Comment & analysis

How are peacebuilding priorities reflected in the National Security Capability Review?

6 April 2018 How are peacebuilding priorities reflected in the National Security Capability Review?

After a nine-month wait, the UK has published the National Security Capability Review. Saferworld reflects on what the review tells us about the government’s strategy, tools and effectiveness in safeguarding national security, and whether it effectively integrates peacebuilding into its vision.

A changing security landscape

The National Security Capability Review (NSCR), published last week, is a capacity review rather than a re-evaluation of the national security strategy. But combined with a yearly evaluation of progress in delivering the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) commitments, it gives some insight into the government’s vision of national security.

The NSCR is partly a reaction to a changing security landscape and evolving threats. The use of a nerve agent in Salisbury looms large, as do last year’s attacks in Manchester and London and the implications of Brexit for UK security. The review also raises concerns over the erosion of the ‘rules-based international order’, particularly by states such as Russia and North Korea as well as regional rivalries in the Middle East and Asia.

In response, as the prime minister outlines in her foreword, the NSCR outlines ‘a new approach to the orchestration of our national security capabilities’. The ‘Fusion Doctrine’ is a new articulation of strategy which builds on the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) by integrating security, economic and soft power tools into national security efforts.

As Saferworld has long argued, lasting security requires coherent efforts from a range of government actors beyond the traditional intelligence, policing and military fields. As UK security depends significantly on stability overseas, the government could make greater use of DFID’s Building Stability Framework to underpin more effective cross-government efforts to address conflict overseas.

The vision set out in the NSCR is focused on the UK – protecting its people, projecting its influence and promoting its prosperity. Fundamentally, it defines the UK as a ‘trading nation’, determined to exert power and influence over others. Human rights, democracy, equality and the promotion of a rules-based international order, which the UK government committed to in the SDSR, are mentioned as values of a ‘global Britain’. But despite substantial evidence detailing the importance of governance and human rights for stability, upholding these values – to benefit from common goods in an interdependent world – now appears a lesser priority than achieving security through bolstering Britain’s power and wealth.   

The NSCR thus offers little on how and why the UK should stop violations of international law and promote better governance and respect for human rights. Nor does it acknowledge how incoherent UK strategy can exacerbate conflict and violence. UK weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, for example, are fuelling the war in Yemen, undermining the UK’s self-image as a champion of the Arms Trade Treaty and the rules-based international order, and hurting its standing as a provider of humanitarian and development assistance.

Tools, policies and capabilities

The review’s focus on capabilities rests largely on a review of counter-terrorism, defence, policing and border security tools. Securitised responses to terror threats or migration tend to strengthen regimes with poor human rights records, in contrast to approaches that address instability by working to address its causes, not least through promoting better governance. This failure to address root causes can worsen insecurity for those most affected by violence and crime. The UK therefore needs to recognise how poor governance, conflict and crime are connected, and do more to iron out contradictions and reconcile its different tools, policies and capabilities.

The NSCR announces the expansion of the national security communications team across government as a tool to tackle perceived threats such as online ‘violent extremism’, but does little to emphasise longer-term approaches to address the underlying grievances that can lead to violence. As we have found in contexts like Tunisia, online campaigns can be alienating if they are not accompanied by tangible actions that tackle injustice and improve people’s security and well-being.

Development efforts have an important role to play in promoting human security. Drawing on evidence from peacebuilding organisations, the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy (Joint Committee) recently urged the UK government to do more to integrate developmental approaches to building stability overseas into its security vision. The NSCR does give some indications that the government is taking this seriously by stating that international development will be part of a whole-of-government approach:

‘DFID will focus on ensuring that its programmes are targeted more acutely on the underlying drivers of fragility, conflict and instability. We will increase our efforts on security and justice, which will further help reduce insecurity, serious and organised crime, and grievances that can lead to violent extremism’.

These important words now need to be translated into action – not only within DFID but in the work of other departments whose initiatives can help address (or exacerbate) conflict drivers. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which spends the majority of the money from the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), has a key role in enhancing the effectiveness of UK conflict prevention programmes – as does the new joint secretariat and ministerial unit that oversees the CSSF (and the Prosperity Fund).

ICAI’s recent report on the CSSF, and the review of cross-government funds which accompanies the NSCR, provide a number of suggested actions. They include:

  • strengthening programme design and making the connection to peace objectives clearer;
  • improving performance management with a focus on tangible outcomes;
  • adopting more realistic strategies for promoting human rights with security actors;
  • being more transparent and inclusive when setting strategy and learning lessons; and
  • simplifying tender processes.

These recommendations could do much to strengthen the UK’s peace and security efforts in a way that boosts its global standing. These reviews suggest that greater transparency and public debate over the UK’s overall national security strategy and capabilities would be of benefit, not least to ensure security policy and spending are scrutinised with the same rigour as UK aid.

What’s missing?

The NSCR is not a full strategy review – there is a lot that it could have covered but ultimately left out. It fails to articulate much about what the UK will do to advance human rights, good governance, or people’s well-being in conflict-affected and fragile states – all areas that were affirmed as national security priorities in the 2015 SDSR. The Arms Trade Treaty, which the UK government has championed internationally, gets no mention – nor does domestic cross-governmental work to meet multilateral commitments. The gender, peace and security agenda is also absent, despite publication of the UK National Action Plan on Women Peace and Security in January 2018. Notions of masculinity and femininity have a complex relationship with violent conflict and the dynamics of peace. It is important that the UK remains at the forefront of efforts to understand and respond to gender norms and behaviours that perpetuate conflict and to understand the gendered impacts of conflict.

Time for a broader debate

The NSCR process was less than ideal. Parliamentarians have rightly criticised the overall approach, and have discouraged the government from embarking on ‘strategy refreshes’ rather than full reviews in future. Parliament must continue to have a crucial role in scrutinising how the government evaluates national security strategy – yet as the Joint Committee has pointed out, the government offered too little information about the review to parliament and the public. In addition, unlike the 2015 SDSR, the NSCR provided no formal mechanism for those affected by instability overseas, relevant experts, civil society partners, or the public more widely to feed in. A more open and transparent conversation may result in a more informed debate about how the UK can support security globally and domestically – and a more coherent UK national security vision for the future.

Photo: Cpl Daniel Wiepen / Crown copyright