One wonders what sort of reception British security analyst Chris Abbott will receive when he stands up in front of an Australian Federal Police conference next week to espouse his provocative thesis on national security.
Abbott's beliefs fall well outside the mainstream of national security debate in this country. But with the war against Islamist terrorists in trouble on many levels, AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty has invited Abbott to Australia, believing his alternative views are worth hearing.
The central premise of Abbott, a researcher with independent British think tank the Oxford Research Group, is that terrorism is not the greatest threat to world security and that it is distracting the West from other, much greater, threats to security. These include climate change, competition for scarce resources, marginalised populations and the trend towards militarisation.
He advocates talking with terrorists, reducing use of fossil fuels, quitting Iraq and adopting fresh, non-military, long-term strategies to help improve global security. "We are looking at a very unstable global system by the middle of the century unless something is done quickly," Abbott tells Inquirer. Abbott is program co-coordinator with the Oxford group specialising in global security research. He was previously a campaigner and researcher on a range of social and environmental issues.
He argues that the war on terror has been too reactive and that the West has failed to tackle sufficiently the issue of why present terrorism happens. "We are trying to propose a new system, which focuses on preventative rather than reactive policies and addresses some of the root causes of terrorism." This includes "addressing legitimate political grievances and aspirations of marginal groups" and, controversially, "dialogue with terrorist leaderships".
Abbott is aware that such proposals are a challenge to mainstream thinking on national security that say you must never talk with terrorist leaders lest you be seen to legitimise their anarchic, violent crusade. "We are sometimes wrongly accused of being apologists, but if you want to stop terrorism you have to understand it in order to help prevent it" he says. "We are not saying that terrorism is caused by foreign policy but we are saying some foreign polices are exacerbating it."
Abbott, co-author of a recent Oxford Research Group study, Beyond Terror: The Truth about the Real Threats to the World argues that since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, the West including Australia, has relied too heavily on military force as a means of combating terrorism. He says the failure of securing peace in Iraq and the revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan offer proof that the military-led approach to combating global terror is failing.
But his solutions are vague and necessarily long-term. He calls on Western governments to combat the problem of marginalisation of Muslims, including income inequality and political exclusion. "Policies will need to go beyond traditional methods of counter-terrorism to incorporate a wide range of conflict prevention and resolution methods," he says. But what about research, such as that by US author Robert Pape, showing many suicide bombers are well-educated, middle-class men with many opportunities and options? "We are not talking only about economic marginalisation," Abbott says. "The link between poverty and terrorism is tenuous at best. We are talking about political and social marginalisation." It is Abbott's research on climate change that is believed to have attracted Keelty's attention.
Abbott's Oxford Research Group study found that climate change threatens to have more profound security implications than is commonly believed. "Climate change will result in the displacement of peoples, severe natural disasters and food shortages, leading to much higher levels of migration, increased human suffering and greater social unrest," the study says. "This has long-term security implications for all countries, which are far more serious, lasting and destructive than those of international terrorism."
Keelty does not disagree. In a provocative speech given in Adelaide in late September, the AFP chief described climate change as "the security issue of the 21st century" and one that could create climate refugees "in their millions". Law enforcement agencies would struggle to cope with global warming's "potential to wreak havoc, cause more deaths and pose national security issues like we've never seen before", Keelty said. His comments were played down by Prime Minister John Howard, who said terrorism remained the biggest threat.
"Terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism are far more immediate threats to Australia than the mass movement of people from China as a result of water shortage," Howard said. "But I don't think it's a question of an either-or." Yet Abbott does think, to some, extent it is a question of either-or. He believes the focus on military responses to terrorism has blinded governments to the need for long-term, alternative, non-military solutions and that time is running out. "Unless urgent, coordinated action is taken in the next five to 10 years on all these issues, it will become almost impossible to avoid the earth becoming a highly unstable place by the middle years of this century," he says.
Abbott's study says the present militaristic approach to fighting terror in Iraq and Afghanistan has increased, rather than decreased, the likelihood of terror attacks. Rather than try to fight extremists in their homelands, Abbott advocates a coordinated assault on terrorism funding to rob groups such as al Qa'ida of the ability to carry out big attacks. He proposes a new system of "sustainable security" as a means of tackling what he sees as the four main security threats.
To ease competition over scarce resources, especially oil, Abbott says there needs to be greater energy efficiency, recycling, resource management and large-scale funding for alternatives to oil. On climate change he calls for carbon taxes and the rapid replacement of carbon-based energy sources with local renewable resources. On the issue of marginalisation his remedies are similar to those of"', anti-poverty campaigners such as Bono: reform global systems of aid, trade and debt relief, and make poverty a world priority.
With militarisation, Abbott calls for greater disarmament and bans on the development of nuclear and bio weapons. They are ideas that traditionally have been championed by the Left, but they will be dismissed by conservatives as unrealistic, unworkable and, in some cases, such as talking with terrorists, counterproductive. South African archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu says.
The group's study is useful as a means of refocusing the security debate. "It penetrates beneath the surface of the "debate in the West over its security to demonstrate that the real threat to global peace and stability lies in our 'failure to recognise our interference, that the wellbeing of the privileged depends on the well-being of the marginalised."
Chris Abbott will speak at the AFP conference International Policing Toward 2020 in Canberra, which runs next Monday to Wednesday.
I don't agree with everything Abbott says, but his ideas are refreshing and they open up the debate.