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Analysis: Security, a fundamental shift

Lewis Sanders IV
February 16, 2017

The discourse of international security has shifted as a result of populist rhetoric making its way to the world stage. But domestic politics shouldn't undermine norms regulating world affairs, writes DW's Lewis Sanders.

Symbolbild UN-Sicherheitsrat
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Gombert

On the eve of the Munich Security Conference, talk of security has never felt so ubiquitous; ever-present in the words uttered by politicians, citizens, service members and civilians. To deny that the discourse surrounding security in the West and elsewhere has shifted would be dismissing the intellectual history of our times.

What we have witnessed over the course of the last year is state actors, fringe parties and alternative news sources make an attempt for a piece of the cake which they have long been denied.

The polarization of domestic politics in Western democracies, a pseudo-organic response to the real or perceived threat of irregular migration, terrorist attacks and economic liberalization, has led to movements that seek to upend established political and economic norms.

From Italy's neglected east to France's northern regions, industry that once flourished has all but been abandoned for ostensible political goals and the pursuit of profits elsewhere.

An Italian farmer or French miner likely cares less about why Moscow has been sanctioned than he or she does about the reasons their goods aren't making it to Russian marketplaces.

Populist parties, which thrive on raising sensationalist concerns, survive by tapping into that frustration, markedly founded in questions of socioeconomic security: How will I feed my family? How will I protect my livelihood?

Populist shifts

Populist parties have so far used easy targets, such as refugees, as a scapegoat for garnering support, directing resentment towards the "other" while failing to examine the events that produced, for example, the 2015 migration crisis.

This is perhaps the reason why the Munich Security Report cites migration, terrorism and geopolitical vulnerabilities as key security challenges in our day and age. This "illiberal" moment that MSC Chairman Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger speaks of finds its source in dispossessed citizens, even if it may appear to be unfounded from a top-down perspective.

The Alternative for Germany, French National Front, UK Independence Party and Donald Trump's presidential campaign amassed support by tapping into that frustration, and providing monochrome responses to concerns that stir the working-class imagination in the dead of night.

When Trump promises to prioritize American interests, while it may not resound in urban centers, intellectual cliques or the halls of the UN, it makes sense for those who have lost their jobs in rustbelt America. "America first" makes sense to working-class families who have lived paycheck to paycheck since before the 2008 financial crisis or those who have succumbed to the burdens of debt.

Furthermore, while NATO is pertinent to a European service member, it may not appear so for a grocery clerk in Saxony-Anhalt, Marche or Kansas, despite the alliance's relevance to defense cooperation across the Atlantic.

Security in a fragile world

While the framework for international and domestic security may witness a process of revision, it is crucial that lawmakers and ordinary citizens, judges and civil servants prevent it from upending the values established in the wake of World War II, whether freedom of speech, the right to due process, trade in lieu of conflict or accountability for war crimes.

Prospective shifts on the global stage should seek to prevent the escalation of conflict and hold accountable those who have committed atrocities in the darkest shadows of modern warfare. They should not come at the cost of alliances and frameworks, whether the Paris climate change agreement or NATO.

Security aims to protect the lives of citizens and safeguard fundamental freedoms. But in democracies, perceptions of security are nearly as important as security itself, if not at times more so.

As such, small-town politicians and global actors must show that vulnerabilities can be alleviated and threats dealt with in full respect of the legal mechanisms that have enshrined the rights of both citizens and nation states.

Anything short of that risks destabilizing a world that has attempted to prevent the horrors witnessed in the first half of the 20th century.

It does not mean that global security structures are perfect. However, the consequences of rehearsing populist politics on the world stage have the potential of dismantling a fragile order and annulling the promises of diplomacy.

The "longest period of peace in written history in Europe started with the formation of the European Communities," the precursor to the EU, illustrates the necessity of these structures, in contrast to pursuing isolationist or ethnocentric policies.

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