Critical Security Studies

My posts haven’t been very prolific lately, but I decided I would wait until I had written something new and original before I posted again. This is an essay on Critical Security Studies, written as part of the Master of International Relations course I am currently undertaking. It is a lot more theoretical than my usual posts.

Critical Security Studies and the Deconstruction of Realist Hegemony.

David Alexander Robinson

Though still marginal within the field of International Relations, over the last two decades a paradigm of Critical Security Studies has developed that challenges traditional definitions of ‘security’ and emphasises the socially-constructed nature of state identities and international systems. This essay will examine the key elements of the critical security approach with particular focus on the ‘Copenhagen School’ – which calls for a broadening of the concept of ‘security’ and highlights the process of ‘securitization’ of political issues – and the ‘Welsh School’, which draws on Marxism and Critical Theory to create a self-consciously activist approach that emphasises ‘emancipation’. These will be set in contrast to the hegemonic discourse of Neorealism, and it will be noted that these critical theories are gradually beginning to be used in analysis of real relations and events.

Since the mid-Twentieth Century ‘security studies’ has been largely synonymous with the theoretical paradigm of Realism (Classical/Neorealism). Ken Booth writes,

“Traditional security thinking, which has dominated the subject for half a century, has been associated with the intellectual hegemony of realism … empha[sizing] military threats and the need for strong counters; it has been status quo orientated; and it has centered on states”. [1]

Realists see states as preoccupied with their own physical safety and autonomy, in an international system defined by its anarchy. “The nature of the system, and its pressures and constraints, are the major factors determining the security goals and relations of national governments”.[2] States are in constant competition to increase their power relative to other states (often in a military form), and these international interactions are more important than states’ domestic cultures, leaders or political systems in determining behaviour.[3] Realist scholar Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, which combined an individualist ‘micro-economic’ approach to the international system with a Classical Realist emphasis on power and material interests, is an important example of Neorealist thinking.[4] For Waltz, the international system requires states to operate competitively or be eliminated, like corporations within a free market.[5] Waltz observes that, “In anarchy, security is the highest end. Only if survival is assured can states seek such other goals as tranquility, profit, and power”.[6]

No IR theory emphasises security more than Neorealism, yet David Baldwin observes that Neorealist analysts have rarely critically-analysed what security means.[7] During the Cold War security studies was dominated by interest in military statecraft, and security was uncritically tethered to strategic issues. Thus military force, not security itself, was the focus of security studies and the Realist school.[8] Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams argue that Neorealism achieved hegemony in the field by defining security studies as a cumulative collection of objective knowledge, of which Neorealist theory is the legitimate expression.

“Supported by this metahistorical and epistemological foundation is a series of foundational claims that are now presented as unproblematic facts. The most important of these concerns the centrality of the state as the subject of security and provides the basis for the exclusion of issues other than those of traditional military diplomacy from the field”.[9]

Advocates of the paradigm(s) of Critical Security Studies (CSS) have used historical watersheds such as the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks to call for reassessment within security studies. They have emphasised growing international interdependence, the danger of arms races, the heavy burden of defence spending, and the changing nature of threats to people’s daily lives, as reasons to formulate a definition of security less focused on military power and more inclusive of economic, social, political and environmental issues.[10] However, while real world events provided social and political space for these theoretical dissidents, their critiques of Realism are based in far deeper epistemological disagreement. Fundamentally, constructivist IR theoreticians criticise Neorealism’s failure to recognise how international systems are socially-constructed.

“As Richard Ashley has noted, [the Neorealist] account rests on ‘an understanding of international society … in which … there exists no form of sociality, no intersubjective consensual basis, prior to or constitutive of individual actors or their private ends’”.[11]

Increasingly theorists are accepting that, in contradistinction to the Neorealist position, the structures and dynamics of international relations, “are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces, and … that the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given in nature”.[12] This shift from Realist ‘rational choice theory’ “to a focus on historically and reflexively constituted practices” provides a more interrogative and insightful paradigm for understanding international relations.[13]

Barry Buzan’s book, People, States, and Fear (1983), was a seminal text in the development of CSS, broadening the concept of security to include political, economic, societal, and ecological elements, and discussing the idea that individual humans were the ‘irreducible base units’ for security.[14] However, for Bill McSweeney, Buzan’s insistence that states remain the referent object in his analysis meant that he did not break radically with the Neorealist explanatory model.[15] By the beginning of the 1990s growing numbers of theorists began embracing more critical analyses of security, in the context of the transformation of the bipolar international system. The critical approach increasingly introduced an ‘instability-of-the-object’ into the understanding of international affairs, and began to posit security as a relational rather than absolute quality.[16] The name ‘Critical Security Studies’ was then adopted for the field by the participants at a small conference: ‘Strategies in Conflict: Critical Approaches to Security Studies’ – at York University, Toronto, in May 1994.[17]

