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Thursday, 5 March 2009

Critical security studies (CSS)

The fall of Iraq in 2003

By: Ahmad Syah Ejaz Bin Hj. Ismail 


      The study of the security studies had been a focal point for policy makers in formulating a comprehensive securities issues pertaining to an individual daily life especially in this post-Cold War period. The questions about security often arises in the three main questions which are 1) what is real? 2) what can we know? and 3) how might we act? In facing the new unconventional threats that can jeopardize not only the physical aspects of our life but also the intangibles criteria which we begin to define as a security issues. 

      Over the years students have been led where the ‘conventional convictions’ of their teachers took them, and this has meant that security became identified as essentially as a military terrain1. However the study of the security issues had became much more complex issues whereas it had been a critical study that deals with such topic less than seriously. Even though the security study has been one of those common-sense, pre-defined terms in international relations orthodoxy that appear to be unproblematic until examined with a critical eye, beginning with the late 1980s, there has been a swing from theological orthodoxy about security studies to heretical contention, but for the most part proponents of the differing viewpoints have engaged in monologues rather than dialogue. 

      This can be seen in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States where the differences between the camps of traditional realism and critical theory grew even more than had previously been the case. The former would advocated the strengthening of conventional security instruments and the borders of states, while as people and governments felt intensified fears (and the political temptation for governments has been to indulge such fears, if not actually exaggerate them, in order to strengthen domestic control). The stark differences between the old traditional convictions and the new critical approach to security studies can be describe as below schedule2.


Traditional realismCritical security studies
  • The strengthening of the conventional security instruments such as military hardware, the integrity of the borders of states
  • People would felt insecure due to external threats and the government would intensified this fears for a political mileage
  • The new modalities that changed the people mindsets
  • Politics of global – business as usual.

Schedule 1: Distinction between traditional realism and Critical security studies 

Definition of security 

      Security is always a relative concept. Absolute security is a dream, or perhaps a nightmare, for absolute freedom from (any) fear is synonymous with absolute freedom from imagination, which is no freedom at all.  

      With the new threats arising due to the collision of politics and sometimes militarily, the contention arising from asking what security is all about. This offers some hope that security will be conceptualized as a challenge to innovative political theory rather than as insider problem-solving, and as philosophy-in-action rather than as strategy as instrumental technique. A reconceptualisation of security is one of the contributions the academic community can make to shaking up the complacency of the globally powerful in these critical times. These developments in the security studies according to Ken Booth had for the first time create an opportunity for the security study to be comprehensively mapped and explored for the first time3. 

      However, there were still difficulties in defining the term security. According to the standard dictionary, the word security means as an absence of threats. According to one of the International Relations scholars, Patrick Morgan, security is defined as a condition like health or status which defies an easy definition and analysis. Booth took an approach to support Patrick Morgan’s views where he stated that security is like health and status. Even though security is difficult to define, security in each case, the starting point should begin in the experiences, imaginings, analyses, and fears of those living with insecurity, ill health, or low status4. 

      What is striking about these definitions ostensibly to show the difficulty of achieving an agreed definition is actually their distinct resemblance. Ken Booth later emphasized that security however can be broken into three main component parts which are:-


    1. the existence of a referent object (someone or something that is threatened);
    2. the impending danger or actual danger; and
    3. the desire of the referent object to escape harmful possibilities.

      Ken Booth later explained that security is a basic concept consists of core elements that are not essentially contested, but when it comes to world politics this core is then encased in layers of meaning that derive from different political theories, and that these are contested according to the ebb and flow of political theories, and the rise and fall of international political systemic paradigms5. In this write up, I would discuss the importance of considering which referent points or object is more précised? (States or individuals?), Which threat to the chosen referent should be prioritized? (Military or economic, short term or long-term?) How might the referent escape from the threats? (By force or negotiation?). Security for sure is a simple concept, not difficult to define, but how it is conceptualized and operationalised in the contingent contexts of world politics is not. 

