“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.

The Concept of Security by David A. Baldwin — A Summary

Title: The Concept of Security
Author: David A. Baldwin
Publication: Review of International Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1997)
Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20097464

Efforts to redefine security have been directed not towards the concept as such but instead on the policy agendas of nation-states. So, while a number of new security areas (human rights, economics, environment, epidemics etc.) have been identified and vigorously argued for, both normatively and empirically, little work has been done on conceptual issues.

This paper will try to separate the concept of security from the empirical and normative rhetoric weighing it down. This is because lack of conceptual clarity often exaggerates the differences and obscures the similarities between different understandings of security.

Identifying the common elements in various conceptions of security is useful in at least three ways: First, it facilitates asking the most basic question of social science, 'Of what is this an instance?'. Second, it promotes rational policy analysis by facilitating comparison of one type of security policy with another. And third, it facilitates scholarly communication by establishing common ground between those with disparate views.

Conceptual Analysis

Conceptual analysis aims at clarifying meanings of concepts. It is not merely an instance of semantic acrobatics but rather an essential exercise without which scholars and policy-makers alike are apt to misunderstand the concept and end up talking past each other. Clear concepts are useful for producing hypotheses and analytical frameworks.

The explication of concepts is subject to a set of criteria summarized by Oppenheim: (l) Concepts should be operational in the broadest sense, although this should not be interpreted as requiring quantification. (2) Concepts that establish definitional connections with other terms are to be preferred. (3) Concepts that draw attention to the theoretically important aspects of the subject matter that might easily be overlooked are desirable. (4) Concepts should not preclude empirical investigation by making true 'by definition' what should be open to empirical inquiry. (5) Concepts should remain reasonably close to ordinary language. 'Ordinary language', however, does not necessarily mean the way most people would define the term, but rather the 'set of rules they implicitly follow when applying it to a given situation'.

This approach contrasts with Barry Buzan’s contention that “the search for a referent object of security goes hand in hand with that for its necessary conditions” which conflates conceptual analysis with empirical observation by suggesting that the concept of security cannot be separated from empirical facts. This downplays the requirement that one has to have a concept of security before he can start searching for ‘necessary conditions’.

Security as a Neglected Concept

Despite the numerous attempts to redefine security after the Cold War, it would still be beneficial to describe the field as neglected firstly, because security is an important concept that has been mobilised to terrible ends by states and also because most attempts to redefine security have not grappled with conceptual analysis.

Security as a Contested Concept

Essentially contested concepts are those that are so value-laden that there can be no agreement on what the concept is. A strong application of this position leads to the rejection of preference for any one conception and would make the analysis attempted in this paper useless. A weak application however would allow for the identification of a better conception than those that exist and is hence compatible with the purpose of this paper.

But is security as a concept essentially contested? For one, it is difficult to portray security as an “appraisive” concept i.e., that it “signifies and accredits some kind of valued achievement”.[1]  For neorealists, security is indeed such a concept. For others, however, security has differing value for different states making absurd the neorealist claim that the state with the most security is the best. For another, security has not generated vigorous conceptual debates as to the nature of the concept and its applicability to various cases.

Even if security were classified as an essentially contested concept, it does not follow that theorists should shy away, as Buzan does, from formulating their own conceptions. Also, the ‘conceptual’ problems (e.g., conflict between state security and individual security) identified by Buzan can be more precisely termed as empirical problems.

Insofar as the concept is actually contested this does not seem to stem from 'essential contestability'. Security is more appropriately described as a confused or inadequately explicated concept than as an essentially contested one.

Specifying the Security Problematique

Security for whom?

A concept of security should specify a “referent object” without which it would make little sense. A wide range of answers to the question are possible: state(s), individual(s), international system, environment etc.

Security for which values?

Referent objects will have many values: physical safety, economic welfare, political independence etc. To avoid confusion, which values are to be secured will have to specified.

These two specifications suffice to define the concept security but do little to guide their pursuit. The following specifications are required.

How much security?

Absolute security is unattainable, even if the word itself implies an absolute condition. The attainment of any objective, in the words of Herbert Simon, is “always a matter of degree”. Security is no different and the question of ‘how much is enough?’ is inescapable.

