By Manzar Zaidi
Jan 16, 2014
One often hears the term National security being extolled, but there is little comprehension of its integral component, the concept of national security uncertainty. This refers to the presence of ill defined or understood threats which can arise to challenge states , usually after paradigm shifts (like 9/11) or major wars or turbulences in history . One of the major problems is that if you are unsure about what the intent of your opponent is, you will not be adequately prepared to meet the challenges presented by your opponents’ goals, interests, and capabilities. Thus, the state facing a dilemma of comprehension of what its opponents want will not be able to make a decision as to when and how to prepare for a full out war, counterinsurgency, engagement or any other measure. The dilemma escalates when there are other challenges facing the state as well, such as economic problems commonly faced by developing and under developed countries. This will exacerbate the uncertainty horizon for such states, since what may be a perfectly viable option for a financially secure state may not be feasible for one facing economic crunch. Socio cultural factors also cause limitation of choice, such as the religious environment of the state facing national security uncertainty, ethnic and nationalist violence etc.
National security uncertainty is not usually a result of a single ambiguous variable, but is often multivariate, with an overlay of socio cultural and socio economic factors which can increase or decrease uncertainty by changes in their contexts. Even a state which has made no enemies within and without may still face a rational choice decision about national security. A classical example is the traditionally nuetral state of Norway, which has joined the NATO alliance in the most dramatic shift away from it’s venerated neutrality as possible. Accepting the fact that porous borders allows insecurity in Europe to permeate its physical and ideological borders , as well as a burgeoning immigrant population has promoted this shift. This has arisen from rising national security uncertainty more than anything else, since Norway does not have a clearly defined enemy. Asymmetric attacks like the one perpetrated recently by a local exacerbate the uncertainty environment.
As regards national security uncertainty, when the threat is ill-defined or ambiguous, it is harder for states to explain to their publics clearly who the enemy are, which makes it more difficult to mobilize support for any national security strategy countering the uncertainty. In this dimension, the sort of societal support that Sir Michael Howard terms as the ‘forgotten dimension of strategy’ is absent or is lacking in any depth. The prospect theory also explains in part why it is so hard to get support from public when there is ambivalence about the enemy, and also debate upon the nation’s place and prestige in the world. Prospect theory states that people will react differently to prospects of gains or losses. In case of losses which seem imminent or probable, or when a choice needs to be made to accept losses, people will be more acceptable to taking chances of loses going into risky ventures. When gains are in grasp, or when a choice is to be made to accepting gains, people will not be ready to take chances of losses. In other words, people will be more amenable to accept the prospect of losses going into a risky venture than into one where the chances of gains are higher; the human condition is programmed to be risk-acceptant for losses and risk-averse for gains. Incorporating the prospect theory into national security paradigms, citizens will be more acceptable to take looses when they can discern a clearly demarcated opponent of the state, in the face of imminent prospects of terrorism.
Thus, public opinion can even be mobilized when a state tells its citizens that terrorism is inevitable. There just need to be clearly demarcated enemies of the state, and the state admits that there will be human or infrastructural losses along the way, but the state will fight back with all its might to eventually eradicate this menace. Negative goals such as minimizing losses in the face of threats can still be used if they are disseminated unambiguously to the target audience, rather than harping on about positive goals like becoming a terrorism free progressive nation, which will not gain traction with publics in states facing turbulence. Noble as these ideals are, and certainly worth aspiring for, these may not help a state to gain credibility when besieged by impending terrorism, economic crunches and a general deterioration in law and order and governance regimes. People, especially in a state beset by problems , are essentially quite pragmatic in their outlook no matter what their literacy levels are, and would be able to conceive in better terms what will be lost than what might be gained. Of course, when the threat is more or less totally eliminated, then the people will be more amenable to accepting themes like aspiring for top leadership status in the world, or any other lofty ideals that states should aspire to. However, once the low threat environment lasts for some time, people will not be that willing anymore to take losses along the way for realization of positive goals. For instance, citizens in a peaceful state will not be amenable to accepting losses from terrorism on the road to attaining leadership status in the world.
As national insecurity adjustments that do not present clear pictures, such as an identifiable opponent, it is certainly easier to have a national counter terrorism strategy than a counter extremism strategy, though even a clear CT strategy is problematic in itself. This is in part due to the fact that few people will study vague and diffuse threats until they actually materialize in the flesh. However, there are definitely certain ways that different theories can coalesce into setting some national security doctrines that remain fluid in the face of uncertain and diffuse threats. It is time to perhaps start studying them.