Comment

Why the all-singing, all-dancing national security strategy doesn’t exist

With some experts calling for New Zealand to develop an overarching national security strategy, Robert Ayson says the perceived benefits may not stack up

Jim Rolfe’s vision for a New Zealand National Security Strategy has two main requirements.

One is a comprehensive perspective – inclusive of international and domestic security challenges, inclusive of the many agencies that are part of an expanding national security community, and inclusive of the many building blocks which are already out there in existing documentation.

The other is what Jim calls “overall coherence”. It’s the job of the national security strategy to connect the dots, providing guidance to agencies as they work together. A strategy for New Zealand would provide the big picture, the meta-narrative, for this collaborative effort.

But comprehensiveness and coherence can be unhappy bedfellows, as any grader of university essays will tell you. And on the basis of path dependency and sunken bureaucratic costs, I’d say that comprehensiveness begins as the early favourite.

New Zealand’s existing national security system takes an “all risks” approach to security, and the list of hazards on pages 22 and 23 of the 2016 National Security System Handbook is anything but parsimonious: droughts, food safety issues, infectious human diseases, animal diseases, wildfires, marine oil spills, infrastructure failure, cyber incidents, terrorism, espionage, several varieties of meteorological hazard, and more (including, one might presume, war itself).

The system is about making sure that in each case (i.e. for each problem) the relevant agencies are working together, pooling their particular insights and resources. This may allow some coherence at the level of each risk or hazard, but putting these discrete efforts together does not add up to a coherent overall picture.

That’s partly because we are not even dealing with apples and oranges – a better analogy would be animals, vegetables, and minerals.

To take one example from the new list of New Zealand’s National Security and Intelligence Priorities (see page 85 of this annual report), a biosecurity threat could constitute a potentially harmful development for New Zealand’s agricultural economy. The spread of weapons of mass destruction or a threat to New Zealanders overseas are also harmful. These three, and the thirteen other priorities, all fit inside the all risks approach.

Natural disasters like the Kaikoura quake, which caused damage in Wellington (pictured), have seemed the focus of the "risk and resilience" approach to national security in New Zealand. File photo: Lynn Grieveson.

But they differ in the extent to which New Zealand is being deliberately targeted by political actors, the extent to which they are avoidable by New Zealand’s choices, and the different parts of the government machinery from which responses are likely to be expected. That means that if you wish for overall national security coherence, you are going to need to make some choices where some risks and responses are elevated over others. Even the national security system can’t help but edge towards some choices.

In 2017, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet advised the incoming Minister for National Security and Intelligence to continue with a “risk and resilience” approach. The aim was to “weave resilience together across communities, the private sector, and local and central government.”

It doesn’t take a national security expert to determine what type of recent event this logic favoured: less “threats to the rules-based order” (to cite one of the concerns mentioned in that same document), and rather more “the East Coast floods” and the “Kaikōura earthquake” (to note two others).

But the tragedy of March 15 was of a different type still. And when the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Attack on Christchurch Mosques reports next year, it will be shocking if we don’t see suggestions about how New Zealand’s national security agencies might work even more closely together in sharing information on potential risks.

Under its terms of reference, the inquiry is legally required to “make any recommendations it considers appropriate on… whether there is any improvement to information gathering, sharing, and analysis practices by relevant State sector agencies that could have prevented the attack, or could prevent such attacks in the future, including, but not limited to, the timeliness, adequacy, effectiveness, and co-ordination of information disclosure, sharing, or matching between relevant State sector agencies.”

These recommendations are likely to fuel arguments for a national security strategy which, in Jim’s words, allows for national security policy to be “completely ‘joined up’ across the Government.” But it is difficult to see concerns about ethno-nationalist terror, or terrorism and violent extremism more generally, provide the main pathway to coherence in New Zealand’s national security thinking at a systemic level. Instead, there are two other candidates, one explicit, the other more implicit, that might fit that bill more readily.

Climate change, or China?
 
The explicit candidate is climate change. Climate Change Minister James Shaw recently announced that “major decisions made by the Government will now be considered under a climate change lens”. His boss, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, is well known for her assertion that climate change activism is this generation’s version of the nuclear free movement.

Many of New Zealand’s partners in the Pacific regard climate change as nothing less than an existential threat, while last year Defence Minister Ron Mark joined Shaw in launching the Ministry of Defence’s climate change assessment, outlining some of the implications for the future activities and shape of the New Zealand Defence Force which represents easily the most expensive set of capabilities in the national security sector.
 
Climate change is a compelling problem. But it does not get the cigar for security policy coherence unless we are willing to detach national security from purposeful violent challenges which have long been its bread and butter.

The harm caused by climate change may be a result of human activity. But it is an unintended side effect, not a calculated attempt by a political actor to threaten, damage or destroy. And there are far more obvious links between climate change and a series of non-violent problems than there are between climate change and armed conflict.

That same defence force which is being asked to factor in climate change has, as a more central mission, the responsible conduct of military operations. The intelligence apparatus is designed first and foremost around understanding purposeful political threats and risks to New Zealand. There are portions of the national security realm, including those who manage cyber risks, where climate change has little obvious purchase. To reverse the normal formula, the available national security means don’t justify the end.

If New Zealand did produce a national security strategy, it could be China that featured as the most obvious underlying concern, Robert Ayson writes. File photo: Lynn Grieveson.

So what then of the more implicit candidate for coherence? If we turn to one of the defence documents Jim mentions, we find last year’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement reflecting growing concerns about China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. And in another, this year’s Pacific Partnerships Defence Assessment, we find New Zealand policymakers hinting at concerns about China’s growing influence closer to home.

The China argument is also there in other parts of the national security discussion, including the statement from New Zealand’s signals intelligence agency which named China as a cybersecurity problem for organisations working in this country. And Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has not done much to hide his concerns about China when he has visited Sydney and Washington, asking New Zealand’s traditional partners to do more in the South Pacific.
 
My guess is that if a New Zealand national security strategy is produced, China will feature as the most obvious underlying concern. Expect plenty of language about challenges to the rules-based order in New Zealand’s Indo-Pacific security environment.

In other words, cheerio resilience, hello geopolitics! For reasons that I explored in my last post on Incline, I think we ought to be less than thrilled about this outcome. But some of New Zealand’s security partners would be very pleased.
 
The price of coherence may be too high. If a national security strategy is to be something other than the sum of its parts, it may be especially vulnerable to capture from the changing national security priorities of the given moment.

Yet if the alternative is comprehensiveness and completeness without a genuine argument, there are good reasons to wonder if a national security strategy is actually necessary.

* This article was originally published on Incline.org.nz, and is reproduced here with permission.

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