A brief Overview of Security Thinking

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Article écrit par Abdenaceur Chaili, étudiant de l’Université de Paris-Sud et Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. 


To say that the end of the cold war was a seismic event that has changed the world does not add that much to our understanding; the question of merit is always how. Indeed, the end of the cold war has subjected most concepts to contestation, and reinvigorated every nook and cranny of the study of International Relations, and social sciences in general. As a sub-field of International Relations, security studies are no exception to that. From the inter-war era until the end of the cold war, Security Studies, the then Strategic Studies [1], had been held captive of the realist (arguing that the State is the main actor in international relations and standing against the idealistic illusion of the absolute value granted to the international law) and, to a lesser degree, of the liberal (highlighting the importance of the role played by non-state actors because of the intensification of international and transnational relations through the progress of communication technologies) paradigms. In the eve of the cold war, Western security thinking engaged in a project of historic reshuffling. Security practitioners and decision makers shared the underlying question of how to fix the mismatch between the old security modus operandi -the set of mechanisms, measures and practices- and the changing nature of security concerns. As for Scholars of all stripes, they engaged in a debate to assess the relevance of the theoretical and conceptual cold war legacy in addressing the new developments. The debate was held between two main camps; positivism and post-positivism. The literature on the recent developments in security practices tend to focus on the nuts and bolts -the practical matters- of the state’ policy choices and actions. Other key developments are yet hardly addressed questions in international relations and security studies.

I) The traditional view of security

The ardent (defensive) realist Stephen Walt captures the Zeitgeist of the cold war period; he notes that « Security Studies may be defined as the study of the threat, use, and control of military force. »[2] During this era, more precisely during the so-called « Golden Age » [3] of national security studies, the realist thinking reached its apex in the discipline of security studies and « provided a powerful basis for explaining state behavior and the pursuit of security through military and other means. »[4] This period was characterized by « a focus on threat manipulation, and force projections became the central, almost exclusive, concern of security studies. » [5] Traditional paradigms, namely (neo)realism and (neo)liberalism, in Security Studies were preoccupied exclusively by the role of states. In other words, the state was considered a unitary actor, and thus the primary « referent [object] of security. » [6] Therefore, the pursuit of national security embraced a « state-centric approach »[7] with power defined in terms of military capabilities.

Despite the ongoing efforts to revisit what is at stake regarding the concept of security, the narratives stating that the realist turn in the field had slumped are but an exaggerated statement. As Linklater remarks, after the 9/11 attacks, realism « has dominated but not monopolized »[8] security studies; realist assumptions still inform both scholars and practitioners of international relations.

II) Challenging the orthodoxy: ‘broadening’ and ‘deepening’ security

« In the past, threats tended to emerge slowly, often visibly, as weapons were forged, armies were conscripted, units were trained and deployed, and enemy forces were massed in position to move. The greatest threats, too, came from large states … doctrines of deterrence were developed to confront such states, first in the pre-nuclear and then in the nuclear age. In today’s world, threats can emerge more quickly, without having to accumulate a mass of men and metal. Nor do the greatest threats necessarily come from large states that have much to lose. » [9]

Philip Zelikow’s [10] description captures the changing nature of international relations after the cold war. The thread of the legacy of this era, that can be summed up to three features; the culture of deterrence, the bipolar system, and the discourse of imminent threats from states, was evolving. Following the changes of ‘the realities on the ground’, realism, being a paradigm that aims to explain the world as it is not as it should be, witnessed a gap between the explanatory relevance of its assumptions on the one hand and practice on the other hand. Consequently, many scholars, both from within and outside the traditional confines of security studies, called for the  » [reexamination of] the way we think about international relations and national security. For some, this means including domestic problems on the national security agenda; for others it means treating non-military external threats to national well-being as security issues.” [11]

