On Security in General
“To be, or not to be: that is the question”
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
Security: a Problematic Concept?
If there is a unanimity in the literature of security studies, it is that ‘security’, as a concept, is deeply contested. For Walter Lippmann, for instance, "a nation is secure to the extent to which it is not in danger of having to sacrifice core values if it wishes to avoid war, and is able, if challenged, to maintain them by victory in such a war." Lippmann’s understanding of security, therefore, focuses on the external military threat to a state’s national security; it is the traditional, narrower definition of security with both military and political dimensions in the sense that it views security through the dichotomous tensions between war and peace. It is, therefore, unsurprising that this perception was most widespread throughout WWII and the Cold War. Indeed, it was the dominant definition of security for both commentators and scholars of security studies—especially led by proponents of Realism in International Relations. In fact, for scholars like Stephen Walt, for example:
The main focus of security studies is easy to identify: it is the phenomenon of war. Security studies assumes that conflict between states is always a possibility and that the use of military force has far-reaching effects on states and societies. Accordingly, security studies may be defined as the study of the threat, use, and control of military force... It explores the conditions that make the use of force more likely, the ways that the use of force affects individuals, states, and societies, and the specific policies that states adopt in order to prepare for, prevent, or engage in war.
This is hardly surprising since the traditional realist representations of world politics is that of a constant power struggle amongst states. It is the unsettling struggle for supremacy and counter-supremacy, dominance and counter-dominance. Conventionally understood, realist understanding of security refers to a condition of being protected and free from danger thanks to each state’s military power and dominance. No wonder, the Shakespearean "Security is Mortals cheefest Enemie".
Nonetheless, many problems arise from this military-centered understanding of security, especially when perceived as alter idem with ‘national security’. First, how are we to understand what “national security” means? According to Arnold Wolfers, for instance, the concept of “national security” is an ambiguous symbol:
National security”, like “national interest” may not mean the same thing to different people. They may not have any precise meaning at all. Thus, while appearing to offer guidance and a basis for broad consensus, they may be permitting everyone to label whatever policy he favors with an attractive and possibly deceptive name. The term of security covers a range of goals so wide that highly divergent policies can be interpreted as policies of security.
In that regard, “national security” could be used (and is actually regularly used) as an excuse for authoritarian governments and dictatorship to suppress political opponents, silence dissents, suppress fundamental freedoms, and flagrantly abuse human rights. Echoing Montesquieu, one can affirm that there is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of national security. And a simple reflection on history corroborates this fact.
Another important problem with Lippmann’s definition of security is that it certainly tends to prioritize “gun” over “butter”. In other words, since military might is the focus, Lippmann suggests that states had better strive to increase their military capabilities; and since the resources states have at their disposal are undeniably scarce, it follows that other sector i.e. social security, education, etc. would be underfunded--if funded at all.
Equally, one may rightly ask: is it only external military threats that can upset “national security” or could, say, environmental hazards also be indubitable threats for a state’s security? Clearly, a military-centered definition of security is doomed to fail to provide a satisfactory answer to this query. Though the military side of security is crucially important for any state’s survival, a discussion on security that solely focuses on military dimension would not give us a full picture, a broad understanding of this deeply complex concept. If anything, it is clear that, just like military might has never been the sole source of security, military threats are not the only concerns for states’ security. That is, nonmilitary issues should earn analysts’ and scholars of security studies’ interests, if only because these problems deserve sustained attention from scholars and policymakers since military power does not guarantee well-being, and, certainly, cannot provide satisfactory security to a state.
To address this shortcoming, there is a need to broaden our understanding of the concept of security by analyzing nonmilitary phenomena and dangers i.e. mass starvation, poverty, AIDS, climate change, and environmental problems—all of which threaten states, societies, and individuals.
In that vein, Arnold Wolfers argues for the distinction between “objective” and “subjective” understanding of security, since “Security, in an objective sense, measures the absence of threats to acquired values, in a subjective sense, the absence of fear that such values will be attacked”. Though this is a salutary demarcation, Wolfers’s definition of security is still engulfed in the military-centered depiction of security, as explained above, and therefore fails to provide us with a comprehensive picture of security. In the end, we may do better to dive into the constructivists’ mantra that ‘security’, like anarchy, “is what state make of it”!
The Changing Nature of Security
The intractable problem of objectively defining security is not just that it is too sensitive a concept, but that it is also too fluid and intermittently. Historically, and in line with realists’ understanding, the security of a state is usually viewed as the absence of (real or putative) military threats from other states. It offers an absolutist view of security, as promoted by realist thinkers.
(Un)fortunately, to achieve such a proportion of absoluteness, one state must be absolutely powerful while its rivals, enemies are kept absolutely weak; only then could security be said to have been attained. Yet, this is an unattainable objective given the fact that other states would have to build up. The ultimate results? Security dilemma and arms race. Notwithstanding the maddening madness behind arms race, it has been the traditionally defining characteristic of states’ in global affairs up till the end of the Cold War. With the change in security understanding came the changing nature of threat perception.
“New” Security Challenges
Despite their inherently fundamental differences, and despite their disagreements, states throughout the world have increased their cooperation in dealing with the new challenges they face; but the move is not a mere charity. It is mainly due to the fact that there have emerged new security challenges that transcend individual state’s power to deal with. International terrorism is one example; global warming is another. Environmental hazards are yet another example; the list is endless. Little wonder that the focus of security has shifted from a state-military-centric perception to a more englobing human-nonmilitary understanding. A case in point, the UN Development Program (UNDP), for instance, identifies seven dimensions of a human-centered security understanding: economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security, and political security. These are some of the leading “new” security challenges that will haunt states in the foreseeable future.
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