What is Common Security? A Conceptual Comparison

By Hanna Newcombe | 1990-08-01 12:00:00

In a world of sovereign nation-states, the predominant concept of security has been unilateral competitive national military security, (UCNMS) a term in which each of the italicized words is important. "Unilateral" means "put into effect without consulting others." "Competitive" means "striving to win while others lose." "National" means protecting one's own nation-state only. "Military" means by using military threats or force. "Security" means protection from danger by continuation of the existing international system. The concept has been so well ingrained in our consciousness that we equate "security" to UCNMS without considering other meanings of "security," or other means for achieving it.

The harshness of this "realist" conception of international relations is somewhat mitigated by observing at least some rules of international law, by membership in many intergovernmental international organizations, by the incipient morality of reciprocity and equity norms, and by overlapping transnational business and people-to-people contacts. Nevertheless, the realist model still, unfortunately, describes rather accurately the main features of the international "system."

Many thinkers believe that unilateral competitive national military security (UCNMS) no longer serves even the narrowly defined national interests of nation-states. While, in the short run, military power apparently still deters aggression and great powers still get away with military interventions in the affairs of smaller nations, long-range national interests would be better served by creating institutions that go beyond the selfish nation state. Just as individuals in a presumed primeval state of nature came to see that forming a society would serve each of them well in the long run, so states are slowly awakening to the same insight, though not yet universally.

One reason for the doubts and worries about the present security system lies in the fact that nuclear and other mass-destruction weapons are too destructive to use rationally in warfare ("rationally" in the Clausewitzian sense of trying to achieve concrete policy goals). Unilateral military defence has become literally impossible, since even super-powers cannot protect their own populations from exterminafion. All nation states live at each other's mercy. But the full implication of this has still not been drawn: that we must look elsewhere for meaningful security.

Collective Security

The first attempt this century at collective security was made in the league of Nations in 1919, and later the United Nations in 1945. The concept of "collective security" was still military, but international rather than national. It was a legal, even legalistic, concept, modelled on the criminal-justice system of domestic law. Nations would form a "society" (league) of law-abiding peace-loving citizens, and any one of them that broke the social contract would be punished by the collective force of all the others, and deprived of "the fruits of aggression." As in any such criminal-law system and any contractarian society, the definitions of "aggressor" and "victim" are formulated "behind the veil of ignorance," i.e. they are anonymous at the time of writing the contract. This is an advance on earlier conceptions, since the league's military force is not directed against a particular "enemy," but against any law-breaker, even one's close friend or ally. However, identifying the "aggressor" is particularly difficult. In domestic criminal law, a trial (with judge and jury in important cases) must determine guilt; but in interstate wars there would be no time for this. The "criminal" state would have to be punished before its guilt was established "beyond a reasonable doubt" i.e. the presumption of innocence (until proved guilty) could not exist. And yet, the attack, deemed aggressive on the surface, might be a response to unbeaiable provocation.

There is another major short coming of collective security. It is still nationalistic, in that it is based on the principle of the collective responsibility of nations. The language used illustrates the problem: a nation becomes an aggressor, a nation is punished or even destroyed. If we stop to think about it, this means killing the nation's citizens (some or all), men, women, children, old people, babies-most of them almost totally unaware of what their government has done. There is no realization that "the nation" is an abstraction, not a unitary actor with conscience, moral restraint or lack of it. Only human individuals are "real" as moral actors. This is the true realism. Collective security is not yet aware that only individuals can be held responsible for crimes, in any morally realistic criminal justice system.

Common Security

Collective security was a system designed for a legal order (1)ased on criminal law principles) in a multi-polar world, in which the international organization does not know beforehand who the enemy will be. In contrast, "common security," also called "mutual security," is a system designed in a more sociological theoretical framework, for the loose bipolar world, in which we know all too well who our predesignated enemies are. Common security, unlike collective security, is not a neatly delineated scheme of "what to do when," in which everyone's obligations are crystal-clear, and in which the system has only two states: peace or war, both of them world-wide. Common security is much less neat and orderly, being a basket of ideas on war avoidance, both between the super-powers and/or their blocs, and in local crisis areas scattered around the world, in which local bipolarities and clearly designated enemies also exist (e.g. Alab-Israel, India-Pakis tan, Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, Iran-Iraq). (Even the new concept of common security might be helpless in truly chaotic multi-factional fights like the civil war in lebaron.) Common security is centred on war avoidance, of the nuclear age, in which resort to war centrally would be suicide, and even locally is highly dangerous because of the possibility of escalation. The scheme tries to achieve war avoidance by a series of measures, some oriented toward disarmament, some toward arms control, some toward peacekeeping, some toward strengthening international or-

ganizations, some toward tension reduction, better understanding (doing away with misperceptions), confidence-building, and (not the least) removing the injustices that breed war. It is not concerned with assigning blame, but with discovering causes of war (armaments; particular disputes; racial, religious and ideological divisions; gross injustice; unrealistic enemy images) and designing measures to counteract them. It is not designed for what happens "the day after" someone attacks (in a nuclear strike, that would be too late to do anything) but what can be done "the day before," right now.

