What is Security? (Richard Ullman, Barry Buzan, David Baldwin…)

What is Security?


In the conceptual mindset of policy-makers and the engagement of civil society.RNOLD WOLFERS’S CLASSIC ESSAY from 1962 starts off this section, providing an insight into competing definitions of security prevalent during the Cold War. Wolfers’s key point is that while security is a crucial concept in international relations, it is also (even at the height of the Cold War) extremely subjective in nature. States and nations will tend to perceive differently their ‘acquired values’ and the degree of danger they face; the degree to which they seek to protect ‘core’ and ‘marginal’ values, given resource trade-offs; and the means by which they provide for security, ranging from alliance and arms races to neutrality and the paci- fist non-use of force. Hence, Wolfers reminds us that it is a ‘sweeping generalisation’ that all states tend to pursue a ‘uniform and imitable policy of security’; as well as highlighting the malleability of the term and how it is important to be aware of the term’s manipulation by policy-makers. Richard Ullman, writing in the latter stages of the Cold War, follows up on these themes, arguing that traditional security concep- tions have been too narrow and military-oriented. He reminds us that security is not necessarily an absolute value, and needs to be balanced against other key values, and most particularly potential infringements of liberty in the name of the pursuit of security. Ullman’s analysis is prescient in pointing to a number of non-military threats, including resource scarcity and basic human needs, which have subsequently become the focus of the post-Cold War security agenda. However, Ullman argues that the redefinition of security in these terms can only be made possible through a change

Barry Buzan’s contribution moves forward the debate on security in the early post-Cold War period by acknowledging that, while security is an essentially con- tested concept, it should be possible to offer categorisations and greater analytical coherence to the evolving security agenda. Buzan innovates by presenting a systematic list of sectors: military, political, economic, environmental and societal security. He further points out the importance of thinking of how these sectors apply to a range of different referent objects of security, and how the security of one sector or referent cannot be thought of in isolation from the others, thus laying the ground for thinking of security in holistic terms. David Baldwin counters Buzan’s assertion that security is a contested concept and instead posits that it has simply been inadequately explicated. He then proceeds to specify security in terms of ‘security for whom’ and ‘security for which values’; plus he offers additional specifications such as ‘how much security’, ‘from what threats’, ‘by what means’, ‘at what cost’ and ‘in what time period’. Baldwin agrees that security is a subjective term and concludes that its relative importance can only be assessed through a marginal value approach – asking how far security can be traded off against other important values in order to mobilise policy resources.

Ken Booth picks up on the themes above by advocating further new definitions of security. Booth, writing in 1991, and although eschewing the term post-Cold War for the alternative the ‘interregnum’, points out the decline in inter-state conflict but the continuance of intra-state violence. Consequently, he argues that, instead of the traditional notions of power and order, security should be understood in terms of ‘emancipation’ – the freeing of people from all types of constraints on their freedom, including not just war, but also issues of poverty, education and political oppression. Indeed, Booth asserts that the prime object of security should be the individual, and that states are simply a means, not an end in security, thus pointing the way towards the widening of security current in the present day. J. Ann Tickner adds a further cor- rective to traditional notions of security by introducing the importance of feminist perspectives.Tickner demonstrates how the study of International Relations and secur- ity has often been a male-centric domain with the concomitant marginalisation of women’s experiences. She argues that these biases need to be redressed by embracing the voices of the oppressed ‘Others’, including women, with the result that new insights can be offered on issues such as militarism and structural violence; fundamental international relations concepts often dominated in the past by ‘patriarchal’ perspec- tives; and traditional binary oppositions of domestic and foreign, and order and anar- chy.

Amitav Acharya highlights and seeks to redress another past failing of Security Studies, namely the tendency towards a ‘Eurocentric’ view of conflict. Acharya argues that the experience of the so-called ‘Third World’ has been marginalised in the main- stream of the discipline, despite the fact that this is where most world conflicts occur. The result has been that Security Studies pays insufficient attention to the intrastate conflict and to non-military sources of conflict. Acharya adds another corrective in stressing the need to understand that much of the conflict originates from local regional conditions rather than simple international system transformation, and hence that much of structural realism may need to be rethought. All in all, Acharya demonstrates again the need to redefine and broaden conceptions of security in the post-Cold War period.

Jessica Tuchman Matthews adds depth to these calls for redefinition with an early call to take the environment seriously as a security issue. Tuchman Matthews argues that the environment deserves attention due to its potential for generating armed conflict, as well as in its own right as a threat to human quality of life. Similarly, Roland Paris pushes forward attempts to redefine security and its referent objects by grappling with the current concept of Human Security. Paris offers a somewhat sceptical view of the often overly broad Human Security concept, but in doing so still demonstrates the importance of a new research agenda concerned with non-military threats to the safety of societies, groups and individuals.

The penultimate chapter of this part, however, points out some counter-arguments and also the risks of redefining security. Stephen Walt contends that any attempt to expand the concept of security to include topics such as poverty, the environment, infectious diseases, runs the risk of over-expanding the field to the point that it loses intellectual coherence. Walt argues that the outcome could be to hamper attempts to deal with these policy issues as well as more traditional military security concerns. Walt stresses that the possibility of inter-state conflict, if declining, has not been eliminated, and thus the core agenda of security studies should remain military, although there is room to expand this agenda to include variables in conflict genera- tion such as domestic politics and the power of ideas. Finally, Ole Wæver introduces the concept of ‘securitization’ whereby policy-makers through the ‘speech act’ iden- tify and place issues within the category of security. In turn, securitisation empowers policy-makers to mobilise all necessary resources in pursuit of their objectives. Wæver points out the risk of securitisation in removing  issues  from  the  normal realm of policy discussion in the name of national security, and that in fact, the de- securitisation of politics may help us to perceive certain types of public policy issues more clearly.


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

ODAY […] 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.


Source: International Security, vol. 8, no. 1, 1983, pp. 129–53.

SINCE THE ONSET of the Cold War in the late 1940s, every administration in Washington has defined American national security in excessively narrow and excessively military terms. Politicians have found it easier to focus the attention of an inattentive public on military dangers, real or imagined, than on nonmilitary ones; political leaders have found it easier to build a consensus on military solutions to foreign policy problems than to get agreement on the use (and, therefore, the adequate funding) of the other means of influence that the United States can bring to

bear beyond its frontiers.

Just as politicians have not found it electorally rewarding to put forward concep- tions of security that take account of nonmilitary dangers, analysts have not found it intellectually easy.They have found it especially difficult to compare one type of threat with others, and to measure the relative contributions toward national security of the various ways in which governments might use the resources at their disposal.

[…] [However,] defining national security merely (or even primarily) in military terms conveys a profoundly false image of reality.That false image is doubly mislead- ing and therefore doubly dangerous. First, it causes states to concentrate on military threats and to ignore other and perhaps even more harmful dangers. Thus it reduces their total security. And second, it contributes to a pervasive militarization of inter- national relations that in the long run can only increase global insecurity.

Security versus what?

One way of moving toward a more comprehensive definition of security may be to ask: what should we be willing to give up in order to obtain more security? how do we assess the tradeoffs between security and other values? The question is apposite because, of all the “goods” a state can provide, none is more fundamental than security.

Security, for [traditional thinkers like] Hobbes, was an absolute value. […] [However], [f]or most of us, security is not an absolute value. We balance security against other values. Citizens of the United States and other liberal democratic societ- ies routinely balance security against liberty. Without security, of course, liberty – except for the strongest – is a sham, as Hobbes recognized. But we are willing to trade some perceptible increments of security for the advantages of liberty.Were we willing to make a Hobbesian choice, our streets would be somewhat safer, and con- scription would swell the ranks of our armed forces. But our society would be – and we would ourselves feel – very much more regimented.

The tradeoff between liberty and security is one of the crucial issues of our era. In virtually every society, individuals and groups seek security against the state, just as they ask the state to protect them against harm from other states. Human rights and state security are thus intimately related. […]

The most profound of all the choices relating to national security is, therefore, the tradeoff with liberty, for at conflict are two quite distinct values, each essential to human development. At its starkest, this choice presents itself as: how far must states go, in order to protect themselves against adversaries that they regard as totalitarian, toward adopting totalitarian-like constraints on their own citizens? In the United States it is a tension that arises every day in the pulling and hauling between police and intelligence agencies and the Constitution. At a practical level, the choices become: what powers do we concede to local police? to the F.B.I.? to the C.I.A. and the other arms of the “intelligence community”?

