Securitization (international relations)

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Securitization in international relations is the process of state actors transforming subjects into matters of "security": an extreme version of politicization that enables extraordinary means to be used in the name of security.[1] Issues that become securitized do not necessarily represent issues that are essential to the objective survival of a state, but rather represent issues where someone was successful in constructing an issue into an existential problem.

Securitization theorists assert that successfully securitized subjects receive disproportionate amounts of attention and resources compared to unsuccessfully securitized subjects causing more human damage. A common example used by theorists is how terrorism is a top priority in security discussions, even though people are much more likely to be killed by automobiles or preventable diseases than from terrorism. Securitization studies aims to understand "who securitizes (securitizing actor), on what issues (threats), for whom (referent object), why, with what results, and not least, under what conditions."[2]


Within international relations, the concept is connected with the Copenhagen School and is seen as a synthesis of constructivist and classical political realism in its approach.[3] The term was coined by Ole Wæver in 1993, but seems to have become commonplace, at least within constructivist studies of international relations.


Securitization is a process-oriented conception of security, which stands in contrast to materialist approaches of classical security studies. Classical approaches of security focus on the material dispositions of the threat including distribution of power, military capabilities, and polarity, whereas securitization examines how a certain issue is transformed by an actor into a matter of security in order to allow for the use of extraordinary measures.

Moreover, the securitization act, to be successful, must be accepted by the audience, regardless of the subject matter being a real threat. As Thierry Braspenning-Balzacq puts it: "securitization is a rule-governed practice, the success of which does not necessarily depend on the existence of a real threat, but on the discursive ability to effectively endow a development with such a specific complexion".[4] The audience may take several forms including technical, bureaucratic, public, and policymaking, and different audiences can perform different functions by accepting a securitization, as has been explored by Roe.[5]

As a process[edit]

All securitization acts involve four components:

  • A securitizing actor/agent: an entity that makes the securitizing move/statement;
  • An existential threat: an object (or ideal) that has been identified as potentially harmful;
  • A referent object: an object (or ideal) that is being threatened and needs to be protected;
  • An audience: the target of the securitization act that needs to be persuaded and accept the issue as a security threat.

That a given subject is securitized does not necessarily mean that the subject is of objective essence for the survival of a given state, but means merely that someone has successfully constructed something as an existential problem. However, Uriel Abulof argues that empirical studies on securitization have been "insufficiently attentive to societies engulfed in profound existential uncertainty about their own survival." Taking Israel's "demographic demon" as a case in point, Abulof suggests that such societies are immersed in "deep securitization", whereby "widespread public discourses explicitly frame threats as probable, protracted, and endangering the very existence of the nation/state."[6] Principally, anyone can succeed in constructing something as a security problem through speech acts. The ability to effectively securitize a given subject is, however, highly dependent on both the status of a given actor and whether similar issues are generally perceived to be security threats.

Effects on society[edit]

Securitization theorists argue that a subject that has been successfully securitized will receive disproportionate attention and resources in comparison with subjects that have not been securitized, even when these other subjects actually cause more harm.

traffic incidents cause on average 150,000 fatalities a year in 56 states ... people tend to accept this as a mere fact and do not securitize this by demanding extraordinary measures. It is dealt with as a concern for ordinary politics and legal regulations. There is a tendency to individualize the casualties ... Terrorist attacks caused in the years 1994 to 2004 worldwide average 5,312 fatalities per year. That is less than 5% of the numbers of persons killed annually in traffic accidents in UNECE countries alone. Nevertheless, it is a top priority in security discourses.[7]

If a subject is successfully securitized, then it is possible to legitimize extraordinary means to solve a perceived problem. This could include declaring a state of emergency or martial law, mobilizing the military or attacking another country. Furthermore, if something is successfully labelled as a security problem, then the subject can be considered to be an illegitimate subject for political or academic debate. According to an overview of the field by Roe, securitization theorists tend to treat securitization as a negative process that undermines democratic processes and diminishes necessary scrutiny that would otherwise be focused on political elites. [8]

Affected sectors[edit]

In Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde work with five political sectors in which a securitization could take place:

However, a securitization could easily involve more than one of these sectors. In the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, one could say that the conflict was securitized militarily; weapons of mass destruction was one reason for the invasion. However, the war was also securitized as a societal problem; human rights in Saddam Hussein's Iraq was mentioned in the public rationale.

