Understanding National Security as Contextual: The Implications for Small State Defence Policy

Author: Johanson, T.1 

Published in National Security Journal, 12 July 2022

DOI: 10.36878/nsj20220712.04 

Download full PDF version – Understanding National Security as Contextual: The Implications for Small State Defence Policy (683 KB)


This article proposes that the concept of national security is contextual, and therefore is viewed differently by small and large states. Additionally, it is argued that state military responses within their overarching national security approach should reflect the unique demands of their specific strategic environment. This proposition is based on analysis of the national security literature of selected large and small state cases. The national security discourses of United States, China, and Russia indicate a threat-based approach to defence policy which focuses on constructing a narrative around competing actors as threats to global stability. On the other hand, the small state discourses selected from New Zealand, Poland, Canada, and Chile, focus on defining and articulating the strategic environment they find themselves in rather than on threats. Despite these different perspectives, both small and large states employ the same model for developing their military contribution to national security, which may be seen as problematic for smaller actors as government and citizens’ expectations of state militaries increase in the post-Cold War international environment.

Keywords: National Security, military forces, small states, defence policy, international security


In August 2020, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) began its largest operational commitment since the 1999 deployment to East Timor.1 The mobilisation of 1,288 military personnel was not in response to an existential threat to state sovereignty or territory, but instead to assume the security responsibilities of the Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) facilities established by the New Zealand government in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.2 The pandemic deployment is not unique in the post-Cold War world which has seen the risk of conventional interstate warfare diminish, notwithstanding the recent Russian actions in Ukraine, and the increased use of military forces in missions outside of their traditional role of protecting state interests from external aggression.3 National security issues such as counter-terrorism, disaster relief and response to human and animal epidemics are examples of formerly contingent tasks that have increasingly become the military norm.4 This expansive use of military assets, more broadly for national security purposes, challenges the traditional paradigms of the military profession and moreover our understanding of the role of military forces in society today. For large states with significant resource pools, these increased demands are met by developing new capabilities to add to their military structures such as the specialised information operations, cybersecurity, and civil affairs functions now seen in large militaries. Small states, however, must incorporate these new tasks within their existing structures and budgets, in order to maintain the ability to respond to the full spectrum of military operations. But is the small state intention for full spectrum operations still feasible? Or even realistic, given the disparity in military power between small and large states? Would small states not be better served by focusing on those military capabilities that are most relevant to their specific national security challenges rather than expending their limited resources on equipment and training that is seldom used in the interests of the state?

The purpose of this article is to compare the national security discourse in selected large and small states and identify the different contexts through which these different types of actors pursue their national security interests. It will examine national security documents from the United States, Russia, and China, to present the dominant themes in large state national security discourse. These three cases were chosen as they are recognised as the preeminent military powers in the global community5 and demonstrably exert the most significant influence on the structure and nature of the international environment.6 To demonstrate the contrasting lens through which small states view national security, an analysis of the defence literature of four small states, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, and Poland will be presented. A Defence Studies7 lens was applied during the analysis of national security literature of the cases selected for this article, to focus specifically on the military contribution to the overall national security response.8 This article proposes that as the concept of national security is contextual, defence policy, and its resultant military strategy, should then differ between small and large actors, and more specifically reflect the unique security challenges of their strategic environment.

Traditionally, the term national security has been interchangeable with military security.9 External threats to the state’s existence or its territory are viewed as most import-ant and consequently are met by the state’s most destructive instrument of national power, its military forces. Contemporary concepts of national security, however, incorporate broader social aspects such as economic, human, and environmental security which require responses that are largely non-military in nature.10 Despite the apparent change in emphasis of national security operations, contemporary military forces remain organised and equipped to defend the state from other state military aggression. The new national security expectations have been incorporated into existing organi-sational structures and within extant or reduced budgets.11 For large states or resource rich small states such as Israel or Singapore, this approach may be both achievable and appropriate given their available resources and the range of potential threats to their national interests across the globe. For most small states, however, financial and physical resource limitations make meeting these broader expectations within their existing military structures and budgets a challenge.

Small states are defined in this work as those recognised members of the United Nations which maintain standing military forces and are unable to significantly change the nature of their strategic environment.12 This definition is based on the concept of relative power, which focuses on a state’s use of power in the international community, rather than its physical possession of human and material resources.13 Developing and maintaining a national security apparatus with the full panoply of military capabilities appears an inefficient approach for small states which often lack the capacity to generate sufficient power and competency across all military contingencies. Indeed, the small state preference for collective security arrangements through alliances is reflective of their belief that autonomous military operations, even in defence of the state, are largely aspirational.

This preference for collective security approaches leads to the question: does alliance membership necessitate the small state imitation of larger military partner force structures and capabilities? Moreover, traditional collective agreements do not necessarily offer solutions for more localised security concerns. Interoperability is defined by NATO as “… the ability to act together coherently, effectively and efficiently to achieve Allied tactical, operational and strategic objectives.”14 The discourse around interoperability, in the military context, mostly refers to the dimension of technical interoperability.15Technical interoperability refers to the ability for communications, information, and logistics systems to interact and share data at levels that enhance multinational operations.16 However, for small states behavioural interoperability may be a better approach for contributing more constructively to collective security operations. Behavioural interoperability is related to perception and action such as doctrinal and cultural interoperability both of which are influenced by state constitutional, legal and customary elements.17 Under behavioural interoperability, small states could effectively interact with larger defence partners without the obligation to develop and maintain expensive military capabilities that are seldom deployed in direct support of their national security interests. This proposition is premised on the assertion that the concept of national security is viewed differently by small and large states.

1 Terence Johanson is a lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies (CDSS), College of Humanities, and Social Sciences, Massey University (Manawatu Campus). His research interests are national security, future defence challenges, and the impact of violence on post-conflict societies. Contact by email – T.C.Johanson@massey.ac.nz.