We look to the next generation to preserve human, national and international security. (Photo by iStock.)

I expect to be dead by 2050. I hope my children will live comfortably beyond that and some of my students to the end of the century, but it seems unlikely.

I wonder if my profession has failed them. Health professions are getting better at providing for health; are security professions making insecurity worse?

Three clues to surviving the 21st century can be drawn from the successes of my father’s profession — public health — which has lessons for human security, national security, and international security. Successful professions are ecosystems of expertise: sewers and water supply were as important as doctors and nurses to improving health. Successful professions research what they practice, relying on constant experimentation, communication and free thought, rather than doctrine and training. Perhaps most importantly, success is not divisible; successful professions cooperate across boundaries; states have to cooperate to solve intractable problems.

The security professions, including the military, have had some successes. Deterrence in the Cold War staved off nuclear Armageddon and a clash of East and West on the North German Plain. Deterrence worked because there was a common understanding that transcended East and West about nuclear signaling and nuclear dangers. We seem to have no such community for today’s dangers. Stabilization and peacekeeping operations after the Cold War made progress in some conflicts, but the global war on terror looks, with hindsight, like a dismal failure and a distraction from the threats and conflicts that confront my students. While NATO spent trillions of dollars on wars that padded military profits, China spent trillions on global trade infrastructure. The ecosystems of defense, diplomacy, policing and intelligence have not worked well with changing political economy, governance and globalized technology.

Climate change is accelerating, with military forces and operations amongst the largest contributors to greenhouse gases. We didn’t need David Wallace-Wells’ book, “Uninhabitable Earth,” as a wake-up call; we have seen on our screens uncontrollable wildfires in Australia and California, waves of migration on the southern borders of Europe and North America, disappearing Arctic ice, and worsening extreme weather events. Pandemic disease linked to economic and physical insecurity is likely to recur. Information warfare erodes national cohesion, cyber-attacks with physical effects are more common, and technology for weapons of mass destruction continues to proliferate.

Capitalism triumphed in the Cold War, but we now see varieties of capitalism in competition. A confrontation is brewing between the established hegemony of the U.S. and the rising power of China, with alternative organizing principles. Continuing hegemony seems unlikely, and America may not be able to pass the liberal-democratic torch as Britain did after the Second World War. The majority of the world’s states have benefited from the Anglo-American liberal democratic world order, and it is time to mobilize for its support, or face an uncertain and hostile new order.

What sort of security professionalism will help most countries to survive the 21st century? Security cannot be separated from governance and political economy any more than health can be divorced from hygiene, nutrition and sanitation. This helps countries as diverse as Canada and Botswana, Finland and Mongolia to see the ecosystems of professional competence that are needed. These cannot be developed in isolation.

Building new ecosystems for security professionals starts with new ways of thinking. Socializing young men and women into army, navy, and air force tribes, then trying to break them out of tribal mindsets with joint training later in life is counterproductive. They need to work across professional lines from their earliest leadership experiences. Beyond infantry-armor-artillery, beyond army-navy-air force, beyond military-paramilitary-police, new security ecosystems involve government-corporate, civil-military and domestic-international-technological connections. Military academies and staff colleges need to release their students for months or semesters, perhaps even to require experience beyond the profession as a condition of professional education. The smaller the country, the more important are early-career international experiences.

For military and police forces everywhere, strategic failures of foresight, professional failures of counter insurgency, and social failures of institutional misogyny and racism call for reliance on the next generation to find solutions that have eluded us. This calls for freedom of thought and experimentation. What works? How generalizable are new tactics, techniques and procedures, new organizations, new structures? There will be false starts and errors, but we must make those mistakes now. We need the creative freedom of practitioner research to rejuvenate security professions. And, of course, experimentation without reporting results avails little.

The most significant lesson for security professions may be the hardest to adopt — cooperate. The security professions are predicated on hostility and conflict, but security demands cooperation across national boundaries. Smaller states are under fewer illusions; this doesn’t make them “semistates” as David Rothkopf claims in “Power, Inc.” Whether through transnational data management described by Benjamin Bratton in “The Stack: Software and Sovereignty,” or the corporate elite networks described by Van Apeldoorn and de Graaff as the driver of American grand strategy, no state integrated with markets is independent, and the market sources of dynamism, prosperity and success are equally the sources of climate change, interdependence and vulnerability. Anglo-American market capitalism, European welfare capitalism, Indian development capitalism, Chinese state capitalism and the entrepreneurial capitalism of small states are competing models, with the potential for instability and violence. Security professions must find ways to prevent rival systems — both state systems and interlocking corporate systems — from escalating into violent confrontation. Political economy is now essential security knowledge.

Security ecosystems of technologically aware intelligence, policing, direct action, corporate and financial knowledge, law-fare, and diplomacy represent the best hope for preserving human, national and international security for most of the world’s countries. My students at an average military college in a significant but not powerful country need wider and deeper knowledge than ever to survive the 21st century. They will have to build professional ecosystems and knowledge communities to help countries cooperate on problems that no state can solve by itself. When states do compete or fight, they have to learn to do so without destroying each other or the planet.

If the next generation can do this, they will deserve to survive the 21st century.


— David Last is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and the London School of Economics. He served for 30 years in the Canadian army and has been teaching at the Royal Military College since 1999. He researches conflict management and professional military education and currently serves as the secretary to the International Society of Military Sciences.

The 2020 Edition of the Journal of Peace and War Studies (JPWS)

2020 cover to the peace and war journal

The 2020 JPWS edition addresses a most challenging issue in the current global community—escalation of the U.S.-China rivalry.

In addition to this issue’s peer-reviewed scholarly articles, four Norwich University students — John Hickey, Shayla Moya, Kathryn Preul, and Faith Privett — explain America’s foreign policy blunders in Afghanistan utilizing the Just War theory. They also suggest political, economic, and military approaches that could bring stability in conflict-stricken Eastern Ukraine.

Read online or download the 2020 JPWS Journal

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