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date: 15 June 2024

Critical Theory, Security, and Emancipationfree

Critical Theory, Security, and Emancipationfree

  • K.M. FierkeK.M. FierkeSchool of International Relations, University of St Andrews


Critical theory in International Relations originated from the Marxist tradition which, during the mid- to late Cold War, formed the basis of dependency and world systems theory. In the years before and after the Cold War, critical theory became part of a larger post-positivist challenge to the discipline and to the development of critical security studies. At the heart of contestation within the broader arena of critical security is the concept of emancipation, developed by members of the Frankfurt School such as Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Several key debates have been at the center of critical security studies relating to the construction of threats, identity and difference, human security, and emancipation. In particular, critical security analysts have addressed the question of how, given the range of threats or risks that exist in the world, some threats come to have priority over others and become the focus of discourses of security. Also, some scholars have disputed the idea that identity is dependent on difference. The concept of human security shifts attention away from states to individuals, emphasizing human rights, safety from violence, and sustainable development. In the case of emancipation, critical theorists have expressed concern that the concept is too closely linked with modernity, meta-narratives, especially Marxism and liberalism, and the Enlightenment belief that humanity is progressing toward a more perfect future. What is needed is not to avoid emancipation per se, but to pay close attention to its underlying assumptions.


  • Security Studies


Critical theory in International Relations can mean several things. Critical theory refers to a body of thought growing out of the Marxist tradition, which, during the mid- to late Cold War informed dependency and world systems theory. In the decade prior to and following the end of the Cold War, critical theory, informed by Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, both of which have a Marxist lineage, became part of a larger post-positivist challenge to the discipline and to the development of critical security studies. In this context, the word critical was also used in relation to a much broader array of approaches, including postmodern, feminist, and postcolonial accounts. At the heart of this widespread critique was a concern for those outside established structures of power, who had been excluded from accounts of international relations, or, more specifically, discussions of security. In this respect, the attempt to dismantle the dominant state and Eurocentric assumptions of international relations and security studies was part of an attempt to allow a space for the voices of the marginalized and the suffering to be heard within a discipline and a subfield that had prioritized questions relating to the threat and use of force by states. For critical theory, and critical security studies as its offshoot, theory and practice are closely intertwined. The theorist does not observe the world objectively, but rather is always situated in a historical context and responding to a set of historically specific circumstances. In this respect, the critical developments within international relations have to be understood against the backdrop of critical social movements in the world. Emancipation is a specific concept, developed by members of the Frankfurt School, such as Adorno and Horkheimer, which has been at the heart of contestation within the broader arena of critical security studies.

Classical and Older Literatures

The discussion of classical literatures of critical theory has to be distinguished from the discussion of classical literatures of security in so far as the two did not merge until the 1990s, with the development of critical security studies. Up to this point in time, development, a central concern of critical theory, and security, largely informed by realist thought, were separate areas of study and practice. Marxist and neo-Marxist international relations theories, which emerged during the Cold War, focused their critique primarily on dominant realist and liberal views of the international system. Like the Marxist tradition from which they derived, critical theories emphasized questions of hierarchy. Development studies addressed questions of inequality and poverty, while security studies focused on conflict and war. The latter was, during the first two decades of the Cold War, more often referred to as strategic or national security studies.

The critical Marxist literature presented a critique of the more liberal model of development, which assumed that societies in the South could replicate social and economic changes experienced by the North since the eighteenth century. The liberal model located the lack of development within individual states, ignoring the embeddedness of these states in historical, more global relationships. By contrast, the critical Marxist literature was premised on the idea that globalization is not a new phenomenon. The underdevelopment of the South went hand in hand with the development of the North in a capitalist world economy. Critics of European imperialism in the early part of the twentieth century, and not least Lenin (1939/1988), argued that capitalism was fueled by the need to expand in search of profit. Imperialism was a manifestation of this global expansion in pursuit of wealth. In the period following decolonization, these arguments were adapted to explain less formal structures of control. Immanuel Wallerstein’s (1974) world systems theory provided a framework for understanding the relationship between the development of the industrial core, the underdevelopment of a periphery, which provided raw materials, and a semi-periphery, which produced luxury goods and provided a buffer against revolutionary transformation. Dependency theorists further examined how links between elites in North and South reproduced a relationship of Southern dependence and underdevelopment (Cardoso and Faletto 1979).

From the 1950s to the 1970s, a critical discourse of development became popular in areas of the periphery that had been historically exploited. This critical framework, like critical theory, placed the backwardness of the economies of the former colonies in a larger global context, in which the formal imperial relationship had, since decolonization, been replaced by less formal processes of exploitation. For instance, Northern companies purchased raw materials and labor power in the South below their true cost. Cheap labor and cheap Southern raw materials were transformed into manufactured goods in the North. In this critical discourse, the exploitative relationship was simply a new expression of the hierarchy that had constituted the capitalist world economy for centuries. It wasn’t that the South was undeveloped, but rather that it had been deliberately underdeveloped within a global relationship. Poverty was a direct consequence of how wealth was produced. This provided a global structural argument about the cause of poverty and legitimized practices on the part of Southern governments to intervene in the economy in order to lead the development process. At the time, many third world states joined together in calling for a New International Economic Order, or a reorganization of the global economy so that they would no longer be disadvantaged.

