Barry Buzan – The national security problem in international relations

Source: People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), pp. 1–34.

FEW PEOPLE WOULD deny that security, whether individual, national, or international, ranks prominently among the problems facing humanity. National security is particularly central because states dominate many of the conditions that determine security at the other two levels, and states seem unable to coexist with each other in harmony. […]

In order to have a proper understanding of the national security problem one must first understand the concept of security. In much of its prevailing usage, espe- cially by those associated with state policy-making, this concept is so weakly devel- oped as to be inadequate for the task. I seek to demonstrate that a simple-minded concept of security constitutes such a substantial barrier to progress that it might almost be counted as part of the problem. By simple-minded I mean an understand- ing of national security that is inadequately aware of the contradictions latent within the concept itself, and/or inadequately aware of the fact that the logic of security almost always involves high levels of interdependence among the actors trying to make themselves secure. […]

Security is not the only concept through which the national security problem can be approached. Traditionally, most of the literature that attempted analysis or pre- scription was, and to some extent still is, based on the concepts of power and peace. Those who favour the approach through power derive their thinking from the Realist school of International Relations represented by writers such as E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau.1 It can be argued that power not only reveals the basic pattern of capa- bilities in the international system but also highlights a prime motive for the behav- iour of actors. Those who favour the approach through peace are more loosely associated into the Idealist school. Idealists argue that their concept leads them not only to see the problem in holistic terms, as opposed to the necessarily fragmented view of the Realists, but also that it focuses attention directly on the essential issue of war. Since war is the major threat arising from the national security problem, a solu- tion to it would largely eliminate the problem from the international agenda.

Until the 1980s, these two approaches dominated thinking about the national security problem […] [which] usually led […] to highly polarized and conflicting prescriptions.Within this universe of debate the concept of security played a subsid- iary role. Realists tended to see security as a derivative of power: an actor with enough power to reach a dominating position would acquire security as a result. This view was easy to take when power was defined in the very broad terms sketched by Morgenthau.2 Although security was rightly placed as the goal, the understanding that power was the route to it was inherently self-defeating. Idealists tended to see security as a consequence of peace: a lasting peace would provide security for all.

[…] I argue that the concept of security is, in itself, a more versatile, penetrating and useful way to approach the study of international relations than either power or peace. It points to a prime motive for behaviour which is different from, but no less significant than, that provided by power. It also leads to a comprehensive perspective which is likewise different from, but no less useful than, that provided by peace. In combination, these add up to an analytical framework which stands comparison with anything available from the more established concepts. A more fully developed con- cept of security can be seen to lie between the extremes of power and peace, incor- porating most of their insights, and adding more of its own. It provides many ideas which link the established conventions of the other two schools and help to bridge the political and intellectual gulf which normally, and to their mutual detriment, separates them.

It is almost no longer controversial to say that traditional conceptions of security were (and in many minds still are) too narrowly founded.That advance does not, however, mean that a consensus exists on what a more broadly constructed conception should look like. It is still a useful exercise to survey the ground on which any broader view must be built. In other words, it is necessary to map the domain of security as an essentially contested concept. This cartographic exercise is inevitably more abstract than empirical because its purpose is to define the conceptual sub-structures on which the mass of empirical studies by strategists and others rests. In trying to transcend criticisms aimed at too narrow a focus on national security, analysts must detach themselves from the pressures of day-to-day policy issues and the conventional modes of thought that have grown up around them. […]

[In other words, one must] look more at the idea of security itself than at the contemporary empirical conditions in which security policy has to be formulated. What does security mean, in a general sense? How is this general meaning transferred to the specific entities such as people and states that must be the objects of security policy? What exactly is the referent object of security when one refers to national security? If it is the state, what does that mean? Is one to take the state as meaning the sum of the individuals within it, or is it in some sense more than the sum of its parts? In either case, how do individuals relate to an idea like national security in terms of their own interests? At the other extreme, what does international security mean? Does it apply to some entity higher than states, or is there some sense in which security among states is an indivisible phenomenon?

The character of this exercise is as much philosophical as empirical. Because secur- ity is an essentially contested concept it naturally generates questions as well as answers.

It encompasses several important contradictions and a host of nuances all of which can cause confusion if not understood. Major contradictions include that between defence and security, that between individual security and national security, that between national security and international security, and that between violent means and peaceful ends. Add to these the difficulties of determining the referent object of security (i.e. what is it that is to be made secure) and the pitfalls of applying the idea across a range of sectors (military, political, economic, environmental and societal), and the scope of the task becomes clear.

The object of the exercise is not to try to resolve these conundrums, but rather to explore them, and thereby clarify the difficulties – and the opportunities – that they pose for any attempt to apply the concept to real problems.The easy part of the exercise is using these insights to demolish the logic of simple-minded applications of security which ignore some of the contradictions they contain. For example, defence policies that raise threats by provoking the fears of other states may decrease security more than they increase it. The German naval challenge to Britain before the First World War is a case in point. The harder part of the exercise is finding derived concepts which enable the concept of security to be applied to practical situations in the full knowledge of the contradictions involved. The great merit of ideas like non-provocative defence is that they start from a solid understanding of both the necessity of, and the contradictions inherent within, the pursuit of military security.

