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


Wolfers, Arnold. 1952. “‘National Security’ as an Ambiguous Symbol.” Political Science Quarterly 67 (4): 481–502. http://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. Today, foreign policy is driven by the security 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.”

Expediency

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 — 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.

Morality

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.”

Conclusion

“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.”


 

Advertisements