From what threats?

Threats can be ideological, economic, military or some combination of those. They can also be natural in their origin like earthquakes, floods, droughts etc. It is important that this dimension is clearly specified.

By what means?

Any number of policies and amount of resources may be mobilised to the pursuit of security. Specifying this dimension is essential because traditional definitions of the field in terms of military force create confusion and impair debate.

At what cost?

Scholars often assume that costs do not matter in matters of security. But costs always matter. Especially when security issues trump moral judgements.

In what time period?

Policies that are effective in the short run may be useless in the long run and vice versa.


“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 specified all the time. For most purposes, however, meaningful scientific communication 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.”

The Value of Security

The prime value approach

The answer to the question of what life would be like without security, most famously given by Hobbes, informs the reasoning that security is the prime goal. However, the same answer applies when we ask the question with respect to say, breathable air. Thus, to the extent that this approach implies the primacy of the goal of security over others, it is logically and empirically indefensible.[2]

The core value approach

This approach identifies security as one of many important values thereby mitigating the logical and empirical absurdities associated with the prime value approach. However, it still does not define what values may be considered as core values on what conditions.

The marginal value approach

This approach is based on the assumption that the law of diminishing marginal utility is applicable to security. It sees security as one of many important objectives competing for scarce resources and provides that rational policy making will allocate resources for security if the marginal return is greater for security than for other uses.

Security and Neorealism

No theory in IR hinges as crucially on the concept of security as neorealism which identifies it as the primary motivation of states. However, neorealism dangerously simplifies the concept as to make it completely confusing.

If security leads to survival, as neorealists assert, what are the values that should ‘survive’? Because just the simple physical fact of survival does not take us very far. If the degree of security required is to be “enough to assure survival”, as Kenneth Waltz says, the question of how much ‘assurance’ is enough becomes crucial because complete assurance cannot be attained and regardless of the policy, there will always be “some chance of survival and thus some assurance of security”.

In addition, there is little attention to costs. Waltz suggests that states will always seek more security just as firms always seek more profit. However, any political theory that claims that states will always seek more security without regard fot the detriment to other goals is seriously misleading.

Another aspect of security as seen by neorealists is whether security is a zero-sum game. If yes, the ‘winner’ of the game, the secure state, will be surrounded by insecure states. This hardly increases security. There is of course the well-known ‘security dilemma’ but not every action that a state takes to increase its security has to take that form.

New Security Concepts?

The new literature on security has contributed very little to an understanding of the concept. The multidimensionality of security and the expansion of referents outside the nation-state are not innovations. To the extent, therefore, that the new thinking about security focuses on conceptual issues, not much is new.


First, “the concept of security (is) insufficiently explicated (rather) than as essentially contested.”

Second, “since security competes with other goals for scarce resources, it must be distinguishable from, yet comparable with, such goals. This requires that the relative importance of security be left open rather than built into the concept. . ..”

It is possible to now gauge and apply Oppenheim’s criteria (look under Conceptual Analysis) for evaluating scientific concepts to the concept of security explicated above.


The multiple dimensions of security, while not easy to operationalize, are operationalizable in ‘principle’ when taken individually.

Definitional connections

The concept of security easily connects with a verb. Also, the use of adjectives permits reference to many different kinds of security which provides the provides the security analyst with a usefully broad vocabulary.

Factual connections

“The specifications recommended above direct attention to a number of theoretically important and policy-relevant aspects of the subject matter that might easily be overlooked.”

Not precluding empirical investigation

The specifications discussed here do not preclude empirical investigation by making true ‘by definition’ what had better be left open to empirical inquiry. The importance of security as a policy objective is not built into the concept nor are the means by which security may be pursued are not confined military force.

Ordinary language

None of the specifications suggested above deviates unnecessarily from ordinary usage.

No social science concept has been more abused and misused than national security. If the concept is to be salvaged for use in policy analysis or theory construction, specifications of the sort advocated here seem to be necessary. To argue that they are necessary, however, is not to say that they would be sufficient.