The post-cold war project to reshuffle the discipline’s conceptual framework was intended to address rejuvenation on two fronts; « on the one hand, [to] broaden the concept as to include a wider range of issues than the traditional focus on the military dimension; on the other hand, [to] deepen the concept so as to relate to referent objects other than the state.  » [12] The earliest record of attempts at redefining security is credited to Richard Ullman’s article entitled Redefining security (1983). Ullman highlights that « we are, of course, accustomed to thinking of national security in military threats arising from beyond the borders of one’s own country. » [13] For Ullman, this is misleading; for it obscures the ‘non-military’ nature of threats and neglects the seriousness of their within-the-border flare-up. He went on to suggest the broadening of the notion of threats and security concerns; As he puts it, a threat is an action that:

« 1) threatens drastically and over a relatively brief span of time to degrade the quality of life for the inhabitants of a state, or 2) threatens significantly to narrow the range of policy choices available to the government of a state or to private, governmental entities within the state. » [14]

The originality of Ullman’s redefinition of security stems from its explicit urge to go beyond the view of security as coterminous with military capacity, as continuously claimed by the advocates of realism and liberalism. Also conceptually emphatic in the formulation of a redefinition is Baldwin’s analytical survey of the state of the discipline in which he notes that: « It would be an exaggeration to say that conceptual analysis of security began and ended with Wolfers’ article in 1952, but not much of one. The neglect of security as a concept is reflected in various surveys of security affairs as an academic field … In 1973 Klaus Knorr began a survey of the field by stating his intention to ‘deliberately bypass the semantic and definitional problems generated by the term « National Security ». In 1975 Richard Smoke observed that the field had ‘paid quite inadequate attention to the range of meanings of security. »  [15]

Writing in an opposite bent, the zealous defenders of a restrained definition of the concept of security altercate that the steps made to widen the concept are major steps in the wrong direction. Stephen Walt asserts that any attempts aiming at enlarging the scope of security studies to include non-military issues « would destroy its intellectual coherence and make it more difficult to devise solutions to any of these important problems. » [16]

In a survey of the main non-traditionalist frameworks in security studies, Steve Smith suggests six alternatives; Feminist Security Studies, Post-structuralist Security Studies, Critical security Studies, Human Security, Constructivist Security Studies and the Copenhagen School. In this research paper, we will delve into the two latter approaches.

III) The alternative routes to security: The Copenhagen School and Constructivism

The Copenhagen School

The epitome of the Copenhagen School was a book published in 1983 by one of its leading thinkers, along with Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde; it is entitled People, States and Fear. For European scholars, this book was considered as « the canon and indispensable reference for students of security. » [17] In his book, Barry Buzan puts forward the idea that security is multifaceted and complex; the military aspect of state is but one feature of it. He points that traditional understandings of security are « too narrowly founded » [18] and his aim was to « develop a broader framework of security » [19] through the inclusion of unconventional aspects.

This instigating project in security studies owes its originality to the idea of ‘sectorisation’ of security. To account for the complexity of the concept of security, Bunzan suggests five interrelated sectors, as shown in the table below, each having a referent object that can change when moving from one level of analysis to another (micro-macro); the individual, the state and the international system.

Figure 1.1: Sectors and referent objects (Based on Buzan, Waever and Wilde [20] , 1998)

Buzan’s efforts to reinvigorate the concept of security were cautiously celebrated. While his project was more about ‘widening’ security than ‘deepening’ it, other significant scholars involved in the non-traditional research program in security studies such as Ken Booth, associated with Critical Security Studies, calls for the « emancipation of the individual » [21] as a referent object of analysis and insisted « that the state must be dislodged as the key recipient of security, and [he] put forward not only the individual but also a wide range of non-state actors as possible referent objects. » [22] In the same line, Michael Sheehan, quoting Martin Shaw, notes that « despite Buzan’s sensitivity to non-state actors… He [Martin Shaw] argued that much of Buzan’s work is nothing more that caveats to a state-centered notion of security. »[23] However, it is worth noting that in a book published in 2003, Buzan and Waever declared that « [their] theory [-in a reference to the Regional Security Complex Theory-] is designed so that it can accommodate non-state actors, and even allow them to be dominant.  » [24] Others, mainly pressure groups and Human Rights activists, expressed their reluctance to the expansion of sectors and the notion of securitization, for this would provide a cover to legitimize abusive use of security measures in every aspect of life; the risk is therefore a derided trade-off between liberty and security.

