Some Problems With Common Security:

Comments on Newcombe, Simoni, and Fischer

By Theodore Olson | 1990-08-01 12:00:00

COMMON SECURITY is often defined by contrast to concepts or defence arrangements that came before it. For Hanna Newcombe, the predecessors were a dangerous, competitive, military unilateral nationalism and rigid systems ofcollective security: the alphabet

alliances of NATO, WTO, ANZUS, CENTO, etc. For Diet-rich Fischer, the world of this century has oscillated between the poles of armed adventurism and appeasement. It is normal for a new idea to be set out against what we already know and no longer trust. To some degree that mistrust makes us ready to credit whatever comes billed as a successor or as a solution.

But what are we offered substantively? To Newcombe the essence of common security is that it undermines and supersedes nationalism. But Arnold Simoni and Dietrich Fischer do not identify the nation state as a special peril. Newcombe thinks of common security in global terms. Simoni is comfortable with small associations of neighbor-states. Fischer offers us individual nations that already exemplify common security and that might inspire other nations individually to take the same unilateral route. Presumably from here we get common security by simple addition.

So What is Common Security?

So what is common security? It seems to matter where one stands and where one plugs one's favorite ideas into it. Newcombe starts by conceiving (or accepting) some idea of world system. The good one-not the one we have now --has a number of specifications, including nonviolence. Can one really get to common defence from where Newcombe begins? She measures qualities carefully enough: A given model or a given social change may be high on one desirable characteristic, such as cooperation, nonviolence or internationalism, low on another. But what other people mean by common defence is, though identified, not really given careful consideration; it cannot score high enough on all the elements Neweombe finds necessary for an acceptable world. I admire the clarity of Newcombe's thinking; her ability to distinguish one thing from another is highly useful to us all. But she has an indivisible package of things that must go together as ingredients in a better world. We get common security-yes-but it can only be stable in a world of people rather different from most people today.

Fischer starts from the nation-state as unitary actor on the world stage. States can adopt different security stances. Sweden and Switzerland show us what can be done. So, in a different way, do pre-war Germany and Japan and post-war United States and USSR. Sweden and Switzerland exemplify non-provocative defence, defensive defence, non-offensive defence. This stance avoids both "Sarajevo" and "Munich." It is real defence, able to punish an aggressor severely but without the capability to strike an offensive blow at its neighbours. All this is clear; but it does not get us toward a structure of common security. Thus in Newcombe we get common security but a profound reluctance to approve even defensive defence. And in Fischer we get nonprovocative defence but not a structure in which the decisions of individual states add up to common security.

Simoni's conception of "regional security associations," problematic as it is in many ways, overcomes this macro/ micro problem. He has pulled apart Newcombe's Big Package and made mutual non-provocative defence among neighbors independent of both ideology and ordinary political events. He has seen that enemies or nations with incompatible political systems or with divergent cultures may yet be mutually supportive in the security dimension.

To put the contrast sharply, Newcombe will not finally trust believers in nations or enthusiasts for particular cultures. Her heart tells her that she cannot unite with them in a common security system. They, these people, will finally betray it. Simoni is more usefully modest. All we need to form is a regional security association. Our common interest as neighbors is not being frightened of one another's weapons. I think this is truer to reality. If the world is irreducibly pluralistic, Simoni is more helpful in the end than Newcombe.

Simohi also supplements Fischer usefully by getting us away from an over-simple analysis of individual nation states. Nowadays states only occur as neighbors of other states. We define one another. We have common interests in the security of the neighborhood. The greatest states pretend that the whole world is their neighborhood, of course; but this is only the ideological reflex of their "global reach," the ability to meddle in most places. Or the greatest states invent such false regions as "the Asia-Pacific region" and propose a regional pact that builds in, as a necessary component, security guarantees issued (for a price) by the great state. But real regions or neighborhoods do exist: Southeast Asia, the states of the Persian Gulf, the Central American states who finally quit depending on external powers and acted successfully to police their own neighborhood. This is not only the way the world can work, it is also a good way to bring common security into being.

What's in it for Canada?

What problems emerge, then, in carrying forward the concept of common defence? First, the tendency to focus on the United States. Second, Eurocentrism. Third, the emphasis on world system. Fourth, and as a consequence of the first three, a lack of attention to Canada, where alone we have both a responsibility to speak up and co-responsibility with our fellow-citizens for the future. Those who feel above that sort of thing should be advised that this sentence is being written on the anniversary of the affair in Tiananmen Square.

