A Normative Ethical Framework in Climate Change by Marco Grasso — A Summary

Title: A Normative Ethical Framework in Climate Change
Author: Marco Grasso
Publication: Climatic Change, Vol. 81, No. 3–4 (2007)
Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-006-9158-7

Before beginning, make yourself comfortable with the following concepts. Conceptual terminology will be used in the belief that the reader is already familiar with them.

1. Introduction

Climate change has serious adverse consequences for the planet. Being economically backward, technologically deficient and nature dependent, poor countries will especially bear the brunt of the negative effects of climate change for which the rich countries are largely responsible. This makes the crisis of climate change an ethical issue and a matter of justice.

While all countries profess their commitment to a collective action against climate change, the absence of an enforcer above them means that agreements can only be voluntary and will have to be self-enforcing. To achieve reliable self-enforcement, a climate change agreement will have to be “informed by principles of justice, shaped by criteria of equity, and perceived to be fair in both its process and outcomes”.

The achievement of such an agreement is difficult because at the policy level, justice and equity take a backseat to the priorities and interests of countries. Herein lies the need of a “normative ethical framework” to address the “common but differentiated responsibilities” associated with climate change.

“In the light of these considerations, the aim of this article is to ethically justify and describe a normative pluralistic framework for international distributive justice, and to define the consequent equity criteria possibly determining global initiatives against climate change.”

2. Notions and domains of justice in climate change

Justice is a staple concept in political philosophy.

“[The intention of the paper] is to describe the dominant dimensions of international distributive justice, and the consequent criteria of equity with respect to the specificity of global climate change, in order to identify a comprehensive normative framework for international climate-related actions.”

In the developed North, climate change is simply an environmental issue. But in the underdeveloped South, climate change is a matter of human survival. As such, the North’s stress on mitigation is incomplete and should be supplemented by the South’s insistence on and need for adaptation.

Environmental distributive justice pertains to the distribution of “environmental benefits, costs, risks and harms among human beings”. For climate change, the units to be distributed are the costs and benefits of mitigating carbon emissions as well as compensation for residual damages and the costs and benefits of adapting to prevent the harmful effects of climate change.[1]

Climate is a global public good that impacts all countries in ways and to degrees that are not determined by their specific emissions. Thus, there is a need to link mitigation and adaptation strategies into a pluralistic ethical framework that takes into account issues of justice and equity.

The former strategy, for example, ought to consider the moral unavoidability of certain basic energy needs and therefore be flexible in allocating endowments, whereas there should be a certain stringency in identifying the rules for subsequent allocations. The latter requires a solid basis for the allocation of adaptation resources, which again calls for flexibility as far as the financing of adaptation activities is concerned.

The issue of procedural justice also needs to be considered even though it shall remain outside the scope of the framework being constructed in this paper.

“International climate justice can be framed in the following domains …:
– just initial allocation of endowments,
– just exchange of endowments,
– just allocation of the costs of adapting to climate impacts,
– just allocation of the benefits (i.e., resources) for adapting to climate impacts,
– distribution of wealth and power allowing a just international negotiating process.”

3. Justice and equity in mitigation


“The issue of justice in mitigation can be seen as a problem of defining a just initial allocation of endowments and equitable consequent exchange patterns.”

3.1 Initial allocation of endowments: Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness

The allocation of endowments concerns the initial allocation of rights to emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. A just initial allocation of endowments (hereafter JIAE) can be usefully set within an ethical framework based on Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness (hereafter RTJF).

The availability of “energy services” is a primary good. This availability is influenced by “undeserved inequalities” like different climatic conditions, or a greater capacity to absorb GHG emissions. The uneven distribution of such characteristics forestalls the attainment of genuine equality of opportunity as far as energy services are concerned.

If a JIAE is to be established based on RTJF, a criterion of equity based on equal per capita distribution of endowments which also reduces undeserved inequalities is necessary. This is the criterion of “differentiated equality” which “[i]n a GHG emission rights scheme, [requires that] endowments should … be allocated among the parties according to a formula whose reference is equal per capita distribution and which includes the standard of living corrected for the most evident circumstances that influence the demand for energy services,[2] and therefore the consequent GHG emissions, of each country.”

Such an allocation would entail a scarcity of endowments in developed countries and a surplus in developing ones. This skewed allocation will result in financial flows from the former to the latter as the former inevitably use up the quota of the latter. Such transfers are to recognized as compensation to the South for the overuse of the atmosphere’s absorptive capacity by the North.

3.2 Exchange of endowments: Utilitarian theory of justices

The unequal distribution of endowments will lead to their exchange i.e., the trading of GHG emission rights. This is important because as the marginal costs of emissions abatement differ among countries, redistribution will need to equalise the unequal marginal costs.

In economic terms, redistribution should aim at achieving a Pareto-efficient social state in the sense that there are no other social states that would make someone better off without simultaneously making someone else worse-off. However, Pareto-efficiency ignores issues of justice.

As such, the Pareto-efficiency principle should be supported by some criterion of distributive justice. The envy-freeness criterion is a way to choose between different Pareto-efficient states and to identify allocations that are at once efficient and equitable.

The Pareto principle entails greater cutbacks of emissions in countries where marginal costs of abatement are lower i.e., in Southern countries. But to make such an arrangement just, the envy-free criterion obligates the Northern countries with lower initial cutbacks to compensate the Southern countries. Only this solution can in principle be both Pareto-efficient and envy-free.

