National Security and Civil Liberties meet Securitization and State Formation

by on 2012-12-29 in Duck- 24 Comments

Knight DucksCorey Robin’s Jacobin essay is getting a lot of attention, including from Jon Western at the Duck and Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns & Money. I don’t think that it detracts from Robin’s essay to note that the argument he’s making is long-standing in international-relations scholarship. It appears in David Campbell’s seminal Writing Security and, more recently, in the form of “securitization theory” (PDF), complete with similar invocations of Thomas Hobbes. 

Scott’s criticisms of Robin gets at an ongoing issue with securitization theory. Scott notes that security threats, particularly in the context of warfare, have also led to the expansion of rights:

To bring Klinkner and SmithDudziak, and Graber into the discussion security has not only been the most powerful justification for the suppression of rights; it’s been the most powerful justification for the expansion of rights.   The two major expansions of civil rights in American history were the result of an incredibly bloody civil war and the Cold War.

Indeed, securitization theory often suffers from, among other problems, and overly simplistic story. Speech acts by powerful actors–or some similar processes–render an object an existential threat to a political community. A state of exception comes into being. Rights suffer. The endless debates about securitization theory have, of course, complicated that story. But what’s interesting about Scott’s quick empirical criticism is that it brings, in essence, work on state formation into the picture. Bellocentric theories of state formation have long held that warfare, and the mobilization for warfare, constitute significant moments for the evolution of the state.

First, leaders need resources to prosecute warfare. In order to obtain these resources, they strike bargain with constituencies and interest groups. This bargaining process involves claims and counterclaims, assertions of rights and obligations, and so forth. It can take a variety of forms of routine and contentious politics. Regardless, resulting bargains often reconfigure the parameters of the state and state-society relations. For example, the American Civil War not only results in the end of slavery, but also marks the transition from the “Philadelphian System” to something resembling a modern national-state.

Second, the end of wars sometimes create situations in which states enjoy “excess capacity.” The process of wartime mobilization leads states with prerogatives, infrastructure, and social technology above-and-beyond that which they previously enjoyed. This creates opportunities for, and sometimes interests that favor, maintaining and redeploying that capacity: in forms such as a permanently larger military apparatus, expanded policing of civil society, greater welfare provision, and so forth.

There’s nothing inevitable about either sets of processes, of course, and one goal of work on state formation is to understand how, and why, they play out in historically specific ways. The important point: claims about securitization dynamics would benefit from closer engagement with work on state formation and institutional change. The latter presents a more complicated understanding of how national-security claims and warfare, warfare impact the nature and scope of state power–one that contextualizes securitization processes and might help account for their variable effects. This is the case regardless of whether those claims come in the language of scholarly publications, in opinion essays, or blogs intended for a more general audience.



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  • David Kaib

    I think there’s some important slippage in Scott’s argument between the idea of national security and some of the concerns that that idea covers. That is, that Cold War imperatives were a consideration in support for civil rights in higher levels of the US government is a separate question than whether national security provided a justification for rights (or their suppression). In terms of the latter, it was never national security on its own, but rather the interplay of national security and democracy / equality – as in, we must do address our own hypocrisy on democratic grounds for national security reasons. What’s more, that argument only spurred symbolic improvements (i.e. the Brown decision but not significant desegregation) because that is all that national security considerations demanded. I’m not saying that symbolism didn’t matter – Brown, for example, provided on important resource for the Civil RIghts movement and for elected officials later on, but it was limited.

    So the complication here, it seems to me, is that ‘national security’ in addition to being effective as a rhetoric justification for rights suppression could, given the right interaction with other discourses, provide resources for resistance too. I do find the attention to “claims and counterclaims, assertions of rights and obligations” to be a helpful way to think about this. It does run counter to standard approaches among Americanists.

  • LFC

    I agree with the post’s main point.

