Paradigms lost

Background Papers

Trends in international security policy discourse after World War II

By Kjølv Egeland
29 September 2014

The international security environment is constantly evolving, and so is international security policy discourse. The argument put forward in this paper is twofold. With respect to the international security environment, traditional interstate conflict has been increasingly supplanted by internal and internationalised internal conflicts. In parallell, the international security policy discourse has moved from an exclusive focus on state security to include notions of human security. It thus covers a wider range of actors and issues than it did before. Moreover, old policy elements such as nuclear deterrence are largely absent from the current debate.

Background Paper No 11/2014 Published: September 2014

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The international security policy discourse is constantly evolving, and security policies seldom outlive their inventors. Technological developments, evolving norms, new threats, and changing alliances all affect the way in which wars are fought, and consequently how they are prepared for and prevented.

The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, I aim to identify some of the most important, general trends in the international security environment. I argue that today, this environment looks very different from what it looked like in 1945, or even 1990. The Cold War is over, terrorism is on the rise, new technology has replaced or supplemented old, and the fraction of internal and internationalized internal conflicts has increased at the expense of interstate war.

Second, I aim to identify the most marked trends in international security policy discourse, and how these correspond to the changing material environment. On the one hand, I argue that the discourse itself has widened. The international security policy discourse now includes notions of human security, and covers a wider range of actors and issues than it did before. On the other hand, I identify the life cycle of some of the most discussed security policy issues of the post-War period. While nuclear weapons and deterrence theory constituted a major topic of discussion during the Cold War, nuclear weapons are now remarkably absent from public debate.[1]

By ‘international security policy discourse’, I mean the ways in which states’ security policies are discussed and mediated in academic literature and on the international scene, i.a. at diplomatic meetings and through public statements by high-ranking officials.[2] Although discourse is often defined so as to encompass all communication, signs, and meanings, the term is used in a somewhat more restrictive manner in this article.

In addition to this introduction and a short conclusion, the paper is divided into two main bulks. In the first section, I examine how the security environment has changed. In the second section, In the second section, I will discuss some of the major trends in international security policy discourse, identifying how some perspectives and debates have received heightened attention in favour of others.

Conflict patterns and megatrends

I do not aim to explain the causal relationship(s) between policy and its material basis. Rather, a brief outline of trends in the material world is presented so that the reader is in a position to – at least on a general level – assess the fit or lack of such between the material and the ideal in international security thinking.


First, since the end of the Cold War, the number of internal wars has increased compared to the number of conventional interstate conflicts, both in absolute and – even more so – relative terms. The Norwegian Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) have collected data on all conflicts since 1946.[3] They differentiate between four types of warfare, distinguished by the formal status of the belligerent parties. First, ‘extra systemic wars’ occur between a colony and a colonial power. As more and more colonies gained independence, such wars disappeared during the 1970s. Second, ‘interstate armed conflicts’ cover traditional wars fought between two or more states. The First and Second World Wars are typical examples of such confrontations. Third, ‘internal conflicts’ are what we typically think of as civil wars, fought by a government against one or more armed opposition groups. Lastly, ‘internationalized internal conflicts’ are internal conflicts with involvement from one or more third party states. For example, the war in Afghanistan beginning in 2001 is coded as an internationalized internal conflict.[4]


The clear empirical trend is that the ‘traditional’ type of warfare – interstate conflict – is all but disappearing. This is evident from all the relevant indicators, such as the number of onsets of wars, the number of conflict-years associated with each type of war, and casualty figures. The number of internal and internationalized internal wars, however, has increased.[5]

Figure 1 shows the number of conflicts in the world per year, divided into the different types by colour. The overwhelming trend is that the real threats to stability today are internal and internationalized internal conflicts.[6] Due to the (most often) asymmetric relationship between the belligerents in conflicts involving a state and a non-state actor, extra-systemic, intrastate, and internationalized internal wars tend to be drawn out, so-called ‘irregular wars’ or ‘fourth generation wars’, dominated by guerrilla tactics and low scale skirmishes.[7] The ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, as well as the regional war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have all been predominantly irregular, and divide the bulk of the casualties between them. If such drawn-out insurgencies are indeed the main threat to peace and stability, for example by facilitating terrorism and extremism, one would expect security policies to have been changed accordingly.

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The conventional means and methods of security policy, like nuclear deterrence and strategic balancing, are not going to be as effective against contemporary threats as they may have been in the past. A counterargument to this would be to say that the fact that the number of interstate conflicts appears to be declining is a sign that nuclear deterrence works, and consequently that the retention on nuclear weapons is a good thing.[8] But this is not supported by the data. First, the rate of interstate conflicts has declined fairly gradually, but appears to have declined more rapidly around the year 1990, when the Cold War ended. 1990, however, was several decades after the most significant wave of nuclear proliferation (particularly if one counts the countries in nuclear alliances), which occurred during the early Cold War.[9] Second, there have been very few wars in the nuclear-free zones (e.g. Latin America and the Caribbean), suggesting that something other than nuclear weapons is responsible for the decline in interstate wars.[10]

Figure 2 shows the distribution of direct battle deaths across conflict type.[11] During the Cold War, the conflicts in Viet Nam and Korea resulted in the death of a large number of people. Thus, despite the skew toward internal conflicts also during the Cold War, a few very bloody interstate conflicts, such as Korea and Viet Nam, resulted in a high fraction of the death toll being written in interstate conflicts. We may thus say that while the probability of an interstate conflict was small, the risk was, and remains, large. After the Cold War, internal and internationalized conflicts, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have claimed a much larger portion of the overall number of battle related deaths.

