Security and

Bruno Oliveira Martins suggests certain interpretations
of security are growing obsolete in a fast-moving world.
What you do or do not consider a question of 'security' depends on many factors: geopolitical position, mobility, power, ideology, cultural traditions and more.

But what exactly is security, who decides what counts as a security issue, and what does it take for people to feel secure when everything changes so fast?
Bruno Oliveira Martins, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), specializes in technology, security and, he emphasizes, the ways we think or talk about security.

The distinction between the latter two is important, and that's precisely what we're going to be talking about today.

Bruno prefaces the seminar by saying that we're here not only to learn new facts, but also to learn how to look at the facts differently and so, hopefully, pick up on patterns that might not have been immediately obvious.

He starts by laying out some of the basic assumptions we'll be working through today. First, ideas about security (along with what is or isn't considered a security issue) change over time and across regions. Second, knowledge influences the way we think about security, especially with how we know things, what we ignore and whether or not there's any kind of knowledge transparency. Third, there are types of knowledge that we as citizens have or don't have when it comes to the security practices that can govern our lives.

A tool that helps us process these issues is what he calls reflexive knowing, which means an awareness of what our critical (or uncritical) position is towards a specific piece of knowledge. Again, for him it's important not only to be aware of certain goings-on, but to know how we orient ourselves towards them.

The idea of security is a slippery thing – often 'security issues' are discussed in terms of armies, geopolitics and more traditional ideas of war. But we're seeing more instances of how knowledge, especially speaking about who has or doesn't have it, or of who manipulates it and why, also impacts how secure people feel regularly.

These knowledge structures are known as massive information architectures, and it's been completely changing the field and has researchers, think tanks and policy makers scrambling to adapt to a new world. The old cliche that knowledge is power is becoming a reality, especially in the context of hybrid and information war.

Another thing that makes it more difficult to talk about security in a broad sense is how people frame the subject in different ways. If speaking about Europe, for example (Bruno will later give us a separate seminar about the EU and security), are we talking about the EU, or the continent? Are we talking about how secure EU citizens feel, or how secure EU policies make other countries feel? Are migrants, for example, a group to protect or be protected against? How you answer these questions decides what processes you emphasize, and what literature you engage with as a researcher.

For Bruno, though, one of the most important things we can do first is problematize conventional ideas of what security is. And who it serves.

Problematizing Security

The first way some people try to problematize the idea of security is working with our definition of the word. Do we have a definition that deals with armies, borders, sovereignty and all that, or do we work with one that treats security as a state of mind, as something that's experienced on the level of the individual? And what do you gain or lose by toggling between definitions like these?

It's also hard to have discussions when people have very different understandings of what security is. Some of our most basic research assumptions can be challenged by each other, by people who think about fundamental things in fundamentally different ways. For one person, thinking about mental health as a security issue is absolutely important. For another, that might be seen as a first world problem, especially in light of threats they consider more relevant (war, disease, poverty, etc). Everything is context-dependent.

All this is to say we shouldn't assume we're on the same page when it comes to security. We can try to get a better idea of someone's framework, though, by asking questions like these:
What is security?
Whose security is relevant here?
What counts as a security issue?
How can security be achieved?
Along with these, the question of who gets to decide what is or isn't a security issue, as well as how can a question be changed from a non-security to a security issue also provide insight into how a person sees the world, who needs to be protected, and who has enough power to answer these questions.

But studying these questions is difficult because the world changes fast, and different actors (even within one alliance) can have differing approaches to defense and security priorities. The stakes can get even higher with the security dilemma: the actions that one actor takes to make itself more secure can have the effect of making other actors feel less secure. Think of how war exercises or arming yourself with nuclear weapons can make a country's neighbours feel nervous. These affected actors can then increase their own security measures, which risks setting off the same chain of events again.

This is very much connected to the fourth question listed above: how can security be achieved? Does it always have to come at a cost? When should we care if our security creates consequences for someone else?

Another factor complicating the security question is securitization, which is the process of changing a previously-neutral issue into a matter of local, regional or national security. Disease, for example, might not normally be a security matter, but crises prompted by viruses like AIDS or, later, COVID-19 can easily change that.

Some researchers, academics, practitioners or activists take issue with how certain governments securitize certain phenomena and why. In 2012, an article called The Terrorism Delusion came out that challenged the way the American government has securitized terrorism. The authors of the article proposed that terrorism might not be the fundamental threat to the American state that official bodies claim it is.

They problematized the issue by providing numbers showing how, other than in 2001, more American citizens die from childbirth or domestic accidents than from terrorism. Which has led some to wonder: wouldn't it make us more secure to improve health care or domestic conditions or to lift people out of poverty than, say, ban entry to people from Yemen?