A crucial element in Buzan’s work is the process of « securitization » which was primarily formulated by Weaver in the 1990s. This concept lies at the junction between The Copenhagen School and Constructivism. Just as constructivists, Buzan and Wilde hold that threats are socially constructed through language and discursive acts. The notion of securitization is deconstructive in essence; as it is the first stage towards de-securitization which is  » the most optimal long-range option since it means not to have issues phrased as threats against which we have countermeasures but to move them out of this threat-defense sequence and into the ordinary public sphere. »[25] In this respect, securitization and de-securitization serve as « a theoretical tool to facilitate security analysis. » [26] Shahin Malik define this notion saying that:

Waever defined security as the outcome of a ‘speech act’ and securitization as the linguistic process which [leads] to a particular issue to be seen as an existential threat…security, therefore, is dependent on the manner in which it is framed by the social actors, and it is through the process of securitization that actors move the issue from the realm of low politics to one defined as high politics. [27]

Constructivist security studies

The dictum that undergirds the constructivist research project is that beliefs and ideas matter. Drawing upon social theory and the sociology of knowledge, constructivists emphasize the concept of  » human awareness or consciousness. » [28] This concept, derived from Berger and Luckmann [29], draws a contrast between the « materialist view » [30] rooted in both the (neo)realist and (neo)liberalist traditions, and the « ideational view » [31] seated in the constructivist thinking. When explaining how the relationship between material and ideational factors shape our understanding, Alexander Wendt argues that « the claim is not that ideas [32] are more important than power and interest, or that they are autonomous from power and interest. The claim is rather that power and interest have the effects they do in virtue of the ideas that make them up. » [33] Constructivists acknowledge the relevance of objective material forces, but they give more weight to social and subjective forces such as ideas and beliefs. In other words, it is the « intersubjective understandings » [34] of objective forces that represent a starting point to analyze state behavior and actions. The objective world is not ‘out there’ existing on its own aloof from, what Max Weber call, our « interpretive understanding » (verstehen) [35], but it is « what we make of it. »

Discussing constructivism in the light of the subject area (Security Studies) rises the need for saying that constructivism is a broad approach that encapsulates different stripes. When it comes to classifying the different constructivist variants, any classification is in the eye of the beholder. [36] This difficulty of classification stems mainly from the « three-layered understanding [that constructivism consists of; ranging from] metaphysics, social theory and IR theory and research strategies. » [37] This then begs the question of how the variants of constructivism differ when broaching security studies.

At the risk of a gross oversimplification and despite the arbitrariness that any classification can entail, for the purpose of analytical clarity we adopt Ted Hopf’s oft-cited distinction between ‘conventional constructivists’ and ‘critical constructivists.’ According to Hopf:

« Conventional constructivism accepts the existence of identities [ how they are reproduced and how they imply actions] and wants to understand their reproduction and effects, but critical constructivists use critical social theory to specify some understanding of the origin of identity … [critical constructivists consider the role of] power of knowledge, ideas, culture, ideology, and language, that is, discourse as necessary for any understanding of world affairs. The notion that ideas are a form of power, that power is more than brute force, and that material and discursive power are related is not new. » [38]

