Contesting approaches to European security


The study of security emerged after the Second World War as a sub-field of International Relations, or IR (Wæver, 2004, p. 2), analysing the ways in which states were threatened by other states through the main theories of IR. In the USA, this happened in a period in which the country was reforming its security apparatus and affirming itself as the new main power of the international system. National Security Studies became part of university curricula in the US, while in Europe the same contents were taught under the ‘Strategic Studies’ label (Wyn Jones, 1999), in a social and political context marked by the trauma of the war, the progressive end of Europe’s superiority over the world, and Western European projects of cooperation and integration. Despite the different starting points, both sides of the Atlantic quickly converged on a common geopolitical priority: the Cold War. Security was seen back then in a restricted way, mainly as a military issue.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in a context of increasing disillusionment with power politics, and dominant socio-economic models (O’Hagan, 2002, p. 112), the social resistance to war and armament grew stronger (Armitage and Virilio, 1999, p. 37), and security progressively became more than conflict and warfare (or the possibility of). Richard Ullman’s work on environmental security (1983), and Barry Buzan’s People, States and Fear (1983) opened the widening versus deepening debate, in which both the extent and meaning of security were open for discussion - security became a contested concept.

In the post Cold War context, the idea of European security emerged and developed along with both the progression of European integration and as a counter-positioning to US theories, perceptions and dominance of international security. Europe became a hub for the development of new theoretical approaches and the object of study on which those approaches were applied; a similar dynamic to what we have nowadays, albeit with less focus on school development and inter-school debates.

Since IR opened up to reflectivist1 readings of the world during the latter stages of the Cold War, most key concepts in the discipline - order, sovereignty, peace - became contestable.

There is nothing new in this regard about European security, one could say. The interesting aspect about this concept, we would argue, is that it contains not one, but two, contestable terms within it: ‘European’ and ‘security’. The idea of European security reveals an ambivalence that implies both a constant multiplicity of security approaches, but also the projection of a unitary security identity to the rest of the world, either through NATO or the EU. This means that when saying or writing European security, there is a subjacent understanding -out of many different possibilities - of what Europe means, but also, of what security is.

This chapter is about how these two terms have been coupled together by different authors since the end of the Cold War. It is set out in a way that enables the constant ‘dialogue’ between the course of theoretical development and the concrete evolution of European security. It is not explicitly focused on a particular concept of security, or of Europe, for that matter. Its interest is in showing the multiple ways in which the concept has been debated. By doing so, it also highlights the priorities of the political agenda of the time. Some authors and periods were more concerned with the relations between the US and European states; others more focused on the evolution of the EU as a security actor. What they said matters, but also when and why.

Theories do not happen out of the blue; they are developed in articulation with previous works, but also in reaction to the politics of the time. In this sense, the way European security has come to be studied should be understood within a wider social, political and intellectual context - that is, as a history of the theories on European security, particularly of those that allow us to better contextualise Europe in IR.2

In terms of structure, this chapter starts by looking at some of the major works developed within the rationalist framework (mostly realism and liberal approaches), followed by the cultural turn that connected identity and discourse to issues of security. It then discusses the rise of Critical Security Studies and how they have shaped our understanding of European security.

Rationalist views

Rationalist approaches in Security Studies are defined by the assumption that states are rational actors whose behaviour is possible to predict. Doing so involves the adoption of a series of methodological tools ‘rooted in material and empirically verifiable factors’ (Buzan and Hansen, 2009, p. 30). Realism, particularly in its ‘neo’ version, has been the dominant representative of the rationalist voice in Security Studies. The language of security during the Cold War was, to a large extent, characterised by the realist principles of containment, deterrence and strategic advantage. Security was a game of chess in which, more often than not, one state’s gains would be another’s losses. As we will have the opportunity to see later in the chapter, that dominance was only significantly questioned with the emergence of constructivist voices in the discipline, combined with the progressive development of Critical Security Studies, both of which could be situated firmly in the reflectivist camp.

