Security possesses a significant place in the discipline of International Relations. Scholars have spared undue time and energy in conceptualizing and operationalizing the security. No other concept is highly debated than this one. But, it is still a largely contested and controversial term. There is no universal consensus on what constitutes the security, what threatens it, how it can be achieved and who can guarantee it.
Generally, security can be defined as an absence of threat to deeply-held and cherished values, beliefs, practices and ways of life. But the world is divided into various nationalities, ethnicities, religions and races. Values and practices vary from state to state and person to person. Attempts to preserve values of one community can leave other communities insecure. Security for one might be insecurity for others. Therefore, it is impossible to enlist the exact cherished values.
Nevertheless, theories of International Relations (IR) can be helpful in making sense of such a controversial concept. Realism — a dominating theory in IR — holds a narrow view of security and regards state as a referent object. For realists, states live under constant threat due to anarchy – absence of central authority in international arena. Anarchy creates an unsafe environment due to which states cannot trust any other actor for its security. States need to act on their own for survival. Balance of power and military buildup are prudent ways to enhance security.
On the other side, liberalism doesn’t agree with the assertion that state is the only supreme referent object. It argues that state is a mean to ensure security and prosperity of human beings. Therefore, not balance of power but international organizations, free market economy and economic interdependence are the ways to guarantee security of not only individual but also of international order. Marxism takes a very different position about security and criticises both theories. It believes that an individual needs many things other than mere security. Social justice is the most cherished among those. Liberalists-supported capitalism has established an unjust, class-based society wherein minority bourgeoisie rules over and exploits majority proletariats. Emancipation is the only way to attain security. That emancipation will be achieved by establishment of a classless society through the forceful overthrow of capitalism.
Feminism as a theory of IR brings an interesting twist in the concept of security. It emphasises that security is infused with the male-dominated gender assumptions. Feminists outrightly reject realism and claim that traditional theories have failed to express women’s concerns irrespective of the fact that it is the women who suffer the most during conflict and war. Cynthia Enloe, a prominent scholar of feminism, questions traditional theories about suggesting and advocating the military solution which brings suffering, pain and agony in the lives of more than half of the world’s population. She claims that by giving preference to state as a unitary actor, traditional theories actually produce such mindset that sets state against state. Therefore, feminists promote the idea of integrating women into socioeconomic and political fabric of international order. They believe this is the efficient way to ensure inclusive security.
For critical security studies, as Ken Booth famously claimed, security is what elite make of it. Scholars belonging to this camp are outspoken of elite class of every society. They reject the idea of considering state a sacred and supreme entity whose existence is more important. Instead, they blame state as harbinger of insecurity because such an idea divides humanity into ‘we’ vs. ‘they’ and ‘foreign’ vs. ‘domestic’. Besides, they also discard the military means to achieve security and prefer emancipation of an individual from physical and human constraints. According to Ken Booth, “War and threat of war is one of those constraints, together with poverty, poor education, political oppression, and so on.”
Finally, post-structuralism and constructivism do not directly explain the concept of security. Promise of both theories is to discover and unearth the ways adopted by stakeholders to exploit security as a trump card to serve elite interests. Post-structuralism believes that security is a speech act. Insecurity is discursively constructed. Leaders use language intelligently to artificially construct fears for seeking justification for their security policies. There are no brutal facts but competing positions when it comes to security issues. For instance, health issues take more lives than any other issue. In America, for instance, even lightening has taken more lives than terrorism took. But, if one conducts a survey to ask the greatest threat to human lives, obviously majority of the people would opt for terrorism and extremism. Why is it so? Post-structuralism answers that leaders make people to feel threatened more by this issue. Leaders construct a narrative of fear through various discursive juxtapositions. With the passage of time, that narrative becomes internalized, institutionalized and internationalized through media. Once that narrative is institutionalized, it appears insane to reject what leaders have been saying. Same is the case with a state labelled as a referent object by traditional theories. Leaders bring emotional element and instigate feelings of patriotism to justify their misadventures abroad. Resultantly, masses regard state as a supreme and sacred entity. They become ready to give or even take lives on the basis of discursively constructed nationalism.
Explanation of social constructivism is not much different than that of post-structuralism. But its focus is more upon ideas, norms, values and cultures. Constructivism argues that ideas, norms and values play critical role in determining the security threats. And those ideas and norms are socially constructed. For instance, the United States and Britain talk a lot about special relationship between them. This idea has been constructed by the leaders of both countries. But there was a time when both were arch-enemies. American founding fathers called it an imperial state and accused it of violating even fundamental human rights. Monroe Doctrine was specifically referred to such imperial powers. This shows that ideas may determine the friends and enemies. As ideas can repeatedly be constructed and deconstructed, enemies and friends can change with the change in ideas. Same is the case with Pakistan. Pakistan brings in an element of religion when it comes to its relations with India. Its foreign policy toward the eastern neighbour revolves around the constructed religious discourse. But when it comes to China, religion is nowhere. Pakistan has constructed a narrative of geopolitics to justify its deep ties with China which doesn’t follow any religion and even denies fundamental rights to Muslims living in Xinjiang province.
In essence, security means differently to different people. Theories mentioned above are the tools to make sense of such a contested and complicated concept. It may be arguable, but it’s better to conclude with the observation that human-centric approach is promising to make sense of security in the twenty-first century. Nation state system was introduced to mitigate the sufferings of humanity and to save it from the scourge of war. Unfortunately, people are dying, wars are rampant and humanity is still suffering in the name of same nation state system. Hardcore military power has been used ostensibly to keep humanity safe from the menace of terrorism. Sorrowfully, that hard power is causing the loss of millions of innocent lives. It has been more than one and a half decade since global war on terrorism started, but even today there is more terrorism than any time in the history. The reason behind this is, definitely, quite clear that we have misunderstood the concept of security. The world is still debating about the referent object of security. It is still not sure to save and secure whom; humans, states or governments? For Bashar al-Assad, his rule is more important. For Russia, its ego and for America, it is its so-called political ideals. But where is the value of human life?