Analyzing conflict

Security Studies

At its core, security studies, as an area of inquiry, takes organized violence as its focus, and the steps individuals and aggregations of individuals can take to both employ organized violence effectively and, much more importantly, to protect themselves from organized violence (accumulation of knowledge in the former being essential for the accumulation of knowledge in the latter). Thus subjects can range from the micro—weapons types, effectiveness, tactics, human-weapons interfaces, individual and group motivations—to the macro; including the causes of war, nuclear strategy, military doctrine, defense spending, and conventional and unconventional warfare strategies. International Security Studies grew (ISS) out of debates over how to protect the state against external and internal threats after the Second World War. Security became its watchword, both distinguishing ISS from earlier thinking and the disciplines of War Studies and Military History, and, as it evolved, serving as the linking concept connecting an increasingly diverse set of research programmes.


May 4, 2019

Last updated

June 7, 2019







In the beginning International Security Studies (ISS) was an independent field of study but quite quickly became absorbed as a sub-field of (Western) International Relations (IR). There is an antecedent literature extending back before the Second World War which can largely be characterised as war studies, military and grand strategy, and geopolitics. This includes much discussed writers such as Clausewitz, Mahan, Richardson and Haushofer, whose work still remains relevant. A distinctive literature about security developed after 1945. This literature was distinctive in three ways.

First, it took security rather than defence or war as its key concept, a conceptual shift which opened up the study of a broader set of political issues, including the importance of societal cohesion and the relationship between military and non-military threats and vulnerabilities. Second, this literature was distinct because it addressed the novel problems of both the Cold War and nuclear weapons. How to deploy, use and not use military means were quite different questions in the conditions of the nuclear age, and it was from those questions that the sub-field of ISS mainly arose. Third, and related to both the total war mobilisations of Britain and the US during the Second World War, and the peculiar strategic conditions created by nuclear weapons, ISS was much more a civilian enterprise than most earlier military and strategic literatures. Strategic bombing and nuclear weapons transcended traditional military warfighting expertise in ways that required, or at least opened the door to, bringing in civilian experts ranging from physicists and economists to sociologists and psychologists. As shown during the Second World War, strategic bombing required knowledge about how best to disable the enemy’s economy and infrastructure, not just how to defeat his armed forces. Nuclear deterrence quickly became the art of how to avoid fighting wars while at the same time not being militarily defeated or coerced. The centrality of the civilian element also reflects the fact that ISS has largely flourished in democratic countries, while strategic thinking in non-Western countries generally remained more firmly in the grip of the military.

selected readings

Security Studies

Security-sector reform: development breakthrough or institutional engineering?

Smith 2001

Blurring the Dividing Line: The Convergence of Internal and External Security in Western Europe

Lutterbeck 2005

Security in the age of networks

Dupont 2004

Four Central Questions

There are four questions which have, either implicitly or explicitly, structured debates within ISS since the late 1940s. These questions can have different answers, but that is not to say that they are always explicitly discussed: a large part of the ISS literature simply takes particular answers/concepts as givens. The four questions are analytical lenses or tools through which to read the evolution of ISS; they are the deeper, substantial core that defines what ‘international security’ is about and what brings the literature together. The first question is whether to privilege the state as the referent object. Security is about constituting something that needs to be secured: the nation, the state, the individual, the ethnic group, the environment or the planet itself. Whether in the form of ‘national security’, or later, as traditionalist ‘international security’, the nation/state was the analytical and normative referent object. ‘International security’ was not about replacing the security of the state with the security of humanity, or the individual or minorities within or across state boundaries. Securing the state was seen instrumentally as the best way of protecting other referent objects. ‘National security’ should thus, as many observers have pointed out, more appropriately have been labelled ‘state security’, yet, what the Cold War concept of ‘national security’ entailed was more accurately a fusion of the security of the state and the security of the nation: the nation supported a powerful state which in turn reciprocated by loyally protecting its society’s values and interests.

