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Does Non-Traditional Security Threats Need to be Re-Defined?


Non-traditional threats are generally seen as those threats which are emanated by the non-state actors. The threats are not considered mainstream and have been seen as peripheral in nature by security experts. Some scholars also call non-traditional threats as ‘Non-Military threats’. These threats mostly focus on human security rather than territorial security. Human security includes, environmental security, economic security, energy security and societal security. These threats do not come from an adversary nation’s military and hence its solutions are also not well defined. Though, it is widely agreed that non-traditional security threats can transform into traditional security threats among countries. The best example could be of water and energy security issues among Central Asian states. Even Indus Water sharing is also a matter of tussle that pops up time to time between India and Pakistan.

The difference between traditional and non-traditional security threats is not so water-tight now as it appeared in the last century. Now, a level of ‘permeability’ has creeped in the erstwhile water tight compartments, especially in some areas. For instance, ‘terrorism’ has for long been considered by western scholars as a ‘non-traditional’ security threat because terrorists are considered as ‘non-state’ actors. But now things are changing. Nations started to look where these terrorists are coming from? Are they having the backing of states? Do these groups have a much wider agenda than to just terrorize people to bring instability? All the questions were first looked very deeply and intensely by United States after 9/11 attacks. It wasn’t that other states were not raising their voices in this direction but western world always refuted and rebuffed these concerns by calling them ‘third world problems’.

It is only when US, the hegemon in the system, was the victim of attack, then they realized that the issue was not as small as they thought. Secondly, they also realized that nobody was now safe from these ‘non-state’ actors. Global leaders now started to look towards the question of state sponsored terrorism that countries were pointing since decades. India had been already raising its voice in international platforms on the issue of Pakistan sponsored terrorism. After 9/11, US came with its full might on Afghanistan which had Taliban regime in power. Now the question is whether US attacked a state or the terrorist groups who were in power? The answer lies somewhere in between. The Taliban state of Afghanistan was ‘rogue’ and was referred as a ‘rogue’ state. A rogue state is one that poses threats to other states and doesn’t follow international laws. Here, the definition of non-traditional threat started to get blurred because state was definitely an actor here. It’s another matter that it was a rogue state but still it did establish its sovereignty over a territory and population. Now, it can be argued that traditionally security threats emanated between states and therefore traditional security threats can only involve state actors. Second argument which can be thrown is: what would change essentially if we put ‘terrorism’ under traditional security threat now?

To answer the first question, traditions are not static in nature. With passage of time, new things are co-opted into the traditions and get assimilated inside it beautifully. Same goes with ‘statehood’, which is considered to be the most important parameter to put a threat under traditional security threat or non-traditional security threat. Statehood in modern sense, owes its starting from Westphalian notion of state which started in 1648 from the treaty of Westphalia. From here, states started to be considered as unitary actors in the international system. For a long time in the approximately 380 years of modern nation states history, wars were fought out between states which used to be the biggest and sometime the sole source of threat. World Wars were tipping point of this ‘statist definition’ of threats. Terrorism, as is known and recognized today started taking its roots in the later half of the cold war period. Since, it was ‘new’ to the world and was done by non-state actors hence it was considered ‘non-traditional’ in nature.

Now, around three decades have passed since ‘terrorism’ (in the way we know it today) has come into the picture. Many nations have been affected largely or minutely by some sort of terrorist threat or attack in these thirty years. In the last three decades, non-traditional itself has become traditional. Rogue states increasingly use terror groups to attack their adversaries as they don’t want to come out in open and show their deep-seated intentions to the global community. Secondly, the cost of war is very high and its repercussions’ can turn out to be catastrophic as it destroys the systems and structuresput in place. Since, the stakes are very high and a loss in war can bring the down the prestige of a country to tatters, these rogue states find it convenient to sponsor terrorism to their adversaries. So, the blame couldn’t be directly pointed at them. Now, it took time for states to understand this kind of dirty politics because it was literally a ‘non-traditional’ way of inflicting pain and instability on the other state.

But, because of frequency of such attacks, states have now started to identify other states who are sponsoring terrorism. Yes, those who export terrorism inadvertently become the victims of terrorism as well but in the garb of victimhood, these states can’t hide their misdeeds. If one still argues that ‘terrorism’ is non-traditional threat historically and should be put under that category now, the answer would be that why not go before Westphalian notion of statehood. Wars used to happen before that too, threats were even greater then. If longevity of using a terminology is the parameter of being static, then one can go much before in history. But here the idea is not that. The point here is to view the world where we are living in. How would one see a threat from a group like ISIS now, (which by the way claimed to form an Islamic State) is it posing a traditional threat or a non-traditional threat? Though, ISIS is not recognized by UN and international community at large as a state but still the threat is as real as one would face from a state. The Syrian Civil war and the involvement of ISIS raises important theoretical questions of determining what needs to be considered traditional and what not.

The answer to the second question would be that putting terrorism under traditional security threat wouldn’t be just a name changing exercise because governments, militaries and security experts would now see terrorism in a different light. New strategies would be developed to deal with these actors. Social science terminologies are not mere words, they have specific meanings attached to it which have a wider impact on the psyche of the people using it. To sum up, the time has come to re-define what constitutes a ‘traditional security’ threat and what does not.

By Martand Jha

Martand Jha is a Junior Research Fellow at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

Courtesy: Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF)