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New Theoretical Approaches Around the Concept of National Security

Info: 2664 words (11 pages) Essay
Published: 16th Mar 2021 in Security

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‘Because nonmilitary phenomena can also threaten states and individuals, some writers have suggested broadening the concept of "security" to include topics such as poverty, AIDS, environmental hazards, drug abuse, and the like…. Defining the field in this way would destroy its intellectual coherence…’ (Walt 1991: 213). Do you agree with this statement?

Fulfilling citizens ‘necessity for security and wellbeing has always been one of the main priorities for the state as well as a way to legitimize its existence. Menaces can possibly proceed from external and internal factors, so to absolve its protectionist task, the state needs to develop measures that can guarantee consistent levels of National Security. But what does the term “National Security” imply? So, what are the targets of National Security? What can be considered as a threat against National Security? And again, is this a fixed paradigm or does it evolve and variate across eras and cultures?  What dynamics is National Security sustained by and through what means? Although the set of questions that have just been proposed appear to be direct and straightforward, providing suitable answers to them does not seem to be an as agile duty. Therefore, the leading purpose of this essay is to seek a viable disentanglement to the concept of Security through the analysis of the empirical concerns it historically implies, in addition to identifying conceptual distinctions that might lay underneath the traditional discourse of Security and how this has recently embraced a more modern appearance.

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In an article published on the Political Science Quarterly Journal in 1952, the concept associated with National Security was defined as “ambiguous” as it admitted a wide degree of incertitude and arbitrary (Wolfers, 1952). Nowadays, nearly seventy years later, it has not been possible yet to attribute fixed and universal connotations to better identify this concept, not only because its interpretation tends to be still embedded in a deep level of subjectivity, but as its value and frames appear to be constantly adapting to the continuous evolutive processes that societies are liable to. No matter how ambitious and challenging defining what stands at the base of Security as a term though, providing suitable answers to the questions previously exposed, would be necessary for governments to set up general guidelines upon which establishing appropriate national and international policies in order to guarantee a state of inner and outer security; as well as being essential to locate what possible threats might emerge and how these could mutate over time (Deese, 1979). As National Insecurity (which affects any states) is a spectrum that combines both threats and vulnerability, in the attempt to minimize it and shorten the distance, nations are constantly facing the arduous choice between reducing the levels of vulnerability and preventing the possibility of being threatened (Buzan, 1983). In connection with the paradigm that has just been exposed, Security studies have been historically associated with the concept of war as the leading (and only) threat, therefore holding a tight connection with the military and strategic sectors. In this respect, Political Realism (at the basis of Stephen M. Walt´s ideas) is academically described as the “traditional theory” of international politics. Within this theoretical sphere, insecurity is the main threat a state could be concerned about, so the pinnacle problem across international relations is the constant possibility of armed conflict (Walt, 1991). In Stephen Walt’s document ‘The Renaissance of Security Studies’(1991) the main point of controversy lays on the extended definition of security through the practical application of its dynamic: he mentions that “the main focus of security studies is easy to identify […] it is the phenomenon of war” – and he correlates it with a statement that relates as “the study of the threat, use and control of military force.” (Walt, 1991). Regarding the Realists and Neorealists’ vision of National Security, many scholars have counterattacked their view suggesting how this theory could lead to the intricate situation called Security Dilemma (also known as Spiral Model). For this model, in an anarchic context, each state operates to intensify its level of security, such as increasing its military assets while committing to the use of weapons if alliances cannot be reached. This could then implies a domino effect in which other states would proceed in similar ways producing a common escalation in tension and consequently a possible conflict even when no side really intends to be involved in armed conflict (Tang, 2009). No matter how the nationalistic-state mantra has resulted dominant especially in the second half of the twentieth century, in the past decades' new proposals have been released (Baldwin, 1997).

Since the end of the Cold War, globalization has been restructuring the traditional frame of international intercourse in all its aspects. An astonishing increase in the private-capital trading sector, the revolution of the digital information apparatus, together with an extended tendency towards a more open, shared and accessible-by-all cultural and educational sense, have become some of the many ingredients forming part of the globalization recipe, where the proximity among states is seen as a mean of international cooperation and National Stability (Kay, 2004). This opening-up across the international community has implied the birth of a new debate around the concept of Security. This has led to the raise of neologisms as well as the formulation of innovative methods to identify the nature of threats. The focus that was oriented towards the state as the main reference object in the past, has shifted to a more anthropocentric dimension whose focus is equally balanced between both external and internal threats (Baldwin, 1997). Although, the distinction between the external and internal domains of Security tends to be better sketched on the theoretical base than on the practical one, with this new vision of the “contemporary era’s” threats, subjects like: human rights revindications, economic stability (or instability), the environment, drug smuggling, migrants traffic, diseases, terrorism, crime, or social injustice have reached the priority level states used to reserve to the military sector only (Baldwin, 1997). Pluralists and Social Constructivists, among the theorists, have criticized Walt`s vision as they believe this represents the antithesis of the modern concept of National Security they support. According to these schools, this innovative perspective of Social Security orientates the main focus from the state as the referent object to a deeper and more broaden level, embracing the strata of the population and the social interests. This is what is academically defined as Securitization[1] (Buzan, Waever and Wilde, 1998). When applying the Securitization principle in a more practical context, Deese (1979) highlights the good practice of diving the new typologies of threats into three sub-categories: political-military affairs, the economic and energetic sphere, followed by the social and cultural threats (Deese, 1979). Within the political-military field, wars, terrorism or criminality are few among the most common threats addressed by Security. Military and political threats are academically listed in a common category as political objectives as territory confiscations or coupes d'état for example, are generally executed through military campaigns. Within the economic and energetic sector, on the other hand, the guns versus butter dilemma[2] is a typical case upon which nations’ governments would need to apply serious ponderations to better fulfill the interests of the collectivity as well as guaranteeing protection to the public. Together with it, a sudden rise of energy supplies or the considerable energetic dependence from international suppliers when it comes to acquiring energetic resources could represent another example of a threat that National Security would have to address (Deese, 1979). Within the last of the three sub-groups, the social and cultural threats: economic inequalities, illegal immigration, population growth and aging are among the most common examples of social and cultural threats of consistent calibre. Out of this subdivision, the political-military threats group tends to be located, as it has previously mentioned, as at the very base of National apprehension, as military actions can wreck the work of centuries in the political, economic and social sphere of a country. This means they could potentially lead to direct and fatal repercussions over all segments of a state, both within its internal structure (public administration and institution dismantlement) and to the social and ideological side of it (the repression of the state’s legitimacy in its rule of law) (Buzan, 1983). Military threats though are not the only ones states tend to face (no matter how devastating their consequences might be). Since the end of the Cold War, the concept of Security has reached a new, multifaceted stage where, besides the traditional menace of an armed conflict, the new framework of it is perceived in a more holistic dimension, a construct that can include elements that had not to be considered as strictly related to the traditional concept of National Security (Buzan, 1983). Under this perspective, Security is scrutinized from all angles, reaching the social side of the phenomenon as well as analysing how even citizens approach threats and respond to them. On the other hand, are these proposals of expanding the more orthodox concept of National Security any different from what Realists had conceived in the middle of the past century? Or are they simply approaching the same phenomenon from a different angle? Analysing and comparing both the traditional perspective of the Realists and the more contemporary one of the Constructivists, the Security concept seems to be a construct that can resemble a theoretical puzzle whose pieces need to be sought in more than one of the academic thoughts that have been mentioned in this essay. The concept of securitization’s relation in the case of a war generated by terrorism, for example, makes the paradigm of Security spread its branches to a social phenomenon as terrorism while embracing to central pillar that the war represents.  Therefore, to fully understand and elevate a valid conclusion it is convenient to adopt both of the theories and merge them together, being vigilant with the possible outcomes that this could generate.     

In conclusion, to respond to the set of questions initially proposed in this essay regarding the concept of National Security, although Stephen Walt’s ‘The Renaissance of Security Studies’(1991) can be considered as a great tool for Security Studies as well as International Relations, it reveals features that detach from the new lease of life that the concept itself has been experiencing in the past few decades. In the analysis of Walt’s contribution that is the object of this essay, the perspective through which the topic of Security is approached appears to be limited to its traditional discourse of gaining power along the strict inter-state paradigm. At a time of significant change, Walt’s view appears to decline to take properly into consideration the abundant emergence of new Security threats. Buzan, Waever, Wild (1998) report, National Security pinpoint should be set around the fact that while self-defence might still be a dominant aspect of the policymaking of a country, other sectors, by large with greater impact on the social wellbeing, require equivalent ponderation and amount of resources. As Buzan (1983) affirms: the National Security subject is more than just theoretical plea and embraces a more systemic discourse where individuals, states and the entire structures nations are built upon are all active players of this intrinsic system. Civil uprisings, environmental degradation, lethal diseases, cybercrime, unemployment, poverty or human rights are among the most in vogue types of threats contemporary societies are exposed to and they could doubtfully undermine the wellness and stability of a country as much as a war can do. Walt’s vision has, therefore, blossomed as retro and somehow (dangerously) inadequate. However, although Walt´s theory may appear substantially limited in scope, he nevertheless provides outstanding and valuable guidelines to the security studier’s field as they perfectly compensate what other theories might lack.


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[1] It is the process through which a state-actor allocates a Security connotation to subjects that were not considered of this relevancy. This enables the state to enact extraordinary in the name of the National Security.

[2] In order to guarantee an adequate level of security, the state needs to decide the balance between national investments in defence versus civilian goods. If it allots more resources to military activity while maintaining the total budget unaltered, civilian sectors would experience restrictions over public assistance so a decline in social wellbeing. Vice versa, a more considerable expenditure towards the civilian side, would generate a higher rate of vulnerability (Russett, 1982).


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