Nobody Asked Me but…

“National security” commonly refers to the ability of the state to protect the fundamental values and core interests of a society.  For three and a half centuries since the genesis of the Westphalian state system, security has been focused on the national or societal level—how does one secure the state and the society within it?

National security has traditionally been about military forces and their ability to defend against the destructive forces launched by another state.  Since the middle of the 20th century, however, two developments—each in seemingly opposite directions—have expanded our traditional notions of security.

First, nuclear weapons—what Bernard Brodie called the “Absolute Weapon”—signaled the onset of an age in which a relatively small number of weapons could threaten an entire society.  For the most part, this was an extension of the traditional concept of national security because what was at stake remained the “fundamental values and core interests of a society.”

The prospect of societal destruction overshadowed a second development, what we generally refer to as “human security.”  Its principal—and contrasting—characteristic is that whole societies are typically not at stake, but real people and real communities are.  Security is not just a generic or societal phenomenon, but a very human undertaking.  Military forces are not likely involved, except insofar as military operations leave human tragedy in their wake.  Rather, the focus is on the ability of individuals and groups of people being able to live without fear of deprivation or exclusion, and the causes of deprivation or exclusion can be governmental, economic, social, or environmental.

Perhaps it is because armed conflict between sovereign states is declining as a norm of conflict resolution.  Perhaps it is because of the rise of non-state actors fuelled by ideological impulses that transcend state boundaries.  Perhaps it is because of globalization, interdependence, and the diffusion of vulnerability—to conflict, economic loss, disease, energy deficits, or climate change.  Whatever the cause, in the 21stcentury, more people are subject to threats to human security than they are to subject to threats to national security.

Like national security, human security is both about preventing assaults on one’s security and about mitigating the effects of such an assault.  In this respect, human security is equally about counterterrorism and refugees, about disease prevention and health care, about addressing the causes of climate change and relief following natural disasters, about economic opportunity and alleviation of poverty.  It is about understanding the relationship between cause and effect, in an interdisciplinary context that defies political and intellectual borders.

Studying human security is ultimately about studying the human predicament and the institutions societies create to address them.  There is nothing new in this endeavor, except that what used to be considered the quiet province of sovereigns is now the grist for global media.  We are more conscious of these threats and that we are not immune to them.

Dr. Schuyler Foerster
Brent Scowcroft Professor of National Security Studies
US Air Force Academy

About the author:

Schuyler Foerster serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Human Security & Resilience, and is the Brent Scowcroft Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  During his Air Force career, he served as a senior advisor in security and arms control policy.  Within the World Affairs Councils of America, he has served on its national board and as President of councils in Pittsburgh and Colorado Springs.  He has published widely and regularly addresses academic, professional, and civic audiences on international politics and security issues.  He has received numerous military and civic awards, including an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.  He holds a doctorate from Oxford University in politics.