Through the Looking Glass: A Brief Note on the Evolution of Security

By Leah Matchett

Security studies is a field that has traditionally grown by punctuated equilibrium, in response to new developments in the international system. Before World War I, civilians were generally not encouraged to participate in military strategy or analysis of the use of military force (Walt 1991). However, after the bloodbath that was World War I, civilians began to take a more active role in the field of conflict studies, with the idea that it could not longer be “left to the generals” (Walt 1991). After World War II, the field grew yet again with the introduction of the atomic bomb, and analysis of deterrence and nuclear strategy (Walt, 1991). Security Studies remained fixated on the bomb until 1970, when the lagging US economy led scholars to begin to treat international political economy as an aspect of security (Matthews, 1989). However, through this entire period of development, the field remained centered around issues of military force and conflict.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a turning point in the field of security studies. In 1988, a conference of academics of security studies met and defined the field as “ the central political problems of threat perception and management” (Nye and Lynne-Jones, 1988). Other authors echoed this sentiment around the same time, calling it “the threat, use, and control of military force (Walt, 1991). However, by 1991, there was already significant pressure to expand the discipline to include topics traditionally excluded, like the environment.

At the fall of the Soviet Union, the major impetus and focus of security studies disappeared overnight, leaving authors and think tanks in search of new missions. Some, like Baldwin (1995) argued that security studies should be subsumed back into
the field of international relations, while others pointed out that, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, military force would continue to play a prominent role in the world, and so would security studies (Walt, 1991).

Yet other authors argued that, not only should security studies be preserved, it should be expanded to include everything from disease prevention to environmental degradation. Matthews, writing in 1989, argued for the “redefinition” of security to include population, environmental, and resource issues. Her justification for this traced back to the inclusion of economic factors into the field of security studies in the 1970s, citing the costs of environmental degradation as justification for its inclusion in the field. She proposed that these costs would affect the stability of states, particularly in the developing world (Matthews, 1989).

There was, and still is, significant resistance to this expansion of international security to include environmental issues. Authors like Deudney (1990) and Barnett (2001) warn that the inclusion of environmental issues into security studies leads to a reaffirmation rather than a dissolution of national boundaries, and is actually detrimental to the environment. The international conference on security studies held in 1988 specifically mentions issues like the depletion of fish hatcheries (which Matthews also cites) as a part of environmental science, and not security (Nye and Lynne-Jones, 1988).

The trend among academics of labeling every negative trend as a new form of security issue is not limited to the environment, but includes things like food, water, and energy. In the 1990s there was a sharp sense among several authors that the continued expansion of the definition of “security” dilutes the field, turning the word to by a synonym for bad (Deudney, 1990; Walt, 1991). A lack of focus was considered a real threat to the cohesion and effectiveness of the discipline.

The process of “securitization”, by which a disparate array of fields were rebranded under the auspices of security studies has raised interest in the academic community on why and how this happens. The dominant modern discourse on this comes from the Copenhagen school, which treats securitization as a speech act- a deliberate decision to elevate a topic into the realm of an existential threat by using language associated with security studies (Williams, 2003). This school purports that security is a category of importance, rather than an absolute title, and the use of language associated with security studies is used by the speaker to elevate the importance of his or her topic. The effectiveness of this securitization is determined by the influence of the person performing the speech act (Williams, 2003). This is important in comparing the results of the securitization process. The doctrine of environmental security faced significant pushback from the security studies community, while other fields, like energy security, were accepted easily. In this journal we hope to establish ourselves as a nexus of sorts, where we investigate the current status of this discussion, and the early work of some of the nation’s next big thinkers on security studies.