    On a side issue re impact of U.S. Civil War, yes I suppose it could be seen as marking the end of the Philadelphian system in the sense of a federation of entities that each had a lot of autonomy from the center in various ways. However, as Zakaria points out in ‘From Wealth to Power’, the lasting growth in functions and size of the federal govt doesn’t come until later, i.e. 1890s/turn of the century (w/ another leap, of course, during New Deal/WW2); in other words, the shift of power to the fed. govt and presidency that occurred during the Civil War did not outlast the war itself.

  • Stephanie Carvin

    Great post – thanks. A really interesting conversation going on. Interesting to note that in Canada women getting the vote was linked to the war effort (the government thought that women would vote to support their conscripted husbands). Would have been nice if they could have just gotten the vote, though.

  • Jeppe Mulich

    Excellent post. I really do think that there is a lot to be gained (for securitization theorists and others) by a careful reading the state formation literature.

    That said, I remain somewhat skeptical of what I see as an over-emphasis on warfare in most state formation arguments. It seems that much of the theorizing, beginning with Otto Hintze, has focused on too few empirical cases, sometimes only France and Britain, and some of it has even misread the British case considerably.
    There’s also a slight tendency towards a teleological reading of history in this literature, one which doesn’t take alternatives to the nation-state seriously enough. I’d argue that even Spruyt’s otherwise excellent account gets the timing wrong with regards to when the sovereign nation-state was a fait accompli.

    Both of these are of course minor critiques and personal hobbyhorses. I couldn’t agree more with the point that more contextualized and nuanced understandings of of national security claims and their consequences = better scholarship!

  • LFC

    Tilly, Nexon, and Spruyt, in somewhat different ways, do take alternatives to the sovereign territorial state seriously. DHN even argues that the category ‘sovereign state’ is wrong for early modern Europe. Spruyt’s account does have weak points. As far as I know — and I could be wrong about this — Spruyt has never answered criticisms of The Sovereign State and Its Competitors in print (and I’m close to certain that DHN’s are not the only published criticisms).

    Spruyt wrote in the opening of his second book, Ending Empire (2005), that all theories are partial and that political scientists “reduce and simplify” in their search for (inevitably partial and flawed) generalizations, unlike historians, who do the detail and nuance thing (that is a loose paraphrase, obviously). To be clear, this is not to dump on Spruyt, whose scholarship is of high quality, merely to make a couple of observations. But I’m off the topic, so I’ll shut up.

    Oh, one more thing: the problem is not *necessarily* too few empirical cases. It all depends on what one is trying to do.

  • Dan Nexon

    “That said, I remain somewhat skeptical of what I see as an over-emphasis on warfare in most state formation arguments.”

    1. There exists, for lack of a better term, what I call the “dumb version” of the argument. This version claims something along the lines of ‘more war –> more state.’

    There’s the smart version of the argument, which associates major transformations in the nature of the state with mutations in what might be called the “ecology of war.”

    And then there’s the really smart version of the argument, which caveats the last with “many but not all.” I’m more or less in this camp.

    2. Spruyt rejects bellocentric arguments, no?

  • Dan Nexon

    “In terms of the latter, it was never national security on its own, but rather the interplay of national security and democracy / equality – as in, we must do address our own hypocrisy on democratic grounds for national security reasons.”

    But does that amount to “slippage” in Scott’s argument or just the need to (rightly) emphasize what you say in your second paragraph?

  • Jarrod Hayes

    Great post Dan. As someone who draws on securitization theory, I think the point about considering the state formation literature is a very useful one. It is definitely going in my queue of things to consider. That said, I do disagree with your claim that rights suffer in the event of successful securitization. While the Schmittian contributions to securitization theory suggest that would be the case, I don’t recall Waever ever explicitly stating that the loss of rights accompanies a successful securitizing move. I think the loss of rights depends very much on the social/political frame in which the securitizing move takes place and the content of the move. One can imagine a securitizing move in which the loss of rights is the existential threat. That is, securitization theory alone does not account for the social frame and content of security. This is a point that Balzacq and Stritzel and (if I may be so bold) I have sought to address.

  • Dan Nexon

    Pretty much every major version of the argument that I’m familiar with winds up arguing that securitization suspends democratic deliberations and that this is, in of itself, a “loss of rights” even without that state of exception leading to specific expansions of state authority at the cost of some social group or another. I had an argument with Ole about this once, and he didn’t accuse me of misreading the key texts. But you know this literature better than I do.