First, the ranks of peace activism or of security criticism in Canada have always included a full number of people who regard Canada as a sort of pulpit from which to speak loudly about the United States, in hopes of being overheard "where the real action is." Immensely learned about American defence plans and procedures, some have by a kind of inadvertence or a fascination been drawn into an American view of the United States as the natural centre of the world.

And hypnotized, knee-jerk anti-Americanism is about as American as one can get; it is the flip-side of Mom-and-apple-pie and Nuke-them-ti 11-they-glow. We will not get far on common security ifall our arguments are built on what the Americans do or don't do. It is possible that common security will form in different parts of the world despite the United States or simply without much reference to it. The superpowers' inflated view of themselves may well cause them to be the last to fall in line with the tempered sanity of common defence.

Second, Canadians and others will do themselves or the rest of the world no favors if they continue, as did Canada's defence White Paper of 1987, to define European problems as central or pivotal. Of course winding down the highpowered rituals of"the central front" in Europe is important. But is it really important enough to exclude from our consideration the rest of the world and even Canada itself? Ale we important only for what we can contribute to something somewhere else?

Eurocentrism, as natural as it seems for Canada given our ethnic and political history, is not our future. The movement of goods across the Pacific has surpassed for some years our trade with Europe. And the most innovative and dynamic immigrants to Canada come, in increasing numbers, from Asia. The world is a large and various place. Security for Canada is not to be measured by a NATO yardstick but by a complex of factors and dimensions. Common security means mutuality: my security increases with yours-or decreases as yours does. If the dynamic societies of Asia are an afterthought to us, Canada's security and theirs will not increase.

Third, it may simply not be true that there is a world system. Newcombe and others have put forward global system as the remedy for national unilateralism in security. But system has done little for Third World nations and little enough for Canada. In the world at large, system means the West's system; it means that others buy in on our terms. And those who have learned to oppose the World Bank's version of system are often quick enough to export feminism or socialism or mental health or day care centres or Oueen Street lifestyles or some other Western patent medicine to the Third World. Global village technology may be no favor to Burma or Lhos no matter how life-enhancing it appears to be in the Annex in Toronto. The very centre / periphery analysis that radicals often make of Third World dependency assumes that system and a structure are coextensive, and that we are at the centre, the initiators. It is this assumption that we must question if we are to cease being imperialists despite our best intentions.

Common security may not require a common structure. Small may be necessary as well as beautiful. But that means our having more faith in pluralism than most of us really possess. We ask for pluralism for ourselves when we assert our right to differ in Toronto or Vancouver from the Establishment. But we are less ready to let the rest of the world be genulnely different on its own terms and to arrange security in ways that may not fit our own definitions of "common."

Fourth, because of our fascination with the United States, our over-attention to Europe, and our reluctance to accord the rest of the world its own sorts of reality, we have serious difficulty seeing how our own nation fits into common security. Until and unless we can focus sharply on our own security and on the resources Canada itself possesses for enhancing that security, we shall have only fuzzy ideas of common security. And we shall be condemned to be bit-players in someone else's security scenario.

Focusing sharply on our own security as a prerequisite to conceiving a common security with other particular nations (rather than with "humankind") will pose a problem for some supporters of peace. But are they in love with an idea of peace or do they cherish the real community of people called Canada? Is Canada only a means for getting something else or is Canada itself an end? If the latter, we have more continuity than we suppose with Canada's security establishment, now (perforce) more open to real change than at any time since we signed on with NATO.

The Invasion's Cancelled

There is much to be said in Canada about common security. The articles published here constitute a beginning; but they are scarcely more than that. For forty years, our country has conscientiously played a role in the unnecessary preparations for a most unlikely invasion of Western Europe-an invasion that, had it succeeded, would surely have Westernized the Soviet Union at least as fast, and probably more subversively, than anything that has happened under glasnost and perestroika. Within these solemn Western charades, Canada sometimes created its own fairy tales, like our promised prompt and effective relief of hard-pressed NATO troops on the "Northern flank." But never once have we conceived our own policy goals and supporting strategies. That makes us different from all of our allies. Canadians even praise themselves for this lack of national identity. But it will be idle for Canadians to speak of common defence if we have nothing to share but nice-guyness and a vague good will. Common security is based on what nations can do for one another-in real terms and not as sermons.

Theodore Olson is Professor of Social Science at York University.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1990

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1990, page 18. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Theodore Olson here

Peace Magazine homepage