4. Justice and equity in adaptation


“From an operational point of view, also the adaptation sphere of distributive justice can be split into two domains: the funding of adaptation activities and the allocation of resources.”

4.1 Financing of adaptation activities: Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness

Financing of adaptation activities concerns the division among countries of the costs of adaptation programs and projects, and of residual damages compensation.

Historical principles of justice hold that those who caused the problem should be held responsible. The atmosphere is a common resource that whose “atmospheric absorptive services” should be accessible to “all actual and potential human beings”. For this to happen justly, past emissions should be taken into account in order to ensure equality of opportunity. All of these would imply that the North should finance adaptation programmes.

However, there are conditions that affect the consumption of the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere which are beyond the control of emitters.[3] This fact necessitates a robust theory of justice that simultaneously allows for substantial differences in equality. Such a principle is provided by RTJF.

“Grounding the funding of adaptation activities on … RTJF requires an equity criterion which encompasses all the elements and determines the use of atmospheric absorptive capacity. …[This] criterion of ‘differentiated historical responsibility’ … suggests that … the yardstick must be responsibility based on historical accountability. … [T]he difference principle requires consideration of undeserved inequalities that have actually influenced cumulative GHG emissions and contributed to their cumulative amount.”

In policy, such a principle would entail the creation of a global fund for financing adaptation to climate change which would be financed by countries according to the criterion of differentiated historical responsibility.

4.2 Allocating adaptation resources: Sen’s capability approach

Allocating adaptation resources concerns the allocation of the resources available for adaptation strategies. The most appealing benchmark in this regard is the idea of social vulnerability. However, the notion of vulnerability sheds no light on the ability to adapt. Here arises then the need for principles of justice to frame allocation schemes that include considerations on the ability of countries to use adaptation resources effectively.

Amartya Sen’s capability approach (hereafter SCA) is a promising frame within which to situate the issue of “effective adaptive response”. What matters is not simply the availability of resources and services but more importantly the possibility of gaining effective protection against climate impacts using these resources and services. In other words, what matters is that the well-being of individuals, defined as the enlargement of capabilities, be achieved.

SCA is based on the concept of human security.[4] Human security is defined by a set of basic capabilities — “achievable functionings”, in practice. The idea is to ground the participation of all countries in a possible adaptation fund on a ranking based on human security which encompasses the ability to convert resources into valuable “doings” and “beings”.

Human security defined as “the number of years of future life spent outside a state of ‘generalized poverty’” where “[g]eneralised poverty occurs when an individual falls below the threshold of any key domain of well-being” is extremely useful in talking about adaptation to climate impacts as it acknowledges that human security depends closely on poverty, defined as deprivation of basic capabilities (income, health, education, political freedom and democracy).

“[The] point is that the weaker a country is in these domains of well-being, the less are its institutional and social possibilities and capacities to turn adaptation resources into effective adaptation actions. Hence, weaker countries should be given privileged access to the funds.” This access should be directly proportional to the population harmed and inversely proportional to the human security index.


[1] “I include among adaptation strategies also the compensation for damages deriving from residual impacts that cannot be adapted because of cost or impossibility (e.g., extreme and abrupt climatic events). From the theoretical perspective put forward here, they can be seen as ex-post forms of adaptation.” [Footnote from the paper]

[2] “…the climatic conditions (measurable, for instance, by heating and cooling degree days, that is, by the average temperature departure from a human comfort level of 18 °C), the availability of carbon absorbing areas (proxied, for example, by the country’s forested area), and the availability of renewables allowing greater use.”

[3] “…such as climatic conditions, or the availability of sinks and renewables.”

[4] “I abide with the notion of human security put forward by Alkire, who views it as the protection and promotion of a limited number of aspects of human well-being which constitute its ‘vital core’.” [quoted from the paper]


Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air? by Roland Paris — A Summary

Title: Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air?
Author: Roland Paris
Publication: International Security Vol. 26, No. 2 (2001)
Link: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/016228801753191141`

Human security is being hailed as a new paradigm for thinking about international security beyond its realist preoccupation with the military. However, the concept is not precisely defined. And its proponents seem to be interested in keeping it that way.

The term, in short, appears to be slippery by design. Cultivated ambiguity renders human security an effective campaign slogan, but it also diminishes the concept’s usefulness as a guide for academic research or policy-making.

What is Human Security?

Human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life — whether in homes, in jobs or in communities.

UNDP Human Development Report 1994

The report also identifies seven specific elements that comprise human security: a) economic security; b) food security; c) health security; d) environmental security; e) personal security; f) community security; and g) political security.

This definition remains the most cited and most authoritative. However, the definition and the elements specified are so comprehensive that it is difficult to see anything that could be excluded. The meaning and boundaries of human security are thus extremely vague.

Definitions offered by academics are no less vague and are often in the “laundry-list” format of the UNDP. Jorge Nef suggests five constituents of human security while Laura Reed and Majid Tehranian offer ten constituent elements. Those that choose not to give lists offer equally comprehensive definitions. Caroine Thomas talks about “basic material needs” and “human dignity” while Robert Bedeski sees human security as encompassing the totality of knowledge, technology, institutions and activities” which enable and enhance human life.

If human security is all these things, what is it not?

A Guide for Research and Policymaking?

