What are we talking about when we talk about security?

What do people mean when they refer to “security”? We do not know for sure, because the absence of a consensus is the sole point of agreement that has been reached on the matter. Security is an essentially contested concept. Despite the lack of agreement, scholars have been nearly unanimous in thinking that it needed greater clarity and have tried to provide better definitions of it. One such attempt, dating back to the 1950s, is credited to Wolfers (1952). Recently revisited by David (2013), it envisages security in both objective and subjective terms: objectively, as the absence of objective threats to the fundamental and vested values of a community, and subjectively, as the fear (or lack thereof) that those values might be under threat. In the 1990s, Buzan et al. (1998) modified Wolfers’s concept, defining security simply as the search for freedom, or the liberation from all threats.

On the whole, a theoretical genealogy of the concept reveals two fundamentally different philosophical approaches to security. According to the first of these, security pertains to having. It is viewed as a commodity that is attained through ownership and the accrual of material goods: wealth, arms, power (economic, political, and above all military). From this perspective, the greater the power, the greater the security.

By contrast, according to the second approach, security pertains to being. It is viewed from a relational perspective and understood as a relationship between actors whose final goal is emancipation: the liberation from all threats, issuing in a state of well-being, universal justice, and fall respect for human rights. Precisely that trust-based relationship is what truly can deliver security. In other words, security does not emerge from the exercise of power based on the notion that to ensure security for some, others necessarily must be deprived of their share. Instead, it stems rather from cooperation that makes provisions for the security of all.

These two strains, either explicitly or (more commonly) in a veiled way, pervade not only the whole theoretical debate raised by security studies, impacting the issues that flow from it and lie at the core of the discipline, but also the security policies of the actors, conditioning how they set their priorities - specifically, whether they mainly should emphasize military prowess or developmental assistance in the fields of environment and human rights.

When we talk about security, the chief question is: security for whom? Who is to be protected from threats? In a nutshell, who or what is the referent of security?

In traditional security studies of a realist persuasion (so-called strategic studies), there was no doubt whatsoever: The referent was the state, such that security meant the state’s security. This concept of security, moreover, was invested in and legitimized by the concept of national interest. That novel concept, in the American context, was enshrined in the US National Security Act of 1947 as “national security.” From then on, security in the field of international relations came to be understood as the study or exercise of national security (or, in Europe, national defense).

Towards the end of, but mainly after, the Cold War, the concept of security underwent a process of enlargement and further development, and the referent was shifted from the security of the state to the security of the people. But whether “people” meant the individual, or society, or humankind as such remained very much under contention. Disagreements on this issue spawned a growing literature (cf. Anderson-Rogers & Crawford 2018; Fukuda-Parr & Messineo 2012; Shinoda 2004).

In traditional, essentially state-centric security (or strategic) studies, threats unequivocally originate in other states and potentially involve the use of force, particularly of a military nature. For that approach to security, then, what matter are inter-state armed conflicts and the use of military power. But once the referent shifts from state security to popular security, the nature of what constitutes a threat is considerably broadened. Threats need not be exclusively military in character but may also incorporate economic, societal, environmental, political, or identi- tarian aspects. If we regard security (in Wolfers’s or Buzan’s sense) as liberation or at least relief from threats against fundamental or acquired rights, then for many people across the world, climate change, poverty, epidemics, and scarcity of natural resources like water or food all can pose problems as grave as, or even graver than, armed conflicts. In such cases, the threat in question does not loom from another state, it does not have a military nature, and it does not even pertain to the use of force. What is more, military means are useless to fight it. In short, if from a traditional viewpoint security equals state security and relies on the use of force, in this more contemporary perspective security is the security of people, which cannot be achieved primarily by relying on those methods.

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