Re-thinking (in)security discourses from a critical perspective
Josefina Echavarría Alvarez
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Library of Social Science advocates and promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the sources and meanings of collective forms of violence. Recently, the program of Critical Security Studies has come into its own. As a way of introducing this way of conceptualizing international relations, we present this insightful paper.

“Presenting dangers to the population by means of its authorizing role, the state offers itself as the solution to deal with them. This way, representations of danger turn into a tool to maintain the state’s legitimacy and justify its existence. Security discourses can be considered an integral part of the state’s construction of its own identity—the state’s constant reproduction of danger rather than as the state’s response to danger.”

Josefina Echavarría Alvarez, PhD is a Colombian peace researcher based at the UNESCO Chair and MA Program for Peace Studies at the University of Innsbruck.

Book by Josefina Echavarria Alvarez
In/security in Colombia: Writing Political identities in the Democratic Security Policy

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In/security in Colombia offers an innovative application of a theoretical framework on the performative character of security discourses. This wide-reaching study will benefit students, scholars and policy-makers in the fields of security, peace and conflict, and Latin American issues.
Defining security: Barry Buzan (1991/2008) argues that security is a contested concept for which all definitions do a disservice “by giving the concept an appearance of firmness which it does not merit”. Nevertheless, Buzan gives his own definition of security as “the pursuit of freedom from threat,” and with it established the frame within which the main discussion about security has taken place in IR.

In clarifying his concept of security, Buzan categorizes its attributes. First, the author conceptualizes security as “the ability of states and societies to maintain their independent identity and their functional integrity”.

Secondly, security is circumscribed with primarily “the fate of human collectivities, and only secondarily about the personal security of individual human beings”, which means that “the standard unit of security is thus the sovereign territorial state”.

Even though the ideal type of the state is problematized, Buzan insists in conceiving the Nation-State as the main referent of security. In other words, the Nation-State is the main object to be secured and it is, simultaneously, the main provider of security.

The State of Nature: For Buzan, the state of nature image serves as the explanation for the impossibility of total security. Unbearable chaos becomes the motive for sacrificing some freedom in order to improve levels of security, and in this process, government and the state are born.

In the words of Hobbes, people found states in order to ‘defend them from the invasion of foreigners and the injuries of one another’. The state becomes the mechanism by which people seek to achieve adequate levels of security against social threats—‘the most important distinguishing mark of our modern Western civilization’ (Buzan, 1991).

The sovereign State: Sovereignty is the condition that allows the state to perform its security tasks; however, the sovereignty of the state rests on a higher assumption, that of the state itself:

The state exists, or has its essence, primarily on the socio-political rather than on the physical plane. In some important senses, the state is more an idea held in common by a group of people, than it is a physical organism. If the heart of the state resides in the idea of it held in the minds of the population, then that idea itself becomes a major object of national security (Buzan).

Since the state is mainly an idea, the primary security task of the state has to be securing this idea in itself. In this sense, the state as a natural entity, born out of an anarchic international system seems to start losing validity, and turns into a fabrication.

Threats and vulnerabilities: The state, though it had been problematized as an idea in need of constant reinforcement, is assumed to be a natural entity, with a body that separates its inside from the outside in a clear manner.

The measurement of threats has to be carried out by experts, who are able to evaluate “a host of complex factors” in the international arena. These national security experts might be eager to identify threats since

one might even argue that states need to be threatened. If no threats existed, part of the state’s basic Hobbesian function would disappear. Given the mutually constituting character of states and the international system, this logic points either to an anarchic utopia, or to the collapse of government and the rise of civil disorder (Buzan, 1991).

If state security enters in contradiction with individual security, the state solves it by inclining its decisions and actions towards defending the higher good, meaning, towards prioritizing national security over individual security. To accomplish this function, security experts (generally state officials) have to be alert in identifying dangers, for if dangers take over the state, civil disorder will reign and the modern state will end.

Therefore we are faced with a contradiction: without threats there is no security, insecurity is the condition for the state to be born. Contrary to the common explanation of security policies, it is insecurity, threats and vulnerabilities which form the constituting element of security itself. Without insecurity, security cannot exist.

Security, therefore, has to remain a promise or, in Buzan’s words, “total security is not possible”, but not because threats are endless but, quite on the contrary, because achieving security would imply the termination of the state.

What if the state of nature, as conceptualized by Hobbes and then constantly invoked as the reason for the existence of the modern state and as justification for security, was interpreted in another way? What if there were other options for conceptualizing the world, the state and the individual? What if these entities could not be clearly separated anymore? What if the process of constitution of threats and the identities of the state and the individual were mutual?

State discourses on security: State security policies and discourses define what a threat is and what is not; who is an insider and who is an outsider. In this process security discourses create identity categories, such as Us and Them, which “are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary” (Butler, 1995). By defining which actions can be carried out in the name of the state and which others defy the very idea of the state, security policies recreate the interests and the attributes of the state itself.