Critical Theory and Security

The 1980s saw the emergence of a neoliberal free market agenda, which pushed the critical arguments about underdevelopment into the background. At the same time, other offshoots of critical theory began to assume a place within International Relations, a development which was not unrelated to events in the world of Cold War security relations. US President Reagan’s rhetoric about limited nuclear war and demonstration shots over Europe revived fears of nuclear war, which spawned a political debate over the meaning of security, particularly in Europe. While NATO argued that nuclear weapons had blessed Europe with an unprecedented period of peace, peace and disarmament movements mobilized around arguments that the increasing likelihood of nuclear war made these weapons a source of insecurity rather than security. Reagan’s early policy, in the name of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction, was one inspiration for this fear. However, against the background of these debates, in 1983, he introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars,” followed, in subsequent years, by arguments that SDI would replace deterrence and make the “world sleep more secure.” After Soviet Premier Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he also entered into the debate, arguing the need for New Thinking, to conceive of security in political terms, and to emphasize the importance of common security. Against this background, the two superpowers began to engage in a peace competition that led to face-to-face talks in Reykjavik and discussions, for the first time during the Cold War, of disarmament and not merely arms control. In 1989, “velvet” revolutions shook Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union watched as the communist regimes were dissolved, not by force but by popular demand.

The Cold War was declared over with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, well before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Almost no one, and least of all the practitioners of security studies, saw the end of the Cold War coming. They were shocked both by the rapid course of events and by the fact that these changes did not fit with the realist assumptions of security studies. Not disarmament, nor velvet revolutions, nor a state relinquishing its sovereignty could be explained within a framework that defined security in terms of the threat and use of force by states. The sudden lack of a security problem, in addition to the apparent declining utility of military force, stimulated reflection and critical evaluation within the academy on the meaning of security.

These dramatic changes in the political world added momentum to the critique of international relations theory more generally, and security studies more specifically, which had been under way in the academy. In the post–World War II period, security studies, as well as conflict analysis, had been preoccupied with the attempt to develop the scientific status of the field, with a focus on deductive formal modeling, particularly of nuclear strategy (see, for instance, Schelling 1966), or the creation of empirical databases, such as the Correlates of War project, respectively. This emphasis on science in the academy, or, in the political world, on force structure, planning, and other technical problems related to nuclear and conventional weapons (Crawford 1991:289), went hand in hand with a distancing from the more political aspects of security. This demise of the political was also evident in the prominence of neo-realism by the 1980s. Neo-realists, such as Waltz (1979), criticized earlier realisms for being reductionist, that is, for reducing the problem of insecurity to the level of the individual or the state instead of the system of anarchy. In the search for elegance and parsimony, neo-realism removed any traces of the human, the political, or the cultural from international relations and provided instead a general theory of international relations, and a set of categories for formulating causal hypotheses that could then be tested against the world.

While the preoccupation with force structures, neo-realism, and social science created distance from the politics of security, this was also the point at which it began to be reintroduced. The period leading up to the end of the Cold War gave rise to a more fundamental attack on the scientific pretensions of the field, which was related to a larger Third Debate between positivists and post-positivists in international relations theory. One early expression of this emerging debate was Robert Cox’s (1981) distinction between problem solving and critical theory, which questioned the politics of power that underpins dominant theories. Cox argued that problem solving theory takes the world as it is, and attempts to find solutions to problems within it; critical theory, by contrast, raises questions about the historical location of both the theorist and his or her theory. As he famously stated, “Theory is always for some one and for some purpose” (1981:128). Around the same time, Barry Buzan (1983/1991) introduced the idea that security is an “essentially contested concept.” Somewhat later, post-structuralists, such as Richard Ashley (1984) and R.B.J. Walker (1987) exposed the absence of the political in international theory, the scientific pretensions of neorealism and the disciplining effect of the discourse of sovereignty. Constructivists, such as Nicholas Onuf (1989) and Alexander Wendt (1992) questioned the static view of anarchy, arguing that the world of international politics is not given but always in the process of being made. Analysts of gender, such as Cynthia Enloe (1989), Ann Tickner (1993), and Spike Peterson (1992), began to uncover the gendered assumptions embedded in the theories, concepts, and practices of international security. The application of security to a range of new and different threats, and the analysis of how threats are constructed, gave rise to a burgeoning literature on critical security studies.

Critical analysts of security were often accused of lacking either empirical pretensions or ability. Yet security studies had been plagued by this problem from the beginning. As Nye and Lynne-Jones (1988:13) pointed out: “In the fortunate absence of empirical data on nuclear exchanges, the field [of security studies] encourages non-empirical analyses.” Given the dramatic changes in international politics, the questions raised by critical security studies, and the attempts to develop new approaches and answers, arguably were more in tune with a changing world than their counterparts in the mainstream. As Krause and Williams (1997) document, critical security studies gave rise to a large number of studies within a fairly short period of time. The main problem was that these scholars did not define “empirical” in a way that fits with the research program of the mainstream. The difference regards a question of how scholars might know the world they are analyzing.

While rationalists treat the identities of actors – as self-interest maximizers – as given, critical analysts argued that identities, threats, and interests are constructed in historically specific circumstances. The shift to an understanding of security as a social and political construction expands the potential for formulating questions relating specifically to processes of change, including how enemies transform their relationship into one of friendship, how threats are defined and how the use of force is constructed. These questions were more empirically relevant to the changing contexts of the post–Cold War world than general theory that assumes the sameness of security across time.

