The Renaissance of Security Studies by Stephen M. Walt

Stephen M. Walt -The Renaissance of Security Studies

Source: ‘The renaissance of security studies’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 2, 1991, pp. 211–39.

What is “security studies”?

adopt in order to prepare for, prevent, or engage in war. […]HE BOUNDARIES OF intellectual disciplines are permeable; as a result, any effort to delineate the precise scope of security studies is somewhat arbitrary.The main focus of security studies is easy to identify, however: it is the phe- nomenon of war. Security studies assumes that conflict between states is always a possibility and that the use of military force has far-reaching effects on states and societies (Bull, 1968; Martin, 1980). Accordingly, security studies may be defined as the study of the threat, use, and control of military force (Nye and Lynn Jones, 1988). It explores the conditions that make the use of force more likely, the ways that the use of force affects individuals, states, and societies, and the specific policies that states.

Military power is not the only source of national security, and military threats are not the only dangers that states face (though they are usually the most serious).As a result security studies also includes what is sometimes termed “statecraft” – arms control, diplomacy, crisis management, for example.These issues are clearly relevant to the main focus of the field, because they bear directly on the likelihood and character of war.

Because nonmilitary phenomena can also threaten states and individuals, some writers have suggested broadening the concept of “security” to include topics such as poverty,AIDS, environmental hazards, drug abuse, and the like (Buzan, 1983; Brown, 1989). Such proposals remind us that nonmilitary issues deserve sustained attention from scholars and policymakers, and that military power does not guarantee well- being. But this prescription runs the risk of expanding “security studies” excessively; by this logic, issues such as pollution, disease, child abuse, or economic recessions could all be viewed as threats to “security.” Defining the field in this way would destroy its intellectual coherence and make it more difficult to devise solutions to any of these important problems.

Moreover, the fact that other hazards exist does not mean that the danger of war has been eliminated. However much we may regret it, organized violence has been a central part of human existence for millennia and is likely to remain so for the fore- seeable future. Not surprisingly, therefore, preparations for war have preoccupied organized polities throughout history (McNeill, 1982). Any attempt to understand the evolution of human society, let alone the prospects for peace, must take account of the role of military force. Indeed, given the cost of military forces and the risks of modern war, it would be irresponsible for the scholarly community to ignore the central questions that form the heart of the security studies field.1 […]

Problems and prospects for security studies

What lies ahead for security studies? On the one hand, the widespread belief that the end of the Cold War has decreased the risk of war may temporarily divert financial support and research energies in other directions. On the other hand, a permanent decline is unlikely for at least three reasons. First, as the war in the Persian Gulf reminds us, mili- tary power remains a central element of international politics, and failure to appreciate its importance invariably leads to costly reminders. Second, security studies has been institutionalized within many university departments; indeed, a graduate program lack- ing qualified experts in this area must now be considered incomplete.Thus, new Ph.Ds will emerge in due course and will enjoy adequate professional opportunities. Most important of all, the collapse of the ColdWar order will create new policy problems and new research puzzles. In short, the scholarly agenda in security studies is expanding, not shrinking, and security studies will remain an active sub-field for some time to come.

Potential problems

Despite these grounds for optimism, several dangers could undermine the future development of the field. As noted earlier, the resources at stake in debates over defense and foreign policy create a strong temptation to focus on short-term policy analysis. Moreover, as Hans Morgenthau once warned, active involvement in policy debates inevitably tempts participants to sacrifice scholarly integrity for the sake of personal gain or political effectiveness (Morgenthau,1970;Walt,1987:146–60). At the very least, there are powerful incentives to concentrate on consulting work and policy analysis rather than on cumulative scholarly research. If security studies neglects long-term research questions and focuses solely on immediate policy issues, a decline in rigor and quality will be difficult to avoid.

Yet the opposite tendency may pose an even greater danger. On the whole, secu- rity studies have profited from its connection to real-world issues; the main advances of the past four decades have emerged from efforts to solve important practical ques- tions. If security studies succumbs to the tendency for academic disciplines to pursue “the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely his- torical – in short, the politically irrelevant” (Morgenthau, 1966:73), its theoretical progress and its practical value will inevitably decline.

