The National Security Strategy in a nutshell

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The government today published its new National Security Strategy: 'A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty'. The strategy outlines the threats that the government considers Britain faces over the next 20 years, and outlines a set of tasks that will be undertaken to address these threats.

Prime Minister David Cameron launched the document with a written ministerial statement, and will tomorrow speak in Parliament about the strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which has been prepared alongside the National Security Strategy and will be published tomorrow. The Strategy has been developed by the Cabinet Office under the supervision of the new National Security Council which has been established by the Coalition Government.

The National Security Strategy discusses the government's view of the global security context and the role it wants Britain to play in the world before going on to identify the risks that the nation faces and explain how the government will respond to these risks. It will set the future direction for national security policies for the next five years and will provide the framework through which resources are distributed to government departments with a role in addressing security threats.

The 39 page document outlines two key objectives for the nation's security:

  • To ensure a secure and resilient UK by protecting our people, economy, infrastructure, territory and ways of life from all major risks that can affect us directly; and

  • To shape a stable world by acting to reduce the likelihood of risks affecting the UK or British interests overseas, and applying our instruments of power and influence to shape the global environment.

In so doing, it outlines the government's ambitions for the UK's place in the world, describing the country as “an open, outward-facing nation whose political, economic and cultural authority far exceeds our size. Our national interest requires our continued full and active engagement in world affairs, promoting our security, our prosperity and our values”. There is little change here from the aspirations of former governments to position the UK as a nation which “punches above its weight” by playing an interventionist role in international affairs.

The strategy emphasises that Afghanistan will remain our top priority while British troops are deployed there, but lists fifteen priority security risks which have been identified by the National Security Council. Four 'top tier' risks are of particular concern to the government:

  • Acts of terrorism affecting the UK or its interests, and a significant increase in terrorism related to Northern Ireland;

  • Hostile attacks upon UK cyber space;

  • A major accident or natural hazard such as severe coastal flooding or an influenza pandemic;

  • An international military crisis between states, drawing in the UK and allies.

The government will “draw together and use all the instruments of national power to tackle these risks, including the armed forces, diplomats, intelligence and development professionals, the police, the private sector and the British people themselves”. Eight cross-departmental national security tasks have been set out to do this:

  • Identify and monitor national security risks and opportunities.

  • Tackle at root the causes of instability, at home and abroad.

  • Exert influence to exploit opportunities and manage risks.

  • Enforce domestic law and strengthen international norms to help tackle those who threaten the UK and our interests.

  • Protect the UK and our interests at home, at our border, and internationally, in order to address physical and electronic threats from state and non-state sources.

  • Help resolve conflicts and contribute to stability. Where necessary, intervene overseas, including the legal use of coercive force in support of the UK’s vital interests, and to protect our overseas territories.

  • Provide resilience for the UK by being prepared for all kinds of emergencies, able to recover from shocks and to maintain essential services.

  • Work in alliances and partnerships wherever possible to generate stronger responses.

Opponents of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may be alarmed at the commitment to use, where necessary, “coercive force in support of the UK’s vital interests”, although this commitment is placed alongside a qualification that such interventions should be “legal” and in the context of a desire to resolve conflicts. The strategy acknowledges that achieving the government's aims “requires us to project power and to use our unique network of alliances and relationships – principally with the United States of America, but also as a member of the European Union and NATO, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council”.

The National Security Strategy discusses the risk of an attack on the UK or its overseas territories by another state or non-state actor using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons, and also outlines the risks posed by the global proliferation of nuclear weapons – but remains silent on the possibility that, by replacing Trident, the UK may unwittingly be providing an incentive for other states to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Little is said about the UK's own nuclear weapons in the strategy, other than a statement that “our aim is to deter direct threats, including through our membership of NATO and, ultimately, our independent nuclear deterrent”. The rationale for retaining weapons which play only a tangential role for addressing most of the risks identified in the strategy is that “in some cases it may be appropriate to devote more resources to addressing risks which have low probability but very high impact; nuclear deterrence is an example of this”.