Security and Emancipation by Ken Booth –

Ken Booth -Security and émancipation

Source: Review of International Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 1991, pp. 313–26.

Word problems and world problems

UR WORK IS our words, but our words do not work any more. They have not worked for some time. […] As a result […], we cannot expect to deal

successfully with world problems if we cannot sort out our word problems.

The interregnum

One of the interesting word problems at the moment involves the difficulty of giving a satisfactory name to the present stage of world affairs. The phrase ‘post-Cold War world’ is widely used, but it is not apposite.The end of the Cold War obviously partly defines when we are living, but there is, and has been for years, much more to this turbulent era: the growth of complex interdependence, the erosion of sovereignty, amazing advances in communications, the declining utility of force, the degradation of nature, huge population growth, the internationalization of the world economy, the spread of global life styles, constant technological innovation, the dissemination of modern weaponry, the growing scope for non-state actors and so on. […] Rosenau describes our times as‘post-international politics’.This is meant to suggest the decline of long-standing patterns, as more and more of the interactions that sustain world politics do not directly involve states.

Economic and loyalty patterns are becoming more complex. A recent book asks: ‘Are Korean stocks purchased in London by a Turk part of the Korean, British or Turkish economy?’ The answer it gives breaks out of the state framework and con- cludes that they are clearly part of a more complicated global economy.1 Meanwhile, there is the simultaneous development of both more local and more global identities, as people want meaning and authenticity in their lives, as well as economic well-being. The local/global sense of identification is not mutually exclusive; it is part of the development of the more complex and overlapping identities which will characterize the future. The result will be the breaking down of the statist Tebbit prinzip: ein passport, ein leader, ein cricket team.

If we must name things correctly before we can ‘live in truth’, as Vaclev Havel has put it, we need to name when we are living.2 Marxism Today’s label,‘New Times’, is the most helpful so far. But if an entirely satisfactory label is still to be conceived, there is at least one neat form of words, from 60 years ago, which speaks exactly to the pres- ent. ‘The old is dying’, Gramsci wrote, ‘and the new cannot be born; in this inter- regnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.’3 An ‘interregnum’ is a useful way to think about the present. […]

A turning point for inter-state war

The forces shaping the new context for world politics, as ever, offer both dangers and opportunities. What demands our pressing attention is the unprecedented destruction threatened by modern military technology and environmental damage. Since the direct and indirect costs of failure in what might be termed global management are now so high, conscious cultural evolution is imperative.4 One area where this has become increasingly apparent is security, which has been the first obligation of gov- ernments and is the transcendent value of strategic studies, a dominant sub-field of international politics since the mid-1950s.

Until recently the security problematic was well-focused. A group of people like us, turning up at a conference like this, could predict what a speaker would talk about if ‘security’ was in the title of a talk. It is not long ago when issues such as Cruise, Pershing, SDI and the SS-20 made strategists out of all of us; and gave President Reagan sleepless afternoons. The dominating security questions were: Is the Soviet threat growing? What is the strategic balance? And would the deployment of a par- ticular weapon help stability? In that period of looking at world politics through a missile-tube and gun-sight, weapons provided most of the questions, and they provided most of the answers – whatever the weapon, whatever the context, and whatever the cost. […]

Military questions will obviously continue to have an important part in the concerns of all students of international politics. However, it is doubtful whether they will be as central a preoccupation, except for some obvious regional conflicts.This is because the institution of inter-state war is in historic decline. [.…] Today states will only fight, with the odd deviant, if they or their allies and associates are actually attacked. Otherwise states are running out of motives for war. Within states it is a different matter; there is no diminution of internal violence.

Given the changing costs and benefits of inter-state war, it is too soon in history to describe the international system and the logic of anarchy as immutably a ‘war system’. Indeed, there are accumulating signs that world politics is fitfully coming to the end of a 350-year span of history, which was dominated by the military competi- tion between the technologically advanced states of the north, with realist outlooks, Machiavellian ethics and a Clausewitzian philosophy of war.

The period of history just described – the ‘Westphalian system’ – produced a game, in Raymond Aron’s noted formulation, played by diplomats and soldiers on behalf of statesmen. Through these centuries the security game states learned to play was ‘power politics’, with threats producing counterthreats, alliances, counteral- liances, and so on.This has been the basic raw material of strategic studies for the past thirty years.The question we now face is: what security game should be played in the ‘New Times’ which do not yet have a suitable name?

Security in our new times

The elements of the new security game I want to propose should not be unfamiliar. The ingredients include ideas from such diverse sources as the World Society School, alternative security thinking, classical international relations, critical theory, peace research, strategic studies, and neo-realism. If these different approaches are con- ceived as tramlines, some are to be extended, some bent and others turned back on themselves, until they all reach a common point. I call this point of convergence uto- pian realism. It is a mixture of what William T. R. Fox called ‘empirical realism’5 with some notion of what others would call global ethics, or world order principles.

The most obvious difference between security from a utopian realist perspective and traditional security thinking lies in the former’s holistic character and non-statist approach. The last decade or so has seen a growing unease with the traditional con- cept of security, which privileges the state and emphasizes military power. […]

The unease with traditional security thinking has expressed itself in a frequent call for a ‘broadening’ or ‘updating’ of the concept of security. In practice little actual new thinking has taken place.A notable exception, of course, was Barry Buzan’s People, States and Fear, first published in 1983. […] But even that book, excellent as it is, can primarily be read as an explanation of the difficulties surrounding the concept. The book not only argues that security is an ‘essentially contested concept’ defying pursuit of an agreed definition, but it asserts that there is not much point struggling to make it uncontested. Such a conclusion is unsatisfying. If we cannot name it, can we ever hope to achieve it? […]

The pressures to broaden and update the concept of security have come from two sources. First, the problems with the traditionally narrow military focus of security have become increasingly apparent. It is only necessary here to mention the greater awareness of the pressures of the security dilemma, the growing appreciation of secu- rity interdependence, the widespread recognition that the arms race has produced higher levels of destructive power but not a commensurate growth of security, and the realization of the heavy burden on economies of extravagant defence spending. The second set of pressures has come from the strengthening claim of other issue areas for inclusion on the security agenda. The daily threat to the lives and well-being of most people and most nations is different from that suggested by the traditional military perspective. Old-fashioned territorial threats still exist in some parts of the world. […] For the most part, however, the threats to the well-being of individuals and the interests of nations across the world derive primarily not from a neighbour’s army but from other challenges, such as economic collapse, political oppression, scarcity, over- population, ethnic rivalry, the destruction of nature, terrorism, crime and disease.

In most of the respects just mentioned people are more threatened by the policies and inadequacies of their own government than by the Napoleonic ambitions of their neighbour’s.To countless millions of people in the world it is their own state, and not ‘The Enemy’ that is the primary security threat. In addition, the security threat to the regimes running states is often internal rather than external. It is almost certainly true that more governments around the world at this moment are more likely to be top- pled by their own armed forces than by those of their neighbours. […]

The broader security problems […] are obviously not as cosmically threatening as was the Cold War. But they are problems of profound significance. They already cost many lives and they could have grave consequences if left untreated.The repres- sion of human rights, ethnic and religious rivalry, economic breakdown and so on can create dangerous instability at the domestic level which in turn can exacerbate the tensions that lead to violence, refugees and possibly inter-state conflict. […]

Communities which are wealthy and have a significant level of social justice do not seem to fight each other. There has not been a war since 1945 between the 44 richest countries.6 ‘Security communities’ – islands of what Kenneth Boulding called ‘stable peace’7 – have developed in several parts of the world. For whatever reason there does seem to be a correlation between democracy and freedom on the one hand and warlessness (within security communities) on the other. As a result even rela- tively conservative thinkers about international politics seem increasingly to accept that order in world affairs depends on at least minimal levels of political and social justice.This is where, finally, emancipation comes in.