When pouring over constructivist literature in security studies, Audie Klotz and Cecilia Lynch suggest two influential books. [39] The first is Peter J. Katzenstein’s edited volume, The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics (1996), and the second is Cultures of Insecurity: States, Communities, and the Production of Danger, edited by Jutta Weldes, Mark Laffey, Hugh Gusterson and Raymond Duvall. The central theme of the latter is the analysis of « discourses of insecurity, or what David Campbell (1992) calls the ‘representations of danger’ as objects of analysis » [40]. The first book uses a conventional constructivist lens and « considers culture and identity, both in the singular, and norms to imply that meanings can be stable and knowable.  » [41] The aim is providing causal explanation of  » identities and their associated reproductive social practices, and then offer an account of how those identities imply certain actions. »[42] In the same vein, Katzenstein explains that « the authors use the concept of norms to describe collective expectations for the proper behavior of actors within a given identity. In some situations, norms … [have] constitutive effects in other situations norms have regulative effects … or they [have] both. » [43] In the second book, unlike conventionalists, critical constructivists, drawing upon Faucauldian power/knowledge nexus (discourse analysis) and Habermas’ distinction between communicative and strategic action [44] pour over and map discourses « to surface identities not to articulate their effects, but to elaborate on how people come to believe in a single version of a naturalized truth » [45] and « specify some understanding of the origin of identity. » [46] To illustrate this, Weldes takes the missile crisis as a case study and comes to the conclusion that the crisis was « the product of an extended process of social construction. »[47] It is important to mention that it is gravely misleading to see these two constructivists orientations as rivals; the crucial element of differentiation is that each approach locates its analysis in a different level. In other words, Katzenstein studies the regulatory effect of identity on state behavior, while Weldes inquiries about the very performation, enactment and (re)assertion of identity in security discourse.

Indeed, the very title of the second book is suggestive of a different conceptualization of the concept of culture(s) and identity(ies). Emphatic is the portrayal of « cultures » as multiple; this creates a sense of « fluidity, malleability [and] contestation » [48] in the understanding of identity formulations. Instead of taking culture as relatively stabilized and analyzing the policies that it generates, Cultures of Insecurity questions the very role of (in)security discourses in the (re)making of identities. In this vein, utterances become theretofore discursive strategies and metonymic of power; the ability to shape practices through linguistic ‘representations’ and ‘productions’ of risk and threat, as can be found in official governments and think tanks documents such as national security strategies and related documents such as National Risk Register.



Needless to say, the importance of being wary of the differences between the various theories has significant implications on our understanding of the topics at stake. In a different context, Bernd Heinrich (1984) rightly remarks that « even carefully collected results can be misleading if the underlying context of assumptions is wrong. » In other words, the different conceptualizations and views of the same notion determine the interpretations and the outcomes of the analysis as well as the tools and methods. However, it is of a major importance to go beyond the theoretical confines and for relying primarily on the research question and on the concepts to identify the appropriate tools and use them eclectically.

The leading question that should arise when dealing with security topics is then: what does the contribution of every theory and approach add to our understanding of state behavior and action in the international system? As should be made clear, one should dismiss the pedantic insistence on theoretical rivalry. Bearing in mind that each approach carries distinct implications for how world politics is studied, the focus shifts away from the capacity devoted to the irrelevant task of clustering at poles, and avoids getting trampled in the battle of ‘isms’.