In short, security studies must steer between the Scylla of political opportunism and the Charybdis of academic irrelevance.What does this mean in practice? Among other things, it means that security studies should remain wary of the counterproduc- tive tangents that have seduced other areas of international studies, most notably the “post-modern” approach to international affairs (Ashley, 1984; Der Derian and Shapiro, 1989; Lapid, 1989). Contrary to their proponents’ claims, post-modern approaches have yet to demonstrate much value for comprehending world politics; to date, these works are mostly criticism and not much theory.2 As Robert Keohane has noted, until these writers “have delineated […] a research program and shown […] that it can illuminate important issues in world politics, they will remain on the mar- gins of the field” (Keohane, 1988:392). In particular, issues of war and peace are too important for the field to be diverted into a prolix and self-indulgent discourse that is divorced from the real world.

The use of formal models should also be viewed with some caution, though their potential value is greater. Formal methods possess obvious virtues: analytic assump- tions tend to be stated more explicitly, gaps in evidence can be handled through sys- tematic sensitivity analyses, and advanced mathematical techniques can identify deductive solutions to previously intractable problems (for recent examples, see O’Neill, 1989; Downs and Rocke, 1990; Powell, 1990). Formal analysis can also depict a theory’s logical structure with precision, generating counterintuitive propo- sitions and identifying inconsistencies.

Yet despite these strengths, recent formal applications have had relatively little impact on other work in the field. This situation stands in sharp contrast to earlier formal works (Schelling, 1960; Olson and Zeckhauser, 1966), which had a broad and lasting influence. One reason is the tendency for recent works to rely on increasingly heroic assumptions, which render these models both impossible to test and less appli- cable to important real-world problems.The danger, as Schelling warned, is “the will- ingness of social scientists to treat the subject [of strategy] as though it were, or should be, solely a branch of mathematics” (1960:10).

Obviously, scholarship in social science need not have immediate “policy rele- vance.” But tolerance for diverse approaches is not a license to pursue a technique regardless of its ultimate payoff; the value of any social science tool lies in what it can tell us about real human behavior. Formal models are useful when they do this, but they should not be viewed as ends in themselves. Unfortunately, despite the impres- sive technical firepower displayed in many recent formal works, their ability to illu- minate important national security problems has been disappointing.

Because scientific disciplines advance through competition, we should not try to impose a single methodological monolith upon the field.To insist that a single method constitutes the only proper approach is like saying that a hammer is the only proper tool for building a house.The above strictures are no more than a warning, therefore; progress will be best served by increased dialogue between different methodological approaches (Downs, 1989).3

A research agenda for security studies

Any attempt to define a research agenda will invariably omit important or unforeseen possibilities. Nevertheless, several subjects clearly merit further attention.

The role of domestic politics. Some of the most interesting advances in security studies have come from scholars focusing on different aspects of domestic politics. What unites these disparate theories is the belief that domestic politics is a powerful determinant of national security policy. For example, several prominent studies have argued that liberal democracies do not fight each other (Small and Singer, 1976; Chan, 1984;Weede, 1984; Doyle, 1986; Maoz and Abdolali, 1989); given the importance of this claim, further research is needed to resolve the remaining theoretical and empir- ical puzzles.4 Similarly, the long-standing debate over the military’s role as a cause of war remains unresolved (Huntington, 1957; Vagts, 1959; Betts, 1977; Snyder, 1984; Van Evera, 1984), along with the validity of the so-called scapegoat and diversionary theories of war (Levy, 1988, 1990). Other recent works suggest that regime change or revolution is a potent cause of conflict as well (Maoz, 1989; Walt, 1990), but fur- ther research to measure and explain this effect is still needed. Students of arms races have long stressed the role of domestic factors (York, 1970; Kurth, 1971; Senghaas, 1972; Evangelista, 1988), and Jack Snyder’s recent work (1991) on empires argues that the internal politics of rapidly industrializing societies encourages “log-rolled” domestic coalitions to unite behind highly expansionist foreign policies. Given the recent shifts in the domestic politics of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies, further work on these different approaches is clearly in order.

The  causes  of  peace  and  cooperation. Another  potential  growth  area  is  in greater attention to the causes of peace and cooperation. To be sure, most theories about  the  causes  of  war  are  also  theories  about  peace  (Van  Evera, 1984; Blainey, 1988), and exploring ways to reduce the risk of war has been part of the field since its inception.5  In the past, however, security studies tended to view explicit research on peace as utopian or naive, perhaps based on a belief that realists should not be diverted into such idealistic pursuits. For their part, peace researchers tended to assume that the use of force was always irrational, that arms races were a powerful cause of con- flict rather than a symptom, and that war was always the result of misperception.The tendency for some peace researchers to view capitalism as a powerful engine of con- flict (despite the abundant evidence against this belief) divided the two fields even further.6

