The New Security Thinking: A Review of the North American Literature

Project on World Security, Rockefeller Brothers Fund


Since the end of World War II, North American analysts and policymakers have used "security" in innumerable ways to highlight a range of issues considered important, reflecting different perspectives on what matters and why in international relations. All along, the meaning of security has been contested, but that debate intensified with the end of the Cold War. While appearing to offer new concepts of security, the new literature as often betokens a return to pre-Cold War ways of thinking about security -- including attention to non-military means and the relationship between domestic affairs and national security -- as it does a response to a truly new and unprecedented security situation (Baldwin 1995, p. 122; Kolodziej 1992).

The debate seems new, both because one perspective, known as Realism, had largely triumphed for several decades, and because some of the threats (notably in the environmental area) truly are unprecedented. Under Cold War pressures, a sense of security referring primarily to the prospects for military conflict between states came to dominate both thinking and policymaking on security. This approach was based largely on various versions of the Realist paradigm. But the victory of Realism was never complete, and the end of the Cold War gave the alternatives a new lease on life. At the same time, growing awareness of the dangers posed by new phenomena such as climate change and the population explosion has led to assertions that these new threats should be incorporated into notions of "security." And all of this debate is complicated by growing questions about the role of the nation-state and its capacity to provide security.

This is more than an academic debate over the meaning of a term. The Realist dominance of security thinking was reflected in the creation of institutions and the allocation of resources, particularly in the United States. The U.S. National Security Council dealt largely with military issues, and U.S. development assistance was allocated largely with an eye to geopolitical considerations. Because "security" is so often conflated with "what deserves allocation of the state's time, attention, and money," if Realism does not provide an adequate description of current reality, basing security policy on Realist ideas could decrease security by causing policymakers to pay attention to the wrong things and to allocate resources inappropriately.

Despite massive efforts, agreement on a new definition of security has proven elusive. After the Cold War, a wide range of North American think tanks and university centers sponsored projects aimed at rethinking security, many of which led to some kind of publication but none of which achieved widespread acclaim for new insights into thinking about security.1 By the mid-1990s, a certain exhaustion and sense of exasperation with the whole "rethinking security" business had set in. As one review commented, "In retrospect, each of these attempts at making sense of the emerging security environment can be seen as having been based on an unrealistic premise: that the contours of the emerging international order could be perceived if not redrawn" (Del Rosso 1995, p. 192).

In recent years, some writers and groups found themselves narrowing their focus or retracting earlier proposals for a broad redefinition of security. Perhaps the most notable of these is Richard Ullman, whose 1983 article in International Security is often cited as the pathbreaking article that first drew the attention of mainstream security analysts to a broadened perspective on security. That article defined a threat to national security as

an action or sequence of events that (1) threatens drastically and over a relatively brief span of time to degrade the quality of life for the inhabitants of a state, or (2) threatens significantly to narrow the range of policy choices available to the government of a state or to private, nongovernmental entities (persons, groups, corporations) within the state (Ullman 1983, p. 33).

Because many factors other than military threats from abroad must be considered as security threats, he argued, they deserved?and were not receiving?the attention of policymakers and allocation of resources on a similar scale. These nonmilitary threats to security included resource scarcity caused by population growth and rising living standards, Third World urbanization and the attendant strains on fragile governments, and pressures for migration.


A decade later, however, Ullman was reconsidering his use of terms, noting that if "national security" is used to

encompass all serious and urgent threats to a nation-state and its citizens, we will eventually find ourselves using a different term when we wish to make clear that our subject is the threats that might be posed by the military forces of other states. The 'war problem' is conceptually distinct from, say, problems like environmental degradation or urban violence, which are better categorized as threats to well being...Labeling a set of circumstances as a problem of national security when it has no likelihood of involving as part of the solution a state's organs of violence accomplishes nothing except obfuscation (Ullman 1995, pp. 3, 12).

This perspective is echoed by others who have publicly emphasized the importance of non-military problems but question the utility and appropriateness of labeling them "security" issues (Deudney 1990; Dalby 1992; Conca 1994).

This paper highlights the major issues that have emerged in the literature in recent years; it is not meant to be a comprehensive review.2 The paper is divided into eight sections. Section II describes the assumptions of Realism?the theory underlying Cold War security thinking?and notes the current literature that continues to defend Realist findings and prescriptions with at most minor modifications. Section III reviews the "good news" literature. These writings take issue with the bleak Realist insistence that war and the preparation for war must always and inevitably be the defining condition of international relations. They argue that the likelihood of major war is declining or that new strategies are available for handling the threats states can pose to one another's security. Section IV addresses causes of violent conflict beyond those considered in traditional Realist thinking, ranging from ethno-nationalism to environmental degradation. Section V examines writings on the role of the state, presumed in Realism to be the only actor that matters. These writings question the capacity of state actors to address international threats, or even to maintain basic social cohesion in light of complex new forces. Section VI looks at the rapidly growing "human security" literature that calls for a wholesale redefinition of security, focusing on non-military and unintended threats to values and to human well-being. Section VII reviews Canadian and U.S. security policy statements and practices. Section VIII concludes that seeking widely acceptable, new security paradigms and definitions is an elusive goal.

1 For a listing of some past and current projects, see Rockefeller Brothers Fund, 1997.

2 For example, the paper omits most of the vast theoretical literature in political science on the security consequences of anarchy. See Buzan 1991, Buzan 1997, and Lipschutz 1995.