The liberal alternative

Liberalism has traditionally been seen as the counter-balance to realist approaches to IR. Given the centrality of regional organisations in European security - including NATO, the EU and OSCE - it is not surprising that an approach that places its emphasis on the possibility of cooperation in international politics always had something to say about it (Dover, 2007; Menon, 2011).s However, two caveats should be introduced when discussing the liberal contribution to the European security debate. First, these are not security theories, but, rather, IR approaches applied to the European case. Second, for all their differences, they share many of realism’s core tenets, such as state-centrism and the belief in the anarchical nature of the international system (Kolodziej, 2005).

When it comes to European security, rather than analysing it from the perspective of balancing or bandwagoning vis-à-vis the US, they focused on the dynamics of cooperation between European states. Liberal intergovemmentalists argue that states will decide when and how to cooperate based on the potential for outcome maximisation. National preferences are defined based, not only on governments’ positions, but also on the views of a series of stakeholders, including public opinion, bureaucrats and private companies. These approaches look at the role of constitutional constraints, political parties and the bargaining dynamics that take place domestically and internationally. Robert Dover’s (2007) work on the Europeanisation of British defence is a good example of this.

Neoliberal institutionalists, on the other hand, focus on the benefits of cooperation and the fact that institutions create incentives and commitments that lead to further cooperation and make it costly for states to abandon them, including in the security and defence sphere. Simply put: in IR, the costs of cooperation are usually lower than the costs of not cooperating (North, 1990). Neoliberal institutionalism became particularly useful to explain the evolution of the EU’s defence component since the late 1990s. As Anand Menon argues,

[i]nstitutionalism offers the analytical tools to allow us not only to explain its development over time, but also the impact of how policies are made on the policies pursued, and, more broadly, both the potential and limits of the Union’s security and defence policies.

(2011, p. 84)

Although framed with a liberal approach, Stephanie Hoffman argues that, when looking at European defence, particularly its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the relations and ties between bureaucrats and national representative based in Brussels also play an important role in determining the orientation of this policy field (Hoffman, 2011, p. 43). Resorting to the typology employed by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye in the 1970s, Hoffman argues that, in addition to intergovernmental relations, we should also consider the importance of transgovernmental actors when studying decision-making

Table 3.2 Differences between rationalism and reflectivism in security studies

Rationalist assumptions

Reflectivist assumptions

  • • Anarchy in the international system taken for given
  • • States as the primary actors in IR
  • • State identity and interests are given. Exogenous to theory/process
  • • States are rational actors
  • • All actors seek to maximise their utility defined in material terms as power, security and wealth
  • • Explanation is the aim of theory and research

Examples: realism, liberalism

  • • Identity and interests of states are not given
  • • States produce and reproduce interests in a continuous process
  • • Interests are shaped by identity and norms as much as materially
  • • Understanding/interpretation is the aim of theory and research

Examples: constructivism, critical Security Studies

Adapted from Waever (2004).

process in this field. Such an approach touches on ideas of socialisation that are rather predominant in constructivist takes on European security.

The cultural ‘turn’

It is not particularly contentious to say that constructivism became the dominant approach to IR in Europe, and also to how its security is studied. In the late 1980s, authors such as Nicholas Onuf (1989), Friedrich Kratochwil (1989) and Alexander Wendt (1992) brought the works of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman (1966), John Searle (1995) and Anthony Giddens (1984) to the study of international politics and, subsequently, international security. At its most basic level, constructivism understands IR as the result of social interactions. Therefore, structures do not determine IR; at most, they act as a mediator between human agency and social dynamics. Most importantly, constructivism brings to the fore issues of identity, culture and the power of ideas, which were always seen, within a rationalist framework, as a negligible or secondary factor in explaining how the world works.

