A 2018 brochure aims to help Swedish civilians stay resilient under attack.

A 2018 brochure aims to help Swedish civilians stay resilient under attack. Government of Sweden

Put Societal Resilience at the Center of Defense Planning

It’s already foolish to focus too narrowly on military attack and response. Soon it will be fatuous.

Trade routes and supply chains are coming under pressure, a well-known personality warned this week. The personality was neither the CEO of McDonald’s or BMW – though they could have issued the same warning – nor a trade minister. The warning was issued by Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, in her second major policy speech this fall. Her warning demonstrates how important resilience is becoming. In fact, it should be at the center of defense planning.

When AKK – as she’s often called – took office as Germany’s defense minister in the summer of 2019, she had no experience in the field. The Christian Democrat had made her name as the highly competent prime minister of the state of Saarland and had subsequently been elected her party’s chairwoman. It was no secret that Angela Merkel had wanted AKK to succeed her in the post, and eventually to succeed her as chancellor as well. When Ursula von der Leyen was appointed president of the European Commission, thereby vacating her post as defense minister, Merkel appointed AKK to it.

The defense ministry was supposed to be a temporary station while AKK solidified her power ahead of next year’s Bundestag elections, but things took a different turn. AKK struggled as chairwoman and will step down as soon as her successor has been chosen – but she excelled in the defense portfolio. In Tuesday's speech, delivered to the Bundeswehr’s academy in Hamburg, AKK reemphasized the importance of the transatlantic alliance. She said Europe should do more for its own security but rightly argued that so-called strategic autonomy would both be illusory and prohibitively expensive.

So far, so conventional (though President Emmanuel Macron of France may not have appreciated the bit about the strategic autonomy). The most important part, though, came first in AKK’s speech. “Citizens in a democracy have a right to know uncomfortable truths,” she said. “The challenges are evident, and so is the global competition between systems. Some states oppose the Western model of an open society, democracy and the rule of law with another model that is in no way compatible with our values. Some are aggressively expanding their influence in Europe using various methods, trying to meddle in the governance of our countries and institutions. Authoritarian systems are expanding economically, socially and militarily and are working hard to rewrite and distort international law.”

She highlighted the vulnerabilities of shipping routes and supply chains; government-sponsored cyber attacks on democratic institutions and critical national infrastructure.

Such threats – usually referred to as gray-zone aggression — are the reality with which liberal democracies from South Korea to Germany to Canada are faced today. Although no decade is completely peaceful, in most years defense planners have been able to focus on expeditionary capabilities and possibly an armed attack on the country itself. Those demands on defense budgets remain, but it would be foolish to primarily plan for armed defense when the country is under daily attack through non-military means. That’s why AKK chose to discuss the security of supply chains with the Bundeswehr students in Hamburg. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, too, highlighted the vital importance of societal resilience at his speech at the Globsec conference in Bratislava last month, telling the audience that “our first line of defense must be strong societies able to prevent, endure, adapt and bounce back from whatever happens.” Defense planners inclined to treat supply chains and other resilience issues as soft security issues not worth of their attention must shed their fatuousness. Armed forces depend on civilian supply chains. As Stoltenberg pointed out in Bratislava, “for large operations, around 90 percent of military transport relies on civilian ships, railways and aircraft.”

A few countries – primarily Finland, but also its Nordic and Baltic neighbors – have for years honed a “total defense” approach in which all parts of society have a role to play in keeping the country safe. In 2018, Latvia began rolling out a pioneering national security curriculum for 10th- and 11th-graders; among other things, it features resilience training. The same year, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency sent by post to every household in the country a leaflet called “If Crisis or War Comes”, which features easy-to-understand instructions for what to do if, yes, a crisis or war comes. Outside Sweden, the leaflet was treated with ridicule; seen as a neurotic step by a country obsessed with Russian threats.

Then COVID-19 struck, and countries everywhere realized they were woefully unprepared for contingencies below the kinetic threshold. And while the pandemic gave governments and their societies a bit of time to adjust, the next crisis may not be as kind. It may not be as easy to spot either. Are serial firings of government officials, in combination with untrue allegations of election irregularities, a national security threat? At the very least they – like foreign-sponsored cyber attacks and threats to supply chains – require more resilient societies. 

As the United States has discovered this fall, not even the world’s mightiest military is of no use against non-military threats – and the latter can be as damaging as the former. AKK’s observations should come as no surprise. On the contrary, defense ministers who take their briefs seriously should – as paradoxical as it may sound – take non-military threats very seriously.