From geopolitics to human security? - a review

Is the human security blueprint presented in the book by Mary Kaldor and Shannon D.Beebe achievable in a states system or does it depend upon a more cosmopolitan milieu? Andrey Makarychev reviews The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon
Andrey Makarychev
17 January 2011

The main attraction of this book lies in its explicitly far-reaching ambitions: the authors seek to formulate “a new language of security” (p.5) and then to attain “a full paradigm shift” (p.150) in security thinking. Claiming that ideas do matter, the two authors adhere to the constructivist worldview which I share and support. Mary Kaldor and Shannon Beebe make a perfect - though unusual - team of Professor and Lieutenant Colonel, keen to formulate the basics of this “new security language”. In my review I will first try to inscribe their intellectual endeavor into existing traditions of political theory, and then see how the concept of human security may resonate in Russian discourse.

The ‘old’ security vocabulary

The key target of these authors’ criticism appears to be the concept of hard security and the consequent hard/soft security distinction. It is the authors’ claim that hard security strategy owes its obsolescence to the way in which it is grounded in the concept of sovereignty (p.159), thereby fomenting an inevitable search for external foes as transgressors and sources of threats. To contravene this approach, Beebe and Kaldor adduce two chief arguments that deserve our utmost attention.

Firstly, they claim that the concept of sovereignty is itself undergoing a profound - yet still underestimated by many –process of transformation. Seen from the vantage point of a human security perspective, sovereignty is increasingly conditional on the respect for human rights, and presupposes states’ self-constraint. Indeed, most traditional sovereignty tools, when they are applied against new security challenges, fail to work, such as deterrence against terrorists or rogue states for example (p.169). Against this background, questions regarding the status of territories (whether Yugoslavia remained one state or became six states or eight states or more, or whether South Ossetia and Abkhazia ought to be recognized as separate states) have to be subordinated to the much more important principle of human rights (p.161).

Arguably, this approach could be a useful extension of Michel Foucault’s theorizing of the evolution of Europe’s power instruments from the sovereign right to kill to the obligation of empowering and enabling one’s citizenry, and also protecting their lives (p. 90). What one may see at this juncture is a distinction being drawn between the protection of “any life” (p.18), regardless of nationality, ethnicity or religious beliefs (p.159), as opposed to its being restricted to those Giorgio Agamben refers to as “politically qualified lives”. Yet what for Agamben is a biopolitical function of sovereign power, for Beebe and Kaldor is a global norm-in-the-making that does not need to be grounded in sovereign will.

Secondly, What if no clear-cut enemies exist in certain security situations? - the authors venture to ask. I am immediately reminded of the mass-scale forest fires that destroyed hundreds of Russian villages in the anomalously hot summer of 2010. This idea of human security is able to properly embrace security situations which are not about defeating a visible and identifiable enemy, but rather about protecting people from a much more complex mix of threats. Health security (p.180), malnutrition, oil spills – all these matters are an integral part of the human security agenda.

What is worth noting is that by stating that “absolute state sovereignty, war mentality, territorial inviolability, and aspects of superpower rivalry are remnants of the industrial and imperial age” (p. 168), the authors introduce us to a sort of temporal continuum of different types of security thinking. These gradually move from ‘Westphalian’ hard security strategies to allegedly post-industrial, post-imperial, post-sovereign and post-(inter)national forms of security. Such a teleological vision might imply what could be dubbed the ‘temporal othering’ of countries like Russia. What follows from our authors’ logic is that some countries are in the vanguard of promoting a “new security language”, while others lag behind or may be taking a transient advantage of artificially-constructed relations of enmity. It is in this context that one has to comprehend the supposition that “it is helpful for Iran, China, and Russia to have a Western enemy” (p.169). The concept of regime change in Iran and North Korea (p.157) is a logical political addition to what otherwise represents an academic theory.

