‘Postmodernising’ Security
Andreas Behnke
This is a condensed version of the first part of Behnke's paper.
To read the complete paper, with references, please click here.
The program of Critical Security Studies has emerged as a fruitful approach to analysis of international relations (IR)—and Andreas Behnke is one of its finest practitioners.

“Only if the identity authorized from a sovereign position remains undisputed can it remain sovereign. Any attempt to pluralize identities militates against achievement of the highest good. The other would unravel the sovereign’s self-certainty and capacity for collective mobilization if it established its legitimacy. The very mode of being different is a threat, an enemy to sovereignty.”

“In a system in which Universalist claims meet in a pluralist setting, difference is thus driven into enmity. For a state to compromise on its identity would mean its death. To contest a political identity is thus a declaration of war.”

Andreas Behnke is Lecturer in Political Theory at the Department of Politics and IR at the University of Reading.

Book by Andreas Behnke
NATO's Security Discourse after the Cold War: Representing the West

For information on ordering through Amazon, PLEASE CLICK HERE.
This book analyzes how North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) defines the West after the end of the Cold War and the demise of its constitutive ‘Other’, the Soviet Union. The book critiques liberal approaches to security, and examines NATO’s involvement in the War on Terror.
For Schmitt, ‘the concept of the state presupposes the concept of the Political’ (1932/1996). Statehood is a political phenomenon and product, and thus cannot be considered unproblematic. Which leads to the question about the nature of the Political. The answer Schmitt offers is as straightforward as its repercussions complex: ‘the specifically political distinction on which political actions and purposes are based is the distinction between Friend and Enemy’ (1932/1996).

Whereas morals deals in good and evil, aesthetics in beautiful and ugly, economics in costs and benefits, the space of politics is defined by the inclusion/exclusion of social communities. The distinction between Friend and Enemy is moreover independent of the other distinctions,

It can exist theoretically and empirically without referring to all those moral, aesthetic, economic, or other distinctions. The political Enemy does not have to be morally evil, he does not have to be aesthetically displeasing; he does not have to appear as an economic competitor, it might even be advantageous to engage in commerce with him (1932/1996).

At the end of the day, the Enemy is simply the Other, the alien, the outsider which defines the boundaries of ‘our’ community. Statehood is based on the definition and delineation of such community - a state is always a state of or for some community. Within the state politics as a ‘secondary’ or derived concept of the Political can take place: social politics, economic politics, education politics and so on (1932/1996).

Political order, in other words, is based on a violent decision about the distinction between Friend and Enemy, Inside(r) and Outside(r). This decision, moreover is constantly reproduced in even the most mundane of political and administrative routines in as much as these practices involve and apply to the established community.

The Political is thus an inherently agonistic concept, constantly involving explicit or implicit decisions about the line between ‘us’ and them’. ‘To view the state as the settled and orderly administration of territory, concerned with the organisation of its affairs according to law, is to see only the stabilised results of conflict’ (Hirst, 1987).

A number of objections might be raised against Schmitt’s definition of the Political. One might easily reject it as too aggressive and bellicose, or for reducing politics to a conflict to the death between political entities.

In this ‘realist’ reading of Schmitt, we might surmise that states are caught up in an anarchical ‘state of war’, in which the absence of any kind of order pits states against each other in eternal antagonism. One might then point out that peaceful relationships between states are a reality, and that the peaceful nature of these relationships have been institutionalized within, for example, the European Union.

This argument would point out that in some parts of the world the logic of enmity has been transcended, and while states still incorporate different identities, this difference can no longer be described in terms of hostility or conflict.

In a sense, this criticism makes both too much and too little out of Schmitt’s definition of the Political. It makes too much out of it, since the friend-enemy distinction is not supposed to describe the empirical reality of states’ relations. War between states appears as only the ultimate possibility in a broad spectrum of political choices and strategies. It defines a Grenzbedingung, a liminal condition against which international politics has to be conducted, but it does not determine the forms and modes of politics as such.

At the same time, the criticism makes in fact too little of Schmitt’s distinction. Since it operates on the ontological rather than empirical level, it cannot be reduced to an enumeration of political relationships between states. Such relationships already presuppose the distinction between friend and enemy to be made.

Peaceful negotiations between states consequently rest on a prior agreement about the distinction - and on an assumption that this distinction itself remains non-negotiable. Against the ‘realist’ reading, it is important to emphasize that in order to be a constitutive act, the distinguishing between friend and enemy constitutes an agonistic rather than antagonistic relationship.

This distinction is crucial indeed. For Schmitt, the identification of the enemy, of another political entity, involves the recognition of equality between these entities. The other is not a foe, an adversary that has to be conquered, converted, or annihilated.

As an enemy, the other is recognized as an equal, and while war is always a possibility between enemies, this war is always ‘circumscribed’ (eingehegt), regulated, and part of an overall order. As such, the relationship should be considered agonistic, ‘in which each opposes the other (and the other’s presumptive beliefs) while respecting the adversary at another level’ (Connolly, 1991) as an equal.

This formalization of enmity is exactly aimed against the antagonistic relationship of foes with its tendency to total, terminal conflict. In order to be Political, in order to constitute the ‘units of the international system’, the distinction between friend and enemy must establish order rather than chaos.

One might then suggest a re-formulation of the ‘friend-enemy’ distinction into a more neutral ‘identity\difference’ semantic structure, arguing that the individuation and constitution of political spaces can be accomplished by less bellicose mediations. Yet this in turn would, to my mind, underestimate the debt owed by national and trans- national identities to discourses of enmity, danger and threat.

