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Complacency in defence and security: the biggest threat to global stability?

21st February 2020

The theme of this year’s annual Munich Security Conference was ‘Westlessness’.  Awkward to pronounce and going by the evidence, equally awkward to discuss in (polite) internationally mixed company.  That those countries self-identifying as ‘Western’, are having a moment of self-doubt is not in dispute.  But as the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo was at pains to stress during his speech to the conference, the list of the West’s competitive advantages is as long as it is impressive.  Despite that, somehow the doubts remain.  There is no shortage of books, journal articles and editorials attempting to explain why the assumptions that have dominated global discourse and conduct on security and defence for the past 70 years are now under siege.  Aside from concerns over the US’s continued commitment to fortify the West’s key brands like NATO, the other most often cited evidence for Westlessness was the sense that the international rules based order too is no longer the default standard it once was.

For some, including the authors of the Conference’s report and leaders such as France’s President Macron, the answer lies in finding – and presumably before that, agreeing to – a joint plan for action.  For Macron, this would come from the European Union.  Others continue to look to the US in the hope that at some point, and maybe as early as November, signs will emerge that normal business will soon be resumed.  Nonetheless, some things once said cannot be unsaid, and now that the genie of self-doubt is out the bottle, and has been named, any re-set will require sustained stewardship and patient hard work by all those with an interest in maintaining the West’s values and its underpinning ideals.

So what might be done while the West waits for the emergence of a plan, be that joint, US led, EU led or otherwise?  Are there parallels with other governance reform efforts that seek to help institutions that have lost their way?  For some fifteen years, Transparency International’s Defence and Security programme (TI-DS) has been working tirelessly to raise awareness of the corrosive effects of corruption in the global defence sector. Challenging the view that corruption is merely an economic or financial cost, its work continues to show that once a more rounded interpretation of corruption is combined with a sector specific approach and a deeper appreciation of its precursors, patterns are revealed and wider implications become better understood.  TI-DS work indicates how the onset of institutional malaise can help create the conditions for corruption to take root in a sector, while also pointing to decay in the broader governance of the political system of which it is a part.  Running in parallel, is corruption’s relationship with the breakdown of trust between the public and those they fund (through their taxes) to protect them, undermining confidence in the State and if left unchecked, how it can lead to instability, insecurity and ultimately to conflict.

This is not to say, that what lies at the heart of the West’s strategic drift is corruption.  The temptations that can lead to corrupt behaviour, in all its guises, can and do exist in the most transparent and accountable of systems, and the bastions of the West’s defence are no less immune to it than others.  Rather, that the common thread that connects the two is ‘complacency’.  It is complacency that starts the erosion of oversight mechanisms and institutional safeguards. The difficult and often mundane work that politicians, military leaders and bureaucracies are required to do to tend and maintain the complex web of checks, balances, customs and practices, needs constant attention and insistent reaffirmation. The problem for the generation that inherits a system, as opposed to generation that built and in some cases fought for it, is that the prevailing conditions are seen as a given, somehow self-governing and possibly even inevitable.  And what might be true for institutions that govern national defense and security, can also true for a wider political system and by extension, a broader international system, especially one built on rarely explained shared values and inherited assumptions.  In the absence of a conscious effort to maintain its safeguards, it is perhaps inevitable that cracks will appear that can be exploited by those motivated to take advantage of perceived weakness or discord.

For Transparency International Defence and Security, the first step in any successful institutional reform programme is the identification of reform-minded leaders willing to take on the challenge of re-instilling the confidence in the organisations they lead.  In turn, those that are led need to believe that’s their leaders understand the problem and mean to do what it takes to mend it.  But this leadership must come from within the institution; be that a single branch of the military, a ministry, or within a government.  Rarely, does it come from outside.  In the same way, calls by Western leaders for joint action, or US leadership, overlook important options much closer to home.  The complacency that crept up on the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall arguably took hold because collectively, the West took its values, its justifications and its popularity for granted.  Moreover, they believed that liberal democracy’s victory in the Cold War, had proven that it was inevitable; and as such it didn’t need to be explained, justified or renewed.

The first step in redressing the West’s moment of self-doubt therefore, like the first step in tackling corruption within an institution, is to recognise that reform starts when its leaders re-build and re-assert the case for shared values with its disillusioned rank and file, and begin the process of reconnecting with sceptical populations. Reform and renewal isn’t easy at any level, but it is best led by those closest to the problem.  Waiting for the leadership of others, or a proposal for a joint action, will only allow the doubt to linger and unpalatable alternatives to gain greater currency and increase their traction. If and when joint action or the leadership of others is eventually offered, those that have already started to tackle to problem at source, will always be better placed to contribute