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The last graph (Figure 3) depicts incidents of terrorism between 1970 and 2010.[12] While the incidents increased sharply in the 1970s and 80s, they started declining around 1990. Then, probably related at least in part to the Western military presence in the Middle East and Asia, the incidents grew rapidly from around 2004. With the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, terrorism quickly emerged as the greatest direct security threat to the West (at least as perceived by the major Western powers). Terrorist groups, however, operate under different constraints than states, suggesting that tackling terrorist threats requires new approaches.

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Another empirical trend is the phenomenal technological development that has taken place the last decades. Armed drones are now commonplace in modern militaries, and cyber capabilities are becoming increasingly important. Cheap information technologies and social media make it possible for violent non-state actors to coordinate strategies and recruit new members in ways that were not possible before.[13] The US intelligence agency CIA’s extensive use of drones in counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia is an interesting case in point: While modern technologies provide new ways of pursuing alleged terrorists, other technologies make certain terrorist networks possible in the very first place, for example through e-mail networks and social media.


In an attempt to predict future conflict patterns, military strategist David Kilcullen postulates that the ‘megatrends’ of urbanization, littoralization (the concentration of populations along coastlines), and connectedness will determine the conflict pattern of the future. Global warming and scarce resources are likely to produce irregular, urban conflicts in coastal cities between increasingly connected people, he argues. Even in low-income and ‘failed’ states, most people now have access to various networks by phone and Internet.[14] Future wars are unlikely to have stable spatial, or even temporal boundaries. Rather, battlefields will be dynamic, mutable, and immersed in populated areas. Again, this suggests that traditional security doctrines and tactics will have to be amended accordingly.

Another interesting trend is the fading away of the two centuries long trend of linking armed forces to national identity or nation building. According to Charles Tilly, compulsory military service and conscription was a central component in the evolution of the nation state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[15] But since the Second World War, countries such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Spain have all ended mandatory military service,[16] and countries such as Norway and Denmark are downsizing their armed forces significantly.[17] The implications of this are difficult to predict. Some have suggested that it could lead to an unhealthy detachment of the military from civilian society and democratic processes.[18]

Trends in international security policy


A first major trend in international security policy the last decades has been an increased emphasis on the security of individuals, communities, and societies, rather than just the security of nation states. The concept of human security arguably originates in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it was not until the mid 1990s that it gained traction in international politics and treaty making. The human security perspective is broader than traditional national security perspectives, highlighting how a wider range of threats, such as global warming, disease, poverty, and systemic human rights abuses endangers individuals worldwide. In contrast to traditional national security doctrines, the concept of human security is typically presented as somewhat blind to national boarders.[19]

The human security perspective itself is not an analytic framework or theory, but academic schools and theories sharing its fundamental worldview have evolved. The perspective lies at the basis of academic schools in a wide range of disciplines, such as development and environmental studies, international relations, human rights law, and feminist- and post-colonial approaches. Drawing upon the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1994 Human Development Report was a milestone in its conception of human security as ‘freedom from fear and freedom from want.’[20] The report triggered the establishment of official human security-programmes in several countries, including Japan, Canada, and Norway,[21] but more important than its institutional manifestations, human security offered an important change in perspective.

The increasing attention to human security may be seen as an extension of the horizontal and vertical deepening of international human rights ideology across large parts of the world,[22] and has also found expression through the emerging responsibility to protect (R2P). Although R2P does not provide an exception to the UN Charter Article 2(4)’s general prohibition on the use of force, it carries some political weight.[23] Since the end of the Cold War, humanitarian intervention has been a major topic of debate and contention. Most recently, NATO’s intervention in Libya was touted as a breakthrough for R2P, but the execution of the campaign has begged more questions than it answered.[24]

From the human security angle, individuals, not just nation states, are viewed as rights-bearers and actors on the international scene. The successful campaigns to ban anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions are by many taken as a victory for the human security approach.[25] By focusing on the security of individual people, not nation states, strong treaties protecting humanitarian principles were achieved. On the other hand, both Conventions were negotiated and adopted by states, and the future role of the state should not be underestimated. International treaty making is not a suicide club for states. National security is still the default perspective of most policy makers.

The broadening of the security perspective has also been evident in the nuclear weapons discourse. The so-called humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, manifested i.a. by a series of conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, has been successful in shifting the focus of the international community from national security and deterrence toward the actual humanitarian consequences the use of nuclear weapons would have.[26] The implicit message of the initiative is that any discussion of nuclear weapons and security should include questions of international development, response capacity, and environmental and climatic effects.