Changing Debates

Critical security studies is distinguished from a longer tradition of security studies by the adoption of a critical approach. However, the meaning of critical has itself been at the heart of the evolving debate. Since Cox formulated the distinction between critical and problem solving theory in 1981, critical theorists, such as Ken Booth (1991; 2005) and Richard Wyn Jones (1999) have identified critical security studies (CSS) with Marxist traditions of critical theory, such as the Frankfurt School or Gramsci. Keith Krause and Michael Williams (1997) have argued that CSS is a useful way to categorize a range of approaches that have challenged the narrow metatheoretical assumptions of traditional security studies. Reinforcing the multiplicity of critical approaches, Fierke (2007) analyzed a range of concepts and debates that have defined critical security studies, and their relevance to real world problems. While the Copenhagen School does not claim to be critical, its important work on the securitization of threats (Buzan et al. 1998) or discourse analysis (Hansen 2006), has an important place in this literature. Critical security studies has grown in leaps and bounds over the last decade, and the arguments are often complex, drawing on a range of philosophical traditions, including, in addition to the Frankfurt School and Gramsci, Wittgenstein, Schmitt, Bourdieu, Foucault, and Derrida. The following explores a few key debates that have been at the center of critical security studies relating to the construction of threats, identity and difference, human security, and emancipation.

The Construction of Threats

Traditional security studies asked a question about how to respond to objective threats. Critical security analysts have begun with a different question about how, given the range of threats or risks that exist in the world, from the destruction of the environment to nuclear weapons to terrorism or human rights, some threats come to have priority over others and become the focus of discourses of security. The question can be asked more broadly in terms of how specific objects or phenomena come to be constituted as one type or another, that is, as “threats” (Wæver 1995), “crises” (Weldes 1996), “problems” (Dalby 2002) or “risks” (Beck 2003). These ascriptions of meaning are not always self-evident and any one has consequences for how actions or policy responses are constituted. Critics often confuse the issue by assuming that social construction of any of these is equivalent to fabrication, that is, if threats are constructed they don’t really exist. However, to call a threat a social construction is not, for instance, to deny that nuclear weapons exist or that they can maim or kill millions. The question, as posed by Weldes et al. (1999:12) is rather one of “how one gets from here to such widely shared propositions as these: that the U.S. is threatened by Russian, but not British nuclear weapons; that Third World states are more likely to use nuclear weapons than Western countries; that Iraq’s nuclear potential is more threatening than the U.S. nuclear arsenal; and the U.S. is safer with nuclear weapons than without them.” The focus is the process by which objects embedded in one set of relationships are given meaning as threatening, while in another they are understood to be benign.

Conventional approaches to security start with an objective threat, which is assumed to exist independent of the routines, procedures, discourses and knowledge brought to bear by security agencies (Huysmans et al. 2006:44). More critical approaches emphasize that threats are a product of a politics of representation. Far from being a purely external phenomenon, to which security agencies merely react, a potential threat is transformed into a security question through the active intervention of security agencies. Measurements of the scope and seriousness of threats are shaped by social, cultural, and political processes that produce some phenomena as “security” threats while largely ignoring others. In the process of reification, a human-made object or situation comes to be understood as a factual given that exists externally and independently of the agencies that produced it. It is not that weapons or threats of one kind or another have been made up but rather that the meaning attached to them, and the subsequent practice, has been molded in discourses. In this way, the actors and insecurities taken for granted in conventional security studies are called into question, thereby denaturalizing the state and its insecurities, demonstrating how both are culturally produced (Weldes et al. 1999:10).

Critical scholars of security (Campbell 1998; Weldes et al. 1999; Huysmans et al. 2006) focus on the background assumptions and discourses belonging to a culture from which threats are defined. Their intent is to denaturalize what has come to be assumed in order to open a space for alternatives. The Copenhagen School has distinguished itself from the broader category of critical security studies, which it identifies with critical theorists and post-structuralists. While the latter through a process of denaturalization attempt to show that change is possible, the Copenhagen School emphasizes that social constructions often become sedimented and relatively stable practices. Thus the task is not only to criticize this sedimentation but also to understand how the dynamics of security work and thus to change them (Buzan et al. 1998:35). The Copenhagen School brings greater nuance to the constructivist argument that security is not an objective condition but an outcome of a specific kind of social process, an argument which tends to grow out of a critique of the realist focus on state security. Ole Wæver (1995) embraces the latter but for a different reason. Security, he argues, is a concept with a history and connotations that can’t be escaped. The core of this concept is defense of the state. The alternative to denaturalizing related discourses of security, as is characteristic of critical security studies, is to take the realist concept seriously and to examine its dynamics. Broadening the concept of security raises an unanswerable question of where to stop, that is, security potentially relates to everything that is potentially threatened. The alternative is to examine how security is used, that is, to examine it as a field of practices and how it typically works.

Security is typically about survival and about an existential threat to a particular object, which legitimizes the use of extraordinary measures. It opens the way for the state to justify the taking of special powers to handle the threat. The problem of security arises from an emergency condition, which establishes the right to use whatever means are necessary to block a threatening development. In and of itself, there is nothing in this depiction of security that is contrary to the realist picture, which focuses on the state; rather, it represents how security typically works for states. The concept of securitization highlights the dynamics by which some threats as opposed to others come to be understood under the rubric of security and the significance of this naming as an act of construction.