The second question is whether to include internal as well as external threats. Since security is tied into discussions about state sovereignty (whether as something to be protected or criticised), it is also about placing threats in relation to territorial boundaries. Studies famously described ‘national security’ as ‘an ambiguous symbol’ and he contrasted the post-Second World War political climate with the one of inter-war American economic depression, holding that the ‘change from a welfare to a security interpretation of the symbol “national interest” is understandable. Today we are living under the impact of cold war and threats of external aggression rather than depression and social reform’. ‘National security’ had shifted from a concern with domestic economic problems to external threats stemming from ideologically opposed, and thus presumed hostile, powers. As this shift became institutionalised, the concept of ‘international security’ came to accompany, but not replace, ‘national security’, and was eventually more influential in giving the discipline its name, hence International rather than National Security Studies. This labelling concurred with the growing disciplinary status of International Relations, which was based on distinguishing international from domestic politics, of which ISS was increasingly a sub-field. The internal/external dimension was partly re-opened as the Cold War ended and the overriding concern with the external threat of the Soviet Union disappeared from American and Western security discourses.


The third question is whether to expand security beyond the military sector and the use of force. Since ISS was founded during the Cold War and the Cold War was so overwhelmingly about the military (conventional and nuclear) capabilities of foes, friends and Self, ‘national security’ became almost synonymous with military security. This did not mean that other capabilities were not considered, the editors of International Security stressed, for instance, the need to incorporate economic vigour, governmental stability, energy supplies, science and technology, food and natural resources. These were, however, to be incorporated because they impacted on ‘the use, threat, and control of force’, and thus on military security, not because they were to be considered security issues in their own right. But this conception of security was not entirely uncontested. During the Cold War, Peace Researchers pointed to the necessity of granting equal priority to basic human needs and ‘structural violence’, and challenges to military security became an established part of ISS from the 1980s onwards as scholars called for the inclusion of environmental and economic security. Later a more general sectoral widening of security included societal, economic, environmental, health, development and gender.

The fourth question is whether to see security as inextricably tied to a dynamic of threats, dangers and urgency. ‘National security’ developed in a political climate where the United States, and the West more broadly, understood themselves as threatened by a hostile opponent. As in Herz’s (1950) famous formulation of the security dilemma, ‘security’ had to do with attacks, subjection, domination and – when pushed to the extreme annihilation. This would lead groups to acquire more capabilities, in the process rendering their opponent insecure and thus compelling both sides to engage in a ‘vicious circle of security and power accumulation’. Security was about the extreme and exceptional, with those situations that would not just raise inconveniences, but could wipe out one’s society. During the Cold War, this seemed rather common-sensical to the mainstream of ISS: the Soviet Union constituted a clear threat, and nuclear weapons were justified as a way to deter the Soviet Union from a first strike. As the debates over the expansion of the concept of security gained ground in the 1990s, this linkage of security to urgency, and to extreme and radical defence measures, was central. Some, most prominently the Copenhagen School, argued that the concept could be expanded as long as referent objects, threats and dangers were constituted with this logic of urgency and extreme measures. Critics countered that this understanding of security was itself linked to a particular Realist view of the state and international politics. In keeping with a longer critical and Liberal tradition, it was argued on normative grounds that politics could be different and that one’s analytical framework should incorporate this possibility.


Sun Tzu

Master Sun said

War is

A grave affair of state;

It is a place

Of life and death,

A road,

To survival and extinction

A matter

To be pondered carefully.