This kind of thinking led to the idea that American response to terrorism (particularly the War on Terror and the ensuing invasions of countries in the Middle East and Central Asia) were out of proportion to the actual level threat – which in turn led to questions of whether or not there are alterior motives for interventions like these. Oil, for example, or other foreign policy interests.

Researchers like Bruno remind us that whenever we think of security in terms of threats to our safety, we have to think about how actors propose to achieve security. And that we can be critical of how our attempts to produce security can impact everything else, or what the use of words like 'security' can conceal.

All this is covered by the field known as security studies, which has changed immensely over the last sixty or seventy years. Bruno recommends the book The Evolution of International Security Studies as a good way to brush up on that history and to ground our understanding of security in how we perceive it differently depending on the international, political, cultural or economic context we find ourselves in.

To give a brief history, the field began between the two World Wars but really picked up steam during the Cold War. This was the era of what's now called traditional security studies (TSS).

Traditional Security Studies

In the Cold War, perhaps the biggest issue that worried security researchers was the very real possibility of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction (MAD). This threat eventually subsided, but for a good few decades it was a major motivator when it came to foreign policy.

So, if you're worried about this as an academic, where should your research start?

For many, one of the first major priorities was understanding how deterrents work. Deterrents are strategies that lead one state to exert influence on an opponent in order to prevent an attack on itself. The ability to use a nuclear warhead against someone was a powerful deterrent against them using one on you.

That often meant focusing on the state as an actor, as compared to individuals, regions or transnational groups. This makes sense if you're thinking about nuclear war, as it was states that had the power to use them against other states. Looking at geopolitics as a competition between states is known in political science as realism, and this emphasized national diplomacy, borders, proxy wars, espionage and the like. These issues became the prime focus of TSS.

Alliances were also seen by realists as a powerful tool to ensure one's security. As a researcher, the resulting question would be what kind of combination of states can come together to balance the power of other states/alliances that pose an existential threat to you.

The politics of nuclear proliferation were also intensely studied, particularly with what happens when a new state acquires atomic weaponry, and how that affects their security and the security of others.

The Cold War is sometimes seen as a 'golden era' of security studies because things were well-defined and the game had a set of rules that most actors, generally speaking, followed. You have your army, your nuclear deterrents, your borders, your spies, and all these tools help you come out on top in the ever-changing balance of power.

But, as we know, the Cold War came to an end. Previous alliances began to lose their relevance, and an increasing number of game-changing events (9/11, the annexation of Crimea) have led many to challenge their preconceptions of what security is and how we go about obtaining it.

This meant that, for many, the traditional way of looking at geopolitics wasn't enough.

Critical Security Studies

In 1984, a man named Barry Buzan wrote a book called People, States and Fear. This was one of the earliest, popular examples of critical security studies (CSS), which tries to expand the idea of security beyond the typical interests of political realists.

Part of this meant challenging the notion that the state is the primary actor or beneficiary of security or defense. For Buzan, the individual was also an important unit, as were transnational groups like terrorists, diasporas, proxies or patron states. This meant expanding security studies to include political, economic, society and environmental security. In this new world, the argument goes, the military alone can't be the only factor in making us feel safe.

In the West, and particularly in America, the classic, primary threat to security in the second half of the twentieth century was what the Soviets were capable of doing. But that doesn't always take into account the experience of people living far under the poverty line: if you don't know if you're going to eat soon, the issue of political or military security becomes irrelevant. There are other things that affect your security far more.

Different issues were appearing that couldn't be dealt with as things had been over the past decades. Someone on an island near New Zealand applied for asylum status on the grounds of environmental security, for example. Their island was disappearing.

The same goes for people living close to Fukoshima or Chernobyl, both of which suffered major nuclear accidents. Questions of health, social and environmental security become fiercely immediate.

Many of these new questions of security also have to do with access: how available are food, water and natural resources?

All of the above examples (and many more) affect people's felt sense of security, and many CSS researchers felt that we needed to expand our understanding of safety to include all these diverse needs. If TSS realists focused on the state, CSS proponents take the individual as their base unit.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and the ensuing lack of a major threat to Western alliances like NATO, there was more support to researchers and policy makers to start dealing with new items on the security agenda. With this, CSS started taking off as a field for wide study. The book Critical Security Studies: An Introduction (by Peoples and Vaughan-Williams) is a good start for anyone looking to catch up on the basic literature.

Two elements of the CSS agenda were the widening and deepening of security studies as a field. Widening in that there's a desire to open up to a range of new factors that should be studied in the context of security, and deepening because there was the understanding that certain issues should be engaged with at a deeper level of analysis.

In short, it was about paying attention to understudied phenomena, and studying them in different ways.

CSS isn't the standard or dominant way to study security, however – it's still more popular in Europe than in other parts of the world. TSS is still more dominant in America, for example. Some Europeans might position themselves as more 'enlightened' in this way and try to impact the American system, and this is an example of using soft power to influence others.

