Security alliances: drivers in the emerging world order

James Bevan


(Vice Admiral Lanba, senior Faculty, distinguished course members, friends and colleagues)

It’s a great honour to be here this morning at the National Defence College and to be able to address this distinguished audience. And it’s a further pleasure for me as the British High Commissioner to be in this historic building, which I understand was the residence and office of the British Deputy High Commissioner until the NDC was established here in 1960. There have been strong links between the UK and the NDC ever since, and I am delighted to be able to maintain that tradition today.

I’ve been invited to talk today on the topic of “Security alliances: drivers in the emerging world order”.

And in this lecture I am going to follow the classic advice given to any public speaker about to address an audience, which is this: tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.

So let me tell you what I am going to tell you. I will:

  • start by setting out what kind of world order I believe is emerging
  • then address the factors that can make us all secure in this new world
  • go on to talk about the role of alliances and partnerships in promoting that security.
  • conclude with a word on how the UK aspires to deal with this new world.

1. The new world order

The world order is changing. As a young diplomat I served at NATO in the mid 1980s during the last years of the Cold War. The world we live in today is unrecognisable from that world.

Today’s world is undergoing three big changes. The global balance of power is shifting. The world in which we live is increasingly networked. And the nature of conflict is changing.

The global balance of power is shifting. Economic power and economic opportunity are moving South and East, driven by successful development and economic liberalisation in that region, and by freer world markets and trade since the end of the 1980s. Where we are today, Asia, is at the heart of that. Asia is now the engine of the world’s growth.

And because of this shift in the world’s centre of gravity, international decisions are now being made in more and wider groupings than in the past. That is partly driven by new economic realities: the G7 has become the G20, for example, because it no longer makes sense for the Western countries alone to discuss global economic policy without the new giants like Brazil, China and India. It is driven by the rise in the political power and global reach of the new emerging powers. And it’s driven by the desire of neighbouring countries to improve their local coordination and integration to make them safer and richer: hence the growth of regional groups like the African Union and ASEAN.

The world in which we live is increasingly networked. There are two big drivers for this, the information revolution and freer movement of people.

Digital media, the internet, satellite television and mobile phones have given us more access to information and more access to other people on the planet than ever before. That has put increased power in the hands of individuals rather than governments. Example: the Arab Spring, which was driven by popular demand for greater economic opportunity and political pluralism, and made possible by the use of digital media to communicate and organise people into popular movements for change.

Freer movement of people has been just as important in creating a networked world. More liberalised markets have led to greater movement of people. Greater wealth has made it possible for more people to travel. And affordable air travel has vastly increased global interconnectivity.

As this new networked world has emerged, relations between states are no longer monopolised by governments. Individuals and non-government organisations have been able to play a much greater role, with the formation of new human networks between individuals, civil society, businesses, pressure groups and charitable organisations. The change is starting to blur what it means to be a citizen of a country. 1 in 10 British nationals, for example, now live permanently overseas. So do millions of Indians.

And alongside these changes, the nature of conflict is changing.

In NATO in the 1980s the big threat we sought to deter was a state to state conflict, between the NATO nations and those of the then Warsaw Pact. But today state-on-state conflict is not the only or even the main danger we face. Asymmetric threats are increasing, with terrorists and insurgencies seeking to fight states in ways that states cannot or will not use themselves.

Meanwhile the tools of war are diversifying: a laptop can be just as dangerous as a rifle – in some cases more so, because a rifle can only kill a few people, but a proficient hacker can threaten a whole population. Intra-state conflicts – conflicts within one state - are becoming much more prevalent than conflicts between two or more states.

At sea, our navies are increasingly engaged not in preparing for sea battles but in counter-piracy operations. On land, we are seeing a higher number of smaller, more localised conflicts, often in countries difficult to access, lawless and in some cases failing, but which nevertheless threaten the rest of us. In these and other conflicts, the collapse of the state and/or lack of good governance feeds a cycle of conflict and danger.

Meanwhile old security threats are taking advantage of the new connectivity. The web of connections which has empowered ordinary people and brought them closer together has done the same thing for criminal gangs, cyber-criminals and terrorist groups, many of which are now truly transnational – and therefore much harder to fight.

So the world most of us in this room knew when we began our careers twenty or thirty years ago has changed immensely. Overall, it is a much better world today. The shadow of nuclear annihiliation, which lay over my continent – Europe – for four decades after World War Two has gone. Billions of people around the world have been lifted out of poverty. Billions more enjoy freedoms they did not only a few decades ago. And while huge inequalities remain, today’s world is overall a fairer world, in which the emerging powers and their citizens are rightly playing a greater role and determining their own futures for themselves.

2. What makes us secure in this new world

Let me turn now the factors which will make us safe and secure in this new world.

The first is prosperity. Countries and people which enjoy successful and inclusive economic growth are much less likely to experience internal conflict or institute conflict against others. So working for successful development and inclusive growth around the world is a core part of the recipe not only for a just world, but for a peaceful one.

