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[연구] Research

[국제안보의 이해] Defining Security

Bee Yun Jo (2014.9.11)

Fall 2014 Understanding International Security (Prof. Sheen Seongho) – 국제안보의 이해(신성호 교수)

Week 2 Defining Security


Defining Security



Joseph Nye, “Conflicts After the Cold War,” Washington Quarterly (Winter 1996), pp. 5-23.

Bernard Brodie, War & Politics, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1973) pp. 341-374.

David Baldwin, “The Concept of Security,” Review of International Studies (January 1997), pp. 5-26.

Arnold Wolfers, “’National Security’ as an Ambiguous Symbol,” Robert Art and Robert Jervis, International Politics 2nd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985), pp. 42-53.

Barry Buzan and Lene Hansen, The Evolution of International Security Studies (London: Cambridge University Press, 2009), Ch. 1 Defining International Security Studies, pp. 8-20.

Vincent Boulanin, “Cybersecurity and the arms industry,” SIPRI Yearbook 2013 (Stockholm: SIPRI, 2013), pp. 218-223.

Gui Yontao and Yuichi Hosoya, “Will Japan’s Plan to Exercise Its Collective Self-Defense Right Make Asia More or Less Secure?” Global Asia, vol8, No. 4. Winter 2013, pp. 46-52.


Main topics:

1.      Securitization in the post Cold War era

2.      How to define the concept of security

3.      Security policy analysis

4.      Discussion on the debate on Japan’s Collective Self-Defense



1.      Securitization in the post-Cold War era

In discussion of security in the post-Cold War era, we have seen so many divergent issues become securitized(Buzan, Waever, de Wilde). Unlike the notion of military security that prevailed and simplified the debate during the World War years and Cold War era, what we face now is a “comprehensive” concept of security based on multiple notions of “hyphenated concepts”(Buzan) such as economic security, cybersecurity, energy-environmental security, social security, and human security, to name a few.


2.      Definition of Security

Despite such emergence of diverse security concepts, along with the establishment of International Security Studies as a sub-branch from IR and other previous relevant realms (e.g. War Studies, Military History, and Strategic Studies) (Buzan and Hansen), it is surprising that the actual literature devoted on the concept itself has been “inadequate”(Baldwin). Unlike the innumerable discussions on diverse security policy agendas, what security actually defines has been quite insufficiently addressed. According to David Baldwin, for instance, Arnold Wolfers’ 1952 work is one of the few works that actually showed the efforts to conceptualize the term.


In regards to Wolfers’ piece, the seminal point of his work in Security Studies has been his remark/recognition that security has become “an ambiguous symbol.” The academia and relevant fields have left the term unspecified, unscrutinized, more or less entangled in normative and empirical arguments about policy directions.


Indeed, the term is a very difficult concept to define. Many scholars have referred to the subjective and moral/normative connotations of the concept which makes it difficult to settle the term on a concrete definition. Brodie, for instance, argued for the “subjectivity of vital interests” and that the concept has been used in diverse “flexible” and “expansible” conceptions(345); to put differently, what statesman term a country’s vital security interests tend “not to be found in objective reality but rather in the minds of men”(364). Wolfers also noted that the difference “in the reaction to similar threats suffices to make it probable that nations will differ in their efforts to obtain more security”(Wolfers, 44). Lack of uniformity in the concept seems inevitable as “In any case, together with the extent of the external threats, numerous domestic factors such as national character, tradition, preferences and prejudices will influence the level of security which a nation chooses to make its target”(Wolfers, 45).


Is security then “an essentially contested concept”(Buzan)? Baldwin argues not. And he believes that this cannot be “an excuse for not formulating one’s own conception of security as clearly and precisely as possible.”(Baldwin, 12) As Wolfers well noted on the danger of ambiguous scrutiny of the term used, conceptualization of the concept is an important task which will facilitate “asking the most basic question of social science”; promote “rational policy analysis by facilitating comparison of one type of security with another”; and facilitate “scholarly communication by establishing common ground between those with disparate views” (Baldwin, 6).


Moreover, as Wolfers notes, the attempts to define the term have not been entirely absent. Wolfers recalls Walter Lippman’s definition who stated that “a nation is secure when it is not in danger of sacrificing their core values, if it wishes to avoid war, and is able, if challenged, to maintain them by victory in such a war.” Based on Lippman’s insight, Wolfers further goes on to come up with his own, which he terms security as “the absence of threats to acquired values.” Baldwin, developing upon Wolfers, termed it as “a low probability of damage to acquired values.”