Over time, however, the two perspectives have begun to converge. As discussed above, scholars in security studies have devoted considerable attention to mispercep- tion and domestic politics as causes of war, while some peace researchers have begun to address issues of military strategy and defense policy in a more sophisticated and well-informed way.This trend is perhaps most evident in the literature on “nonoffen- sive” defense: many of these writings acknowledge the need for military power while investigating alternative force structures that could ameliorate the security dilemma between states (Ahfeldt, 1983; Alternative Defense Commission, 1983; Agrell, 1987; Gates, 1987; Saperstein, 1987; Flanagan, 1988). Although primarily a product of the peace research community, these works bear a strong resemblance to the offense/ defense literature in security studies.

Increased interest in peace and cooperation is evident in other ways as well. For example, scholars of security affairs have been understandably skeptical of “security regimes” in the past (Jervis, 1983), but more recent studies suggest that international regimes can have modest positive effects on the ability of states to cooperate on specific security issues (Lynn Jones, 1985; Nye, 1987; George, Farley, and Dallin, 1988).

Although self-help remains the primary imperative in international politics, institutional arrangements could still contribute to peace, particularly if they directly address the primary controllable causes of war identified by previous scholarly work.7

Far from being a utopian ideal, efforts to reduce the danger of war are consistent with the central focus of security studies and with realism’s traditional pessimism about the prospects for a durable peace. Moreover, preserving peace contributes directly to national security, at least for most states most of the time. Given their belief that war is always a possibility, realists should be especially interested in devis- ing ways to ensure that it does not occur. In short, well-informed research on peace is a realistic response to anarchy and should be part of security studies.

The power of ideas. Finally, interest in the “autonomous power of ideas” has also grown in recent years.The role of “strategic beliefs” in foreign and military policy has been stressed by historians (Howard, 1984), by scholars drawing upon psychology (Jervis, 1976; Kull, 1988), and by studies of military organizations and domestic pol- itics (Snyder, 1984, 1991; Van Evera, 1984; Thomson, 1990). More generally, John Mueller (1989) and James L. Ray (1990) have argued that war is a fading institution among advanced industrial societies, just as dueling and slavery become obsolete in the 19th century. Significantly, their arguments are not based on the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Instead, they claim that the horrors of conventional war have dis- credited the earlier belief that it was a noble or heroic activity.This argument remains incomplete, however, for  we  lack  a  theory  to  account  for  the  observed  change  in attitudes (Kaysen, 1990). Mueller attributes the shift to the dehumanizing experience of World War I, but this does not explain why earlier wars failed to produce a similar result.Without a theory of attitude change, we cannot estimate the durability of cur- rent  antiwar  attitudes  or  devise  a  workable  strategy  for  reinforcing  them. And  as Mueller admits, the outbreak of World War II shows that if most but not all states believe war is too horrible to contemplate, those that do not share this view will be more likely to use force precisely because they expect opponents to acquiesce rather than fight. Unless popular revulsion against war becomes universal and permanent, it provides no guarantee that inter-state violence would end. Despite these limitations, the impact of changing attitudes on warfare remains a fascinating question, as part of the general subject of how states learn.

The end of the ColdWar. For the past forty years, the two superpowers defined their security policies primarily in response to each other, and the rivalry between them shaped the conduct of most other states as well. Accordingly, the waning of U.S.Soviet rivalry will have a significant impact on security studies.

First, the study of grand strategy will be increasingly important. As discussed earlier, interest in U.S. grand strategy revived during the renaissance of security stud- ies, but there are still no theoretical or comparative works on grand strategy and relatively few studies of other cases.8 Because both great and lesser powers will need new security arrangements once the Cold War is over, research on alternative grand strategies will be of obvious interest. Under what conditions should states employ military force and for what purposes? With the waning of the Soviet threat, what interests will the other great powers seek to defend? Can the United States and its allies now reduce their military forces, or should they be configured for other contin- gencies? These issues are certain to receive considerable attention, and some of it should come from experts without a professional interest in the outcome.

Second, the end of the Cold War raises basic issues about the prospects for peace. Will the waning of U.S.-Soviet rivalry reduce the danger of war or allow familiar sources of conflict to reemerge? Will regional powers take more aggressive actions to improve their positions – as Iraq sought to do by invading Kuwait – or will they behave more cautiously in the absence of superpower support? Attempts to answer these and other questions will necessarily build on the existing knowledge base in the field, but will also stimulate new empirical studies and theoretical innovations.

