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Speaking Notes at the 14th Asian Security Conference on Non-traditional Security Issues

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  • Amb. Shivshankar Menon, National Security Advisor
    February 14, 2012

    Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director-General IDSA,
    Distinguished participants,
    Ladies and Gentlemen.

    Thank you for asking me to speak to the 14th Asian Security Conference on Non-Traditional Security Challenges -- Today and Tomorrow. I see from your programme that you have a very distinguished list of speakers and participants and an exhaustive agenda on non-traditional security issues. I am glad that you are looking at these issues so carefully and look forward to learning from the results of your deliberations.

    In the circumstances, there really is not much that I can add which most of you do not know about what you are considering.

    So I thought I would share some personal thoughts on what constitute non-traditional security challenges, and then to say a few words on which ones should really concern us in India.

    What is non-traditional security?

    In my present job I find that two of the most abused words are “security” and “strategic”. We have, in my opinion rightly, broadened our definition of “security” over time. The very fact that we use the term “non-traditional” for security challenges makes it clear that many of these issues, such as energy, water and natural disasters, were not originally regarded as security issues. This does not mean that the issues did not exist in the past. It is no one’s case that natural disasters, water scarcity and energy security did not affect mankind before the 20th century. But we include them today in our security considerations for two reasons. Firstly, our ability as societies to withstand, mitigate and adapt to the challenges of water scarcity and natural disasters sometimes appear less than before. Secondly, their consequences for our lives and societies are far greater, given our increasing dependence on complex systems in our economic, social and (to a lesser extent) political lives.

    But have we taken this too far? I sometimes think that we risk being too inclusive in treating everything as a matter of security. The ultimate is the term “human security”, which reduces life and it’s living to a matter of security! I am not sure that this is either helpful or useful. It is not helpful in understanding or prioritising among security challenges, and it is certainly no guide to the actions required to deal with such threats. For instance, I notice that you had a session yesterday on climate change as a non-traditional threat to security. I am not sure that thinking about climate change as a security issue really helps us to identify responses to it. Thinking of it as a scientific issue could.

    From a practioner’s point of view I find it better to distinguish between security issues amenable to the application of hard power, those less so, and those which are not. Along this continuum, non-traditional security challenges would be those that require the mixed application of hard and soft power, where solutions are not so clear as victory and defeat, and where problems mutate into more benign forms. They would also include those which do not respond to the application of hard power, such as food security.

    Another similar and largely overlapping way of looking at the problem is to distinguish between zero-sum challenges and non-zero sum challenges.

    Let me elaborate. Zero-sum challenges are those like terrorist threats, espionage and other state-security threats, and traditional military threats. These respond to the application of hard power. Non-zero sum challenges are those like energy, water, maritime security and others. And there are those which overlap both categories, like cyber threats, space and nuclear threats. These are domains where the combination of intent and capability mean that the nature and definition of the threat is necessarily subjective, and perception management becomes an extremely important part of both the challenge and the response.

    Which ones should concern India?

    It is easy to do a catalogue of all the threats that we should be worrying about. The broader our definition of security is, the longer the list of challenges. But how do we choose which ones we should worry about and concentrate our effort on?

    The traditional answer is that we should concentrate on those of strategic significance to ourselves. This brings me to the second most abused word that I mentioned earlier, “strategic”. The dictionary meaning of “strategic” is of or serving the ends of strategy. And strategy is defined as the art of war, or of attaining longer term military objectives, or a long-term plan of action or policy. I assume from this that by strategic we mean of long-term and primarily military significance.

    Now, not many of the non-traditional security challenges that we so blithely list these days actually meet the test of this definition. Not many of them actually serve the attainment of longer term military objectives, or are of long term military significance. They are, instead, of varying long term significance to the attainment of India’s grand strategy, the purpose of which is to transform India, so that every Indian has a fair chance of achieving his potential, untrammelled by poverty, illiteracy, and disease.

    If India’s transformation is our criterion, energy security must have one of the highest priorities among the many non-traditional challenges on your agenda. Energy is the one challenge and possible future constraint on our economic growth which could limit India’s development. Besides, it is also the key to other challenges that you have listed. Water, for instance. Eighty percent of the surface of this planet is water. But it is unusable because it is salty. Given energy that problem could be solved.

    My conclusions from this argument are simple. I would draw three lessons from an Indian point of view:

    • It would be useful if we were to also rank and deal with our non-traditional security challenges from this point of view, examining how they could and do affect our ability to transform India.
    • When security challenges are looked at in this manner, India’s strengths could well be in asymmetric domains – cyber, nuclear and space – which require not just (the creation and design of) capabilities but also imagination (in doctrines and uses of those capabilities).
    • Thirdly, traditional or hard security issues should not be under-estimated. There is an overwhelming need to undertake the hard power military modernisations and revolutions and internal security reforms necessary to defend our increasingly complex society and economy. We had a vivid reminder of this only yesterday in the terrorist attack on Israeli Embassy personnel in a vehicle not far from here.

    With these few words I hope I have provoked a discussion or even an argument.

    I wish you and your conference success.

    Thank you.