The Copenhagen School argues that security is a speech act. The speech act, which was elaborated by John Austin (1962/1975), begins with the idea that saying something is doing something. Saying “I do” in the context of a wedding is not mere language or description. It is an act that brings a marriage into being. Promising or threatening are not labels that refer to objects in the world, but rather acts that involve an exchange in relation to others which, to be meaningful, must rest on certain shared understandings and some degree of credibility. The credibility of a threat will cease in the absence of a consistent pattern of following through on threats. Because the shared understanding attached to security is one of existential threat, uttering the word security is an act that constitutes a threat as existential. Threats that are securitized have been identified as existential threats that require an emergency response and the suspension of normal politics.

For instance, before September 11, 2001, terrorism was a category of criminal activity, and remains so for many international actors. However, after September 11, terrorism became an existential threat to the United States. The threat was existential insofar as the survival of America and American identity was seen to be at stake, and thus the threat had absolute priority. Use of the word security and the language of war constituted an emergency condition, where elites claimed the right to use whatever means are necessary to block the threat, including a policy of preemption against states that harbor terrorists. In so doing, they broke free of the rules that would normally constrain their actions. Since September 11, increasing surveillance and powers of arrest have been justified in the name of security. In the argument of the Copenhagen School, securitization is different from “normal” politics. The politicization of an issue brings it into the open and makes it a matter of public choice and something to be decided upon, that is, a part of the normal politics of public deliberation in a democracy. The securitization of an issue, by contrast, removes it from the political haggling of normal politics and justifies its prioritization over other issues, as well as decisive action by leaders. This may work to silence opposition, as leaders exploit threats for domestic purposes and act without democratic control or constraint. In this respect, security becomes a negative term that points to the removal of an issue from the realm of politics.

The Copenhagen School distinguishes itself from more critical security studies by its acceptance of certain realist themes, including attention to the processes by which state security practices are sedimented. Other critical analysts go beyond the Copenhagen School’s claim that securitization represents the suspension of normal politics to explore the role of securitization as a continual technique of governance, its role in the suspension of the political, such that the “state of exception becomes the norm” (Muller 2004; Shapiro 2004; Bigo 2006; Dillon 2007).

Michel Foucault (1976) argued that in modernity the legal authority of the state, accompanied by a view of individuals as citizens, represents a form of biopolitics. Biopolitics is the transformation of state power from the power of death to the management of populations and power over life. This reduces the citizen to what Giorgio Agamben (1998) refers to as “bare life.” The citizen of “normal politics,” derived, for instance, from Aristotle’s conception, engages in political debate and decision making. In Foucault’s argument, sovereign power revolves around the governance of populations and biological life rather than political life. The subject of politics is no longer the potential agency of the citizen, but the management of life itself. In this respect, the founding political image of the West has shifted from “Athens to Auschwitz” (Agamben 2004:169).

Auschwitz is a symbol of depoliticization, where survival is elevated over questions about the nature and continuation of a specific form of political life. The suspension of normal politics, as discussed by the Copenhagen School, becomes, in this view, a permanent “state of exception” (Agamben 2005). In the state of exception the sovereign becomes both the law and outside the law, insofar as it has the power to suspend the law, imposing extrajudicial exceptional powers or a permanent state of emergency, which becomes an important technology of government control. The state of emergency need not always be openly declared in a technical sense, yet statutory amendments and changes in the background speak directly to the permanence of the state of exception. The suspension of conventional legislative and judicial powers and the concentration of power in the hands of the core executive constitute the state of exception.

While the initial questions about the meaning of security were often situated within arguments about the need to expand the concept to cover new areas, such as the environment or poverty, the Copenhagen School argued that we cannot so easily escape a history of meaning and use in which security is associated with states and military power (Wæver 1995). What is important, in this argument, is the analysis of how a concept of security is put to use in the construction of threats. Post-structuralists go a step further to examine a more structural process by which insecurity is reproduced. The dilemma, according to Anthony Burke (2002:20) is that “security is bound into a dependent relation with ‘insecurity,’ it can never escape it: it must continue to produce images of ‘insecurity’ in order to retain its meaning.” While both rely on some notion of the “exceptional,” the Copenhagen School presents the exception as a deviation from “normal” deliberative and democratic politics, which are suspended in the face of a threat; by contrast, post-structuralists implicate liberal governance in the production of a long-term or permanent “state of exception.” All of these approaches depart from the assumption of traditional security studies that threats exist as objective phenomena separate from processes of making meaning.

Identity and Difference

The critical literature on threats goes beyond the assumption of traditional security studies that threats exist as objective phenomena in the world to examine how threats are constructed. Threats thus do not exist in a static field and their construction presumes a corresponding definition of the subject and object of threats. Thus, not only threats but identity are problematized by critical security analysts. In neo-realist accounts, states are assumed to be unitary and rational actors and thus identity is not an issue. The concept of identity, by contrast, opens up the possibility of multiple identities, and change between them. According to Goff and Dunn (2004), identity has four dimensions: alterity, fluidity, constructedness, and multiplicity. Discussions of identity within the literature on critical security studies have revolved around several aspects of identity. The first point, upon which critical analysts generally agree, is that identity exists in a relationship, an idea that is often captured in the concept of alterity. Identity is a social category that expresses not only the meaning any one actor attributes to the self; rather self-definitions are related to definitions that the self gives to others and others to the self. Categories are thus intersubjective and defining of a particular community of identity and practice; they are not purely in the minds of individuals.

