Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:07 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:07 | SYDNEY

Terrorism and strategy


Hugh White

25 March 2008 08:30

Sam has attempted to reconcile my view that terrorism should not be seen as a strategic threat and Mr Rudd’s view that it should. He argues that terrorism becomes strategic when it becomes nuclear-armed. For me that still doesn’t work. I think nuclear terrorism is a very dangerous problem and I’m less confident than Sam that terrorists won’t get hold of nukes – especially out of Pakistan. But I still don’t think nuclear terrorism is a ‘strategic’ threat. Let’s not kid ourselves — this is an argument about words, but words matter, because they shape what we think and what we do in insidious ways. So to make progress we have to dig a bit deeper and ask what the words mean, and why the debate matters: what does it mean to say that terrorism is ‘strategic’? 

There seem to me to be only two possibilities. One is that strategic just means ‘very very serious’. In this sense, I would gladly concede that nuclear terrorism is ‘strategic’, but so what? Lots of things are strategic on this definition — global warming and pandemics and tsunamis and sub-prime mortgage crises just for a start. But I don’t think using the word ‘strategic’ in this way is very helpful. In fact, I think it is misleading, because it carries a vague connotation of military action with no clarity about how or why. When people use ‘strategic’ in these contexts to describe serious threats they are implying that a threat is so serious that they would be willing to use armed force in response to it. But they are already sliding halfway towards a judgement that they should use armed force. That is a short-cut to bad policy, because decisions about the use of force should not depend only on the seriousness of the threat, but on whether armed force is likely to be effective in response to it.       

That is why I use ‘strategic’ in a much narrower sense, and one that focuses our attention not on the seriousness of the threat but on how we respond to it. For me, a strategic threat is one that we need to respond to primarily with armed force. It is a judgement about the applicability of military instruments to a threat. Calling a threat ‘strategic’ in this sense has real content: it means we need to use armed force as a major part of our response. This sense of strategy is a valuable conceptual tool in our business because there are many very serious threats – like the ones I listed above – to which armed force is not a useful response. It is especially valuable because many people confronted with a big threat – like global warming – tend to slide thoughtlessly into the assumption that armed force must be useful against it, when that is plainly wrong.   

Which brings us back to terrorism. Of course we would be willing to use armed force to stop a nuclear terrorist attack, or a major non-nuclear one. But we cannot rely on armed force as the primary instrument of our policy to prevent terrorism. That is much more a task for intelligence agencies, police forces, port authorities and so on. My fear is that by thoughtlessly calling it ‘strategic’, we are making it harder to see the non-military steps that need to be taken to really address the problem. Which is exactly the mistake we have been making in Iraq and Afghanistan these past seven years. And that is why this argument about words matters.