean By Security?

Mary Midgley argues that Security is not about the size of your military.

The Shock of Khaki

During a series of colonial wars in the nineteenth century, the British army gradually changed the colour of its soldiers’ uniforms from the traditional scarlet to khaki. Its reasons for doing this are perhaps fairly obvious, but the innovation was sharply resisted. Regiments who were still dressed in scarlet sneered at their transformed colleagues, disgustedly calling them ‘khakis’ (the word was well-known to be a ‘native’ one, the Urdu term for the colour of dust or mud). One regimental magazine had been called The Thin Red Line; was it now to be called The Thin Khaki Line instead? The public, too, had a scandalized sense that it was no longer being properly protected. Thus in 1892 a columnist in The Pall Mall Gazette wrote in some alarm, “Khaki is not showy enough, except when it is new and well-made-up. If worn constantly, it tends to promote slovenliness.”

As we know, in the end practical considerations prevailed. All armies now wear khaki, often with the even less dignified addition of camouflage. But it is worthwhile to think for a moment about the kind of reasons which disturbed the protesters so deeply. Colourful uniforms did, of course, originally have a good practical point: they made it easy to distinguish friend from foe ­– which can be quite important in fighting on an open plain. But this was surely not what mainly worried the protesters. They seem to have been moved chiefly by the powerful symbolism involved. The bright colour looked bold and vigorous; it suggested a confident nation that faced its enemies readily, a belligerent one that had no need to skulk in hiding. Khaki did not have that meaning at all. And behind that symbolism there lay another emotive factor which was perhaps still more powerful – the influence of habit. Scarlet uniforms were habitual. They were normal. People were used to them. ‘Business as usual’ always tends to seem more practical, more realistic, than these fanciful new schemes we’re not used to. So scarlet was what made the public feel safe.

Indirect factors like this, which we seldom think about and never mention, play a huge part in deciding what we put our trust in, and therefore what we understand by Security. Among the many dangers in the world, we pick out a few which we find specially alarming at the time and we concentrate on certain selected precautions against those dangers. We don’t easily notice how the balance of risk may be changing. Nor do we easily see how that balance may look to other people in different situations.

Problems of Perspective

This gap between different people’s perceptions is fairly well known. It came out interestingly at the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development, when a number of bishops from Latin America asked to have a session to discuss the topic of militarism. Britain and the United States, however, ruled the proposal out, on the ground that “the Conference ought only to be concerned with security.” They plainly did not see militarism itself as a threat to Security: but the bishops did. Militarism (the Oxford English Dictionary tells us) is “the tendency to regard military efficiency as the paramount interest of the state,” and it is not surprising that the bishops diagnosed that tendency as a disease afflicting many governments in their part of the world. But their thinking about militarism seems to have gone beyond this. They were inclined to diagnose this complaint as also infecting some less obviously unstable nations, such as Britain and the US, and this was one reason why it was not thought advisable to hold that discussion.

This episode lights up a fascinating paradox about the psychology of threat and provocation. We see dangers that seem to threaten ourselves clearly and sharply; but the dangers that other people see us as posing them are often quite invisible to us. For instance, the huge arsenal that has been built up in the West during the last half-century does not seem to those who own it to be alarming at all. We call it defence, and it strikes us as something quite static, innocuous and unthreatening. As is often said, it is just an umbrella, a fire-extinguisher, an insurance policy. It is merely the necessary guarantee of our Security.

To people who don’t own it however, it looks surprisingly different. The trouble arises from a profound psychological quirk about the way in which we interpret threat. There is an immense difference between what may be called the front view and the back view of any weapon. Weapons are not just tools. They are powerful symbols, carrying messages that go far beyond the conscious intentions of those who wield them. This is why what is meant as deterrence often turns out to act as provocation. The owner who is, so to speak, sitting quietly behind his machine-gun, sees it merely as a comfortable defensive shield. He just innocently puts it (as it were) in his front window, and sits down behind it to read Proust. But the passers-by who come within range of it don’t see it in the same way at all. They tend to assume that if he has taken the trouble to buy the thing he probably has a use for it, and that he may already have some idea what that use will be. The owner can of course tell them reassuringly that the gun actually doesn’t mean anything at all, that it is just a harmless, neutral ‘umbrella’ of a kind that everybody needs. But in so far as the passers-by believe this they are liable to imitate him. They may then go off and order umbrellas for themselves, thus giving rise to a lot more misunderstanding.

Part of the trouble here stems from the awkward fact that human beings, unlike other animals, put their threats in permanent form. They use weapons, buildings, written words. Unlike the noises and gestures used by other species, these things don’t go away when the occasion of anger is past. They hang around and continue to send out menacing messages to those around them. Unless the people who have set them up positively express strong friendly feelings which will counter that message, they continue chiefly to produce fear. The castles which we now so much admire probably often did not strike the local peasantry as delightful objects of art, but rather as disturbing reminders of their lord’s power and of his rather uncertain temper. They were displays of force that were meant to produce submission. William the Conqueror built his many castles, such as the Tower of London, for various purposes, but above all to frighten the conquered populace and keep them in a wholesome state of discipline.