The discussion of identity as a relationship suggests that it is to some degree constituted in difference. As William Connolly (1991:64) argues, identity, whether of an individual, a state, or some other social group, is always “established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognized. These differences are essential to its being. If they did not coexist as difference, it would not exist in its distinctness and solidity.” Critical scholars inspired by Foucault and Derrida, among others, have highlighted several dimensions of the identity–difference relationship. The first is the role of identity and difference in constituting “insides” and “outsides” of states (Walker 1993; Campbell 1998). Notions of order, progress, democracy, and ethics have been presumed to be only possible “inside” the state, while the “outside” is a realm characterized by anarchy, war, and the primacy of power. David Campbell (1998) takes this logic a step further to demonstrate how US identity has been dependent on the production of danger from evil others outside. Another theme is the role of difference in constructing hierarchy and the legitimacy of intervention. Roxanne Lynn Doty (1996) explored practices of representation by Northern elites that constituted the “imperial encounter.” She analyzes the role of binary oppositions, characterized by reason/rationality, passion/emotion, parent/child, and good/evil, and the construction of regions such as the “South” or the “third world,” or more narrowly Kenya or the Philippines, in relation to the “North,” the United States or Britain. Doty argues that hierarchical representations legitimized intervention in these regions. Gender is also a site where identity is constructed in hierarchical difference. Gender discourse provides a system of meanings and a way of thinking that shapes how men and women experience, understand, and represent themselves, which also shapes many other aspects of human life and culture (Cohn, in Cooke and Woollacott 1993:228–9). This discourse rests on dichotomies that construct mutually exclusive oppositions, including mind to body, culture to nature, thought to feeling, logic to intuition, objectivity to subjectivity, etc.

Whether deconstructing the “othering” of enemies or subordinates, all of these scholars emphasize the power inherent in constructions of knowledge based on difference. Most of them build on the Foucauldian idea that discourse not only contains linguistic expressions, to be judged in terms of the accuracy of representation, but also generates modes of power and exclusion. As Michael Shapiro (Der Derian and Shapiro 1989:75) comments: “In deploying identities for actors and producing the overall meaning frame within which they operate, [discourses] constitute and reproduce prevailing systems of power and authority in general and direct the actions flowing from these systems to the particular.” The purpose of critical analysis, in this school of thought is to deconstruct the binary oppositions upon which power and exclusionary processes rest.

Some scholars have disputed the idea that identity is dependent on difference. Ole Wæver (1996:122) points to contemporary Europe as an example that raises questions about this claim. Rather than constructing clear and dangerous others, post–Cold War Europe has, he argues, been “a pole of attraction with graduated membership so that Europe fades out but is not constituted against an external enemy.” Critical theorists in the tradition of Habermas, such as Linklater (1998), have argued that dialogue can be a path to some kind of universal consent against the background of particular differences. Linklater (1996:85–7) claims that discourse ethics seeks to critique all forms of systematic inequality that prevent active participation in dialogue. Nonetheless, critical scholars who emphasize identity and difference have problematized the goal of universal consent. First, the goal of expanding the values of the polis to the international sphere is in conflict with the search for consent within sovereign states, insofar as democratic consent within sets the stage for practices of exclusion of others outside. While these critical scholars also seek dialogue that crosses lines of difference, they resist totalization in any form, including a totalized universal agreement. It is difference itself that is to be celebrated. Freedom is about speaking, listening, and being heard, and not being excluded from communication and conversation (Ashley and Walker 1990:395). An ethical relationship between self and other requires contestation and negotiation. All ethics arises from a relationship to otherness, which entails a permanent critique of totalization and a struggle on behalf of difference rather than attempts to eliminate it.

In practice, processes of dialogue have been defined less by the search for universal agreement than the attempt to move beyond the stark identity–difference relationship, which is the foundation of conflict, toward some kind of common identity and language that would make talk – as distinct from fighting – possible. Before the end of the Cold War, the European dialogue between disarmament campaigns in the West and human rights initiatives in the Eastern Bloc constituted “citizens of a Europe whole and free,” in contrast to bifurcated Cold War identities of a divided Europe (Fierke 1998). Divided societies moving out of conflict have also often sought some kind of common identity. In South Africa, the notion that all citizens are South Africans provided a foundation of common identity for the truth and reconciliation process. In Northern Ireland, a common identity of this kind is by definition more problematic, given the conflict has been defined by allegiance to either the United Kingdom or Ireland. As a result, distinctions within the peace process between “men of violence” and those who had renounced violence played a larger role.

