The Short-Termist Cost of Security

21 September 2014, 1957 EDT

It is no secret in the academic IR community that securitization theory, an approach developed in Europe as part of the Copenhagen School of security studies, has struggled to get traction here in the United States. While the approach is widely used elsewhere in the world, from Europe to Asia, American IR scholars have been very reticent reluctant to accept the merits of the approach. Which is a shame because the approach has the potential to offer significant insights. One possible objection to securitization theory might be that, since it argues threats are political and intersubjective rather than objective, the approach offers little in the way of guidance to policymakers—an important aim of security studies in the U.S. This reading of securitization theory is incorrect. There are a number of ways in which securitization theory can enable better policy analysis and policy making. In this post, I am interested in how securitization theory helps us to evaluate the long terms costs of the persistent tendency in the United States to evaluate matters in security terms.


Securitization theory enables such an analysis because it, unlike approaches that seek to identify and prescribe measures for ‘objective’ threats, securitization theory points the analyst toward the political dynamics that give rise to shared perceptions of threat, and the effect on the political system of those shares perceptions of threat. According to securitization theory, security is a particular kind of politics, one in which extraordinary measures are justified by imminent existential threats. But the nature of security politics is acute: in all polities the extraordinary measures undertaken to address threats are corrosive to the political system, and are thus difficult to sustain for very long. This leads to an emphasis on short-term responses that address the immediate problem over sustainable long-term measures that tackle the underlying conditions that gave rise to the problem/threat in the first place.




Consider the situation of Ebola in west Africa. According to the CDC, more than 5,000 people have been infected with Ebola, and more that 2,500 have died. The incidence rate of Ebola is doubling roughly every 3 weeks, which means that West Africa could be looking at 10,000 cases sometime in October. And yet, it only last week that the Obama announced a major effort by the US to address the outbreak, and not surprisingly the militarized policy (U.S. military will be deployed) was couched in security terms. Leaving aside the problems associated with waiting until the Ebola outbreak reached a level that could support securitization, this policy may be effective in the short term. In the medium-to-long term, however, a sustained policy for dealing with Ebola, and more broadly public health problems in west Africa, is not likely to emerge because the security basis for the current policy cannot support long-term engagement. This in turn leaves west African countries little better prepared for future public health problems.


Because of the political nature of security, turning to threats to enable policy produces short-term policy action through extraordinary measures but cannot sustain the medium-to-long-term policies necessary to manage and address the underlying forces that create the conditions that are eventually securitized. This imbalance between short-term security policy and long-term nonsecurity policy reflects the imbalance between threat and opportunity noted by Bobrow in his essay on American strategic style. Coming back to the example of Ebola, viewing the outbreak in terms of opportunity would result in a very different—potentially more sustainable and long-term—set of policies than viewing it in terms of threat. Thus, the invocation of security has very real policy implications—sacrificing long range planning to the immediate demands of security—and securitization theory does an excellent job of drawing our attention to them. And as with any problem, the first step toward developing a solution is to recognize the problem’s existence in the first place.