Other security choices may seem equally vexing if they are not equally pro- found. One is the familiar choice between cure and prevention. Should the U.S. spend a (large) sum of money on preparations for military intervention in the Persian Gulf in order to assure the continued flow of oil from fragile states like Saudi Arabia, or should it be spent instead on nonmilitary measures – conservation, alternate energy sources, etc. – that promise substantially (although not rapidly) to reduce American dependence upon Persian Gulf oil? A second choice involves col- laboration with regimes whose values are antithetic to America’s own. Should the United States government forge a relationship of greater military cooperation with the Republic of South Africa, and risk racial conflict in its cities at home? Or should it continue to treat South Africa as an international outlaw and perhaps enhance domestic racial harmony – an important characteristic of a secure society – at the cost of enabling the Soviet navy to pose a greater potential challenge to the safety of the sea lanes around Africa upon which so much vital cargo flows? A third choice involves military versus economic assistance to poor countries. Should U.S. policy aim at strengthening Third World governments against the military threats that they assert they perceive to come from the Soviet Union and its allies, or at helping their citizens develop greater self-reliance so as, perhaps, ultimately to produce more healthful societies with lower rates of birth and thus relieve the rising pressure on global resources? Finally, many choices juxtapose international and domestic pri- orities. If a stretched national budget cannot afford both increased outlays for mili- tary forces and for a more effective criminal justice system at home, programs that create work opportunities for poor inner-city teenagers, or measures to improve the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink, which expenditures enhance “security” more?

The tradeoffs implied in these and many other similar questions are not as profound as that between security and liberty. But they are nevertheless capable of generating conflicts of values – between alternate ways of viewing national security and its relationship to what might be called global security.

There is, in fact, no necessary conflict between the goal of maintaining a large and powerful military establishment and other goals such as developing independence from Persian Gulf oil, promoting self-sustaining development in poor countries, min- imizing military reliance on repressive governments, and promoting greater public tranquility and a more healthful environment at home. All these objectives could be achieved if the American people chose to allocate national resources to do so. But it is scarcely likely that they – or their Congressional representatives – will choose to make all the perceived sacrifices that such large governmental programs entail. […]

A redefinition of threats

In addition to examining security tradeoffs, it is necessary to recognize that security may be defined not merely as a goal but as a consequence – this means that we may not realize what it is or how important it is until we are threatened with losing it. In some sense, therefore, security is defined and valorized by the threats which challenge it.

We are, of course, accustomed to thinking of national security in terms of mili- tary threats arising from beyond the borders of one’s own country. But that emphasis is doubly misleading. It draws attention away from the nonmilitary threats that prom- ise to undermine the stability of many nations during the years ahead. And it presup- poses that threats arising from outside a state are somehow more dangerous to its security than threats that arise within it.

A more useful (although certainly not conventional) definition might be: 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, nongovernmental entities (persons, groups, corpor- ations) within the state.Within the first category might come the spectrum of disturb- ances and disruptions ranging from external wars to internal rebellions, from blockades and boycotts to raw material shortages and devastating “natural” disasters such as deci- mating epidemics, catastrophic floods, or massive and pervasive droughts. […]

The second category is perhaps less obviously apposite. […] It is easy to think of degradation of the quality of life or a diminution of the range of policy choices as “national security” problems when the source of these undesirable conditions is a large, powerful, antagonistic state such as Nazi Germany or Stalin’s U.S.S.R. And it is even (relatively) easy to organize responses to such clear and present dangers. But it is much more difficult to portray as threats to national security, or to organize effect- ive action against, the myriads of other phenomena, some originating within a national society, many coming from outside it, which also kill, injure, or impoverish persons, or substantially reduce opportunities for autonomous action, but do so on a smaller scale and come from sources less generally perceived as evil incarnate. Interruptions in the flow of critically needed resources or, indeed, a dwindling of the available global supply; terrorist attacks or restrictions on the liberty of citizens in order to combat terrorism; a drastic deterioration of environmental quality caused by sources from either within or outside a territorial state; continuing violence in a major Third World state chronically unable to meet the basic human needs of large numbers of its citizens; urban conflict at home perhaps (or perhaps not) fomented by the presence of large numbers of poor immigrants from poor nations – all these either degrade the quality of life and/or reduce the range of policy options available to governments and private persons.

For a leader trying to instill the political will necessary for a national society to respond effectively to a threat to its security, a military threat is especially convenient. The “public good” is much more easily defined; sacrifice can not only be asked but expected; particular interests are more easily co-opted or, failing that, overridden; it is easier to demonstrate that “business as usual” must give way to extraordinary mea- sures; dissent is more readily swept aside in the name of forging a national consensus. A convenient characteristic of military threats to national security is that their pos- sible consequences are relatively apparent and, if made actual, they work their harm rapidly.Therefore, they are relatively noncontroversial.1

The less apparent a security threat may be – whether military or nonmilitary – the more that preparations to meet it are likely to be the subject of political controversy. […] [For instance] the generally unenthusiastic reception given to programs aimed at aiding poor countries, ameliorating the disaffection of poor persons at home, halting environmental degradation, stockpiling strategically important materials, or other such measures is striking but scarcely surprising. Proponents of such programs in fact frequently do justify them on the ground that they promote national security. But because their connection to security is often not immediately apparent, opponents find it easy to reject or simply ignore such arguments, if not to refute them.2 […]

Assessing vulnerability

In every sphere of policy and action, security increases as vulnerability decreases.3 At the most basic level of individual survival, this is a law of nature, seemingly as well understood by animals as by humans. At that level it is a reflexive response. Reducing vulnerability becomes a matter of policy, rather than of reflex action, when it seems necessary to calculate the costs and benefits involved. How much security do we buy when we expend a given increment of resources to reduce vulnerability? That is a dif- ficult question even in relatively simple situations, such as a householder stockpiling a commodity against the possibility of a disruption in accustomed channels of supply. At the level of the community, rather than the individual, it becomes very much more difficult: different members assess risks differently, and they may well be differently damaged by a disrupting event. An investment in redundancy that seems worthwhile to one family may seem excessively costly to another. Neither will know which is cor- rect unless the crunch actually comes. And even then they might disagree.They might experience distress differently.

At the level discussed in this paper, where states are the communities involved and where the problems are for the most part considerably more complicated than a simple disruption in an accustomed channel of supply, the relationship between decreased vulnerability and increased security is formidably difficult to measure. Consider even the relatively simple measure of adding crude oil to the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the (for the most part) underground stockpile whose purpose is to make it possible for the nation to ride out a cutoff in deliveries from one or more major for- eign oil suppliers. We know, of course, the cost of buying and storing a given incre- ment of crude oil. But until mid-1981 the government of Saudi Arabia (the world’s major exporter of oil) took the position that U.S. stockpiling of oil was an unfriendly act. It claimed that it maintained high levels of oil production to provide immediate benefits – “moderate” prices – to Western (and other) consumers, not to make it pos- sible for Washington to buy insurance against the day when the Saudi leadership might want to cut production so as, say, to influence U.S. policy toward Israel. Successive administrations in Washington have regarded the retention of Saudi good will as something close to a vital American interest, on both economic and strategic grounds. They therefore dragged their feet on filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.4

Who can say with assurance that those administrations were wrong? Who could measure – before the event – the effects of putting Saudi noses out of joint? It may well have been that even so seemingly modest a measure as adding to the oil stockpile would ripple through Saudi and Middle Eastern politics in such a manner as ulti- mately to bring about just that calamity against which the stockpile is intended to offer insulation, that is, a production cutback. Moreover, being finite in size; the stockpile may not offer sufficient insulation against a protracted deep cutback. But, by the same token, who can be sure that even if the reserve remains unfilled (its level is still far below the total originally planned5), and even if the United States takes other additional measures to mollify the Saudis, an event will not occur that will trigger a supply disruption in any case? If that occurs, the nation would clearly be better off if it possessed a healthy reserve of stored oil, even one insufficient to cushion the entire emergency. […]

This discussion has sought to show that we generally think about – and, as a polity, dispose of – resource allocations for military and for nonmilitary dimensions of security in quite different ways. Regarding military forces, although analysts and interest groups may have their own ideas about such issues as the appropriate size of the American fleet or the composition of its air wings, there is general agreement on the principle that there must in the end be a single, authoritative determination, and that such a determination can come only from the central government of the polity. Because we acknowledge that there is no marketplace in which we can purchase mil- itary security (as distinguished from some of its components), we would not look to private individuals or firms or legislators or regional governments to make such a determination, even though we might disagree with the determination that the fed- eral government makes.