The shift within critical security studies to a focus on identity went hand in hand with a methodological shift away from the attempt, common within the social sciences, to fix the meaning of terms in order to test them against the world, to forms of discourse analysis. Given the fluidity of identity from one context to another or its changeability, it is imperative that the analyst examine how identities are formed in context and in relationship to other identities. The extent to which discourse analysis should be viewed as a “method” has been a subject of debate. As Jennifer Milliken (in Fierke and Jorgensen 2001:136) points out, some discourse analysts within international relations avoid questions of rigor and systematic method given their association with positivism and an objective world “out there.” Others, such as Hansen (2006), have argued that it is imperative for discourse analysts to be clear in stating their assumptions and presenting their methods. The fact that discourse analysis rests on a more constitutive model of analysis, as distinct from a causal one, does not make it less rigorous by definition (Hansen 2006:28).

The debate over identity and difference also flows over into debates over discourse analysis. While most who identify themselves with post-structuralism would focus analysis on the deconstruction of hierarchical oppositions, others conceive of discourse analysis as useful for a range of tasks. First, it may be useful for analyzing the multiple discourses for giving meaning to identities in a context undergoing change. For instance, in the aftermath of the Cold War, against the backdrop of conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and particularly Bosnia, Western observers placed the identities of the antagonists in several different frameworks of meaning, drawing on analogies to World War I, World War II, Vietnam, etc., each of which shaped a different understanding of the conflict and conclusions about the type of action to be taken (Fierke 1996; Hansen 2006). A second approach focuses on the distinct contours of different worlds across time. The subjects, objects, and practices that constituted the world of sixteenth century witch-hunts or eighteenth century slave-trading or twenty-first century terrorism are historically and culturally specific. Discourse analysis may be used to map the transition between worlds. Neta Crawford (2002) adopts a form of argument analysis to map the transition from a world in which slavery was legitimate to one in which it became an illegitimate practice. A third angle explores how meanings, shaped in one historical encounter, may carry over into future interactions, to be transformed within a new discourse. For instance, the concept of a safe haven, situated during the 1990s in a discourse of protecting refugees and civilians in war, has been transported, in the context of the War on Terrorism, into a discourse of terrorism (Fierke 2007). Despite changes in the discourse over time, the core of the safe haven, since it was defined in the 1949 Geneva Convention, has been the protection of vulnerable people. By contrast, in the National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism, published by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2006), the safe haven is “one of the most important resources of extremists” (2006:15). While this is not the first time that the term has been used in relation to nefarious activities, such as money laundering and fraud, there is an overlap between the use of safe haven in this context and the protection discourses of the 1990s. Both are embedded in a world of “failed states”; what changes is the identity of the subject, from that of “victim” to be protected to “terrorist” who is a source of fear.

Human Security

Global inequality was a theme of the early Marxist literature of international relations. This theme reemerged in the 1990s, in a somewhat different form, as “failed states,” many of which were a product of decolonization and bloody intrastate war, began to proliferate. The old concept of security, focusing on conflict between states, was of minimal use for understanding this phenomenon. Two developments in the mid-1990s provided an alternative point of departure. The first was a concept of human security, articulated in the 1994 UN Human Development Program report. Human security shifts attention away from states to individuals, emphasizing human rights, safety from violence, and sustainable development. The second was a rethinking of the relationship between security and development, previously two separate areas of analysis. This rethinking gave rise to a conclusion that underdevelopment is dangerous insofar as it correlates and coexists with violent conflict (Duffield 2001; Hampson et al. 2001). Achieving human security, in this argument, would require the transformation of entire societies into liberal democracies. These developments reinforced the idea that the international community, and the United States more specifically, had a responsibility to spread democracy to other areas of the world.

Human security was first popularized by the UN Development Program and was a response to an observation after the end of the Cold War that in today’s conflicts civilians are often the victims and even the primary targets of violence. Human security builds on the idea that people’s rights are at least as important as those of states. It had relevance in a context where, since the end of the Cold War, the majority of casualties in war had been civilian, where more than 30 million people had been displaced from their homes, where large numbers of child soldiers had been recruited or forced into violent conflict, and where rape had become a standard practice of warfare. The concept emerged from the fusion of several other concepts (Hampson et al. 2001:152). The first, which was introduced by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, was sustainable development. The Commission’s report argued that environmental protection was a necessary condition for the long-term survival of humanity and, subsequently, of any long-term development strategy (World Commission on the Environment and Development 1987). The second, introduced by the first development report of the UN Development Program in 1990, was human development. The report stated that “people must be at the center of all development [and] […] that while growth in national production (GDP) is absolutely necessary to meet all essential human objectives, what is important is to study how this growth translates – or fails to translate – into human development” (UNDP 1990:iii). In the fifth Human Development Report in 1994 human development was merged with a significantly broadened security agenda to produce human security (Hampson et al. 2001:153).

The core concern underpinning the human security concept is the inextricable interrelationship between freedom from want and freedom from fear (Thomas 2004:353). This rests on a holistic understanding in which the vulnerability of individuals poses a threat to – and thus the safety of individuals is key to – global security (Hampson 2004:350). One major focus of the human security agenda was a treaty that banned landmines, which are often left scattered around a landscape after war, and can be a source of harm to people going about their daily business. Other issues on the agenda include protecting civilians in armed conflict; reforming sanction regimes to mitigate some of the more negative effects on civilians; the rights of women; humanitarian intervention to protect against future Rwandas or Srebrenicas; and the demobilization and rehabilitation of combatants, and particularly child soldiers. The International Criminal Court has also been an important item on the human security agenda, as has the “responsibility to protect,” a proposal of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) which incorporates a concept of human security over more narrow definitions of national security. The ICISS proposal represents a rethinking of the conflictual relationship between sovereignty and non-interference, on the one hand, and human rights on the other. Sovereignty comes with an obligation of the state to provide protection to its population. When the latter is not forthcoming or the state becomes a source of harm, the responsibility to protect transfers to the international community.

