The original article


2015 Essays
What is National Security?

By: Kim R. Holmes, PhD. Oct. 17, 2014

[Note: This page is excerpted from a much longer piece. Contact the instructor if you want to read the full article.]

What National Security Is Not

It is true in life, as in strategic planning, that if you try to do everything, you will likely end up doing few things right. America’s definitions of national security should be guided not only by a sensible understanding of what is truly vital to the nation’s security, but also by what the nation can practically expect the government to do and not to do.

It is particularly important that the Department of Defense and armed forces understand this point. An “all of the above” definition of national security, which primarily suits political constituencies, will only lead to confusion, waste, distractions, and possibly even military failures as the U.S. government is asked to do things that are either beyond its capacity or, worse, tangential to the real mission of protecting the country from harm.

It is thus critical to identify what national security is not. The best way to do this is to establish clear criteria for what exactly constitutes a threat to national security.

Is it, for example, truly a threat to the American people and the American nation as a whole? Can it be tolerated, or must it be eliminated? If the latter, does the nation have the proper means to defeat, contain, or influence the threat? If not, can it obtain those means within a reasonable time frame to make a difference and at an affordable cost?

Is the threat external or internal? If internal, is it from foreign, unlawful, and unconstitutional sources and thus reasonably understood as hostile and a risk to peoples’ freedoms, or is it merely an act of lawful dissent or protest by Americans? The last thing the nation’s leaders should do is to mistake political dissent as a threat to homeland security; although surveillance and intelligence-gathering capabilities are necessary to combat terrorism, it is imperative that America’s leaders keep a bright line between watching terrorists and monitoring the political views of Americans.

Are the threats man-made or natural in origin? Natural disasters like hurricanes can be very dangerous, but even if one assumes they are caused by climate change (which is disputable), are they threats to the nation? Are “threats” from the weather, disease, or lack of food due to manipulations by states or terrorist groups or natural in origin, to be dealt with accordingly?

Finally, a crucial question: To what extent is the insecurity of other peoples related to our own? Does U.S. national security come into play only when the safety and security of allies who share America’s values and interests are endangered? Or is America committed generally not only to the safety and security of all peoples around the globe, but also to their health, human rights, and general well-being?

The answers to these questions are not difficult.

First, national security is not something that merely affects the well-being of Americans. Rather, it involves their safety, their security, and their freedoms. It is becoming more commonplace to view perceived social “injustices” as national security problems, but this distorts the very concept. Perceptions of social injustice or inequality are domestic concerns, not national security matters. Making less money than a neighbor is hardly as important to one’s life as being safe from incineration in a skyscraper in a terrorist attack.

A similar distinction holds true for so-called health security. While a pandemic disease could endanger the safety and security of thousands of Americans, unless it is committed as an act of biological terrorism, it should be considered a matter of health and domestic safety, not national security. As for the social implications, whether individuals have health insurance is vital to their lives, but that is a matter for them and their insurance agents or program administrators at the Department of Health and Human Services. It is a matter of “social” security, not national security.

Admittedly, global security concepts like health and human security come into play mainly overseas—in definitions of international security—and not in defining American security. But even there, some distinctions need to be made. “Food security” often means little more than preventing malnutrition or responding to famine caused either by natural causes or by political instability or war. The causes of these problems can be addressed through humanitarian aid, mediation, or (in extreme cases) peacekeeping or even military intervention, but little is gained by creating neologisms that may intend to heighten political concern but do little to help shape an adequate response for solving them.
A similar problem exists with the concept of environmental security. Clearly, wars can cause environmental damage and disruptions. Water shortages can create transnational and social tensions that may lead to conflict, and melting polar caps could open up waterways that exacerbate international tensions. As far as national and international security is concerned, however, the root causes of those conflicts are not environmental; they are political and military. Environmental issues are tangential and, at best, merely contributing factors. For example, Saddam Hussein did not burn the oilfields to damage the environment; he burned them to disrupt America’s military advance. Water shortages exist, but the problem begins when rival nations or groups start manipulating that scarcity for political purposes. Tensions with Russia over Arctic routes are rooted in Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, not in purported concerns about the ozone layer.

