What is National Security?

December 10, 2013

The ongoing Snowden-Greenwald leaks have brought numerous policy fissures out into the open.  Though generalized rage (on both sides) often obscures these fissures, they raise some interesting questions.

One that has repeatedly struck me is a disagreement over what “national security” is and what falls under that rubric.  Both the Snowden-Greenwald lovers and haters seem to agree that it includes protection from terrorists and I infer that they would agree that it includes protection against military threats.  Hence, secret intelligence collection against such topics is legitimate in principle, though governments may abuse it.  (Of course, there is a related debate over where the line between legitimate collection and abusive collective lies.)

There is sharp divergence, however, on the question of whether economic issues fall under the rubric of national security.  Most recently, the story that the Swedish signals intelligence agency had been collecting information on the Russian energy sector as part of a cooperative relationship with the NSA illustrates this debate.  (See also here.)  In connection with this story, Greenwald told reporters that American and Swedish intelligence “work together when they perceive that their interests are mutually aligned and share information readily about a whole variety of topics, again having nothing to do with national security, including the energy sector in Russia.”  He went on to say that “part of what they are doing is spying on energy companies, obviously for economic advantage.”  Greenwald is not the only one who has expressed this view. This fall when word came out that the NSA had collected intelligence on France—including on French business interests—French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault complained that it was appalling that the United States “goes as far as spying on private communications that have no strategic justification, no justification on the basis of national defense.”  (Please ignore the irony in the PM’s comments.)

The implication is that economic security is separate from national security and thus intelligence collection in pursuit of economic security is illegitimate.  Note that despite the sometime loose use of language, the issue at hand is not “industrial espionage,” which Investopedia defines as “the theft of trade secrets by the removal, copying or recording of confidential or valuable information in a company for use by a competitor.”

Despite the work of sloppy headline writers and bloviators who don’t know what they are talking about, nobody has ever offered the slightest shred of evidence that the U.S. government has ever (for instance) spied on Gazprom to give its latest pump technology to Chevron.  Rather, the issue is whether governments should be able to secretly collect information to inform their economic policy decision-making.

The Greenwald-Ayrault view of “national security”—that it pertains only to preventing armed people from inflicting violent death upon us and little else—is very odd and actually rather militarist in its implications.  It seems to suggest that economics is only about enriching fat cats and that security can be obtained or threatened only through force or the threat of force.  On the contrary, however, we all have a stake in economics and there are good reasons why conceptions of security, including national security, should definitely include economic issues.

First, energy can be used as a weapon in international power politics.  For instance, Russia’s essentially monopoly position in natural gas, vis-à-vis Ukraine, is obviously a national security issue from the point of view of many people in the latter country.  Right now, Ukraine’s future as a part of Europe hangs in the balance in large part because Russia is brandishing the energy weapon.  During an earlier round of the dispute, 19 European countries found their access to Russian gas reduced or cut off in the middle of a January 2009 cold snap.

Second, economic power can be used to substitute for, augment, or enable the use of military power in all sorts of circumstances.  The most obvious example is in the field of sanctions.  Unless one wishes to impose sweeping sanctions on a country by embargoing everything—an approach that doesn’t seem to work very well, even aside from its dubious moral status—one has to have intelligence about that country’s economy.  In addition, it is almost certainly correct to say that every interstate war since World War I (if not since the Industrial Revolution itself) has had an economic component.  Consider British economic warfare during the early part of World War I and the blockade of Germany for the rest of the war.  Consider the bombing campaigns of World War II, the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, not to mention the Tanker War of the Iran-Iraq War, and the sanctions that the West imposed on the East Bloc during the Cold War.  Finally, of course, it takes wealth to be able to mount a military defense (or, for that matter, attack someone else).  By that standard alone, the policies that create the wealth are national security issues.

So adoption of the Greenwald-Ayrault standard that economic issues cannot be legitimate subjects of secret intelligence collection means that countries would be severely restricted in their abilities to know when they were at risk of economic bullying or how to take countermeasures to prevent or stop it.  It would also mean that countries would have a reduced ability to defend themselves militarily.  When actually engaged in wars, instead of fighting smarter, they would have to fight dumber, harder, and longer with all the horrifying costs that would ensue.

Finally, it is worth noting that there is another conception of security, one whose proponents see it as coexisting alongside national security.  This is the concept of “human security.”  The 1994 UN Human Development Report introduced this idea that we should be concerned not merely about the security of states, but of individuals.  Over the last two decades, the idea of human security has gained a great deal of traction, especially in Europe.  In the UN vision, securing individuals implied a number of different things, but among them were economic security, food security, health security and environmental security.  All of these have obvious potential connections to the collection of economic intelligence.  Consider the environmental and health implications of the oil business.  Or, consider the fact that unemployment is positively correlated with suicide.  Would human security justify the gathering of secret intelligence pertaining to economics in the eyes of Greenwald and Ayrault?  I wonder if the question ever occurred to them.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore