Rethinking Security after the Cold War by Barry Buzan — A Summary

Barry Buzan, “Rethinking Security after the Cold War,” Cooperation and Conflict 32, no. 1 (March 1, 1997): 5–28.

The Erosion of the Traditionalist Agenda and the Traditionalist Counterattack

The mature Cold War period saw the contraction of the initially[1] broad conceptualisation of security (in ideological, social, economic, and, of course, military terms) to just a military focus due to the pressure of the nuclear arms race.

By the 1980s, the wider agenda of security re-emerged. This was due to the efficacy of deterrence and the rise of the reformist Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, the rise of a community disinclined towards war (particularly Western Europe and Japan), and the growing public opinion against the effectiveness or even the usefulness of armed conflict, especially after the Vietnam War. The primacy of military security, the core traditionalist assumption, was being questioned.

At the same time, two issues hitherto relegated to the realm of low politics became increasingly “securitised” i.e., they came to be seen as security threats. They were the environment and the economy. There was growing awareness about dangers posed by the environment (whether natural, like meteorites, or artificial, like pollution) to humankind. There was also alarm at the decline of US economic dominance[2] and the growing liberalisation which exposed national economies to stiff competition from powerful global corporations.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, it took down with it the whole military–political security agenda that had dominated world politics since the War. The concerns about the environment and economy were thus thrown into prominence.

The introduction of these two agendas into the conception of security attracted the traditionalist objection that progressive widening endangered the intellectual coherence of security. The fear was that such a widening would generate undesirable and/or counter-productive effects.

Many traditionalists, in light of the changed political and economic landscape, relaxed their state-centric positions but asserted the primacy of military security and allowed widening only in so far as it could be related to the use of military force.

In the new security agenda, the state remains central but it has become less important. New institutions, regimes, and sets of rules have taken vital seats alongside the state. At the same time, sources of threats are diversifying. Security concerns are becoming less monolithic and global but more diverse and local.

“The Copenhagen School Framework

Security issues, according to the Copenhagen school, are “threats or vulnerabilities … (that are) staged as existential threats (ozone depletion/Pakistani aggression) to a referent actor (humankind/the Indian state) by a securitising actor (scientists and, later, governments/the Indian state) who thereby generates endorsement for emergency measures (signing of the Montreal Protocol/declaration of National Emergency) beyond rules that would otherwise bind”.

All public issues can be located on a spectrum from non-politicised (state doesn’t care and doesn’t act) to politicised (state cares and acts) to securitised (state can and will do anything to deal with it). The insight is that any public issue — it doesn’t have to be military in nature — can be a security issue. It only has to be securitised i.e., raised from normal politics to “panic politics”.

Securitisation is a dramatization, a speech-act[3] where an issue is presented as one of supreme priority requiring extraordinary measures. This is not an objective task figuring ‘real’ threats but rather an intersubjective task more about ‘perceived’ and, in many cases, fabricated threats. This is because objective standards for triggering securitisation cannot be arrived at (except for unambiguous and immediate threats) and even if they could be, it is unlikely that they would be helpful.[4]

This particular understanding of security can be applied to a wide variety of sectors (political, economic, societal and environmental) in addition to the traditional military sector without losing the essence of the concept. Widening the scope of security, in other words, need not mean diluting its coherence.

But what, for example, constitutes an “existential threat” and what functions as the “referent object” will differ in different sectors. There is no universal standard. In the military sector, the referent object is usually the state which can be threatened by anything from external aggressors to internal dissidents. But in the environmental sector, referent objects range from individual species up to the planet itself which are more or less threatened by humans and, to an extent, nature itself.

Being an intersubjective process, securitisation underlines the responsibility of those actors and analysts talking about security. That any public issue can be a security issue does not mean that every issue ought to be a security issue. The costs of panic politics should be understood and the allure of prioritisation, tempered. The ultimate goal is to reap the benefits of desecuritisation.

In terms of its relation to the Critical and Traditional perspectives, the Copenhagen school lies somewhere in between. It believes that what is socially constituted gets sedimented as structure which for the purposes of security studies becomes the object of analysis. This is closer to the objectivist traditional position rather than the critical position which cannot conceive of referent objects outside the constructivist paradigm. But with regards to security issues themselves, it is even more radically constructivist than the critical perspective in that it holds security to always be a political construction.

The traditional perspective is objectivist in its approach to security actors and security itself. Only in so far as the traditional perspective sees threats as objective is it incompatible with the Copenhagen school. Otherwise, the former could subsist with its narrower frame within the latter.

Also, the Copenhagen perspective could dissolve the boundary between Security Studies and International Political Economy by extending security issues into the scope of IPE and helping IPE confront security aspects of its agenda and also by making the expertise in IPE available to Security Studies.

The Politics of Security and the Problem of Widening

Excessive securitisation produces autism and paranoia. It stifles civil society, creates an intrusive and coercive state and is eventually harmful for the economy and security itself.

The liberal project has been to desecuritise the economic realm which would then spill over into the military–political relations. Such a shift is manifest in the EU. This movement however is geared only towards the marginalisation of military power from influencing other sectors.

The liberal equation of demilitarisation and desecuritisation fuelled Cold War power politics and led to military over-securitisation. At the same time, it led to the legitimisation of liberal imperial over-reach in economic matters while simultaneously de-legitimising non-military security threats of weaker states.

It is this context of the immense success of the liberal project in which the call for a widening of security, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ascendance of a truly open world economy, emerges as a necessary response. The danger of securitisation remains. It could even be argued that widening proliferates security issues. But thanks to its contructivist notion of security, the Copenhagen school grants the ability to question and politicise each issue, unlike the traditional perspective which limited but naturalised security issues.

Here is Prof. Ole Waever (one-half of the Copenhagen School) explaining Securitisation Theory.


[1] i.e. early Cold War period.

[2] This challenge came from rapidly developing Japan and Western Europe and was exacerbated by US dependence on imported oil.

[3] By this he (Ole Waever) means that labelling something as a security issue imbues it with a sense of importance and urgency that legitimizes the use of special measures outside of the usual political process to deal with it. [Steve Smith, ‘The Increasing Insecurity of Security Studies’ from Croft & Teriff (2000) Critical Reflections on Security and Change]

[4] “Different states and nations have different thresholds for defining a threat: Finns are concerned about immigration at a level of 0.3% foreigners, where Switzerland functions with 14.7%.”

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