These concerns are already evident in the scholarly debate over the future of Europe. At least four main views can be identified. “Third-image pessimists”9 argue that the re-emergence of a multipolar Europe will restore the conditions that fueled war in Europe in the past; for this reason, the end of the Cold War will increase the danger of war.They recommend that U.S. military forces remain in Europe to dampen these effects and favor the managed spread of nuclear weapons (to Germany in par- ticular) to alleviate the security fears they believe will accompany the superpowers’ withdrawal from Europe (Mearsheimer, 1990). “Second-image pessimists” downplay systemic causes and emphasize the dangers arising from the weak democratic institu- tions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.They fear that competing interest groups will use foreign policy to enhance their domestic positions; in the worst case, several factions would unite in a coalition combining their separate expansionist agendas, as occurred in Germany and Japan before the two world wars. The recommended anti- dote is Western assistance to support the new democracies in Eastern Europe, and the rapid integration of these states into the European Community (EC) (Snyder, 1990). Rejecting these pessimistic views, “second-image optimists” argue that the leveling of European societies, the dampening of militarism, and the extensive rewriting of nationalist history in Europe have removed the main causes of earlier wars. This view sees the possible dissolution of the Soviet Union as the main threat to peace, and favors Western efforts to encourage a peaceful transition and to prevent the reemer- gence of the domestic forces that fueled aggression in the past (Van Evera, 1990–91). Finally, “institutional optimists” suggest that economic integration and international institutions (such as NATO, the EC, or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) will be strong enough to safeguard peace in Europe. A full scholarly pre- sentation of this view is not yet available – though Snyder (1990) presents elements of one – but it implies using existing institutions to facilitate arms control and to manage economic and political tensions in an independent and increasingly united Europe (Hoffmann, 1990; Keohane, 1990).

A brief summary cannot do justice to the subtlety and power of these competing views. It is worth noting, however, that all of them rely on scholarship developed or refined during the renaissance of security studies: the scholarly debate on the future of Europe is very much a contest between rival theoretical visions. It is also an issue with far-reaching implications for defense budgets, alliance commitments, and the likeli- hood of war. Far from signaling a declining role for security studies, in short, the end of the Cold War will keep security issues on the front burner for some time to come. Economics and security. The relationship between economics and security is of growing interest as well. One obvious dimension is the connection between military spending and economic performance; the debate sparked by Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers illustrates the continued dissensus on this question (Kennedy, 1987; Adams  and  Gold, 1987; Huntington, 1988–89; Friedberg, 1989; Kupchan, 1989; Nye, 1990). Second, despite the attention that resource issues received after the 1973 oil shocks, disputes persist on the strategic importance of economic resources and their role as potential causes of international conflict (Shafer, 1982; Maull, 1984; Finlayson and Haglund, 1987; Johnson, 1989). The recent war in the Persian Gulf highlights the continued relevance of this issue, as well as the potential effectiveness of economic sanctions as a diplomatic instrument.

A third issue linking economics and security is the political influence of the mili- tary-industrial complex (MIC). Although several recent works have analyzed the pro- curement process in detail (Gansler, 1982, 1989; Stubbing, 1986; McNaugher, 1989), there has been little research on the MIC’s political role in shaping national policy. Even our historical knowledge is deficient; there is still no adequate successor to Huntington’s The Common Defense (1961), Schilling, Hammond, and Snyder’s Strategy, Politics, and Defense Budgets (1962), and Enthoven and Smith’s How Much is Enough? (1971). Indeed, there is no authoritative scholarly analysis of the U.S. defense buildup in the 1980s.10 Cross-national comparisons would be valuable as well, to supplement the few studies now available (Evangelista, 1988). Given the resources at stake, inves- tigating how such decisions are made seems well worth the effort of economists and security experts alike.

Refining existing theories. The discussion in this section underscores how new theories and approaches have sparked lively scholarly exchanges throughout the renaissance of security studies, on topics such as the impact of offensive and defensive advantages, the effect of domestic politics on war, the causes and consequences of arms races, the requirements of extended deterrence, the sources of military innova- tion, and the prospects for security cooperation. In most cases, however, competing hypotheses have not been subjected to systematic empirical tests. In addition to the usual efforts to devise new theories, therefore, refining and testing existing hypoth- eses through well-designed empirical studies should form a central part of future work.