Given the range of values that human security encompasses within its vast “inclusive” and “holistic” sweep and the reluctance in ranking these values, policy makers have little use for the concept.

A similar problem lies for academics as human security, with its hodgepodge of principles, seems to be capable of supporting virtually any hypothesis along with its opposite! The holism of the concept also makes analytical interventions difficult as it is impossible to talk of, let’s say, socio-economic factors causing an increase or decrease in human security as these they are themselves implicated within the definition of human security.

To illustrate, consider John Cockell’s efforts to apply the concept of human security to international peacebuilding operations in disturbed countries. He states that “peacebuilding is a sustained process of preventing internal threats to human security from causing protracted, violent conflict.” Since, safety from violence is a part of the definition of human security itself, Cockell is effectively saying that peacebuilding tries to reduce threats to human security by reducing threats to human security!

Attempts to Narrow the Concept

Gary King and Christopher Murray seek to incorporate only “essential” elements in the concept of human security, elements that are “important enough for human beings to fight over or to put their lives or property at great risk”. These indicators of well-being are identified as poverty, health, education, political freedom and democracy. Kanti Bajpai proposes construction of a “human security audit” that would include measures of “direct and indirect threats to individual bodily safety and freedom”.

The problem with projects like these is the identification of certain values, which are chosen, as more important than others without justification. Why, for example, are “threats to safety and freedom the most important”? What about, say, education? Why should the “essential” elements comprise of “poverty, health, education, political freedom and democracy”? Is a rich, healthy, and educated area of London necessarily secure? The challenge is to narrow the definition but give compelling reasons as to why certain values are preferred.

Narrowing down human security also creates another problem. The ambiguity of the concept unites a diverse and often fractious coalition of states and organisations. Making human security more specific would run the risk of aggravating certain groups and alienating them.

What is the merit, then, in narrowing the concept of security?

Human Security as a Category of Research

“Human security may serve as a label for a broad category of research in the field of security studies that is primarily concerned with non-military threats to the safety of societies, groups, and individuals, in contrast to more traditional approaches to security studies that focus on protecting states from external threats.”

The point of this suggestion is that despite the vagueness of the concept, human security could still play a useful “taxonomical” role. This would be well-aligned to the slippery and volatile nature of the concept itself.

Security studies has broadened and deepened since the Cold War. Broadened in that it has moved beyond the conventional military understanding to include a host of non-military threats. Deepened in that it is now willing to consider individuals and groups as referent objects rather than on states alone.

Using the notions of deepening and broadening, it is possible to construct a matrix to situate the literature in the field of security studies.

Roland Paris Matrix Security Studies

Cell 1 contains works that concentrate on military threats to the security of states. Cell 2 contains works addressing non-military threats (instead of or in addition to military threats) to states. Cell 3 focuses on military threats to non-state actors like societies, groups and individuals. Cell 4 is concerned with military and non-military threats, or both, to the security of societies, groups, and individuals. This last area of literature is what would be called “human security”.

Using human security to describe this category of research is intuitive as the issues covered echo many of the concerns of human security. It avoids the problem of framing precise hypotheses about human security — a problem that has turned out to be an unsurmountable one. Using human security as a descriptive label frees it from presupposing any normative agenda.

This exercise also helps differentiate the principal approaches to security studies. It is no longer sufficient nor reasonable to define security studies in dualistic terms — the state-centric realist approaches as opposed to the “disorderly bazaar” of alternative approaches. It could also help draw attention to existing works through the very “fashionability” of security studies.

This is not to assert that these compartments are watertight. They are permeable.

Moral Relativism Defended by Gilbert Harman — A Summary

Title: Moral Relativism Defended
Author: Gilbert Harman
Publication: The Philosophical Review, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1975)
Link: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2184078

Morality arises when a group of people reach an implicit agreement about their relations with one another. This agreement is made in the relevant sense when a group of people intend to adhere to a set of principles based on the understanding that the rest also similarly intend.

Most moral judgments make sense only in relation to such an agreement. ‘Most’ because this thesis is only about “inner judgments” which say that S ought to or ought not to have done D and not about judgments that say S is evil or unjust.

I. Inner Judgments

Inner judgements are relevant only within the relevant moral considerations of the agreement. To illustrate, it would be odd to make the judgement that a conquering alien race which does not harbour the slightest concern for human life should not attack us or to say that their actions are wrong. The same goes for a band of cannibals eating the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Or even a person brought up in such a way as to have only contempt for people outside the family who kills a non-family member.

It will be correct to say that the aliens are dreadful, that the cannibals are inhuman, and that the murderer is a criminal. But it would be inappropriate to judge their actions as wrong or to state that they ought not to have done what they did since our moral considerations are clearly not relevant to them.

The use of the moral ‘ought’ with the qualification ‘to do’ should be differentiated from it use in the form ‘ought to be’ to indicate expectation (“My girlfriend ought to be here soon”), rationality (“My girlfriend ought to be in the 2 PM train”) or normative judgment (“My girlfriend ought to be faithful”[1]). Similarly, for the word ‘should’.

Also, the use of ‘wrong’ in an evaluative sense (“My girlfriend’s infidelity was wrong”) should be differentiated from its use in a descriptive sense (“It was wrong for my girlfriend to be unfaithful”).

II. The Logical Form of Inner Judgments

Inner judgments have two important characteristics. First, they imply that the agent has reasons to do something. Second, the speaker in some sense endorses these reasons and supposes that the audience also endorses them.

