Security Studies: Approach, Classification, Military & Non-Military Aspect

Security Studies: Approach, Classification, Military & Non-Military Aspect

The term “security” presupposes something to be secured and relies on prior visions. The study of security emerged during the Cold War era and dominated defense strategy. The traditional approach is to secure states against external threats, while the modern approach considers non-military challenges. Currently, security can be classified into four overlapping approaches: national, international, regional, and global.

Let’s Understand “Security Studies” and how global politics works around it.

Meaning and Emergence of Security Studies

Meaning of Security Studies The term “security” does not in itself mean anything. To have meaning, security presupposes something to be secured.

It implicitly invokes and relies on a series of accepted prior visions, and there could be four main specifications:

  1. What is being secured?
  2. What is being secured against?
  3. Who provides security?
  4. What methods may be undertaken to provide for security?

Out of the four, the first two are the most important ones.

What needs to be secured within the ambit of security studies is primarily “the state.” Security is the long-term health and viability of a state. Arnold Wolfers describes security as “the absence of threats to acquired values.”

Emergence of Security Studies The study of security as a separate branch of discipline came to dominate during the Cold War era. After the Second World War, the US and the Soviet Union emerged as the two superpowers.

Alliances were created by each of them with countries around the world to ensure that no single superpower would dominate the world.

As research and analysis of security expanded to know each other’s motives, the study of security grew throughout the 60s and the 70s.

As Joseph Nye observed: “the impetus for the development of international security studies came from the twin revolution in American foreign policy and military technology caused by the emergence of the Cold War and the development of atomic weapons.”

Security studies in the light of the rivalry between the superpowers became the center point of their defense strategy, and the study included strategic nuclear weapons and their proliferation.

Traditional Approach to Security

The dictionary definition of the general notion of security is a “sense of safety” involving both physical and psychological security. The traditional approach is that states should be secured against external threats or other instruments of coercion or the actual application of military force by another state.

Power deters other states from attacking another, and that is the primary reason for states to secure more power militarily. The bottom line is that power politics regulate international relations.

The traditional approach rests on the concept that the international system is not hierarchical and has no governing institution with enforcement power to regulate the behavior of states.

Although the UN Security Council may take collective enforcement action against an aggressor state, a big question arises whether all five veto-carrying members of the Security Council would be able to agree on definitive action. The ultimate result is that each state has to depend on itself to ensure its survival.

Modern Approach to Security

The modern approach to security is a multifaceted concept and does not rest on global power politics for the survival of states. The traditional approach has limitations because it does not take into account non-military challenges to security, such as political, economic, and social.

Threats to a state may emanate from within itself. Ethnic or religious conflicts, bad governance, economic insecurity, and a lack of social cohesion may undermine the existence of a state.

For instance, the Soviet Union disintegrated not from war or external threat but instead from a wide-ranging factors of non-military pressures including economic and political systems within the Soviet Union. The same pressures occurred in the communist Eastern European states that eventually abandoned communism as a state ideology.

The failure to foresee such metamorphosis appears to indicate that too much emphasis was laid on external threat for the insecurity of states.

Difference Between the Two Approaches

The difference of approach between traditionalists (realists/positivists) and modernists (post-positivists) is based on the fact that positivism assumes that security is materially based while post-modernism assumes that this material basis can only be understood through interaction of socio-economic forces.

The diversity of factors threatening the security of states after September 11, 2001, has provided more perspectives than ever before. Security studies at the dawn of the 21st century seem to be complex and bewildering.

What can be expected is that the nature of the debate on security will become intricate, and as a result, the issues of different aspects of security will become diverse.

Classification of Security

Currently, four different but overlapping approaches to security can be described, namely,

  1. National security,
  2. International security,
  3. Regional security, and
  4. Global security.

National security looks at security issues from national perspectives. It means the well-being of a state, including the preservation of its territorial integrity. International security acknowledges that the security of one state is interconnected with that of other states.

Regional security is not very different from international security, but it focuses on security within the region (for instance, the South Asian region).

Global security seeks to broaden the security agenda beyond military matters to include protection of human rights, reducing the widening gap between rich and poor nations, stabilization of the growth of the world population, fair international trade, development aid to poor nations, and protection of the global environment.

National, international, and regional security perspectives continue to explain how states actually approach security issues. During the Cold War era, containment and nuclear deterrence constituted national security between the two superpowers. In regional security, the balance of power within the region is crucial.

If any imbalance of power occurs in the region, there will be a reaction by other states to restore the balance of power. This has been a time-honored strategy in the maintenance of the balance of power through centuries.

For example, in South Asia, Pakistan attempted to maintain the balance of power with India, while India competes with China. China’s efforts were mainly directed to keep the balance of military forces with the US or the Soviet Union.

Israel’s possession of weapons of mass destruction tilted the balance of power in favor of Israel, and Iraq under the former Saddam regime with its petro-dollars simply decided to restore the balance of power in the Middle East region in the 80s but failed because it made a wrong political decision and attacked Kuwait in 1990, and the rest is history in the case of the former Saddam Hussein regime.

