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 [Felix E.] Oppenheim [“The Language of Political Inquiry: Problems of Clarification”]: (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”. This contention 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[1]

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”.[2] For neorealists, security is indeed such a concept where the state with the most security is the best.. For others, however, security has differing value for different states. 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 Thomas 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.[3]

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.

End Notes

[1] For more, see Christine Swanton’s “On the ‘Essential Contestedness’ of Political ConceptsEthics 95 (4). University of Chicago Press: 811–27.

[2] “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?”

[3] “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.”


Power and International Relations by David A. Baldwin — A Summary

Title: Power and International Relations
Author: David A. Baldwin
Publication: Carlsnaes, Walter, Thomas Risse and Beth A. Simmons. eds. (2002) Handbook of International Relations. London: Sage Publications

The role and nature of power remain thoroughly discussed yet still unresolved topics in international relations. The only agreement concerns the unsatisfactory state of knowledge regarding the role of power and the necessity of addressing it.

Power and the Study of International Politics

All politics is about power in the sense that all politics involves power. This is not to say that politics is only about power. Traditionally, the states with the most military power — the Great Powers — partook in international politics. The 18th-century saw the inclusion of additional parameters like “population, territory, wealth armies and navies” which evolved into the “elements of national power” approach introduced by Morgenthau. States were depicted as seeking to maximize power relative to each other. This approach produced the “balance of power” analysis which assumes the possibility of calculating power distribution amongst states by adding up the elements of power.

The Power Analysis Revolution

The latter half of the 20th-century saw the development of a new approach that looked at power as a relation between actors rather than, as the earlier notion of ‘elements of national power’ did, as a possession of actors.

Dimensions of Power

The shift to a relational concept made power a multidimensional concept.

SCOPE The aspects of B’s behaviour affected by A. This implies that an actor’s power on different issues may vary.

DOMAIN The number of Bs that are subject to the influence of A.

WEIGHT The likelihood that B’s behaviour will be changed.

COSTS The costs to both A and B in the exercise of the power relation.

MEANS The ways through which A can exercise influence over B: symbolic, economic, military and diplomatic.

There is no agreement on which dimensions should be considered. At a minimum, however, any meaningful enquiry must include at least scope and domain. This multidimensionality creates the problem of measurement as there is no standard measuring unit. Estimates of an actor’s power have therefore been always controversial.

Faces of Power

The ‘Faces of Power’ debate discussed whether control of agendas and of desires and thoughts could be taken into account while studying power. These two matters can be easily accommodated in the basic causal concept of power — Dahl’s formulation. A can cause B to do something that B would otherwise not do by controlling B’s agenda (options) or by affecting B’s thoughts and preferences. A reconceptualisation of power is not necessary.

International Power Analysis

Despite the increasing consensus on the relational power approach, the elements of national power approach remains deeply embedded in international relations literature. This has created problems in the analysis of power.

The Potential Power Problem

The elements of national power approach treats power resources as power itself.  One problem with this approach is that what might be power assets in one situation may be liabilities in another. Discussing power capabilities without knowing who is trying to get whom to do what (the scope and domain, in other words) is akin to discussing what a good hand is without knowing which card game is being played. Focusing on capabilities only draws attention to potential power.

The insistence on scope and domain, it has been suggested, makes prediction and generalization impossible. However, the specification of scope and domain can be done more or less broadly to suit the purpose of the analyst. They need not be unique and particularistic.

The Fungibility Problem

Fungibility refers to the ease with which power resources in one issue-area can be used in other issue-areas. Power resources vary highly in terms of fungibility as some resources are useful in many different issue-areas.

It has been suggested that fungibility increases as the amount increases. However, this suggestion does not tell us about the fungibility of any given resource. It only implies that powerful actors have more fungible resources than weak states.

The Problem of Intentions

Unintended effects of power are a reality in world politics. But they are not considered in many classical definitions of power. Relational power analysis, however, accounts for unintended effects. These effects have important consequences, beneficial or otherwise, for parties on both sides. Whether the effects are beneficial or detrimental should be answered by research.

The Measurement Problem

The desire to measure power often gets in the way of conceptual analysis. However, the lack of a standardised yardstick makes measurement and ranking exceedingly difficult forcing scholars to compare different dimensions of power without any agreed upon way to do it. A universally valid measure of power is an unachievable dream. If this dream is given up, much useful research can be done by concentrating on specific scopes and domains.