The reason for this is not that we cannot imagine difference in any other way than threatening. Neighbors, colleagues, and co-workers might very well define each other as different, yet without any reference to threat and danger. What is absent from the social spaces and localities they inhabit, however, is what defines and constitutes political space in the international system: sovereignty.

In order to understand the role of authority and power in the negotiation of identity and difference in the international system, we need to recall that the drawing of the boundaries between inside and outside, and thus the establishment of a political space can never be referred to any anterior feature of nature or history. It is ultimately a contingent, indeed arbitrary act, never born out of necessity.

If identities are always the product of ultimately arbitrary choices, they can be contested, denied and rejected. Alternative modes of identities, alternative framing of spaces can be offered, denying the truth claim by any one authorized version. Yet to the sovereign gaze, this contest of identities is unacceptable.

For only if the identity authorized from a sovereign position remains undisputed can it remain sovereign. Any ‘attempt to pluralize and politicize identities militates against achievement of the highest good’ (Connolly, 1991). In order for the sovereign position to ‘secure itself as intrinsically good, coherent, complete or rational and in order to protect itself from the other that would unravel its self-certainty and capacity for collective mobilization if it established its legitimacy’, the very mode of being different is a threat, an enemy to sovereignty (Connolly, 1991).

In a system in which Universalist claims meet in a pluralist setting, in which absolute claims are decided by the relativity of power, difference is thus driven into enmity. For a state to compromise on its identity would mean its death. To contest a political identity is thus a declaration of war.

Schmitt’s definition of the Political and its intrinsic relationship with sovereignty thus describes an inherent tension in the international system between the plurality of political orders and the universality of their respective truth-claims.

What should become clear from the above is that ‘Security’ is more than a goal or a ‘policy’ of pre-established states versus pre-established threats. ‘Security’ is, first of all about the very designation and delineation of the state and, therefore, its enemies.

‘Security’, in other words, produces the state as an institutionalized community in opposition to other states. Security politics are thus not simply about the protection of ontologically unproblematic entities, rather, we should think of them as the reiterative performance of statehood (Weber, 1998).

Secondly, we can begin to understand the particular modernist ‘ontotheology’ that is effective in the script for this performance. In James Der Derian’s words,

We have inherited an ontotheology of security, that is, an a priori argument that proves the existence and necessity of only one form of security because there currently happens to be a widespread, metaphysical belief in it’ (Der Derian, 1995).

Der Derian continues by tracing this ontotheology to a central commitment within Western philosophy - the notion of a ‘centre’ as a ‘site from which the forces of authority, order, and identity philosophically defined and physically kept at bay anarchy, chaos, and difference’ (1995).

Within modern Western political theory, sovereignty has been the central concept through which this centre is established and recognised. Schmitt’s deliberations about the concept of the Political are topical here because they allow is to appreciate the internal relationships between security, sovereignty, and the state.

Firstly, as noted above, ‘security’ as the set of practices that mediates between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ becomes constitutive and performative in the production of statehood. Moreover, in modern political theory, this distinction is the very one that is established by, and establishes, sovereignty. In Schmitt’s words, ‘sovereign is he who decides on the exception.

Only this definition can do justice to sovereignty as a liminal concept (Grenzbegriff)’ (Schmitt, 1996 [1922]. The political decision itself cannot be politicized, that is, it cannot be negotiated and made subject to the play of power and interest. Politics has to accept this decision as a constitutive truth. It can only enact and reproduce it. Sovereignty thus bestows a shell-like nature to statehood: within we find those who belong in this place, outside we find those who cannot be allowed in.

Outsiders on the inside are consequently guests at best, Gastarbeiter perhaps, or strangers whose status is by definition tenuous and contingent. They are ‘displaced’ persons, dwelling outside their designated areas, undermining the Political decision upon which sovereignty rests (Bauman, 1991).

As outsiders, they cannot be part of ‘our’ community, yet as insiders, as participants in our lives, they do not pose the existential threat to our being that we find beyond our political and conceptual borders. Modern security politics are predicated upon the possibility of drawing the line between inside and outside, friend and enemy in an unambiguous fashion.

Or, perhaps more to the point, they authorize the policing of this line in order to eradicate any ambivalence that the decision about friend and enemy might engender. As such, they are part and parcel of the modern political project. As Bauman writes, ‘the typical modern practice, the substance of modern politics, of modern intellect, of modern life, is the effort to exterminate ambivalence’ (Bauman, 1991).

Consequently, the inside, the community of ‘friends’ in Schmitt’s terms, has to be made homogenous and secured in this fashion, so as not to allow the outside, the enemy, Otherness, to disintegrate it. ‘The political unity must, if necessary, demand the sacrifice of life’ [1932]).

So much for the modern conceptions of security, the Political, and statehood. If the above sounds somewhat overdrawn and hyperbolized, this indicates, I would argue, that our Lebenswelt increasingly reflects the inadequacy and problematic nature of traditional Western security ontotheology. Strangers are all around us, transversal flows of people, commodities, information and services abound, globalization is transcending political and conceptual boundaries. The world, in other words, has become a ‘strange’ place, with elements from different cultures and settings available in most parts of it.

Yet this does not mean that the modern ontotheology of security has vanished. Quite to the contrary I would contend that most of contemporary national and international security policies are still based on such a desire for a stable centre, that in other words the current prevalence of ambiguity causes a fundamental problem for Western strategic imagination.

As a number of critical studies of security political discourses have demonstrated, security is still understood as the preservation and stabilization of boundaries and identities through the identification of Otherness as (external) threat and danger.

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