Revisiting learning: security, sovereignity and the challenge of change

Alan Bruce reflects on recent events in the Middle East and their significance for both security and learning.

Over the past two weeks I, like most of us, have been fascinated by the unfolding events in Egypt. History often surprises us in strange ways. For a long time it seems as if nothing has been happening and then suddenly entire structures and edifices collapse – seemingly overnight. The great certainties and divisions of the post Second World War settlement seemed (to the uninformed) to be semi-permanent fixtures. And then the dramatic events of 1989 saw it all come crashing down.

As we watch these unfolding events in the Middle East, we are aware, however dimly, that something critical and fundamental is happening in a part of the world long regarded as static and fossilized in terms of democratic operation and creative political expression. We are also aware of the extraordinary capacity of ordinary human beings to question, communicate, reflect and learn. And, in addition, when circumstances are right, to act.

 

What exactly is security in this new age of uncertainty? How do we articulate new needs, and new competencies, in a world where the impact of globalization, instant communications and multi-dimensional access and intercultural perspectives are only beginning to assert themselves?

All this brings to mind an interesting reflection that may be of relevance to those of us working in the generation and development of innovative learning for those involved in the security sector. When we look beyond the detailed effort in applying new technologies to the challenges of the emerging security environment, when we raise our heads above the parapets of received wisdom about what is most effective in security learning contexts, we are brought to a fundamental reconsideration. What exactly is security in this new age of uncertainty? How do we articulate new needs, and new competencies, in a world where the impact of globalization, instant communications and multi-dimensional access and intercultural perspectives are only beginning to assert themselves?

Let me locate this squarely in the events of Tahrir Square and the serious business of regime change – this time from the bottom up. And this means a consideration of the role of the Egyptian Army. There is no doubt that the non-intervention by the armed forces has sent a powerful signal that, this time at least, masses of citizens protesting decades of disempowerment and injustice will not be swept off the streets with a Napoleonic ‘whiff of grapeshot’. Needless to say, one must not be naïve. There could be many and conflicting reasons for the Army’s stance. But the key point is that the recent events highlight and underscore the crucial role and impact of military forces with regards to the maintenance of security. And part of that role relates to the new learning required to engage with and react to a profoundly transformed external environment.

At a time when private security is growing exponentially (and where more and more military functions are being explicitly outsourced to private contractors) it is a time when State security functions need to come back not just to the advanced technologies of applied learning, but to the role of learning in promoting and retaining professional, ethical and standards-driven security performance that meets social needs.

If the Egyptian Army (and one may suspect that various other armies will be in a similar situation in months to come in this region) does not intervene, or does not act in stereotypical ways to maintain ‘law and order’, then at least part of the reason may lie in the kind of learning that has been occurring in professional security forces over the past number of years. The technologies at play not only allow very enhanced levels of critical reflection (the blogs and postings emerging from frontline US troops stationed in Iraq indicate just how far this has gone) but also improved levels of research, strategic planning and communication about the role of professional security forces. At a time when private security is growing exponentially (and where more and more military functions are being explicitly outsourced to private contractors) it is a time when State security functions need to come back not just to the advanced technologies of applied learning, but to the role of learning in promoting and retaining professional, ethical and standards-driven security performance that meets social needs.

Foto: Miriam SolimanSomewhere in all this is the question of what exactly security is – or what it has become. It is clear that in the Middle East in general, and in Egypt noticeably, there has been a trade off to secure compliance with external strategic needs and that this trade off has covered several decades. That this has not worked in anyone’s interest is perhaps self-evident only to me. But it is clear that much of the instability and frustrated out-workings of repressed people in violent expressions is, in large measure, due to the denial of basic rights, modes of expression and opportunities that are taken for granted in more developed parts of the world.

This core inequality stems from the trade off of surrendered democracy (where formal or notional acknowledgement of pseudo-democratic practice may or may not be maintained) in return for stability. Events may show that stability is not the same thing as security. The role of the military in maintaining stability may ultimately be extremely self-defeating. And this contradiction may be also at the core of the Egyptian Army’s refusal to intervene against its own people. Someone, somewhere may have realized that siding with stability is not the same thing as protecting security on behalf of the citizens who, however nominally, control the socio-political direction of their society.

For most observers, stability could be seen as little more than preservation, at whatever cost, of the status quo. Stability suits those forces and groups who have a vested interest in the maintenance of the way things are. But in a time of systemic and sustained social transformation on a global scale, these older certainties have been fragmenting and disintegrating. In that milieu, stability can and will be seen as a crude cover for corruption and incompetence. Even worse, this stability may be a doomed effort to maintain a sclerotic society with little left to offer the majority of its people but more repression and more threat.

The unease of some military forces to always intervene on the side of stability and the status quo may be traced to a number of factors. Some writers see this connected to the social background and status of recruits. Others see connections to the role of officer elites and their connection (or lack of connection) to state power. And some trace it to the availability of learning and professional discourse internally and externally as such forces come into informed contact with the needs of a multipolar world system.