[1] “W B. Gallie uses the concept of a ‘champion’ in sports to illustrate 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?”

[2] “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.”

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

Title: Rethinking Security After the Cold War
Author: Barry Buzan
Publication: Cooperation and Conflict, Vol. 32, No. 1 (1997)
Link: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0010836797032001001

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%.”

Westphalia, Authority, and International Society by Daniel Philpott — A Summary

Title: Westphalia, Authority, and International Society
Author: Daniel Philpott
Publication: Political Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (1999)
Link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9248.00217/abstract

The paper seeks to develop the concept of the constitution of international society so as to make sense of the changes that are taking place — especially of the alleged erosion of sovereignty — and also to enable comparisons with previous changes in international authority.

The Constitution of International Society

A constitution of international society is a ‘set of norms’ mutually agreed upon by the members of the society that define the holders of authority and their prerogatives, specifically in answer to who the legitimate polities are, how to become one of these polities, and what the basic prerogatives of these polities are. Constitutions of international society are both legitimate and practiced.

(The constitutions) are authors of orders, denoting the polities who carry on war and business, and the contours of their powers; they are etchers of blueprints, resembling the rules of baseball, which define the nine players, their strictures and allowances, the meaning and regulation of pitches, outs, strikes, steals, and balls.

Q. Are these ‘constitutions’ really constitutions? I mean, they are rarely fully developed nor do they command the requisite respect.

Ans. Yes. Of course, unlike domestic ‘constitutions’, they are neither comprehensive nor unified. In fact, they are “strewn among separate treaties, conventions and customary law”. But they are constitutional in that they define — internationally — the legislative, executive and judicial powers of polities.

Also, it is the international constitutions that define the state as a polity within the society and give it its internal and external realms. They provide the framework that gives identity to the states

Q. But aren’t international constitutions, since they are “strewn amongst separate treaties”, foreign to idealistic design? I mean, constitutions are, really, designed with, always, certain ideals in mind.

Ans. They don’t have to be ‘designed’ in the sense that national constitutions are. The insistence on a constitution of international society is not an insistence on some grand idealistic contraption nor an insistence on the cause of its genesis but instead an insistence on something taken for granted, like the fact of sovereignty — a form of constitutional authority — which is assumed in all international transactions.

International societies establish common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations. And those rules and institutions that define the basic constitutional authority of the member polities make up the constitution.

The Three Faces of Authority

The First Face of Authority

The first face defines the legitimate polities (states, kingdoms, the Caliphate, the Papacy) of an international society. This recognition is, in the present day, accorded only to sovereign states.

Sovereignty is supreme authority within a territory. This broad yet discrete formulation captures the elements of sovereignty: supremacy, legitimacy and territoriality.

The variants of sovereignty can be understood based on three attendant categories. First, by virtue of who wields the sovereign power: namely, an individual, a triumvirate, a committee, the General Will etc. Second, by virtue of the complementary pair of internal and external sovereignty which necessarily co-exist. And third, by virtue of the differentiation between absolute and non-absolute: France may be supreme in defence but is not in trade.

The Second Face of Authority

This face defines the rules for membership: who can join and attain the status of a legitimate polity in the society. This face includes as well as excludes. It lays down the privileges accorded to its members and the terms of engagement with outsiders.

The Third Face of Authority

The third face defines the fundamental powers of the members. While this face is not necessary for the polity’s legitimacy, it nonetheless exists prior to entering into membership.

But What Exactly are Constitutions of International Society?

The ‘set of norms’ (see the first sentence under the section ‘The Constitution of International Society’) comprising constitutions of international society consists of rules which are ‘viewed as obligatory by the broad majority of people living under them and which are usually customarily practiced’.

Two points emerge: (i) these rules are legitimate — decolonisation was legitimated in a 1960 UN Declaration — and (ii) they are adhered to — attendant upon the UN Declaration on colonies was an actual freeing of colonies.

Characteristics of International Behaviour

This dual characteristic of legitimacy and practice mirror the de jure and de facto aspects of sovereignty.

Constitutions are not only about power. Those who trumpet the downfall of sovereignty view it as coercive power i.e. they concentrate on its de facto aspect. This approach is mistaken because sovereignty is not merely a function of power. Firstly, sovereignty depends upon recognition by other states. Secondly, sovereignty is not affected by variances in power — Burundi is no less sovereign than the US despite their power differential. And thirdly, equating sovereignty with power would make it (sovereignty) redundant and meaningless.

Constitutions are not agreements between already constituted polities that constrain their actions but do not cede any constitutional authority. They are also not agreements between only two or a few polities which fail short of revising an international constitution.

A Brief History of Constitutions of International Society in the West

Major Constitutional Revolutions Since the Middle Ages

Towards A System of Sovereign States

The Revolution at Westphalia

Westphalia was a consolidation of the elements of sovereign statehood that had existed for centuries. It defined the state as the legitimate European polity — sovereignty’s first face — whose sovereignty was indicated in its (Westphalia’s) separate provisions and in the practice of these provisions. It also laid down the conditions of stable government, control within their territory, ability to negotiate and fulfil treaties and a Christian culture. It led to, although not explicitly provided for, non-intervention becoming the expected state practice.

Westphalia in short revised all three faces of authority and remains the most significant revolution in sovereignty to date.

Westphalian Europe and the Rest of the World

The Westphalian system was extended over the course of the next three centuries all over Europe. Polities outside Europe however were either rivals and trading partners — China in the 17th– and 18th-centuries and the Ottoman Empire up to the 19th-century, less than equal but not fully subordinate — China and the Ottoman Empire in late 19th– and early 20th-century, or completely subordinated — colonies around the world.

These categories of polities existed in different proportions at different times in the three centuries after Westphalia. Overtime, rivals declined and colonies multiplied.

Also, the rules of membership — the second face of sovereignty — evolved. Secularisation made Christian culture unnecessary but others like guarantee of basic rights, capacity for defence and adherence to international law emerged.

The Rise of Colonial Independence

After 1960, the criteria for becoming a state was widened and weakened. Colonies — although nations or tribes within colonies were left out — became independent riding on the promises of self-determination made by the UN. This revision of the second face of authority reveals its significance in the sheer scale of its impact as 78 colonies became sovereign and entered the international society between 1955 and 1970.

Away from a System of Sovereign States

The move away from a system of sovereign states entails a circumscription of sovereign statehood and happens through the following major revolutions — minority treaties, European integration and internationally sanctioned intervention.

Minority Treaties

This is the signing of treaties by states to guarantee protection of ethnic, religious and racial minorities in their territories as a condition for recognition by other states. This revised the second and third faces of authority.

The Return of European Unity

The creation of the European Coal and Steel Company in 1950, and its subsequent expansion into the European Union, redefined all three faces of authority. A new political authority other than the state — the EU — has become legitimate. The EU constitution prescribes definite criteria for admission. It also carefully distributes decision-making powers on different matters among the states and the Union’s many committees.

Internationally Sanctioned Intervention

The increasing use of military force by the UN or other organisations against a state to remedy an injustice, to end a civil war, to enforce democratic elections or for humanitarian causes without the consent of the target state has significantly revised the norm of non-intervention developed after Westphalia. This revision has significant implications for the third face of authority in that the states are no longer truly sovereign in their prerogatives.

Other Circumscriptions of Sovereignty

Minor constitutional revisions like the Holy Alliance during the Napoleonic Wars, the struggles for self-determination outside the colonial context and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) have proven significant in their normative influence if not in their actual impacts on state actions.


The concept of the constitution of international society offers us a way of characterizing international relations, not by its distribution of power, not by its economic openness, not by its mechanisms for resolving conflict or maintaining peace, but by its very configuration of constitutional authority.

The expansion of the EU and the increasing incidence of intervention have rewritten long-standing features of Westphalia. But the EU is geographically bounded and its reach is most visible only in the economic domain leaving other affairs to state authority. The UNSC, especially thanks to the veto of its permanent members, mitigates reckless intervention. Westphalia’s enduring strength is thus clear.

Where the state's authority is challenged, it is challenged significantly, but the challenge extends only to certain matters in certain places.