  • David Kaib

    It’s a fair point. I think it’s unclear in the post, and gets more muddied in the comments. But to the extent he’s talking about ‘national security’ as opposed to national security, I think the qualification you quoted in important.

  • Jeppe Mulich

    On the first point, I completely agree. My characterization of state formation literature came off as too simplified and unified. I pretty much buy the “really smart version,” with the one reservation that war might be too narrow a term (since both inter- and intra-polity organized violence seem significant).

    On the second point, you are of course right. I didn’t mean to conflate Spruyt with bellocentric explanations, but rather to use him as an example that even a state formation argument that so highlights contingency still seems to exaggerate the existence of “modern” territorial sovereignty in the late medieval and early modern period. Specifically, I think that his argument that “territorial sovereignty proved incompatible with nonterritorial logics of organization, such as that of the Hansa” is only true very, very late in the game. But that is getting way off topic. (Incidentally, James Sheehan’s “The Problem of Sovereignty in European History” (2006) is a good and under-read article on some of this.)

    My use of the term teleological might also have been a tad too harsh. After all, it’s been 25 years since Hinsley argued that “All evolution from primitive pre-state methods has been inexorably towards the establishment and consolidation of the state.”

  • Jeppe Mulich

    I agree with pretty much all of this. DHN’s book clearly takes non-nation-states seriously, and both Spruyt and Tilly’s do to a certain extent as well. I do, however, think that a lot more needs to be done on state formation in the wider early modern world (meaning beyond continental Europe), not just because of non-European state typologies, but also because of the importance of alternative polity formations within and between European overseas empires.

    By looking purely at the European continent, it might seem that the choice was basically between dynastic empires, city-states/federations, and, eventually, nation-states, when in fact there were all sorts of other experimentations with sovereignty and polities happening across the pond(s).

    This happens to be one of the major themes to my dissertation, which is why I tend to end up harping on it. Please forgive me.

  • Corey Robin

    I like this post and agree with most of it. Just a few clarifications.

    First, my inspiration on the IR front (which isn’t my field at all) is Arnold Wolfers’ classic article on the ambiguity of national interest. That’s mostly neither here nor there except for the fact that I don’t think my argument here is in fact too much like the securitization literature (insofar as I can even understand it; the writing tends to be kind of obscure.) As you ably summarize it, they assign quite a bit of agency to the state or sovereign to fix upon and construct existential enemies and threats — and the politics that ensues from that power — whereas the whole point of my article is that states are constrained in that regard for a multitude of reasons, most of which have to do with society itself. So while I agree with the basic point that threats are defined and constructed, I think that’s a far messier and unsuccessful process than they seem to think (again from my limited understanding.) Which is why I think Wolfers is a lot more useful.

    Second, I’m very much in sympathy with your (and Scott’s ) point re security enhancing rights and how both need to be thought of in the context of state formation. I’ve actually written about that side of the story elsewhere, and so didn’t see the need to get into it here. And that’s because I was setting out to answer a very different question from the one you are concerned with or the one perhaps you think I am concerned with. My question wasn’t, “What is the relationship between rights and security?” It was more specific, “Given that invocations of security do lead to the abridgment of rights, how can we understand that process?” I was trying to complicate our understanding of one half of the larger story about security and rights that you want to tell here — to move away from the simple-minded “people are afraid; rights are abridged” or “states tell people to be afraid; rights are abridged” stories.

    Anyway, nothing all that important. Just wanted to clarify where I’m coming from and why I wrote what I wrote.

  • Eric Van Rythoven

    Hi Dan,

    I like your post, but I think its more indicative of a failure of to communicate the versatility of the securitization program to scholars in the United States where it has seen the least penetration.