      Security allows choice, and some choices (the result of security rather than insecurity) may be life-threatening. Elective danger is a privilege of the secure; direct and unavoidable danger is the determining condition of the world’s insecure.  

Broadening and deepening 

      Ronald Paris, writing in International Security, noted that the subject matter of security studies had undergone both broadening and deepening since the end of the Cold War, and then said: ‘By deepening, I mean that the field is now more willing to consider the security of individuals and groups, rather than focusing narrowly on external threats to states6. It should be clear that broadening itself is not a radical move in security policy, whether or not it is depends on the underlying political theory that drives it. 

      Since the late 1980s, broadening has generally been used to refer to the idea of including ‘non-traditional’ security issues on the security agenda (non-military threats). Barry Buzan had identified the issue areas for a broadened security agenda in relation to 7five ‘sectors’, each in identifying ‘specific types of interaction’:


    1. military sector (relationships of forceful coercion);
    2. political sector (relationships of authority, governing status, and recognition);
    3. economic sector (relationships of trade, production, and finance);
    4. societal sector (relationships of collective identity); and
    5. environmental sector (relationships between human activity and the planetary biosphere).

      Buzan later wrote: ‘If a multi-sectoral approach to security was to be fully meaningful, referent objects other than the state had to be allowed into the picture’. The European Security Order Recast: Scenarios for the Post-Cold War Era, in which attention shifted from the state as referent and sovereignty as the value to be secured, to society as the referent and identity as the value to be secured8. At the heart of the matter is the concept of securitisation’, which is best understood as having been a reaction against the perceived danger (arising from broadening the security agenda) that the traditional security mindset (characterized by militarized, conflictual, and zero-sum thinking) will be extended into what hitherto had been regarded as non-military areas by labeling them ‘security’. 

      In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights challenged the 350 or so years of sovereign state dominance. As a result of the relentlessly top-down perspective, what is supposed to be a radical move actually works in the interests of power, because with power goes discourse making potential. Securitisation studies therefore suffer from being elitist9.

      Survival is being alive; security is living. The implication of all this that security cannot be categorized as an essentially a conservative concept. As an instrumental value, security is politically neutral. Security and insecurity are ways of describing the conditions of existence. Security can never be for its own sake; it is always, to recall Robert Cox, ‘for someone and for some purpose.’ 

The relevancy of Clausewitzian 

      Clausewitz’s unfinished and posthumous book, On War (Vom Kriege) is a classic, a reference point for all thinkers about war and politics. His influence in particular situations might be problematic, but today the very relevance of his philosophy of war is under challenge. The Clausewitzian paradigm promises to remain directly relevant to states in the context of self-defense and resource wars.

      However, in the long-term, the instrumentality of such states wars remains in doubt. Kuwait proved to be only the first round of what a decade and a half later appears to be a thirty-year Gulf War, long term ethnic harmony in the Balkans remains problematic, Kosovo’s status and inter-ethnic relations remain precarious, and the Coalition that moved into Afghanistan so successfully in the beginning, to bring about regime change, soon realized, like many invaders through history, that it is much easier to blaze into that inhospitable land with high hopes than to leave it with satisfaction about a job well done10. 

      With global issues having very local consequences (whether from international terrorism or the US global War on Terror), and with the number of civilian and military deaths in war inexorably rising, the space between the former spectators and contemporary violence began to get too close for comfort. Technological advantage can be subverted by the human factor, and history provides ample evidence of the way in which various asymmetrical responses, including terrorism that would enable the weak to employ ‘unconventional’ (though actually rather normal) strategies and tactics against the strong. Consequently, the future is likely to see a steady eclipse of Clausewitz and his ‘direct’ approach to war, and the rising star of the ancient Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, with his ‘indirect approach’11. 

      The combatants in intra-state wars may be rather indeterminate political entities, such as the various paramilitaries, warlords, quasi-armies, and the rest in the Balkan wars in the first half of the 1990. Worse, the modalities of intra-state violence that took place in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and the DRC in the 1990s completely upturned the metaphors of a Clausewitzian game of chess, and replaced it with bloody images of extreme and often gratuitous brutality. 