At the core of the constructivist theories is the understanding that actors/objects relate to each other within a landscape of collectively-constructed social configurations. States classify each other as friends and enemies on the basis of their identities and intentions, rather than purely on the objective distribution of power: “U.S. military power has a different significance for Canada than for Cuba, despite their similar ‘structural’ positions”.[18] Actors in the system acquire relatively stable identities through their relations with other states and institutions, but these identities are inherently social in nature and set in the context of understandings that actors collectively hold about themselves and one another. Institutions that emerge from this collective cognition are then often experienced by individual actors as coercive social facts.[19] So, as Jeff Coulter notes, “social configurations are not ‘objective’ like mountains or forests, but neither are they ‘subjective’ like dreams or flights of speculative fancy. They are … intersubjective constructions”.[20]

Even as Critical Security Studies began emerging as a self-conscious field in the early 1990s, it was already experiencing theoretical diversification – Krause and Williams lamenting in 1997 that, “reconceptualizing security has often come to resemble a grab bag of different issue areas, lacking a cohesive framework for analysing the complementary and contradictory themes at work”.[21] Then in 1998 Buzan released the book, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, with Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde, restating the need for security studies to diversify its foci (to the political/economic/societal/ecological), and to concretely distinguish a new ‘Copenhagen School’ from other Critical Security Studies. A core component of the Copenhagen analysis was that, “the social production of security is sufficiently stable to be treated objectively”.[22] Buzan et al made clear their variance with much of the field, stating that:

“An emerging school of ‘critical security studies’ (CSS) wants to challenge conventional security studies by applying postpositivist perspectives, such as critical theory and poststructuralism. Much of its work … deals with the social construction of security, but CSS mostly has the intent … of showing that change is possible because things are socially constituted. …  [But the Copenhagen School maintain that] even the socially constituted is often sedimented as structure and becomes so relatively stable as practice that one must do analysis also on the basis that it continues … in our purposes we are closer to traditional security studies, which at its best attempted to grasp security constellations and thereby steer them into benign interactions. This stands in contrast to the ‘critical’ purposes of CSS, which point toward a more wholesale refutation of current power wielders”.[23]

Another defining element of the Copenhagen School, particularly established by Ole Waever, was the idea of ‘securitization’ of political issues.

The Copenhagen School’s ‘securitization’ analysis emphasises that ‘national security’ is often invoked by states to legitimise the use of force or other extraordinary actions, and then to mobilise resources and exercise special powers that would otherwise be unacceptable for domestic and international audiences. An issue is securitized when it is,

“presented as an existential threat, requiring emergency measures and justifying actions outside the normal bounds of political procedure. … the actor [claims] a right to handle the issue through extraordinary means, to break the normal political rules of the game (e.g., in the form of secrecy, levying taxes or conscription, placing limitations on otherwise inviolable rights, or focusing society’s energy and resources on a specific task). … it is in this practice that the issue becomes a security issue – not necessarily because a real existential threat exists but because the issue is presented as such a threat”.[24]

A successful securitization process thus first posits an existential threat, then demands an emergency response, and finally undertakes actions that break free of normal social and political rules. Usually the process of securitization conforms to the particular rhetorical structure in which the problem/challenge is equated with state survival, and then given priority of action, “because if the problem is not handled now it will be too late, and we will not exist to remedy our failure”.[25] Securitization is thus a ‘speech-act’, in which a performance of the securitization’s rhetorical process creates rights, commitments or obligations; and the process is also intersubjective in that the audience must accept or tolerate the securitization for the act to be successful.[26] Buzan et al also note that,

“in some cases securitization has become institutionalized. Constant drama does not have to be present, because it is implicitly assumed that when we talk of this (typically, but not necessarily, defense issues), we are by definition in the area of urgency…”[27]

– obvious examples being the threat of Communism during the Cold War, and Islamic fundamentalism today. Buzan et al thus conclude that ‘national security’ is a concept that has been used to silence opposition and allow power-holders to circumvent democracy. They therefore argue that ‘security’ should actually be seen as negative: “as a failure to deal with issues as normal politics”.[28] Waever continues that ideally issues should be ‘desecuritized’ and removed from the security agenda.[29]