Naming Danger: In any society, the amount of dangers that exists is infinite; David Campbell (1998) argues that “indeed, there is such an abundance of risk that it is impossible to objectively know all that threatens us”. So, for any security policy to describe the dangers that actually threaten Us there has to be a necessary interpretative task involved.

If the first purpose of a security discourse is to represent dangers, then what is achieved through this representation? Which consequences does the securitization of an issue, group of people, or any other threat, have on the constitution of identity?

Discourses of danger are always inextricably related to discourses of the state, they tell us about the uncertainty and ambiguity of the world and the threats that it poses to man; however, simultaneously they offer the state as the appropriate solution to deal with this uncertainty. In a way, representations of danger are imbedded in representations of safety.

The state presents those dangers to the population and, by means of the state’s authorizing role, it offers itself as the solution to deal with them (Campbell, 1998). This way, representations of danger turn into a necessary tool of the state to maintain its legitimacy and justify its own existence.

This is one of the reasons why security discourses can be considered as integral part of the state’s discourse on the construction of its own identity. Security discourses might be understood as the state’s constant reproduction of danger rather than as the state’s response to danger.

And here we find again the same picturing of the state of nature as the legitimation for state existence and guarding role but now it is put under scrutiny.

The state of nature is shock therapy. It helps subjects to get their priorities straight by teaching them what life would be like without sovereignty. It domesticates by eliciting the vicarious of fear of violent death in those who have not had to confront it directly. The fear of death pulls the self together. It induces subjects to accept civil society and it becomes an instrumentality of sovereign control in a civil society already installed (Connolly quoted in Campbell, 1998).

Security discourses portray certain dangers as threatening the We inside the state borders, telling Us what we are not, what we have to fear, and what the state should defend us from. In this sense, the constitution of both identities, of state and people, the inner and outer, or Us and Them might emerge at the same time (Campbell, 1998).

The state as edifice implies that this territorial “boundary is clear-cut, unambiguous, nonoverlapping and defined” (Chilton, 1996), and that the membership to the sovereign state must be exclusive. Additionally, this edifice entails stability and permanence since it secures the people inside, implying the protection and safety by means of exclusion.

Thus, whenever the sovereign state fails to resemble an interior ordered realm, its borders to the outside separating the inside from the chaotic and dangerous world, the state would lose its validity. Without borders, the state cannot function. Borders are the very walls of the edifice which separate the inside from the outside and justify the state’s existence.

Furthermore, when any security discourse establishes which events and actors, what and whom we should fear it necessarily establishes the Other, the outside and the to be feared at the same time that it establishes the domestic, the safe and ordered.

Security discourses would be “a specific sort of boundary producing political performance”, part of the practices of the state which serve as “an art of domesticating the meaning of man by constructing his problems, his dangers, his fears” (Campbell, 1998). And, simultaneously, man’s loves too:

For security is a package which tells you what you are as it tells you what to die for; which tells you what to love as it tells you what to defend (dulce et decorum est pro patria mori); and which tells you what is right as it tells you what is wrong.

It is in this sense that security discourses, as part of the official culture, provide definitions of patriotism, loyalty, boundaries and belonging.

But the relation between the inside and the outside is much more complex than what representations of danger illustrate. For the state to be able to exclude the Other from within and to protect the inside from the outside, the traces of their connectedness have to be erased from representation. This erasure gives the state an appearance of coherence and, at the same time, totalizes the idea of the other.

The impossibility of in/security: In this light, the questions about security policy should be posed in an active voice, not taking for granted what security is, but problematizing it and questioning its supposedly foundation:

Security does not reflect what a ‘people’ are, and seek to protect it. Rather, it discloses how, in tragic denials of the (in)security of mortal life, people – and a ‘people’ – are actually formed by attempts to extirpate the ‘foreign, strange, uncanny [and] outlandish’ which inevitable constitute their very own free [(in)secure] mortal existence (Dillon, 1996).

The author partly bases his claim via analyzing the word security, which “discloses that insecurity is always already folded into security, that it is impossible to have one without the other”. The re-presentation of security as being secured “proposes that there is a state of affairs – insecurity – and the negation of that state – security – and by doing so thoroughly represses the complexity not only of the act of securing but also of the inextricable relation between security and insecurity”.

In this line of argument, the impossible promise of (in) security would not be a paradox, but its own dynamic. In the case of state security discourses, it is then the unfeasibility of (in) security which, together with the state’s performative identity, makes possible the state’s own permanent reproduction as sovereign.

Should the state project of security be successful in the terms in which it is articulated, the state would cease to exist. Security as the absence of movement would result in death via stasis. Ironically, then, the inability of the state project of security to succeed is the guarantor of the state’s continued success as an impelling identity (Campbell, 1998:12).

— Richard A. Koenigsberg, PhD. (718) 393-1081
— Orion Anderson (718) 393-1104