      Such intra-state struggles will be defined by state collapse, extreme ethnic brutality, elite manipulation, narcissistic identity politics, historical propaganda, naked fear, religious revival, neighbor versus neighbor violence, fluid political entities, and ethnic cleansing which were all in the context of the unequal impact of the global economy and the lack of direct interest on the part of the major international players12. The face of eschatological violence will then look inwards, and the messianic madness of racial, nationalist, religious, or ethnic superiority will slide into the logic of genocide and insecurity. 

Human security 

      United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), proposed a shift in the focus of security away from the threat of a superpower ‘cataclysmic world event’. In 1994 UNDP identified four essential characteristics of human security where its issues are people-centred. In the subsequent decade, the UN Commission on Human Security chaired by Sadako Ogata and Amrtya Sen declared in the Human Security Now: ‘The international community urgently needs a new paradigm of security. The states would remain the fundamental purveyor of security. Yet it often fails to fulfill its security obligations – and at times has even become a source of threat to its own people’13. That is why attention must now shift from the security of the state to the security of the people – to human security. 

      According to Caroline Thomas, human security is a condition in which ‘basic human needs are met, and in which human dignity, including meaningful participation in the life of the community can be realized’14. This new concept represent a new paradigm for thinking about security, focusing on the threats in ‘daily life’ that dominate most people’s existence (food, crime, and so on); it shifts focus to ‘human’ rather than ‘state’ referents; it underlines ways in which security and insecurity are interlinked across the world; it might help stimulate the minority (rich) world to feel a greater sense of responsibility for the immiseration of the majority (poor) world15. 

      What is true of states and nations is also true of individuals and families. Just as a condition of war determines the behavior of states, so poverty determines the lives of individuals and families. Individual human beings should be regarded as the ultimate referent for a theory and practice of politics (including security) because, as the irreducible units of human society, they are both the start of agency and the litmus test of the health of society16. 

      Like health and status, security is a condition that is not difficult to define; in each case, the starting point should begin in the experiences, imaginings, analysis, and fears of those living within security, ill-health, or low status. 


      The ‘security dilemma’ is the idea that irresolvable uncertainties arising out of the ‘other minds problem’, and the ambiguous symbolism of weaponry, tends to produce strategic competition between states (and also ethnic groups under conditions of emerging anarchy). 

      Specific security threats to these referents include: the erosion of local cultures and economies, the spread of pandemics, the growth of radicalization and terrorism, human rights abuses, political disempowerment, environmental degradation, and economic downturns or collapses interacting with ethnic and other insecurities. A law-governed world is one of the conditions for world security. Among those whose interests it serves are states and groups of states that are presently dominant but may not be in future.  

      The concept of world security is more encompassing than the notion of international security. It includes a more extensive range of referents, above and below the state level, and wider range of possible threats and risks. World security refers to the structures and processes within human society, locally and globally, that work towards the reduction of the threats and risks that determine individual and group lives. The greater the level of security enjoyed, the more individual and groups (including human society as a whole) can have an existence beyond the instinctual animal struggle merely to survive. The idea of world security is synonymous with the freedom of individuals and groups’ compatible with the reasonable freedom of others, and universal moral equality compatible with justifiable pragmatic inequalities. 


    1. Ken Booth, Theory of World Security, Cambridge Studies in International Relations, 2007;
    2. Barry Buzan, Peoples, States and Fear, Harvester-Wheatshef, 1991;
    3. Caroline Thomas, Globalization, Thomas-Wilkins, 2001;
    4. Barry Buzan, Morten Kelstrup, Pierre Lemaitre, Elzbieta Tromer, and Ole Waever, The European Security Order Recast: Scenarios for the Post-Cold War Era, London: Pinter, 1990; and
    5. Roland Paris, Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air? International Security, 2001.

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