International Security from the Inside Out



The 2020 pandemic may well be a new turning point in human evolution with Earth Before Covid (BC) and the After Covid (AC) era. We can easily be drawn to sweeping conclusions about the state of world affairs after the coronavirus pandemic, but in truth there is a lot we do not know yet about the likely impact of the virus, and how it will reshape our international environment.


What we do know, is that in terms of security, people have started looking closer to home. For many women, without generalizing, security often relates to the need for individual safety and the desire for protection around their nurturing roles in society. Their security concerns go well beyond individual needs, however, to include collective aspects of security and community concerns. Women tend to turn first to themselves and their communities to attend to their security, before considering institutional and international responses. What can we learn from this mindset?


This is a different approach that starts from the individual and works through concentric circles towards the collective and ultimately the international system. It offers a mindset turned from the inside out towards a broad-spectrum thinking that ultimately calls for a different type of leadership.


Towards a new mindset


For students and experts of international security, it has become common practice to first describe the environment, generally perceived as extremely complex, volatile and fast moving, to ultimately define policies backed by adequate resources to offer a course forward for a particular international actor, be it a nation, a group of nations, or an organization. The tendency has been to reduce the complexity of the environment to facilitate the decision-making process, minimize risks for the actors concerned, and help people make sense of what is happening in the world.


This framing for analysis does not adequately capture the complexity of world affairs, creating a distorted and ambiguous reality. Decision-makers are thus less able to affect that reality. In addition, given the small circles of decision-makers “in the know”, this can create problems of legitimacy with their power base - be it their electorate, employees, clients or shareholders.


What if we were to start from the human dimension and our collective desires (objectives) as a community, thus developing a human-centric approach rather than a mind-driven process aimed at defining rational, affordable, and self-serving policies for a few at the expense of others? The mind draws lines which are not always helpful to develop adequate responses. Is Covid-19 a sanitary crisis or an economic crisis, or is it a security crisis? What if we were to start embracing the world in its complexity, volatility, ambiguity and ultimate uncertainty, and seek clarity in what we want - our desired outcome - with confidence, rather than try to maximize certainty and alleviate fears?


Defining human security “for” rather than “against” something requires a constant process of checks and balances between desired outcomes and the realm of possibilities. It argues for a broad-spectrum mindset, acknowledging the limits of one’s own expertise in a complex world, and relies on cooperation and networks of teams, instead of a command and control structure.

As the Covid pandemic is showing, consolidating decision-making at the top and controlling information are ultimately far less powerful than collaboration and transparency, relying on a healthy and open debate to protect society from excessive power.

Broad-spectrum thinking requires an agile mindset constantly reframing itself and avoiding polarities of security of one at the expense of another. In fact, it diffuses polarities and brings attention to what connects rather than what distinguishes people. This is a mindset inimical to categorizing and labeling. It is a way of thinking that expands minds rather than pigeonholes people and boxes them into categories they resent, be it “immigrants”, “black”, “women”, “Muslim”, “old”, to name but a few.


Group identity will still be necessary as long as people need a sense of belonging, but awareness around categorization requires an expanded mind. One should be aware that categorizing leads to generalization and stereotypes to ultimately foster contempt. By contrast, broad-spectrum thinking breads empathy. Given that categories feel constricting and uncomfortable, instead of focusing on separate countries and cultures, society may start looking at visions across beliefs and cultures, with less centralized and more distributed governance with power shared by many.


In many ways, categorizing has been a way of ensuring power of some people over others, developing a dominant identity and predominant perspective, from a powerful community over other groups. Obviously categories can be useful when accurate and needed scientifically or structurally (i.e. when they are doing no harm). However, categorization needs to stop short of boxing anyone into categorical thinking at the expense of our ability to explore the full realm of possibilities around us.