During the Cold War, nuclear deterrence and strategic balancing were among the core elements of most western countries security policies, either on their own accord or through their membership in a nuclear alliance.[27] Realists saw international relations as a zero sum game, in which any move implied a gain for one superpower and a corresponding loss for the other. The credibility of ‘extended nuclear deterrence’, by which one state attempts to deter potential enemies from attacking a third party by way of a ‘nuclear umbrella’, was a recurring subject of discussion.[28] Although its importance varied over time, extended deterrence remains an early Cold War relic in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military doctrine.[29]

One particular debate during the Cold War era concerned the scope of a nuclear attack or exchange. In North Atlantic defence thinking, the most commonly discussed scenario was a Soviet incursion into Central and Western Europe.[30] Some argued that if nuclear weapons were to be used in such an eventuality, NATO should take care to deliver a significant portion of its nuclear strike force immediately in order to destroy as much as possible of the enemy’s opportunity to deliver a retaliatory strike. Ensuring that a sufficient amount of nuclear warheads made it past the Soviets’ defence systems further mandated an overwhelming attack. Promising a ‘massive’ nuclear response was also seen as adding to the deterrence posture of its holder.[31] This maximalist view spawned NATO’s authoritative strategic plan for the period from 1954 to 1957, in which the anticipated scope of a nuclear war reached apocalyptic dimensions:

“[S]hould they [the Soviet Union] provoke a war involving NATO, it would be initiated by an atomic onslaught against which NATO would have to react in kind  […M]aximum destruction would occur within the first few days or weeks as both sides strove to exploit their accumulated atomic stockpiles to gain atomic superiority.”[32]

Kenneth Waltz, among others, opined that the ‘massive retaliation’ approach reflected ‘[d]ecades of fuzzy thinking in high places’.[33] According to Waltz, it would be

“preposterous to think that if a Soviet attack broke through NATO’s defenses, the United States would strike thousands of Soviet military targets […]. Doing so would serve no purpose.”[34]

Rather, NATO should pick a few well-chosen targets and indicate that ‘more would follow’.[35] Others were less persuaded by the merits of both nuclear weapons and deterrence theory. Recognizing the ‘appalling consequences of even the most limited use of nuclear weapons and the total impossibility for both sides of any guarantee against unlimited escalation’, several commentators suggested that the Western block should adopt a more defensive ‘no first use’ policy.[36] NATO has never gone that far, but in 1967 the doctrine of ‘massive retaliation’ was replaced by a more flexible approach. This was to a large extent a product of an acknowledgement that the former policy lacked too much in credibility to fulfil its purpose.[37] For example, it was seen as highly unlikely that the US would sacrifice New York or Chicago for the protection of, say, Kirkenes in Northern Norway, and, crucially, that the Soviets knew this. This, of course, implied that the Soviets could take Northern Norway without a reaction from NATO. The military utility of nuclear weapons was also increasingly questioned, and NATO eventually abandoned the idea of “winning” a Phyrric nuclear war.[38] Nuclear deterrence arguably regained some of its lost importance for a short time during the so-called Second Cold War (1979–85), but has since then become negligible in the Alliance’s deterrence posture.[39]

Behind the debates on nuclear deterrence lay the assumption that states and organizations of states were the most important actors, not only in providing security, but also in providing threats. These states were moreover assumed to be at least partially rational. If actors were not rational, and did not possess a territory and a population, nuclear deterrence logically would not work in the same way.[40]

Today, nuclear weapons are all but absent from the international security policy discourse.

Another debate concerned the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). According to some commentators, perhaps most notably professors David Garnha[41] and John Mearsheimer,[42] selective proliferation of nuclear weapons in Europe would foster peaceful coexistence between the European powers, and enable the United States to assume a freer role across the Atlantic. For most stakeholders, however, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which had been prohibited by the Non-Proliferation Treaty adopted in 1968, should be avoided at all costs.

Today, nuclear weapons are all but absent from the international security policy discourse. The end of the Cold War, new threats, strengthened humanitarian norms, and a reduced trust in the military utility of nuclear weapons brought much of the previous debate to a halt. At least two fundamental changes in the perception of the conflict environment were brought about by the terrorist attacks on 9/11 2001. First, the enemies of the West were not territorial states, but loosely organized non-state actors. Second, these actors were not rational in the sense postulated by traditional theories, and would thus not be receptive to deterrence in the same way.[43] According to Jeffrey Knopf, deterrence theory had to be substantially modified in order to survive, and has now entered a fourth phase:

“The most noteworthy new development in this literature is a trend toward no longer viewing deterrence exclusively in terms of nuclear or even conventional military means. The fourth wave is giving rise to a broader concept of deterrence that still includes but is not limited to threats of military retaliation”.[44]

Yet, nuclear weapons continue to exist, and, their proponents continue to attempt to frame them as political tools rather than actual weapons.[45] While nine countries still retain nuclear weapons, few of them are prepared to comment on how they intend to use them. The so-called humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons and the two multilateral conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons held in Oslo and Nayarit in 2013 and 2014 may be seen as an attempt at shifting the perspective on nuclear weapons from traditional national security to human security. This change in perspective has come to permeate most of the international security policy discourse, but has yet to produce meaningful results on the issue of nuclear weapons, perhaps the last bulwark of a crude national security perspective.


