This post discusses the change in the character of security threats in the 21st century and how states can possibly adapt to them.

So far, we’ve been mainly talking about war operations. Most of the time, I would show how states would prepare for facing traditional challenges, such as if China were to suddenly invade Indonesia.

However, we also have to acknowledge the changing character of security in our post-Cold War world. Security cooperation is becoming a huge boost in international relations, visible in some forms such as defence diplomacy. Security threats today rarely come from states, but rather from non-states, even nature itself. As such, militaries around the world have to learn how to adapt accordingly to remain relevant in the changing world. This entails a change in the role of militaries from being solely fighters to protectors of international order.

Militaries were traditionally there to keep our own peace as a nation-state. As taxpayers, we expect our buff soldiers to be able to protect us when we most need them. However, as times change, the role of militaries also follow. Now, we expect militaries to also come to our aid whenever a landslide or tsunami happens. In the event of a natural disaster, such as the 2004 Aceh tsunami, the first people on the ground were the military, ready with their fine equipment to distribute aid and help whoever was in need.

In another country that’s ravaged by a power-hungry warlord without an official army to help them out, we expect our militaries to swoop in and kill the bad guys so those poor people can live in peace. Similarly, if a major natural disaster happens, we would send our humanitarian aid along with our military.

These operations don’t seemingly fit the traditional role of the soldier, whose duty it is to fight in battle. These are what we call operations other than war, or OOTW (pronounced “oot-wah”) a rather fancy term for “doing helpful work while you’re not shooting an enemy’s brains out”. It is also known as peace operations.

There are several forms of OOTW, the most common being humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) and humanitarian intervention. Domestically (but not always), militaries are also engaged in counter-terrorism and internal security. For now, let’s talk about the first two.

Why should we care about peace operations, though? We can’t deny that globalisation has increased our interdependence on one another. Basically, if anything happens to a state, its effects might ripple throughout the intricate web of interdependence that we have weaved among ourselves. Think of it this way:

If I live near a failed state such as Somalia, I would be worried that Somalia’s government is failing. Why? Since those bad guys over there are gonna cross the border, so I’ll have one more thing to worry about. I could build a massive wall, but then my country might not be considered great again by the international community. So, I have to try something to help them out.

Or, you could of it in more positive (or cunning) terms:

If my neighbouring country suddenly got hit by an earthquake, that means there’s one less trading partner for God knows how long. I should help them, and in return, I’ll win favour and perhaps I might be able to sell them more bootleg stuff.

Another reason why we should care is the CNN effect. Basically, the “CNN effect”, coined by Nik Gowing [PDF] in 1994, posits that 24-hour media coverage can affect decision-makers in making foreign policy. There is still some debate about the actual potency of the effect and whether or not the relationship is correlative or causative (see Strobel [book]; a really engaging read, by the way). However, Strobel acknowledges that real-time television coverage can affect policy-making to a certain extent, such as helping policy-makers gain information quicker and garner public support.

Think of it this way. When you see images of starving children in Africa, your gut reaction would be to feel sad. You might feel compelled to actually do something. The (near) light-speed time in which information travels adds to the pressure of states doing something good with their militaries.

So, we see a disaster and we want to help. Considering that we’re all interdependent now, we might as well help what we can. So, we send our troops abroad with truckloads of humanitarian aid to help the other guys out. Problem solved?

Not quite. The expansion of the military’s role from being solely fighters to guardians of international order is not a smooth transition. Along the way, militaries have to learn how to interact with the people in the target country. They have to at least learn the culture and minimally speak the language. They also have to gather intelligence about the possible threats or conditions of the country so they can prepare beforehand. They might meet armed resistance or be unwelcomed. And worst of all, they’re there to help, not shoot people (unless in self-defence). The soldier is expected to this perfect Captain America figure that’s capable of solving all the problems once they set foot there.

Here’s the thing: all that training and deployment requires resources, experience, and time. Furthermore, if the other country is not even a good friend and is 6,000 km away, why should we bother sending troops to ship humanitarian aid in the first place? We might do it to earn brownie points, but is it really worth the effort?

Also, there’s the issue of the “three-block war”, coined by Krulak [HTML]. Soldiers are expected to seamlessly transition from ruthless killing machines in one block, a compassionate Captain America in the next, and a distributor of free aid in the last. Of course, under pressure and possibly fire, this is not an easy task to fulfil.

And there’s also the issue of trade-offs when sending troops abroad. Suppose that you’re living in an unstable region, such as the South China Sea. Sending off your navy to help counter-piracy efforts, which is still under the umbrella of OOTW, in the Gulf of Aden might help your interests, but it also means making yourself vulnerable if a conflict does happen to break out. You would also be left with half a navy or so, meaning that you might not be able to carry out security operations within your own borders. Would you still risk sending troops to another country?

The bells ring…

Here’s a quick recap:

  • As the world becomes more interdependent on one another for security, militaries are being reshaped to become more than just fighting machines. They now have to be fighting machines with hearts of gold.
  • Though it is tempting to help out everyone in the world, we need to consider the possible limitations of our help and whether or not our soldiers are capable of doing something constructive in the target country. We can’t help everyone.