In International Relations debates’ we often deal with ‘security’, in both realist and idealist approaches. From Hobbes politics has been concerned about security issues of states and other organizations. Yet, little effort has been made to clarify theoretically what ‘security’ means, and only recent contributions have moved in such direction. Theories of IR have always been polarised between two core concepts: power and peace. These concepts developed mainly during Cold War and have provided narrow views of international affairs, while an approach based on security could deal better with global complexities.
The Copenhagen Security School has provided new frameworks for an enlarged concept of security. It offers an explication of the concept from a constructivist perspective, and this can build our deeper theoretical understanding of ‘security’. Such comprehension would enhance IR debates and it would improve the conditions at which decision-makers elaborate security policies.
It will be first delineated how the concepts of power and peace interpret international relations, and it will be argued that ‘security’ could rather serve the discipline. Thus, a clarification of ‘security’ will be necessary. It will be supplied a useful framework for formulating security policies against threats, but this would not deal with the fundamental meaning of security. Hence, a deep understanding of the concept will be developed, thanks to the cited constructivist approach. However, its extension of security’s scope, which implies broader empirical agendas, will be criticized and proper boundaries of security will be shown. Finally, a clear understanding of security will be provided and its limits will be underlined and accepted.
Power and peace: security may be better
Buzan has proposed to found the study of international relations on the concept of ‘security’ and he defends this position through a straightforward critique against two main concepts of the discipline: power and peace. The first has developed Realist theories, while the second Idealist ones. Such ideas have been implemented to deal with the insecurity problem in the international stage, but they have provided narrow views of the matter.
‘Power’ is characterized by a focus on units’ level, i.e. on nations. This underlines the conflictual relations that occur among such actors and it prompts realist theories towards negative views, which sustain the fixed necessity of the anarchical and belligerent nature of the international realm. On the other hand, ‘peace’ focuses on individuals and on the system level. This tends to underestimate national political concerns, which turns in optimism for initiatives of disarmament and institutionalization. These proposals are based on the same negative view of the anarchical international realm, but they consider it as easily removable or transformable into something better and naively peaceful.
Thus ‘security’ can be the middle-ground solution between these two extremes. The approach would be interested in all the three levels and in their interconnections, and it would be aware of the diversity of patterns that could arise from the anarchical reality. Meaning, anarchy among states is not a univocally negative structure, but it is much more complex, with positive as well as negative facets. Within the system, the focus is on members’ security. Indeed, there can be more or less secure forms of the system, for instance because of more or less stability of its units, or of more or less interdependency among them. Such new approach would neither fatally accept anarchy as completely fixed, nor optimistically opt to remove it easily. It would understand system’s durability as well as its mutability within certain boundaries, and this would allow formulating a “realist-idealism” for international relations’ dilemmas.
How disentangle security?
We have drafted the possible benefits a security-approach can provide to IR studies, and how this basilar concept can positively renew theoretical debates. However, once we have understood this utility of the concept, we should comprehend what it implies.
Conceptual analysis has been used to give a useful matrix for assessing threats and formulating adequate responses. Common speaking can simply define security as pursuit of freedom from threats, a kind of struggle for survival against life dangers. But Baldwin, following Wolfers’ example, identifies ‘security’ as a dangerous concept if kept ambiguous, because it may serve misleading political wills or electoral designs. Thus, precise specifications are required to assess the rationality of policies aimed at security objectives. These would help formulating such policies as well as understanding the conceptual foundations of security itself.
First of all, a better definition of ‘security’ must be provided and this can be “a low probability of damage to acquired values”. This definition focuses on the “preservation of acquired values”, since it does not point towards an absence of them, as it would be impossible. Yet it aims at preserving them by lowering chances of damages, strengthening vulnerabilities and reducing risks. We can specify the lines along which this preservation would be sought:
- The recipient of the security measure, which can be actors from individual, state or system level.
- The values that must be secured, which can be diverse, ranging from territorial defence to citizens’ safety.
- The degree of security, since absolute security is unattainable and objectives are always reached gradually.
- The kinds of threats arisen from several causes.
- The different means by which security is attained, and that do not have to be only military.
- The opportunity cost of the policy, as some other goals would be sacrificed for that, and this costs’ comparison would define the importance of security in an agenda, taking into account the property of diminishing marginal return.
- The temporal concern, i.e. long-run versus short-run interests.
This textual organization would arrange a rational design of a security policy, and a sensible assessment of it. At the same time, this framework provides an analytical scheme to understand the aspects of security and how it can be declined in its implementations.
However, this does not delve into the deep nature of security itself, the way it originates and works within society and individuals. This is the reason why a more comprehensive theoretical explanation of ‘security’ should be outlined.