If someone S says that another person A ought to do action D, S implies that A has reasons to do D and S endorses those reasons.[2] The reasons that A has and are endorsed by S are assumed to be “goals, desires, or intentions”.[3]

As such, there are certain motivating attitudes M which are shared by S, A, and S’s audience. These attitudes are intentions to keep the agreement. The argument is that inner judgments are relative to such an agreement. In other words, when S says that A ought to do D, S assumes A’s sincere intention to observe a certain agreement composed of motivating attitudes M that S, A, and S’s audience share.

Putting these together, the moral “ought” can be formulated as a four-place predicate, “Ought (A, D, C, M)” which relates an agent A, a type of act D, considerations C and motivating attitudes M. The relativity of this formulation lies with C and M.

Any action of course is relative to considerations.[4] This relativity does not make the thesis a version of moral relativism. Rather, it is the relativity to motivating attitudes that makes the thesis as such. This relativity to motivating attitudes is visible in moral “ought” statements where a speaker invokes attitudes that he does not share. For example, “As a Christian, you ought to turn the other cheek; I, however, propose to strike back.” Here, the moral judgment is explicitly relative to motivating attitudes.

Put differently, “Ought (A, D, C, M)” means that given considerations C, if A has motivating attitudes M, D is the best, or ‘moral’, course of action. Any such ‘ought’ statement necessarily has the first characteristic of inner judgments (see first paragraph in this section). If such an ‘ought’ statement makes an explicit or implicit reference to shared motivating attitudes, the statement satisfies the second characteristic too and is hence an inner judgment. But if reference is made to attitudes that are not shared, as in the example presented in the previous paragraph, the statement is not a full-fledged moral judgment.

III. Moral Bargaining

The further argument here is that motivating attitudes M derive from an agreement i.e., intentions[5] to adhere to a particular agreement on the understanding that others also intend do so.

Consider the following puzzle: even if we believe that doctors ought to help as many patients as he can, we would object to the suggestion that he should cut up a patient and use his organs to save five others. Helping others ranks lower than not harming others.

A way of navigating this puzzle is to consider the hypothesis that morality derives from an agreement among people with varying powers and resources. Everyone would benefit if there is a rule against harming each other. But if there is a rule in favour of helping as much as one can, the rich would lose out. The compromise then would be a strong ‘no harm’ principle and a weak ‘help’ principle.

This compromise agreement is not and need not be explicit. It is reached through mutual adjustment and implicit bargaining i.e., some form certain conditional intentions while others with other interests form other conditional intentions which are then resolved into an agreement though bargaining.

Most of our moral views can be given a utilitarian explanation. And utilitarian explanations can also be accounted for using an implicit agreement.  The reverse is however not possible. Examples would be the one already cited, the distinction between harming and helping, and the feeling that everyone has an inalienable right to self-defence and self-preservation.

IV. Objections and Replies

O. It does not follow from having an agreement that we should therefore keep that agreement.

R. But we intend to keep it. Intention to keep it on the condition that others intend similarly too is what makes the agreement relevant.


O. What you think, or even agree, is right may not be actually what is right.

R. That’s true. But the thesis is not about what is right. It’s about how what we understand to be right can be made sense of in reference to agreement in intentions. It does not eliminate moral disputes or, otherwise, preclude inconsistencies.


O. Not all agreements are morally binding.

R. This would imply the existence of a prior principle to the effect that agreements made under compulsion are inadmissible. This objection assumes that the agreement is made through a ritual in which one indicates that he agrees. The agreement here is clearly an agreement in intentions. And the argument here is that it is only with reference to an existing agreement in intentions and not from “prior” principles that such a principle about compelled agreements makes sense.


O. When and how did we come to the agreement? What of those who don’t want to agree and what if they don’t?

R. As mentioned earlier, the agreement is not based on a ritual but on intentions. In this sense of ‘agreement’, the questions of when and how the agreement came to be (there is no given moment at which one agrees) and what to do with those who disagree (they will clearly be outside the agreement) are rendered idle.


O. People are often unable to give systematic and precise definition of their moral views. On what understanding then can they form the agreement?

R. Many understandings are of precisely this sort. For example, the understanding among members of an orchestra or a team of acrobats. Also, moral understandings are never absolute. The principles agreed to are generally vague. For example, that respect should be shown wherever possible.

Moral reasoning is a form of practical reasoning. It has to be coherent in the sense of generality and lack of arbitrariness. But it also involves the maintenance of conservatism and the satisfaction of basic needs and desires. One tries to make the least change that will best satisfy one’s desires while maximizing the overall coherence of one’s attitudes.

Someone can reach an agreement with himself i.e., the membership of the group is one. It is perfectly possible to make inner judgments about oneself. Consider the pacifist who judges that it would be wrong of him to participate in killing but is unwilling to hold the same judgment for others even though he is willing to say that it is bad that they participate. Individual morality of this sort is extremely common.

“My conclusion is that relativism can be formulated as an intelligible thesis, the thesis that morality derives from an implicit agreement and that moral judgments are in a logical sense made in relation to such an agreement. Such a theory helps to explain otherwise puzzling aspects of our own moral views, in particular why we think that it is more important to avoid harm to others than to help others. The theory is also partially confirmed by what is, as far as I can tell, a previously unnoticed distinction between inner and non-inner moral judgments. Furthermore, traditional objections to implicit agreement theories can be met”


[1] The use of ought in this normative sense is ambiguous. Is it the ought of expectation (that I expect her to be faithful), of rationality (that it is in her interest to be faithful), normative judgment (that it would be a bad thing for her to be unfaithful) or moral judgment (that it is wrong for her to be unfaithful)? In any case, Harman is concerned only with the last.

