“National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol

Arnold Wolfers 

Source: Discord and Collaboration: Essays on International Politics (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962), pp. 147–65.

TODAY […] THE FORMULA of the national interest has come to be practically synonymous with the formula of national security. Unless they explicitly state some other intent, spokesmen for a policy which would take the national interest as its guide-can be assumed to mean that priority shall be given to measures of security, a term to be analyzed.1 […]

The term national security, like national interest, is well enough established in the political discourse of international relations to designate an objective of policy distinguishable from others.We know roughly what people have in mind if they com- plain that their government is neglecting national security or demanding excessive sacrifices for the sake of enhancing it. Usually those who raise the cry for a policy oriented exclusively toward this interest are afraid their country underestimates the external dangers facing it or is being diverted into idealistic channels unmindful of these dangers. Moreover, the symbol suggests protection through power and there- fore figures more frequently in the speech of those who believe in reliance on national power than of those who place their confidence in model behavior, international co- operation, or the United Nations to carry their country safely through the tempests of international conflict. For these reasons it would be an exaggeration to claim that the symbol of national security is nothing but a stimulus to semantic confusion, although used without specifications it leaves room for more confusion than sound political counsel or scientific usage can afford.

The demand for a policy of national security is primarily normative in character. It is supposed to indicate what the policy of a nation should be in order to be either expedient – a rational means toward an accepted end – or moral, the best or the least evil course of action. [Besides] [t]he value judgments implicit in these normative exhortations […], attention should [also] be drawn to an assertion that is implicit if not explicit in most appeals for a policy guided by national security. Such appeals usually assume that nations have made security their goal except when idealism or utopianism of their leaders has led them to stray from the traditional path. If such conformity of behavior actually existed, it would be proper to infer that a country deviating from the established pattern of conduct would risk being penalized. This would greatly strengthen the normative arguments. The trouble with the contention of fact, however, is that the term “security” covers a range of goals so wide that highly divergent policies can be interpreted as policies of security.

Security points to some degree of protection of values previously acquired. In Walter Lippmann’s words, 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.2 This definition implies that security rises and falls with the ability of a nation to deter an attack, or to defeat it.This is in accord with common usage of the term.

Security is a value, then, of which a nation can have more or less and which it can aspire to have in greater or lesser measure.3 It has much in common, in this respect, with power or wealth, two other values of great importance in international affairs. But while wealth measures the amount of a nation’s material possessions, and power, its ability to control the actions of others, security, in an objective sense, measures the absence of threats to acquired values, in a subjective sense, the absence of fear that such values will be attacked. In both respects a nation’s security can run a wide gamut from almost complete insecurity or sense of insecurity at one end, to almost com- plete security or absence of fear at the other.4

The possible discrepancy between the objective and subjective connotations of the term is significant in international relations although the chance of future attack can never be measured “objectively”; it must always remain a matter of subjective evaluation and speculation. […] It is well known that nations, and groups within nations, differ widely in their reaction to one and the same external situation. Some tend to exaggerate the danger while others underestimate it. With hindsight it is sometimes possible to tell exactly how far they deviated from a rational reaction to the actual or objective state of danger existing at the time. Even if for no other reason, this difference in the reaction to similar threats suffices to make it probable that nations will differ in their efforts to obtain more security. Some may find the danger to which they are exposed entirely normal and in line with their modest security expectations while others consider it unbearable to live with these same dangers. […]

Another and even stronger reason why nations must be expected not to act uni- formly is that they are not all or constantly faced with the same degree of danger. […] This point, however, should not be overstressed.There can be no quarrel with the generalization that most nations, most of the time – the great powers particularly – have shown, and had reason to show, an active concern about some lack of security and have been prepared to make sacrifices for its enhancement. Danger and the awareness of it have been and continue to be sufficiently widespread to guarantee some uniform- ity in this respect. But a generalization that leaves room both for the frantic kind of struggle for more security which characterized French policy at times and for the neglect of security apparent in American foreign policy after the close of both world wars throws little light on the behavior of nations.The demand for conformity would have meaning only if it could be said – as it could under the conditions postulated in the working hypothesis of pure power politics – that nations normally subordinate all other values to the maximization of their security.This, however, is obviously not the case.