Human security is a critical concept in so far as it raises questions about the focus and assumptions of realist security studies. Scholars have, however, complained about the existence of over thirty definitions of human security (Alkire 2004:359). The lack of clear boundaries has been useful for political actors who seek to organize as broad a coalition as possible behind the concept, and for anthropologists who seek to uncover how it is used in different contexts. Scholars of human security have, on the one hand, sought a more precise category in order to improve its analytic strength, and, on the other hand, have been troubled by the difficulty of fixing the definition of human security. Kyle Grayson (2004) raises a concern about the politics of conceptualizing human security. He asks who, what, and where is marginalized when “experts” provide a precise/scientific definition that is of practical use, and argues that the focus of attention should be the power–knowledge nexus that the concept constitutes.

The methodological issue points to questions about the concept’s critical potential in practice. On the one hand, despite its distance from liberal notions of possessive individualism, as noted by Thomas (2000:xi), human security does have links to a liberal model of development. In this respect, many of its assumptions are in conflict with more critical theories of development. On the other hand, the concept has been used to present a critical challenge to current practice. Human security has been a key concept of NGOs and others who are interested in actually transforming global economic structures. As Thomas (2000:9) notes, “the shift to human security […] highlights the importance of scrutinizing global processes that may impact on, even jeopardize security and the global governance structures which drive these processes.” Whether human security is understood to be part of a new regime of power or a challenge to existing regimes, the concept rests on a recognition that the traditional means of providing safety and security to civilians, that is, the nation-state, is no longer – if it ever was – effective in many parts of the world.

Liberal discourses of development and democracy have focused on individual states, ignoring the embeddedness of these states in historical relations that are global. This focus has been maintained in the merging of development and security discourses. Mark Duffield (2001) provides a critical analysis of the relationship between security and development, which, he argues, has increasingly been addressed within a liberal governance model. Since the mid-1990s there has been a change of policy based on the conclusion that underdevelopment is dangerous and is a source of conflict. In this respect, “want” perpetuates “fear.” This conclusion, which is an extension of the liberal model, does not locate underdevelopment or “failed states” in an unjust global system, which emerged along with a capitalist world economy and a history of imperialism, but instead internalizes the causes of conflict and political instability. Conflict is a result of underdeveloped and dysfunctional war-torn societies. The solution to underdevelopment is to be found in the transformation of individual societies rather than the global system in this liberal logic. The policy of international organizations has thus shifted from humanitarian assistance and aid, per se, to the process of reconstructing post-conflict societies along liberal lines (Duffield 2001:11). As a result, an increasingly complex array of UN agencies, donor governments, NGOs, and military establishments work together to bring about a change in societies so that problems of the past don’t reemerge. Their practice rests on an argument that development is impossible without stability and that security isn’t sustainable without development (Duffield 2001:16).

Duffield examines human security as part of a Foucauldian strategy of biopolitics, whereby a strategic complex of global actors and governing agencies, through a newly formed public–private relationship, shapes and controls civil populations. He argues that the nature of power and authority has changed radically. This new power, expressed in the globalized structures of liberal peace, differs from old imperial structures. Rather than the brute imposition of power, or the direct control of territory, we see partnership and participation, which implies a mutual acceptance of shared normative understandings. Inclusion in global structures means buying into the norms that underpin these structures. This development is a response to the demise of political alternatives in the South, since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the socialist project. On the part of the West, it is an attempt to stem refugee flows and to transform entire societies, replacing indigenous values and modes of organization with liberal ones.

The marriage of development and security discourses reinforced a liberal agenda of transforming entire societies into liberal democracies. This agenda is problematic for two reasons. First, as already discussed, it represents a new regime of power, albeit “softer” than the old imperialist regime. Marxists view human security as a repackaging of liberal humanitarianism, with its routine failure to address underlying social causes (Thomas 2004:353). Second, the discourse failed to problematize the role of historical global relations in the production of “failed states” and, subsequently, in the production of fear and want. The discourse localizes agency in the “international community” and some Western states, which have taken on the role of “fixing” the problem of human insecurity. The resulting practices have the potential to reproduce historical relationships of power.

On the one hand, human security embodies a number of liberal assumptions and has reinforced a liberal agenda. On the other hand, it contains a potential for questioning and rethinking these assumptions. Liberal approaches ask how security is to be provided to the individual, given the failure of states. More critical analyses look to the global historical context, and the assumptions underpinning it, to the processes by which “failed” states, and subsequently human insecurity are produced and reproduced.