[2] But if S says that B is evil in what B did, S does not imply that S endorses the reasons that made B do whatever B did; rather, these reasons were not relevant to S.

[3] These “goals, desires, or intentions” are assumed to be Aristotelian or Humean as opposed to being Kantian. In other words, the source of these ‘relevant’ reasons is not ‘rationality’.

[4]Considering that you promised, you ought to go to the board meeting, but considering that you are the sole surviving relative, you ought to go to the funeral; all things considered, it is not clear what you ought to do.” Quoting Donald Davidson, “Weakness of Will, in Joel Feinberg (ed.), Moral Concepts (Oxford, 1969).

[5] “I will use the word “intention” in a somewhat extended sense to cover certain dispositions or habits. Someone may habitually act in accordance with the relevant understanding and therefore may be disposed to act in that way without having any more or less conscious intention. In such a case, it may sound odd to say that he intends to act in accordance with the moral understanding. Nevertheless, for present purposes I will count that as his having the relevant intention in a dispositional sense.”

“National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol by Arnold Wolfers — A Summary

Author: National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol
Title: Arnold Wolfers
Publication: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 4 (1952)
Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2145138

  • The divisions are my own.
  • If the use of the term ‘security’ in this summary, as in the paper, seems inconsistent and extremely loose, it is because that’s exactly the point that the paper is trying to make. 🙂

National Security as National Interest

Do the terms “national interest” and “national security” that statesmen, publicists, and scholars often harp about mean anything concrete and precise? The first word ‘national’ makes it quite clear in that the terms relate to the nation rather than individuals, sub-nations or mankind. But the words ‘security’ and ‘interest’ convey very little meaning.

In the period between the World Wars, American foreign policy was largely driven by the economic interest. The question was whether this policy was serving the national interest or the powerful sub-national interests. Today, foreign policy is driven by the security interest. The question now is whether this policy is too wide in looking out for the “interests of all of mankind” at the cost of national interest.

This shift from economic to a security interpretation of the national interest is understandable. The Cold War and threats of aggression loom large whereas the threats of depression and social reform are relatively minimal.  The important question is whether this formula of national security can be a meaningful guide for securing national interest.

(I)t would be an exaggeration to claim that the symbol of national security is nothing but a stimulus to semantic confusion, (but) closer analysis will show that if used without specifications it leaves room for more confusion than sound political counsel or scientific usage can afford.

Statement of Facts in Security Policy

Demand for foreign policy guided by the consideration of national security assumes that nations have indeed made security their goal. The problem with this assumption, this “statement of fact”, even if it is true, is that “the term ‘security’ covers a range of goals so wide that highly divergent policies can be interpreted as policies of security.”

Security denotes protection of “acquired values”. It is then a value which a nation can have more or less of. Objectively, it measures the absence of threats to acquired values, and subjectively, it measures the absence of fear of threats to acquired values. This discrepancy between the objective and subjective connotations of security is significant.

Different nations react to the same threats differently. Nations that experienced attacks in the recent past or suddenly find themselves in danger after prolonged security are most sensitive to threats. Also, nations are not all or constantly faced with the same degree of danger. The point is that nations will therefore differ in their efforts to obtain more security.

Nevertheless, the generalisation that “most nations, most of the time 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” remains undeniable. This does not however make it a cardinal rule. It has been the case that efforts to increase security through, say, more armaments, even when the payoffs are certain, face serious obstacles as they introduce uncomfortable costs. Also, very few, if any, nations have started preventive wars on the grounds of security whereas there have been numerous wars fought for other, even trivial, reasons.

A different hypothesis stating that nations will seek to minimise their efforts to increase security as it is, after all, a negative value i.e., “the absence of the evil of insecurity” might offer a better understanding.

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 which a nation chooses to make its target.

But nations are not free to choose the amount of effort they put into security. To this objection, it may be replied that ‘pure power politics’ is not the reality and that survival — one of the main justifications for security — has only exceptionally been at stake. Security policies then become more a function of what nations want than what nations are compelled to do by others. And there are values other than security that nations desire to secure and, ceteris paribus, “the efforts for security will vary with the range of values for which the protection is sought.”

What constitutes this ‘range of values’? There may appear to be considerable uniformity regarding these values as every nation wants to preserve its ‘core’ values of “national independence and territorial integrity”. That’s not disputed. But nations seek protection of other ‘marginal’ values too, e.g., markets and investments, which often become crucial on the security agenda even to the extent that many West European countries have become weary and distrustful of rearmament seeing it as a threat to other cherished marginal values.

Any policy for security cannot be determined by its end, i.e., security, alone. The means adopted have to be taken into account. The same end could, for example, be pursued through active rearmament or meticulous neutrality. The general propensity is to assume that the former path will be chosen, but that’s not always the case. This tendency is understandable given the fact, supported by historical reading, that security is being sought against violence — external or internal — which demands mobilisation of coercive power in order to respond appropriately, i.e., with violence.

