Concept of Security

Topics: National security, Security, Concept Pages: 36 (11613 words) Published: August 27, 2013
Review of International Studies (1997), 23, 5–26

Copyright © British International Studies Association

The concept of security*

Redefining ‘security’ has recently become something of a cottage industry.1 Most such efforts, however, are more concerned with redefining the policy agendas of nation-states than with the concept of security itself. Often, this takes the form of proposals for giving high priority to such issues as human rights, economics, the environment, drug traffic, epidemics, crime, or social injustice, in addition to the traditional concern with security from external military threats. Such proposals are usually buttressed with a mixture of normative arguments about which values of which people or groups of people should be protected, and empirical arguments as to the nature and magnitude of threats to those values. Relatively little attention is devoted to conceptual issues as such. This article seeks to disentangle the concept of security from these normative and empirical concerns, however legitimate they may be. Cloaking normative and empirical debate in conceptual rhetoric exaggerates the conceptual differences between proponents of various security policies and impedes scholarly communication. Are proponents of economic or environmental security using a concept of security that is fundamentally different from that used by Realists? Or are they simply emphasizing different aspects of a shared concept? Do those who object to ‘privileging’ the nation-state rather than, say, the individual or humanity share any conceptual views with students of ‘national security’? This article attempts to identify common conceptual distinctions underlying various conceptions of security. Identifying the common elements in various conceptions of security is useful in at least three ways: First, it facilitates asking the most basic question of social science, * The author would like to thank the following scholars for helpful comments on previous versions of this article: Richard Betts, Lea Brilmayer, Robert Jervis, Helen Milner, Jack Snyder, and Hendrik Spruyt. 1 E.g. Lester Brown, Redefining National Security, Worldwatch Paper No. 14 (Washington, DC, 1977); Jessica Tuchman Matthews, ‘Redefining Security’, Foreign Affairs, 68 (1989), pp. 162–77; Richard H. Ullman, ‘Redefining Security’, International Security, 8 (1983), pp. 129–53; Joseph J. Romm, Defining National Security (New York, 1993); J. Ann Tickner, ‘Re-visioning Security’, in Ken Booth and Steve Smith (eds.), International Relations Theory Today (Oxford, 1995), pp. 175–97; Ken Booth, ‘Security and Emancipation’, Review of International Studies, 17 (1991), pp. 313–26; Martin Shaw, ‘There Is No Such Thing as Society: Beyond Individualism and Statism in International Security Studies’, Review of International Studies, 19 (1993), pp. 159–75; John Peterson and Hugh Ward, ‘Coalitional Instability and the New Multidimensional Politics of Security: A Rational Choice Argument for US–EU Cooperation’, European Journal of International Relations, 1 (1995), pp. 131–56; ten articles on security and security studies in Arms Control, 13, (1992), pp. 463–544; and Graham Allison and Gregory F. Treverton (eds.), Rethinking America’s Security: Beyond Cold War to New World Order (New York, 1992).



David A. Baldwin

‘Of what is this an instance?’.2 Second, it promotes rational policy analysis by facilitating comparison of one type of security policy with another. And third, it facilitates scholarly communication by establishing common ground between those with disparate views. Perhaps scholars from different schools have more in common than is generally acknowledged.3 In many ways the argument presented here was foreshadowed in the classic essay by Arnold Wolfers entitled ‘ ‘‘National Security’’ as an Ambiguous Symbol’, published more than forty years ago. Contrary to popular belief, Wolfers did not dismiss the concept as meaningless or...
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