In future, digital tools will likely amplify broad-spectrum thinking in the face of massive data, and serve as an antidote to the dangerous polarization of today, if managed properly (i.e. through proper governance and access.) For instance, communities will find through the proper use of data an empowering potential to grow its membership, reinvent itself, optimize resources, and empower the community to fulfill its aspirations, thus maximizing opportunities for self-realization. As we transition to this digital age, we may still suffer from unexamined categorical thinking in many fields, thereby closing off to new possibilities, but this will likely ease with embarrassing and inexcusable use of data, as we progress in our ability to manage data. Categories will not disappear entirely, but they should become less coercive and harmful, as we find a way of making better use of our human specificities and multi-dimensional realities without pitting ourselves against each other.

By expanding the realm of the possible and our multi-dimensional environment, we should resist the temptation to explain the environment with any kind of certainty to falsely establish a comfort zone. It will become more important to show the way by establishing with clarity a desired outcome, exploiting the multi-dimensional environment. A broad-spectrum mindset will help usher organizations, corporations, governments, agencies and leaders, both civilian and military, male and female, who can avoid binary choices in strategic conversations, and generate new opportunities, no longer selling certitude but offering clarity to their constituencies.


From leadership to “way showers”


In this multi-dimensional environment, the domination of well-established leaders may have to be replaced by a plurality of “way showers.” Individuals have long adopted specific identities as a way to develop in community with others, and respond to the human need to belong. These identities may have followed them for life based on roles, titles and various privileges, albeit limiting their potential. In future, a broad-spectrum mindset should offer the possibility for individuals to have multiple roles, identities, perhaps less privilege, but more possibilities to actively pursue.


As we look at the implications of Covid-19 on our organizations, instead of traditional jobs with well defined roles/titles and careers, with centralized authority focused on outputs, often in a command and control approach, we will progressively observe how people will develop less formal ways of earning a living through multiple gigs with fewer full-time employment and more shifting hierarchies with distributed authority, essentially focused on meaning and transformation. This should lead to developing clarity on where to go and total flexibility on how to get there. This is the type of leadership that will be required for dynamic organizations to meet tomorrow’s challenges.


Leadership has long been influenced by masculine attributes of power with a language developed around words like structure, goal, performance, purpose-driven, protective, linear, predictable. A broad-spectrum mindset could push a new language to the fore with words more traditionally associated with feminine leadership, like empathy, humility, non-linear, multi-tasking, nurturing, emotional, receptive. Women may have an edge in developing broad-spectrum thinking but this is not a man versus woman issue. It is not that one is better than the other. We need both: a more pyramidal view of leadership and another more akin to circles and community. The challenge is that our worldview has developed over centuries of domination of one view over the other. Ultimately, we need to avoid the dualism of one versus the other. We need instead to find a balance tapping into both kinds of feminine and masculine energies to respond to a new world and the need for a new form of leadership with various circles showing the way.


The world needs way showers who will offer a new mindset, empower people and serve along them to meet uncertainty through increased clarity on the objective, offering a full spectrum of possibilities to escape the polarization of world politics.


There will likely continue to be traditional leaders who focus on offering certainty to those in need of control and challenged by the general sense of uncertainty globally. However, power will ultimately belong to those who can inspire and motivate others through clarity in their purpose rather than promise false certainty.


Over time, power will shift towards those who can master their inner capacities and develop a broad-spectrum mindset. The pandemic has only served as an accelerator of transformation in the face of a fast changing world, which calls for a different approach to leadership, where power is sourced from within and distributed generously, in service of communities in the absence of reliable structures, systems, and external authorities.


The biggest challenge in this transition time lies with providing continued security as the international system is transforming from within, with structures and systems re-shaping, and attending to the risks of a temporary possible vacuum. While some are focused on protecting the system against this perceived threat, others should focus on the need to offer a safe space to give life to something new.


Redefining security in a way that is not “either-or”; a combination of both is of paramount importance to developing a new international security order.



Isabelle François, President of WIIS Brussels