Steve Sachs Duke


Thursday, January 15, 2004


The Changing Definition of Security: In the course of studying for my two exams tomorrow, I've decided to post another essay from my International Relations tutorial (the first is linked here). Many scholars have argued that external military threats are given excessive attention in security planning. As time goes on, they predict, the security agenda will be increasingly dominated by cross-border issues such as environmental degradation, resource conflicts, mass migration, and ethnic tension. A few have gone even further, to claim that such problems should themselves be considered threats to a wider concept of "human security." I disagree:

The effort to broaden security planning to include "human security" changes the terms of debate. It goes beyond arguing that non-traditional problems such as environmental degradation are likely to create a security threat (by encouraging conflict) to claiming that such degradation itself constitutes a security threat--a threat to the quality of life of those in a polluted environment.

The theoretical difficulty with limiting the concept of security to the use of physical violence is that all economic and political relations are characterized by force, whether threatened or actually employed. The possession of economic rights in a resource is constituted by a threat of legal force against those who would attempt to violate those rights. Someone who has no economic rights to food, the argument goes, or no rights to other resources which can be traded for food, is prevented by force from obtaining food just as surely as someone who is deprived at gunpoint.

Thus, J. Ann Tickner quotes approvingly another author's definition of security "not only in terms of the internal security of the state, but also in terms of secure systems of food, health, money and trade." ... A secure society must therefore "promote a viable ecosystem while at the same time working towards the elimination of both physical and structural violence," an elimination that requires "dismantling hierarchical boundaries between women and men, rich and poor, and insiders and outsiders which have contributed to an exclusionary divisive definition of security."

However, such a conception of "structural violence" sits uneasily with traditional concepts of force and violence. First, it is unclear why such limitations are only "violent" if they are unjust. There are many just uses of violence, as in the case of threatening force (even only the level of force necessary for arrest, trial, and imprisonment) against those who would violate individual rights--and these acts do not become less forceful because they happen to be just. Second, such a definition raises the possibility of treating all unjust economic arrangements per se as cases of structural violence. Given that sophisticated health care is expensive, any system that unjustly reduces the resources available to one group will result in a decline in the group's life expectancy from what it would otherwise have been. Thus, if all unjust social arrangements are inherently violent, no unjust society is secure--and it is impossible to give a descriptive account of security without first establishing normative agreement on what constitutes a just economic and political system.

You can read it all here.




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