Overall, what is clear from this debate is that security is a value that individuals, states, and/or international community that choose(s) to protect and prioritize over the other values. It obviously involves the allocation of resources (means) based on which value, and how much (level of security) of the value to protect. Baldwin’s work is noteworthy on this point as he well distinguishes three different approaches to seeing security as a value: 1) the prime value approachan approach that looks at security as the most important, prime value and goal for the country – Hobbesian logic that “security is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of other values such as prosperity, freedom, or whatever”(18); 2) the core value approach – which looks at security as one of “several important values(19); and 3) the marginal value approach – this is which Baldwin finds “more preferable” than the other two, “security is only one of many policy objectives competing for scarce resources and subject to the law of diminishing returns. Thus, the value of an increment of national security to a country will vary from one country to another and from one historical context to another, depending not only on how much security is needed but also on how much security the country already has”(20).


3.      Security Policy Analysis

As Wolfers, Baldwin, Buzan, and many scholars have pinpointed, the concept security has to be further specified on many grounds. Baldwin’s work is explicative in its suggestion of a total of 7 specification questions that can facilitate the process: First we have to ask two main specifying questions – 1) Security for whom?; and 2) Security for which values? Then, we have a follow-up of five additional questions: 3) How much security?; 4) From what threats; 5) By what means?; 6) At what cost?; and 7) In what time period?


A short exercise illustrates the usefulness of these questions. For instance, Obama’s address to Assad regime (Syria) last year we used in today’s class…

1)      Security for whom?: Int’l system, entire humanity, Obama argues

2)      Security for which values?: Humanitarian, Universal values,

3)      How much security?: Absolute security from the prospective use of chemical weapons

4)      From what threats: chemical weapons on warfields;

5)      By what means?: By what Obama terms the “targeted killing” of the Assad regime;

6)      At what cost?: Not significant when compared to the previous involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq – Obama names Russia, France, UK and other allies who have shown the will to commit in the task

7)      In what time period?: Long term perspective – elimination of chemical weapons – reconfirmation of the entire ban on the use of chemical weapons


The outright merit of these questions is that it serves as an analytical frame to understand the policy objectives of the country’s security policy/action/agenda, the overall securitization process of an issue for specific goals of a country. Nonetheless, if I may point out, such questions for specification may still remain more or less as much as ambiguous as Wolfers’ comment on the previous definition of security. As the seven questions illustrate, the questions are limited in disentangling the questioner/respondent from normative and subjective interpretation of a given situation. Depending on different perspectives, one group of individuals should be prioritized over others; values still remain on normative grounds; setting the target also requires a judgment; perception of threats still vary on multitude variables; and so forth.

Moreover, do these specifications really serve as a means to clarify and conceptualize the term security?
While I do perfectly agree with what Wolfers meant with the potential dangers of using the term without specification and the overall death in academic efforts to conceptualize the term, Japan’s case(discussed below), for instance, shows that these specifications proposed by Baldwin may be purposefully used as a means for justification (as well as it did in the Obama's speech above). These questions are lacking in their ability to guide the conceptual debate on what security is, do not initiate thoughts that challenge our previous conceptions, but rather more or less remain at superficial depth, helpful only in terms of establishing a security concept for policy-oriented purposes.

4.      Discussion on the debate on Japan’s Collective Self-Defense

Professor Yuichi Hosoya from Keio University stated in one of his interviews that Japan’s claim for Collective Self-Defense has been a manifestation of a unified security policy that has been unseen in the modern history of Japan. According to his observations, there has been a historically surprising consensus on the idea of security, what to protect, and how.

Abstaining from a normative judgment on Japan’s take on collective self-defense, a question that emerges is: Isn't the consensus on the concept of security also dangerous? Especially if the concept is developed not based on Wolfers' notion of "conceptualization" but mere conceptualization for policy-oriented, justification purposes?

In case of Japan, having a unified consensus(arguably by Prof Hosoya) on security policy that precedes other realms of the government agenda is in fact Japan’s manifestation of simplifications and prioritizations of its assertive values and goals in the region over other values such as Japan’s previous pacifism (at least the efforts to appear as pacifist). Their security policy strives for a unified view on security by justifying whose and what values are to be secured, the degree of security, the threats and enemies, the means for coping with the threats, to costs involved of doing so, and the relevant time period (7 specified questions answered in consensus), in a way that their actions in security are more prioritized than other realms; arguably insinuating the mobilization mechanisms of the World War years where military security served as the prime goal of the nation.


Overall, the central point I wanted to point out is that while Baldwin’s 7 questions are crucial in analyzing and understanding the specific goals and means of already established security policies (conceptualization of what security means in each policy), when it comes to making a policy the 7 questions serve as a guideline to how to justify securitization of an issue, how to expand the concept and justify why an issue should be perceived as the vital interest of a nation. To put differently, Baldwin’s 7 questions are successful in conveying that policy is not developed on an absolute value/universal principle/morality, but rather based on constructive conceptualizations that can always outlive their original justifications. Wolfers' argument on the need for further conceptualizations of the concept lies more on the philosophical and theoretical discussions, whereas Baldwin's resides on the strategic, policy ground.