The Copenhagen School attracts various criticism from within CSS, commonly focused on the assumptions the School shares with the Realist tradition.[30] Wendt points out that the Copenhagen School follows Neorealists in accepting that anarchies have a particular ‘logic’ and fails to deconstruct interactions within those systems.[31] McSweeney criticises them for portraying identity as an objective social reality to be discovered, rather than a negotiated process continually shaped by social forces.[32] While Johan Eriksson argues that security itself is a social construct, and points out that by calling for a broadening of areas to be considered as elements of security the Copenhagen School may be actually increasing the scope of issues that can be securitized.[33]

Another attempt to produce a coherent CSS approach has been recognised in what is now called the ‘Welsh School’. Ken Booth and colleagues have built their School’s approach around elements of Marxism, Gramscianism, and post-Marxist Critical Theory, with a particular penchant for the Frankfurt School of Marxist thought and the theorist Jurgen Habermas.[34] Some key elements of Welsh School thinking are that ‘emancipation’ should be the primary purpose of CSS, and that research is a form of political practice with normative elements. Thus their research aims to denaturalise the dominant security discourse and investigate opportunities for social transformation.[35] In this context ‘emancipation’ is defined as freeing individuals from, “War and the threat of war … poverty, poor education, political oppression and so on”.[36] They assert that researchers should be, “self-reflexive with regard to the normative implications of their work … [and make] a concern for human emancipation endogenous to their work”.[37] Steve Smith notes that the normative element of the Welsh School attracts criticism from those advocating ‘objectivity’, but argues that in reality there is, “no neutral place to stand to pronounce on the meaning of the concept of security, all definitions are theory-dependent, and all definitions reflect normative commitments”.[38] For Booth and the Welsh School the concept of ‘emancipation’ should be privileged over power and order, which are at other people’s expense, and “true (stable) security can only be achieved by people and groups if they do not deprive others of it”.[39]

Finally, it may be asked whether the CSS framework can actually be applied to real-world events. While this field is still embryonic, analyses are starting to be produced on the basis of these ideas. Examples include Ralf Emmers, who draws on the Copenhagen School to argue that ASEAN securitized the illicit drug trade in Asia, and notes the “securitization rather than the criminalization of terrorism … [and] the so-called war on drugs”;[40] Eli Stamnes from the Welsh School who demonstrates how CSS can shed light on UN operations in Macedonia[41]; and Paul Williams who argues that CSS helps reveal the true beneficiaries of South African economic policies, and emphasises the need for constructive transformation in South African society.[42]

Thus, from Buzan’s call for a broadening of security’s definition in the 1980s, Critical Security Studies has grown into a diverse field that challenges all aspects of thinking surrounding security and the functioning of the international system. Within CSS the Copenhagen and Welsh Schools have so far managed to construct the most coherent and influential approaches, though the diversity and self-critical nature of the field as a whole is its strength. The idea of broadening ‘security’ seems to be increasingly accepted in mainstream IR, and the concepts of ‘securitization’ and ‘emancipation’ are starting to be deployed in real-world analyses. Though connected to CSS, the emerging field of Human Security is seen by some to be superfluous, as CSS may already articulate its ideas and some scholars remain, “suspicious of human security as a hegemonic discourse co-opted by the state”.[43] This has led to the characterisation of Human Security as ‘Critical Security Studies-lite’. Generally the influence of CSS within IR today remains limited, but the growing awareness and popularity of the paradigm bodes well for the future of critical thought and hopefully humanity.

Bibliography

Baldwin, David A. “The Concept of Security”, Review of International Studies, No 23, 1997, pp5-26.

Booth, Ken. “Security and Emancipation”, Review of International Studies, No 17, 1991, pp313-326.

Buzon, Barry, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde, “Security Analysis”, in Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, 1998, pp21-47.

Emmers, Ralf. “ASEAN and the Securitization of Transnational Crime in Southeast Asia”, The Pacific Review, Vol 16, No 3, 2003, pp419-438.

Krause, Keith and Michael C. Williams, “From Strategy to Security: Foundations of Critical Security Studies”, in Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams (eds), Critical Security Studies: Concepts and Cases, UCL Press, London, 1997, pp33-59.

McSweeney, Bill. Security, Identity and Interests: A Sociology of International Relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.

Morgan, Patrick. “Security in International Politics: Traditional Approaches”, in Alan Collins (ed), Contemporary Security Studies, Oxford Uni Press, Oxford, 2007, pp13-33.

Mutimer, David. “Critical Security Studies: A Schismatic History”, in Alan Collins (ed), Contemporary Security Studies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007, pp53-74.