Insights into the complexities of a concept
The Copenhagen School has developed a framework primarily based on a constructivist approach. The fundamental assumption is the predominantly subjective character of ‘security’. This allows the elaboration of a compelling description of the way security works in society, and how people and states behave consequently. This approach delves into the issue deeper than the above conceptual matrix, as it deals with the formation of the demand for security in individuals and organizations.
When we accept security policies, we justify the use of extraordinary means against existential threats. ‘Securitization’ is this move of taking politics above itself, beyond established rules. It represents the next step from politicization, which makes issues part of the public agenda. The crucial aspect of such move is “the inter-subjective establishment of the threat, with a saliency sufficient to have substantial political effects”, and this ‘speech act’ would construct the social understanding of what is considered a ‘threat’. Thus we can identify the elements involved in this security discourse:
- Referent objects, which are seen as threatened and worth a right to survival.
- Securitizing actors, who actually securitize an issue by declaring it an existential threat to referent objects.
- Audience, who accepts the securitization and legitimizes the use of extraordinary measures.
The distinction between referent objects and securitizing actors deserves special attention. Indeed, it could be argued that they may correspond, for instance a state that claims to securitize its sovereignty could appear both the object and the actor of the securitization. However, Buzan clearly distinguishes between the two: referent objects belong to one of the three levels of analysis depending on the context (the state constitutes the middle units’ level) and they are elements of the broadly-taken international realm; whereas securitizing actors are appointed figures who actually do the act and represent the objects within official and established roles and procedures (e.g. governmental delegates).
Copenhagen School’s securitization theory stresses the inter-subjective nature of the labelling of issues as ‘security’ ones. Since it involves both the actor who tries to convince others and the audience who freely consent to that, this process is always a matter of political choice. Indeed, someone decides to undertake the securitizing move through a security speech act: this is a political act, as he tries to bring a public policy issue outside the normal boundaries into the extraordinary realm of security. He needs to convince the public audience, who can accept (or not) the move, and thence legitimize (or not) the securitizing of such issues and the consequent use of extraordinary means.
Broadening security agenda?
Since this account considers security as based on an inter-subjective choice, and not depending from real objective threats, the elements involved can vary greatly within the political realm. Different actors can aim at convincing the public to securitize their own matters, in order to achieve benefits and stability against different threats. Many diverse referent objects can become relevant for such discourses. Actors and people can perceive as required securitizations of issues other than the traditional military ones. This is why the Copenhagen School argues for an expansion of the security agenda, as society increasingly claims for security in economic, environmental or societal sectors.
This is an accurate description of how politics works, and it is correct to acknowledge that some actors may want to achieve securitization of environmental or economic issues, as this would give their sectors more warranties for survival and it would remove possible threats to their assets. However, this does not mean that such actors are right. Let’s consider the question along two points.
First, we should argue against the main constructivist assumption, i.e. the univocal inter-subjective definition of threats. In fact, it is due underlining that also an objective aspect of threats exists, for the simple logical fact that a situation where we can be really in danger can always occur (for instance, an army deployed at the frontier threatening to invade our country all of a sudden).
Secondly, such objective threats are primarily political and military, and this prompts to a delimitation of effective security to this sector. It can be examined that the extension of security labels to other sectors would end in military outcomes, and that when we decide to deal with proper security, we would face military or political matters in the end. For example, when we perform a speech act to securitize the social problem of immigration, we would probably try to convince the audience showing possible threats to physical safety or public disorders, which would be finally resolve through police means. An interesting example could be the environmental one about water conflicts: this issue seems to claim a security move towards the environmental sector, but if we analyse it we can understand how the environment can just be starting point of political or military threats (as natural resources usually are).
On the other hand, the case of economic security would not involve military means, since no proper security means would be present. In fact, what we mean by ‘economic security’ is simply economic welfare and development. This is the classic example of a securitization move by actors who would like to see their sectors and interests more protected, or simply the instance of organizations like UN that want to stress the urgent demands for a more spread economic development around the world.
Hence, it seems more reasonable to keep the concept of ‘security’ within its proper boundaries, and not extend it unduly. This extension can occur, but in the political realm where actors and audience relate rhetorically to formulate and approve policies. Yet, smart analysts would understand when actors use ‘security’ as an efficient tool to raise issues above the norm, or when they use it properly and attribute right names to right things.
The concept of ‘security’ has been taken into account and a possible explanation of it has been provided. Once understood the importance of the concept for IR theory, a textual framework to analyse and comprehend security policies can be developed. But to delve deeper into the theoretical nature of security and its origins, a constructivist approach can aid explaining how political society deals with such issue. However, this approach would lead too far in its conclusions; thus boundaries to keep security within are required to give a correct survey of the concept.
The argument reveals the complex facets of security, and the intricate formation of the demand for it. The framework would improve analyses of security issues, and develop better political judgements among decision-makers. The underlined limits of security are a useful hint to not pretend from policies what they should and could not do, and to understand when political actors actually try to overcome the system with some undue securitization moves.