There have been many instances of struggles for more security taking the form of an unrestrained race for armaments, alliances, strategic boundaries, and the like; but one need only recall the many heated parliamentary debates on arms appropriations to realize how uncertain has been the extent to which people will consent to sacrifice for additional increments of security. Even when there has been no question that armaments would mean more security, the cost in taxes, the reduction in social benefits, or the sheer discomfort involved have militated effectively against further effort. 

Instead of expecting a uniform drive for enhanced or maximum security, a differ- ent hypothesis may offer a more promising lead. Efforts for security are bound to be experienced as a burden; security after all is nothing but the absence of the evil of insecurity, a negative value so to speak. As a consequence, nations will be inclined to minimize these efforts, keeping them at the lowest level that will provide them with what they consider adequate protection. This level will often be lower than what statesmen, military leaders, or other particularly security-minded participants in the decision-making process believe it should be. In any case, together with the extent of the external threats, numerous domestic factors such as national character, tradition, preferences, and prejudices will influence the level of security that a nation chooses to make its target.

It might be objected that in the long run nations are not so free to choose the amount of effort they will put into security. […] This objection again would make sense only if the hypothesis of pure power politics were a realistic image of actual world affairs. A quick glance at history is enough, however, to show that survival has only exceptionally been at stake, particularly for the major powers. If nations were not concerned with the protection of values other than their survival as independent states, most of them most of the time would not have had to be seriously worried about their security, despite what manipulators of public opinion engaged in muster- ing greater security efforts may have said to the contrary.What “compulsion” there is, then, is a function not merely of the will of others, real or imagined, to destroy the nation’s independence but of national desires and ambitions to retain a wealth of other values such as rank, respect, material possessions, and special privileges. It would seem to be a fair guess that the efforts for security by a particular nation will tend to vary, other things being equal, with the range of values for which protection is being sought.

In respect to this range, there may seem to exist a considerable degree of uniform- ity. All over the world today peoples are making sacrifices to protect and preserve what to them appear as the minimum national core values: national independence and territorial integrity. But there is deviation in two directions. Some nations seek pro- tection for more marginal values as well.There was a time when United States policy could afford to be concerned mainly with the protection of the foreign investments or markets of its nationals, its “core values” being out of danger, or when Britain was extending its national self to include large and only vaguely circumscribed “regions of special interest.” It is a well-known and portentous phenomenon that bases, security zones, and the like may be demanded and acquired for the purpose of protecting values acquired earlier; and they then become new national values requiring protec- tion themselves. Pushed to its logical conclusion, such spatial extension of the range of values does not stop short of world domination.

A deviation in the opposite direction of a compression of the range of core values is hardly exceptional in our days either.There is little indication that Britain is bolster- ing the security of Hong Kong although colonies were once considered part of the national territory. The Czechs lifted no finger to protect their independence against the Soviet Union and many West Europeans are arguing today that rearmament has become too destructive of values they cherish to be justified even when national independence is obviously at stake.

The lack of uniformity does not end here. A policy is not characterized by its goal – in this case, security – alone. To establish its character, the means used to pursue the goal must be taken into account as well. Thus, if two nations were both endeavoring to maximize their security but one were placing all its reliance on arma- ments and alliances, the other on meticulous neutrality, a policy-maker seeking to emulate their behavior would be at a loss where to turn. Those who call for a policy guided by national security are not likely to be unaware of this fact, but they take for granted that they will be understood to mean a security policy based on power, and on military power at that. Were it not so, they would be hard put to prove that their government was not already doing its best for security, though it was seeking to enhance it by such means as international co-operation or by the negotiation of com- promise agreements – means which in one instance may be totally ineffective or utopian but in others may have considerable protective value.