But then again, such a tendency does little to advance the understanding of security. The takeaway is that, “in the matter of means, the roads which are open may lead in diametrically opposed directions. This is exemplified in the treatment of Germany after the World Wars I and II, in the former case retaliatory, and in the latter conciliatory.

The choice in every instance will depend on a multitude of variables, including ideological and moral convictions, expectations concerning the psychological and political developments in the camp of the opponent, and inclinations of individual policy makers.

Little, then, is left of the sweeping generalization that nations, guided by their national security interest, tend to pursue a uniform and therefore imitable policy of security. There are plenty of reasons to say and historical examples to prove that they differ very widely in their policies which run the entire gamut from “complete indifference to security or complete reliance on nonmilitary means, … (to) insistence on absolute security or complete reliance on coercive power.”

Normative Judgments in Security Policy

(The following paragraph appears right after the first section but is being produced here for the sake of continuity and clarity. Why this is the case will be clear as you read pages 483 and 484 of the paper.)

“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 least evil course of action. The value judgments implicit in these normative exhortations will be discussed.”


Can any security policy said to be “generally expedient”? This is problematic because while the goal of security is not decided based on expediency, it is difficult to conceive of security itself as an end — the implication being that if security is not an end and merely a means to “more ultimate ends”, the question of expediency becomes relevant. Today’s followers of Machiavelli will of course maintain the security of the nation is an end in itself. However, there is growing opinion disagreeing with the Machiavellians. Why else do we — Americans, presumably — condemn Nazis and Communists for defending (the security of) their totalitarian regimes? Why else, in Asia and Europe, is there the apprehension that military security measures would make no sense it they came at the cost of basic liberties and welfare?

Can a specific level of security be generally expedient? One could say that the sky is the limit. But maximum security cannot be an expedient level of security. For one, every increment in security must be paid for by additional resources, i.e., by sacrificing other values. After a certain level, the gain in security will not be able to compensate the loss in other values. This is crucial as absolute security is out of the question. For another, while the problem of the “security dilemma” makes absolute security equal to absolute insecurity — in the language of game theory, a non-zero-sum game — in practice, this vicious circle can be broken through well-crafted diplomacy, self-restraint and moderation.

Can certain specific means of attaining security be generally expedient? It depends. There can be no one answer that fulfills the requirements of every case. Strong countries will have options that weak countries cannot muster. The “power of resistance” cannot be said to be generally expedient given the nature of security. If a nation’s security is understood in its objective sense, the subjective attitudes and behaviour of those nations that threaten it become paramount. But no strong recommendations can be given.

“…it will clarify the issue to sketch the type of hypotheses which would link specific security policies, as expedient, to some of the most typical political constellations.”

One can think of nations lined up between the two poles of maximum and minimum “attack propensity” … wherever the issue of security becomes a matter of serious concern, … an attack must be feared as a possibility, even though the intention to launch it cannot be considered to have crystallized to the point where nothing could change it. If this be true, a security policy in order to be expedient cannot avoid accumulating power of resistance and yet cannot let it go at that. … (in other words,) security policy must seek to bring opponents to occupy a position as close to the second pole as conditions and capabilities permit.

Such a twofold policy presents the greatest dilemmas because efforts to change the intentions of an opponent may run counter to the efforts to build up strength against him. The dangers of any policy of concessions, symbolized by “Munich”, cannot be ·underestimated. The paradox of this situation must be faced, however, if security policy is to be expedient.


Can any security policy considered to be moral? Any advice on national security will unavoidably be based on moral judgments. The framing of security policies then entails weighing the good and evil of values. As an example, a policy that favours greater military spending at the cost of healthcare carries the implicit judgment that the good of increased security is worth the evil of decreased social welfare.

It is easier to argue for the amorality of politics if one does not have to bear the responsibility of choice and decision!

There are two extreme positions that can be taken regarding the moral issue. One extreme is that national security is at the top of the value pyramid and that it trumps all other values. The other extreme is that coercive power is an absolute evil that must be shunned at all costs. For any other position in between these two, the issue is anything but simple. The line between protection of security and the preservation of other values has to be drawn. Where to draw that line is the perennial problem.

Decision makers thus have to navigate the moral labyrinth of which values to protect, what level of protection to be ensured and what means to adopt in order to achieve that level of protection. Policies of national security far from being all good or all evil can be either praiseworthy or condemnable or praiseworthy and condemnable.

“This wide range of variety which arises out of the multitude of variables affecting the value computation would make it impossible, and in fact meaningless, to pass moral judgment, positive or negative, on national security policy in general.”


“In conclusion, it can be said, then, that normative admonitions to conduct a foreign policy guided by the national security interest are no less ambiguous and misleading than the statement of fact concerning past behaviour which was discussed earlier. In order to be meaningful such admonitions would have to specify the degree of security which a nation shall aspire to attain and the means by which it is to be attained in a given situation. … Because the pendulum of public opinion swings so easily from extreme complacency to extreme apprehension, from utopian reliance on “good will” to disillusioned faith in naked force only, it is particularly important to be wary of any simple panacea, even of one that parades in the realist garb of a policy guided solely by the national security interest.”


The Renaissance of Security Studies by Stephen M. Walt — A Summary

Title: The Renaissance of Security Studies
Author: Stephen M. Walt
Publication: International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1991)
Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2600471

What is “Security Studies?”

