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Securitization Theory

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Gallie explained security as an ‘essentially contested concept’ which is an appropriate analogy when considering this essay. Securitization Theory falls under the umbrella of Critical Security Studies which entered the theoretical mainstream after the post-cold war paradigm shift. Naturally, these ‘critical’ conceptions criticize the traditional positivist approaches such as realism and liberalism which had dominated the dialogue of security studies before the cold war. This reshaping of the theoretical landscape defying the likes of Organski and Waltz has generated much debate in International Relations and Security Studies. Specifically, in the past decade, securitization theory’s theological principles have had major ramifications in elucidating and innovating many concepts such as immigration, HIV-AIDS and the environment (Wæver 2004). However, we must determine whether or not securitization theory can be considered critical; in order to do so, we must define what we mean by the word ‘critical’. In the case of security, I support Biersteker in thinking it is something which ‘provoke(s) … scrutiny of dominant discourses … (and) provide(s) the basis for alternative conceptualizations’ (Biersteker 1989:264). Securitization theory effectively does both of these things, although not as radically as the likes of Ken Booth. Securitization theory ‘questions the norm’ of security studies which consents its critical nature without drawing many parallels with other critical notions (Shepherd 2013:5). In my essay, I will argue that securitization theory is a critical approach because it effectively bridges the gap between traditional and modern approaches by not entirely rejecting the state-centered notion of security but effectively ‘broadening’ and ‘widening’ the positivist concepts (Buzan 2009:187-225).

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Securitization theory holds its origins in the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute (COPRI) where it developed though empirically orientated, collective research. In his report ‘Non-Military Aspects of European Security’, Buzan significantly changed the path of security studies by challenging the notion that power is the key to security. This shift in security debate leads to the development of critical concepts such as security as emancipation stating that the notion of security does not flow from the power which was important in Europe at the time to contrast the typically American rhetoric regarding security (Huysmans 1998: 483–484). However, securitization theory still remains to be seen as a relatively top-down approach in comparison to other critical approaches. Securitization theory explains how political actors and elites declare an issue to be an existential threat to legitimatize whatever practices necessary to combat the emergent risk (Wæver 1995). This rhetoric aligns with; rather than refutes the traditional approaches’ concept that security flows from power and the discursive schemes of elites (Bigo 2002). Although this hinders securitization theory’s capacity to parallel with other critical approaches, it does not lessen the intellectual aptitude of the conception. In addition, the length to which the model of ‘power’ dominates theories such as realism is far greater and more consequential than within securitization theory. This further widens the speculative disparity between the positivist and post-positivist approaches. For example, traditional approaches assume that war is unavoidable and a reoccurring element of international relations. This is because by nature the international system of states is anarchic (Seldon 2010:406) whereas securitization theory believes that threats are self-referential and so the war cannot be inevitable (Buzan 1983:30).

A key feature of a critical approach to security is that it provides a framework for new conceptualizations opposing those presented by traditional approaches. The way in which securitization theory does this is presenting threats not as pre-existing, unlike approaches such as realism which denotes that they are a commodity, but instead explaining that an enforcing actor in the form of a political elite, military actor or so on can conceptualize a referent object as a security threat (Floyd 2011: 427–439). Buzan (1983:30) specifies that an issue only becomes a threat when it is ‘determined by actors’ and all threats are ‘intersubjective and socially constructed’. This process of labeling is termed a ‘speech act’ in securitization theory and explains the process through which an issue transcends the normal political sphere and is securitized (Wæver 1995: 55). Bagge Lautsen describes this process as occurring “with an urgency and ‘necessity’ that often has anti-democratic effects”. This aspect of securitization theory is applicable when considering political events such as the securitization of HIV/AIDS (Mclinnes and Rushton 2011:115-138). Furthermore, we can use this concept presented by security studies to consider the political environment since 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ (McDonald 2008:563). This focus of speech acts has powerful explanatory power going back as far as the 1930s when Schmitt (1996) said ‘the perception of an enemy has the unique capacity to unite the functionally fragmented society of the liberal state’ (Huysmans 2006). Despite the securitization theory being a top-down, state-centered approach differing from other critical approaches, it still presents this new idea of interaction with actors fulfilling the criteria required for a critical approach.