It is understandable why it should be assumed so readily that a quest for security must necessarily translate itself into a quest for coercive power. Since security is being sought against external violence – coupled perhaps with internal subversive vio- lence – it seems plausible at first sight that the response should consist in an accumu- lation of the same kind of force for the purpose of resisting an attack or of deterring a would-be attacker.The most casual reading of history and of contemporary experi- ence, moreover, suffices to confirm the view that such resort to “power of resistance” has been the rule in nations grappling with serious threats to their security, however much the specific form of this power and its extent may differ.Why otherwise would so many nations which have no acquisitive designs maintain costly armaments? […]

But again, the generalization that nations seeking security usually place great reli- ance on coercive power does not carry one far.The issue is not whether there is regu- larly some such reliance but whether as between nations there are no significant differences concerning their overall choice of the means upon which they place their trust. […] [C]oncerning […] future security […], one cannot help drawing the con- clusion that, in the matter of means, the roads that are open may lead in diametrically opposed directions.5 The choice in every instance will depend on a multitude of vari- ables, including, ideological and moral convictions, expectations concerning the psy- chological and political developments in the camp of the opponent, and inclinations of individual policy-makers.6

After all that has been said, little is left of the sweeping generalization that in actual practice nations, guided by their national security interest, tend to pursue a uniform and therefore imitable policy of security. Instead, there are numerous rea- sons why they should differ widely in this respect, with some standing close to the pole of complete indifference to security or complete reliance on nonmilitary means, others close to the pole of insistence on absolute security or of complete reliance on coercive power. It should be added that there exists still another category of nations which cannot be placed within the continuum connecting these poles because they regard security of any degree as an insufficient goal; instead they seek to acquire new values even at the price of greater insecurity. In this category must be placed not only the “mad Caesars” who are out for conquest and glory at any price, but also idealistic statesmen who would plunge their country into war for the sake of spreading the benefits of their ideology, for example, or of liberating enslaved peoples. […]


  • Hans Morgenthau’s In Defense of the National Interest (Alfred Knopf, New York, 1951) is the most explicit and impassioned recent plea for an American foreign policy which shall follow “but one guiding star – the National Interest.” While Morgenthau is not equally explicit in regard to the meaning he attaches to the symbol “national interest,” it becomes clear in the few pages devoted to an exposi- tion of this “perennial” interest that the author is thinking in terms of the national security interest, and specifically of security based on power.The United States, he says, is interested in three things: a unique position as a predominant power with- out rival in the Western Hemisphere and the maintenance of the balance of power in Europe as well as in Asia, demands which make sense only in the context of a quest for security through power.
  • Walter Lippmann, S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1943), p. 51.
  • This explains why some nations that seem to fall into the category of status quo powers par excellence may nevertheless be dissatisfied and act very much like “imperialist” powers, as Morgenthau calls nations with acquisitive goals. They are dissatisfied with the degree of security they enjoy under the status quo and are out to enhance France’s occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 illustrates this type of behav- ior. Because the demand for more security may induce a status quo power even to resort to the use of violence as a means of attaining more security, there is reason to beware of the easy and often self-righteous assumption that nations which desire to preserve the status quo are necessarily “peace-loving.”
  • Security and power would be synonymous terms if security could be attained only through the accumulation of power, which will be shown not to be the The fear of attack – security in the subjective sense – is also not proportionate to the relative power position of a nation.Why, otherwise, would some weak and exposed nations consider themselves more secure today than does the United States? Harold
  1. Lasswell and Abraham Kaplan in Power and Society (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1950), defining security as “high value expectancy,” stress the subjective and speculative character of security by using the term “expectancy”; the use of the term “high,” while indicating no definite level, would seem to imply that the secu- rity-seeker aims at a position in which the events he expects – here the continued unmolested enjoyment of his possessions – have considerably more than an even chance of materializing.
  • Myres McDougal, “Law and Peace,” American Journal of International Law,Vol. 46, No. 1 (January, 1952), pp. 102 ff. He rightly criticizes Hans Morgenthau for his failure to appreciate the role that nonpower methods, such as legal procedures and moral appeals, may at times successfully play in the pursuit of security. But it is surprising how little aware McDougal appears to be of the disappointing modesty of the contributions which these “other means” have actually made to the enhancement of security and the quite insignificant contributions they have made to the promotion of changes of the status quo. This latter failure signifies that they have been unable to remove the main causes of the attacks that security-minded peoples rightly fear.
  • On the problem of security policy (Sicherheitspolitik) with special reference to “collective security,” see the comprehensive and illuminating study of Heinrich Rogge, “Kollektivsicherheit Buendnispolitik Voelkerbund,” Theorie der nationalen und internationalen Sicherheit (Berlin, 1937), which deserves attention despite the fact that it was written and published in Nazi It bears a distinctly “revisionist” slant.
SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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