The definition of security and the related theories vary greatly among scholars and those closely connected to the industry. However, the traditionally held idea of security is the protection of critical assets – people, facilities, information, equipment, facilities, systems, and processes – but does not extend beyond the tactical or operational level. Conversely, security encompasses numerous geopolitical and human security elements at the strategic and global levels. At these higher threat levels, security often is defined as the use of or threat of military force (Walt 1991).
Still, this definition fails to address the less obvious destabilizing human security elements previously mentioned. For instance, instability in one state or region can significantly impact the security of the surrounding states and other areas worldwide. Examples of this would be violent extremism, or transnational organized crime creates instability in a state like Somalia but has a global impact on global security by posing a threat to international shipping in the form of piracy.
Realist theories dominate discussions of international security studies because of national security’s intrinsic national interest (Wolfers 1952). Fearon (1995) affirms this idea in his assertions that Jus in Bello – justification for war – between two or more states or groups is sometimes necessary to protect that state’s or group’s security. For example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was predicated on the threat of the latter country joining NATO, an organization founded on countering aggression by the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation.
Similarly, there is a soft-power contest across diplomatic, information, military, and economic fronts between the U.S. and China, both states acting in their national interest on a global stage (Kirshner 2012). The likelihood of a direct military engagement between these two states is unlikely without a significant catalyst. Still, each exerts hegemonic influence on other less powerful states to undermine the overall global power of the other.
As stated earlier in the article and previous ones, other human security factors outside of geopolitical and military power are also crucial to the international security studies discussion and focus more on constructivist theories than realism (Kolodziej 1992). Human security calls for recognizing vulnerabilities globally that dispute the conventional perception that military security is the only means of addressing threats. Instead, focusing on the primary human condition over national interests would provide a longer-lasting and more stable security environment.
Numerous sociological elements comprise human security, covering various social science research fields such as human rights, strategic studies, international relations, and development studies. These elements are economic and political security, food and health security, personal and community security, and environmental security. All play a vital role in defining threats and vulnerabilities to human security. For example, overfishing and pollution off the coast of the Horn of Africa exacerbated the political and economic turmoil and food and health crises in Somalia, resulting in increased violent extremism and piracy.
Similarly, a drought in Syria created a food shortage driving people to the urban centers and instigating civil unrest. The Assad regime then weaponized the food supply to quell the revolts, further disrupting the state’s human security and allowing Da’esh (ISIS or the Islamic State) to gain a significant foothold (Eng and Martinez 2014).
In closing, the two traditional security concepts were protecting assets at the tactical and operational levels and military power at the strategic scale. Human security elements and other constructivist social science theories expand on the dominant realist paradigms of international security studies (Smith 1999). Therefore, scholars and policy-makers should view the concept of security through the prism of realism in the cases of Russia, the U.S., and China and acknowledge the destabilizing impact of human security factors through the constructivist lens.
Eng, Brent, and José Ciro Martinez. 2014. “Starvation, Submission, and Survival: Syria’s War Through the Prism of Food.” Middle East Report (273): 28-32.
Fearon, James D. “Rationalist Explanations for War.” International Organization 49, no. 3 (1995), 379-414. doi:10.1017/s0020818300033324.
Kirshner, Jonathan. 2012). “The Tragedy of Offensive Realism: Classical Realism and the Rise of China.” European Journal of International Relations 18, no. 1 (March 2012): 53–75. https://doi-org.ezproxy2.apus.edu/10.1177/1354066110373949.
Kolodziej, Edward A. “Renaissance in Security Studies? Caveat Lector!” International Studies Quarterly 36, no. 4 (1992), 421. doi:10.2307/2600733.
Smith, Steve. “The Increasing Insecurity of Security Studies: Conceptualizing Security in the Last Twenty Years.” Contemporary Security Policy 20, no. 3 (1999), 72-101. doi:10.1080/13523269908404231.
Walt, Stephen M. “The Renaissance of Security Studies.” International Studies Quarterly 35, no. 2 (1991), 211. doi:10.2307/2600471.
Wolfers, Arnold. “National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol.” Political Science Quarterly 67, no. 4 (1952), 481. doi:10.2307/2145138.
Ben Varlese is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.
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