There are some criticisms of CSS as well, especially as there are many schools of thought within the field and that might make it confusing for people who might not know how to navigate them. Then you have places that reject CSS because their situation (civil war, belligerent neighbours, hybrid war) is given greater emphasis in TSS. It's hard to focus on food security if someone is invading you.

Another criticism has been aimed at people, particularly Europeans, who try to push CSS on other parts of the world: this can have a bit of a colonial flavour to it. Especially if the 'recipients' of this pressure are states in the Global South. This can create a paradox for proponents of CSS – they may feel that concepts of security need to be expanded, but for the sake of resisting Eurocentrism they might refrain from pushing too hard.

That, and it's misleading to think of CSS as an entirely unified field. Concepts like human security have been adopted by major bodies (the UN has used the term since 1994) that may be less than critical about other topics. You also have particular lenses that dominate a group's approach to security, like feminist, racial, post-colonial or other modes of analysis.

One can say that there are three 'schools' of critical security studies that approach the field in different ways, and Bruno takes time to outline each.

The Three Schools of CSS

All of these schools come from Europe, and each approach was developed first by a group of scholars at a particular point in time.

First there's the Aberystwyth, which focuses on the concept of emancipation and was put forward by Ken Booth in his article Security and Emancipation (1991).

For them, emancipation means the degree of freedom from security threats that affect our lives. Becoming emancipated can involve identifying those threats and then becoming free from them – once that has been accomplished, we can say we're secure.

Then there's the Copenhagen school, and they look at things in terms of securitization. As mentioned above, this means the process that happens when a topic that hasn't been a security issue becomes one. One of the main architects of this school is Ole Wæver, and he introduced the concept in the mid-1990's when he and other researchers wrote the book Security: A New Framework for Analysis.

Instead of focusing on the issues that could become a security issue, these researchers wanted to study the process by which something becomes securitized, by whom and to whom.

This process, according to Wæver, happens when a securitizing actor (usually a member of the political elite) convinces a group of people (not necessarily everyone in a state/region/organization) through a speech act that one particular issues poses an existential threat to a cherished value. When this happens, extreme measures can be taken (or existing laws can be set aside) to deal with this new threat.

Think about how migrants used to be an immigration issue but now is a security threat. Or take smartphones or trolls or Twitter bots. Viruses like HIV or Ebola or COVID-19 are also good examples.

In theory, this is a process that could happen with any otherwise ordinary factor.

The third is the Paris school, and their focus is on how we encounter everyday security practices. They disagree with the Copenhagen school in that they don't think speech acts are as important as the actions of the security professionals who enforce these securitized ideas in our daily lives and practices.

An an example, French president Emmanuel Macron saying terrorism is an existential threat and announcing exceptional measures isn't as important as how these measures are manifested in the practices of security guards, police officers, border officials. Or embodied in border checks, registration papers, biometric passports and the like. These are the factors that, for the Paris school, impact us the most – especially if we are members of vulnerable groups.

If we take an event like 9/11, a traditional response would be more about what the state can do to other states in order to limit the abilities of terrorists. But a critical approach, let's say from Paris, would highlight the changes of security practices at borders, or the invisible, undeclared attitudes that make some people suspicious of those who are perceived to be Muslims.

It bears mentioning that one issue, like migration, can be securitized in different ways. So migrants entering Europe from West Asia or North Africa can be securitized through a framework looking for terrorist threats, while Latino migrants entering the United States can be securities through frameworks of organized crime or drug trafficking.
Bruno wants us to walk away thinking about the money that goes into TSS, about the idea that we live in a world of state vs. state, about the interests involved in keeping certain power structures maintained.

As a CSS researcher himself, though, he also draws attention to the need to adapt to the world as it is. And thus he takes issue with how some proponents of TSS resist the more critical or subversive elements of CSS while also having to account for how, to Bruno, CSS concepts are becoming more valuable in a changing world and ever-shifting balances of power.

CSS supports, seeing changes in the world, see this moment as an opportunity to put forward elements of critical theory (feminism, post-colonialism, racial theory, etc) that might end up being more resisted otherwise. Again, it bears repeating that many of these critical approaches also look at Euro-centrisism with skepticism, and so try to promote their ideas without pushing them into places where they might not be as immediately relevant (countries in the Global South who suffer from civil wars, for example).

In the context of our seminars on peace research, Bruno positions himself (more than other lecturers we hear) as a cross between a researcher and something of an activist. Someone who combines an academic perspective with an opinionated style. This plays with a traditional line that says academics need to be neutral, and Bruno does this intentionally and isn't afraid to call things out in terms of what he sees as right and wrong.

It's an interesting paradigm, and we'll be hearing from Bruno again soon about the place of technology in warfare, as well as the European Union.
Bruno Oliveira Martins is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) with a focus on the intersection between technological developments,
security practices and societal change.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and peacebuilding practitioner.
He studied at PRIO in 2018.
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