As argued above, the nature of security defies pursuit of an agreed general defini- tion. […] But both the desire for intellectual neatness and the attempt to clarify the ends of security policy naturally create a demand for definition, and it is instructive to survey the results. Wolfers warned about the ambiguity of security, and Charles Schultze argues explicitly that: “The concept of national security does not lend itself to neat and precise formulation. It deals with a wide variety of risks about whose probabilities we have little knowledge and of contingencies whose nature we can only dimly perceive.”3 Despite these warnings, quite a number of writers have been unable to resist the temptation to try:

József Balázs: International security is determined basically by the internal and external security of the various social systems, by the extent, in general, to which system identity depends on external circumstances. Experts generally define social security as internal security. Its essential function is to ensure the political and economic power of a given ruling class, or the survival of the social system and an adequate degree of public security.4

Ian Bellany: Security itself is a relative freedom from war, coupled with a relatively high expectation that defeat will not be a consequence of any war that should occur.5 Penelope Hartland-Thunberg: [National security is] the ability of a nation to pursue successfully its national interests, as it sees them, any place in the world.6

Walter Lippmann: A nation is secure to the extent to which it is not in danger of having to sacrifice core values if it wishes to avoid war, and is able, if challenged, to maintain them by victory in such a war.7

Michael H. H. Louw: [National security includes traditional defence policy and also] the non-military actions of a state to ensure its total capacity to survive as a political entity in order to exert influence and to carry out its internal and interna- tional objectives.8

Giacomo Luciani: National security may be defined as the ability to withstand aggression from abroad.9

Laurence Martin: [Security is the] assurance of future well being.10

John E. Mroz: [Security is] the relative freedom from harmful threats.11

National Defence College (Canada): [National Security is] the preservation of a way of life acceptable to the […] people and compatible with the needs and legitimate aspirations of others. It includes freedom from military attack or coercion, freedom from internal subversion and freedom from the erosion of the political, economic and social values which are essential to the quality of life.12

Frank N.Trager and F. L. Simonie: National security is that part of government policy having as its objective the creation of national and international political conditions favourable to the protection or extension of vital national values against existing and potential adversaries.13

Richard Ullman: A threat to national security is an action or sequence of events that (1) threatens drastically and over a relatively brief span of time to degrade the quality of life for the inhabitants of a state, or (2) threatens significantly to narrow the range of policy choices available to the government of a state or to private, nongov- ernmental entities (persons, groups, corporations) within the state.14

Ole Wæver: One can view ‘security’ as that which is in language theory called a speech act: … it is the utterance itself that is the act … By saying ‘security’ a state- representative moves the particular case into a specific area; claiming a special right to use the means necessary to block this development.15

Arnold Wolfers: Security, in any objective sense, measures the absence of threats to acquired values, in a subjective sense, the absence of fear that such values will be attacked.16

These definitions do a useful service in pointing out some of the criteria for national security, particularly the centrality of values, the timing and intensity of threats and the political nature of security as an objective of the state. But they can do a disservice by giving the concept an appearance of firmness which it does not merit. For purely semantic reasons, it is difficult to avoid the absolute sense of security.The word itself implies an absolute condition – something is either secure or insecure – and does not lend itself to the idea of a graded spectrum like that which fills the space between hot and cold. Most definitions avoid one or more crucial questions.What are ‘core values’? Are they a fixed or a floating reference point? Are they in themselves free from contradictions? What sources of change are acceptable and what are not? Does‘victory’ mean anything under contemporary conditions of warfare? Are subject- ive and objective aspects of security separable in any meaningful way? Is war the only form of threat relevant to national security? How can relative security goals be ade- quately defined? Is national security really national, or merely an expression of domi- nant groups? What right does a state have to define its security values in terms which require it to have influence beyond its own territory, with the almost inevitable infringement of others’ security interests that this implies? How are terms like‘threat’ and‘aggression’ defined in relation to normal activity? The inadequacy of these defini- tions should be neither surprising nor discouraging.Years of effort have also failed to produce a generally accepted definition or measure for power.The concept of justice requires legions of lawyers to service its ambiguities.There is no reason to think that security will be any easier to crack, and as with power and justice, the absence of a universal definition does not prevent constructive discussion. Although precise definitions will always be controversial, the general sense of what one is talking about is nevertheless clear: the political effects of physical capabilities in the case of power; the pursuit of fair outcomes when behaviour is contested in the case of justice.

