In this article, we shall examine the topic of international security, or security in international relations. We will discuss the how the concept of security has historically been viewed in international relations, and also introduce additional ways to understand security (which includes a discussion of human security). In addition, we shall also discuss how individuals looked at international security following the terror attacks against the United States on September 11th, 2001.
Security in International Relations
Security is one of the most discussed aspects of international relations, with writers throughout the centuries examining the role of security as it pertains to their state or country, and also in their interactions with other entities or world leaders. While scholars might disagree on what we say is “security”, security can be understood as “the absence of a threat to the stability of the international system, to countries, or to individuals” (Kay, 2012).
While today we are much more inclined to discuss international security in the context of the state, we have to remember that the state was not always the dominant actor in the international system. It was only in 1648 throughout the Peace of Westphalia that the state took hold as a political unit. Before that, when talking about international security, we had to look at other forms of power structures. As Smallman & Brown (2012) write: “Security was not always defined solely in terms of threats to the nation-start and its sovereignty. In the Middle Ages, political units were defined by dynasties, which meant that peoples’ allegiances could change with a royal marriage. Whether in Angevin England or medieval Italy, political boundaries often did not align with ethnic groups. Authority was frequently fractured or divided” (37). They go on to say that “Under the feudal system, a powerful leader could be bound to be more than one overload. People owed political allegiance to their king (or kings), but moral and religious authority was bestowed in a pope. Additionally, there was an ideal of chivalry in which the bond of knighthood appeared more important than those of language or homeland” (37).
But again, today, the attention to security usually centers around the protection of the state. Therefore, the concern for security has more recently focused on the ability of the state (or nation-state, in many cases) to be able to prevent any major attacks or insecurity from arising. The state has therefore been concerned about the protection of sovereignty (Smallman & Brown, 2011).
Human Security in International Security
Again, much of the attention of security in international relations has centered largely on the role of the survival of the state from domestic or external security threats. However, in recent decades, scholars and human rights activists argued that there was another, yet very important element of security that was not being talked about as much: human security. It was not enough to argue that the only threats of international security that mattered were threats to the regime or state. Rather, threats that affect the individual, the human being, have to be included in the conversation of security and international security.
The attention to human security existed for centuries, although the rise of focus on the topic increased in 1994 following the United Nations Human Development Report (in Smallman & Brown, 2011). As Smallman & Brown (2011) write: “The document reflected the end of the Cold War and a new international environment in which the rising power of globalization seemed to decrease the importance of nation-states while also increasing the threat posed by non state actors such s Al-Qaeda…” (48). In addition, there was also a rise of other non-traditional security threats such as failed states, environmental concerns, organized crime, etc… (Smallman & Brown, 2011).
However, the idea of human security as a central part of international security has not been unchallenged, in particular by realist theorists. According to many realists, while human security is an element of international relations, the vast majority of continued threats to security are still between states. To realists, states, not individuals, remain the dominant actor in world affairs (Smallman & Brown, 2011).
International Security and September 11th, 2011
Security in international relations has taken into account issues of terrorism in the world. However, it can be argued that it was the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001 against the United States that ushered in a new era of how to approach questions of international security.
Following September 11th, 2001 attacks by Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, the United States leadership and public looked to not only respond to such attacks, but also aimed to understand the motivations behind the attacks, and the role that issues such as politics, and also religion had with regards to what transpired.
Kay (2012) argues that these attacks have been very concerning for a number of reasons. He argues that they were “particularly troubling because they illustrated three new elements of global security. First, the nation-state as a protective barrier to ward off threats was no longer as strong as many people presumed. Second, modern technology that people rely on for global access–in this case, the airplane–was the weapon. Third, the attackers were linked through a network of global relationships stretching from the United States to Europe and the Middle East, commencing in Afghanistan. This attack represented a new kind of war in which the pathways of globalization were the means of channeling power” (2).
Following the attacks on September 11th, 2001, the United States, along with allies, went into Afghanistan to fight Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, who was protecting him. Along with the war in Afghanistan, there were also additional questions on how the United States should respond to issues of terrorism as it pertained to international security. For some,
Globalization and International Security
One of the questions that people ask with regards to security in international relations in the current age that were are living in has to do with the relationship of security and globalization. Given the continued interest in power by various actors in the world, does this globalized world have conditions that will lead to additional challenges of power–and in turn insecurity, or, will the globalized world and all that it contains be one that will allow for new avenues of peace and security (Kay, 2012).
This question of globalization and international security has been one that scholars have addressed for many years. For example, “In 1952, Arnold Wolfers introduced debate over the larger meaning of national security beyond the defense of territory. In 1977, Lester Brown introduced global assessments of environmental and energy challenges, arguing that national security included these dimensions as well as military issues. In 1983, Barry Buzan framed the meaning of security as including military, social, economic, political, and environmental dimensions. In 2000, Graham Allison identified the security consequences of globalization and technology that helps with military targeting of weapons, advanced in technologies of weapons of mass destruction, the erosion of the dominant role of the nation-state, “CNNization” that allows citizens to watch wars in their living rooms, global networks in communication and trade, global networks that create incentives among elites to coordinate policy to create predictability, and the prominent role of non state actors in impacting international outcomes” (Kay, 2012: 3).
Globalization affects the power relations in the world. For example, not only do countries continue to maintain various levels of power, but now, one is able to press notions of power outside of their regional territory. Increased and quickened travel, along with better communications allows that possibility to now be a reality. In addition, with these conditions, events that were more localized can now turn to become a larger international problem (Kay, 2012).
However, while globalization can have negative implications on international security, the conditions of globalization can also lead to better conditions of peace. The same way that technology can be used for bad, it can also be used for good. Additional security measures can be made, and communication can be a tool for countries to communicate with one another about any potential threats. In addition, communication and travel can allow actors to not only speak more quickly with one another, but it can also allow reduced time to actually solving any domestic or international security threats that may arise.
Kay, S. (2012). Global Security In The Twenty-First Century: The Quest for POWER and the Search for PEACE. Second Edition. Rowman & Littlefield. Lanham, Maryland.