Why openSecurity?

Robin Wilson
24 May 2014

The unreality of 'realism'

Why openSecurity? 'Security' is of course normally an arena which is exclusive and secretive, heavily and unreflexively male-dominated, and focused on sustaining (or contesting) Weberian 'monopolies of legitimate force' through the suppression of dissent—by whatever means are deemed necessary. In this realist’ paradigm, violence is addressed through a pursuit of ‘national interests’ by states against one other, with the possibility of peace treaties between states or ‘peace processes’ engaging violent actors within them recognising a concluding balance of power.

This conventional notion of security is obsolete in a globalised world where power has leaked away from ‘sovereign’ states to sub- and trans-state organisations (including corporations as well as paramilitary organisations), in which conflicts are as often intra- as inter-state, in which constructed identities rather than taken-for-granted interests are frequently at stake and in which victims are mainly civilians rather than uniformed. A turning point was the ‘Euromissiles’ crisis of the 1980s, which engendered a peace movement against the east-west ‘bloc logic’ that played a valuable role sponsoring a people-to-people détente. This helped to bring the cold war to an end—albeit a chaotic one, with a resurgence of ethno-nationalism in central and eastern Europe most disastrously manifested in the wars of the Yugoslav succession.

Still stuck within the realist paradigm, imperial wars of intervention today bring only social chaos (Iraq, Afghanistan) and ‘peace processes’ fail (Israel/Palestine) or at best issue in dysfunctional states (Bosnia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland). And the all-too-real security dilemmas engendered by the collapse of dictatorships bring polarisation between modernising and fundamentalist political forces, with the threat of authoritarian renewal (Egypt) unless neutral brokers can intervene (the trade unions in Tunisia), or brutal civil wars as the ‘international community’ is reduced to inaction or partisan endorsement of one or other side (Libya, Syria). The United Nations is hamstrung by its post-war construction based on powerful states allocated veto powers, leaving Latin America, Africa and the Indian subcontinent out in the cold. Meanwhile corporate pursuit of increasingly scarce resources (eastern DRC) and growing ecological constraints (Darfur) underpin intense emergent conflicts in a world which cannot outgrow its finite planetary fabric.

The closed conception of security, explicitly outside democratic scrutiny and accountability—that is assumed to offer succour to the ‘enemy’—is however increasingly unsustainable in a ‘networked’ world where information is more and more a public good which leaks out of hierarchical, command-and-control organisations. Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, Wikileaks and the Guardian have sent shockwaves through this system. Even if China’s ‘great firewall’ remains in place, it cannot forever control a world of many-to-many communication, as other authoritarian regimes (Cuba and Iran, if not yet North Korea or the Gulf autocracies) are coming to appreciate.

Alternative paradigm

The role of openSecurity is to stimulate strands of argument, analysis and reportage which elaborate and elucidate elements of an alternative security paradigm, all in a spirit of openness and pluralism. This begins with recognition of how unrealistic the ‘realism’ of ‘national security’ is in a world of ‘really existing cosmopolitanisation’ (Ulrich Beck) and of the normative need for a ‘cosmopolitan vision’ as an effective antidote to violence, rather than counter-productive repression. It thus understands security in the broadest sense, as ‘human security’, focusing primarily on the security of citizens rather than the state and embracing the contribution of non-state actors as well as restructured armed forces and police services.

Key themes to develop here are what David Held has called global ‘gridlock’, which has left the world’s citizens to look on in impotent horror so many times since Srebenica—including as more and more extreme weather events show climate chaos is here and now—and the intrusiveness of the security state and corporations as they struggle to control the networked world. This of course takes us far from the idea of ‘security’ as a walled-off expert discipline to one which must draw upon all the social sciences as well as the tacit knowledge of a wide range of practitioners on the ground—such as those struggling to engender some sense of collective efficacy in sprawling urban slums or in the face of corporate rapaciousness.


openSecurity has been a full section of openDemocracy since 2012. Generously funded since principally by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it enthusiastically seeks out partners internationally—including members of its prestigious advisory board—which can complement its expertise, enlarge its audience and add to its reach: in 2014 it enjoyed more than three times as many unique page views (over a third of a million) as in 2012. If conventional security policies and practices often, indeed very often, fail or at best are only weakly effective, openSecurity shines a spotlight on solutions in two unique ways.

First, intellectually, it advances a much more holistic security agenda. Rather than being fixated on men in uniforms, who can often create as many security problems as they solve, it widens the picture to include the importance of governance arrangements which incur legitimacy, the contribution of NGOs such as those committed to reconciliation, the significance of movements for gender equality in challenging masculinist violence, the necessity of supportive economic and social policies rather than insecurity-generating austerity, the potential of cultural activities to challenge taken-for-granted antagonisms and so on. As against the narrow, one-club approach of reliance on ‘security forces’ to provide security, this broad-based alternative is far more likely to bring successes. openSecurity brings together a compendium of stories like these which can inspire policy-makers and activists alike.

Second, morally, openSecurity can offer much more compelling pointers because of its underlying commitment to universal norms rather than the Realpolitik which too often means particular state interventions in situations of insecurity can easily be represented as advancing a particular interest, especially in a post-cold-war world of one superpower. openSecurity can moderate a global debate which is not constrained by ‘national security’ thinking because its moral compass is the universal value of individual human dignity, which inevitably leads to a commitment to human rights and the rule of law. This also means that we demand of our contributors a commitment to ethical journalism, manifesting an integrity and independence untainted by association with ‘security apparatuses’ or corporate agendas.

Wisdom of crowds

Nearly a quarter of a century after the end of the cold war, it often feels like we inhabit a dystopian, runaway world with a fundamental lack of effective steering capacity. We now know how the National Security Agency has sought to instrumentalise the global public sphere to further the US ‘national interest’, with the internet turned into huge enclosures by largely Californian-based corporations. The Irish writer Oscar Wilde said that a map of the world without Utopia on it would not be worth glancing at. openSecurity fleshes out a vision of a polycentric world characterised by the wisdom of crowds, in which the global south has an equal and stabilising voice, and in which networked INGOs, from Amnesty to Avaaz, can weave the warp and weft of a more secure planet.


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