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- Austin J. L., How To Do Things with Words, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1962.
- Baldwin D. A., “The Concept of Security”, in Review of International Studies, 1997, 23, pp. 5-26.
- Brauch H. G., “Concepts of Security Threats, Challenges, Vulnerabilities and Risks”, in Brauch H. G. et al. (eds.), Coping with Global Environmental Challenge: Disasters and Security, Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg, 2011, pp. 61-105.
- Buzan B., People, States and Fear: an Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era 2nd edition, Wheatsheaf Books Ltd., Brighton, 1983.
- Buzan B., “Peace, Power and Security: Contending Concepts in the Study of International Relations”, in Journal of Peace Research, 1984, 21:2, pp. 109-125.
- Buzan B., “New Patterns of Global Security in the Twenty-First Century”, in International Affairs, 1991, 67:3, pp. 431-451.
- Buzan B., Waever O. and de Wilde J., Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., Boulder, 1998.
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- Schafer P. J., “Chapter 2: The Concept of Security”, in Schafer P.J., Human and Water Security in Israel and Jordan, Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg, 2013, pp. 5-18.
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- Wolfers A., “National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol”, in Political Science Quarterly, 1952, 67:4, pp. 481-502.
 B. Buzan, “Peace, Power and Security: Contending Concepts in the Study of International Relations”, in Journal of Peace Research, 1984, 21:2, pp. 109-125.
 B. Buzan, O. Waever and J. de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., Boulder, 1998.
 B. Buzan, “Peace, Power and Security: Contending Concepts in the Study of International Relations”, in Journal of Peace Research, 1984, 21:2, p. 112.
 Ivi, p. 118-119.
 Ivi, p. 120.
 Ivi, p. 121.
 Ivi, p. 124.
 D. A. Baldwin, “The Concept of Security”, in Review of International Studies, 1997, 23, pp. 5-26.
 A. Wolfers, “National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol”, in Political Science Quarterly, 1952, 67:4, pp. 481-502
 D. A. Baldwin, “The Concept of Security”, in Review of International Studies, 1997, 23, p. 13.
 Ivi, p. 19. The idea of a diminishing marginal return is widely used in economics, and it underlines the property of a good, in competition with other goods for scarce resources, to diminish its value as its amount increases. In economics, more a firm produces one good, less and less it will earn from its increase. In our topic, more security we achieve, less this will significantly change our condition, as once reached a certain level there cannot be much more improvements despite its increase.
 Ivi, p. 13-17.
 V. Sulovic, “Meaning of Security and Theory of Securitization”, in Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, 2010.
 B. Buzan, O. Waever and J. de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., Boulder, 1998, p. 21.
 Ivi, p. 23.
 Ivi, p. 25.
 Austin has first elaborated such concept in philosophy of language, and what can be worth considering here is that this linguistic utterance is not related to its truth. Thus, if actors utter such speech act of securitization, this would not reflect an actual condition, and it can be understood why we are talking in subjective terms here. This could even result a possible field of research on political rhetoric.
 B. Buzan, O. Waever and J. de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., Boulder, 1998, p. 26.
 Ivi, pp. 36-37.
 Ivi, pp. 41-42.
 Ivi, p. 29.
 B. Buzan, O. Waever and J. de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., Boulder, 1998, p. 27.
 Ibidem, and B. Buzan, People, States and Fear: an Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era 2nd edition, Wheatsheaf Books Ltd., Brighton, 1983, pp.75-83, and B. Buzan, “New Patterns of Global Security in the Twenty-First Century”, in International Affairs, 1991, 67:3, pp. 439-451.
 H. G. Brauch, “Concepts of Security Threats, Challenges, Vulnerabilities and Risks”, in Brauch H. G. et al. (eds.), Coping with Global Environmental Challenge: Disasters and Security, Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg, 2011, p. 62.
 Mcsweeney B., “Identity and Security: Buzan and the Copenhagen School”, in Review of International Studies, 1996, 22:1, pp. 81-93.
 For undergraduate module on Global Economy, I submitted a paper on Water Conflicts, and I could analyse how most conflictual situations that seem arisen from water causes were deeply influenced by political factors and the environmental element was usually exploited as a pretext for other reasons (a clear example is the Israel-Jordanian one).
 Here we refer to the history of wars and conflicts caused by contention over natural resources such as gas, oil, mines or even simple territories. Thus, water would merely represent another resource involved in political disputes among states or other groups.
 Schafer P. J., “Chapter 2: The Concept of Security”, in Schafer P.J., Human and Water Security in Israel and Jordan, Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg, 2013, p. 7.
 Rothschild E., “What is Security?”, in Daedalus, 1995, 124:3, pp. 70-72.