Episode 5: The Making of a Megatrend – Dynamic Security Prioritization

In Episode 4 I discussed the relationship between the alternative energy megatrend and universal securitization. As a reminder, the security trajectory of the megatrend illustrates the increasingly complex terrain that policymakers must navigate to cope with expanding security threats (e.g., environmental, health, cyber, energy, economic), proving the utility of the framework of universal securitization as a strategic tool with tangible applications.

However, broadening the concept of security too far risks making the term meaningless. Simply embracing universal securitization is not enough; it will overwhelm policymakers, leaving the system unworkable. In today’s multi-centric world, dealing with and prevailing in the new Great Power Competition requires avoiding the inertia and temptation to do everything, everywhere, all the time. It is essential that policymakers avoid these temptations.

As discussed in The Prologue, it is my belief that “dynamic security prioritization” is essential to any workable 21st-century security framework. Dynamic security prioritization is more than pulling together a simple priority matrix, plotting the threats, and voilà, the priorities are identified. Instead, securitization actors prioritize their goals on the basis of their perceived needs, such as the protection of populations from invasion and violence, or how to mitigate environmental threats, taking into account the resources and capabilities available to address multiple threats. When specific threats are identified, they are assigned values that reflect the imminence of the threat and the scope of its impact.

This is a difficult process complicated by a variety of factors. Importantly, I am not attempting to provide a prescription to be followed like doctor’s orders. Instead, through the prism of the alternative energy megatrend, I offer a possible roadmap that could allow policymakers a way forward.

Security Prioritization Complications:

  • In a universally securitized world, different actors perceive the same security threats and the same mitigation mechanisms differently. This implies that securitization actions by one actor may prompt others to undertake their own steps based on the perceived need to protect vital interests or in response to pressing political considerations.
  • Past experiences, ideological, or political views limit the perspectives of actors. For example, France’s reliance on Belgium’s line of defense against Nazi Germany, the course of action practiced in previous years, turned out to be misled, and failed to prevent German troops from overrunning Belgium. 
  • Political imperatives and the vagaries of the election cycle constrain prioritization. As the megatrend demonstrates, a single factor, such as environmental degradation, can fit into different narratives and scenarios — military, economic, energy, and socio-political — making the process of prioritization particularly prone to politicization.

A path forward:

  • Calibrate clear metrics that integrate both local and global knowledge. Wide acceptance and adoption of such metrics is imperative for the formulation and quantification of threats, as well as measurement and assessment of power, capabilities, and resources to address them. Quantification starts with securitization actors’ determination of beneficial outcomes, with factors that endanger such outcomes designated as threats.
  • Develop the necessary terms of reference — valuation of security threats and desirability of securitization outcomes — that are broadly acceptable to a majority of actors and go beyond the notions of fixed space, community, and identity that governed the conduct of previous hegemons.
  • Develop concrete scenarios, grounded in specific sectors with material parameters and pressing concerns that are easy for society to understand. In order to assign priorities, these scenarios should include specific, commonly understandable, and acceptable values attached to different risks and securitization outcomes.
  • Maintain a balance that is not exclusively focused on a single security aspect while remembering that the different threats to state survival and dominance — economic, energy, environmental, and military — are often intertwined and mutually influencing. For example, the hope that alternative energy technologies could provide an answer to national energy security dilemmas can exist in complete separation from the promise that renewables could provide a tool to create new areas of growth and be a new source of employment for other (or even the same) actors.
  • Treat risks and mitigation mechanisms with a certain level of abstraction, often intentionally divorced from local context. One option to achieve this is minimizing insecurities by developing benchmarks for threats and their impacts that reflect both local and global considerations. This would entail formulating and assigning a commonly acceptable order of urgency to specific threats on specific securitization objects that are considered of vital interest and require protection.
  • Achieve a balance between urgency and necessity that underpin actors’ value judgments. Urgent issues require immediate reaction to prevent a pending undesirable outcome (i.e., the need to address a specific crisis rather than regular occurrences). Necessary issues have a longer time frame and are more goal-oriented; they represent benchmarks or elements that need to be achieved in order to arrive at a desired outcome. Therefore, prioritization needs to be guided by necessity, but retain sufficient flexibility to respond to urgent situations.
  • Take into account the inevitable mutual influence that these sectors have on one another and incorporate the likely and unanticipated side effects of specific policies on other sectors and securitization objects. 
  • Create a new approach to safety that integrates evolving societal needs and ideas of what represents desirable outcomes. More recent notions, such as that of human security, differ from the concept of safety that governments have been prepared to guarantee their populations, often requiring cross-border coordination to achieve them. The Covid-19 pandemic offers a stark example.
  • Develop an overarching security framework to channel approaches and practices in line with commonly acceptable security priorities. This framework would not need to take the form of a global government (and such a government may not be viable in practice), but it could emerge as a global governance structure that directs the focus of actors toward commonly held values.
  • Select a limited number of security sectors that correspond to the most pertinent issues on national security agendas. A common-sense avenue may be to select sectors, such as geopolitics, defense, energy, the economy, and the environment. These sectors address the urgency of security issues by factoring in both the likely sources of security threats — actors and nature — and the necessity of maximizing desirable outcomes in an interconnected world where no actor or event can be considered in isolation.

With new security threats emerging, meaningful securitization should focus on security domains and sectors that are actionable and correspond to the perceived vital interests of both securitization actors and securitization audiences. The megatrend is particularly poised to be further and better integrated in energy, defense, environmental, and economic security strategies. However, the alternative energy imprint on the future shape of these domains will be determined by the pace and scope of its expansion within the evolving energy mix and the actors’ ability to overcome some of the current alternative energy vulnerabilities.

Ultimately, securitization priorities will be based on managing the conflicts and global cooperative arrangements in which differing actors reach agreement on objects of shared immediacy and tangibility, and the mechanisms through which to securitize them. The historical irony is that most of these cooperative arrangements will be executed in the context of the Great Power Competition.