If hard security thinking is believed to be outdated, it follows that the hard/soft security distinction is equally dysfunctional and even misleading due to the fact that there are global threats - like terrorism - that appear to belong to both security domains. Besides, what may be considered a ‘hard’ (military and state-centric) security problem contains a great deal of ‘soft’ (non-military/non-material and more societal) dimensions. In this vein, one may argue, the significance of military power lies not in the inevitability of its physical application, but mainly in its ability to shape the communicative, perceptional and discursive terrains of world politics. ‘Hard security’, therefore, simply does not exist without meaningful soft elements.

But is hard security thinking in retreat?

However, the approach articulated in the book under review raises a number of questions for further debate. Firstly, as I mentioned above, while the human security concept perfectly fits situations where threats lack clearly identifiable insecurity perpetrators, in the meantime, human security mechanisms are also supposed to work when violence (like mass-scale protests or revolutionary movements) is the source of conflict. That is why, as the authors themselves recognize, there exists a military interpretation of human security (p.68), that boils down to different strategies of counter-insurgency. And is this hard security thinking in retreat ? Not necessarily. The authors’ claim that “energy security has an unfortunate tendency of strengthening hard security aspects” (p.163) is quite revealing in this regard.

Secondly, since human security focuses on population rather than on territories, it may be regarded as an a-territorial type of security, viewed as part of global normative structures. Yet in the meantime, human security can be still be territorially bounded, since it has to be reified in a world composed of states, including those non-western ones to which the west is expected to ‘export’/project the normative principles of human security. One of the key questions stemming from this is whether the human security blueprint presented in the book is achievable in a states system or whether it depends upon a more cosmopolitan milieu? In other words, is the book offering an agenda for today or mostly for a distant tomorrow? And, therefore, what, in the authors’ judgment, are the biggest challenges for their brainchild. Is it weak states (p.36), or the “national basis of politics” (p.37)?

My understanding is that the authors assume that the implementation of the human security concept is feasible in what might be dubbed a ‘single human community’ (p.37) in which “all human lives are considered equal” (p.199). Another name for this “world community” - a notion used, in particular, by Barry Buzan - is a “humanitarian space” (p.179). Within it war constitutes only a deplorable exception (p.195), and “the threat or use of nuclear weapons should be treated as a war crime or a crime against humanity and should be included in the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court” (p.179).

A Russian perspective

It is exactly at this point that the implications of this book’s findings for Russia are to be discussed. The difference between the human security approach proposed by the authors, on the one hand, and Russian foreign policy discourse, on the other, is stark. While Beebe and Kaldor stick to a “human community” perspective, Putin and Medvedev are adherents of a much more state-centric worldview in which there is still a more or less strict line of demarcation between the internal and the external – a line which the human security concept denies.

I’ll give a couple of examples to illustrate this. Look at Russia’s relations with a number of non-recognized territories which Russia supports either militarily (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) or politically (Transdniestria). Unfortunately, what is not a priority for Russia is the living standards in these break-away enclaves and their human conditions. Russia pays little attention to the way the secessionist territories are governed, and that ethnic minorities are tackled. The implementation of a human security agenda in the case of Russia’s relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia would necessitate two basic responses - all the displaced persons would have to be allowed to return and receive compensation, and an international presence should be installed to guarantee their human rights. The first condition is simply not a priority for Moscow, while the second one will be unacceptable for political reasons.

Another example of how far removed Russia’s official policies are in their perceptions from the ideas of proponents of human security - may be found in their very different interpretation of the essence of energy security. In Beebe’s and Kaldor’s view, energy security has to incorporate human security, along with energy diversification, the transparency of oil revenues, and the universal access to energy (p.165). But all these dispositions are in conflict with the logic of the Kremlin. The Kremlin is not interested in the diversification of energy supplies. It is critical of international standards of transparency in the extractive industries. It is eager to treat energy products as commercial merchandise and not as “public goods”.

This is not to say, of course, that Moscow won’t be able to find its place in a global human security agenda. Gradual changes in the Russian position are quite possible, provided that Russian academic and non-governmental communities (at least, their liberal parts) would more explicitly raise their voices in explaining to the Kremlin that the western approaches to human security are in no way inimical to Russia; but instead, are steering this country towards the adoption of higher international standards in its security policies and peace-making operations.

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