Critical Theory and Emancipation

The Frankfurt School originated in 1930s Germany with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who articulated a technique of immanent critique and the concept of emancipation. Immanent critique begins with the idea that the critical theorist stands within time and within a historical context, rather than outside time as an objective observer, as assumed by problem solving theories. The critical theorist creates a critical distance from his or her historical context in order to explore its origins, development, institutions, and potential for change (Booth 2005:11). Critical theory presents a more three-dimensional world containing not only the powerful but others as well. Immanent critique relies on a clear link between theory and practice and, as Richard Wyn Jones (1999:6, 56) argued, “critical theory stands or falls by its ability to illuminate the possibilities for emancipatory transformation.” If problem solving theory reinforces the position of the powers that be, critical theory and immanent critique make suffering humanity the prism through which problems are viewed. This means focusing on the men, women, and communities for whom the present order is a cause of insecurity. If all theory is theory for someone, then critical theory, or critical security studies, is for the voiceless, the unrepresented, the powerless, and its purpose is their emancipation (Wyn Jones 1999:159). Edward Said (1994:84) further suggests that critical intellectuals “are always tied to and ought to remain an organic part of an ongoing experience in society: of the poor, the disadvantaged, the voiceless, the unrepresented, the powerless.” Consistent with a Gramscian argument, intellectuals are the agents of critique, who engage specialist information and expertise to the end of challenging prevailing hegemonic discourses (Wyn Jones 1999:160).

In everyday language, emancipation is associated with struggles for freedom from domination, such as the emancipation of American slaves or the emancipation of women. The word is derived from the Latin emancipare, meaning the action of setting free from slavery or tutelage (Wyn Jones, in Booth 2005:216). The theoretical roots of the concept are found in Marxist theory. In his “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx claimed that the point is to change the world, not merely to interpret it. While originally equating emancipation with the need to be freed from the vicissitudes of nature, Adorno and Horkheimer later rethought the problem as they struggled to make sense of the barbarism of the Holocaust, arguing that it represented the deification of instrumental reasoning, which had been essential to nature’s domination. They instead envisioned emancipation as a “reconciliation” with nature, suggesting a more non-instrumental relationship with it. Several decades later, Habermas (1984; 1987) discussed emancipation in relation to interaction and community, and identified emancipation with the potential to be freed from those institutions and practices that stand in the way of unconstrained communication.

Within international relations, Andrew Linklater (1998) adapted the discourse ethics of Habermas to an argument about the potential for global dialogue as a path to more universal agreement and thus a more universal culture and identity. Ken Booth (1991) further identified two elements of the relationship between security and emancipation, defining security as the absence of threats, and presenting emancipation as freeing people from the physical and human constraints that stop them from carrying out what they freely choose to do. War and the threat of war are constraints, as are poverty, poor education, and oppression. He later (1999:41–2) defined what emancipation is not. In his argument, it is not a universal, timeless concept, nor can it be gained at the expense of others. Emancipation is not synonymous with westernization. These arguments point to a larger concern, expressed by other critical theorists, that the concept of emancipation is too closely linked with modernity, meta-narratives, especially Marxism and liberalism, and the Enlightenment belief that humanity is progressing toward a more perfect future.

Protagonists in this debate fear that the codification of positive alternatives, based on the search for universal consensus, as suggested by Habermas or Linklater, will only buttress new regimes of power, as was the case with Marxist communism in the former Eastern Bloc. They point to Western discourses of universalism that are implicated in the production of a particular conception of politics and society. In this conception, negative representations of non-European peoples contribute to the construction of Western identity as the highest civilization, and legitimize its project of global domination (Linklater 1998:47). From this perspective, the critique of universalist concepts, including emancipation, is fundamental to eradicating hegemonic representations of the non-Western world that have been part of the construction of Western power. One related argument is that the agents of emancipation are invariably from the West, whether in the form of Western-dominated international institutions, a Western-led global civil society, or the “ethical foreign policies” of leading Western powers (Barkawi and Laffey 2006: 350). Even when the concrete agents of emancipation are not themselves Westerners, they are conceived as the bearers of Western ideas. This does not mean that emancipation needs to be avoided per se, only that, like any other phenomenon in international relations, critical attention to its underlying assumptions is required.

Emancipation begins with critique and is primarily about the act of freeing, whether from the assumptions that blind us to alternatives or from the structures of power that constrain human potential. Wyn Jones (in Booth 2005:216) argues that some concept of emancipation is a necessary element of any form of analysis that attempts to problematize and criticize the status quo. Hayward Alker (also in Booth 2005:200) discusses the need to include multiple Western and non-Western perspectives on freedom without “giving up the distinctive and attractive appeal to human improvement and emancipatory development that is so central to the ethical/global concerns of the critical security studies project.” Even Jacques Derrida (1996:82) has expressed a commitment to the “great classical discourse of emancipation,” while avoiding inscription of the discourse into “a teleology, a metaphysics, an eschatology.” He goes so far as to state that there “is no ethico-political decision or gesture without […] a ‘yes’ to emancipation.” Emancipation is a process rather than an end point, a direction rather than a destination. Immanent critique is one step in this process and the point of departure for identifying the emancipatory potential of a context. Emancipation can more generally be understood in relation to the critical imperative of freeing security studies from those assumptions that blind scholars to concerns outside its narrow definition, which focuses on statecraft and force, thereby opening a space to consider alternatives. Emancipation further refers to freeing those outside established structures of power from the constraints that hold them back from realizing their potential.


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Links to Digital Materials

The Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on International and State Sovereignty, 2001. At, accessed Jul. 2009.


This essay is heavily indebted to my book Critical Approaches to International Security (2007). Readers wishing a more detailed treatment of this topic are encouraged to consult this source.