These national considerations have emerged in many diverse security force settings. With the transformation occurring as the Cold War ended, another dimension has been the role of international intervention (sanctioned or not as the case may be by the United Nations). This flies against dictums accepted since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, where State sovereignty was seen as supreme and inviolable. Now changing conceptions of sovereignty match changing conceptions of security. While the example of the tragedy in Rwanda demonstrates that international intervention is no panacea, the impact of genocide and gross violations of human rights puts a new focus on the role and responsibility of international society in confronting such situations. This, evidently, has a profound impact on our understanding of the role and responsibility of security forces.

The fact of the matter is that mutating conceptions of security and sovereignty are increasingly tied to the growing penetration of human rights norms and standards. This penetration growingly affects the political thinking of ruling elites, political opposition movements and ordinary citizens. It is no accident that it should also affect security forces.

As traditionally understood, especially in the contexts of the post 1945 era, there has been little obvious connection between security and human rights. Quite the reverse. Most ruling regimes have viewed national security and human rights as competing issues, totally opposed to each other. In so many ways, the role of the professional military was turned from a protector of the nation into a hired guard for the rulers of the nation. Even mention of human rights could be (and often was) construed as treason.

The change we are possibly witnessing in Egypt may reflect the dawn of a new conceptualization of the relationship between security, sovereignty and human rights. It is perhaps too early to configure this movement exactly. But it may not be too facile to say that in the radically altered environment of a globalized 21st century, professional military and security forces have nothing to fear from this new arrangement. Indeed, a reinvigorated focus on human rights may have the potential to liberate security forces to do what they are asked to do – to provide security. Guarantees. Justice.

This could have many interesting consequences. Some of the earliest thinking linking human rights and security can be found in the deliberations and agreements that resulted in the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975. While the central conceptualizations of national security were not supplanted, a new concept of personal security was embedded in the discourse. And in the intervening 35 years the discussion and the debate has grown more intense.

Across this planet, groups and societies and nations have witnessed rates of change and transformation unprecedented in our existence as a species. All social organizations have been seized by debate and reflection on the crises that confront us – but also the staggering progress we have made. One of the supreme ironies is that, grave as the problems confronting us are, we for the first time have the means to address them and articulate solutions. If we so will. If we invest the time to understand. And that brings me right back to learning.

It is about learning to have the correct values that enable understanding and promote choice. Choice on how to act is at the core of professional security provision. And protection of the choices made by others in society is one of the critical dimensions of human-rights informed security provision.

All learning starts with enquiry and an open mind. In many ways, security professionals are called to this same process which, in the times of contradiction and challenge we are living through, will be a process of often severe stress and difficulty. To ask the fundamental question to any organization about what it does (and why) is often to start a process of examination that uncovers many unpalatable truths. But in this globalized environment these contradictory and painful lessons may not only steer us on a more productive course but enable us to capture some of the raison d’etre for doing what we do – and then finding ways to do it better.

At the end of his magisterial reflections on the twentieth century, the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote eloquently of the stark need to embark on learning to understand our world and act ethically, within the framework of the wondrous technologies at our disposal.

It takes an enormous effort of the imagination, as well as a great deal of knowledge, to break out of our comfortable, protected, and self-absorbed enclaves and enter an uncomfortable and unprotected larger world inhabited by the majority of our species. We are cut off from this world even if the sum total of amassed information is available at the click of a mouse…this is the paradox of a globalized twenty-first century.

The learning challenges for the security sector are now immense. The technological changes make available vast amounts of information at ever increasing speed. Technological growth has disruptive potential. Technology is developing faster than society and organizations can keep up with. Mobile ICT is already providing the basis for ambient intelligence and ubiquitous computing. These systems themselves will require safeguards. Governments will preside over a fast changing world where their very role is undermined by the dynamics of a new global system.

But this is not simply a process of learning to learn. It is about learning to have the correct values that enable understanding and promote choice. Choice on how to act is at the core of professional security provision. And protection of the choices made by others in society is one of the critical dimensions of human-rights informed security provision.

I was quite struck by the presentation made by Jeff McCausland at the New Security Learning Forum in Berlin last month. In a wide ranging address touching on training and security, he quoted Thucydides:

The State that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.

Maybe what we are witnessing in Egypt shows that learning has slowly penetrated that space where this separation has been perpetrated. And maybe we can begin to glimpse how learning and thinking can inform a new paradigm of real security provision in a troubled world.

 

Alan Bruce is Director of Universal Learning Systems – an international consultancy in research, education and innovative learning. ULS operates in Ireland, the Czech Republic, United Kingdom and Finland.

Photographs: Protesters marching in Cairo © Miriam Soliman - Wikimedia Commons; Army trucks surroundingTahir Square © Ramy Raoof - Wikimedia Commons

 

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