National Security and History Part IB

Singapore, 11 January 2009

The concept of national security, while historically a constant factor, has undergone changes over the years. What we are witnessing today is a rapid change in the understanding of what constitutes national security and also the acceptance of a much broader remit to forces of the state in ensuring the nation’s security. I would put the beginning of this change to the immediate aftermath of World War II and the fairly rapid polarisation of the world into the US and Soviet camps and the coming down of Churchill’s famous ‘iron curtain’. While the ‘threat’ of the spread of communism was used in a number of instances for partisan reasons by the democratic western nations, it also brought the so-called ‘old world civilisations’ together in Europe, at least to ensure that they were safe form encroaching Soviet ambition.

During the 1950s and 60s, there was a feeling in Europe that, given a chance, the Soviet Union would keep pushing west in Europe to increase their sphere of influence. I believe that this was more hype on the part of the democratic European nations (with the more than adequate instigation from the United States) to ensure that their nations stayed safe and was assured of independent status, however small and unviable it may be. Hindsight and the passage of time has demonstrated that the Soviet Union was only consolidating what used to be the old imperial Russian holdings and at no time had the intention of occupying any of the European states. The NATO alliance may have been a factor in this approach, but definitely not the overriding factor. In fact the Soviet military build up to counter the NATO forces was almost a defensive reactionary act and not aimed at a frontal assault across Europe. Of course the rhetoric of the Soviet leadership and the overt displays of Soviet military power at regular intervals did not make the actual thinking in the Soviet Union any easier to understand.

So what changed in the later half of the 20th Century? The first instance of a shift in how national security is viewed came about not with the formation of NATO, but with the Korean War. The war came about because the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung believed that the communists in South Korea would spontaneously rise up to welcome the In Min Gun (North Korean Peoples’ Army) and thereby unite the country into one Korea. (There is a similarity in this thinking to the way in which the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was explained away to the American people and to some extent the world at large, although the perpetuators of this could not have been more different in both the cases.) The US was involved in a futile attempt to shore up the Chiang Kai-shek regime in China and saw the success of Mao Zedong as the spread of communism in Asia. The decision therefore to intervene in the Korean Civil War was almost a pre-gone conclusion. I believe this was the starting point in the gradual redefinition of what constituted national security. Of course for a few more decades very few nations of the world could pursue the concept of national security so far away form their geographic borders.

The use of force to forestall any inconvenience to one’s own nation is not a new concept. The change here has been the new outlook of what constituted national security. For the US in the 1950s and 60s it also had an added dimension of being the only super power that could keep the communists at bay and save the ‘free world’. This was partly the product of a fear mongering campaign that was mounted within the United States by Senator McCarthy and others, that depicted a number of clearly innocent actions by people as radical and supporting the communists. The administration of the time, under President Truman was under domestic pressure to contain this so-called danger to the state. Any compromise with the communist nations (the Soviet Union and China being seen as one monolithic red entity) would have been disastrous in domestic politics and therefore, the US intervention in Korea was not even a debatable point, it had to be done. This may not be the first instance of domestic politics pushing the foreign policy of a nation, there are enough instances of campaigns that were mounted by the Roman legions as a result of domestic economics and political confrontations, but in modern times this was perhaps the first instance of national security being ensured by military intervention thousands of miles away from the nation’s borders.

So, does the concept of securing the nation mean more than securing the borders? Or are actions that are taken far away from the nation also a way to secure the borders? In that case what is the definition of borders—one physical and one virtual??

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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