Why Britain needs a National Intelligence Council

Britain’s new National Security Council is built along much the same lines as its counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic – but if we’re copying the American model, how come we didn’t create a National Intelligence Council to go with it?

In the US, the NIC partly plays the role that the Joint Intelligence Committee performs in the UK system (although the National Intelligence Estimates that NIC produces are much more in-depth than JIC assessments). But the NIC also performs several additional tasks which are not well performed in Britain’s new system for foreign policy co-ordination.

For instance, in the US the NIC has the job of overall risk surveillance in the foreign policy domain over a 3-5 year timescale, including transnational threats and global issues as well as individual regions, and with strong emphasis on connecting the dots to see the larger picture (as for instance in NIC’s recent report on Global Trends to 2025). Unlike the JIC, the NIC uses both secret and open source data in drawing together this composite assessment – rather than falling into the Cold War trap of assuming that all the important information will come from covertly obtained data. And while the UK has experimented with a Strategic Horizons Unit in the Cabinet Office, it has suffered from being divorced from actual policymaking – unlike the NIC, which is firmly embedded in all levels of the NSC process.

This in turn allows the NIC to perform the second key role missing from the current UK configuration: the ‘red team’ challenge function that David and I call for in our Chatham House report Organising for Influence.  The NIC’s seat at the NSC table in Washington comes with a clear mandate from the President to test other players’ assumptions, challenge policy options, and provide an additional view for policymakers. In the UK, by contrast, no part of the government enjoys the same ‘licence to be awkward’ – which creates a risk of groupthink, or alternatively of inter-departmental turf warfare with inadequate attention paid to the big picture.

Third, the NIC has a critical role in briefing Congress on long range foreign policy issues, increasing legislative awareness of the foreign policy context (senior NIC staff describe the role as complementary to that of the Congressional Budget Office in creating shared awareness of challenges facing the US). While the UK’s Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee does get access to (some) JIC data, the security classification of JIC assessments clearly prevents them from being shared with, say, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Development Select Committees. A UK version of the NIC, on the other hand, could provide unclassified, open source assessments to Parliament – enhancing Parliamentary involvement in, and oversight of, Britain’s foreign policy context.

Finally, the NIC plays a crucial role in bringing external thinking in to government on foreign policy issues by trawling the academic and think tank communities for ideas, including through its NIC Associates program. The UK, by contrast, tends to find this a lot more difficult.  While the Strategic Horizons Unit undertook extensive outreach for the update of the NSS, it was badly linked to actual policymaking as noted above; and while FCO’s Policy Planning Staff is theoretically charged with maintaining close links with think tanks, in practice it has not done so for several years.

Admittedly, the NSC probably needs a bit of time to bed down before any more changes are made to the UK’s foreign policy architecture (there’s also the small matter of the Strategic Defence and Security Review to get out of the way). But when the government reviews its new arrangements, probably some time next year, it should give serious thought to a UK NIC.

The Seduction of Analysis

Do we need to call ‘time out’ on global risk analysis?  The NIC report on global trends 2025 is one of a plethora of recent publications on global risks and security challenges from think tanks, Government departments, the defence community, NGOs, business, academia, and the media. Do we really need any more?

3 questions spring to mind:

1. Are we suffocating under the weight of all this analysis?
2. Should we consider having a period of consolidation and reflection?
3. Do we need a transformational shift from analysis to action?

How many times do we need to be told that:

  • Since the end of the Cold War, the international landscape has been transformed.
  • During the next 30 years, every aspect of human life will change at an unprecedented rate, throwing up new features, challenges and opportunities.
  • The unprecedented transfer of wealth roughly from West to East now under way will continue for the foreseeable future.
  • The formidable acceleration of information exchanges, the increased trade in goods and as well as the rapid circulation of individuals, have transformed our economic, social and political environment
  • New players—Brazil, Russia, India and China will bring new stakes and rules of the game to the international high table.
  • Increase in global population will put pressure on resources—particularly land, energy, food, and water—raising the spectre of scarcities emerging as demand outstrips supply.
  • There are a set of interconnected set of threats and risks, including international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, conflicts and failed states, pandemics, and trans-national crime.

Surely it is time to complement existing analytical work with some ideas for action or even, as someone suggested earlier, divert our focus to analysing potential ‘solutions’ rather than identifying the same ‘problems’ time and again. Given the vast number of reports and papers in the system, surely now is the time to consider what improvements and upgrades can and need to be made to the global system in response to the myriad of issues the international community faces.

In order to do this we need to move away from the comfortable exercise of scene setting, describing the world around us and instead take a different approach. One simple way would be to look East and see what Indian & Chinese thinkers and academics are developing. Analysis obviously plays a crucial role in thinking through issues and in policy-making but the very process of analysis can be seductive; providing us with breathing space when we actually need to be pushing on and debilitating by creating ever greater complexity which can often lead to inaction.

In the words of the King:

A little less conversation, a little more action please
All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me
A little more bite and a little less bark
A little less fight and a little more spark