Power in International Relations Theory

Classic Balance of Power Theory

The balance of power theory fascinates theorists to this day. The concept, however, remains elusive and has been accused of having too many meanings. The only clarity concerns the depiction of power as a property rather than as a relation. This concept has been successful in so far as power is seen as a particular type of power resource used in a particular context.


Neorealism stresses the distribution of capabilities as a defining characteristic of the international system. These capabilities — population, territory, wealth, etc. — determine the overall rank of a state. But how these capabilities are to be defined and measured remains unanswered. The underlying standard for ranking states appears to be war-winning capability with the emphasis on force as the ultima ratio. The treatment of power and capability in neorealism seems to be highly confused and contradictory.

Current Issues

Military Power

The preoccupation with war has impoverished the field of international relations. Power rests on many different bases none of which may be said to be basic to the others. Non-military forms of power like economic statecraft has ironically limited the understanding of military statecraft itself.

Structural vs. Relational Power

Relational power has been criticised for neglecting structural power. However, if structural power is understood as unrelated to human agency, relational power represents a fundamentally different approach. But if it does entertain human agency in the form of unintended power or the control of structures, relational power can accommodate it by excluding intentionality (see The Problem of Intentions above) from the analysis or by specifying scope and domain.

Constructivism vs. Rationalism

Relational power approach has included both material and non-material bases of power. Wendt’s constructivism recognises, as a categorising criterion for international relations theories, brute material forces as well as ideas and cultural contexts as forms of power. Power analysis thus appears to be a point of convergence, not a bone of contention.

Power Analysis and Policy Relevance

Practitioners of politics are more swayed by the idea of power as resources. This is mainly because policymakers have extremely short time horizons are worried about particular wars in particular contexts.

But the Vietnam crisis showed the limitations of the notion of power as resources approach. In such a situation, a relational power approach would have been more useful.

It is correct to depict the elements of power as holding the high cards in the international poker game, but it is incorrect to imply that there is only one kind of game in international politics. If the game is bridge, the person with the good poker hand may be in big trouble. Policy makers need to know the name of the fame in order to evaluate the strength of their hands.

Future Research Directions

Power Relations as Dependent Variables

Scholars need to devote more attention to power as a dependent variable and focus on the distribution of influence, different issue areas and different time periods. The pertinent questions to be asked include ‘Who has power with respect to which other actors, on which issues?’ ‘By what means is power exercised?’ And ‘What resources allow states to exercise their power?’

Forms of Power

SOFT POWER Soft power is the ability to get others to do what you want by affecting their preferences. This concept has been useful in so far as it drives attention towards non-traditional forms of power but is nothing new. Further research on power must be rooted in the literature on relational power.

POSITIVE SANCTIONS Most research in international relations focusses on negative sanctions, i.e. actual or threatened punishments. Positive sanctions, i.e. actual or promised rewards and hold enormous potential for further research.

COMPARATIVE INFLUENCE TECHNIQUES The instruments of statecraft —  economic, diplomatic, military and symbolic — tend to be studied differently. This is a hindrance to both theory and policy. Policy-makers have little use for research in one technique of statecraft.

MILITARY FORCE Despite its preponderance in the literature on international politics, three problems deserve further research. First is the question of whether military force is declining. The second concerns the fungibility of military force. And the third concerns the question of how to define and measure military success.

Institutions and Power

Power can be exercised in the formation and maintenance of institutions. through institutions, within and’ among institutions. Institutions may reflect power relations, constrain them, or provide the basis, for their existence. The extent to which international institutions exercise power rather than reflect it provides a rich research agenda.

Domestic Politics

Even classic elements of national power approaches include national morale, quality of government, public support and political stability among the determinants of a country’s power. Questions concerning the effects of domestic politics on national power deserve further study and research.

Strategic Interaction and Bargaining

Defining power in terms of A causing a change in B’s behaviour is compatible with strategic interaction, but it neither calls attention to strategic interaction nor requires taking it into account. One of the most important research needs is linking the relational power literature with research on international strategic interaction.

Distribution of Power

How power should be distributed needs to be studied using the relational power approach. Rather than striving to produce a global ranking of the powers of countries or trying to identify a single overall international power structure, scholars should focus on power distributions within specified issue-areas and strive to identify multiple structures of power in different issue-areas.


—— A rehash of what has been stated —–