What is gained or lost by thinking about security in normative terms?

Initial note: This essay is created as a part of one course at my graduate
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I am not sure how and if at all one can free him or herself from normative terms in the analysis of security challenges. To begin with, it is not possible to be a non-normative in a selection of subject for whom security is to be provided. In a way through which is decided who is an insider and who is the outsider and a potential threat. Process through which one determines what passes the threshold of interest for analysis, what is a relevant security concern or which kinds of security threats are not relevant, can hardly be a non-normative one. It seems to me that claim that certain approaches are just positivist in best case fall into the trap of what Antonio Gramsci would describe as ideological hegemony; while in the worst case they may be just premeditated efforts to preserve one’s own positions. From this starting position which takes that all approaches to security are either implicitly or explicitly normative I will try to analyse what may have been gained or lost, and for whom, if normative terms are openly embraced. I will talk about different types of normativity and towards where they may take us as a society. I will divide normative approaches to normative approaches that challenge the status quo and those that try to preserve it. They may also be divided to implicit and explicit normative terms and potentially to consequentialist and deontological ones. I will also argue that transparency about our own normative imperatives is helping us to better understand different perspectives and positions from which we are talking. I will underline certain risk of normative terms turning into a tool for imposition of restrains on freedom of speech in the case of moral panic, but will argue that in total affirmation of transparent normative terms in thinking about security have a positive value.

One point on which I do agree with realists in their approaches to security is in their focus on power politics. I believe that it is hard to understand the nature of human interactions without giving some effort to try to understand power relations that exist among various actors. Without acknowledgment of power dynamics we are left only with the text itself, and advocates of Paris School may tell us that text itself does not have a given meaning (Darrault, 1989, p. 184). It may seem that by recognizing power relations as the basis for our analysis we are closing the entire space for a conversation on security in normative terms. If everything is just a power politics, than where is the space for normative imperatives and why do we have to bother to understand difference among normative imperatives coming from different directions? If everything is just power struggle among different actors then it may be hard to argue for any deontological normative imperatives. To give an answer to the question from the title one have to put all of his cards on the table and tell where he or she is standing since his or her perspective colour the image they are able to see. Each individual or a group may set its own set of consequentialist normative terms while at the same time believing in their universality. This essay will assume implicitly that equalitarianism and freedom are such norms.

I am taking here the impossibility to create absolutely neutral image “from the outside” to be the axiomatic truth. One is never simply analysing the reality, but is creating it at the same time while he or she is making sense out of mass of raw data. Even if social scientist is capable to collect all the information out there (which is technically impossible, and impossible due to the starting prejudice) he or she will not be in a position to explain it without normative bias. I am not even talking here about giving the advises, only about effort to explain the situation we may be facing. From this position we can analyse different schools of thought we have covered over the semester and see what their relation towards the normative terms is.

In the case of realist approaches it seems to me to be obvious that they suffer from blindness towards their own biases and normative augments. As a school of thought of the “rulers of the world” they are convinced that their worldview is simply the only one “real”, and they are trying to explain/convince others, often successfully, that it is the case (R. Bates, 1975, p. 351). They are in a way similar to the white middle class American males who often believe that their particular culture is the Culture itself. I do believe that most of academics of this tradition are honestly convinced in what they are saying, yet I do believe that their arguments need to be deconstructed and their normative aspects understood. It does not at all automatically mean that those normative aspects need to be refused; they only need to be transparent. It may be of great benefit for the field of studies. Those normative aspects of realism may be arbitrary focus on states as the level of analysis. It may be useful as far as it is simplifying the field of studies, yet it is normative in a sense that it limits anarchic relations for the outsiders’ world. Of course, it may have negative consequences for the elites to give the blessing for a “civil war” within a country, and it may be beneficial to have open hands abroad. Their unconscious bias in favour of those in power is visible even in their conclusions about consequences of international anarchy where they miss to pay enough attention that anarchy may be incentive for small states to establish functional regional cooperation in order to balance the strong ones. If we gain an understanding of normative aspects of realism, we as students of security studies may free ourselves from dogmatism even if we accept realist positions.