Security Studies is “the study of the threat, use, and control of military force”. While a water-tight demarcation of its scope is arbitrary, the main focus of security studies is the “phenomenon of war”. Unsurprisingly, it fits snugly within the realist paradigm and tends to concentrate on variables which can be affected by policy. These include maters of statecraft like diplomacy, arms control, and crisis management which are directly related to its main preoccupation.

There is also, recently, calls to include non-military forces like pandemics and natural disasters which threaten both states and individuals.  However, such a broadening of the discipline’s scope is bound to “destroy its intellectual coherence”. Besides, the spectre of war is always haunting states and, thus, war continues to preoccupy national policies.

The Golden Age of Security Studies

The increasing interest from civilians on matters of security after the horror of World War II inaugurated the “Golden Age” of security studies. It was the rise of nuclear capability and the innumerable questions regarding its potential use which formed the prime area of study. The approach was eclectic and interdisciplinary. One limitation was that given the close exchange of ideas and assets between the Department of Defense and the think-tanks involved in research, the output was uncomfortably military in perspective.

Limitations and Lacunae in the Golden Age

Firstly, early works in security studies were highly speculative. With most relevant data being classified, this was, to an extent, unavoidable. Secondly, politics was understood in the narrow sense of military balances while ignoring non-military sources of conflict. As such, political sources of conflict and, by extension, techniques of redressal, were slighted. Finally, the output arising out of the “behavioural revolution”, although significant, were dismissed by security studies as irrelevant and, thus, had little impact on policy.

The End of the Golden Age

The Golden Age declined in the mid-60s. For one, the central issues identified by security studies were well understood by then. For another, there was no significant contribution to the field from the “successor generation” of scholars. Also, the debacle of the Vietnam war unfortunately and ironically made the field unfashionable in universities. Lastly, the stabilisation of the cold war power balance thanks to nuclear deterrence made the study of war unattractive. Scholars moved their attention to economic issues.

The Renaissance

New Developments in Security Studies

The Use of History

Increased access to classified archives and the increased interaction between historians and political scientists led to structured, focussed, and policy-relevant comparisons and aided the revision of important historical events.

The Challenge to Rational Deterrence Theory

The dubious assumptions of perfect rationality and perfect information which underpinned rational deterrence theory began to be questioned by drawing upon psychology, organisation theory and historical studies.

Nuclear Weapons Theory

Debates on nuclear weapons policy became extremely lively with the surge in rigorous civilian analyses thanks to the availability of data and analytical tools. The water-tightness of the nuclear command and control system was found to be a sham. Scholarship became highly empirical.

Conventional Warfare

The dominance of nuclear considerations in analyses was reversed and conventional warfare began to receive attention thanks to the concern about conventional balance in Europe after Vietnam. Many of the analyses coming out of this were based on new theoretical approaches and empirically tested propositions.

US Grand Strategy

“Increased interest in the subject (US Grand Strategy) was especially evident in the United States, sparked by a growing sense that the United States was over-commited and needed to rethink its strategic priorities.”

Security Studies and International Relations Theory

National security issues became part of the agenda for theorists of international politics breaking away from the hitherto narrow perspective of policy research. This was most evident in the reformulated realist perspective pioneered by Kenneth Waltz.

The Role of the Ivory Tower

“The final characteristic separating the Golden Age from the recent renaissance is the growth of security studies within the academic world. … Although analysts outside the ivory tower remain important, the center of gravity has clearly shifted back toward academe.

Explaining the Renaissance

The End of Vietnam War

Security studies was sort of taboo during the Vietnam war. Its termination made the field more attractive to students who were also motivated by the need to reassess US foreign and defense policy.

The Collapse of Détente

“Interest in security affairs was also revived by the deterioration of U.S.–Soviet relations in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Increased Access to Data

Availability of archival material made possible by the movement against government secrecy thanks to Vietnam and Watergate, and authoritative publications from government departments as well as influential publications from academic centres made the renaissance possible.

Increased Outlets for Publishing

The birth of refereed journals like International Security, Journal of Strategic Studies as well as the establishment of Cornell Studies in Security Affairs helped scholars pursue and demonstrate rigorous and ambitious work in the field.

Financial Support

“Like its medieval namesake, the renaissance of security studies was fuelled by wealth. … Increased public concern about national security issues encouraged generous support from institutions such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation … .

Security Studies and Social Science

“Last but not least, the resurrection of security studies was facilitated by its adoption of the norms and objectives of social science.

Like other social scientists, scholars in security affairs engage in three main activities: 1) theory creation, the development of logically related causal propositions explaining a particular phenomenon of interest; 2) theory testing, attempts to verify, falsify, and refine competing theories by testing their predictions against a scientifically selected body of evidence; and 3) theory application, the use of existing knowledge to illuminate a specific policy problem. 

Problems and Prospects for Security Studies

... a permanent decline (in the field of security studies) is unlikely for at least three reasons. First, as the war in the Persian Gulf reminds us, military power remains a central element of international politics ... . Second, security studies has been institutionalized within many university departments ... . Most important of all, the collapse of the Cold War order will create new policy problems and new research puzzles.

Potential Problems

On the one hand, there is the temptation to focus on “consulting work and policy analysis rather than cumulative scholarly research”. This will spell disaster for rigor and quality in the field. But on the other hand, there is the opposite and even greater danger that security studies might become fascinated by “the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely historical — in short, the politically irrelevant” and as a result lose its theoretical progress and practical value.