While the Napoleonic Wars were distinguished by mass mobilization, the so-called levée en masse,[46] the First World War saw the coming of total war (in which close to the whole population was mobilised in the war-effort) and mass firepower. According to T.X. Hammes, these were the first and second generations of modern warfare. The Germans introduced the third generation in the early phase of the Second World War: The Blitzkrieg was distinguished by the close interaction between different branches of the armed forces, high mobility, and speedy execution of operations. The Second World War did include irregular elements, but for the most part the conflict was a conventional one: The belligerents were primarily organized in states, and most of the fighting happened along front lines.[47] While the Korean (1950–53) and First Gulf Wars (1990–91) displayed similar patterns, conflicts such as the American and French experience in Indochina (1946–75), the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1979–89), the Rhodesian Bush War (1964–79), and the Malayan Emergency (1948–60) were of an entirely different nature. They were all vastly asymmetric with regards to the military capabilities of the belligerents, and were fought between states and non-state actors. Yet, in all of those conflicts, the seemingly weaker party was able to balance the conventional imbalance with unconventional tactics. The same pattern quickly evolved after the (initially) speedy invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). The insurgents were able to exploit their familiarity with the local culture and nature, their ability to immerse in local populations, and were not afraid to use irregular means, such as terrorist and guerrilla tactics.

By Hammes’ account, such ‘fourth generation warfare’ tactics had been developed by Mao Zedong during the Chinese Revolution, and was further developed by insurgents across the globe.[48] The idea behind fourth generation warfare is that while the complete vanquishing of the enemy may be sufficient in ending a war, it is by no means necessary. The key objective is to influence the political will of one’s enemy though a drawn-out, low-scale confrontation. The successful implementation of such tactics by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan forced a strategic reorientation for the US and NATO.  Conventional perspectives and tactics such as force multiplication, speedy movements in pursuit of decisive battles, and nuclear deterrence were exchanged for counterterrorism- and counterinsurgency perspectives.

So-called counterterrorism strategies are ‘enemy centric’, revolving around destroying enemy networks directly. Counterinsurgency, on the other hand, is ‘population centric’, focusing on isolating the insurgents from the population, and on addressing legitimate grievances. Counterinsurgency theories, which were really nothing new (having grown out of British colonial policing policy in the pre-War period[49]), has been popularly phrased as ‘winning hearts of minds’ in a ‘war amongst the people’.[50] And according to Hew Strachan, winning hearts and minds was never ‘about being nice to the natives, but about giving them the firm smack of government.’[51] The fact that conflicts are increasingly turning ‘irregular’ suggests that counterinsurgency and counterterrorism are only going to get more important.

The counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were scaled significantly up around 2007.[52] While opinions are divided on whether it was actually the counterinsurgency operation and ‘surge’ that were responsible for having (temporarily) turned the tide in Iraq in 2007,[53] the language and diagnosis of counterinsurgency took hold of the international security policy.[54] Talk of conventional warfare, nuclear deterrence, and the rationality of actors became less frequent, government policies revolving around “smart power” and “nation branding”.[55]

Technological and organizational developments the last decades have made possible new modes of communication and interoperability. The military implications of these ‘fundamental changes’ were theorized by US Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Gartska in an influential article in 1998. They argued that warfare was moving from a platform-centric to a network-centric phase.[56] While Cebrowski and Gartska may have been right that network-centric warfare ‘enables a shift from attrition-style warfare to a much faster and more effective warfighting style’, it has not resulted in ‘shorter and cleaner wars’. Cheap information technologies and bottom-up organizational structures have enabled non-state actors such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and most recently the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria to conduct successful attacks outside traditional battle spaces, the latter of which is increasingly becoming an anachronism. When terrorist and guerrilla tactics are employed, battle spaces and front lines loose their meaning.

According to US colonel T.X. Hammes, there is a clear need for fresh thinking in Western militaries. Maybe out of convenience, US military planners has kept to third generation warfare thinking, despite the fact that most of its adversaries on the battlefield are fourth generation warfare actors with 21st century technology.

David Kilcullen claims that the ‘traditional definitions of warfare need to be substantially rethought for modern conditions.’[57] Both the means of the 20th century – tanks, carriers, and nuclear weapons – and the methods – manoeuvrability, speed, and nuclear deterrence – are ill fitted to the actual conflict environment of the 21st century. On some level, they even constitute a liability. Nuclear weapons would be close to useless against a non-state actor like al-Qaeda, but in the hands of terrorists, they could potentially put the existence of great powers as we know them at stake.


The development of military cyber capabilities and increasing importance and availability of social media has brought new security issues to the forefront of the policy agenda. The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and al Qaeda were among the first to utilize social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook for propaganda purposes, a tactic that has now been mastered by the Islamic State (IS). Many of IS’ videos are aimed at recruiting sympathisers both locally and globally. Thousands of volunteers have allegedly travelled to Iraq and Syria from Europe.[58] As a response, on 24 September 2014, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a binding resolution obligating all UN members to draft and/or enforce legislation aimed at preventing people from traveling to IS-held areas.[59] Other parts of IS’ outreach strategy is aimed at scaring and intimidating whomever it views as its enemy. IS’ social media campaigns have provoked counter-campaigns notably from the US Department of Defense, which has released several competing videos attempting to delegitimize IS’ religio-moral platform, and to demonstrate the military might of the United States.[60] Battling for the legitimacy of a given actor is a core element of Joseph Nye’s concept of ‘smart power’, the idea that both hard (military) and soft (influence and co-optation) power must be utilized in order to achieve one’s desired security political aims.[61]

Cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism is another emerging topic. Many modern military platforms and equipment rely on some form of computer software and Internet connection. This is something that can be exploited and attacked by capable software engineers or ‘hackers’. Cyberwarfare entered public consciousness 2010, when it was disclosed that the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz had been infiltrated and attacked by the computer worm ‘Stuxnet’, a computer malware designed to damage Iran’s nuclear capability. Israel and the United States were allegedly behind the attack.[62] Iran, on its side, reportedly managed to bring down an American Sentinel drone hovering above its territory in 2011 by hacking it.[63] Although this in itself was no catastrophe, it led to fears that remotely controlled technology could be rendered useless by a technologically capable adversary. Today, most advanced military powers employ large teams of cyberwarfare specialists.


The ambiguous experience of the NATO forces in Afghanistan and the Coalition in Iraq led to an increased (though reluctant) attention to counterinsurgency strategy.[64] It became obvious that terrorism and insurgency is deeply entrenched in societies, and that the population as a whole must be engaged in order to deal with it. Countering such problems is only partly about kinetic action, and is difficult to achieve with a ‘light footprint’.[65]

While President Obama’s 2012 strategic guidance to the Defense Department identifies terrorism and irregular warfare as the foremost threat to the United States, it advises ‘innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches’.[66] The Secretary of Defense calls for ‘a Joint Force for the future that will be smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready, and technologically advanced. It will have cutting edge capabilities, exploiting our technological, joint and networked advantage.’[67] The US will no longer ‘conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.’[68] Evidently, policy-makers in the United States are bent on staying out of messy counterinsurgency operations, thus adhering to what has been labelled the ‘Cyberwar’ school of thought.[69] According to members of another school, ‘Netwar’, ‘policymaker’s preferences seem to have little effect on the frequency of overseas interventions.’[70] Thus, they should prepare for the wars they are likely to fight, not the ones they ‘want’ to fight. In 1961, US General McArthur allegedly relayed to President Kennedy that ‘[a]nyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined.’[71] The US Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed McArthur’s view in 2011, but the fact remains that while it may be possible to choose one’s battles, it is more difficult to choose one’s wars. Presidents Johnson, Clinton, and W. Bush all campaigned with messages against ‘nation-building’, yet ended up with nine nation-building operations between them.[72]

According to David Kilcullen, ‘the recent U.S. shift away from protracted stability operations toward conventional war, conflict prevention and military-to-military assistance, is somewhat unrealistic.’[73] The latest major US strategic concept, ‘Air–Sea Battle’ from 2011, clearly envisions a large-scale, high-tech war against China in the Pacific.[74] The concept is focused on kinetic action, intended as an aid in overcoming and countering ‘anti-access’ and ‘area denial’ (A2/AD) challenges in order to ‘disrupt, destroy, and defeat’ adversary networks. Room is also found for a ‘safe, secure, & effective nuclear deterrent.’[75] According to the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Benjamin Schreer, such an offensive strategy, including ‘deep penetration of Chinese territory to destroy and disrupt PLA command and control’, could ‘increase the risk of a disproportionate Chinese response, including nuclear escalation.’[76] Kilcullen holds that as even a war with China would ‘almost certainly take an irregular turn’, the return to conventional thinking about states, nuclear deterrence, and war comes close to wishful thinking.[77] It is a paradigm better left to the history books.

the fact remains that while it may be possible to choose one’s battles, it is more difficult to choose one’s wars.


The international security policy discourse has been in constant flux during the course of the post-War era. But with the end of the Cold War in 1991, and the “war on terror” that followed, it changed more rapidly. It gradually became evident that the main enemies of the West – at least as perceived by most western states – were not territorial states, but transnational terrorist networks and insurgents. The international security environment has changed from one in which nuclear-armed territorial states were the main protagonists, to one in which non-state actors are equally important, and ‘irregular’ conflicts are increasingly becoming the norm. Social media, cyber capabilities, and other technological developments have also impacted on the material conflict environment, offering terrorists new ways of furthering their cause and governments new ways of spying.

The traditional national security agenda of nuclear deterrence and a narrow focus on state capabilities has consequently become less prominent in the discourse. In its place, counterinsurgency strategies and so-called smart power have emerged as major topics of discussion. As it happened, US President George W. Bush’s premature proclamation of “mission accomplished” in Iraq in 2003 really turned out to be a eulogy of the traditional national security approach – or at least its application to fourth generation conflicts. The discourse surrounding the intervention in Iraq and Syria in 2014 has been very different from the one that surrounded the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Western powers appear to have realized that fourth generation conflicts are not so much about defeating the enemy on the battlefield as they are about legitimacy and governance.

A major change in the international security policy discourse was brought about by the conceptual reorientation offered by the human security approach, marking its emergence into actual policy with the adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997 and the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008. The human security perspective has built a bridge between formerly more stringently defined and enclosed international agenda items such as security and disarmament, international development, global warming, and protection of human rights. In that sense, the human security perspective has significantly widened the international security policy discourse.

