National Security Strategy News

IssueApril 2008
Feature by Milan Rai

On 19 March, the British prime minister launched the much–delayed National Security Strategy (NSS) – to little enthusiasm. The Daily Telegraph (which accompanied its report with a picture from Dad's Army) described the document as "a disappointing damp squib".

The report says that Britain faces "diverse and interconnected" threats, including pandemic influenza, failed states, transnational crime, terrorism and the proliferation of WMD. These have "diverse and interconnected" causes, including global poverty, climate change and globalisation.

Pandemic priority

Many commentators were surprised by the high risk rating given to pandemic influenza (which would be caused by a highly infectious form of the H5N1 "bird flu" virus spreading into humans).

However, experts in the field regard such a global disease outbreak as virtually certain – in fact overdue. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says: "All the indications are that we are living on borrowed time." Dr David Nabarro, WHO coordinator for avian and human influenza, has estimated the potential death toll worldwide from an H5N1 pandemic as 150 million people.

One of the world's top virologists, Dmitry K Lvov, on the other hand, has estimated the maximum H5N1 death toll as 1bn people – within six months of the outbreak. Here, the government's estimate, reproduced in the NSS, is that between 50,000 and 750,000 people could be killed in Britain in an influenza pandemic – within six weeks. This may be conservative. Given the high probability of the event, and the scale of the impact (far exceeding all other possible threats in the near term except a nuclear detonation), it is not surprising that a pandemic should be high on the national security agenda.

It's on the agenda, but precious little is being done. Indonesia, which has a high rate of H5N1 infection in birds and people, for a year quite rightly refused to share infected tissue samples on the grounds that there was no guarantee that it will be able to afford the vaccines developed as the result of its tissue–sharing. Britain did not speak up to support Indonesia.

There is no specific H5N1–related aid to Indonesia recorded on the website of the Department For International Development, and a paltry £37m has been set aside for British aid to vulnerable countries.

New research from Indonesia led the chief veterinary officer of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Joseph Domenech, to warn on 18 March that the high level of H5N1 virus circulation in birds in the country could create conditions for the virus to mutate "and to finally cause a human influenza pandemic".

Terrorism: the first target

One of the first whispers leading to the NSS was heard in February 2006, when Gordon Brown called for a single security budget, and a battle for the hearts and minds of British Muslims to prevent them coming under the influence of al–Qa'eda.

In July 2007, after becoming premier, Brown repeated his call for a single security budget and said a national security strategy would be published shortly. It wasn't. The delays may have been caused by inter–departmental wrangling – one of the key goals set out early on was budgetary and departmental unification, never welcome in Whitehall.

In the event, the NSS does not contain any revolutionary new framework for dealing with al–Qa'eda–type terrorism, the central thrust of Brown's first remarks about the NSS, or any dramatic "hearts and minds" initiative.

RICU: the new IRD

Curiously, the cross­departmental "Research, Information and Communications Unit" (RICU), set up within the Home Office just before Blair left office, is not mentioned, despite reports that it is preparing a "cultural offensive" aimed at young British Muslims.

One official has admitted that RICU "does sound horribly cold war." It recalls the Foreign Office's secret "Information Research Department" (1948–1977), set up (by a Labour government) as a covert psychological warfare operation to manipulate the press and opinion formers.

Those in the government at the coalface of confronting al–Qa'eda are well aware that British foreign policy is a key recruiter for the terrorists (see PN2487–88).

This realism is suppressed within the NSS, making it less a strategy than a public relations device, divorced from the real work of undermining al–Qa'eda. The NSS says that foreign policy priority will be given to Pakistan and Afghanistan for regional conflict reasons, "as well as domestic counter–terrorism".

Yes, there are South Asians in Britain who seek terrorist training in this area. The question is why they do this. As the police acknowledged in their report on 7/7, "Iraq HAS had a huge impact". (Guardian, 7 July 2006) Iraq has poisoned "hearts and minds". Nothing proposed in the NSS will change this reality.

Good timing

That's why it's right that Gordon Brown launched the National Security Strategy on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

British state terrorism against Iraq poses the greatest easily–avoidable threat to the people of Britain, having seriously heightened the risk of al–Qa'eda terrorism in this country, with the likely loss of hundreds of lives in the years to come.

The most serious immediate threat to national security, however, remains the prospect of a catastrophic influenza pandemic. Pandemic Action is a British group campaigning for justice for the world's poor in the struggle against an influenza pandemic:

The new National Security Strategy highlights real issues – which the government is failing to deal with. Britain threatened by influenza pandemic and (state) terrorism

Whose safety?

National security means the safety of the people who make up the nation. That is not exactly what the government means by "national security".
Ten years ago, at the beginning of the New Labour era, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) said: "our national interests have a vital international dimension". Furthermore: "our vital interests are not confined to Europe". The SDR then listed "interna­ tional trade", British investments abroad (particularly "in the devel­ oping world"), "foreign investment into the UK", and "supplies of raw materials, above all oil".

These are the "vital interests" at the heart of foreign policy. The SDR also said that the size of Britain's nuclear arsenal should be "the minimum necessary to deter any threat to our vital interests".

Corporate interests

The British "national interest", then, is not exactly the "interest of the entire nation". These are largely the interests of financial and economic elites.
As Adam Smith said in the Wealth of Nations, in the formation of national policy "the interest of our manufacturers has been most peculiarly attended to." Smith also said that the interest of merchants and manufacturers "is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public".
In the age of transnational cor­ porations, these remarks are even more relevant.

NSS 2008

In the new National Security Strategy (NSS), there is acknowledgement that the definition of national security has broadened, but still refers to "the integrity and interests of the state" as a core aim.

These are not spelled out immediately, but in the "globalisation" section of the NSS, there is a slightly more discreet list of national interests: international trade, shipping lanes, "open markets", "global financial stability". Britain's success in "exploiting those opportunities" offered by globalisation contributes to employment and standards of living (and, interestingly, "to international influence").

"Employment" is generally the code word in such documents for the forbidden word "profit", Noam Chomsky has observed.

Made to be broken

The most amusing aspect of the NSS is the emphasis on strengthening the "rules–based international system" (mentioned seven times), so brutally damaged with Brown's support in 2003.

What better way to mark the fifth anniversary of the war than to promise to abide by international law... most of the time.