By contrast, as indicated above, there is no consensus about the need for a single, authoritative determination regarding the nonmilitary dimensions of security. The polity as a whole is therefore much more responsive to allegations that a given invest- ment in, say, a commodity stockpile is “inefficient” than it is responsive to the same allegation regarding a given investment in military forces. Moreover, the alleged inef- ficiency is far more easily demonstrated. The situation is similar regarding measures for coping with the other problems mentioned in this paper: rapid population growth, explosive urbanization, deforestation, and the like. […]

Changing the consensus

Because of these preconceptions regarding the appropriate role of governmental authority both in defining problems and in proposing solutions, the tendency of American political leaders to define security problems and their solutions in military terms is deeply ingrained.The image of the President as Commander in Chief is pow- erful.When in this role he requests additional funds for American military forces the Congress and the public are reluctant to gainsay him. When he requests funds for economic assistance to Third World governments, he is much more likely to be dis- puted even though he may contend that such expenditures also provide the United States with security.

Altering that pattern will require a sustained effort at public education. It is not an effort that administrations themselves are likely to undertake with any real com- mitment, particularly in times when the economy is straightened and when they find it difficult enough to find funds for the military goals they have set for themselves.The agents for any change in public attitudes are therefore likely to be nongovernmental.

Over the past decade or so a vast array of public interest organizations have begun to put forward alternate conceptions of national security. Nearly all are devoted to particular issues – limiting population growth, enhancing environmental quality, eradicating world hunger, protecting human rights, and the like. Some are overt lobbies expressly seeking to alter political outcomes. Others devote themselves to research and educational activities, but are equally concerned with changing govern- mental behavior. Jointly they have succeeded in substantially raising public awareness of the vulnerability of the society to a variety of harms nonmilitary in nature, and of the limitations of military instruments for coping with many types of political problems.

One should not overestimate the achievements of these nongovernmental organ- izations, however. Awareness on the part of a substantial informed minority is one thing. Embodying it in public policy is a very much larger step. A society’s conscious- ness changes only gradually – usually with the change of generations. The likelihood is that for the foreseeable future the American polity will continue to be much more willing to expend scarce resources on military forces than on measures to prevent or ameliorate the myriad profoundly dislocating effects of global demographic change. Yet those effects are likely to intensify with the passage of time. […]. And while political will and energy are focused predominately on military solutions to the prob- lems of national security, the nonmilitary tasks are likely to grow ever more difficult to accomplish and dangerous to neglect.


1 This is not to say that there are not recriminations following wars or military crises. Indeed, the governments that lead nations when war is thrust upon them – or when they initiate war themselves – are often subject to pillory. It may be alleged that their complacence allowed their nations’ defenses to atrophy to a point where their military forces no longer deterred attack. Or they may be accused of recklessness that brought on a needless and expensive war. But while the war is still in prospect, or while it is actually underway, there are too seldom any questions of leaders’ abilities to command the requisite resources from their perceptibly threatened countrymen.

  • The same is true, it should be noted, about some “ordinary” foreign In 1975 a majority of Senators and members of Congress did not believe that the presence of Soviet-supported Cuban troops in Angola posed a significant threat to U.S. secur- ity, and legislated limits on potential American involvement. Three years earlier they imposed a cutoff on U.S. bombing of targets in Cambodia and North Vietnam on the supposition that continued bombing would no longer (if it ever did) pro- mote U.S. security, For a discussion of these Congressional curbs on the President’s ability to commit American military resources, see Thomas M. Franck and Edward Weisband, Foreign Policy By Congress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), esp. pp. 13–23 and 46–57.
  • Some might argue that this is not the case in the strategic nuclear relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, and that it is the knowledge within each government that its society is highly vulnerable to nuclear attacks by the other that keeps it from ever launching such an attack Security is thus a product of vulnerability. This argument has considerable force as a logical construct.Yet, not surprisingly, neither superpower is content to act upon it. As technological devel- opments seem to make possible the limitation of damage from at least some forms of nuclear attack, each pursues them for fear that the other will secure a moment- ary advantage.We are therefore faced with the worst of situations, in which one or the other may be unduly optimistic regarding the degree to which it might limit damage to its own society if it were to strike first. Decreased vulnerability accurately assessed may well enhance security even in strategic nuclear relations; misleadingly assessed it may bring disaster.
  • See, g., Walter S. Mossberg, “Kowtowing on the Oil Reserve,” The Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1980, p. 20, and Sheilah Kast, “Filling Our Strategic Oil Reserve,” Washington Star, February 9, 1981, the latter quoting Secretary-of-State-designate Alexander M. Haig, Jr., as calling the Saudi position “oil blackmail.”
  • The Energy Information Administration’s Monthly Energy Review (Washington: S. Department of Energy) presents a running tally of the size of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. For a technical account of how the reserve is maintained, see Ruth M. Davis, “National Strategic Petroleum Reserve,” Science, Vol. 213 (August 7, 1981), pp. 618–22. See also David A. Deese and Joseph S. Nye, eds., Energy and Security (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1981), pp. 326–28, 399–403.


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.


Source: Review of International Studies, vol. 23, no. 5, 1997, pp. 5–26.

Security as a contested concept

[…] SOME SCHOLARS have depicted security as an ‘essentially contested concept’.1 This contention must be addressed before we proceed to analyse the con- cept of security, for three reasons: First, there is some ambiguity as to what this means. Second, security may not fulfil the requirements for classification as an ‘essen- tially contested concept’. And third, even if security were to be so classified, the implications for security studies may be incorrectly specified.2

Essentially contested concepts are said to be so value-laden that no amount of argument or evidence can ever lead to agreement on a single version as the ‘correct or standard use’.3 The stronger variants of this position lead to a radical sceptical nihilism in which there are no grounds for preferring one conception of security to another.4 Acceptance of this position would make the kind of conceptual analysis undertaken here futile. There are, however, weaker forms of this position that allow one to differentiate between better and worse conceptualizations, even though ulti- mately none of the better conceptualizations can ever be said to be the best.5 Since the analysis undertaken here purports only to improve on current usage, and not to identify the single best usage, it is compatible with the weaker variant of the essential contestedness hypothesis.

It is not clear, however, that security should be classified as an essentially con- tested concept. Of the several requirements for such a classification, two are espe- cially questionable with respect to the concept of security. In the first place, the concept must be ‘appraisive in the sense that it signifies or accredits some kind of valued achievement’.6 W. B. Gallie uses the concept of a ‘champion’ in sports to illus- trate the point, i.e., to label a team as champion is to say that it plays the game better than other teams. Is the concept of security similar to the concept of a champion?

Neorealists seem to imply that it is. For them security is the most important goal a state can have in the same way that winning a championship is presumably the goal of all teams in Gallie’s example. Just as teams compete to be champions, so states com- pete for security. And just as the champion is better at playing the game than other teams, so states with more security than other states are better at playing the neoreal- ist version of the ‘game’ of international politics.7 From the neorealist perspective, then, it is plausible to treat security as an appraisive concept.

Wolfers, however, presents a different view of security. He contends that states vary widely in the value they place on security and that some states may be so dissatis- fied with the status quo that they are more interested in acquiring new values than in securing the values they have.8 From this perspective, saying that one state has more security than another does not imply that one state is better than another any more than saying that one state has more people or land area implies that one state is better than another. For Wolfers international politics is not a ‘game’ in which all states play by the same ‘rules’ and compete for the same ‘championship’.

Is security an appraisive concept? For neorealists, it may be. For others, such as Wolfers, it is not. The purpose of this discussion is not to settle the issue, but only to point out that this question is more difficult to answer than those who classify security as an essentially contested concept imply.

