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Securitization Forum: On the poor reception securitization theory has gotten in the U.S.

September 23, 2015

This is the seventh contribution in our forum on securitization theory in the U.S. John Owen is Taylor Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and, during the Fall of 2015, a Senior Guest Scholar at the Center for Transnational Relations, Foreign and Security Policy at the Free University of Berlin.  He is author of The Clash of Ideas in World Politics (Princeton).

I hesitated before agreeing to write this entry, because although I view the Copenhagen School with sympathy and admiration, I neither belong to that school nor have a sure command of its literature. Being an increasingly senior academic, however, I cannot allow a little ignorance deter me from pronouncing on the topic at hand: Why has securitization theory been received so poorly in the United States?

My strong sense is that the reason is related to the indifference with which American IR views much constructivist scholarship in general. Indeed, there are two related reasons. On our side of the Atlantic, it appears that securitization theory is just another form of critical theory, and it is not at all clear that securitization scholars are interested in causal explanation. These appearances may bear little relation to reality, but, as securitization theorists should appreciate, that does not make them any less powerful. Let me take the two reasons in turn.

When a certain type of American IR scholar reads an abstract focusing on the subjectivity of threats – e.g., claiming that the rise of China or differential birth rates in Israel have been securitized – that scholar will infer that the paper presumes that there are no real threats out there. What Hamlet says of Denmark – “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – is applied by the Copenhagen School to IR, albeit in much more sophisticated form. In other words, although IR scholars in the United States are typically quite critical of U.S. foreign policy (they certainly were in the Bush 43 years), most operate from a baseline realist axiom: some actors and trends really are threatening to a country, regardless of speech acts in that country. No doubt many or most securitization theorists would agree that the external world sometimes threatens a country independent of the way actors in that country talk, in which case we have two scholarly communities talking past one another. In any case, at issue is analytical focus. The IR-security scholarly community in the United States is at pains to produce work relevant to policy makers. Some of this work is qualitative (International Security, Security Studies), and some quantitative (Journal of Conflict Resolution, and the various political science association journals). Nearly all is impatient of scholarship that seems uninterested in or skeptical of the notion that some threats are impervious to actors’ efforts to securitize or de-securitize. In my view, the ultimate source of this baseline realism is American hegemony – but that is another story.

Second, in the United States securitization scholarship suffers from a reputation for being uninterested in full causal explanation. Mainstream U.S.-based IR has absorbed various late-twentieth-century critiques of positivism and settled on a view that explanation entails two types of statement: those about conditions (X causes Y …) and those about mechanisms or processes (… by means of or through M). E.g., state A’s regime opacity (condition) causes war with state B (outcome) by limiting information to B about A’s capabilities and intentions, which leads to miscalculation (mechanism). Securitization scholars generally appear strong on mechanisms, but weak on conditions. Without conditional statements, one is left wondering how much work securitizing speech acts are really doing. It is easy to find cases of actors attempting and failing to securitize something; an infamous one is FDR’s failure to securitize Nazi Germany for Americans in the 1930s (see Ronald Krebs, “Tell Me a Story,” Security Studies 24:1 [2015]). Those cases raise suspicions in the opposite direction: if the allegedly securitizing actors had not said what they said, might not state or trend still be a threat? Or, perhaps the efficacy of the securitizing speech act – the receptivity the speech act finds among audiences – is itself a function of other, untheorized, conditions. And, to return to the first point above, perhaps one of those conditions is how objectively threatening the state or trend is. In any case, once those conditions are posited, we need research designs that allow variation in those conditions and in the outcome (securitization success or failure) to be explained. We also would want to know conditions under which a state or trend is likely to be de-securitized.

I may be wrong that these related concerns are responsible for American skepticism about securitization. Even if I am right, securitizationists’ two-fold reputation for radical skepticism and causal incompleteness may not be justified. For their part, securitization scholars may take my remarks as a challenge, a pity, or confirmation of what they already suspected.

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