Besides the above classifications, another four have been added such as;

  1. Economic security,
  2. Societal security,
  3. Individual security, and
  4. Environmental security.

Economic security refers to the soundness of the fundamentals of the national economy.

This includes the maximum utilization of material and human resources in a state, and the nation’s wealth is distributed so that no one section of the community is left in endemic deprivation of basic amenities. Economic insecurity may undermine the physical security of a state.

Societal security means that society must be protected from external influences that are perceived as altering in unacceptable ways the traditional pattern of national identity, ideology, culture, and customs of society.

For instance, during the Cold War period, communism was perceived as a threat to capitalism, and Western powers, including the US, contained communism in such a manner that it could not influence the mainstream community within their territories.

In 2002, the female beauty contest in Nigeria was seen as culturally inappropriate, and finally, the contest had to be shifted to London. The political stability of Nigeria was jolted for a time.

Individual security means that individuals are protected from violence of any kind within the state. Violence may be generated if national wealth is not equitably distributed, leading to unrest among deprived community sections that may rock a state’s stability. As a result, violence against the affluent section of the community may occur.

Environmental security is to protect the environment, not because it is important to the environment, but it has value to human beings. This particular view is also known as “environmental security.” It means that by protecting the environment for its own value protects, in turn, human beings.

The difference between “environmental security” and “ecological security” lies in the methods.

For instance, environmental security for individuals would be achieved by adopting methods that balance human needs with environmental protection. In contrast, ecological security would protect living organisms without reference to human needs.

Security may also be viewed from

  • Military and
  • Non-military aspects.

Military Aspects of Security

Despite the end of the Cold War, hostility between states does not cease in international relations, and the military aspect of security will remain one of the core elements of national and collective security. The bottom line is that military power deters harm.

Assessments of power begin with military capabilities that include technology and state-of-the-art weapons. Since states are principal actors in world politics, security is their constant preoccupation, and the most powerful actors are those with the greatest military strength.

The US remains the greatest military power at the dawn of the 21st century and attempts to define the contours of politics in every part of the world primarily through the threat or use of military force. The Second Gulf War on Iraq in March 2003 illustrated the primacy of military power of the US.

Non-State Actors

The September 11, 2001 attacks on the US have exposed the security of all states to non-state actors/terrorists. They create headaches for national and international security because they are elusive and believed to be scattered around in 60 countries.

Traditional military strategy will not work to eliminate threats of security from them. Among the principal differences between the war against terrorists, non-state actors, and more conventional wars is that the war against terrorists may never end.

Previous wars between states were concluded at a certain time with surrender, peace treaties, and the declaration of victory. However, this war against terrorists will have no clear end and will continue.

A noted US law academic and practitioner suggests that “terrorism will persist because it often works and success breeds repetition.

During its long history, terrorism had a chequered record of stunning success and dismal failures…. Politics and security as usual did not prevent the biggest terrorist attack in history, but we do not seem to have learned much from this lesson. We need to start thinking outside the boxes that failed us, but without becoming like those who attacked us.”

To combat terrorism, by non-state actors global cooperation and intelligence gathering must be strengthened.

Many political leaders say that a terrorist is not born but a creature of environment and situations, and what motivates to turn a person into a terrorist is to be identified and must be addressed to eliminate the specter of global terrorism. Many world leaders have warned that grinding poverty converts needy countries into “incubators” for terrorism and chaos.

The President of the 2002 UN General Assembly, Han Seung Soo, quoting the Mexican poet Octavio Paz said rich nations could no longer afford to be “islands of abundance in an ocean of universal misery”. He further argued that the consequences would be the poorest nations becoming the breeding ground for violence.

Peru’s President Alejandro Toledo said that “poverty conspires against democracy. Global security is inextricably linked with the health of the world economy and helping the poor was inseparable from a strong and determined fight against terrorism”.

Non-Military Aspect of Security

Insecurity does not emanate wholly from external threats. It may come from within the state.

Although military power has a place in bringing stability in international relations, this has to be complemented with new approaches to security, such as the elimination of poverty, greater participation of people in national governments, good governance, elimination of corruption in developing countries, removal of widening inequality between rich and poor among nations and within nations.

Military power is only one of the five identified domains on which state security is founded. As noted earlier in the modern approach to security, the other four are political, economic, social, and environmental.

They are often called “pillars” on which a state is fully secured. If any pillar is weak, it may adversely affect other pillars and may eventually undermine the security of states.

One may argue that it is not enough for security that the military pillar remains secure because the failure to secure one other pillar (economic, social, or political) may be detrimental to the security of a state. Accordingly, each of the five pillars is germane to the security of a state.

Security depends to a great extent on how states resolve problems within their territories, such as religious or ethnic conflicts, or lack of democracy or violation of human rights. It means that any one of these internal issues may pose a challenge to the security of a state.

For example, Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan because of Pakistan’s mistaken policy of governance and suppression of political and economic rights of the people of Bangladesh.

The United Pakistan disintegrated in 1971 not because of external threats but because of its misguided and totally flawed government policy toward the Bangladeshi people.

