Securitization Forum: Follow the Money and the Mentality

30 September 2015, 1151 EDT

This is the twelfth contribution to our securitization forum. Clifford Bob is professor of political science and Raymond J. Kelley Endowed Chair in International Relations at Duquesne University. His books include The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics (Cambridge, 2012) and The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism (Cambridge, 2005).

Illuminating as this forum has been, it has tip-toed around one uncomfortable but potentially significant reason that securitization theory has failed to be taken up by the American IR academy. It runs counter to dominant political and social incentives that we all face. These keep many American scholars within a narrow range of opinion, most of it tracking closely the conventional wisdom of political and military power-holders. Securitization theory, whether or not there is strong evidence to support it, challenges this conventional wisdom. It therefore holds little appeal to most IR scholars. There are also strong material factors keeping many scholars from testing or adopting securitization theory.

This is not to say that securitization theory is without flaws or that it does not overlap with other theories such as frame and perception/misperception theories, as Scott Watson’s argues. Many of the critiques offered by Krebs and Goddard are trenchant and could help explain why scholars have not taken up the theory. It clearly has limitations and holes. As Krebs and Goddard show, there are any number of ways in which the theory cries out for further testing, critique, and perhaps trashing. Most important, in my view, is the degree to which the theory overstates the impact of security rhetoric, when in fact there is always contestation over what is a threat, how much of a threat it is, and what the solution to it should be. Securitizing groups may hope to stifle political debate by invoking the magical term “security.” But even the most powerful have not been able to do so completely and cannot be sure that their tactic will work.

On the other hand, flaws are endemic to any number of other theories that nonetheless attract copious amounts of research and publication by American IR scholars. Much current U.S. scholarship is working to test and improve them, but apparently less so for securitization theory. In addition, as other contributors point out, there is in fact quite a bit of theory already out there in the American academy, albeit less so in IR than in other disciplines, that can be tapped to advance securitization theory. Hayes, Krebs, and Goddard come to mind of course, as does the research of social movement scholars, and my own research merging the two approaches. So the fact that securitization theory needs further testing and refinement does not explain its neglect on one side of the Atlantic and its growth on the other.

Instead, I hypothesize that this neglect has its roots in ideational and material factors that affect the scholarship of IR in the U.S., more than scholarship in Europe. In the realm of ideas, as Christopher Fettweis has argued, two beliefs dominate thinking with regard to American security today, as they have done for many decades: that America inhabits a menacing world; and that only America can bring peace and stability to it. These kinds of beliefs, while not unique to the U.S., are stronger here than in most parts of the world, despite precious little evidence to support either one of them (Exhibit A: Atlantic Ocean; Exhibit B: Pacific Ocean). Liberal theory, with its faith in peaceful democracies and American benevolence, has played a role. Constructivism, because of its close ties to liberal theories and its optimistic view that good ideas will triumph, follows this trend. Limited views of realist theory play a role as well: Emphasis on the anarchic quality of international society and the ever-present possibility of conflict can drown out other equally important aspects of realist thought, such as those emphasizing the importance of geography, the advantages of defense, and the difficulties of imposing one country’s values on others.

Neither of the beliefs that Fettweis has identified is hegemonic. But in the U.S. a quick review of the headlines demonstrates how strong the mainstream views are. There is General Martin Dempsey crying that we are living in the “most dangerous time” in his lifetime. There is DNI chief James Clapper claiming that we are “beset by more crises and threats” than he has ever experienced. There is Senator Lindsey Graham stating that he has “never seen the world more dangerous.” And there is Hillary Clinton decrying what “very complex and even dangerous times” we live in. True, there are contrary voices, even powerful voices in the academy and journalism, and to some extent in politics. President Obama himself has at times tried to reduce fears. But in most cases, these contrarians have not made their arguments in loud and sustained fashion—or the media has preferred to promote panic rather than calm. Most scholars have been raised in a context that directly or indirectly magnifies dominant beliefs– at school, in the media, and in everyday life. This has assumed a taken-for-granted quality. Although critical thinking should be the hallmark of scholars, it is difficult for any of us to think beyond predominant viewpoints. Conversely, it is all too easy to succumb to the fearmongering of the powerful and to take the taken-for-granted as reality.

