Future Ready: beyond the traditional border specific lens

The 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, once said: “neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him”. We face a raging pandemic, massive irregular people movements, more capable criminal actors, and ongoing terrorist threats in the current strategic environment. Rogue states, a resurgent Russia, and an expansionist China are all reshaping the geostrategic environment in which border agencies operate. Collectively these circumstances are ensuring that our future is unprecedentedly uncertain. Like many of its partners, today’s border agencies are facing down the train of the future, and are left asking if our current planning approaches will help us prepare.

Whether presenting to courses like the Border Control Agency Management Program (BCAMP) and Container Control Programme – Women’s Professional Development Programme (CCP-WPDP) or meeting with border agency leaders, today’s border professionals ask similar questions. They want to know the critical emerging developments for the border management landscape. This is a fair question for those preparing for the future.

There is, of course, a relatively straightforward answer to this. There will likely be an increase in the volume, velocity and variety of goods crossing our borders. Covid-19, along with other threats vectors, will in most cases demand a selectively permeable border for people movement. Finally, they will face off with increasingly capable non-state threats, including transnational serious and organised crime and terrorist groups. However, this broad-brushed image, without contextualization, does not help here. It fails to offer sufficient granularity for border agencies to invest in the future or provide a coherent argument to their respective governments for funding.

Border agencies’ past capability investments have provided them with a level of assurance regarding many risks. In many cases, this assurance is primarily understood through a border lens: and this approach is prudent. However, border agencies have a responsibility to bolster capability and capacity to effectively manage emerging threats and risks. This kind of preparation is critical to future-proofing these organisations.

Border agencies increasingly build their capacity and capability to develop and strengthen border security by working with their partners through innovation and business transformation. To do so effectively, they must reduce the likelihood of black swan events by decreasing the opaqueness of the future. The key to this approach is broadening and deepening how they consider the external environment.

Traditionally, border agencies have avoided thinking too far outside of the bailiwick of the border environment to consider future requirements. Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, and its operational agency, Border Force, went some way to consider this by adopting a border continuum model for border management. However, this was all about creating a border ecosystem with strategic depth rather than estimating future complexity.

There are many social, technological, economic, environmental and political factors that, individually and collectively, may act as a catalyst for sudden changes to border agency risk assumptions and mitigation measures. These kinds of changes to a global ecosystem lead to seemingly unpredictable events beyond what would usually be expected of the situation and potentially severe consequences.

Future scenario planning, which examines the broader drivers of change, assists an agency with making assumptions on what its future will look like and how the border security threat context might change. More specifically, this planning should identify specific sets of uncertainties or different realities that may happen.

Here is an example in which I would like to provide seven possible future scenarios which may have a strategic impact on border security.

• Cascading risks. Irrespective of an incident or risk source, cascading impacts accumulate with aggregated effects within complex ecosystems like borders. Trade globalisation increasingly leads to complex structures that increase the likelihood of cascading risks which are difficult to pre-empt in terms of likelihood and consequences. This development requires border agencies to have both rapid and scalable decision-making, usually under emergency conditions.
• Bifurcation of the rules-based order. The continued geopolitical rise of China and its great power competition with the United States could lead to the emergence of two trade control systems. Most border agencies would need to be connected with both.
• Super acceleration. Global economic, technological and social changes drive regular and unpredictable changes to the velocity, variety, volume and providence of cross border trade. Agencies in this context would need to anticipate more frequent and dramatic changes to requirements.
• Minilateral trade. The accelerated breakdown of the international rules-based order could give rise to regional and or ideological trade blocs. Already we see such developments with the further development of the Association of South-East Asian Nations single trade window.
• Economic de-coupling. Great power competition and the lessons of Covid-19 see a renewed focus in economic de-coupling from China with production moved to new locations like India. This development could create all-new flows of trade, and with it at present unknown risks.
• Bio-terror and the Grey Zone. State and non-state actors are beginning to use strategies short of armed conflict to further their interests. In this environment, the use of biothreats as weapons of mass economic destruction could well become more likely. Borders are the natural places to mitigate these kinds of risks.
• Weakened multilateralism. The current rules-based order remains in place but is further weakened by great power competition. This development could weaken organisations like INTERPOL, World Customs Organisation and the World Trade Organisation. This would necessitate international engagement to take advantage of a greater number of bilateral agreements.

These future vignettes would each create commiserate changes to volume, velocity and variety of flows across borders, often in short order. Furthermore, these changes would test existing capabilities and planning assumptions. None of these scenarios may come to full fruition. However, they provide a robust way to frame future capacity and capability development discussions: a better alternative than laying in front of Eisenhower’s future train.

Regardless, futures scenarios like those presented here consistently reveal that border agencies need to be far more internally and externally collaborative and agile if they are to be future-ready.

Dr John Coyne was the established the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Border Security Program. John is now the Head of the Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement Program