A second requirement for classifying a concept as essentially contested – indeed, the defining characteristic of such concepts – is that it must actually gener- ate vigorous disputes as to the nature of the concept and its applicability to various cases. Gallie deliberately rules out policy disputes in ‘practical life’ that reflect con- flicts of ‘interests, tastes, or attitudes’.These, he suggests, are more likely to involve special pleading and rationalization than deep-seated philosophical disagreement.9 Thus, much of the contemporary public policy debate over whether to treat the environment, budget deficits, crime or drug traffic as national security issues does not qualify as serious conceptual debate by Gallie’s standards. For Gallie, essential contestedness implies more than that different parties use different versions of a concept. Each party must recognize the contested nature of the concept it uses, and each must engage in vigorous debate in defence of its particular conceptual view- point.10 Yet the security studies literature, as the previous section pointed out, is virtually bereft of serious conceptual debate. The neorealists may have a different conception of security than Wolfers, but they do not debate his position; they ignore it.11 Writers often fail to offer any definition of security. And if one is offered, it is rarely accompanied by a discussion of reasons for preferring one definition rather than others. This is hardly the kind of toe-to-toe conceptual combat envisioned by Gallie with respect to such matters as what constitutes justice, democracy, or a good Christian.

Even if security were to be classified as an essentially contested concept, some of

the implications suggested by Buzan are questionable. One cannot use the designation of security as an essentially contested concept as an excuse for not formulating one’s own conception of security as clearly and precisely as possible. Indeed, the whole idea of an essentially contested concept is that various parties purport to have a clearer and more precise understanding of the concept than others.Yet Buzan explicitly disavows any intention of formulating a precise definition and suggests that to attempt to do so is to misunderstand the function of essentially contested concepts in social science.12

‘Such a conclusion’, as Ken Booth points out,‘is unsatisfying. If we cannot name it, can we ever hope to achieve it?’13

Another consequence Buzan attributes to the essential contestability of security is a set of ‘contradictions latent within the concept itself’.14 It is not entirely clear what this means, but such ‘contradictions’ seem to include those between the individual and the state, between national and international security, between violent means and peaceful ends, between blacks and whites in South Africa, between the Jews and Nazi Germany, and so on. Indeed, Buzan’s assertion that the ‘principal security contradiction’ for most states is between their own security and that of other states suggests that the ColdWar itself could be described as a‘contradiction’ between the security of the NATO allies and the Warsaw Pact countries.15 It is true, of course, that the state’s pursuit of security for itself may conflict with the individual’s pursuit of security; but this is an empirical fact rather than a conceptual problem. Most of the phenomena designated by Buzan as conceptual ‘contradictions’ could more fruit- fully be called instances of empirically verifiable conflict between various actors or policies.

In sum, the alleged essential contestedness of the concept of security represents a challenge to the kind of conceptual analysis undertaken here only in its strong vari- ants. There are some grounds for questioning whether security ought to be classified as an essentially contested concept at all. And even if it is so classified, the implications may be misspecified. Insofar as the concept is actually contested this does not seem to stem from ‘essential contestability’. Security is more appropriately described as a con- fused or inadequately explicated concept than as an essentially contested one. […]

Specifying the security problematique

National security, as Wolfers suggested, can be a dangerously ambiguous concept if used without specification. The purpose of this section is to identify some specifica- tions that would facilitate analysing the rationality of security policy. The discussion begins with specifications for defining security as a policy objective and proceeds to specifications for defining policies for pursuing that objective.

The point of departure is Wolfers’ characterization of security as ‘the absence of threats to acquired values’,16 which seems to capture the basic intuitive notion under- lying most uses of the term security. Since there is some ambiguity in the phrase ‘absence of threats’, Wolfers’ phraseology will be reformulated as ‘a low probability of damage to acquired values’. This does not significantly change Wolfers’ meaning, and it allows for inclusion of events such as earthquakes, which Ullman has argued should be considered ‘threats’ to security.17 The advantage of this reformulation can be illustrated as follows: In response to threats of military attack, states develop deter- rence policies. Such policies are intended to provide security by lowering the proba- bility that the attack will occur. In response to the ‘threat’ of earthquakes, states adopt building codes. This does not affect the probability of earthquakes, but it does lower the probability of damage to acquired values.Thus the revised wording focuses on the preservation of acquired values and not on the presence or absence of ‘threats’.With this reformulation, security in its most general sense can be defined in terms of two specifications: Security for whom? And security for which values?

Security for whom?

As Buzan rightly points out, a concept of security that fails to specify a ‘referent object’ makes little sense.18 For Buzan, however, a simple specification, such as ‘the state’ or ‘the individual’, does not suffice. Since there are many states and individuals, and since their security is interdependent, he argues that the ‘search for a referent object of security’ must go ‘hand-in-hand with that for its necessary conditions’.19 As noted above, however, this approach confuses concept specification with empirical observation. For purposes of specifying the concept of security, a wide range of answers to the question, ‘Security for whom?’ is acceptable: the individual (some, most, or all individuals), the state (some, most, or all states), the international system (some, most, or all international systems), etc.The choice depends on the particular research question to be addressed.

Security for which values?

Individuals, states, and other social actors have many values. These may include physical safety, economic welfare, autonomy, psychological well-being, and so on.The concept of national security has traditionally included political independence and ter- ritorial integrity as values to be protected; but other values are sometimes added.The former American Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, for example, includes the maintenance of ‘economic relations with the rest of the world on reasonable terms’ in his conception of national security.20 Failure to specify which values are included in a concept of national security often generates confusion. Wolfers distinguished between objective and subjective dimensions of security.21 His purpose was to allow for the possibility that states might overestimate or underestimate the actual probabil- ity of damage to acquired values. In the former case, reducing unjustified fears might be the objective of security policy; while in the latter case, a state might perceive itself as secure when it was not. The definition proposed above clearly includes the object- ive dimension, and the subjective dimension can be accommodated by designating ‘peace of mind’ or the ‘absence of fear’ as values that can be specified. Whether one wants to do this, of course, depends on the research task at hand.

It should be noted that specification of this dimension of security should not be in terms of ‘vital interests’ or ‘core values’ […] [f]or […] this prejudges the value of security as a policy objective, and thus prejudices comparison of security with other policy objectives.

Although the two specifications above suffice to define the concept of security, they provide little guidance for its pursuit. In order to make alternative security policies comparable with each other and with policies for pursuing other goals, the following specifications are also needed.

How much security?

Security, according to Wolfers, is a value ‘of which a nation can have more or less and which it can aspire to have in greater or lesser measure’.22 Writing during the same period as Wolfers, Bernard Brodie observed that not everyone views security as a matter of degree. He cited as an example a statement by General Jacob L. Devers:

National security is a condition which cannot be qualified.We shall either be secure, or we shall be insecure. We cannot have partial security. If we are only half secure, we are not secure at all.23

Although Brodie,Wolfers, and others have criticized such views, the idea of security as a matter of degree cannot be taken for granted. Knorr has noted that treating national security threats as ‘matters of more or less causes a lot of conceptual uneasi- ness’.24 And Buzan refers to similar difficulties:

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.25

If this were true, it would be necessary to depart from common usage in defining security as an analytical concept. This, however, does not appear to be the case. It is quite common in ordinary language to speak of varying degrees of security.

One reason it is important to specify the degree of security a country has or seeks is that absolute security is unattainable. Buzan recognizes this, but treats it as a ‘logical problem’ arising from ‘the essentially contested nature of security as a concept’.26 If security is conceived of as a matter of degree, Buzan observes,‘then complicated and objectively unanswerable questions arise about how much security is enough’.27 This, of course, is precisely why security should be so conceived. It is not clear why such questions should be described as ‘objectively unanswerable’. They are precisely the kind of questions that economists have been addressing for a long time, i.e., how to allocate scarce resources among competing ends.28 Nor is there anything peculiar about the unattainability of absolute security. As Herbert Simon notes, the ‘attain- ment of objectives is always a matter of degree’.29

In a world in which scarce resources must be allocated among competing objectives, none of which is completely attainable, one cannot escape from the question ‘How much is enough?’ and one should not try.

From what threats?

Those who use the term security usually have in mind particular kinds of threats. […] Since threats to acquired values can arise from many sources, it is helpful if this dimen- sion is clearly specified.Vague references to the ‘Communist threat’ to national secur- ity during the Cold War often failed to specify whether they referred to ideological threats, economic threats, military threats, or some combination thereof, thus imped- ing rational debate of the nature and magnitude of the threat. The concept of threat referred to in this specification differs from that used by many students of interna- tional politics and national strategy. Such scholars often use the term threat to refer to actions that convey a conditional commitment to punish unless one’s demands are met.30 In ordinary language, however, one often finds references to epidemics, floods, earthquakes, or droughts as ‘threats’ to acquired values. Ullman and others have argued that the concept of security should be expanded to include such phenomena.31 There seems to be no reason not to use this more expansive concept of threats, espe- cially since it comports with common usage. Those who wish to refer to conditional commitments to punish by social actors as security threats may make that clear when specifying this dimension of security.