Of course kings and lords who wanted to counter this message by showing positive good-will to their subjects and to surrounding nations could do so. When they did show it, their castles could be seen as something welcome, a defence for everybody. But unless there is this positive and convincing show of good-will, those outside are always liable to feel alarm and do their best to take precautions.

Difficulties of Security by Convention

During the Cold War this kind of alarm was always present in the background, but it was checked to some extent by a strong psychological convention. This convention ruled that the ‘machine-guns’ could belong only to their original owners – two respected citizens living in opposite houses, who would keep them firmly pointed at each other so that they were locked in a stable, limited balance. Both parties were far too prudent ever to fire them, so this conventionalised hostility would be sure to deliver permanent Security.

For a time the rest of the world had to go along with this arrangement. But from the start, two things clearly showed its essential weakness. First, the two participants demonstrated at once that they did not actually trust one another at all, by constantly piling on more and more weapons. This naturally made observers suspect that, if they themselves found that trust impossible, there was little reason why anybody else should be expected to have it. The perpetual escalation made it plain that they weren’t actually aiming at the careful balance which was supposed to produce Security, since that balance had already been attained. Instead, what each of them really wanted was just to have more weapons than the other. That excess seemed to them the only true Security. This is logically awkward, and it followed that each increase of weapons always struck the other party as a new threat, thus deepening the general alarm. It is hard to see how this process was expected to end.

The other destabilising factor, however, went deeper. It was the context. These two householders weren’t playing out their strange game of chess on their own, but as part of an already unstable and quarrelsome world. They were surrounded by other nations, many of whom were already involved in various conflicts. Some of these naturally wanted to join in and to share this talisman which apparently guaranteed Security. But letting in more players was likely to destroy the rather precarious balance of mutual understanding on which the game depended. So these aspirations produced widespread alarm, and efforts were made on all sides to contain them. Eventually Non-Proliferation Treaties were negotiated, whereby possession of nuclear weapons would not be allowed to spread more widely.

These agreements were made possible because all the original nuclear powers agreed to run down their own arsenals. This was necessary as a pledge of good faith, to prove that they were only aiming at stability, not at dominance and conquest. The treaties’ success depended on these undertakings. However, very little of that running-down actually took place. Moreover, the two superpowers themselves did not confine their attention to their own game but continued to involve themselves in existing feuds, encouraging endless proxy wars wherever they saw an opportunity to oppose each others’ interests, in a way that polarized the world. And the convention which guaranteed the purely defensive, deterrent nature of the weapons wasn’t helped when the only nation that had ever actually used them in warfare began to hint that it might soon find it advisable to use them again. Thus the hostility which had been carefully conventionalized at the nuclear level was not allowed to die away or evaporate naturally. Instead it was deliberately professed and cultivated as being something permanent and normal.

Cold War Doesn’t Make Sense

I don’t think it has been said clearly and often enough that this whole state of affairs was pathological. I want to say unequivocally that the idea of waging a chronic Cold War was basically unhealthy, unrealistic, impractical and immoral. Hostilities are things that naturally come and go; they ought not to be deliberately entrenched and perpetuated. In our ordinary view of life war counts essentially as an emergency. It is something that has gone wrong, a failure of normality. It is seen as a passing phase when exceptional conditions briefly excuse behaviour that is contrary to ordinary standards, and excuse it only because that behaviour seems necessary in order to get life back to normal. If by contrast we make war permanent, normalizing it by endorsing chronic hostility, we subvert the whole meaning of the term ‘war’ and corrupt ordinary moral thinking. That corruption was made possible during the Cold War by a Manichean demonizing of the opponents and an exaltation of one’s own side which involved a disgraceful flight from reality. The current attempt to revive that demonizing process for the so-called ‘War on Terror’, using it to excuse otherwise inexcusable behaviour, is monstrous.

What About Today?

Given this background, it is perhaps not surprising that the nuclear powers involved in this Cold War did not keep their promise to cut down their arsenals. They were still living in a dream where there was only one kind of danger and where their arsenals provided complete Security against it. The trouble was that after that picture was framed, the world gradually changed beyond recognition. Now the original Cold War balance is quite gone. Instead of two players, there are already half-a-dozen, with plenty more eager to join in at any time. The possession of nuclear weapons, which once seemed to be a carefully regulated disciplinary power, now appears as an everyday prize, a widely coveted power-symbol, a mark of prestige that may make its owners Secure in an increasingly alarming world. Weak and unstable governments see nuclear capability as a possible life-line and use its charms to woo their discontented citizens, who might otherwise want to throw them out. These governments clearly suspect that major powers will find it harder to bully small nations who possess this asset than to bully ones which don’t. They see it, in fact, much more as a defence against the danger of being ignored and overruled than against the danger of being directly attacked. But being ignored is not a trivial misfortune: it can carry many other troubles with it. These nations may therefore still think it worthwhile to procure this defence, or to claim that they are procuring it – an area in which bluff can obviously play a considerable part, as it seems to have done for Saddam Hussein. Recent events concerning North Korea suggest that these ideas may be right. Altogether, in some ways nukes are beginning to resemble the scarlet uniforms I mentioned at the start rather more closely than they resemble umbrellas.

