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

Baldwin, David A. 1997. “The Concept of Security.” Review of International Studies 23 (1). Cambridge University Press: 5–26.

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 “security cannot be isolated for treatment at any single level” which conflates conceptual analysis with empirical observation by suggesting that the concept of security cannot be separated from  empirical facts. His justification that  “the search for a referent object of security goes hand-in-hand with that for its necessary conditions” 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 (a) firstly, because security is an important concept that has been mobilised to terrible ends by states and (b) secondly, because most attempts to redefine security have not grappled with conceptual analysis.

Security as a Contested Concept

Essentially contested concepts are those concepts — like liberty, justice, rights — 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, most of the “conceptual” problems — for example, the 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 further 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 attainment 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 for 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 it must be remembered that not every action that a state takes to increase its security has to feed the security dilemma.

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 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 at the extract put in monotype 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.”