Emancipation versus power and order

Emancipation should logically be given precedence in our thinking about security over the mainstream themes of power and order.The trouble with privileging power and order is that they are at somebody else’s expense (and are therefore potentially unstable). […] During the Cold War of the 1960s and 1970s there was military stabil- ity in Europe (hot war would not pay for either side) but there was no political stability (because millions were oppressed). In the end the vaunted ‘order’ created by dividing Europe into the two most heavily armed camps in history proved so unstable that it collapsed like a house of cards (and miraculously almost without violence). True (stable) security can only be achieved by people and groups if they do not deprive others of it.

‘Security’ means the absence of threats.8 Emancipation is the freeing of people (as individuals and groups) from those physical and human constraints which stop them carrying out what they would freely choose to do.War and the threat of war is one of those constraints, together with poverty, poor education, political oppression and so on. Security and emancipation are two sides of the same coin. Emancipation, not power or order, produces true security. Emancipation, theoretically, is security. Implicit in the preceding argument is the Kantian idea that we should treat people as ends and not means. States, however, should be treated as means and not ends. It is on the position of the state where the conception of security as a process of emancipation parts company with the neo-realist conception as elaborated in People, States and Fear. The litmus test concerns the primary referent object: is it states, or is it people?

Whose security comes first? I want to argue, following the World Society School, buttressed on this point by Hedley Bull that individual humans are the ultimate refer- ent. Given all the attention he paid to order between states, it is often overlooked that Bull considered ‘world order’ – between people – to be ‘more fundamental and pri- mordial’ than international order: ‘the ultimate units of the great society of all man- kind’, he wrote,‘are not states […] but individual human beings, which are permanent and indestructible in a sense in which groupings of them of this or that sort are not’.9 Those entities called ‘states’ are obviously important features of world politics, but they are unreliable, illogical and too diverse in their character to use as the primary referent objects for a comprehensive theory of security:

  • States are unreliable as primary referents because whereas some are in the busi- ness of security (internal and external) some are It cannot serve the theory and practice of security to privilegeAl Capone regimes.The traditional (national) security paradigm is invariably based upon a text-book notion of ‘the state’, but the evidence suggests that many do not even approximate it. Can ‘security’ be furthered by including the regimes of such as Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein among the primary referents of theory or practice?
  • It is illogical to place states at the centre of our thinking about security because even those which are producers of security (internal and external) represent the means and not the It is illogical to privilege the security of the means as opposed to the security of the ends. An analogy can be drawn with a house and its inhabitants.A house requires upkeep, but it is illogical to spend excessive amounts of money and effort to protect the house against flood, dry rot and burglars if this is at the cost of the well-being of the inhabitants. There is obvi- ously a relationship between the well-being of the sheltered and the state of the shelter, but can there be any question as to whose security is primary?
  • States are too diverse in their character to serve as the basis for a comprehensive theory of security because, as many have argued over the years, the historical variety of states, and relations between them, force us to ask whether a theory of the state is 10 Can a class of political entities from the United States to Tuvalu, and Ancient Rome to the Lebanon, be the foundation for a sturdy concept of security?

When we move from theory to practice, the difference between the neo-realist and the utopian realist perspective on the primary referent should become clearer. It was personified in the early 1980s by the confrontation between the women of Greenham Common and MargaretThatcher on the issue of nuclear weapons.Thatcher demanded Cruise and Trident as guarantors of British sovereignty. In the opinion of the prime minister and her supporters the main threat was believed to be a Soviet occupation of Britain and the overthrow of the Westminster model of democracy. It was believed that British ‘sovereignty’, and its traditional institutions safeguarded the interests of the British people. Thatcher spoke for the state perspective. The Greenham women sought denuclearization. The main threat, they and anti-nuclear opinion believed, was not the Soviet Union, but the nuclear arms build-up.They pinned tokens of family life, such as photographs and teddy bears, on the perimeter fence of the Greenham missile base, to indicate what was ultimately being threatened by nuclear war.

People could survive occupation by a foreign power, they argued, but could not sur- vive a nuclear war, let alone nuclear winter. By criticizing nuclearism, and pointing to the dangers of proliferation and ecological disaster, the women of Greenham Common were acting as a home counties chapter of the world community.

The confrontation between the Greenham women and the Grantham woman sparked interesting arguments about principle and policy. I thought the Greenham women right at the time, and still do. But the path to nuclear abolition cannot be quick or easy; nor is it guaranteed.The hope of some anti-nuclear opinion for a grand abolition treaty (a sort of Hobbes today, Kant tomorrow) is not feasible.11 But it is rational to act as though abolition is possible. Indeed, to do otherwise is to perpetuate the belief that there is ultimately no stronger basis for human coexistence than geno- cidal fear. Over a long period such minimalist thinking seems to be a recipe for disas- ter, The search for nuclear abolition has value as part of a process of extending the idea of moral and political community (which even realists like Carr saw as the ulti- mate foundation of security). Kant would have seen the search for total global aboli- tion as a ‘guiding ideal’; he might have called it a ‘practical impracticality’.

The case for emancipation

It is appropriate to place emancipation at the centre of new security thinking in part because it is the spirit of our times […] [which] refers to the whole of the twentieth century. […] This century has seen the struggle for freedom of the colonial world, women, youth, the proletariat, appetites of all sorts, homosexuals, consumers, and thought.12 The struggle for emancipation goes on in many places. Some groups have done and are doing better than others. For the moment there is a spirit of liberty abroad. In the struggle against political oppression, one striking feature of recent years has been the remarkable success of non-violent ‘people power’ in many coun- tries, ranging from Poland to the Philippines.

In the study of world politics, emphasizing emancipation is one way to help loosen the grip of the neo-realist tradition. Neo-realism undoubtedly highlights important dynamics in relations between states, and these cannot be disregarded. But to make world politics more intelligible it is necessary to go beyond these important but lim- ited insights.The tradition of critical theory is helpful in this regard; its most import- ant potential contribution in the present state of the subject lies in recapturing the idea that politics is open-ended and based in ethics.13 From this perspective strategy becomes not the study of the technological variable in inter-state politics, but a con- tinuation of moral philosophy with an admixture of firepower. The next stage of thinking about security in world affairs should be marked by moving it out of its almost exclusively realist framework into the critical philosophical camp.

In parallel with such a move it is necessary to reconsider much traditional think- ing about liberty, which has tended to place freedom before equality. This tradition was clearly expressed by Theodore Sumberg in an argument about foreign aid as a moral obligation. The central value for Americans, it was asserted, is liberty not the abolition of poverty.14 Liberty is also the central value of emancipation, but emancipa- tion implies an egalitarian concept of liberty.When the homeless are told, for exam- ple, that they now have more liberty, by people with hearts of pure polyester, because they can buy shares in privatized industries, that ‘liberty’ is meaningless.Whether the focus is Britain or the globe, liberty without economic status is propaganda. […]

Integral to emancipation is the idea of the reciprocity of rights. The implication of this is the belief that ‘I am not truly free until everyone is free’. This is a principle everyone can implement in everyday life, and it has implications for international relations. Since ‘my freedom depends on your freedom’, the process of emancipation implies the further breaking down of the barriers we perpetuate between foreign and domestic policy. In this world of turbulent change it is less and less tenable to see the ‘external world’ – the subject-matter of traditional international politics – as a ‘domain of its own’. In the interpenetrating world of global politics, economics and cultures, we need better attend to the linkages between ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ poli- tics. Frontiers these days do not hold back either ‘internal’ or ‘external’ affairs.

