A societal narrative for national security?

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2018

Terrorist propaganda
Islamic State Propaganda Video. Image: Alibaba2k16/Wikipedia

Dr Germana Nicklin of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, writes that disparate views in New Zealand about ‘national security’ need to be resolved.

The concept of national security in New Zealand is familiar to government officials and academics but arguably is not part of the wider societal narrative.

Of surprise to many may be that New Zealand has had a comprehensive approach to national security (though less than now) since 1987, when coordination of national security matters was formalised in the Office of Coordinator of Domestic and External Security.

This change reflects a gradual expansion of the traditional view of national security that focused on external threats and military responses.  In the 21st century, the global complexity and interconnectedness of human activity have highlighted that threats to the environment, the economy and public health are also matters of national security.

The Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks in 2001 highlighted that threats to national security can also come from within the state, and from non-state actors.

The US response was to focus on homeland security, with its implied inward-looking focus. We could conclude from this that national security could be either a ‘within borders’ matter or an ‘outside borders’ matter.

However, global interconnectedness muddies this distinction – for example, overfishing in international waters threatens the food supplies of many states; terrorist propaganda on social media can radicalise young people anywhere; cyber-attacks can come from anywhere; risks such as pandemics and disruptions to the global trading system may originate in one state, but also have flow-on effects to others.

It is therefore clear that national security can incorporate cross-border and domestic aspects simultaneously.

Out of discussions at the National Security Conference came the message that civil society in New Zealand wants to be – and needs to be – more involved in this comprehensive idea of national security.

Jim Rolfe, in his 2015 article in the New Zealand International Review, opined that “the New Zealand public has to accept what is being done in its name and often the public has no basis for knowing what actually is being done.” The Conference discussions highlighted that at the core of ‘not knowing’ was a lack of common understanding of the concept of national security as used by the government.

Here we see a potential problem. If the New Zealand public understands national security in a different way from the government of the day, the legitimacy of that government’s actions might come into question. This could in turn constrain civil society support for and involvement in measures to protect national security.

Indeed, in recent times, the scrutiny directed towards surveillance powers and transparency of classified information suggests a public not wholly persuaded by the government’s approach in these areas.

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This discussion is but a starting point. The programme of the National Security Conference started a move toward including civil society issues. While it began with global and regional threats, narrowing down to economic and trade security – involving domestic interests affected by global trends, the new element was on more domestically-focused security issues..

However, a core question still to be answered is what meaning the New Zealand public ascribes to the term ‘national security’.

Is it different from the state-centric meaning? What are the security priorities of different New Zealand communities and is there a gap between these priorities and what the government of the day assigns resources to? If so, what are the implications of this gap for national security?

Societal discussions on these sorts of questions do not appear spontaneously. The National Security Conference can initiate discussions, but other means are needed to develop them into a national conversation.

Research can contribute to the conversation. Another avenue suggested at the conference was the creation of a business network focused on national security. These would be small but promising steps in an area where there is much to be done.