The second factor is democracy. Democracy is a good thing in itself – people have a right to determine their own governments and their own futures. And open democratic societies tend to be more prosperous. But democracy is also a very effective driver of peace. There a very few, if any, recorded conflicts between two genuine democracies.

The third factor that will help keep the world secure in this new century is one that you would expect a professional diplomat like me to identify: diplomacy. Clausewitz famously said that war is politics by other means. I disagree. You know, better than anyone, that war is not the same thing as politics, and that military solutions are different from political solutions. And we can probably all agree that other than in exceptional circumstances, political solutions are to be preferred to military ones. And that is what diplomacy is about: seeking to make the world more secure and more prosperous through negotiated political solutions rather than through the resort to force.

The fourth factor for security is one that this audience will identify with: strong defence. If you want peace, prepare for war. As the saying goes, strong fences make good neighbours. What makes up a strong defence is changing as the threats change. And military capability alone is not enough to prevent war or ensure security. But it is an essential element. Soft power will not stop terrorists or rogue states. For that, you need hard power too.

Prosperity, democracy, diplomacy, strong defence: these are not new elements in the mix needed to keep us secure. But there is one that I think is new, or which is taking on ever greater importance in the 21st century, and that is collective action to tackle together the new threats that face us. All the biggest challenges of today – terrorism, climate change, sustainable and inclusive development - are transnational challenges, which means that if we are successfully to tackle them, we need to do it together.

3. The role of alliances and partnerships

Which brings me to the role in this new world of alliances. I want to define “alliance” broadly, because in today’s world alliances are themselves broadening and adapting.

The traditional definition of an alliance is a state-to-state agreement, often treaty-based, usually intended to endure, with a strong defence and security angle. But many alliances now go beyond classic military alliances. So we should think of alliances now not just in the classic sense of a grouping of states bound by treaty to defend each other, but also in the broader sense of any grouping formed to tackle a challenge, and not just a purely military one. Increasingly these are modern partnerships rather than traditional alliances.

So the nature of modern alliances and partnerships is shifting. But whatever we call them and whatever they do, they usually require one or two things to make them successful.

They tend to require shared values. The European Union, for example, is not just about the single market. It is founded on shared European values and a determination to protect them. The Commonwealth, one of the world’s longstanding global networks, is underpinned by an agreed framework of common values: democracy and rule of law.

And to succeed these partnerships or alliances usually require a shared threat or goal. Example: NATO: Bedrock of Britain’s national security. As a defensive alliance it guarantees our safety. As a political alliance it offers a unique forum to discuss security threats with North American and European allies. As a military alliance it provides the core structures that allow us to fuse our defence capabilities together quickly in a crisis, as demonstrated by Libya last year. To take a different example, the G20, which came together most effectively in response to the global financial crisis.

Other kinds of alliances are emerging to deal with the threats and opportunities of today’s world, such as coalitions of the willing. Example: Mali: a military operation authorised by classic international architecture (the UN Security Council); enacted by a time-bound coalition of partners with shared interests to deal with a specific issue and led by one country, in this case France, with support from the UK and others.

The emerging alliances which are shaping today’s world are changing their nature too. They are no longer always state-to-state alliances. States are still the primary unit of international relations and will remain so for as far ahead as we can reasonably foresee. But in this networked world, non state actors are becoming more important, and they too are forming alliances.

So there are now state to non-state alliances. Example: efforts by some Western governments to build alliances on foreign policy with their own citizens. My boss, the UK Foreign Secretary, conducts regular public question and answer sessions on Twitter to explain UK foreign and security policy and build support for what the government does. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton conducted 59 ‘town hall meetings’ with members of the public around the world during her tenure.

There are non-state to state alliances. Example: the groupings of NGOs which came together to lobby the G8 leaders meeting in Gleneagles in the UK in 2005 to increase aid to developing countries – and succeeded.

And there are non-state-to-non-state alliances. To pick an example from India, the partnership between a UK company, BP, and an Indian company, Reliance, to produce gas which will help secure India’s future energy needs.

So while alliances are as old as history, the nature, aim and composition of those which are emerging today are new, and likely to continue to evolve rapidly over the coming years.

4. Britain’s approach

Finally let me say something about the approach of my own country, Britain, to this new world in which we all now live and the new challenges we all face.

Britain has long had global responsibilities and global ambitions. We have a proud history of standing up for the values we believe in. We intend to continue to stand up for those values. And we will remain ambitious. But as the world changes, we believe that we in the UK need to protect our national security in new ways and with greater strategic focus.

That is why the first thing the current British government did when it came to power in 2010 was to commission a comprehensive Strategic Defence and Security Review. That review came to the following conclusions, which may have resonance for the countries you represent and others too.

First, that in this new world we need to be better at identifying and monitoring national security risks and opportunities. To deliver this the British government created a new National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, which meets regularly to scan the horizon and take decisions on key foreign policy, security and defence issues.