The continuing sharp distinction between what is ‘domestic’ and what is ‘foreign’ is one manifestation of the way the study of international politics has been bedevilled by unhelpful dichotomies. What are convenient labels for teaching can actually be misleading. It is only necessary to mention the polarization of order and justice, domestic and foreign policy, internal order and external anarchy, utopianism and realism, political and international theory, high and low politics, and peace research and strategic studies. Security conceived as a process of emancipation promises to integrate all these. It would encompass, for example, the ‘top down’ northern ‘national security’ view of security and the ‘bottom up’ southern view of ‘comprehensive security’ concerned with problems arising out of underdevelopment or oppression.15 Overall, therefore, the concept of emancipation promises to bring together Martin Wight’s ‘theories of the good life’, and ‘theories of survival’ into a comprehensive approach to security in world politics.

Today it is difficult to think of issues more important than those on the expanded security agenda mentioned earlier. Understanding such issues in the 1990s will be the equivalent of what the Great War was in the 1920s. It is already evident that in the 1990s insecurity in one form or another will be all around. Fortunately, in this post-international politics/post-foreign policy world nobody has to wait for the Douglas Hurds. Some governments can exercise enormous power, but they are not the only agents, and they are not immune to influence. The implementation of an emancipatory strategy through process utopian steps is, to a greater or lesser extent, in the hands of all those who want it to be – the embryonic global civil society. In a world of global communications few should feel entirely helpless. Even in small and private decisions it is possible to make choices which help rather than hinder the building of a world community. Some developments depend on governments, but some do not.We can begin or continue pursuing emancipation in what we research, in how we teach, in what we put on conference agendas, in how much we support Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Oxfam and other groups identifying with a global community, and in how we deal with each other and with students. And in pursuing emancipation, the bases of real security are being established.


  • John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, Megatrends Ten New Directions for the 1990s (NewYork, 1990), p. 19.
  • Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth (London, 1986), especially 2, ‘The Power of the Powerless’.
  • Nadine Gordimer took this quotation as the starting point for a novel on black- white relations in South Africa: see her July’s People (London, 1981). I took it as the starting point for thinking about the present era in international politics: see New Thinking about Strategy and International Security (London, 1991).
  • This is the theme of Robert Ornsteain and Paul Ehrlich, New World, New Mind (London, 1989).
  • T. R. Fox, ‘E. H. Carr and Political Realism: Vision and Revision’, Review of International Studies, 11 (1985), pp. 1–16.
  • Naisbitt and Aburdene, Megatrends 2000, 29.
  • Kenneth Boulding, Stable Peace (Austin, 1979), passim.
  • The most thorough discussion is Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear (Hemel Hempstead, 2nd edn, 1991). For some definitions, see 16–18.
  • Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (London, 1977), 22.
  • See, for example, David Held,‘Central Perspectives on the Modern State’, 1–55 in David Held et al. (eds.), States and Societies (Oxford, 1983).
  • As, for instance, in Jonathan Schell, The Abolition (London, 1984).
  • See Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring. The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston, 1989), especially pp. xiii–xvi.
  • See, by way of introduction, Mark Hoffman, ‘Critical Theory and the Inter- Paradigm Debate’, Millennium, 16 (1987), 231–49, and Andrew Linklater, Beyond Realism and Marxism. Critical Theory and International Relations (London, 1990).
  • Theodore Sumberg, Foreign Aid as Moral Obligation? The Washington Papers, 10 (Beverly Hills, 1973) discussed in Stanley Hoffmann, Duties Beyond Borders (Syracuse, 1981), p. 153.
  • See, for example, Caroline Thomas,‘New Directions in Thinking about Security in the Third World’, 267–89 in Ken Booth (ed.), New Thinking About Strategy and International Security (London; 1991), and Caroline Thomas and Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, eds., Conflict and Consensus in South/North Security (Cambridge, 1989).

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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