On the EU reflection paper about security and defence

Civilian means should be prioritised

On June 7, 2017 the European Commission published a “reflection paper” on the future of Europe’s defence and security policy.1 This is the fourth in the series.2 It builds on a number of initiatives that were launched in the second half of last year regarding the further integration of European Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), as well as the White Paper on the future of the EU. The overarching theme is to lay the foundations of a holistic re-imagination of the European project once this election year is over and to proceed towards the next phase of [deeper] integration by 2025.

The reflection paper itself offers precious little in terms of new content and fresh ideas. Everything it touches on has been covered at greater length in previous publications, notably the EU Global Strategy, published in June 2016,3 the Specific Plan on Security and Defence of November 14, 2016,4 as well as the European Defence Action Plan of November 30, 2016.5 What this document does is remind political leaders and the public at-large of the state of affairs and the immediate steps forward.

Given that the reflection paper follows the same pattern of merely outlining the three broad scenarios for the future, namely, (i) loose inter-governmentalism, (ii) differentiated integration (“two-speed Europe”) with shared competences between the EU and the Member States, and (iii) major power transfers to the EU, it is worth writing about the issues that have been omitted. Ambition is key. A reflection paper is, to my mind at least, a unique opportunity to develop forward-thinking plans and to envisage the policy framework beyond the rigid constraints of day-to-day power struggles within the political process. To critically reflect on the future of the integration process and, more importantly, the content of policy in the era of transition we are in. Failure to do so constitutes conformism and backwardness.

Security and defence through thick and thin

In the reflection paper’s “key trends” section, and throughout the document, we see virtually no conceptual analysis of the evolving face of security and defence. References to the magnitudes of globalisation, hybrid offensives, asymmetric threats, cyber space integrity, and sovereignty, remain limited to surface aspects. The overall view is that of early modernity, where [super-] state actors compete for power and scarce resources in an anarchic (in the Realist sense) world order.

The current world differs profoundly from that of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, nation states are interconnected and interdependent. The financialisation of the world economy, which has made the private bank the midpoint of economic activity, has in large part diffused borders for capital. Cross country business operations are the norm, while the rapid progress of information technology has effectively increased the rate at which markets internalise changing circumstances (via price adjustments). The spread of notional communications domains—cyber space—into virtually every field of human endeavour has radically changed the way infrastructure is evaluated as “critical” for security purposes. Meanwhile, the rise of global networks that are united by a certain fundamentalist ideology, such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, hint at an altogether different form of threat beside the apparent terrorist one: a cultural offensive, such as the penetration of Wahhabism in European societies.

Against this backdrop, the notion of maintaining a standing army that can fend of incursions at the border is fast becoming out of date. The military remains central to matters of security and defence, but it is not the sole conduit to the maintenance of peace. The early modernist worldview of nations opposed to each other, and of armies symmetrically matched in conventional warfare, must thus be described as the ‘thin’ conception of the connatural magnitudes of security and defence.

To cope with present challenges and emerging phenomena, thinking must proceed to a ‘thick’ understanding of the matter at hand. And this would have to happen in tandem with a broadened view of sovereignty, as a multi-faceted state of affairs, whose factors encompass public and private spheres, rather than a monolithic, headline feature of statehood that is bestowed upon the polity solely via legal arrangements.6

Control over the factors of sovereignty, which in our case implies control over the means for the preservation of peace within the polity, necessitates access to domains of intersubjective experience outside the rigid constraints of the military. A stable economy, the rule of law, the integrity of software, the capacity to maintain—and scrutinise the integrity of—IT and other infrastructure, the distribution of control between public and private entities, must all fall within this enlarged view of a truly sovereign state. The military alone cannot, for instance, guarantee that banks do not become a time bomb that threatens society with widespread unemployment, high levels of dissatisfaction, and potential marginalisation from the body politic. Similarly, the army does not have the expertise, nor the means, to audit software systems and to ensure that public entities have the tools to exercise control over their IT infrastructure. For such matters, the polity that thinks seriously about security and defence must be proactive, seek out synergies between military and civilian entities, and make decisions in a manner that ensures cross-policy continuity and compatibility.

Free software and the distribution of control

Let us take cyber space as a case in point against the Commission’s conformist unwillingness to think ‘outside the box’. The recent ransomware offensive should remind us of the alarming dependency of public bodies on software solutions provided by a multinational corporation: Microsoft. Those products come with a licensing scheme that grants full power to Microsoft over the use of the software, its distribution, and inner specificities. Microsoft is known to have inserted malicious functionality in their software, the kind of ‘backdoors’ that the NSA has been exploiting with impunity, or the effective spyware of telemetrics and remote control over users’ computers.

While it is unacceptable for any public body to still be using outdated and insecure systems such as Windows XP, the remedy is not what is often being suggested as an upgrade to the latest edition. That is but the continuation of the dependency on Microsoft’s agenda.

From the perspective of a ‘thick’ conception of security and defence, the phenomenon of Microsoft being at the heart of a certain cyber infrastructure must be described as an effective loss of control over a factor of sovereignty. The state does not have the power to manage cyber space in a manner that is consistent with its needs and the public good. It rather has to rely on a private entity, whose raison d’être is profit even at the expense of fundamental rights.

In the Commission’s reflection paper reference is made to the need of not relying on others (i.e. the USA) for our defence. That is correct, for we then continue to be but an instrument in their plans. By the same token, institutions and public bodies cannot place their digital (and by extension physical) safety in the hands of a corporation. The problem is not Microsoft per se, but the very practice of effectively commodifying a sovereign competence.