In short, security studies must steer between the Scylla of political opportunism and the Charybdis of academic irrelevance. ... (this) means that security studies should remain wary of the counterproductive tangents that have seduced other areas of international studies, most notably the “post-modern” approach to international affairs.

Beyond its analytic rigor, the use of formal models has proven to be of little use on other work in the discipline. The use of “heroic assumptions” make these models impossible to analyse empirically. Policy relevance need not be immediate but that does not give license to “pursue a technique regardless of its ultimate payoff”.

“The above strictures are no more than a warning, therefore; progress will be best served by increased dialogue between different methodological approaches.

A Research Agenda for Security Studies

The Role of Domestic Politics

Domestic politics is an important determinant of national security policy. Unsolved questions regarding the role of the military as a cause of war, the claim that liberal democracies do not fight, and the proposition that regime changes are a cause of conflict need to be further analysed.

The Causes of Peace and Cooperation

Peace and cooperation are not utopian aspirations as many in the field used to think. The positive goal of the field is indeed peace building. Peace and security studies need to converge and have begun to do so as evident in the literature on “nonoffensive” defense, the scepticism of security analysts towards ‘security regimes’ and the hope for cooperation through international institutions.

The Power of Ideas

The change in attitude towards war because of the horrors of conventional warfare have discredited its stature as a noble and heroic activity among advanced industrialised countries. While this thesis is incomplete, the impact of changing attitudes on warfare remains a fascinating question.

The End of the Cold War

The end of the cold war provides numerous avenues for enquiry.

“First, … Because both great and lesser powers will need new security arrangements once the Cold War is over, research on alternative grand strategies will be of obvious interest. Under what conditions should states employ military force and for what purposes?

“Second, the end of the Cold War raises basic issues about the prospects for peace. Will the waning of U.S.–Soviet rivalry reduce the danger of war or allow familiar sources of conflict to reemerge?

These concerns are already evident in the scholarly debate over the future of Europe. At least four main views can be identified. “Third-image pessimists[1] argue that the re-emergence of a multipolar Europe will restore the conditions that fuelled war in Europe in the past; for this reason, the end of the Cold War will increase the danger of war. ... “Second-image pessimists downplay systemic causes and emphasize the dangers arising from the weak democratic institutions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. ... “second-image optimists argue that the leveling of European societies, the dampening of militarism, and the extensive rewriting of nationalist history in Europe have removed the main causes of earlier wars. “institutional optimists” suggest that economic integration and international institutions (such as NATO, the EC, or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) will be strong enough to safeguard peace in Europe.

Economics and Security

The relationship between economics and security is of increasing interest. One dimension is the connection between military spending and economic performance. Another is the strategic security importance of economic events, e.g., oil shocks. A third dimension is the political influence of the military–industrial complex (MIC).

Refining Existing Theories

“… competing hypotheses have not been subjected to systematic empirical tests. …therefore, refining and testing existing hypotheses through well-designed empirical studies should form a central part of future work.

Protecting the Data Base

“Efforts to shield government policy from outside evaluation pose a grave threat to scholarship in the field. … the scholarly profession should resist this effort wholeheartedly. … restricting information threatens the public debate that is central to democracy and essential to sound policy. … excessive secrecy allows ill-conceived programs to survive uncorrected. … therefore, open debate on national security matters must be preserved. Such a debate requires that scholars retain access to a reliable and complete data base.”

Conclusion: Some Lessons for the Future

The Evolution of the Knowledge

“First, it (the evolution of the discipline) illustrates how external events influence the scholarly agenda: as noted throughout this essay, research in security studies has been heavily shaped by changing international conditions.

“Second, the history of security studies also illustrates the mechanisms by which social science advances. One avenue is borrowing from other disciplines. … The other source of progress is competition between rival theories.

Security Studies and the Ivory Tower

Security studies faces two serious dangers. (See Potential Problems)

“… academic experts in security studies can help in several ways. In the short term, academics are well placed to evaluate current programs, because they face less pressure to support official policy. The long-term effects of academic involvement may be even more significant: academic research can help states learn from past mistakes and can provide the theoretical innovations that produce better policy choices in the future.

The Role of Research Support

The problem of financial support as an imposing one as there are no objective criteria for determining the prospective merits of proposals. Nevertheless, it is obvious that support for academic centres is the most effective way for private institutions to contribute to long-term progress. There are risks involved to be sure. The benefit of investment will never be known in advance. A more sinister risk is that research grants may become politicised. “If access to research support becomes contingent on ‘correct’ political views, the integrity of security studies will be gravely threatened.”

The goal is to encourage talented scholars to attack important questions, regardless of their ultimate conclusions. In short, keeping ideological litmus tests out of the funding process is essential to preserving the legitimacy of security studies as a scholarly enterprise.

Norms and Ethos of the Security Studies Community

“First, security studies has profited from a collaborative ethos. Members of the field are encouraged to exchange ideas, evidence, and criticism freely despite significant substantive disagreements.

“A second norm is relevance, a belief that even highly abstract lines of inquiry should be guided by the goal of solving real-world problems.

“Finally, the renaissance of security studies has been guided by a commitment to democratic discourse. Rather than confining discussion of security issues to an elite group of the best and brightest, scholars in the renaissance have generally welcomed a more fully informed debate.


[1] “Third-image” theories view war as a result of the anarchic international system, “second-image” theories focus on the internal character of states, and “first-image” theories address causes found in human nature.