The Understanding of Threat

Germany needs a debate over a new security strategy. However, it seems as though a debate over strategy precludes discussion over the understanding of threat itself. What becomes clear is that a heightened interest in and the sheer diversity of opinions on security issues at the national as well as international level, challenge accepted notions of society and how we secure it. Can Europe live up to its ideals? By Christian Miess

Strategies are generally legitimized through the presentation of some ‘greater good’ that they serve. After World War II, the project of building a new, political Europe, as the centerpiece of the prevention of further wars served as just such a ‘greater good’. So, what is the ‘greater good’ today? Spreading Democracy? Protecting economic interests, as Horst Köhler put it? Or are Germans and others merely caught up in entangling alliances?

As in many European countries the commitment in Afghanistan is at the heart of the debate in Germany. Amidst the confusion, one point of clarity stands out: Calling Germany’s most controversial military engagement a ‘development’ effort in public debate does not help. Rather, in order to understand what our mission is, we first have to clarify the common understanding of security. This is in turn reliant on fundamentally challenging our understanding of threat in a simultaneously fragmenting and globalizing world.

Have Germans lost sight of what security really means?

Security is and has always been at the core of European integration. It was against the backdrop of the unspeakable terror and destruction of World War II that Western Europe united. A particular notion of “security” was achieved over years via regular communication and the opening of domestic affairs to what had previously been seen as domestic issues. Strengthening cross-border democratic processes was a key pillar of this strategy. Admittedly, the pre-conditions, the theoretical underpinnings, or simply the basis on which we discuss this topic today, are not the same as 60 years ago. But losing the European perspective by focusing on the debate over a specific “German” strategy, as other authors in this collection of essays suggest, is short sighted.

Looking back at the end of World War II and the period of ‘stability’ that followed, albeit under the specter of MAD in the Cold War, it is clear that such conditions – even if they were not so secure for people everywhere – did not simply arrive overnight. Europeans had to learn how to come to terms with the new situation, and opinions at the time were volatile and fragile as findings by Italian political scientists show: “Changes, particularly abrupt changes, were much more frequent at the beginning of a new cycle of world politics when the distribution of power was still unclear, the rules of the post-World War II system were not well comprehended, and uncertainty about the intentions of allies and adversaries was high. We could talk of a ‘learning process’ for public opinion.”

New learning processes

These learning processes were founded on the fundamental belief that Western Europeans did “the right thing” so that old foes could re-approach. The process of rebuilding Western Europe and of preventing further wars also resulted in a common perception of threats and indeed of security itself. Today, these events are merely a well remembered shadow of themselves, eclipsed by the current problems of disintegrating and evolving political systems in a global crisis. Even though most European nations found peace within Europe, today many governments find themselves at a critical juncture in history yet again.

It is actually the lack of common long-term goals for Europe and Europeans in world politics, which poses the crucial problem that silently manifested itself in the debate over the Afghanistan war in Germany. However, I argue that the discussion over security policy has the ability to once again become the core of European integration once again. A driving force for such a debate can be found in EU-citizens who left their home country to live in another member state. By definition these citizens have more perspectives on Europe at their disposal. The EU invested a lot of money in cross-border mobility. To cash in on these positive developments, we must refrain from walking on the trodden paths of national debates and integrate all citizens’ views on issues such as security. Considering that, limiting the discussion of a new security strategy to Germany makes no sense at all.

What’s next in security policy?

As professor Masala pointed out, in the case of Afghanistan, people in Germany (and certainly also in Europe) do not feel directly threatened by war anymore. But do we want to leave the debate about ‘new threats’ to the Sarkozys, Wilders and Sarrazins in Europe? Certainly not! To this end, I can only support the idea of Roderich Kiesewetter to open and live up the debate and I applaud him for engaging in this debate via online media. However, I strongly reject his elitist views and solutions to the missing debate on security within the general public. His Christian conservative view on how to build up a better understanding of security and build up a National Security Council fails to secure a wider discussion of the topic in all respects.

To make it clear once again, public discussion over what society defines as a threat does not take place behind closed doors. We do not need a PR-strategy for policy advisers, as Kiesewetter suggests. For defining a strategy that is something different and this should be left to experts. They should deal with the ‘how’, once the ‘what for’ has already been determined. Indeed, this means that we simply cannot afford the luxury of oversimplification in national debates, anymore. Heightened interest in the issue should therefore be a catalyst for politicians to engage in further discussion with their constituents – and this is only the beginning!

Put the “I” back in ISAF

Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are on the agenda of many European countries. Experts demand more discussion in these issues due to a lacking long-time perspective as well as support for the mission. Admittedly, the European political perspective is complex, as many reports on the radio or in newspapers suggest.

One way of entering European public debate opens up with new media. Some sites seem promising, such as or Interest in the issue is growing – transnationally. A purely German debate deprives us of important thoughts of solutions for political and military problems alike. Thus, such a debate would eventually alienate Germany from its international partners. Whoever enters the discussion over a new security strategy for Afghanistan needs to put the “I” back into ISAF.

Let me close this call for argument by referring to Gabriel Almond who, back in 1956, spoke of this problem in a way that from today’s perspective can only be described as remarkably farsighted: “The model of the future toward which we ought to strive is one in which basic military and security issues can be thrashed out in a lively public discussion, with alternative points of view presented before an interested and informed audience. It is only in this way that the strengths of a democratic political process – the interplay of free minds – can be introduced into the making of security policy. Without it, we are as vulnerable in the policy-making sphere, as the lack of an essential weapons system might make us in the military sphere.”

More articles from the dossier Deutsche Strategiefähigkeit im 21. Jahrhundert at /

Further readings:

Isernia, Pierangelo/Juhász, Zoltán/Rattinger, Hans (2002): Foreign Policy and the Rational Public in Comparative Perspective. In Journal of Conflict Resolution. Vol.46, No. 2, pp. 201-224.

Almond, Gabriel A. (1956): Public Opinion and National Security Policy. In The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 371-378.

The pictures are subject to the copyright of William M. Connolly/Creative Commons (London protests), European Parliament/Creative Commons (European Parliament) and isafmedia/Creative Commons (soldiers in tank).

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