Even more important than the contrast between common security and collective security is the contrast between "common security" and the present system of UCNMS. The word "common " can be taken as the opposite of both "unilateral" and "competitive," since it depends on (at least) limited cooperation between opponents, and cannot be done alone. (Unilateral disarmament is rejected, except as a limited initiative to invite reciprocation.) It is not "national," but international. It is not "military" primarily (although "non-offensive defence," one of the suggested possibilities, still depends on a de-escalated military), but relies mainly on diplomatic and psychological means. Thus it denies nearly every word in "UCNMS," except the last-"security." It claims to be more appropriate for achieving security than UCNMS could ever be, in the nuclear age.

Common security is a flexible framework that will accommodate many creative peace proposals. This openness, resulting partly from the initial lack of definitional clarity of the concept, may prove a blessing in disguise; since "carved in stone" concepts (e.g collective security) with their "either-or" harshness, tend not to be implemented. Instead of the stark choice of war or peace, it offers the possibility of partial success or gradual progression in the right direction, as its various parts are implemented one by one.

Summing-up: We can improve on UCNMS along these dimensions: toward internationalism (away from unilateralism and nationalism); toward cooperation (away from competition); and toward nonviolence (away from militarism). Collective security is more internationalist than common security (since the former is designed multilaterally and the

latter mainly bilaterally, for antagonistic pairs), but it is far more militaristic. Both are equally cooperative, but in different ways; under collective security, the "good" states cooperate totally against the "bad" state in wartime, while under common security, each pair of antagonists try to cooperate in a limited way in peacetime. Note that there are no "good guys" and "bad guys" in the common security scheme; we are all members of the same endangered species.

How can we make progress along the three dimensions (internationalism, cooperation, nonviolence) beyond the stage attained under collective security and common security?

Alternative Security

The term "alternative security" has been used with different meanings: (1) In a purely "unilateral national defence" sense, it has meant transarmament, either to non-offensive (non-provocative) defence (c.f. Galtung, 1984, Fischer, 1985), or to nonviolent civilian defence (Sharp 1969, Roberts 1964, Ebert 1972). (2) In a more comprehensive sense, it means the permanent long-range replacement for UCNMS.

We would want a scheme which (1) applies universally to all nations, (2) stems from common action rather than unilateral action, and (3) precludes the use of physical coercion by any party, whether status-quo (government) or challenger (revolutionary).

World federal government (WFG) would preclude, almost by definition, all international wat%, but not necessarily civil wars. WFG is completely internationalist, but not totally nonviolent, since it usually calls at least for a highly armed "world police force." It strives in principle for a "world community," but the world-level governmental structures would presumably continue and make the best of it even if world harmony were incomplete. Thus WFG is not all the way along the cooperative dimension.

Principled nonviolence (PNV) is not necessarily internationalist at all, being a method ready for use by nations or even by subnational groups. It is also not cooperative at all, since it is used unilaterally and does recognize the existence of opponents. (Gandhi would, however, say that we should love our opponents as persons, while hating and combatting their actions or ideas.) Nevertheless, it is all the way along on the nonviolent dimension.

If we could design a system that would combine the best features of both WFG and PNV, we would get complete internationalism and complete nonviolence, but with complete cooperation (or harmony or integration) still having to wait for a yet more distant future.

But how to combine WFG and PNV? Some of the adherents of each approach consider them divergent, even antagonistic; yet I am of a different opinion. WFG supporters may see PNV as destructive of the value of "order" which they treasure; but if PNV is exercised only in cases of extreme injustice, as a "last resort," this may give a good balance between order and justice which is necessary in a peaceful world. PNV supporters sometimes see WFG as too centralizing, building toward "bigness" rather than "the small and beautiful." But this need not be so. With the ideal of a multilevel world, in which the levels range from person to planet, as much power at least would be drained downwards as upwards from the national level, which is now so grossly over-emphasized as to amount to idolatry.

I cannot yet give details of the WFG-PNV combination which would give us true alternative security. However, in rough outline, it would feature WFG structures in times of normal harmonious operation, and certain necessary PNV "upsets" (conflict, but without violence) in times ofperceived serious injustice by govemmenial authorities at any of the levels. Because we humans are not yet perfect in cooperative or integrative behavior, stormy "course corrections" via PNV will remain necessary for a

long time, even under well-designed WFG. The PNV methods should therefore be deliberately taught to citizens even in quiet times, so that they do not become rusty; or perhaps it is best to let them be "self-taught" by grass-roots groups. The struggle between order and justice (WFG antl PNV) will continue, though without bloodshed (unless from back-sliding or accidents), until humanity becomes mature enough in Its development to sail a smooth course toward a just, sustainable, harmonious world community.

Hanna Newcombe, Peace Research Institute Dundas. This arlicle is a revised, condensed version of a paper for Canadian Peace Research and Education Association, May 4-6, 1986.


Kenneth Boulding, Conflict and Defence: A General Theory, Harper, New York 1961, 350 pp
Theodor Ebert "Defence Policy Without Wepons. The concept of Social Defence" teitrge zur Korifliktfonchun Vol.2, 1977 pp. (In German)
Dietrich Fischer; Preventing war In the Nuclear Age. Rowman and Littlefield, Trenton NJ, 1985.
Johan Galtung, There are Alternatives. Four Roads to Peace and Secunty, Defour, Chester Springs, PA 1942S, 221 pp.
Adam Roberts, Civilian Defence. Peace News Pamphlet 1964, 5 Caledonian Rd, London
Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Pilgrim, Philadelphia 1969, 896 pp.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1990

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