Second, that we need to tackle the causes of instability as far upstream as possible. As part of this the British government decided to maintain a large and growing international development programme, focussing significantly more effort on fragile states and on tackling the causes of conflict; and to run targeted programmes to stop people becoming terrorists, both in the UK itself and in countries from which terrorism poses the greatest threat to the UK.

Third, that we need to improve how we exert our own influence in the world to seize opportunities and manage risks. As part of this, the UK government agreed to sustain a strong Diplomatic Service with an expanded overseas network of embassies and high commissions, focused in particular on promoting security and prosperity.

Fourth, that we need to enforce the rule of law at home and strengthen it overseas. To deliver this we in Britain have strengthened our domestic law enforcement capability to combat terrorists and serious organised crime; and overseas we have redoubled our efforts to support a fair and rules-based international system.

Fifth, that we need to protect ourselves better against direct threats, both physical and electronic, which come from both state and non-state sources. To ensure this the UK government has decided to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent, to strengthen the control of our borders; to boost the capacity of our police, security and intelligence services and armed forces to protect the UK from major terrorist attack; and to invest in new capabilities such as cyber to meet emerging risks and threats.

Sixth, that as well as protecting ourselves at home we should play an active role overseas in helping to resolve conflicts and contribute to stability. To ensure that the British government decided that the UK would continue to maintain strong Armed Forces capable of both stabilisation and intervention operations, and of evacuating UK citizens from crises overseas; and that we would develop a more integrated approach to building stability overseas, bringing together better our diplomatic, development, military and other national security tools.

Seventh, that we must provide resilience for the homeland by being prepared for all kinds of emergencies, able to recover from shocks and to maintain essential services. To deliver this the UK government has programmes to ensure the security and resilience of the infrastructure most critical to keeping our country running in the event of attack, damage or destruction; and has created better crisis management capabilities.

And last but not least – which brings us back to the title of this lecture – our Strategic Review concluded that in future the UK must wherever possible work not alone but in alliances and partnerships to generate more effective responses.

To deliver that the British government is committed to NATO as the basis for territorial defence of the UK and collective security of our allies; to an outward-facing and market oriented EU that promotes both prosperity and security; to continuing to contribute to international military coalitions, focusing on areas of comparative national advantage, such as our intelligence capabilities and highly capable elite forces; and to promoting the sharing of military capabilities and technologies between ourselves and our allies and partners.

A last word about the UK Armed Forces themselves, given the background of this distinguished audience. Britain is determined to maintain one of the best and most versatile Armed Forces in the world. While we are making cuts to our budgets in order to restore lasting health to our economy, we will retain that ambition and that military capability.

So the British government will retain a significant, well-equipped Army. We will continue to be one of few countries able to deploy a self-sustaining, properly equipped brigade-sized force anywhere around the world and sustain it indefinitely. We are reconfiguring our Army to make it more mobile and more flexible. It is now better adapted to face current and future threats, with the type of equipment it needs to prevail in today’s and tomorrow’s conflicts.

Britain will remain a maritime power. We intend to retain the capability that only aircraft carriers can provide – the ability to deploy air power from anywhere in the world, without the need for friendly air bases on land. We are procuring a fleet of the most capable, nuclear powered hunter-killer submarines anywhere in the world. We will complete the production of six Type 45 destroyers. We will also develop more modern frigates, more flexible and better able to take on today’s naval tasks of tackling drug trafficking, piracy and counter-terrorism.

As for the Royal Air Force, by the 2020s it will be based around two of the most capable fighter jets anywhere in the world: a modernised Typhoon/Eurofighter fully capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions; and the Joint Strike Fighter, the world’s most advanced multi-role combat jet. The fast jet fleet will be complemented by a growing fleet of Unmanned Air Vehicles in both combat and reconnaissance roles and by the most modern air-to-air refuelling aircraft. We are also enhancing our strategic air transport fleet

And – as I have said - we will retain and renew our independent nuclear deterrent – the United Kingdom’s ultimate insurance policy in this age of uncertainty.


So let me sum up, by telling you what I’ve told you.

A new world order is emerging. We in Britain welcome that. Overall, this new world order is better than the one it replaces. But it is also much more complex.

The things that will ensure our security in this new world are not that different from those which worked in the old world: prosperity, democracy, diplomacy, strong armed forces. But as threats become transnational, the new ingredient we also require now is greater collective effort to protect our own security.

That means that alliances and partnerships have a bigger role in today’s world than they did in the past. But those alliances will be more complex, less permanent, and increasingly not just between states.

The UK will continue to play an active role in this new world and in these new partnerships, with strong, modernised diplomacy and strong, modernised armed forces.

So that’s the summary. And if you want a summary of the summary to finish, here it is: The threats are new and complex, but the remedy is old and simple. It can be summed up in four words: together we are stronger.

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