Securitization Forum: The Transatlantic Divide: Why Securitization Has Not Secured a Place in American IR, Why It Should, and How It Can

18 September 2015, 1151 EDT

This is the second contribution in our forum on securitization theory in the U.S.  Stacie E. Goddard is the Jane Bishop ’51 Associate Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College.  Her book, Indivisible Territory and the Politics of Legitimacy: Jerusalem and Northern Ireland, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010.  Ronald R. Krebs is Beverly and Richard Fink Professor in the Liberal Arts and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. He is the author most recently of Narrative and the Making of US National Security.

We want to thank the editors of this forum, as well as the Duck of Minerva, for inviting us to this discussion. As Jarrod and Eric note in their introduction, securitization theory is, if not dominant in European IR, then pretty close: one of us recently taught a week-long graduate seminar in Europe, and it was all the students seemed to know about IR theory. But it has barely penetrated the American academy, and deep, explicit engagement with securitization confines one to the margins—as a reviewer of one of our draft book manuscripts once warned, in urging that the relevant paragraphs be excised. We often speak of the transatlantic divide in the scholarly study of international relations: nowhere is it more starkly apparent than when it comes to securitization. This is puzzling not only because the regional difference in the research programs’ relative influence is astonishing, but because scholars of securitization are clearly on to something quite important and because there would seem to be obvious affinities to, or at least large points of intersection with, mainstream constructivism.

We have ourselves been inspired by core securitization insights in our own writing on legitimation and narrative in security politics, and so we have more than a passing interest in explaining this divergence. There are at least three reasons securitization theory has failed to resonate with scholars based in North America. The first two speak to our own dissatisfaction with the existing literature: its persistent theoretical underdevelopment, and its apolitical approach to both rhetoric and security. The third is much to securitization’s credit: its critical realist theoretical roots are at odds with the liberal bias of mainstream constructivism, which emerged on the IR scene in the United States just as securitization was making headway in Europe.

Securitization theory has rightly garnered much attention among European scholars of international relations. Its basic claims are powerful: that security threats are not given, but require active construction; that the boundaries of “security” are malleable; that the declaration that a certain problem lies within the realm of security is itself a productive political act; and that “security” issues hold a trump card, demanding disproportionate resources and silencing alternative perspectives. Securitization thus highlights a familiar, even ubiquitous, political process that had received little attention in the international relations or comparative foreign policy literatures. It gave scholars a theoretical language, if not quite a set of coherent theoretical tools, with which to make sense of how a diverse set of issues, from migration to narcotics flows to global climate change, sometimes came to be treated as matters of national and global security and thereby—and this is where securitization’s critical edge came to the fore—impeded reasoned political debate. No surprise that, as Jarrod and Eric observe, securitization has been the focus of so many articles in the EJIR—and even more in such journals as the Review of International Studies and Security Dialogue.

But there are (good) substantive and (not so good) sociological reasons that securitization has failed to gain traction in North America. First, and most important, securitization describes a process but leaves us well short of (a) a fully specified causal theory that (b) takes proper account of the politics of rhetorical contestation. According to the foundational theorists of the Copenhagen School, actors, usually elites, transform the social order from one of normal, everyday politics into a Schmittian world of crisis by identifying a dire threat to the political community. They conceive of this “securitizing move” in linguistic terms, as a speech act. As Ole Waever (1995: 55) argues, “By saying it [security], something is done (as in betting, a promise, naming a ship). . . . [T]he word ‘security’ is the act . . .” [emphasis added]. Securitization is a powerful discursive process that constitutes social reality. Countless articles and books have traced this process, and its consequences, in particular policy domains.

Securitization presents itself as a causal account. But its mechanisms remain obscure, as do the conditions under which it operates. Why is speaking security so powerful? How do mere words twist and transform the social order? Does the invocation of security prompt a visceral emotional response? Are speech acts persuasive, by using well-known tropes to convince audiences that they must seek protection? Or does securitization operate through the politics of rhetorical coercion, silencing potential opponents? In securitization accounts, speech acts often seem to be magical incantations that upend normal politics through pathways shrouded in mystery.

Equally unclear is why some securitizing moves resonate, while others fall on deaf ears. Certainly not all attempts to construct threats succeed, and this is true of both traditional military concerns as well as “new” security issues. Both neoconservatives and structural realists in the United States have long insisted that conflict with China is inevitable, yet China has over the last 25 years been more opportunity than threat in US political discourse—despite these vigorous and persistent securitizing moves. In very recent years, the balance has shifted, and the China threat has started to catch on: linguistic processes alone cannot account for this change. The US military has repeatedly declared that global climate change has profound implications for national security—but that has hardly cast aside climate change deniers, many of whom are ironically foreign policy hawks supposedly deferential to the uniformed military. Authoritative speakers have varied in the efficacy of their securitizing moves. While George W. Bush powerfully framed the events of 9/11 as a global war against American values, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a more gifted orator, struggled to convince a skeptical public that Germany presented an imminent threat to the United States. After thirty years as an active research program, securitization theory has hardly begun to offer acceptable answers to these questions. Brief references to “facilitating conditions” won’t cut it. You don’t have to subscribe to a covering-law conception of theory to find these questions important or to find securitization’s answers unsatisfying.