All of this makes some scholars unreceptive to securitization theory. In addition, it is likely that many find unappealing a theory highlighting darker sides of human behavior, particularly among revered military and political leaders. This is true on both right and left of the political spectrum, with the former largely overlooking the possibility of threat inflation when it comes to issues such as terrorism–and the latter doing so with regard to issues such as climate change.

Even if scholars privately accept that securitization is a strategic move, stressing this view publicly, or even producing research doing so, could be career limiting, particularly for those who seek policy relevance. It is far safer to accept the conventional wisdom and better still to cheerlead it. Incantations of American exceptionalism, for instance, seem to be a requisite for high foreign policy office. And these days even a brief foray onto Wikileaks might cut short one’s ambitions for a policy career. (All of this raises the broader question of whether the scholarly quest for policy relevance is misplaced. That question is probably worth a full blog post, but it is enough to note here that the problem with being relevant is that it is seldom enough to be an expert or to write clearly. In addition, it is critical to support a position that the policymaker already takes. Indeed, I would hypothesize that the less IR scholars strive to gain the ear of policymakers, the more likely their research is to be objective and trustworthy. Ironically, of course, that is precisely when their ideas might be most useful to those relatively few policy professionals who let the facts, rather than their political predilections or overseers, guide them.)

Beyond these ideational factors, there are strong material factors at work. It is well-known that the U.S. accounts for a huge portion of the world’s military spending—and Europe, protected by the U.S. umbrella, for a far smaller amount. Part of the reason for this is the beliefs just noted. There is also a self-fulfilling aspect of this. As one signal example, John Mueller and others have explained the vast recent increases in spending on terrorism prevention by showing that such expenditures have become a “self-licking ice cream cone.” The many industry and interest groups within American society that benefit from this use their lobbying advantage to win ever more or to protect what they have. The general public has little ability to organize and defend itself against such special interest politics.

Out of this enormous feeding frenzy, the scraps falling onto the academy are admittedly tiny. But IR scholars are small fry, hungry for grant money. We eagerly snap up the remnants that political and military leaders have strategically sprinkled among us through DARPA, Minerva, and other programs. Yet the radical twist to securitization theory—that the move to securitize is often made for political or even venal reasons—makes it inimical to the interests of the Pentagon, as well as to securitizers of all stripes, whether in health, environmental, high tech, or other far flung fields. In this context, it is difficult for scholars who want government grant money to ask essential questions that might call into question the reason for their grant, the rationale for the entire program, or even the basis for bloated defense spending. Although military and political leaders are sometimes willing to hear such viewpoints, they are seldom willing to fund them. For the ordinary applicant to a Minerva grant, asking such questions increases your risk of rejection. Instead, it is safer to start from the dubious assumptions about threats that pervade contemporary society. Or one can simply ask innocuous questions.

Either way, the result is that scholars unwittingly prop up securitization processes, even as they ignore the very theory that might explain their own behavior. For instance, taking government money that assumes that Ebola or other diseases pose a national security threat obviously supports that assertion. The same is all the more true for the oceans of Pentagon money available for those who buy into the dominant idea that terrorism, or violent extremism, or similarly ill-defined concepts are major threats to American national security (as opposed to minor threats to the lives of individual Americans). Seldom does such research ask the basic question of how large the threat is compared to any number of other threats we face. Indeed, to do so—and reach the statistically indisputable conclusion that the threat is minuscule—would be to bite the hand that feeds the research. The same goes for reaching the none-too-startling conclusion that the Pentagon is not a particularly useful entity for dealing with environmental problems, or health issues such as Ebola, or democracy promotion. To reach such conclusions would most likely be a grant-limiting conclusion, just as, for wannabe policymakers, certain statements about U.S. foreign policy would surely be career-limiting.

Together, I would hypothesize, these ideational and material factors reduce the appeal of securitization theory. The failure to cite and publish about it is then a secondary effect of these underlying factors. This is by no means a conspiracy. There are no smoke-filled rooms in which securitization theory is targeted for destruction or neglect. Instead, individual IR scholars make discrete decisions, following unconscious biases, genuine beliefs, or sometimes careerist motives. Unfortunately, this leads them to maintain an uncritical view of American national security policy—precisely the view that securitization theory calls into question.