On the other hand, liberal insistence on the normative terms comes from those who may benefit from the preservation of status quo but who are aware that excesses in the use of power may be detrimental to the interests of the ruling class. That is why liberal normative imperatives focus on the role of international law. It is a tool through which most serious violations of human dignity may be avoided and through which justification and legitimacy may be achieved. The biggest positive effect of this kind of thinking about security in normative terms is that execution of power is more humane and predictable and certain space for diversity of opinion is given even to those without any power. Normative imperatives of human rights and political freedoms serve to liberals to emancipate individualism which is one of the foundational values of this tradition. Yet, while treating the weak ones as the bearers of rights, liberal normative approaches fail to recognize their subjectivity or agency in the creation of dynamics within a society (Barkawi & Laffey, 2006, 333). In the security studies such approaches lead further down the road to the development of Copenhagen and Welsh Schools which are arguing for the widening of the security agenda or wider overview of the securitization and de-securitization processes. The biggest negative effect (negative in normative terms) is that such a widening of the security studies and practice may serve as sedative which may prolong inequalities and domination by making them tolerable.

The most interesting are the normative perspectives coming from what is collectively called critical schools. Their great contribution to the field of studies is their post-positivist worldview. Through such approach they are capable to claim legitimacy for the articulation of subaltern subjectivity. New contribution, that will be different from previously mentioned “generous” widening of the field, may come from the direction of postcolonial theory at which heart is relationship between social domination and resistance (Majumdar, 2017). Through its normative criticism of Eurocentric nature of security studies, postcolonial theory may provide us with a new understanding of character and legitimacy of the armed resistance of the weak (Barkawi & Laffey, 329). This school may provide us with the understanding of how the Global South or weak in general are organizing their efforts for achievement of their own security. In previously mentioned schools of thought, this idea would be closest to the concepts of small wars or asymmetric conflict that are coming to the central stage in the field of security studies even among the dominant schools scholars (Barkawi & Laffey, 330). Postcolonial normative claim on the legitimacy of resistance is helping us to understand the concerns and motives of subaltern actors. This school may offer us different kind of widening of the field as well. Widening of the field is often understood as the broadening of the interest of academics and security experts when it comes to the security threats and challenges. With its scepticism towards the expert knowledge postcolonial theory may lead to a democratisation of participation in discussion. In his series of lectures titled Representation of the Intellectual, Edward Said describes the language of professionals as “approved jargon of a group of insiders”, and argues “that as a way of maintaining relative intellectual independence, having the attitude of an amateur instead of a professional is a better course” (Said, 1993, p. n.). Through this, subaltern voice is fighting for her or his emancipation and position to “speak truth to power”.

Normative terms in a discussion of security are unavoidable. From a constructivist point of view we may try to understand differences among various normative positions. We may also try to understand why someone is arguing for or against normative claims. Contrary to the expectation that normative debate may detract us from academic efforts, transparency in our own normative positions may actually benefit our understandings. While David A. Baldwin may argue that the introduction of “normative and empirical debate in conceptual rhetoric exaggerates the conceptual differences between proponents of various security policies and impedes scholarly communication”, I would say that normative statements and understanding of normative statements may serve us as a litmus paper (A. Baldwin, 1997, p. 5). I believe that even realists, even if they refuse to recognize their own normative statements, may be convinced to take them seriously enough. Normative statements may themselves be backed by a power of those individuals and groups who honestly believe in them. Constructivist would say that it is simply enough to convince big enough group of people that norms are important and they will consequentially be important. What may be lost through the inclusion of normative statements is simplicity. Also, instead of serving as a tool for clarification, moral panic and usage of moralisation in the expression of normative arguments may limit the freedom of expression and pluralism. Despite this, I believe that there is more to be gained then there is to be feared from explicitly thinking about security in normative terms.


  • Baldwin, David. (1997). The concept of security. Review of International Studies. 23. pp. 5-26
  • Barkawi, T. & Laffey, M. (2006). The postcolonial moment in security studies. Review of International Studies. 32. pp. 329–352.
  • Bates, T. (1975). Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony. Journal of the History of Ideas,36(2), pp. 351-366.
  • Darrault, I. (1989). A Semiotic Approach to Psychomotor Therapy. In Perron, P. & Collins, F. (Eds.). Paris School Semiotics; Volume II. pp. 183-206. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company
  • Majumdar, N. (2017). Silencing the Subaltern. Catalyst. 1:1. Online.
  • Said, E. (1993). The Reith Lectures: Speaking Truth To Power: In his penultimate Reith. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/the-reith-lectures-speaking... [Accessed 5 Dec. 2017].

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Tags: #normative, #security, #theory


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