A large part of the problem, we believe, lies in securitization’s silence on the politics of security. Its foundations in speech act theory have yielded an oddly apolitical theoretical framework. In its seminal formulation, the Copenhagen school emphasized the internal linguistic rules that must be followed for a speech act to be recognized as competent. Yet as Thierry Balzacq argues, by treating securitization as a purely rule-driven process, the Copenhagen school ignores the politics of securitization, reducing “security to a conventional procedure such as marriage or betting in which the ‘felicity circumstances’ (conditions of success) must fully prevail for the act to go through” (2005:172). Absent from this picture are fierce rhetorical battles, where coalitions counter securitizing moves with their own appeals that strike more or less deeply at underlying narratives. Absent as well are the public intellectuals and media, who question and critique securitizing moves sometimes (and not others), sometimes to good effect (and sometimes with little impact). The audience itself—whether the mass public or a narrower elite stratum—is stripped of all agency. Speaking security, even when the performance is competent, does not sweep this politics away. Only by delving into this politics can we shed light on the mysteries of securitization.

We see rhetorical politics as constituted less by singular “securitizing moves” than by “contentious conversation”—to use Charles Tilly’s phrase. To this end, we would urge securitization theorists, as we recently have elsewhere, to move towards a “pragmatic” model that rests on four analytical wagers: that actors are both strategic and social; that legitimation works by imparting meaning to political action; that legitimation is laced through with contestation; and that the power of language emerges through contentious dialogue.

We are heartened that our ambivalence about securitization—the ways in which we find it by turns appealing and dissatisfying—and our vision for how to move forward have in the last decade been echoed by (mostly) European colleagues. These critics have laid out a research agenda that would, if taken up, produce more satisfying, and more deeply political, theoretical accounts. In our own work, both individual and collective, we have tried to advance that research agenda. So long as securitization theorists resist defining the theory’s scope and mechanisms, and so long as it remains wedded to apolitical underpinnings, we think it unlikely to gain a broad following on this side of the pond.

Second, securitization has been held back by another way in which it is apolitical—this time thanks to its Schmittian commitments and political vision. Successful securitization, in seminal accounts, replaces normal patterns of politics with the world of the exception, in which contest has no place. They imagine security as the ultimate trump card. But, in reality, the divide is not nearly so stark. Security does not crowd out all other spending priorities—or states would spend on nothing but defense and “securitized” issues. Nor does simply declaring something a matter of national security guarantee its funding—or global climate change counter-measures, including research on renewable energies, would be well-funded. Nor are security issues somehow aloof from politics: politics has never truly stopped “at the water’s edge.” Securitization considers only the politics of security. Its strangely dichotomous optic cannot see or make sense of the politics within security.

In ignoring the politics within security, securitization is of course in good company. Realists of all stripes have paid little attention to domestic political contest, except as a distraction from structural imperatives. But while realism is unquestionably a powerful first-cut, this inattention to the politics within security is also among the reasons so many have found it wanting. As Arnold Wolfers long ago observed, some degree of insecurity is the normal state of affairs. But “some may find the danger to which they are exposed entirely normal and in line with their modest security expectations while others consider it unbearable to live with these same dangers.” And states, he further argues, do not actually maximize security—almost ever. “Even when there has been no question that armaments would mean more security, the cost in taxes, the reduction in social benefits, or the sheer discomfort involved have militated effectively against further effort” (1962:151, 153). A securitization perspective renders all this politics within security inexplicable. And yet, as Wolfers saw half a century ago, it is crucial.

Finally, there is a sociological reason that securitization theory has had less influence on the American intellectual landscape. Constructivists should have seen in securitization a European brother-in-arms: shared presuppositions about the nature of social life, a common commitment to causal accounts. But they have not, for the most part, welcomed securitization theory. This is partly because constructivists at first had little interest in language or rhetoric, focusing instead on ideas, identity, and norms. But it was more fundamentally, we believe, because North American constructivism has been so closely tied to liberal IR theory. Rebelling against structural realism, they focused on the scope not only for agency in global politics (against the emphasis on structure), but also on the exercise of a particular kind of progressive agency (against the pessimism of realism). They explored especially how actors construct the world for the better, how their ideas and entrepreneurship can transform anarchy, facilitating cooperation and even emancipating actors from the brutish world of power politics. When they later searched for a model of how to theorize the impact of rhetoric, it is no accident that they looked to Habermas, whose “ideal speech situation” imagined a world of deliberation in which speakers left their power and rank at the door and approached each other seeking to persuade and open to being persuaded.

Securitization is, of course, a different animal altogether—which is why we find it attractive despite its flaws and limits. Rhetoric may transform the social world, but it enslaves as much as it emancipates. Discourse does not offer relief from power; its sedimented structures, producing subjects and setting the terms of the intelligible and legitimate, mark the operation of a different kind of power politics. Securitization theorists have more in common with classical realists like Hans Morgenthau and Arnold Wolfers than they do with many contemporary constructivists.

And that is perhaps why Americans so often fail to listen to securitization theorists. Constructivists are sympathetic to its focus on rhetorical politics, but they are often less enamored of its world marked always by power politics. Realists, at least the neorealist variety, should recognize the oppositional world of securitization, but they would normally brake at the theory’s discursive underpinnings. Securitization is a “realist-constructivist” theoretical approach, and thus it sits awkwardly astride American IR’s paradigmatic boundaries.

The transatlantic divide over securitization theory is no accident: it reflects substantive and sociological differences between American and European IR. But it is unfortunate. A securitization theory that was more attentive to causal processes and politics could provide a firm foundation for a new power politics. It would push us to unpack how security’s boundaries are drawn and threats are constructed and how these processes shape the practice of both domestic and international politics. It would move us beyond stale paradigmatic commitments, opening up room for dialogue between constructivists and realists. This would be a good thing—on both sides of the Atlantic.