    There are a variety of scholars who argue securitization can have ‘positive’ effects. Floyd (2007) argues for a consequentialist evaluation of securitizing moves based on how they mobilize political collectivities to resolve problems such as environmental degradation. Watson (2011) has argued that humanitarian intervention can be conceptualized as a form of securitization where the preservation of a monolithic form of human identity is taken as the threatened referent object. Probably the most compelling piece is from Williams (2011) on the liberalism of fear where threats to liberal political culture themselves are securitized with a potential resultant preservation of civil and political rights.

    Securitizing moves are ultimately about the mobilization of power. Whether the result is the suspension of deliberative democracy, the expansion of state security apparatus, or the creation of new institutional or legal guarantees depends on the case. Its worth pointing out that securitizing moves are often contested and frequently fail. Also there is nothing intrinsically incommensurable between state-focused sociological approaches and securitization theory to my knowledge.

  • Jarrod Hayes

    You had a conversation/argument with Waever?! I’m jealous. I put together a panel with him on it and the next time he saw me at ISA he didn’t who I was. I think you are right that power centralization and suspension of democratic political processes are central to securitization theory’s claims about what happens within the security process. And Waever does make it pretty clear that security is corrosive to democracies. I guess I was after what Eric communicates better re: the versatility of the approach.

  • Dan Nexon

    I’m not sure that there’s a failure to communicate here. The long-standing argument that securitization enables progressive goals (environmental regulation, humanitarian intervention) are just variations on the same theme, only with propert and sovereignty rights as the “victims.” Williams (2011) argument has already been discussed in substance (if not literally) in this conversation. So I’ll stand by my claim that securitization work would greatly improve with consistent attention to cognate claims in other literature. Doing so would help the agenda better explain variation in success and failure, as well as disaggregate the concept.

  • Jarrod Hayes

    On the Williams reference, is that his Cambridge book with Abrahamsen?

  • LFC

    Your dissertation sounds interesting.

    Btw there’s a young IR scholar, Jordan Branch, whose work you may know, but if not you might want to take a look at it (I’ve only glanced at it cursorily myself). In particular he has a recent EJIR piece that deals, among other things, with how European notions of sovereignty were influenced by contacts w the non-European world (or something along those lines; as I say, I haven’t read it closely).

  • Eric Van Rythoven

    Hi Dan, thanks for your response. I’m not sure I understand your point in your original post then. You said “Speech acts by powerful actors–or some similar processes–render an object an existential threat to a political community. A state of exception comes into being. Rights suffer.” In your response to Hayes you again asserted that securitization has a typical story that ends with the closure of democratic deliberation and loss of rights. The articles I listed suggest securitization in the past has enabled progressive goals, even the expansion or preservation of some (liberal) rights. This to me appears to contradict your typical story of securitization. I guess I’m not clear as to whether you still agree that there is still a ‘simplistic story’ of securitization in the literature where securitizing moves can only lead to abridgement of liberal rights and the expansion of state power. This issue is besides the matter of securitization studies paying attention to the literature on state formation, something which I was much more sympathetic to.

    Jarrod the Willliams article is ‘Securitization and the Liberalism of Fear’ in Security Dialogue 42(4):453-463.

  • Dan Nexon

    Let’s set aside Williams for a second.

    I don’t quite follow what you’re having difficulty with. Both of the examples you give are classic securitization stories about the constitution of something as an existential threat creating states of exception that allow for rights to be over-ridden. In the case of environmental protection, the rights in question are (usually) property rights and (almost always) otherwise implicate individual autonomy. In the case of “humanitarian intervention” the state of exception applies to sovereignty rights (cf. Hardt and Negri 2001, Hassan and Pandolfi 2011). Setting aside the rest (should we value the right? are the consequences net positive? are rights maximized in the long run?) the mechanism remains pretty much precisely as I summarized in the brief way one does in a blog post.

  • Jarrod Hayes

    Thanks Eric. I didn’t think the book made sense in that context, and I blanked on the article.

  • Eric Van Rythoven

    Thanks Dan, I think I’m closer to understanding what you mean.

  • Dan Nexon

    Eric, that’s a relief. I wonder if it wouldn’t be fun to do something on the state of securitization intended for a broader audience. You interested?

  • Eric Van Rythoven

    Sure, email me if you have something in mind.