A solution to this conundrum is to be found in free-libre software. Its licensing structure makes it ideal for use in public venues (and for individuals as well, but that is another issue). Free-libre software grants the community of users the fundamental digital rights of studying the source code, modifying it, and sharing their works with the rest of the community. There is no corporate agenda that can restrict these liberties. There can be no collusion between a private elite and a spy agency against the interests of the general public, because the source code is always open to scrutiny (unlike, say, the obscurity of Microsoft’s offerings).

Free-libre software, most notably everything within the space of GNU/Linux (typically just “Linux”) is not some exotic good that only ‘hackers’ use. It encompasses everything a modern Operating System needs, from basic functionality to the most advanced features. But its major strength is that it empowers users to use the software in a way that best suits their needs. Public bodies can freely adapt it to their workflow without having to acquire a special approval from any issuing firm. And just like Wikipedia’s contribution to the commons, if governments, universities, public bodies, private firms, non-profit organisations, and volunteers expand their contributions to free software, they can greatly increase the availability of tools at their disposal. A genuine win-win situation.

Adopting free software means taking back control of a major factor of sovereignty from the corporate elite. Whereas ‘upgrading’ to the latest version of the commercial offerings only helps to further outsource sovereignty and to commodify security.

Social work against cultural offensives

The reflection paper remains oblivious to the most pertinent threat of our time: fundamentalism that is, in fact, rooted in the aggressive spending and overall planning of the likes of Saudi Arabia. A growing number of European Muslims are being exposed to Wahhabist preachings, become fanatics, and combined with their potentially marginalised status within society find it appropriate to engage in a holy war: Jihad.

A modern inclusive democracy would not address this phenomenon by denigrating all Muslims and further oppressing their communities. It would rather fulfil their religious needs by allocating resources to the training of imams, so that they do not come from Saudi Arabia instead. It would also work to improve the representation of these communities in public life, in politics, the academia, schools, hospitals, the police force, and so on.

In other words, a major security hole in Europe is its unwillingness to confront the root causes of global Jihadism and its domestic instantiations. Here too, what we really need is not “more Europe”, and buzzwords such as “economies of scale”, “interoperability of weapon systems”, and “industrial synergies”. Social work is the best, most humane approach. Money must flow towards developing expertise of local Muslim communities, hiring the necessary scientists from the humanities to conduct research for how best to fully integrate Muslims in the European whole.

Bombs and missiles, however efficiently procured, will do virtually nothing to mitigate homegrown terrorism. Nor will phenomena of de facto parallel societies (ghetto areas) ever cease to appear by merely continuing to rely on the ‘thin’ conception of security and defence.

Europe does indeed need to vastly improve its capacities. What it should not do though, is adopt a narrow, militaristic view that will eventually favour industrial interests. Focusing only on the military side of things is a recipe for injustice. It supports a false paradigm, best exemplified by the kind of arms deals and backdoor diplomacy that continues to prop up authoritarian regimes for the sake of profit. And in providing pampers to such tyrannies, Europe (and the West in general) is implicitly feeding the monster of fundamentalism and, in the process, is effectively helping to further marginalise European Muslims.

In short, and if applied correctly, the humanities can do much more work on the ground with real people to protect our quotidian way of life from Jihadism, than all shadowy arms deals combined.

A conformist and outdated approach

The Commission is emphasising certain items that might improve its case for further integration, namely the duplication of work in areas of public procurement and research spending. While pooling resources at the European level can be an improvement over the status quo, it does not refashion the overall character of Europe’s security and defence. Insistence on “interoperability” and “economies of scale”, as well as the disproportionate attention to military means, reveal a worryingly ‘thin’ conception of the matter. Whereas the holistic, ‘thick’ variants of security and defence would also account for the distribution of power and control within society, in particular as concerns the interplay between private interests and the polity’s effective sovereignty, all while contributing to the robustness of civilian fields of endeavour.

Military means are not the only conduit to lasting peace. The European integration process is hitherto the best example of that claim. Civilian instruments are often more suitable for a given end. The diffusion of Wahhabist influence is a case in point. Similarly, the adoption of free-libre software can help public bodies take control over their digital tools and, thus, emancipate institutions from the stratagems of corporations of the likes of Microsoft who, inter alia, introduce backdoors—malicious functionality—for the NSA et al to exploit with impunity.

Indeed Europe needs to integrate further for the sake of improving its standing on the global order. Over the long term, that will also force deviations from USA or NATO priorities. Yet it is a major strategic mistake, a fundamental misreading of the evolving state of affairs in our world, to depict security and defence as largely military issues. The army is but a part of a greater whole. If Europe does not want to become yet another Occidental war machine, it should do better on the conceptual/analytic front, adopt a ‘thick’ view of security and defence, and work meticulously to achieve peace also through—if not primarily with—civilian means.

  1. Here is the press release announcing the reflection paper on security and defense policy. Published on June 7, 2017. ^

  2. I have commented on all reflection papers and have written at length about the future of the European integration process. Links are available on this thematic section^

  3. Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. EU Global Strategy (pdf). Published in June 2016. ^

  4. For the Specific Plan on Security and Defence, it is better to refer to the Council Conclusions on the EU Global Strategy (pdf). Published on November 14, 2016. ^

  5. Press release about the European Defence Action Plan. Published on November 30, 2016. ^

  6. For more on the theoretical aspects of sovereignty, refer to my publication Essays on Sovereignty. Published on November 14, 2016. ^