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)

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.


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