Another example for securitized sectors are immigration[9] and refugee[10] issues in the United States and in Europe. Concerns of terrorist infiltration are regularly cited as grounds for the tight control of borders. Because it is easier to securitize an issue following the September 11 attacks, this concern for safety and security has taken attention away from the economic factors that have always been at play in international migration. In addition, also in migrants' countries of origin, diaspora, emigration, and citizenship issues can be securitized.[11]

As a tactic[edit]

Since securitized subjects can receive a disproportionate amount of attention and resources compared to unsuccessfully securitized subjects, some political strategists suggest that existing public policy issues can find more clout and attention among the public if advocates on these subjects succeed in securitizing them.

For example, theorists suggest that advocates of space exploration could achieve more success by convincing state actors of the merits of their proposals around the rubric of security rather than science: that space exploration could be framed around how it protects humanity from looming existential threats such as meteorites, rather than around how it helps advance scientific knowledge.

The existential threat of Climate change is another example of an issue that is increasingly becoming securitized.

Criticism and responses[edit]

Securitization as a "school" of international relations has been criticized for its lack of practical usefulness. Unlike other schools of international relations, such as liberalism or realism, which can provide a framework or basis for understanding how to conduct international diplomacy, securitization has been criticized for being a theory that is more akin to an interesting observation, rather than a theory which can be used in practical ways by political actors. Critics argue that pointing out the irrationality of a successfully securitized issue does little to change its political dynamics because as long as an issue remains successfully securitized, political actors will still be compelled to deal with it in the ways that its securitization demands.


  1. ^ Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998), p. 25.
  2. ^ Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998), p. 32.
  3. ^ Michael C. Williams, Words, Images, Enemies, Securitization and International Politics, International Studies Quarterly 2003(47):512.
  4. ^ Balzacq, Thierry (2005). "The Three Faces of Securitization: Political Agency, Audience and Context". European Journal of International Relations. 11 (2): 171–201. doi:10.1177/1354066105052960.
  5. ^ Roe, Paul (Dec 1, 2008). "Actor, Audience(s) and Emergency Measures: Securitization and the UK's Decision to Invade Iraq". Security Dialogue. 39 (6): 615–635. doi:10.1177/0967010608098212. ISSN 0967-0106.
  6. ^ Abulof, Uriel (2014). "Deep Securitization and Israel's "Demographic Demon"". International Political Sociology. 8 (4): 396. doi:10.1111/ips.12070.
  7. ^ Andrej Zwitter & Jaap de Wilde "Prismatic Security Expanding the Copenhagen School to the Local Level", Department of International Relations and International Organization (IRIO), University of Groningen.
  8. ^ Roe, Paul (8 June 2012). "Is securitization a 'negative' concept? Revisiting the normative debate over normal versus extraordinary politics". Security Dialogue. 43 (3): 249–266. doi:10.1177/0967010612443723. ISSN 0967-0106.
  9. ^ Thomas Faist. 2005. “The Migration-Security Nexus: International Migration and Security.” In: Migration, Citizenship and Ethnos: Incorporation Regimes in Germany, Western Europe and North America, edited by Y. Michal Bodemann and Gökce Yurdakul, pp. 103–120. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; Fiona B. Adamson. 2006. “Crossing Borders: International Migration and National Security.” International Security 31 (1): 165-99.
  10. ^ Jef Huysmans. 2006. The Politics of Insecurity: Fear, Migration and Asylum in the EU. London: Routledge; Alison Gerard. 2014. The Securitization of Migration and Refugee Women. New York: Routledge.
  11. ^ Daniel Naujoks. 2015. “The securitization of dual citizenship. National security concerns and the making of the Overseas Citizenship of India.” Diaspora Studies 8 (1), pp. 18–36.