Problematising the concept of security has recently become a cottage industry for international relations scholars and experts in public policy. While there is no dearth of literature on security relationships between states, the concept itself has been relatively invisible in the theoretical debates.
Most intellectual efforts, however, are concerned with redefining and broadening the scope of security, and making it contemporary. It is frequently argued that a nation’s security is no longer only about protecting the territory by military might; it encompasses all aspects of modern existence. Liberal scholars contend that the general conception of security is still limited in scope, emphasising the need to develop a distinctive notion of security that goes beyond military objectives and instruments.
Many other state-centrist scholars also believe that high priority should be given to such issues as the economics of power, human rights, and transnational organized crime, in addition to the traditional external defence approaches. The demise of the Soviet Union for the first time demonstrated the importance of economic forces in shaping power relations. The emergence of non-state military actors on the world stage during the early 1990s further underlined the need to offer a broader framework of security.
Yet, security remained an essentially ‘contested concept’ because it was treated as a constant variable by the majority of IR scholars. David A Baldwin, a senior political scientist, believed that the concept of security is so broad that it can be used at any level. On the other hand, leading realist scholars like Stephen M Walt continued to emphasise military capabilities as the most important element of state power.
Over the past decade, the debate has moved on but there is still some ambiguity as to the conceptual meanings of security. In the post-9/11 period, experts have conceptualised ‘comprehensive security’ as a broader approach towards understanding the security environment, which includes all aforementioned dimensions of global security.
The term ‘comprehensive security’ was first coined in academic circles in Western Europe in the early 1980s, but the concept gained currency in the post-9/11 era. Within policymaking circles, the doctrine of comprehensive security emerged as an alternative to the concept of national security and defined security threats in terms of their various levels, for example domestic, bilateral, regional and global.
This attempt to redefine security marked a significant shift away from nation states to non-state actors as the unit of analysis. As a consequence, human security emerged as a dominant paradigm that contributes to our understanding of global governance. Western scholars have produced vast academic literature on this subject but in Pakistan, the idea of human security has largely been ignored because there are very few scholars who have expertise in the field.
There are three main questions revolving around the concept of comprehensive security. The first question refers to the main referent object of security – whose security should be guaranteed. In the Westphalian model of international politics, the principal referent object of security was ‘states’. But, in the views of liberal scholars, modern developments seem to have put a serious question mark on the relevance of states.
The second question concerns the sources of threat. That is, what are the existing and emerging threats to international security? Keith Krause and Michael C Williams argue that security can be fully guaranteed only if it includes a comprehensive range of new non-military soft security threats.
The third question relates to the different tools available to face the threat. Here some theorists argue that geo-economics has surpassed geopolitics as the most active factor in international politics. A number of post-cold war era developments like economic globalisation and technological revolutions have swept geopolitics into the dustbin of history. Thus economic forces determine political choices and the structure of the international system.
However, there is an alternative view that both geo-economics and geopolitics do not reflect the dynamics of international institutions and of interstate politics in a world dominated by conflicts based on religion and ethnicity. In the early 1990s, an American sociologist and historical social scientist, Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein used the term ‘geo-culture’ to highlight the role of cultural cleavages in the transformation of conflict dynamics.
Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the ‘clash of civilizations’ further elaborated on this point that the political and ideological confrontations between the West and the East have been replaced by religious and cultural disputes among civilisations in the post-cold war era.
Huntington observed, “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in the new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural… The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” He predicted that the next major conflict in the world would involve the Islamic civilisation and China on one side and the Western civilisation on the other.
Despite the great impact of Huntington’s thesis, IR scholars have left the race-culture variable out of the security equation. In addition, the new framework of ‘comprehensive security’ does not address the social aspects of security and how leaders or states construct threats. This inability to agree on a definition based on academic consensus has allowed governments to use it as a smokescreen behind which the hawks are expanding defence spending. On the other hand, it is also seen as a step towards lower defence expenditures and greater emphasis on diplomatic and economic instruments.
The only contribution to the literature over the past two decades is that security is being understood within the larger framework that goes beyond the traditional realist state-centric and military domain. However, the definition of ‘comprehensive security’ is still marked by a certain degree of ambiguity and lacks a precise definition.
Security will remain a ‘weakly conceptualised’ subject unless we recognise that the concept of security has become much more complex and multifaceted than we understand.