The Concept of Security

The first example of the concept of nation security is developed in the 16 th Century by political philosopher Thomas Hobbes and argued that people have to relinquish their rights (to the state) for defense purposes and illustrates a vertical relation of security. The horizontal relation – according to 17 th Century philosopher John Locke – accounts for the integrity of the personal sphere of life, as well as protection of and from the state (Wæver 2012). In the 1940s security became interwoven with the concept of national security. The study of Wæver (2012) describes how the concept of security is an evolving concept and has taken historically on several contents and connotations. After the Second World War realist scholars tried to grasp the new world order and the power division between Soviet Union and the United States. This realist revolution in security thinking, combined with the technological revolution and the development of the nuclear bomb, created a paradigm. The traditionalist and realist thinking centered on the idea that the state is the departure point in a world of chaos and anarchy. The most defining features of the Cold War consist of the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union and emergence of nuclear weapons (Peoples 2011; Buzan & Hansen 2009). The zero-sum game (security dilemma) dominated the international stage in terms of power relations, sovereignty and national interest. The arms race during the Cold War illustrated this security dilemma and the necessity of leverage of a country against another. The adaption of other disciplines illustrates the evolving concept of security, and – with the emergence of structuralism – security thinking moved away from the anarchist idea to an interdependent international and political cooperation with an emphasis on economic development.

The research field in military expertise and social science emerged during the 1940s and 1950s in the US to address the broad-spectrum of challenges from the Soviet to the West (Ibid.). This ‘civial cohort’ supported the concerns of the US about militarization of society. Different historical events created a paradigm in security thinking; among these are the World War I and the fall of the Berlin wall. The latter illustrated the failure of the traditional and realist approach of security studies. What became apparent of the fall of the Berlin wall was the notion of other important values and psychological notions, such as economic power, human rights, acceptance and recognition. The importance of recognition is illustrated by the ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech of John F. Kennedy, on 26 June 1963, in which Kennedy declared support for the freedom of Berliners; it was also a message to the Soviet Union that it supported West Germany.

Securitization Theory

Introducing values such as recognition and acceptance contributed to the understanding of the international political dynamic (Buzan & Hansen 2009). Another paradigm of security thinking emerged, that of the constructivist approach and the discursive security. This extension of security entailed more dimensions, such as social and human security. The performative turn is incorporated in the concept of security and illustrates threat construction through images and speech. The constructivist approach of the Copenhagen School (CS) introduced an analytical framework to understand security, with the aim to deal with the new order in Europe. The importance of identity, vulnerabilities and threat perception is incorporated in the securitization theory of the CS, whereby security is defined as an intersubjective process (Balzacq 2011). 

The CS coined the concept of the speech act in the field of security. The discursive element of securitization is characterized in various ways. The ‘philosophical ideal type’ approach of security stresses the importance of words as it describes security as an act. The language of ‘security’ is an act in itself and can be used as a means to construct possible threats. The sociological approach describes the importance of practices, context and power relations.

Balzacq (2011) defines securitization as a intersubjective process and ‘’an articulated assemblage of practices whereby heuristic artefacts (metaphors, policy tools) are contextually mobilized by a securitizing actor, who works to prompt an audience to build coherent network of implications (feelings, sensations, thoughts), about the critical vulnerability of a referent object, that concurs with the securitizing actor’s reasons for choices and actions, by investing the referent subject with such an aura of unprecedented threatening complexion that a customized policy must be undertaken immediately to block its development.’’ The securitization toolkit provides several factors to understand the intersubjective process of securitization. First, speaking the language of security disrupts the ‘normal order’ or reproductive structure. Second, the issue becomes politicized and becomes a priority in the national political arena. Third, the problem is accepted as such and leads to emergency measures. Final, the securitization process is concluded with institutionalizing security concerns and new policies. On the contrary, desecuritizing is reached through solving the problem, change of discourse or new reproductive structure through institutional adaptation or los off values.

The Copenhagen School approach of the concept of security attempts to move beyond the conceptualizing of security in objectivist terms and introduced a subjectivist concept, mainly defining it as a conceptual move (Guzzini 2011; Huysmans 2011). The notion that security is socially constructed focuses on what security does rather than what it means (Huysmans 1998). So what drives actors to perceive or frame issues as security problems or threats? As Guzzini (2011) describes it, perceptions are not subjective to start with but ‘’made possible by intersubjective understandings embedded in the dominant discourses among foreign policy elites’’. The securitization toolkit contributes to understanding the process and social construction of securitization.