The ongoing activities of insurgent and terrorist groups such as IS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, have underlined that non-state actors continue to provide a threat to international peace and security, at least as actual, warm conflicts go. Armed violence, regional insurgencies and terrorism threaten people directly, but also indirectly by reducing access to global commons, impeding opportunities to trade and manoeuvre, and by putting regional and global stability at risk. Nuclear weapons are ill suited to deal with these realities, but although the issue of nuclear weapons has moved to the periphery of the international discourse, a reliance on nuclear weapons is maintained in key states’ security doctrines. In order to achieve the greatest possible security for their citizens, states could probably do more to adjust their military and diplomatic capabilities to the threats they are actually facing, rather than succumbing to institutional convenience.


[1]        Not least given the fact that there are still more than 16000 nuclear weapons in the world. See Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), ‘Nuclear Forces’, (accessed 29 September 2014).

[2]       Policies and discourse pertaining to ‘armed violence’, i.e. internal violence falling short of the common definitions of armed conflict, falls beyond the scope of this article.

[3]       The quantitative data used in this paper is adapted from the PRIO/UPSALA ‘UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset’ and ‘Battle Deaths Data’ datasets. They are available at (accessed 15 April 2014).

[4]       In international humanitarian law (IHL), the distinction between international armed conflicts (IACs) and non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) is the most important. While the former are governed by Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, the latter are governed by Additional Protocol II.

[5]       See the Human Security Report Project, ‘Comprehensive Study Finds Incidence of Terrorism Declining Around the World’, (accessed 2 July 2014).

[6]       See ETH Zürich, ‘Peace and Conflict’, (accessed 2 July 2014).

[7]       Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2004.

[8]       See for example Kenneth Waltz, ‘The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better’, Adelphi Papers, no. 171, London: International Institute of Strategic Studies, 1981.

[9]       The United States got nuclear weapons in 1945, the Soviet Union/Russia in 1949, the United Kindgdom in 1952, France in 1960, China in 1964, India in 1974, Israel probably in 1979, Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea in 2009.

[10]      See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, New York, NY: Viking, 2011, pp. 268–78 for a persuasive case against the ‘nuclear peace theory’. This is not to say that nuclear weapons could not bolster a country’s deterrence posture. Given the scope and aim of this paper, a full discussion of nuclear deterrence will not be included here. Suffice to say that nuclear deterrence is very difficult to test empirically.

[11]       See the Human Security Report Project, ‘Comprehensive Study Finds Incidence of Terrorism Declining Around the World’, (accessed 28 August 2014).

[12]      See National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), Global Terrorism Database, (accessed 02.07.2014).

[13]      Shiv Malik and Michael Safi, ‘Revealed: The Radical Clerics Using Social Media to Back British Jihadists in Syria’, The Guardian, 15 April 2014, (accessed 17 April 2014).

[14]      David Kilcullen, ‘The City as a System: Future Conflict and Urban Resilience’, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 36 (2), 2012: 19–39, pp. 28–9.

[15]      Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992, Oxford: Blackwell, 2010, pp. 83, 115–6.

[16]      See BBC, ‘France Salutes End of Military Service’, 29 November 200’, (accessed 16 April 2014); ABC, ‘Final Conscripts Join German Army’, 4 January 2011, (accessed 16 April 2014); Imperial War Museum, ‘What was National Service?’, (accessed 16 April 2014); SVT, ‘Värnplikten avskaffas’, 16 June 2009, (accessed 16.04.2014); Elmundo, ‘Federico Trillo: “Señoras y Señores, se Scaba la Mili”’, 11 March 2001, (accessed 16 April 2014); Telegraph, ‘Poland Ends Army Conscription’, 5 August 2008, (accessed 16 April 2014).

[17]      Politiken, ‘Danmark får færre værnepliktige – kasernelukninger udskydes’, 30 November 2012,—kasernelukninger-udskydes/ (accessed 16 April 2014); NRK, ‘Forskere vil avvikle førstegangstjenesten’, 19 September 2012, (accessed 16 April 2014).

[18]      Ralph G. Higgins III, ‘The Great American Divide: The Military–Civilian Gap’, United States Army War College, 2012.

[19]      See for example Javier Alcalde, ‘Human Security and Disarmament Treaties: The Role of International Campaigns’, Global Policy 5 (2), 2014: 235–41.

[20]     United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), ‘Human Development Report 1994’, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 24.

[21]      Rita Floyd, ‘Human Security and the Copenhagen School’s Securitization Approach: Conceptualizing Human Security as a Securitizing Move’, Human Security Journal 5, winter 2007: 38–49, p. 39.

[22]      Some would see this as product of a gradual de-legitimization of certain communitarian perspectives particularly following the end of the Cold War, and consequent ‘victory’ of the liberal agenda (See e.g. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York, Free Press, 1992). Others would see it as a natural culmination of a ‘reasonable political will-formation’ (Jürgen Habermas and W. Rehg, ‘Remarks on Legitimation Through Human Rights’, Philosophy & Social Criticism 24 (2–3), 1998).