Behind these unstable governments, too, stand terrorists, whose chancesof filching nuclear material increase steadily as its presence becomes more widespread. And, against terrorists, nuclear weapons are notoriously useless. As with every form of guerrilla warfare, regular weapons and techniques simply don’t work with terrorists (see Vietnam). Conflicts of this kind are like warfare between bulls and wasps. Nobody wins, but the bulls come off much the worse and are likely to be far sorer the next day.

In this situation, the only hope of rescue would seem to be to abide by the non-proliferation treaties and to strengthen them, while arbitrating existing disputes and attending to the grievances which lie at the root of terrorism. And, since upgrading Trident [Britain’s submarine-based nuclear missile programme, leased from the Americans] seems to be contrary to those treaties, I do not find it easy to see why people think it desirable to upgrade.

What Is A Security Council?

However, all this has an even more crucial context which is wider still. As I mentioned at the outset, we need to look outwards to have a wider view of the general balance of risks. Here I’d suggest that in ten years time it will strike us as quite extraordinary that people today were treating any danger whatever as more serious than that of climate change.

I don’t propose to go over the statistics about this now, but you will have noticed that each time those statistics are revised they become even more daunting, even though governments are making strenuous efforts to suppress their most alarming features. We are now gradually beginning to wake up to the significance of the message. But the remedies so far suggested at government level are so slight as to be ludicrous. Indeed, some of them, such as biofuels, would unquestionably make things worse.

On this point there was quite an interesting development lately when the British government suggested “putting climate change on the agenda of the UN Security Council for the first time to underline the urgency of the issue… Early soundings have met with resistance from countries such as the US and South Africa. Britain would only propose bringing climate change into Security Council business if it had unanimous support.” (The Guardian, 8/3/07.) The British (talking excellent sense this time) have pointed out that this “is a matter of international security as it will cause mass migrations and aggravate disputes over borders, water and other resources.” They are suggesting, in fact, that if the whole planet catches fire it’s actually going to inconvenience ordinary political life. Similarly, the Stern report pointed out that this planetary event could even have bad consequences for the economy – something which a great many clever and influential people apparently hadn’t previously noticed. To these people, the Economy was something real and central to human life, whereas the Environment was something marginal, outside serious considerations, perhaps a mere fantasy.

So topics like climate change have not up to now been considered relevant to the Council’s concern with Security, which casts an interesting light on the meaning given to that word. However, it is now being proposed that they should be so considered, and there is some precedent for such a change. To quote further from the Press Release: “Foreign Office officials point to the example of Richard Holbrooke, the US ambassador to the UN between 1999 and 2001, who put AIDS onto the Security Council agenda with beneficial results.” So perhaps the conception of Security that reigns there can indeed be widened in this way towards something a soupçon more realistic.

One World

Does all this help us with the problem of how we can deal with Security questions such as those raised by Trident?

In general I have been suggesting that what we need is to shift away from a purely local perception of Security; a mood which accepts conflict as inevitable, chronic, and concentrates only on building a bristling rampart around our own country. We need to have a more co-operative approach, a mood which asks how we can make a sense of Security more widely available – how we can make the world a less frightening place to other nations by showing that we understand their fears and are genuinely willing to help them. As one example against that background, it looks to me as if, in spite of obvious difficulties, the more conciliatory approach now being shown towards North Korea is a sensible first step which may suggest some possible ways of saving the damaged non-proliferation system. On the whole, deterrence based on scaring people has turned out not to work. Perhaps instead we might try reassuring them so that they don’t feel the need to arm themselves against us in the first place. Here we come back to Aesop’s fable of ‘The North Wind, the Sun and the Traveller’s Cloak’. As you will remember, the two natural forces were arguing about which of them was the stronger, and agreed to settle the point by seeing which of them could most quickly separate the traveller from his cloak. The North Wind tried first, blowing his coldest and most ferocious gusts, but his best efforts only made the traveller clutch his cloak more closely about him. The Sun then came out and warmed the air in such a way that the traveller soon took his cloak off of his own accord.

Of course, nobody knows whether these conciliatory efforts will work. They may well not work, because if there’s one thing the human race is really good at, it’s hanging onto feuds. If conciliation doesn’t work, I think the next step is simply that climate change will shortly whack us all so hard that it can no longer be ignored. At that point, something similar to the situation which science fiction writers have depicted, where an outside invasion forces various nations to co-operate in the general defence, will arise. The choice will obviously be between doing that and global civilization collapsing into total anarchy. In so far as the governments of the world do attempt co-operation to prevent this, the absurdity of collecting armaments will surely at once become obvious to all. And it seems to me that all we can do immediately is to try to move public attitudes as fast as possible in that direction.

© Dr Mary Midgley 2007

Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, until the Philosophy Department there was closed down. Among her best known books are Beast and Man, Wickedness, The Ethical Primate and Science and Poetry.

• This piece was presented to a recent high-level round-table meeting organized by the Oxford Research Group, where the issue of the international and global ramifications of a British decision to renew its strategic nuclear weapons was discussed.

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