By what means?

Like wealth, the goal of security can be pursued by a wide variety of means. […] Specification of this dimension of security is especially important in discussions of international politics. Since the publication of Wolfers’ article, ‘security studies’ has emerged as a recognized subfield in international relations. The tendency of some security studies scholars to define the subfield entirely in terms of ‘the threat, use, and control of military force’32 can lead to confusion as to the means by which security may be pursued. It can also prejudice discussion in favour of military solutions to security problems.

At what cost?

The pursuit of security always involves costs, i.e., the sacrifice of other goals that could have been pursued with the resources devoted to security. Specification of this dimension of security policy is important because writers sometimes imply that costs do not matter. […] From the standpoint of a rational policy-maker, however, […] [c]osts always matter. […]

[…] In thinking about security, as in thinking about other policy goals, it is help- ful to remember the TANSTAAFL principle, i.e., ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’.33

Wolfers suggests an additional reason for specifying this dimension of security. Arguing against those who would place national security policy beyond moral judg- ment, he contends that the sacrifice of other values for the sake of security inevitably makes such policies ‘a subject for moral judgment’.34 Given the crimes that have been committed in the name of ‘national security’, this is a helpful reminder.

In what time period?

The most rational policies for security in the long run may differ greatly from those for security in the short run. In the short run, a high fence, a fierce dog, and a big gun may be useful ways to protect oneself from the neighbours. But in the long run, it may be preferable to befriend them.35 Short-run security policies may also be in conflict with long-run security policies.36 […]

The question remains, however:‘How much specification is enough?’ Must all of these dimensions be specified in detail every time one uses the concept of security? Obviously not. Both the number of dimensions in need of specification and the degree of specificity required will vary with the research task at hand. Each of the dimensions can be specified in very broad or very narrow terms. Not all of the dimensions need to be specified all the time. For most purposes, however, meaningful scientific com- munication would seem to require at least some indication of how much security is being sought for which values of which actors with respect to which threats. For pur- poses of systematic comparison of policy alternatives, the last three specifications, i.e., means, costs, and time period, must be specified.

Although the dimensions of security can be specified very broadly, the utility of the concept does not necessarily increase when this is done. For example, if security is specified in terms of threats to all acquired values of a state, it becomes almost synonymous with national welfare or national interest and is virtually useless for distinguishing among policy objectives.37

The value of security

Security is valued by individuals, families, states, and other actors. Security, however, is not the only thing they value; and the pursuit of security necessitates the sacrifice of other values. It is therefore necessary to ask how important is security relative to other values.Three ways of answering this question will be discussed […].

The prime value approach

One way of determining the value of security is to ask what life would be like without it. The most famous answer to this question is that by Thomas Hobbes to the effect that life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.38 Such reasoning has led many scholars to assert the ‘primacy’ of the goal of security.39 The logic underlying this assertion is that security is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of other values such as prosperity, freedom, or whatever.

The fallacy in this line of argument is exposed by asking the Hobbesian question with respect to breathable air, potable water, salt, food, shelter or clothing.The answer is roughly the same for each of these as it is for security; and a plausible case for the ‘primacy’ of each can be made. This exercise, of course, merely underscores a truth King Midas learned long ago, i.e., that the value of something – gold, security, water, or whatever – is not an inherent quality of the good itself but rather a result of exter- nal social conditions – supply and demand. The more gold one has, the less value one is likely to place on an additional ounce; and the more security one has, the less one is likely to value an increment of security.

To the extent that the prime value approach implies that security outranks other values for all actors in all situations, it is both logically and empirically indefensible. Logically, it is flawed because it provides no justification for limiting the allocation of resources to security in a world where absolute security is unattainable. Empirically it is flawed because it fails to comport with the way people actually behave. Prehistoric people may have lived in caves for security, but they did not remain there all the time. Each time they ventured forth in pursuit of food, water or adventure, they indicated a willingness to sacrifice the security of the cave for something they presumably valued more. And in choosing places to live, settlers often forgo the security of high moun- tain-tops in favour of less secure locations with more food or water. Likewise, modern states do not allocate all of their resources to the pursuit of security, even in wartime. Even the most beleaguered society allocates some of its resources to providing food, clothing, and shelter for its population.

Even if ‘absolute’ security were a possibility, it is not obvious that people would seek it. As Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom observed long ago, ‘probably most people do not really want “absolute” security, if such a state is imaginable; “optimum” security would probably still leave an area of challenge, risk, doubt, danger, hazard, and anxiety. Men are not lotus-eaters’.40

The core value approach

The core value approach allows for other values by asserting that security is one of several important values. Although this approach mitigates the logical and empirical difficulties associated with the prime value approach, it does not eliminate them. One is still confronted with the need to justify the classification of some values as core values and other values as non-core values.And if core values are always more import- ant than other values, this approach cannot justify allocating any resources whatso- ever to the pursuit of non-core values.

The marginal value approach

The marginal value approach is the only one that provides a solution to the resource allocation problem. This approach is not based on any assertion about the value of security to all actors in all situations. Instead, it is rooted in the assumption that the law of diminishing marginal utility is as applicable to security as it is to other values. Asserting the primacy of security is like asserting the primacy of water, food, or air. A certain minimum amount of each is needed to sustain life, but this does not mean that the value of a glass of water is the same for a person stranded in a desert and a person drowning in a lake. As King Midas learned, the value of an increment of some- thing depends on how much of it one has.

According to the marginal value approach, security is only one of many policy objectives competing for scarce resources and subject to the law of diminishing returns. Thus, the value of an increment of national security to a country will vary from one country to another and from one historical context to another, depending not only on how much security is needed but also on how much security the country already has. Rational policy-makers will allocate resources to security only as long as the marginal return is greater for security than for other uses of the resources.

There is nothing new about treating national security as one of many public policy objectives competing for scarce resources and subject to diminishing returns.Wolfers and his contemporaries used this approach, and defence economists have long advo- cated it.41 Its neglect in recent writings on national security, however, suggests the need to reiterate its importance.42

Critical theorists, feminist theorists, Realists, neorealists, liberals, Third World theorists, and globalists all live in a world of scarce resources. In the end, all must confront the question posed by Booth of ‘how many frigates to build’.43 Even paci- fists, who answer ‘none’, must decide how to allocate resources among competing non-military uses.The analytical tools of marginal utility analysis are available for use by any or all of the schools mentioned above.

It is not always clear whether statements about the importance of security as a goal are empirical observations or part of the definition of security.The ‘high politics/ low politics’ distinction, however, suggests that some scholars may be making the value of security a matter of definition. Buzan, for example, includes in security only those concerns that ‘merit the urgency of the “security” label’, thus suggesting that urgency is part of his definition of security. And when he refers to ‘attempts to elevate particular economic issues onto the national security agenda’, he seems to imply the inherent superiority of that agenda. Likewise, the intensity of the threat seems to be a defining characteristic of security for Buzan.44

Ullman’s proposed definition of national security threats also includes elements that prejudge the importance of security. Thus, he does not include all threats that ‘degrade the quality of life for the inhabitants of a state’, but only those that do so ‘drastically’ and quickly. And he does not include all threats that ‘narrow the range of policy choices available to the state’, but only those that do so ‘significantly’.45 Both Buzan and Ullman seem to rule out the possibility of a minor or trivial national secu- rity threat by conceptual fiat.

Policy advocates, of course, often try to win acceptance for their proposals by declaring them to be ‘security issues’. Navies wanting frigates, educators wanting scholarships, environmentalists wanting pollution controls, and so on are likely to portray their respective causes as matters of ‘national security’. In this context the declaration that something is a security issue is a way of asserting its importance.Thus one may argue that building urgency into the concept of security is a common prac- tice.46 If this practice is followed, however, the concept becomes useless for rational policy analysis because the value of security relative to other goals will have been conceptually prejudged. […]


  • Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era, 2nd edn (Boulder, CO, 1991), and Barry Buzan, ‘Peace, Power and Security: Contending Concepts in the Study of International Relations’, Journal of Peace Research, 21 (1984), 109–25; and Richard E. Little, ‘Ideology and Change’, in Barry Buzan and R. J. Barry Jones (eds.), Change and the Study of International Relations: the Evaded Dimension (New York, 1981), pp. 30–45. For the original formulation, see W. B. Gallie,‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, N.S., 56 (1956), pp. 167–98.
  • It should also be noted that the concept of an ‘essentially contested concept’ has

itself been contested. For references, see Christine Swanton, ‘On the “Essential Contestedness” of Political Concepts’, Ethics, 95 (1985), pp. 811–27; Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘The Essential Contestability of Some Social Concepts’, Ethics, 84 (1973), pp. 1–9; John N. Gray, ‘On the Contestability of Social and Political Concepts’, Political Theory, 5 (1977), pp. 330–48; and Felix E. Oppenheim, Political Concepts: A Reconstruction (Chicago, 1981), pp. 182–85.