A current example of problematic thinking about national security can be found in ideas about environmental security and its link to climate change. Some purport that climate change is a “threat multiplier” insofar as it supposedly could create natural disasters, exacerbate conflicts, and make the operating environment for U.S. armed forces more difficult. Some also see it as a problem for “safeguarding the global commons,” which is a foreign policy problem. From this perspective, government policies focus on using international “engagement to transition to a low-carbon growth trajectory” for the entire planet.

As for the Pentagon’s new role, it is about studying global warming’s supposed impact on military installations, the operating environment, and the Arctic and the assumed increased role in humanitarian assistance and relief that it expects to be caused by “climate change–induced” disasters.

As noted earlier regarding the confused thinking that results when policymakers conflate social conditions or public health matters with “national security,” there are a number of questionable assumptions behind current environmental security policy. There may be a scientific consensus on the fact that the climate warmed for a period, but there is no consensus on how much it is still warming or exactly how factors like vapor and the sun contribute to it. Thus, the more alarmist predictions are unreliable.

This sort of uncertainty means not only that there may not be a grave threat, but also that, at the very least, we have little idea how bad it could be or when it could occur. One sympathetic study of the risks of climate change concluded confidently that there is a one-in-20 chance that catastrophic outcomes could cost $701 billion worth of coastal damage by the “end of the century.”3 undefinedundefined

But that is 85 years away. In the computer modeling world it is fairly common to come up with such precise figures (why not $700 billion or $702 billion instead of $701 billion?), but in the real world—especially one that is almost nine decades away—many unpredictable things can and will happen.

Such unpredictability and such poorly disciplined thinking about national security are problematic for Pentagon planning. How do military planners make reliable plans for predictions that span almost a century and for which short-term predictions are highly unreliable? It may be appropriate for military planners to study possible long-range implications, especially for the Arctic if one assumes the global warming forecasts to be accurate, but it would be imprudent to assume that any specific adjustments to installations or operational planning can be made reliably for periods of time further out than 10 or 20 years.

Further, if things like climate change, global public health, or volcanic eruptions in some distant corner of the world are accepted as threats to national security, they are threats over which the United States does not exercise sovereignty. Yes, the U.S. could choose to do things to help improve the health of its citizens or mitigate the impact on its cities of changing weather patterns, but it stretches reason to assert that the U.S. military should be shaped to account for the policies and conditions of other countries and peoples relative to their own efforts in such cases.

Finally, there is the issue of energy security. All nations need energy to survive, but the market can supply most of their energy needs. Nations like Russia use energy as a geopolitical tool of coercion. Indeed, the Ukrainians can attest to how serious this coercion can be. Other nations like China make satisfying their energy-hungry economies a central part of their foreign policy. By and large, however, whatever attempts these and other countries make to use energy as a geopolitical tool run up against the demands of the international market. Oil and gas markets are highly influenced by nations and cartels, but they are also global in nature. This means that global economic demand also affects the price of energy and typically exerts greater leverage than do the actions of any one country.

Energy security thus becomes more a policy task of keeping the global energy market as free and open as possible than a programmatic objective of national security or even foreign policy. America’s main energy problem has been an intentional limit on domestic production and infrastructure like pipelines and liquid gas facilities. Although energy insecurity is a real problem for some nations, the solutions for the United States are largely economic and infrastructural in nature. Energy “security” is mainly about taking advantage of new techniques such as fracking, more drilling for oil, and building more refineries, pipelines, nuclear reactors, and liquid gas facilities at ports for export purposes.

Kim R. Holmes, PhD, is the Executive Vice President at The Heritage Foundation.