Protecting the data base. As noted earlier, the renaissance of security studies was facilitated by greater access to relevant information. Unfortunately, several recent developments suggest that the information so necessary for scholarship and for an informed public debate is being seriously curtailed. The Annual Reports produced by the  Defense  Department  during  the  Reagan Administration  were  less  informative than earlier versions, and this trend has continued under President Bush.11The Reagan Administration was also more aggressive in prosecuting alleged leaks and in manipu- lating media coverage, thereby inhibiting journalists from investigative reporting and reducing the raw data available for use by scholars (Hertsgaard, 1988).12  Even more worrisome,  a  recent  volume  of  the  Foreign  Relations  of  the  United  States,  the  State Department’s official record of U.S. diplomacy, contained such serious distortions that the Chairman of its Advisory Committee resigned in protest, accompanied by widespread condemnation from the Historical profession (Cohen, 1990; Kuniholm, 1990; Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, 1990).13

Efforts to shield government policy from outside evaluation pose a grave threat to scholarship in the field. No doubt some government officials would like to deny ordinary citizens the opportunity to scrutinize their conduct; as a central part of that evaluative process, the scholarly profession should resist this effort wholeheartedly. The danger goes beyond the interests of any particular subfield; restricting information threatens the public debate that is central to democracy and essential to sound policy. Events as diverse as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Iran/contra affair, and the troubled development of the B-2 bomber remind us that excessive secrecy allows ill-conceived programs to survive uncorrected. Instead of limiting the study of security issues to a select group of official “experts,” therefore, open debate on national security matters must be preserved. Such a debate requires that scholars retain access to a reliable and complete data base. […]


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  • I am indebted to Michael Desch for discussion on these
  • Although Yosef Lapid cites Imre Lakatos’s critique of naive positivism approvingly (Lapid, 1989:239, 245), he neglects Lakatos’s key argument: theories are only overturned by the development of a superior alternative (Lakatos, 1970).
  • In the past, for example, security studies tended to dismiss quantitative research on conflict as irrelevant, while the latter tended to view security studies as unscientific “policy ” Both charges are undoubtedly true in some cases, but a blanket dismissal is increasingly inappropriate. Instead, encouraging both groups to become more familiar with alternative approaches would improve both enterprises. For example, whenever these literatures reach different conclusions – such as on the impact of domestic conflict or regime type on the likelihood of war – there is an obvious opportunity for further work.
  • In addition to problems of definition (were England and Germany liberal states in 1812 and 1914 respectively?) and the lack of independence between cases (many liberal states were formerly united in the British empire), these studies have yet to offer a persuasive explanation for the “liberal ”
  • For example, deterrence theory identifies the conditions that make decisions for war irrational, surely a worthy goal for opponents of
  • For surveys of peace research from a variety of perspectives, see Singer (1976), Boulding (1978),Wiberg (1981), and Quester (1989).
  • Examples include offensive military imbalances, territorial disputes, xenophobia, and hypernationalism. The U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations helped stabilize their deterrent relationship by limiting anti-ballistic missile systems, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) led a largely successful campaign to eliminate national biases within European text- books (Dance, 1960).
  • Studies of grand strategy for non-U.S. cases include Handel (1973), Luttwak (1976), Ben-Horin and Posen (1981), Friedberg (1988), and Mandelbaum (1988).
  • “Third-image” theories view war as a result of the anarchic international system, “second-image” theories focus on the internal character of states, and “first-image” theories address causes found in human See Waltz (1959).
  • Instead, most recent writings on S. defense policy are journalistic, polemical, or narrowly focused (Fallows, 1982; Stubbing, 1986; or Kotz, 1988).
  • The Defense Department seems proud of its failure to inform us: its 1990 Annual Report boasts that it saved $121,800 by “tailoring the report directly to statutory requirements […] and eliminating unnecessary no-charge distribution.” In other words, Secretary Cheney’s staff included only what was absolutely required by law and reduced public access to its report!
  • The Bush Administration’s handling of the Panama invasion and the Gulf War sug- gests that it is following a similar approach, aided by a compliant media (Cook and Cohen, 1990).
  • Specifically,Volume X in the 1952–54 series, covering S. policy in Iran, makes no mention of Operation AJAX, the U.S.-backed coup that ousted the Mossadegh government in 1953. According to Bruce Kuniholm, an historian of U.S.-Iranian relations and former State Department employee with access to the complete account: “the misleading impression of U.S. non-involvement conveyed in the pages of this volume constitutes a gross misrepresentation of the historical record sufficient to deserve the label of fraud” (Kuniholm, 1990:12).
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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