The national security discourse is changing

Policymakers and practitioners are leading the emerging consensus on the need to fundamentally reassess assumptions

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:29 pm IST

Published - September 10, 2021 12:02 am IST

US President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters after delivering remarks on the terror attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport, and the US service members and Afghan victims killed and wounded, in the East Room of the White House, Washington, DC on August 26, 2021. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

US President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters after delivering remarks on the terror attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport, and the US service members and Afghan victims killed and wounded, in the East Room of the White House, Washington, DC on August 26, 2021. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

The global security landscape is undergoing a churn, creating complexities and new realities unlike any time in the recent past. From a rising China to the pressures of climate change; from the challenges of counter terrorism to a seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic (the four Cs), the old order is collapsing much faster than the ability of nations to create the foundations of a new one. National security debates and discourse are, quietly but surely, undergoing an almost revolutionary transformation. While the academic world has long talked about the need for a ‘holistic’ conception of national security, much of that debate was considered far too esoteric by practitioners. Today, it is the policymakers and practitioners themselves that are leading the emerging consensus on the need to fundamentally reassess our assumptions about national security thinking.

Change in the U.S.

The U.S. policymakers have started changing their cognitive lens when it comes to national security policy making. A process that was started by former U.S. President Donald Trump has been taken forward with gusto by the Biden Administration. Asserting that “foreign policy is domestic policy and domestic policy is foreign policy,” U.S. President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has suggested that his team’s task is to re-imagine American “national security for the unprecedented combination of crises we face at home and abroad: the pandemic, the economic crisis, the climate crisis, technological disruption, threats to democracy, racial injustice, and inequality in all forms”. He has gone on to argue that “the alliances we rebuild, the institutions we lead, the agreements we sign, all of them should be judged by a basic question. Will this make life better, easier, safer, for working families across this country?”


The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, too has reiterated this message in his comments that “more than at any other time in my career — maybe in my lifetime — distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away” and that “our domestic renewal and our strength in the world are completely entwined, and how we work will reflect that reality”.

Both Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Blinken have taken their cue from their boss, President Biden, who had campaigned on a “foreign policy for the middle-class” and has been unabashed about the need for the U.S. “to invest in our people, sharpen our innovative edge, and unite the economic might of democracies around the world to grow the middle-class and reduce inequality and do things like counter the predatory trade practices of our competitors and adversaries”.

There is a growing bipartisan acknowledgement in the U.S. today that if the requirements of American national security during the Cold War could be largely met by its fleets of bombers, nuclear missiles, aircraft carriers and overseas bases, today’s strategic environment requires a different response: one that shores up domestic industrial base, helps in maintaining pre-eminence in critical technologies, makes supply chains for critical goods more resilient, protects critical infrastructure from cyberattacks, and responds with a sense of urgency to climate change.


Not a novel idea

The idea that foreign and domestic policies are tightly intertwined is not a novel one. All serious grand strategic thinking in democracies, at the end of the day looks for sustenance in popular public support. Mr. Trump’s rise and his ideas challenged both the liberals and the conservatives in the U.S. foreign policy establishment as they underscored the widening gulf between the policy community and the American hinterland. Mr. Biden and his team have learned their lessons. Mr. Sullivan is working towards integrating the National Security Council with the other components of the White House such as the National Economic Council, with the Domestic Policy Council, with the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This will inevitably present its own sets of challenges but there is no shying away from this new reality.

The Indian situation

In India too, we have seen a greater recognition of the challenges emanating on national security from domestic vulnerabilities. One of the most significant consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, underscored by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, has been to reveal how deeply India has been dependent on Chinese manufacturing for critical supplies. At a time when Indian armed forces were facing the People’s Liberation Army across the Line of Actual Line, this exposed India to a new realisation that dependence on overseas supply chains is a national security challenge of the highest order, one that cannot be overlooked any more. India has since moved towards shoring up domestic capacities in critical areas and also started looking at free trade agreements through a new lens.


The Indian Army chief, General M.M. Naravane, in his remarks, has also made it apparent that views of the military leadership in this country are also evolving. He has argued that “national security comprises not only warfare and defence but also financial security, health security, food security, energy security and environment security apart from information security” and suggested that instead of viewing national security “primarily from the perspective of an armed conflict, there is a need to take a whole-of-government approach towards security”.

Highlight the synergies

In the post-pandemic world with a serious strain on national resources, it will be important for policymakers to underline the synergies between the civilian and the military spheres. The Army chief has rightfully pointed out a range of tangible and intangible ways in which investment in the armed forces contributes to the national economy such as indigenisation of defence procurement, providing an impetus to indigenous industries, aid to civil authorities or Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations protecting infrastructure, demand for hi-tech military products by the armed forces spurring entire industries, and transportation and logistics capacities of the armed forces acting as force enablers for the Government in times of emergencies.

The Army leadership has done well to highlight the role of armed forces in sustaining a broader conception of national security than primarily focusing on war fighting. As nations across the world reconceptualise their strategic priorities to bring their ends, ways and means into greater balance, questions of resource allocation will become even more contentious and policymakers will need to think more creatively about the roles of various instruments of statecraft. National security thinking is undergoing a shift. India cannot be left behind.

Harsh V. Pant is Director of Research, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and a Professor of International Relations, King’s College London

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