[23]      See for example Orchard Phil, ‘The Evolution of the Responsibility to Protect: At a Crossroads?’, International Affairs 88(2), 2012: 377–86.

[24]      See Alan J. Kuperman, ‘A Model Humanitarian Intervention?: Reassessing NATO’s Libya Campaign’, International Security 38 (1), 2013: 105–36.

[25]      E.g. Kenneth Epps, ‘The Ottawa Landmines Treaty: A Major Step Toward Human Security’, The Ploughshares Monitor 29 (1), 2008.

[26]      See International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI), ‘The Humanitarian Initiative at a Glance’, Nuclear Weapons Project, Policy Paper 6, February 2014, (accessed 15 April 2014); Gro Nystuen, ‘Historical Origins of the Humanitarian Discourse’, International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI), Nuclear Weapons Project, Panel Presentation in Nayrit, Mexico, 14 February 2014, (accessed 15 April 2014).

[27]      NATO is the only surviving alliance out of the four major security alliances of the post-War. The Warsaw Pact (the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe), SEATO (Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States), and CENTO (Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom) are now on the scrapyard of history.

[28]      See for example Ivo H. Daalder and J. Kominsky ‘Extending Deterrence With… What?’, International Security 10 (4), 1986: 201–07.

[29]      See NATO, ‘North Atlantic Military Committee Decision on MC 48: A Report by the Military Committee on the Most Effective Pattern of NATO Military Strength the Next Few Years’, 22 November 1954, (accessed 14 April 2014) (hereafter MC 48); NATO, ‘North Atlantic Military Committee Decision on MC 14/1, A Report by the Standing Group on Strategic Guidance’, 9 December 1952, (accessed 14 April 2014), (hereafter MC 14/1); NATO, ‘Final Decision on MC 14/2 (Revised): A Report by the Military Committee on Overall Strategic Concept for the Defense of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Area’, 23. May 1957, (accessed 14 April 2014), (hereafter MC 14/2); NATO, ‘Final Decision on MC 14/3: A Report by the Military Committee on Overall Strategic Concept for the Defense of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Area, 16 January 1968, (accessed 14 April 2014), (hereafter MC 14/3).

[30]     E.g. NATO, ‘MC 14/1’, 1952, p. 9.

[31]      Ivo H. Daalder and Jay Kominsky ‘Extending Deterrence With… What?’, International Security 10 (4), 1986: 201–07, p. 202.

[32]      NATO, ‘MC 48’, p. 4.

[33]      Kenneth Waltz, ‘Nuclear Myths and Political Realities’, American Political Science Review 84 (3), 1990: 731–45, p. 731.

[34]      Kenneth Waltz, ‘Nuclear Myths and Political Realities’, American Political Science Review 84 (3), 1990: 731–45, p. 733.

[35]      Kenneth Waltz, ‘Nuclear Myths and Political Realities’, American Political Science Review 84 (3), 1990: 731–45, p. 733.

[36]      McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith, ‘Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance’, Foreign Affairs 60 (4), 1982: 753–68; Robert S. McNamara, ‘The Military Role of Nuclear Weapons: Perceptions and Misperceptions’, Foreign Affairs 25 (6), 1983: 59–80.

[37]      Beatrice Heuser, ‘The Development of NATO’s Nuclear Strategy’, Contemporary European History 4 (1), 1995: 37–66, p. 44–47.

[38]      NATO, ‘MC 48’; NATO, ‘MC 14/2’. See Beatrice Heuser, ‘Victory in a Nuclear War? A Comparison of NATO and WTO War Aims and Strategies’, Contemporary European History 7 (3), 1998: 311–27, p. 326. Ronald Reagan allegedly believed that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union would bring on the Armageddon and second coming of Christ. For example, Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalist Christian leaders were invited to national security meetings. See e.g. Edward Johnson, ‘Prophesy and Politics: Militant Evangelists on the Road to Nuclear War’, Institute for Historical Review, (accessed 16 June 2014).

[39]      NATO’s Strategic Concept from 2010 is silent on matters of the operational use of nuclear weapons. The only comment made in it is that NATO is committed to ‘the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons – but reconfirms that, as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.’ See NATO, ‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’, 2010, p. 5.

[40]     Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Gartska, ‘Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origins and Future’, Proceedings Magazine 124 (1), US Naval Institute, 1998.

[41]      David Garnham, ‘Extending Deterrence with German Nuclear Weapons’, International Security 10 (1), 1985: 96–110.

[42]      John J. Mearsheimer, ‘The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrence’, Foreign Affairs 72 (3), 1993: 50–66.

[43]      There is an expanding literature on how terrorists might be deterred. Many of these theories focus on punishing host states and communities or on “deterrence by denial”, e.g. by lowering terrorists’ expected success rate by introducing protective measures. See e.g. Jerry M. Long and Alex S. Wilner, ‘Delegitimizing al-Qaida: Defeating and “Army Whose Men Love Death”’, International Security 39 (1), 2014: 126–64; Paul Viotti, Michael Opheim and Nicholas Bowen (eds), Terrorism and Homeland Security, Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2008; Andreas Wenger and Alex Wilner (eds), Deterring Terrorism, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. The empirical testing of these theories have, however, is lagging behind.

