Resilience: A powerful new antidote to security threats

Jessica West

Jessica West is a PhD candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. She was formerly a program officer with Project Ploughshares.

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 34 Issue 2 Summer 2013

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, President Obama invoked the theme of resilience, which no doubt resonated with a country once again shaken by violence. This theme was echoed in Canada the following week when a terrorist plot was apparently thwarted before it became operational, a testament to Canada’s counter-terrorism plan Building Resilience against Terrorism (Public Safety Canada 2011).

It is easy to see the difference in the two cases—the failure in the first and the success of prevention in the second—but you can see in both the growing influence of resilience as a paradigm of security. In a world that is seen as increasingly complex and perpetually unstable, resilience is changing the focus of prevention from the root causes of threats to the containment of vulnerability through practices of citizenship building.

From human security to resilience

The term “resilience” has a range of meanings, from the basic “bouncing back” from adversity to more complex understandings of adaptive evolution in the face of constant change. As a security concept resilience is rooted primarily in the latter idea.
Informed by biological and ecological understandings of complex systems, resilience is a response to non-linear causation. A popular example of this type of causation is the butterfly effect, in which the flapping of a butterfly’s wings results in a hurricane halfway around the world. There are related popular concepts such as black swan events—a metaphor for rare events that are undirected and unpredicted but with major effects—and Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point, which he defines as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” (2000, p. 12).

From a security perspective, these ideas imply the limits of our ability to either predict or control the forces of insecurity and to address their roots causes, because we now face a world of “contradictions, ambiguities and uncertainties” (Rosenau 1997, p. 76). Thus, while recent security paradigms such as human security and responsibility to protect (R2P) have emphasized the need for prevention and protection, the focus on global complexity speaks to the limits of these approaches. You cannot prevent or protect against all threats. The notion of resilience has emerged as a powerful new antidote to security threats.

The use of resilience in response to vulnerability initially emerged from disaster response and mitigation efforts, aimed at addressing catastrophes in the face of nature’s uncontrollable forces. Within the United Nations, building “resilient communities” became the basis of the 2005 Hygo Framework for Action for disaster risk reduction (UNISDR 2005) and the Making Cities Resilient campaign (UNISDR 2013). “Disaster resilience” has since become a key orienting principle of international development and humanitarian intervention for both the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (2013) and the United States Agency for International Development (2013).

The use of resilience has been criticized as being more buzz than substance, mired in vague definitions and ambiguous measurements (Hussain 2013). This critique overlooks the power of resilience, like human security before it, as a worldview to inform intervention. Unlike human security, which seeks to ameliorate the sociopolitical causes of insecurity, resilience views instability and crisis as endemic and unstoppable. Security is thus addressed not by changing the environment, but by helping people to withstand shocks, by “building their resilience.” Indeed, David Chandler (2012) talks about “developing the self-securing agency” of vulnerable populations.

In this sense, resilience is similar to other ideas that have emerged from disillusionment with traditional forms of international intervention. Hybrid peace or “negotiated hybridity,” for example, emphasizes bottom-up, community-based approaches to peacebuilding (Donais 2012, p. 3). But rather than building peace or building states, resilience builds citizens.

Resilience as citizen-building

The role of resilience in citizen-building can be explored by looking at recent terror events. Resilience, as a key feature of contemporary civil defence, reflects experiences of disaster. Social resilience features strongly in the United Kingdom. It began revising its Civil Contingencies Act in 2001 after a series of domestic crises, including floods, foot-and-mouth disease, civil strikes, and race riots. In the United States there were references to resilience and homeland defence in the aftermath of 9/11. Efforts to build social resilience began in greater earnest after Hurricane Katrina.

Like hybrid peace, resilience seeks to devolve responsibility or empowerment to local communities. And like hybrid peace, resilience represents a form of intervention. But rather than building peace or building states, the key themes of community cohesion, integration, and civic responsibility indicate that resilience is about building citizens.

Under the label “resilient communities,” the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and Australia draw on community-based policing methods that recognize the need for strong local partnerships to facilitate police processes. Methods are then applied to intelligence. The goal: to improve relations between police and groups that are perceived as being vulnerable to extremist ideologies.

Similar to the 2010 U.S. Homeland Security national campaign “If you see something, say something,” resilience is aimed at communities that police suspect of “seeing” but not “saying.” It can be seen at work in the recent arrests in the Via Rail plot in Canada. The original tip to authorities about a possible extremist threat came from an Imam; in turn, several Muslim leaders were briefed on the impending arrests.

Resilience is increasingly aimed not only at disrupting those who would do violence, but also at those considered susceptible to extreme ideas and beliefs. In the United Kingdom a program called Channel provides a referral process by which community members identify individuals vulnerable to radicalization. They are then treated with health, education, and mentoring services. In the aftermath of the Boston bombing Obama indicated that there will be greater efforts to target people who “might become radicalized” (AP 2013; Johnson 2013). This focus on vulnerability is different than the traditional focus on root causes that informs human security.

From root causes to vulnerable citizens

Resilience is not about root causes of violence or even the ideas that support violence, but the vulnerability of certain groups of people to processes of insecurity. The connotation of “vulnerable” is similar to that of “victims”; there is a sense of being complicit in the violence.

Vulnerability distorts agency, shifting attention from the perpetrator to the victim who failed to prevent the crime. Moreover, vulnerability implies that certain groups of people are by definition not resilient and must somehow be made to be so. This is how resilience relates to citizen-building. Not only does it aim to build responsible citizens who contribute to the security of the state, it also creates a second category of ambiguous citizens—vulnerable citizens—who are perceived as the conductors of insecurity to those around them.

The rationale behind community-based approaches to policing and security is that by providing for the security of a community, that community stops posing a threat to others.

Prevention and protection, however, can become confused with containment. And while it appears that Canada has thus far avoided the missteps made elsewhere, which have caused governments to be accused of simultaneously supporting and spying on communities (U.K. Home Office 2011), we still need to think through the implications of blending community building with policing and surveillance.

We need to consider the responsibilities that citizens and governments have to each other. Do we all have a duty to be resilient? Is this duty reserved only for the vulnerable? Do citizens have equal claims to protection?


Associated Press. 2013. Obama: National security review after Boston Marathon bombing hopes to prevent similar attacks. The Washington Post, April 30.

Chandler, D. 2012. Resilience and human security: The post-interventionist paradigm. Security Dialogue 43.3, pp. 213-229.

Donais, Timothy. 2012. Peacebuilding and Local Ownership: Post-conflict Consensus-building. New York: Routledge.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2000. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown.

Huffington Post Canada. 2013. Pierre Poilievre: ‘The root cause of terrorism is terrorists’. April 26.

Hussain, Misha. 2013. Resilience: meaningless jargon or development solution? The Guardian, March 5.

Johnson, Alan. 2013. Idealism without illusion. World Affairs, blog, May 7.

Public Safety Canada. 2011. Building resilience against terrorism: Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy.

Roseanau, James N. 1997. Many damn things simultaneously: Complexity theory and world affairs. Complexity, Global Politics and National Security. Ed. David S. Alberts & Thomas J. Czerwinski. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, pp. 73-100.

United Kingdom Department for International Development. 2013. Helping developing countries deal with humanitarian emergencies.

United Kingdom Home Office. 2011. Prevent Review: Summary of Responses to the Consultation.

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). 2005. Hyogo Framework for Action.

—–. 2013. Making Cities Resilient.

United States Agency for International Development. 2013. Resilience.