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YPFP Member of the Month - July 2018: Kenneth Lasoen

YPFP is thrilled to present Kenneth Lasoen as the newest Member of the Month for July! A leading expert in the field of security, Kenneth recently joined the EU political scene as Adviser on National Security with Belgium’s Flemish social democrats (sp.a). He is also involved in academia currently pursuing a PhD in History at Ghent University on Belgian intelligence. He has widely written about security and intelligence, with “Plan B(ruxelles): Belgian Intelligence and the Terrorist Attacks of 2015-16” his most recent publication. We certainly have a distinguished Member of the Month and what a better way to know more about him through his own words in this short interview that YPFP prepared.

Hi Kenneth! How are you? We would like to know a bit more about you. Please share with YPFP and its members around the world some details about your professional development and how you got where you are.

Originally an ancient historian with a specialty in Roman political history, I discovered the academic field of intelligence and security studies completely by chance. At the time I was in my first job at the Flemish education headquarters. Eventually I was so overwhelmed by my interest in intelligence studies I decided to return to academia and pursue the qualification so I could devote myself to Belgian intelligence and security history, a near-total lacuna in research. This took me to Brunel University London and the University of Cambridge, and in 2014 I came back as one of the few Belgians to have a master’s degree in Intelligence and Security Studies. My historical research was then quickly overtaken by the events in Paris and Brussels, causing me to write about recent developments to help explain the circumstances of Belgian intelligence and security by putting them into context. The media storm that erupted in which Belgian security services were subjected to a great deal of not always entirely justified criticism, both internationally and within the country’s public debate, led me to speak out and defend those services, basing myself on my research and the insights taken from the master’s course. In Belgium there is very little research on security topics and as a result few on the outside can comment on it with any substance. I started writing, feeling that a rebuttal was necessary, and one that was based on proper academic research and not emotional assumptions or uninformed opinions, and I had the good fortune of seeing my material accepted by prestigious journals in the field. In my research I always tried not just to point out what was going wrong, but suggest solutions as well: subscription, not just diagnosis. I quickly became a voice – appreciated by the professionals, or so I have been told – on the topic in national media, and that is how I was noticed by the Flemish social democrats, who eventually asked me to join their research department to work on security policy. I couldn’t possibly refuse: academic finger-wagging is one thing, but now I actually get to help with the political solutions.

What is the main focus of your new position as a National Security Adviser for the Flemish Social Democrats?

It is a two-fold focus. One side is to follow up on the recommendations of the parliamentary inquest into the circumstances of the terrorist attacks of 22 March 2016. The commission that conducted the inquest will stay in place to monitor the progress made on its recommendations, which were unanimously approved, to address the deficiencies that contributed to the attacks of 2015 in Paris and 2016 in Brussels. It involves an extensive streamlining and modernization of and investment in Belgium’s security apparatus. As a party in opposition, sp.a has a particular responsibility to keep the government on its toes in regards to the many promises that have been made.

For the long term, the focus will be towards security policy in general, working on developing a solid, broad, and mature vision with regards to current and future security challenges and the role of the security services therein. Hardline conservative programmes tend to have the effect of making things less safe, so a forward-thinking progressive security policy could probably do better. It is an inordinately interesting challenge and I now get to work with some great people. I couldn’t be happier.

What type of advice would you give to young professionals who would like to develop a career in the security field?

Five words: “Bring something to the table.” Security is an all-encompassing field with a whole range of different subjects that at one time or another might pop up. It is very hard by now to stand out in the classical topics of study such as terrorism, but there are plenty of more important issues and threats that are worthy of being investigated further, and on which expertise is always needed. The trick is to find a few subjects in which you develop expertise that no one else has, and when that issue inevitably becomes a hot topic, you would instantly be the go-to person because insights will be instantly required. There are some great MA courses on security studies at quite prestigious institutions, but they can only provide you with a solid basis, even if some mainly seem to enable you to parrot theory of international politics. You definitely need to go beyond that and make sure your dissertation for instance is on a subject about which little has been done, and has practical applications. Furthermore it is important to get out there, with your research, your opinions, and yourself, and eventually you will be known to a number of people who will take sufficient interest in what it is you can bring to the table to offer you a seat at it.

From your academic perspective, which is the most pressing challenge that EU faces in terms of security? And which options are being proposed by academia in order to tackle this challenge?

In the first article I published about the terror attacks, in the Journal of Strategic Studies, I expressed myself quite strongly about the prevailing notion of “national sovereignty” blocking the EU’s chances of becoming a security union. Individual states so desperately cling to these last vestiges of the old Europe prone to war and intransigence, at the detriment of their citizens’ security and the EU’s position on the world stage. There is no longer such a thing as Belgian, nor Dutch or French or Polish, not even UK (Brexit be damned) homeland security, now homeland security means European. The sooner the member states realize that, the sooner we will see real and meaningful change in tackling the mobility of suspected terrorists, hampering human and narcotics trafficking, disrupting organized crime, and contributing to world security by means of a real and strong EU defence force. The EU’s success is because it is an economic power bloc: just imagine what we could do if we had the corresponding political and military power behind it.

I guess the academic solution would be the logical one: one European army, one EU intelligence agency, one EU police force, etc. but we all know the adage about how long we would last if we left the running of things to academics! Things are never that simple and much less easy, but an important step is to let academic and above all pragmatic insights prevail over vested interests and outdated notions, especially if they are no longer suited to the challenges that face us. Security is often more a matter of protecting ourselves from ourselves rather than external threats.

If you could think about the period of time, in which you have been a YPFP member, what has been your most rewarding experience with YPFP and why? Any advice for young professionals who would like to join YPFP but are still hesitant to do so?

Surely what is most rewarding is meeting so many amazing people among YPFP’s membership, people who come from very different backgrounds or have very different job descriptions and still share common interests. And the fact that most of us are by definition still young and relatively junior professionals, our judgement and social capabilities have not yet been clouded by our positions getting to our heads — a common pitfall in the foreign policy sector. Most of us are in the same boat: either at the beginning of a career or in search of one. At YPFP we can forge the connections to help one another, and they might become lasting bonds that result in a community of people that are always ready to assist when they can. And since we would know each other from the days when all of us were nobodies, our egos have less chance of getting in the way of that than when people just want to know you because they want something from you. So that is my advice to anyone who hesitates to join: you get the chance to meet others who are in similar situations, connect with them, and forge valuable relationships that will undoubtedly prove of mutual benefit at one point or another. The cheek by jowl access to the high-profile speakers featured at the wonderful YPFP events is an added bonus.

Kenneth’s publications are available on the Taylor & Francis website. As a YPFP exclusive, if you are among the first 50 to click the link, you will have full access to them!

Thank you for reading and do not forget that you can also become YPFP’s next Member of the Month by filling this form, explaining why your latest achievements should be of interest to YPFP and its wider global network.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.