After the Cold War, the revival of culture appears as a critical factor defining the field of security studies, especially in Europe, where newly constructed identities, new nation-states in the Balkans and in the Baltics and new regional projects enhanced the significance of territory and identity (Tunander, 2008, p. 165). Constructivist approaches to European security were to develop alongside two ‘real world’ dynamics: the enlargement processes of NATO and the EU, and the development of myriad bilateral and multilateral agreements between European states in order to further collaborate on security and defence matters, mostly within the context of NATO and the EU. The two parallel enlargement processes were seen as particularly revealing of the centrality of identities, norms and ideas in IR, or ‘cultural transformation’ (Delanty, 2003, p. 10), in a manifest renegotiation of how differences could be accommodated within the same political organisation. In this sense, both NATO and the EU ‘developed a specific western identity that was embedded in the construction of shared democratic norms’ (Fierke and Wiener, 1999, p. 723).

These processes drew attention to something else: the power of attraction of these organisations. This capacity for attraction, or symbolic power (Williams, 2007; Williams and Neumann, 2000), meant their existence was not solely defined by their primary functions -defence of the Atlantic space in the case of NATO; promotion of the single market in the case of the EU - but they had a normative quasi-civilisational role to play in Europe and beyond. In the case of NATO, enlargement implied expanding the security community to new members from different cultures and traditions, bringing issues of identity, behaviour and belonging to the fore (Adler, 2008; da Mota, 2018, pp. 157-159).

Indeed, in Michael C. Williams’ view, security was no longer simply about material capabilities. Rather, ‘the field of security was transformed into one where cultural and symbolic forms of power become vital’ (2007, p. 3). This had an external dimension to it, but also an internal one, particularly in terms of the EU. By the late 1990s, the EU was arguably the most important security actor in Europe, not because of its security and defence policy -rather incipient at the time - but because of its integration process and how it contributed to removing security as a primary concern for European states when dealing with each other (Wæver, 2000, p. 264).

Ironically, culture, and the concept of strategic culture in particular, was brought into the study of security much earlier by Jack Snyder (1977), an author more commonly associated with rationalism. In a report written for RAND Corporation on Soviet nuclear strategy, culture was helpful in explaining the behaviour of strategic actors when all the other rational explanations failed (Krause, 1998). Other rational approaches attempting to integrate culture in a rationalist framework developed in the following years (see Johnston, 1995; Klein, 1988). Peter Katzenstein’s The Culture of National Security was a marker in terms of placing culture at the centre of the security debate from a sociological perspective. He argued that ‘security interests are defined by actors who respond to cultural factors’ (Katzenstein, 1996, p. 2), whereas culture was to be understood as

both a set of evaluative standards (such as norms and values) and a set of cognitive standards (such as rules and models) that define which social actors exist in a system, how they operate and how they relate to one another.

(1996, p. 6)

As mentioned earlier, the 2000s saw in Europe the approval of a raft of measures and policies that were leading to the redefinition of its security architecture. Failing to explain these dynamics on rationalist grounds, the concept of strategic culture started to emerge as a leading concept in the problématisation of these new dynamics. The controversy around the European participation in the Iraq war and the approval of the European Security Strategy in 2003 gave a renewed impetus to those researching these topics. Finally, there was a ‘nascent strategic narrative, and a readily observable social mechanism through which an EU strategic culture reveals itself (Norheim-Martinsen, 2011, p. 518). Whereas strategic culture became the most common concept in the literature, security culture was also brought to the debate, a concept that provided ‘decision-makers with a frame of core assumptions, beliefs and values about how security challenges can and should be dealt with’ (Monteleone, 2017, p. 85). For some authors (Barrinha and Rosa, 2013; Edwards, 2006), security culture is a more encompassing concept than strategic culture, more suitable to security priorities that sit outside traditional IR.

Overall, this cultural turn contributed to move the centre of the debate from a firmly established rationalist perspective to a more reflectivist understanding of the world - and, in this case, of European security - enmeshing identities and social processes. But, more decisively, it was the affirmation of Critical Security Studies that tilted the discussion towards reflectivism, especially in Europe.

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