  • [1] When recalling the evolution of the discipline from « strategic studies to security studies », Mike Bourne notes that « while some [ mainly realists] view this as a nominal change, in which the focus and concepts of the field remain rooted in strategy, others [ followers of new security approaches] view security studies as a wider set of concerns that incorporates but goes beyond matter of war and strategy. » Taken from, Bourne Mike, « Understanding and Theorizing Security », in Understanding Security, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 11.
  • [2] Walt, Stephen M. « The Renaissance of Security Studies. » International Studies Quarterly 35, no. 2 (1991). 212
  • [3] The « golden age » (1950s -1960s) was a period characterized by a scholarly focus on the national security of states dependently from each other. The Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the concept of Economic Interdependence triggered the « internationalization » of national security studies. For a thorough account of this period, see, for instance, Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977), Bernard Brodie, ‘Strategy as a Science’, World Politics, no.3, (1949), and Joseph S. Nye Jr. and Sean M. Lynn-Jones, ‘International Security Studies: A Report of a Conference on the State of the Field’, International Security 12, no.4, (1988)
  • [4] Malik. Shahin, « Framing a Discipline », in Hough. Peter, Malik. Shahin, Moran. Andrew, and Pilbeam. Bruce, International Security Studies: Theory and Practice, (Routeledge,2015),5
  • [5] Kolodziej. Edward A, « What Is Security and Security Studies? Lessons from the Cold War », in Baldwin. David A, «Security Studies and the End of the Cold War. » World Politics 48, (1995),124
  • [6] Mack Andrew, « A signifier of Shared Values », Security Dialogue 35, no. 3, (Canada: University of British Columbia: 2004):366.
  • [7] Smith, Edward, « The Traditional Routes to Security: Realism and Liberalism », in Hough. Peter, Malik. Shahin, Moran. Andrew, and Pilbeam. Bruce, International Security Studies: Theory and Practice, (Routeledge,2015),28.
  • [8] Linklater, Andrew. « Unnecessary Suffering», in Booth, Ken and Dunne, Tim. Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002),311.
  • [9] Zelikow. Philip, « The Transformation of National Security: Five Redefinitions » National Interest, no. 71, (2003),25.
  • [10] Philip Zellick contributed unofficially in the elaboration of the National Security Strategy of the United States under the Bush Administration.
  • [11] David A. Baldwin, ‘Security Studies and the End of the Cold War », World Politics 48, no.1 (1995): 118.
  • [12] Smith, Steve, « The Concept of Security in a Globalizing World », in Patman. Robert G, Globalization and Conflict, (London: Routledge,2006),44.
  • [13] Ullman, Richard H. « Redefining Security », International Security, 8, no.1(1983):133.
  • [14] Ullman, ibid,133.
  • [15] Baldwin. David A, «The concept of Security », Review of International Studies (1997): 23.
  • [16] Waltz, Kenneth N. « Realist Thought and Neorealist Theory. » Journal of International Affairs 44, no. 1 (1990): 213.
  • [17] Mcsweeney, Bill. « Identity and security: Buzan and the Copenhagen school. » Review of International Studies 22, no.01,(1996):81-93.
  • [18] Buzan, Barry. People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold WarEra,1st by Harvester Wheatsheaf (1991),2ndedition, (ECPR Press,2007),34.
  • [19] Ibid.,p.38.
  • [20] Buzan Barry, Waever Ole, and Wilde Jaap De, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, (United States: Lynne Rienner Publishers,1998),22-23.
  • [21] Booth, Ken. « Security and Emancipation. » Review of International Studies 17, no.4(1991): 319.
  • [22] Malik. Shahin, « Human Security », in Hough. Peter, Malik. Shahin, Moran. Andrew, and Pilbeam. Bruce, International Security Studies: Theory and Practice, (Routeledge,2015),58.
  • [23] Sheehan, Michael. International Security: An Anlytical Survey, (United Sates, Lynne Rienner Publishers,2005),50.
  • [24] Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security, (The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2003),12.
  • [25] Buzan, Waever and Wilde, op.cit.,29.
  • [26] Taureck, Rita. Securitization theory and securitization studies », Journal of International Relations and Development 9, no.1,(2006):55.
  • [27] Malik. Shahin, « Constructing Security », in Hough. Peter, Malik. Shahin, Moran. Andrew, and Pilbeam. Bruce, International Security Studies: Theory and Practice, (Routledge, 2015), 80.