  • Gallie,‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, 168.
  • Gray,‘On the Contestability’, 343; Swanton,‘On the “Essential Contestedness”’, pp. 813–14.
  • Swanton,‘On the “Essential Contestedness”’, 813–14.
  • Gallie, ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, 171. Not all value judgments are appraisive. Appraisal presupposes an accepted set of criteria. Examples suggested by Oppenheim include ‘grading apples or student papers, evaluating paintings in terms of their market value, [and] wine tasting’. Political Concepts, pp. 170–76.
  • Kenneth N.Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA, 1979), and ‘The Emerging Structure of International Politics’, International Security, 18 (1993), pp. 44–79; and John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Disorder Restored’, in Graham Allison and Gregory F. Treverton (eds.), Rethinking America’s Security (New York, 1992), pp. 213–37.
  • Arnold Wolfers, ‘“National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol’, Political Science Quarterly, 67 (1952), 491–92.
  • Gallie,‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, 169.

10 Ibid., p. 172.

  • In Waltz’s Theory, for example, security is posited as the principal goal of states; but little attention is given to defining it or defending the definition against other con- ceptions of Wolfers is never cited.WhatTickner describes as‘a fully fledged debate about the meaning of security’ beginning in the 1980s is better character- ized as a series of attacks on Realism and neorealism. See J.AnnTickner,‘Re-visioning Security’, in Ken Booth and Steve Smith (eds.), International Relations Theory Today (Oxford, 1995), p. 177. A debate implies that there are two sides.With the possible exception of Buzan, no example of a Realist or neorealist engaging critics in serious conceptual debate has come to this author’s attention. And Buzan cannot fairly be described as a defender of traditional Realist or neorealist conceptions of security.
  • Buzan, People, States, 16, 374; and ‘Peace, Power’, p. 125.
  • Ken Booth, ‘Security and Emancipation’, Review of International Studies, 17 (1991),
  1. 317. On Buzan’s claim regarding the essential contestability of security, see also Peter Digeser, ‘The Concept of Security’, paper delivered at the 1994 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, 14 September 1994.
  • Buzan, People, States, 1–2, 15, 364. 15 Ibid., p. 364.
  • Wolfers, ‘National Security’, 485.
  • Richard H. Ullman, ‘Redefining Security’, International Security, 8 (1983), 129–53.
  • Buzan, People, States, 26.
  • Harold Brown, Thinking About National Security: Defense and Foreign Policy in a DangerousWorld (Boulder, CO, 1983), 4.
  • Wolfers, ‘National Security’, 485.

22 Ibid., p. 484.

  • Bernard Brodie, National Security Policy and Economic Stability, Yale Institute for International Studies Memorandum 33 (New Haven, CT, 1950), p. 5.
  • ‘Economic Interdependence and National Security’, in Klaus Knorr and Frank Trager (eds), Economic Issues and National Security (Lawrence, KS, 1977), p. 18.
  • Buzan, People, States, 18. 26 Ibid., p. 330.
  • Thomas C. Schelling, International Economics (Boston, MA, 1958), pp. 518–19; Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much Is Enough? (New York, 1971); Charles J. Hitch and Roland N. McKean, The Economics of Defense in the Nuclear Age (Cambridge, MA, 1960); James R. Schlesinger, The Political Economy of National Security (New York, 1960); and Thomas C. Schelling and Malcolm Palmatier, ‘Economic Reasoning in National Defense’, in Alan A. Brown, Egon Neuberger and Malcolm Palmatier (eds.), Perspectives in Economics: Economists Look at their Fields of Study (NewYork, 1971), pp. 143–59.
  • Herbert Simon, Administrative Behaviour, 3rd edn (NewYork, 1976), p. 177. On this point, see also David A. Baldwin, Economic Statecraft (Princeton, 1985), p. 131.
  • On the concept of threats, see David Baldwin, Paradoxes of Power (Oxford, 1989), pp. 45–81.
  • Ullman, ‘Redefining Security’. See also Graham Allison and Gregory Treverton (eds.), Rethinking America’s Security: Beyond Cold War to New World Order (New York, 1992).
  • Stephen M. Walt, ‘The Renaissance of Security Studies’, International Studies Quarterly, 35 (1991), 212. See also Klaus Knorr,‘National Security Studies: Scope and Structure of the Field’, in Frank N. Trager and Philip S. Kronenberg (eds.), National Security and American Society:Theory, Process and Policy (Lawrence, KS, 1973),
  1. 6; and Richard Schultz, Roy Godson and Ted Greenwood (eds.), Security Studies for the 1990s (NewYork, 1993), p. 2.
  • Edwin Dolan, TANSTAAFL (NewYork, 1971), p. 14.
  • Wolfers, ‘National Security’, 498–99.
  • Kenneth E. Boulding, ‘Towards a Pure Theory of Threat Systems’, American Economic Review, 53 (1963), pp. 424–34.
  • See Robert A. Dahl and Charles E. Lindblom, Politics, Economics and Welfare (New York, 1953), pp. 50–51.
  • ‘Virtually’ rather than ‘totally’ useless because even the term ‘national interest’ dis- tinguishes between national interests and international or subnational interests. And even a very broad concept of security distinguishes between protecting acquired values and attempts to acquire additional
  • The Leviathan (1651), Part I, Ch.
  • See Richard Smoke,‘National Security Affairs’, in Fred Greenstein and Nelson W Polsby (eds.), Handbook of Political Science,Vol. 8: International Politics (Reading, MA, 1975), pp. 247–48; Mearsheimer, ‘Disorder’, pp. 221–22; Waltz, Theory, p. 126; Joseph M. Grieco, Cooperation Among Nations: Europe, America, and Non-Tariff Barriers to Trade (Ithaca, NY, 1990), p. 39; Robert G. Gilpin, ‘The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism’, in Robert O. Keohane (ed.), Neorealism and Its Critics (New York, 1), p. 305; and Lawrence Freedman, ‘The Concept of Security’, in Mary Hawkesworth and Maurice Kogan (eds.), Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, vol. 2 (London, 1992), p. 730.
  • Dahl and Lindblom, Politics, Economics, 50. Recent writers who have expressed similar doubts about the value of security include: Barry Buzan, ‘Response to Kolodziej’, Arms Control, 13 (1992), p. 484; James Der Derian, ‘The Value of Security: Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche, and Baudrillard’, in Ronnie Lipschutz (ed.), On Security (New York, 1995), pp. 24–45; and Ole Wæver, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, ibid., pp. 46–86.
  • g. Wolfers, ‘National Security’; Frederick S. Dunn, ‘The Present Course of International Relations Research’, World Politics, 2 (1949), p. 94; Bernard Brodie, ‘Strategy as a Science’, World Politics, 1 (1949), pp. 467–88; Schelling, International Economics; Charles J. Hitch, ‘National Security Policy as a Field for Economics Research’, World Politics, 12 (1960), pp. 434–52; and Schlesinger, Political Economy. ‘It is peculiar to the training of an economist that he is continually aware of the need to optimize rather than just to maximize, of the need to weight explicitly the value of more progress toward one objective at the expense of progress toward another. By training, he is suspicious of any analysis that singles out one conspicuous variable, some “dominant” feature, on which all attention is to be focused, and which is to be maximized by putting arbitrary limits on the other variables.’ Schelling and Palmatier,‘Economic Reasoning’, p. 148.
  • Buzan’s People, States contains only passing references to costs and no reference to diminishing
  • Booth,‘Security and Emancipation’, 325.
  • , pp.119, 131, 134. Emphasis added.
  • Ullman,‘Redefining Security’, 133.
  • For a strong defence of this approach, see Wæver, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’.


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 destruc- tion 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 con- cerns 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).


Source: Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security (NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1992), pp. 1–25.

