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U.K. Strategic Review and the New Security Protectionism

Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010

The U.K. defense review is now available (.pdf), and to make a long story short, London -- with a great deal of help from Washington -- broke its military and is now looking at about a decade of shore leave. There are some parallels with France's Defense White Paper from two years ago, with the major differences being that the French review took place before the pain of the financial crisis took hold, and without needing to absorb the toll of the Iraq War.

But this is clearly a cautionary tale. The U.K. cuts now bring the British military's force-projection contract into line with that of the French, making Britain essentially a coalition-dependent security "producer." Given Britain's overall dependence on NATO -- and now bilateral cooperation with the French -- for major deployment capabilities, it can be argued that the U.K. is now, for all intents and purposes, a security "consumer."

The broader takeaway lies in the nature of the threat environment that the U.K. review identifies, with terrorism and cyber security topping the list. No surprises here, that's consistent with what I've come to think of as the new Washington Consensus.

What's striking is the way in which the West is increasingly conceiving of national security in "protectionist" terms. What counterterrorism, cyber security, and NATO's new grand strategic project of missile defense all have in common is the obsession with protecting almost-limitless borders and massive strategic terrains from what amount to microscopic units of measure in security terms -- lone-wolf terrorists, computer viruses and a currently non-existent Iranian ballistic missile capability.

National security has essentially become a massive system of white blood cells targeting increasingly cellular organisms, with an emphasis on hermetic borders.

The parallels with the gathering storm of currency wars and trade protectionism are compelling. The global system, mainly through the G-20 forum, managed to stave off a first wave of protectionism in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis. Now it is faced with the same urgent task.

What's at stake should not be underestimated. There are plenty of ways in which globalized trade has a very destructive impact. Most of the big-ticket items are resource-extraction projects that lay waste to vast tracts of land and accompanying cultures, or else arms deals that are hardly the stuff that utopian dreams are made of. Nevertheless, the ties created by such deals, and the revenue generated by them, in some ways subsidize the far-more palatable connections that create bonds between countries, and wealth within them. The latter two are what inoculate us against the destructiveness of the security "viruses" that are in many ways the by-products of globalization. Trade is essentially the immune system within the economic body of globalization.

As such, I've long been struck by how little attention has been given over the years to the symbolic significance of the institutions targeted on Sept. 11, 2001. Inasmuch as trade does function as an inoculation against global security threats, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon represented two sides of globalization's security equation. By targeting the neural center of global commerce, al-Qaida -- and more generally, the phenomenon of 21st-century transnational terrorism -- revealed itself for what it is: an auto-immune disease in the body of globalization. A similar argument can be made for cyber threats, as illustrated by the Stuxnet worm, which is essentially a commercial strain.

The problem, as revealed by the excesses of the past decade and as now expressed by the U.K. review, is that the immune response to an auto-immune disease is often as much, if not more destructive than the initial virus itself.

The financial havoc of a decade of scorched-earth economic and security policies are now coming home to roost. And with the West's military capabilities by necessity retracting, the importance of maintaining the open ties of global trade is even greater. That will be a challenge, not only due to the protectionist urge generated by all recessions and currently on display, but also because of the security protectionism now emerging. The latter reveals what may be deeper, primal reactions that could prove even harder to resist, even if the global economic outlook doesn't completely bottom out.