[44]      Jeffrey W. Knopf, ‘The Fourth Wave in Deterrence Research’, Contemporary Security Policy 31 (1), 2010: 1–33, p. 2.

[45]      See e.g. French Ministry of Defence, ‘French White Paper: Defence and National Security’, 2013, p. 37.

[46]      Note that levée en masse has a different meaning in contemporary international law. See for example International committee of the Red Cross, ‘Rule 5. Definition of Civilians’, Customary IHL, (accessed 27 September 2014).

[47]      The Second World War also broke with the Napoleonic Wars and First World War in that a much larger proportion of the battle related casualties were civilians.

[48]      Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2004, pp. 2–5.

[49]      See Georgina Sinclair, At the End of the Line, Manchester University Press, 2010.

[50]     Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. London: Penguin Books, 2005, p. 278. See David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Oxford University Press, 2009.

[51]      David French, The British Way in Counter-Insurgency, 1945–1967, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 5.

[52]      2007 was the year US General Patreus took over command of the campaign in Iraq. He had David Kilcullen as one of his closest advisors.

[53]      A plausible case has been made that it was the shi’ite’s ethnic cleansing of sunnis that (temporarily) put the insurgency down. See e.g. Juan Cole, Engaging the Muslim World, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

[54]      David H. Ucko and Robert Egnell, Counterinsurgency in Crisis, New York, Columbia University Press, 2013, p. 7–10.

[55]      Pauline H. Cheong and Chris Lundry, ‘Prosumption, Transmediation, and Resitance: Terrorism and Man-Hunting in Southeast Asia’, American Behavioral Scientist 56 (4), 2012: 488–510, Joseph S. Nye, The Powers to Lead, Oxford University Press, 2007.

[56]      Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Gartska, ‘Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origins and Future’, Proceedings Magazine 124 (1), US Naval Institute, 1998.

[57]      David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 263.

[58]      BBC, ‘Islamic State Crisis: “More than 3000 Europeans Join IS’, 26 September 2014, (accessed 26 September 2014).

[59]      David Usborne, ‘UN Security Council Passes Resolution Restricting Movement of Foreign Fighters Intent on Joining Isis’, The Independent, 25 September 2014, (25 September 2014).

[60]     Ben Makuch, ‘The US Brought Its Islamic State Bombing to Social Media’, Motherboard, 23 September 2014, (accessed 25 September 2014). Another response to terrorist web-activities and fluid networks that has been implemented by some governments has ben big data gathering and extensive surveillance programmes of their own, and indeed foreign, nationals. I acknowledge that this is an important topic, but this will not be discussed at length here.

[61]      Joseph S. Nye, The Powers to Lead, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. ix, 31; Richard L. Armitage and Joseph S. Nye (chairs), ‘CSIS Commission on Smart Power: A Smarter More Secure America’, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2007, p. 7.

[62]      Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick, ‘Stuxnet Was Work of US and Israeli Experts, Officials Say’, The Washington Post, 2 June 2012, (accessed 25 September 2014).

[63]      CNN, ‘Obama Says US Has Asked Iran to Return Drone Aircraft’, 13 December 2011, (accessed 25 September 2014).

[64]      President George W. Bush famously opposed ‘nation building’ in his campaign, stressing that ‘I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation building.’ See the Second Gore–Bush Presidential Debate, 11 October 2000, (accessed 15 April 2014). See also David Kilcullen, ‘The City as a System: Future Conflict and Urban Resilience’, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 36 (2), 2012: 19–39, p. 21; David H. Ucko and Robert Egnell, Counterinsurgency in Crisis, New York, Columbia University Press, 2013, p. 38.

[65]      David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 6–7.

[66]      Department of Defense, ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century’, January 2012.

[67]      Department of Defense, ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century’, January 2012.

[68]      Department of Defense, ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century’, January 2012, p. 6. The guidance states that the US will no longer maintain a force sized to counterinsurgency, which, in effect, amounts to claiming that such operations will not be conducted. The policy-change is most likely induced more by economic austerity measures than by strategic theory and facts.

[69]      Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2004, p. 5.

[70]     David Kilcullen, ‘The City as a System: Future Conflict and Urban Resilience’, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 36 (2), 2012: 19–39, p. 34.

[71]      James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable,  New York: Touchstone, 2008, p. 102.

[72]      David Kilcullen, ‘The City as a System: Future Conflict and Urban Resilience’, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 36 (2), 2012: 19–39, p. 21.

[73]      David Kilcullen, ‘The City as a System: Future Conflict and Urban Resilience’, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 36 (2), 2012: 19–39, p. 34.

[74]      See Ty Cobb, ‘Good-Bye Counter-Insurgency; Hello Air–Sea Battle’, Harvard National Security Journal, Online Feature, 29 November 2011, (accessed 15 April 2014).

[75]      Air–Sea Battle Office, ‘Air–Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti–Access & Area Denial Challenges’, May 2013.

[76]      Benjamin Schreer, ‘Planning the Unthinkable War: ‘AirSea Battle’ and its Implications for Australia’, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), April 2013, p. 6.

[77]      David Kilcullen, ‘The City as a System: Future Conflict and Urban Resilience’, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 36 (2), 2012: 19–39, p. 31.