Engendered insecurities: Feminist perspectives on international relations

Too often the great decisions are originated and given form in bodies made up wholly of men, or so completely dominated by them that what- ever of special value women have to offer is shunted aside without expression.

Eleanor Roosevelt : Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.

Simone De Beauvoir, As Eleanor Roosevelt and countless others have observed, international politics is a man’s world. It is a world inhabited by diplomats, soldiers, and international civil servants, most of whom are men. Apart from the occasional head of state, there is little evidence to suggest that women have played much of a role in shaping foreign policy in any country in the twentieth century. In the United States in 1987, women constituted less than 5 percent of the senior Foreign Service ranks, and in the same year, less than 4 percent of the executive positions in the Department of Defense were held by women.1 Although it is true that women are underrepre- sented in all top-level government positions in the United States and elsewhere, they encounter additional difficulties in positions having to do with international politics. […]

[…] [There is] the belief, widely held in the United States and throughout the world by both men and women, that military and foreign policy are arenas of policy- making least appropriate for women. Strength, power, autonomy, independence, and rationality, all typically associated with men and masculinity, are characteristics we most value in those to whom we entrust the conduct of our foreign policy and the defense of our national interest.Those women in the peace movements, whom femi- nist critics […] cited as evidence for women’s involvement in international affairs, are frequently branded as naive, weak, and even unpatriotic. When we think about the definition of a patriot, we generally think of a man, often a soldier who defends his homeland, most especially his women and children, from dangerous outsiders. […] [E]ven women who have experience in foreign policy issues are perceived as being too emotional and too weak for the tough life-and-death decisions required for the nation’s defense.Weakness is always considered a danger when issues of national secu- rity are at stake: the president’s dual role as commander in chief reinforces our belief that qualities we associate with “manliness” are of utmost importance in the selection of our presidents.

The few women who do make it into the foreign policy establishment often suffer from this negative perception […]. The[ir] experiences […] are examples of the dif- ficulties that women face when they try to enter the élite world of foreign policy decision-making. […] I believe that these gender-related difficulties are symptomatic of a much deeper issue that I do wish to address: the extent to which international politics is such a thoroughly masculinized sphere of activity that women’s voices are considered inauthentic. […] By analyzing some of the writings of those who have tried to describe, explain, and prescribe for the behavior of states in the international system, we can begin to understand some of the deeper reasons for women’s perva- sive exclusion from foreign policy-making – for it is in the way that we are taught to think about international politics that the attitudes I have described are shaped.

With its focus on the “high” politics of war and Realpolitik, the traditionalWestern academic discipline of international relations privileges issues that grow out of men’s experiences; we are socialized into believing that war and power politics are spheres of activity with which men have a special affinity and that their voices in describing and prescribing for this world are therefore likely to be more authentic. The roles traditionally ascribed to women – in reproduction, in households, and even in the economy – are generally considered irrelevant to the traditional construction of the field. Ignoring women’s experiences contributes not only to their exclusion but also to a process of self-selection that results in an overwhelmingly male population both in the foreign policy world and in the academic field of international relations. This selection process begins with the way we are taught to think about world politics; if women’s experiences were to be included, a radical redefinition of the field would have to take place. […]

Gender in international relations

[…] [T]he marginalization of women in the arena of foreign policy-making through the kind of gender stereotyping that I have described suggests that international poli- tics has always been a gendered activity in the modern state system. Since foreign and military policy-making has been largely conducted by men, the discipline that analyzes these activities is bound to be primarily about men and masculinity. […] Any attempt to introduce a more explicitly gendered analysis into the field must therefore begin with a discussion of masculinity.

Masculinity and politics have a long and close association. Characteristics associ- ated with “manliness,” such as toughness, courage, power, independence, and even physical strength, have, throughout history, been those most valued in the conduct of politics, particularly international politics. Frequently, manliness has also been associ- ated with violence and the use of force, a type of behavior, that, when conducted in the international arena, has been valorized and applauded in the name of defending one’s country. […]

[…] Socially constructed gender differences are based on socially sanctioned, unequal relationships between men and women that reinforce compliance with men’s stated superiority. Nowhere in the public realm are these stereotypical gender images more apparent than in the realm of international politics, where the characteristics associated with hegemonic masculinity are projected onto the behavior of states whose success as international actors is measured in terms of their power capabilities and capacity for self-help and autonomy. […]

[…] Historically, differences between men and women have usually been ascribed to biology. But when feminists use the term gender today, they are not generally refer- ring to biological differences between males and females, but to a set of culturally shaped and defined characteristics associated with masculinity and femininity. These characteristics can and do vary across time and place. In this view, biology may con- strain behavior, but it should not be used “deterministically” or “naturally” to justify practices, institutions, or choices that could be other than they are.While what it means to be a man or a woman varies across cultures and history, in most cultures gender dif- ferences signify relationships of inequality and the domination of women by men. […] [Joan] Scott claims that the way in which our understanding of gender signifies relationships of power is through a set of normative concepts that set forth interpreta- tions of the meanings of symbols. In Western culture, these concepts take the form of fixed binary oppositions that categorically assert the meaning of masculine and femi- nine and hence legitimize a set of unequal social relationships.2 Scott and many other contemporary feminists assert that, through our use of language, we come to per- ceive the world through these binary oppositions. Our Western understanding of gender is based on a set of culturally determined binary distinctions, such as public versus private, objective versus subjective, self versus other, reason versus emotion, autonomy versus relatedness, and culture versus nature; the first of each pair of char- acteristics is typically associated with masculinity, the second with femininity.3 Scott claims that the hierarchical construction of these distinctions can take on a fixed and permanent quality that perpetuates women’s oppression: therefore they must be challenged.To do so we must analyze the way these binary oppositions operate in dif- ferent contexts and, rather than accepting them as fixed, seek to displace their hierar- chical construction.4 When many of these differences between women and men are no longer assumed to be natural or fixed, we can examine how relations of gender inequality are constructed and sustained in various arenas of public and private life. In committing itself to gender as a category of analysis, contemporary feminism also commits itself to gender equality as a social goal.

Extending Scott’s challenge to the field of international relations, we can immediately detect a similar set of hierarchical binary oppositions. But in spite of the seemingly obvious association of international politics with the masculine character- istics described above, the field of international relations is one of the last of the social sciences to be touched by gender analysis and feminist perspectives.5 The reason for this, I believe, is not that the field is gender neutral, meaning that the introduction of gender is irrelevant to its subject matter as many scholars believe, but that it is so thoroughly masculinized that the workings of these hierarchical gender relations are hidden.

Framed in its own set of binary distinctions, the discipline of international rela- tions assumes similarly hierarchical relationships when it posits an anarchic world “outside” to be defended against through the accumulation and rational use of power. In political discourse, this becomes translated into stereotypical notions about those who inhabit the outside. Like women, foreigners are frequently portrayed as “the other”: nonwhites and tropical countries are often depicted as irrational, emotional, and unstable, characteristics that are also attributed to women. The construction of this discourse and the way in which we are taught to think about international politics closely parallel the way in which we are socialized into understanding gender differ- ences.To ignore these hierarchical constructions and their relevance to power is there- fore to risk perpetuating these relationships of domination and subordination. […]

Contemporary feminist theories

Just as there are multiple approaches within the discipline of international relations, there are also multiple approaches in contemporary feminist theory that come out of various disciplinary traditions and paradigms. While it is obvious that not all women are feminists, feminist theories are constructed out of the experiences of women in their many and varied circumstances, experiences that have generally been rendered invisible by most intellectual disciplines.

Most contemporary feminist perspectives define themselves in terms of reacting to traditional liberal feminism that, since its classic formulation in the works of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, has sought to draw attention to and eliminate the legal restraints barring women’s access to full participation in the public world.6 Most contemporary feminist scholars, other than liberals, claim that the sources of dis- crimination against women run much deeper than legal restraints: they are enmeshed in the economic, cultural, and social structures of society and thus do not end when legal restraints are removed. Almost all feminist perspectives have been motivated by the common goal of attempting to describe and explain the sources of gender inequal- ity, and hence women’s oppression, and to seek strategies to end them.

Feminists claim that women are oppressed in a multiplicity of ways that depend on culture, class, and race as well as on gender. Rosemary Tong suggests that we can categorize various contemporary feminist theories according to the ways in which they view the causes of women’s oppression. While Marxist feminists believe that capitalism is the source of women’s oppression, radical feminists claim that women are oppressed by the system of patriarchy that has existed under almost all modes of production. Patriarchy is institutionalized through legal and economic, as well as social and cultural institutions. Some radical feminists argue that the low value assigned to the feminine characteristics described above also contributes to women’s oppression. Feminists in the psychoanalytic tradition look for the source of women’s oppression deep in the psyche, in gender relationships into which we are socialized from birth.