National Security: Changing Face

Of all aspects of security, national security is a top priority for all states. National security means the security of the socio-political entity. It concerns not only the integrity of territorial boundaries but also the social, cultural, political, and economic way of life of the country.

National security has undergone transformation in the light of the changing world. The present-day world of the 21st century is largely characterized by four developments;

  1. Limits on national sovereignty and increasing role of intergovernmental organizations including the UN.
  2. Interdependence or interconnectedness of states because of economic globalization.
  3. Proliferation of low-level ethnic or religious conflicts and the rise of nationalism in many groups within a state.
  4. Attacks from non-state actors or terrorists.

The most important force to change the concept of national sovereignty is that an increasing number of intergovernmental organizations and transnational corporations have intruded in a big way into activities that were once confined to the domain of states.

The political boundaries of states have little relevance in the days of economic globalization. For business people, territorial boundaries are no more hurdles when manufactured goods are targeted toward a global market.

Interdependence among states has greatly increased because of some unavoidable factors. Mandel ascribed to the following factors for growing interdependence among states: “(a) an increase in cross-national transactions of all kinds (b) a rise in global sourcing and multinational production, (c) spreading of global homogeneity of material values, (d) greater international standardization of weapons systems and (e) the spread of political democracy facilitating greater mutual understanding and common ground among nations with similar ideologies.”

It is argued that interdependence is rooted in a global culture that is increasingly directed toward consumerism.

Fast food, McDonald’s and Burger King, and soft drinks Coca-Cola and Pepsi are available in almost every country, and the growing global middle class has more in common with members of the middle class in other countries than they do with the working class/peasants within their own country.

Proliferation of unconventional low-intensity conflict arising out of inter-communal or inter-tribal or ethnic tensions for prolonged periods makes a state exceptionally vulnerable to penetration by external political interests.

Furthermore, a frustrated ethnic or religious group may create unrest in society, and adventurist military officials may exploit the situation to seize power through a coup, destabilizing the foundations of a state. In 1974, a few Greek Cypriot Colonels seized power in Cyprus and declared their intention to merge with Greece.

The Turkish Cypriots reacted strongly against their declaration of intent to integrate with Greece, and Turkey, as one of the protecting powers of Turkish Cypriots, sent 40,000 Turkish soldiers to Cyprus. This resulted in the partition of Cyprus between the two communities, and the divided Cyprus remains until today.

Added to all these are activities of terrorists, for whom there are no battle lines and no discrimination between civilians and combatants. They can launch an attack on the vital installations of a state, as evidenced from the September 11 attacks on the US.

Weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons, may be easily accessible to them, and they can create devastation with such weapons in a state (see Chapter 15 of the book for details of weapons of mass destruction). All these pressures have changed the dimension of national security.

The concept of national security is much more problematic in relation to developing states than it is for industrialized states. Because developing states are economically weak, vulnerability is greater from within and outside factors.

It is argued that democracy, good governance, transparency, and accountability will strengthen the political and economic foundations of developing states, and in that way, they may be able to ward off dangers from within and outside threats.

Another threat to security among developing states is disputes over territorial claims and border disputes.

For instance, in South Asia, a dispute over the Kashmir territory between India and Pakistan led them to fight two wars in 1948 and 1965. Border disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides in 1998.

Regrettably, the disputes are the legacies left by the colonial powers, and a sense of strong nationalism based on ethnicity or religion prompts the states to fight with each other to claim territories or redraw a new boundary between states.

Security from Feminist Perspectives

The objective of the feminist approach is to challenge patriarchal practices that wish to dominate the concept of security.

Some authors believe that “a feminist model of security does not consider power in state form – instead exclusionary borders such as state boundaries are seen as part of the problem, in helping to construct bipolarity and division and so perpetuate insecurity. Feminist security theorists do not privilege the security of the nation-state’s territorial integrity; rather the concern is with the “low” politics of the state, translated into the security of individuals and communities, on which the state depends.”

Security of women as a group can be affected directly or indirectly within a state.

Physical violence against women is an obvious direct breach of personal security. Rape in peacetime and warfare is recognized as a deep security concern for the community. In the recent conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo, rape was used as a tool of “ethnic cleansing.”

While security of women is discussed in the above paragraph, the feminist approach adopts the broad view of international security that includes women’s experiences and offers different models of power beyond the usual meaning of domination.

An alternative power paradigm would be power through persuasion (winning hearts and minds) or empathetic cooperation with the aim of avoiding domination.

Betty Reardon enunciates two principles of security

  1. inclusivity (that is security is indivisible so that only full global security is meaningful and reasonably stable) and
  2. holism (that is, a multi-level approach to address the various different, interconnected constituent elements of security.


Security studies have evolved through the years, and there are now different approaches to understanding it.

While the traditional approach focuses on securing states against external threats, the modern approach emphasizes non-military challenges that may threaten the survival of a state. These challenges can be political, economic, or social in nature.

The classification of security into national, international, regional, and global has allowed for a more comprehensive understanding of the concept.

As we continue to explore and debate on security, we can hope to develop a more nuanced and constructive approach to securing the long-term health and viability of states.