A consensus agreed upon by the plethora of otherwise unified critical approaches is that the basis for social change is progress (Booth 1991). Securitization theory focusses less on this than other theorists as it does not foster emancipation as a key concept. According to Booth, the definition of security is the absence of threats. Applying this with traditional approaches in consideration, war is inevitable. This hinders the individual in their ability to be secure in Booth’s eyes as for people to be emancipated they must be freed from constraints which stop them doing what they wish to do; ‘Security and emancipation are two sides of the same coin. Emancipation, not power or order, produce true security. Emancipation, theoretically, is security.’ (Booth 1991: 319). If securitization theory lacks this commitment to change and emancipation from constraints it cannot be considered to be holistic in the same sense as other critical approaches; hindering our argument that securitization theory is a critical approach. However, securitization theory concerns itself with justice and human rights in a much more obscure but just as significant way. When examining the ontology of securitization theory we know that in order for an issue to be securitized the public must accept it; this means public participation is not only encapsulated in the theory – it drives it (Balzacq 2015: 494-531). If security is intersubjective and the audience is a key concept according to securitization theorists, then securitization theory appears far more holistic than we first thought. For example, Roe (2008: 615-635) highlights that in 2003 contested views on the invasion of Iraq meaning the issue was not fully securitized. Booth recognizes that in politics the word ‘security’ is ‘supercharged’ with power and goes far beyond individuals and families (Shepherd 2013); despite this, he is still overly idealistic whereas Securitization Theory is realistic.

Another aspect of securitization theory which makes it critical is that it may be similar in some ways to positivist approaches, but it goes beyond their understanding of security as it not only presents the idea of securitization but also the idea of desecuritization. ‘Desecuritization, as the opposite process, moves an issue “out of emergency mode and into the normal bargaining process of the political sphere” (Buzan et al. 1998:4).’ This means that security is a means to an end and in fact, the need for security is a failure (Wæver 1995:29). This aspect of the approach has far more descriptive power than traditional approaches when looking at issues such as the spread of infective diseases. For example, the securitization of Ebola was described by Kaplan (1994:36) as having erected “An impenetrable boundary … that threatens to isolate the continent as a whole: the wall of disease”. The outbreak of deadly diseases is not a recent phenomenon; we can trace this back to historical cases of the bubonic plague, for example (Altman 2003:419). However, the way in which securitization theory explains this, we can see how an international threat can be created through the securitization of this issue. However, the desecuritization of this issue is the most important thing to note as it explains how threats can be lifted back into the civil discussion. Kekule (2015) explained that to avoid panic and economic hardship it was vital to desecuritize the issue of Ebola. Securitization theory has successfully broadened our understanding of security when looking at Ebola in a way that traditional approaches could not have. Furthermore, Aradau (2004: 389) argues that within securitization theory there is ‘indecisiveness concerning the desirability of desecuritization’ as it is a vague concept which is not elaborated on enough in the literature of security studies; a whimsical concept which does not possess much predictive power. However, Weaver (2000:251) denotes that desecuritization is ‘probably the ideal’ meaning it is less of a political tool and more reminiscent of Booth’s political desires (not fixed) within the security of emancipation. For example, his will to ‘move beyond state-centered security’ is akin to securitization theory’s concept of desecuritization; the ‘ideal’ but not yet reality.

Evaluating securitization theory as a critical approach is complex as there exists a diverse range of academic evaluations in the field of security. However, when looking at securitization theory’s objectives and application within the political scaffolding of security, its intellectual robustness is discernible as it has aided the study of security significantly and offered innovative analysis of modern day occurrences; but this has certainly not gone unchallenged (e.g. Mcsweeney, 1996). Unlike approaches such as security as emancipation, securitization theory sees security as a social construct which I believe is far more productive when identifying, analyzing and solving real-life threats. Drawing from neorealist and social constructivist concepts, securitization literature gives us a coherent balance between positivist and post-positivist approaches. Horkheimer would even dispute any parallels with traditional approaches as securitization theory does not separate between the subject and object; this is a key critical aspect of the theory as the ‘social scientist (subject) is wholly embedded and situated in social and political life’ (Adapted from Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory, 1972).

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This presentation of a ‘concrete historical situation’ has more significant applications in our everyday political climate. However, we have to be skeptical of securitization theory as it is arguably too Eurocentric. It is proposed by Wilkinson (2007: 134) that a world-wide acceptance of the state should not be assumed and that the concept of a speech act is not a global norm. However, accepting that it may not hold explanatory power worldwide, we can still utilize the productive applications of the literature for example in tackling modern topics such as trafficking and organized crime. Overall, securitization theory’s paramount asset is its ability to explain what we can see happening in the world today. With the likes of Trump backtracking on Obama’s rhetoric on climate change and the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar being upheaved it is more imperative than ever to determine the origins, authenticity, and reasons behind international threats. Securitising theory provides us with a lens through which we can objectively view the international plane of security without bias or influence.

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