Socialist feminists have tried to weave these various approaches together into some kind of a comprehensive explanation of women’s oppression. Socialist feminists claim that women’s position in society is determined both by structures of production in the economy and by structures of reproduction in the household, structures that are reinforced by the early socialization of children into gender roles. Women’s unequal status in all these structures must be eliminated for full equality to be achieved. Socialist feminism thus tries to understand the position of women in their multiple roles in order to find a single standpoint from which to explain their condi- tion. Using standpoint in the sense that it has been used by Marxists, these theorists claim that those who are oppressed have a better understanding of the sources of their oppression than their oppressors. “A standpoint is an engaged vision of the world opposed and superior to dominant ways of thinking.”7

This notion of standpoint has been seriously criticized by postmodern feminists who argue that a unified representation of women across class, racial, and cultural lines is an impossibility. Just as feminists more generally have criticized existing knowledge that is grounded in the experiences of white Western males, postmodern- ists claim that feminists themselves are in danger of essentializing the meaning of woman when they draw exclusively on the experiences of white Western women: such an approach runs the additional risk of reproducing the same dualizing distinc- tions that feminists object to in patriarchal discourse.8 Postmodernists believe that a multiplicity of women’s voices must be heard lest feminism itself become one more hierarchical system of knowledge construction.

Any attempt to construct feminist perspectives on international relations must take this concern of postmodernists seriously; as described above, dominant approaches to international relations have been Western-centered and have focused their theoretical investigations on the activities of the great powers. An important goal for many feminists has been to attempt to speak for the marginalized and oppressed: much of contemporary feminism has also recognized the need to be sensi- tive to the multiple voices of women and the variety of circumstances out of which they speak. Developing perspectives that can shed light on gender hierarchies as they contribute to women’s oppression worldwide must therefore be sensitive to the dan- gers of constructing a Western-centered approach. Many Western feminists are understandably apprehensive about replicating men’s knowledge by generalizing from the experiences of white Western women.Yet to be unable to speak for women only further reinforces the voices of those who have constructed approaches to interna- tional relations out of the experiences of men.

“[Feminists] need a home in which everyone has a room of her own, but one in which the walls are thin enough to permit a conversation.”9 Nowhere is this more true than in these early attempts to bring feminist perspectives to bear on international politics, a realm that has been divisive in both its theory and its practice. […]

Feminist theories and international relations

Since, as I have suggested, the world of international politics is a masculine domain, how could feminist perspectives contribute anything new to its academic discourses? Many male scholars have already noted that, given our current technologies of destruction and the high degree of economic inequality and environmental degrada- tion that now exists, we are desperately in need of changes in the way world politics is conducted; many of them are attempting to prescribe such changes. For the most part, however, these critics have ignored the extent to which the values and assump- tions that drive our contemporary international system are intrinsically related to concepts of masculinity; privileging these values constrains the options available to states and their policymakers. All knowledge is partial and is a function of the know- er’s lived experience in the world. Since knowledge about the behavior of states in the international system depends on assumptions that come out of men’s experiences, it ignores a large body of human experience that has the potential for increasing the range of options and opening up new ways of thinking about interstate practices. Theoretical perspectives that depend on a broader range of human experience are important for women and men alike, as we seek new ways of thinking about our con- temporary dilemmas.

Conventional international relations theory has concentrated on the activities of the great powers at the center of the system. Feminist theories, which speak out of the various experiences of women – who are usually on the margins of society and interstate politics – can offer us some new insights on the behavior of states and the needs of individuals, particularly those on the peripheries of the international system. Feminist perspectives, constructed out of the experiences of women, can add a new dimension to our understanding of the world economy; since women are frequently the first casualties in times of economic hardship, we might also gain some new insight into the relationship between militarism and structural violence.

However, feminist theories must go beyond injecting women’s experiences into different disciplines and attempt to challenge the core concepts of the disciplines themselves.

Concepts central to international relations theory and practice, such as power, sovereignty, and security, have been framed in terms that we associate with masculin- ity. Drawing on feminist theories to examine and critique the meaning of these and other concepts fundamental to international politics could help us to reformulate these concepts in ways that might allow us to see new possibilities for solving our current insecurities. Suggesting that the personal is political, feminist scholars have brought to our attention distinctions between public and private in the domestic polity: examining these artificial boundary distinctions in the domestic polity could shed new light on international boundaries, such as those between anarchy and order, which are so fundamental to the conceptual framework of realist discourse.

Most contemporary feminist perspectives take the gender inequalities that I have described above as a basic assumption. Feminists in various disciplines claim that fem- inist theories, by revealing and challenging these gender hierarchies, have the poten- tial to transform disciplinary paradigms. By introducing gender into the discipline of international relations, I hope to challenge the way in which the field has traditionally been constructed and to examine the extent to which the practices of international politics are related to these gender inequalities. The construction of hierarchical binary oppositions has been central to theorizing about international relations.10 Distinctions between domestic and foreign, inside and outside, order and anarchy, and center and periphery have served as important assumptions in theory construc- tion and as organizing principles for the way we view the world. Just as realists center their explanations on the hierarchical relations between states and Marxists on unequal class relations, feminists can bring to light gender hierarchies embedded in the theo- ries and practices of world politics and allow us to see the extent to which all these systems of domination are interrelated.

As Sarah Brown argues, a feminist theory of international relations is an act of political commitment to understanding the world from the perspective of the socially subjugated. “There is the need to identify the as yet unspecified relation between the construction of power and the construction of gender in international relations.”11 Acknowledging, as most feminist theories do, that these hierarchies are socially constructed, also allows us to envisage conditions necessary for their transcendence. […]


Roosevelt epigraph from speech to the United Nations General Assembly (1952), quoted in Crapol, ed., Women and American Foreign Policy, p. 176; de Beauvoir epigraph from The Second Sex, p. 161.

  1. McGlen and Sarkees, “Leadership Styles of Women in Foreign Policy,” 17.
  2. Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 43. Scott’s chapter 2, entitled “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” on which my analysis of gender draws, was originally published in the American Historical Review (December 1986), 91(5):1053–75.
  3. Broverman et al., “Sex-Role Stereotypes: A Current Appraisal.” Although the original study was published in 1972, replication of this research in the 1980s confirmed that these perceptions still held in the United
  4. Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 43.
  5. As of 1986, a study showed that no major American international relations journal had published any articles that used gender as a category of See Steuernagel and Quinn, “Is Anyone Listening?” Apart from a special issue of the British interna- tional relations journal Millennium (Winter 1988),17(3), on women and interna- tional relations, very little attention has been paid to gender in any major international relations journal.
  6. Tong, Feminist Thought, 2. My description of the varieties of contemporary femi- nist thought draws heavily on her chapter 1.
  7. Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, 129. See also Hartsock, Money, Sex, and Power, ch. 10.
  8. Runyan and Peterson, “The Radical Future of Realism,” 7.
  9. Tong, Feminist Thought, 7.
  10. Runyan and Peterson, “The Radical Future of Realism,” 3.
  11. Brown, “Feminism, International Theory, and International Relations of Gender Inequality,” 469.


Broverman, Inge K., Susan R.Vogel, Donald M. Broverman, Frank E. Clarkson, and Paul

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28(2) (1972): 59–78.

Brown, Sarah. “Feminism, International Theory, and International Relations of Gender Inequality.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 17(3) (1988): 461–475.

Crapol, Edward P., ed. Women and American Foreign Policy: Lobbyists, Critics, and Insiders.

NewYork: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Hartsock, Nancy C. M. Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism.

Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983.

McGlen, Nancy E. and Meredith Reid Sarkees. “Leadership Styles of Women in Foreign Policy.” Unpublished paper, 1990.

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.

Runyan, Anne Sisson and V. Spike Peterson. “The Radical Future of Realism: Feminist Subversions of IR Theory.” Alternatives 16(1) (1991): 67–106.

Scott, Joan W. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Steuernagel, Gertrude A. and Laurel U. Quinn. “Is Anyone Listening? Political Science and the Response to the Feminist Challenge.” Unpublished paper, 1986.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder:Westview, 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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