Newman, Edward. “Critical Human Security Studies”, Review of International Studies, No 36, 2010, pp77-94.

Smith, Steve. “The Contested Concept of Security”, in Ken Booth (ed), Critical Security Studies and World Politics, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, 2005, pp27-62.

Stamnes, Eli. “Critical Security Studies and the United Nations Preventive Deployment in Macedonia”, International Peacekeeping, Vol 11, No 1, Spring 2004, pp161-181.

Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics”, International Organization, Vol 46, No 2, Spring 1992, pp391-425.

Wendt, Alexander. Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.

Williams, Michael C. “Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics”, International Studies Quarterly, No 47, 2003, pp511-531.

Williams, Paul. “South African Foreign Policy: Getting Critical?”, Politikon, Vol 27, No 1, 2000, pp73-91.


[1] Ken Booth, “Security and Emancipation”, Review of International Studies, No 17, 1991, p318.

[2] Patrick Morgan, “Security in International Politics: Traditional Approaches”, in Alan Collins (ed), Contemporary Security Studies, Oxford Uni Press, Oxford, 2007, pp16-17.

[3] Morgan, “Security in International Politics”, pp16-17.

[4] Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p2.

[5] Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, p16.

[6] Kenneth Waltz quote in David A. Baldwin, “The Concept of Security”, Review of International Studies, No 23, 1997, p21.

[7] Baldwin, “The Concept of Security”, p21.

[8] Baldwin, “The Concept of Security”, p9.

[9] Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams, “From Strategy to Security: Foundations of Critical Security Studies”, in Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams (eds), Critical Security Studies: Concepts and Cases, UCL Press, London, 1997, p38.

[10] Booth, “Security and Emancipation”, p318.

[11] Richard Ashley quoted in Krause and Williams, “From Strategy to Security”, p41.

[12] Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, p1.

[13] Krause and Williams, “From Strategy to Security”, p52.

[14] Steve Smith, “The Contested Concept of Security”, in Ken Booth (ed), Critical Security Studies and World Politics, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, 2005, p32.

[15] Bill McSweeney, Security, Identity and Interests: A Sociology of International Relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, p123.

[16] McSweeney, Security, Identity and Interests, p3.

[17] David Mutimer, “Critical Security Studies: A Schismatic History”, in Alan Collins (ed), Contemporary Security Studies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007, p56.

[18] Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics”, International Organization, Vol 46, No 2, Spring 1992, p397.

[19] Wendt, “Anarchy is what States Make of it”, pp396-399.

[20] Jeff Coulter quoted in Wendt, “Anarchy is what States Make of it”, p406.

[21] Krause and Williams, “From Strategy to Security”, p35.

[22] Mutimer, “Critical Security Studies”, p62.

[23] Barry Buzon, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde, “Security Analysis”, in Security: A new Framework for Analysis, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, 1998, pp34-35.

[24] Buzon et al, “Security Analysis”, p24.

[25] Buzon et al, “Security Analysis”, p26.

[26] Ralf Emmers, “ASEAN and the Securitization of Transnational Crime in Southeast Asia”, The Pacific Review, Vol 16, No 3, 2003, p422.

[27] Buzon et al, “Security Analysis”, p27.

[28] Buzon et al, “Security Analysis”, p29.

[29] Smith, “The Contested Concept of Security”, p34.

[30] Michael C. Williams, “Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics”, International Studies Quarterly, No 47, 2003, p512.

[31] Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, p21.

[32] Smith, “The Contested Concept of Security”, p35.

[33] Smith, “The Contested Concept of Security”, p36.

[34] Mutimer, “Critical Security Studies”, p62.

[35] Eli Stamnes, “Critical Security Studies and the United Nations Preventive Deployment in Macedonia”, International Peacekeeping, Vol 11, No 1, Spring 2004, p162.

[36] Booth, “Security and Emancipation”, p319.

[37] Stamnes, “Critical Security Studies”, p163.

[38] Smith, “The Contested Concept of Security”, p28.

[39] Booth, “Security and Emancipation”, p319.

[40] Emmers, “ASEAN”, p421.

[41] Stamnes, “Critical Security Studies”, p177.

[42] Paul Williams, “South African Foreign Policy: Getting Critical?”, Politikon, Vol 27, No 1, 2000, p82.

[43] Edward Newman, “Critical Human Security Studies”, Review of International Studies, No 36, 2010, p77.

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One Comment on “Critical Security Studies”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    Really liked your post – just starting an undergrad unit on security studies, and felt completely lost – your essay helped more than some of the published texts!


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