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WAWDT: The “Muslim ban” breaks the “security triangle”

Certainly the biggest “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) policy decision among many under the new administration so far is Executive Order (EO) 13769, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” but widely known as the “Muslim ban.” (The latter term is controversial, but seems appropriate based on its perceived effect, background, related discussions, and related statements.)

A lot has been written about this issue, and the courts have so far examined the several problems with this EO, so there is no need for me to recapitulate all the arguments. On the whole, however, it does seem to me that the EO does nothing beyond what current exhaustive vetting procedures already do to achieve its stated premise – keeping America safer. And furthermore, it seems that among its many secondary effects may very well be dynamics making this country and the world less safe. As such it will certainly put Americans overseas, as well as people associated with the US in other countries, at risk. We’ve already heard of impact on working relations of US troops with Iraqi military, and there is the obvious dilemma presented to people who have worked with Americans as interpreters.

The “security triangle”

Part of the reason this EO cannot achieve its ostensible aim of greater safety, and may actually accomplish the opposite, is that it effectively  knocks out one corner of the so-called “security triangle”: acceptance. The security triangle is a concept based on recognition that “security” has several dimensions, and highlights three complementary factors:

  • Acceptance: Reduce the threat by fostering acceptance and positive image in the community.
  • Protection: Reduce the risk (but not the threat) by addressing vulnerabilities – hardening the target.
  • Deterrence: Counter the threat through reliance on appropriate and legitimate force.

With this EO, the administration seems to be putting all its chips on protection, supported by deterrence, no matter what the cost in terms of diminished acceptance. That is, not reducing the threat worldwide, while trying to reduce exposure to potential risk by keeping broad demographics (country, religion) out of the US, which in turn may actually augment and energize the threat.

The security triangle model emerged from the international humanitarian community around 2000,1 but I would argue that it is more broadly applicable to national security concerns in the context of terrorism and so-called asymmetrical conflict. Keep in mind that many humanitarian operations are conducted in environments that are unstable or involve conflict, and attacks on humanitarian workers have become more frequent. So this model, and identification of its three elements, comes out of experience.

The triangle itself apparently caused confusion as some saw it as asking organizations situate themselves in relation to the three elements (as if a trade-off).2 The revised edition of Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (GPR8) downplayed the triangle, but still discussed its three elements at length.3 The main point therefore remains, and that is that a combination of approaches addressing acceptance, protection, and deterrence, is essential to assuring safety and security, while at the same time maintaining the good relations essential to effective work in these contexts. The exact mix will depend on the situation, but it is interesting that 2010 GPR8 notes that despite increased security risks in many parts of the world, acceptance turns out to be the most important factor:

Given their mission and values, aid organisations find acceptance by far the most appealing security strategy. Indeed, acceptance can and should be the foundation of all security strategies. But acceptance will not be effective against all threats. (GPR8, p. 56)

So what are the implications of all this for national policies that affect international relations?

Acceptance & “soft power”

Historically, the US government has had a whole range of messages, initiatives, and structures from “winning hearts and minds” to public diplomacy, and from USAID’s clasped hands to Peace Corps, aimed in different ways at cultivating positive images of the country. These arguably are analogous to the strategic concern of development and humanitarian organizations with “acceptance” in communities where they work. Scaling up to the level of the international system is tricky, but the US is a member of the community of nations, and its actions can affect how it is “accepted” by other nations and most importantly for this discussion, their populations.

The range of messages mentioned above also fit under the cultivation of “soft power” – “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.” And indeed, at least one article in the wake of EO 13769 asks how the Muslim ban might broadly undercut American soft power. One might tentatively consider “acceptance,” an element of a security strategy, as being a benefit of soft power. That would mean a diminishing of soft power would be reflected in lower acceptance and higher threat levels.

Pres. Trump has spoken on several occasions about wanting as immigrants “people who love us….” Well such love doesn’t just happen, and it can be lost through accumulation of negative perceptions. Policy decisions that in effect tell citizens of whole countries or members of a religion that they are not wanted (even if “temporarily”) are going to have a negative effect on love, acceptance, soft power, and ultimately security (on top of legal and moral questions about such measures). And all that is, or at least was, avoidable.

Better to have a policy begins with recognizing the strengths of existing practice, then carefully evaluates what gaps if any may exist, reviews these and measures to address them with appropriate experts in and out of government, and finally plans how to implement the measures with attention to avoiding unwanted negative secondary effects.

(See “Security triangle” without the triangle, for more on acceptance-protection-deterrence.)


1. It appeared for instance in the first edition of Operational Security Management in Violent  Environments: A Field Manual for Aid Agencies (Good Practice Review 8, Humanitarian Practice Network, ODI, 2000; authored by Koenraad Van Brabant; p. 10). Daniel Paul’s article, “The Relevance of the Security Triangle: An Examination of Literature on Perspectives of Humanitarian Security,” cites some other literature.
2. This was the impression I had when I first learned of the security triangle in the early 2000s while on the Peace Corps staff in Niger. Peace Corps, like most development organizations, had traditionally relied primarily on acceptance, although without putting that label on it. But the changing environment worldwide required attention to protection (deterrence, beyond normal police protection, would in my opinion undermine the whole purpose).
3. Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (Good Practice Review 8 [revised edition], Commissioned and published by the Humanitarian Practice Network at ODI, 2010).

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