  • [28] Jackson, Robert and Sorensen, Georg. Introduction to International Relations Theories and Approaches. 3rd edition. (Oxford university press, 2006), 162.
  • [29] The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966).
  • [30] Waltz, op.cit.,36
  • [31] Jackson, Robert and Sorensen, Georg. Introduction to International Relations Theories and Approaches. 3rd edition. (Oxford university press,2006), 165.
  • [32] In her article, published in 2005 in the Journal of Cold War Studies, and entitled “Ideas and Explanation: Advancing the Theoretical Agenda”, Nina Tannenwald provides a refined classification of ideas that she categorizes into four types; « ideologies; normative beliefs; cause–effect beliefs; and policy prescriptions”
  • [33] Wendt, Alexander. Social Theory of International Politics, (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 136.
  • [34] Klotz. A, Lynch. C. Strategies for Research in Constructivist International Relations, (M.E. Sharpe, 2007),8.
  • [35] Law, Alex, Key Concepts in Classical Social Theory, (Sage Publication,2011),215.
  • [36] In reviewing the different stripes lodged within the constructivist banner, John Ruggie, in a « philosophically grounded classification » based on epistemological affinities, distinguishes between three main offshoots. The first is neo-classical constructivists who ascribe to the « use [of] a set of analytical tools to make sense of intersubjective meanings [such as] speech act theory, the theory of communicative action. He puts in this category his self as well as Ernst and Peter Hass, Kratchowil, Onuf, Emanuel Adler, Finnemore and Katzenstein. He labels the second group as postmodernist constructivists who draw upon Faucaldian and Derridian works to « stress the linguistic construction of subjects, as a result of which discursive practices constitute the ontological primitives, or the foundational units of reality and analysis. » Under this banner, we find the likes of Campbell, Der Derian and R.B.J. Walker. The third group is called naturalistic Constructivists who are keen to the « the scientific inquiry of both material and social worlds deals largely in non-obsevables, be they quarks of international structures, and much of the time even the intersubjective aspects of social life exist independently of the mental states of the most individuals that constitutes it. » In this group we find, Roy Bhashkar, Alexander Wendt and David Dessler. From, John Gerard Ruggie, « What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge », in International Organization at Fifty: Exploration and Contestation in the Study of World Politics. International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 881-882 . From an alternative perspective, Christian Reus–Smit focuses on the level of analysis as a lens to differentiate between the different “constructivisms.” In this respect, there are three branches of constructivism; “systemic”, “unit-level” and “holistic”. From Christian Reus–Smit, « Imagining society: constructivism and the English School »,The British Journal of Politics & International Relations 4,n. 3(2002),487-509
  • [37] Walter, Carlsnaes. Risse, Thomas, Simmons, Beth A. Handbook of International Relations, (Sage Publications,2013),115
  • [38] Hopf 1998, ibid, 177.
  • [39] To these books can be added Security Communities (1988) by Emanuel Adler an Michael Barnett, in which the authors locate their analysis on the international level and argue that « community can exist at the international level, and that security politics is profoundly shaped by it, with states dwelling within an international community having the capacity to develop a pacific disposition. »
  • [40] Weldes, Jutta. Laffey, Mark. Gusterson, Hugh. and Duvall Raymond. Cultures of Insecurity: States, Communities, and the Production of Danger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1999), 10.
  • [41] Klotz, op.cit.,17.
  • [42] Hopf 1998, ibid, 183.
  • [43] Katzenstein, Peter J, The culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, (New York: Columbia University Press,1996),5.
  • [44] « The latter type is oriented to gain hegemony in discursive practices, the former strives to gain recognition and build consensus ». From Carta, Caterina. Morin, Jean- Férdéric, EU Foreign Policy through the Lens of Discourse Analysis: Making Sense of Discourse Analysis, (England: Ashgate, 2014),
  • [45] Hopf 1998, ibid, 183.
  • [46] Hopf 1998, ibid, 177.
  • [47] Weldes, Laffey, Gusterson and Duvall (1999), op.cit.,59.
  • [48] Klotz, op.cit.,18.
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