The Cold War is over. We must move on, fast

These are challenging times. As government tries to deal with the fallout from the global financial crisis, the tightest fiscal conditions for decades and the collapse of trust in politicians and politics, the last thing it wants to hear is warnings of growing threats to our national security. But hear them it must, and act on them.

The global recession is likely to worsen the international security environment considerably. It is already making many weak and poor states weaker and, as both 9/11 and recent events in North Korea have shown, the consequences flowing from weak, fragile and pariah states are now a greater potential threat to national and international security than the actions of strong, competitive ones.

Climate change is arguably a far graver threat to our long-term security than terrorism and probably a greater challenge to humankind’s ingenuity and leadership than anything else ever faced. Terrorist groups are extending their reach and destructive potential, thriving in the largely unregulated global space in which they enjoy the benefits of new communications technologies, and can deploy ever more lethal weaponry. Meanwhile, the global flow of people exposes us to disease outbreaks that can spread far more quickly than ever before. Swine flu spread around the world in just a few weeks, Sars spread to four continents in 48 hours.

The trouble is we are not altering our approach or our thinking fast enough to keep up with this pace of change. The security of Britain is no longer just the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence — it now impacts on all government departments and requires them to work together in ways they have neither the structures nor the cultures to do. We still find it much easier to continue spending on old priorities than to invest in meeting new, less familiar ones. But the sheer scale of the resource constraints we now face means it is going to be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to fund what we are already trying to achieve, let alone face the new threats that confront us.

Business as usual is not an option. Government needs to work smarter. We urgently need a wideranging strategic security review, including but going well beyond defence. We also need a framework that enables aid, diplomacy, defence and other security policy instruments to work together in a single approach, rather than pull against each other as different parts of government jealously defend their patch.

At the heart of this new approach should be a national security council, chaired by the Prime Minister or another very senior minister, to carry out an overarching national security strategy. This should be supported by a single security budget ruthlessly targeted on threats, and capable of deploying resources where needed, rather than distributing them, according to historical chance, across numerous departments and agencies as happens now. This would create the impetus and culture for more effective co-ordination, and would make it easier, to shift, for example, spending from some aspects of conventional defence to newer challenges associated with computer hacking and cyber-security.

Working smarter also means taking conflict prevention seriously. The military cost of conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo was around £1.3 billion between 1992 and 2003. The cost of helping to avoid war in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia over the same period by contrast, was negligible. Yet compared with what we spend on defence and war-fighting, the amount spent on prevention is tiny. Effective conflict prevention can save money as well as lives, but good long-term prevention means spending more in fragile and at-risk states to prevent them failing altogether. It also means investing in our overseas diplomatic expertise so that we understand, in fine detail, what needs to be done before situations turn bad.

Second, we need to recognise that Britain’s security is not in the future going to be best served by trying to preserve old-style Cold War museum armies. As a medium-sized nation in a globalised world, the option of maintaining the armed forces of a superpower is simply no longer open to us. The UK cannot provide for its security by acting alone. More than ever before, we will depend on working with our neighbours and allies to secure our common defence. In the short to medium term, this means a reinvigorated transatlantic alliance based on deeper and more effective European co-operation and a more equal relationship between Europe and the United States. This does not mean a European army. It means practical co-operation among individual countries. EU countries should increase the number of battlegroups on standby at any one time, expand the size of support units such as logisticians, engineers, helicopter squadrons, medics and intelligence teams, and individual countries should invest more in building deployable gendarmerie, policing and civilian capabilities needed for post-conflict stability. We also need much closer integration of our defence industries.

More widely, and in the longer term, Britain will need new international partners from beyond the Atlantic circle and the wider West. We will need a genuine partnership, not just between the EU and the US on climate change, for example, but also one with China, India, Nigeria, Brazil and others. If we want to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, we will need to work with many other countries around the world to strengthen global regimes such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, not just to focus on isolated cases like Iran and North Korea.

We are also going to have to understand that multilateral co-operation will not always come on our terms. Some partnerships, though based on shared interests, may not be comfortable ones because other countries will have their own values and demands to bring to the table.

Third, to deal with security challenges inside our own country, such as radicalisation, terrorism and the need for greater resilience in the face of large-scale emergencies, national government should look to build more self-reliant communities. We need new partnerships working between central government, local government, private businesses, communities and individual citizens. We should train frontline youth workers to deal with young people vulnerable to radicalising messages.

Fourth, everything government does must be demonstrably legitimate. We need to operate by the rule of law at home and according to international law overseas. Our values demand legitimacy, of course, but in a world where government must collaborate with citizens, businesses and other members of the international community it is also good strategy.

We believe that if we remain trapped in the old ways of thinking and the old ways of doing things, then the security of our country will suffer. If we change our approach, Britain can face the future with confidence.

Paddy Ashdown and George Robertson. Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon is the former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party and former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Lord Robertson of Port Ellen is former Secretary of State for Defence and former Secretary-General of Nato. They were co-chairmen of the IPPR’s Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, whose report is published today.