In the case of security, the discussion is about the pursuit of freedom from threat. When this discussion is in the context of the international system, security is about the ability of states and societies to maintain their independent identity and their functional integrity. In seeking security, state and society are sometimes in harmony with each other, sometimes opposed. Its bottom line is about survival, but it also reasonably includes a substantial range of concerns about the conditions of existence. Quite where this range of concerns ceases to merit the urgency of the ‘security’ label and becomes part of the everyday uncertainties of life, is one of the difficulties of the concept. Security is primarily about the fate of human collectivities, and only second- arily about the personal security of individual human beings. In the contemporary international system, the standard unit of security is thus the sovereign territorial state.The ideal type is the nation-state, where ethnic and cultural boundaries line up with political ones, as in Japan and Denmark. But since nations and states do not fit neatly together in many places, non-state collectivities, particularly nations, are also an important unit of analysis. Because the structure of the international system is anarchic (without central authority) in all of its major organizational dimensions (political, economic, societal), the natural focus of security concerns is the units. Since states are the dominant units, ‘national security’ is the central issue, both in its normal, but ambiguous, reference to the state and in its more direct application to ethno-cultural units. Since some military and ecological threats affect the conditions of survival on the entire planet, there is also an important sense in which security applies to the collectivity of humankind as a whole.

The security of human collectivities is affected by factors in five major sectors:

military, political, economic, societal and environmental. Generally speaking, mili- tary security concerns the two-level interplay of the armed offensive and defensive capabilities of states, and states’ perceptions of each other’s intentions. Political secur- ity concerns the organizational stability of states, systems of government and the ideologies that give them legitimacy. Economic security concerns access to the resources, finance and markets necessary to sustain acceptable levels of welfare and state power. Societal security concerns the sustainability, within acceptable condi- tions for evolution, of traditional patterns of language, culture and religious and national identity and custom. Environmental security concerns the maintenance of the local and the planetary biosphere as the essential support system on which all other human enterprises depend. These five sectors do not operate in isolation from each other. Each defines a focal point within the security problematique, and a way of ordering priorities, but all are woven together in a strong web of linkages. […]

[…] What is the referent object for security? What are the necessary conditions for security? […]

Security as a concept clearly requires a referent object, for without an answer to the question ‘The security of what?’ the idea makes no sense. To answer simply ‘The state’, does not solve the problem. Not only is the state an amorphous, multifaceted, collective object to which security could be applied in many different ways, but also there are many states, and the security of one cannot be discussed without reference to the others.The search for a referent object of security goes hand-in-hand with that for its necessary conditions. One soon discovers that security has many potential referent objects.These objects of security multiply not only as the membership of the society of states increases, but also as one moves down through the state to the level of individuals, and up beyond it to the level of the international system as a whole. Since the security of any one referent object or level cannot be achieved in isolation from the others, the security of each becomes, in part, a condition for the security of all.


  • H. Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis (London, Macmillan: 1946, 2nd edn); Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (NewYork: Knopf, 1973, 5th edn). See also, for a more recent Neorealist view, Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979). Realism in this context should not be confused with the philosophical school of the same name.
  • Peter Gellman, ‘Hans Morgenthau and the legacy of political realism’, Review of International Studies, 14:4 (1988), pp. 50–58.
  • Charles L. Schultze, ‘The economic content of national security policy’, Foreign Affairs, 51:3 (1973), 529–30.
  • József Balázs, ‘A note on the interpretation of security’, Development and Peace, 6 (1985) (note 39), 146.
  • Ian Bellany, ‘Towards a theory of international security’, Political Studies, 29:1 (1981), 102.
  • Penelope Hartland-Thunberg, ‘National economic security: interdependence and vulnerability’, in Frans A.M. Alting von Geusau and Jacques Pelkmans (eds), National Economic Security (Tilburg: John Kennedy Institute, 1982), p. 50.
  • Cited in Arnold Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962), 150.
  • Michael H. H. Louw, National Security (Pretoria: ISS-University of Pretoria, 1978); the quote is from the introductory note titled ‘The purpose of the symposium’.
  • Giacomo Luciani, ‘The economic content of security’, Journal of Public Policy, 8:2 (1989), 151.
  • Lawrence Martin, ‘Can there be national security in an insecure age?’ Encounter, 60:3 (1983), 12.
  • John Mroz, Beyond Security: Private perceptions among Arabs and Israelis (New York: International Peace Academy, 1980), p. 105 (emphasis in original).
  • Course documents, National Defence College of Canada, Kingston,
  • Frank Trager and Frank L. Simonie, ‘An introduction to the study of national security’, in F. N.Trager and P. S. Kronenberg, National Security and American Society (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973), p. 36.
  • Richard Ullman, ‘Redefining security’, International Security, 8:1 (1983) (note 32), p. 133.
  • Ole Wæver,‘Security, the speech act: analysing the politics of a word’, unpublished second draft, Centre for Peace and Conflict Research, Copenhagen, 1989 (note 38), 5–6.
  • Arnold Wolfers,‘National security as an ambiguous symbol’, Discord and Collaborat- ion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962), (note 45), 150.