Revisiting strategic assumptions at the border

By Dr John Coyne, Head of the Northern Australia Strategic Policy Centre, Head of Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Border agencies have long faced a complex and evolving operational context. Today, however, they’re facing an increasingly uncertain strategic environment. The dual impacts of technology change and innovative threat actors have forced operational border agencies to evolve rapidly. The long Covid pandemic, the changing geopolitical environment, and climate change result in profound strategic challenges to border agencies strategic context. These challenges continue to force border agencies to rapidly respond to rolling strategic change with incomplete data support and little time to bed down change.

Despite facing significant challenges, most border agencies worldwide have, over the last three decades, improved dramatically in performance and in doing so have reduced vulnerabilities. Moreover, most border agencies have performed well in the face of the first two years of Covid-19. Within the limitations presented by geography and resourcing, most were able to shut borders and improve border control. So, what’s the problem?

In a media interview Musician, Richard Melville Hall, known to most as Moby, was once asked about his success, to which he responded:

“Whenever I’ve had success, I never learn from it. Success usually breeds a degree of hubris”.

Border agencies’ irregular migration and later Covid-19 related successes, especially for those agencies able to seal their borders all but hermetically, are significant achievements. However, there is a risk associated with governments and policymakers interpreting this success as a guarantee of their border agencies being future-ready.

John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, convincingly argued that in thinking about the future:

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones”.

Border agencies will need to be far more agile and forward-leaning in checking the assumptions underpinning their strategic strategies if their success is to continue.

Assumptions necessarily underpin much of our strategic thinking about borders and border security. Given our Covid-19 experience, shouldn’t we be challenging our confidence in the accuracy of many of these assumptions? For this article, let’s consider eight broad assumptions as examples.

For more than three decades, there has been an overwhelming belief that globalization was a prevailing way of thinking. Offshoring, centralization of production and concepts such as just in time supply chains are accepted by many as the way of the future. Covid-19 has shown that globalization and market forces don’t always create the resilience needed in times of crisis.

For several decades, national security and economic policies have been seen as separate areas of national endeavour in many countries. Unfortunately, some nations’ increasing use of economic coercion has meant that this is no longer the case. The combined impact of this and the previous point are that governments in the freest of markets are looking at greater synchronization of economic and national security policies.

Hybrid warfare involves using a mix of conventional and unconventional instruments of power and tools of subversion. The grey zone is a mainly non-military domain of human activity. In this zone, states use national resources to coerce other states deliberately. The increasing use of both from Ukraine to the South China Sea is changing the nature of conflict and security. Border security agencies can no longer assume they will be excluded from this calculus.

Trade itself is changing in response to a range of factors. Covid-19 and supply chain weaknesses have, for example, resulted in all-new trade routes. The rapid redirection of trade routes to mitigate risk and vulnerability and respond to crisis seems likely to increase.

There will also be greater economic and bio health value in supply chain certification in the not-so-distant future. This value will only be realized by systems that allow for traceability and ensure provenance of goods, especially for food protein. It only seems logical that border agencies will become a critical element in this national function in many cases.

Change is a common theme in these first few points. In the past, successful strategic leaders of border agencies have proactively identified and monitored the environment for change indicators. The accelerated rate and broadening scope of change itself reduces the strategic warning time for border agencies. Of course, some border agency leaders will seek solace from new technology. Still, the improvement provided by such new technology is offset by the shortened warning time for the cascading risks presented by everything from pandemics to climate change. This reduced warning time will have a broad impact on planning assumptions.

Transnational serious and organized crime is becoming increasingly amorphous in structure and technologically capable. This is resulting in an increasingly resilient crime threat. The illicit drug market illustrates the impact of these changes on our assumptions. In general, border agencies and their law enforcement colleagues have become increasingly adept at inter and intra government cooperation. This has led to the increasing frequency and scale of illicit drug seizures in front of, at and behind our borders. Despite this success, these crime groups continue to operate and make profits. The concept that increased seizures on their own will reduce the impact of organized crime or deter its activities clearly needs to be revisited.

While it seems inevitable that border agencies will always have to strike a balance between facilitation and enforcement roles, the scope of border agency responsibilities, especially for facilitation, seems set to increase. If this occurs at the same time that border agencies will have an increased role in national security, this will bring resource challenges.
There are no universal answers regarding the strategic assumptions that should be part of border agencies’ strategic planning. The accelerated level of social, climatic, geopolitical and technological change means that agencies will need to regularly revisit their assumptions if they’re to be future-ready. Two things are almost inevitable, the future will be increasingly unpredictable, and border agencies, and their officers, will need to be increasingly agile.

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