In the 1980s, the eventual expansion of security as a concept to other areas of social and political life - food security, environmental security - was seen as concerning by some leading realist authors, such as Stephen Walt. If security could be applied to any aspect of social and political life, then nothing was security (Walt, 1991; Hyde-Price, 2007). In Walt’s view, an expanded understanding of the concept that took on broad issues such as economic recession or pollution ‘would destroy its intellectual coherence and make it more difficult to devise solutions to any of these important problems’ (Walt, 1991, p. 213). This rather orthodox view of security has been applied to European security by other American thinkers, most famously by John Mearsheimer.

Writing during the twilight of the Cold War, Mearsheimer (1990), a leading offensive realist, argued that the end of the bipolar confrontation was bad news for Europe. The stability generated by the distribution of military capability along two main poles of power - the Soviet Union and the USA - the balance between the two, and the nuclear dimension of their arsenals were the reasons why war had been absent from Europe since 1945. The end of the Cold War would lead to a situation of multipolarity, with a subsequently higher propensity for instability (Mearsheimer, 1990, p. 7).

Two decades letter, in a keynote lecture to the annual ECPR conference, Mearsheimer was unrepentant in his position. He now added that three key issues would determine the possibility of peace in Europe: the future of out of area missions, the USA’s pivot to Asia (and subsequent reduction in its European presence) and, rather prophetically, the future of Russia-Ukraine relations. Ultimately, however, Europe’s fate remains, in Mearsheimer’s view, in the hands of the American ‘pacifier’ (Mearsheimer, 2010). From this perspective, European security is only meaningful in relation to the American hegemonic power; as a ‘rational response to systemic pressures’ (Cladi and Locatelli, 2017, p. 19).

Despite the vastly different geopolitical context - post 9/11 and post thelraq invasion -other neorealist authors followed this same type of approach in their analyses of European security (Art, 2004; Hyde-Price, 2007; Posen, 2006). Under this perspective, Europe oscillates between a position of balancing3 (soft for Robert Art, and hard for Barry Posen) and bandwagoning1 (Cladi and Locatelli, 2012), and the US is the ultimate guarantor of its security - a view that seems increasingly problematic in 2018. Europe itself revolves around a constant balance of power, in which its actors need to assess constantly their options regarding each other, but also regarding the main forces in European security - the US, Russia and Germany (Art, 2004). If anything, the end of the Cold War seems to have intensified the debate around the balance of power in Europe (Howorth and Menon, 2009, p. 729). This view has led to two main consequences in terms of the study of European security. First, it meant that the realist contribution was limited by what they understood to be the fundamental issues of war and conflict, having little to say about other security dynamics taking place in Europe. Second, it also meant that realism was partially sidelined in Europe, making it a somewhat peripheral approach to the study of European security as we entered the 2000s.

Neo-classical realism has attempted to rejuvenate the links between this school of thought and the study of security in Europe by bridging this neorealist version with the more normative and nuanced classical approach of the mid-twentieth century (Table 3.1). According to Tom Dyson, neoclassical realism offers a combination between 'neorealism’s emphasis on the "survival” motivation of states, with classical realism’s focus on the dependence of political leaders on domestic society for material resources and support for foreign and

Table 3.1 Realism and its multiple shades




Key authors

Classical realism

Mid-twentieth century

Power as the defining concept in international politics

Hans Morgenthau, E. H. Carr, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Herz



Anarchical structure of the international system

Kenneth Waltz

Defensive realism


States as security maximisers

Stephen Walt, Jack Snyder

Offensive realism


States as power maximisers

John Mearsheimer

Neo-classical realism


Domestic factors influence states' decision making

Fareed Zakaria, Randall Schweller, Gideon Rose, William Wohlforth

defence policy goals’ (2010, p. 120). The inclusion of domestic factors in the analysis of states' international behaviour changes how we observe and explain IR. Randall Schweller (2004) compares interwar Britain and France, and concludes that their reticence in engaging in war with Germany (and, therefore, ‘underbalance’) was based on domestic factors and not in the nature of the balance of power. Schweller criticises the balance of power theory, and looks ‘inside’ Europe, taking a more nuanced approach to its security. However, he is ultimately trying to answer the same sort of questions set by neorealism, which leads to a similar understanding of what European security ultimately is (see Rynning, 2011 for a more thorough critique of neo-classical realism).

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