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Nuclear Weapons

Could Person-Centered Security be America’s Future?

by Emily Enright
July 13, 2021

Is President Biden’s security model fit for purpose? Can it manage external, internal, traditional, and non-traditional threats? Can it navigate an increasingly complex social environment characterized by hyper-partisanship and mistrust and meet the needs of all Americans? And what could a better model look like?

The last year has brought unprecedented turbulence to the United States. Americans lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerating hyper-partisanship, a Presidential election marred by false claims of fraud, the spread of QAnon conspiracy theories, and the January storming of the Capitol. We’ve learned afresh, and the hard way, that some of the most pressing threats to the safety and security of Americans come from within, not without. Yet despite the President’s efforts during his first 100 days in office, the security leadership team tackling these issues remains relatively homogenous. While almost half of the members of President Biden’s senior National Security Council (the most diverse in history) identify as women, nearly four fifths are white. All of the military Joint Chiefs are men, as is most of the leadership at the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Agency, with racial diversity equally lacking.

man speaks at podium while other politicians stand behind

(L-R) U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo speak to members of the press outside the West Wing of the White House after a meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on May 7, 2021, in Washington, DC. President Biden and Vice President Harris met with the “Jobs Cabinet” to discuss the American Jobs Plan.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

A New Approach: Human National Security

Spotlighted by the UN Development Programme’s 1994 Human Development Report, the concept of ‘human security’ emerged in academic and policy conversations in the early 1990s. A human security approach questions the defensive, reactionary policies that put the state at the center of security thinking and strategy, noting the frequent failure of such policies to address threats at their origin. Models grounded in human security thinking prioritize sustainable development, human rights, and conflict mitigation. Human security models also recommend expanding our understanding of both "security" and "threats" to include issues that affect the security of the individual, community, and population. In short, they ask what it really means to be secure.

The increasing prominence of these ideas (underpinning, for example, the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development) is a challenge to America’s traditional model for security policy and spending. It suggests the interplay and interdependence of foreign and domestic policy and calls into question the efficacy of spending on defense and military first, rather than building the budget from the bottom up to address more diverse security needs.

grandmother and two children wade through flood waters

August 27, 2017: In Houston, TX, Ofelia Castro leads her grandchildren across a flooded street as they continue an hours-long trek from their flooded house in the Edgewood area of South Houston to a relative’s apartment miles away as Tropical Storm Harvey continued to dump rain on the area. Storms and hurricanes are expected to increase in intensity as climate change worsens.


Robert Gauthier/Getty Images

With this in mind, consider the concepts underpinning President Biden’s approach to security. Who or what is secure? And, secure from what? The Biden Administration’s approach is traditional, even conventional; the "state" is the focus of the security apparatus, and relevant threats are posed by other states, groups, and individuals alongside more amorphous threats like disease and climate change. Importantly, these threats imperil the state itself, not simply individuals or communities. They might destabilize governance, incite a military response, or damage economic growth.

However, issues that affect only some Americans, are less likely to be viewed and treated as "security threats" and are less likely to receive the prioritization and funding needed to address them.

However, issues that affect only some Americans, are less likely to be viewed and treated as "security threats" and are less likely to receive the prioritization and funding needed to address them. While most individuals face a similar degree of insecurity from traditional threats like nuclear risk, there is a stark differential between individuals’ vulnerability to non-traditional threats like police violence, voting disenfranchisement, food insecurity, and climate change. Poverty, for example, is arguably the most salient threat to an individual’s physical security, but the national security apparatus does little to address the vulnerabilities it creates. Race-based inequality and discrimination, similarly, present enormous security risks to communities and individuals, but they are seen as social issues.

police officer running

A Detroit Police officer uses tear-gas during a protest in the city of Detroit, Michigan, on May 29, 2020, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white policeman knelt on his neck for several minutes.

SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images

As inequality and division in America worsen, the President’s model is poised to reinforce existing structures of power and privilege, leaving the country hamstrung and red-faced on the world stage. The Administration can and must develop an inclusive new vision for security policy—starting from a fresh conceptual angle.

How do we achieve person-centered security?

The Biden Administration should take the challenge posed by human security head-on, updating its outdated, realist model and building new ideas into national security policy. Indeed, in acknowledging the interplay between foreign and domestic security, the White House could take human security one step further, developing an innovative "person-centric" model that looks specifically at the individual—and the most insecure individual at that.

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This work should be led by a truly representative cohort of policymakers and advisors. This should include members of the traditionally most marginalized communities, who can credibly develop policies informed by evidence and who support the agency of those most affected. By considering and prioritizing the security of the most insecure, policymakers can ensure their spending manages and mitigates both traditional and non-traditional security risks. In taking the least secure individuals as the object of security interventions and building a budget around their needs, military and defense spending would still be both necessary and appropriate, yet issues like poverty, inequality, and geographic remoteness would be addressed more effectively and with greater respect for each individual.

Concentrating more closely on insecurity at home will also serve American interests abroad. Global confidence in U.S. leadership was shaken badly during the Trump Administration’s tenure and the 2020 election, and international audiences were shocked to witness the storming of the Capitol building. Targeting spending to improve the security of the least secure and addressing home-grown inequities will be a positive signal for the international community. It will quash doubts that the U.S. can remain at the forefront of liberal democracy, prove that its international priorities are underpinned by a cohesive sense of national purpose and a shared vision for the future, and will show the President to be a daring, effective policymaker whose administration can innovate successfully. It will enable the U.S. to continue to shape security abroad and will ensure that America can further its interests freely and safely.

world leaders sit in front of flags

Representatives of the European Union (L) and Iran (R) attend the Iran nuclear talks at the Grand Hotel on April 06, 2021, in Vienna, Austria. Representatives from the United States, Iran, the European Union, Russia, China, and other participants from the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are meeting directly and indirectly over possibly reviving the plan. The JCPOA was the European-led initiative agreed to in 2015. Under the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, the U.S. abandoned the deal and intensified sanctions against Iran.

EU Delegation in Vienna via Getty Images

President Biden has promised to be a president for all. His plans to tackle education, healthcare and other areas are a serious departure from his predecessor’s, but his security budget remains disturbingly similar. In a moment of rapid global change, when unity and collaboration are needed like never before, the President has an opportunity to transform an aging security model, to develop inclusive and equitable policies, and to protect and uplift those Americans who need it most. He should take the challenge of human security with resolve and spirit and start writing a new chapter for all Americans.

This content produced in collaboration with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). BASIC connects governments, policy influencers, and experts to design credible proposals in order to build international trust, reduce the risks of nuclear use, and advance nuclear disarmament.

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