Securitization: Does It Work?

This essay was originally published in Questioning War.

Over the past few years, the world has seen an upsurge in the trend of using securitization to resolve political conflicts. Securitization is based on the notion that the way to solve political problems is through security and military means. We saw it in the United States’ War on Terror in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. We saw it this past summer during the recent Israel-Gaza War and we also saw it during the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and in Bahrain.

But before delving any deeper into the topic, though, it would be a good idea to first define what “security” is and what “securitization” is. When I searched for a definition of the former, I found two (from the Oxford Dictionaries):

  1. Security: the state of being free from danger or threat.
  2. Security: procedures followed or measures taken to ensure the safety of a state or organization from criminal activity.

The two definitions are very different. While the first one takes a personal, more individualistic focus, so it could be applied to anything from a person driving their car to work without fear or going to sleep without worry. The second one takes a focus on the state – saying that the state is the most important thing to protect.

The second definition actually touches on what is known as securitization. How securitization works is actually through a process that involves a) a securitizing actor b) a subject to be securitized c) an audience.

The actor constructs a subject as an existential threat to the survival of the state, in an effort to convince an audience of the security threat of any given issue. Often, the actor makes claims like “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction” or “these protesters are threatening the stability and cohesion of our nation”.

Now I know what you’re thinking; “What if the threat is actually real?” I am not saying that this subject that is being securitized is never a real threat, in many cases it can be.

Nonetheless, part of this securitization process involves convincing an audience of the need and the legitimacy of using extraordinary security means to solve a problem. These means can take form in declaration of martial law or a state of emergency; mobilization of the military; or declaring war; or all three at the same time.

In addition to this, when a subject is successfully securitized (i.e. an audience is convinced of the security threat posed by the subject), an added element is that this subject can then be considered illegitimate for political or academic debate. Usually this takes the form in the famous catchphrase “We do not negotiate with terrorists” because when a subject is successfully constructed as being illogical, irrational or outside the bounds of reason, this allows the state to use securitization with the backing and support of the general public.

So what does this securitization approach to conflict resolution entail? Are there benefits to it? Are there drawbacks?

Usually the stated aim of the securitization approach is to achieve some kind of order and stability, so often it is used as a response to civil unrest and violence, but also as a counter-terrorism tactic.

Proponents often cite the Second World War and how the military responses against Nazi German aggression was seen as a decisive factor in pushing back the assault of the Axis Powers, so mass securitization can be said to have worked in that situation. But the problem with this view is that it is one situation or context and just because it worked against an aggressive imperialist state doesn’t mean it is the right method to use against groups like the Islamic State (in Iraq and Syria) or as a response to protests or civil unrest.

Securitization is used by many different countries in different parts of the world, but often what they have in common is short-term thinking. To them, the primary concern is stopping the war or establishing law and order. However, questions about why protesters are out in the streets in the first place or why militant groups are committing terrorist acts are left on the way side, often completely forgotten and never dealt with. In this sense, securitization can be considered to be more of a conflict control tool rather than a conflict resolution tool.

So to answer the question “does securitization work?”, one can say that it does work; sometimes and in certain contexts. There is a level of complexity when it comes to dealing this topic, but it is extremely relevant especially as the world gathers to conduct military action against the Islamic State. Will military action work against them? Are we being too short-sighted? Are we missing critical parts of the equation?

This brings up the question of whether securitization actually manages to achieve its stated goals in the first place because it can also radicalize elements even further and turn a bad situation into an even worse one.

But the danger with using securitization as a conflict resolution tool isn’t that it may be ineffective (that still remains to be seen); the real danger is when the constructed threat is not real or over-exaggerated. And this is something that we, as individuals, as societies and as cultures should make efforts to being more aware of; being more critical of the information we are given and most importantly, being careful about the choices we make collectively and about the choices that are sometimes made for us.

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