The Search for Security

“It is urgent that, collectively, we put in the work necessary to produce a 2019 Clock statement that rewinds the Doomsday Clock. Get engaged, get involved, and help create that future. The time is now”

– Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2018

With the famous ‘Doomsday Clock’ set at ‘two minutes to midnight’ in January 2018, the fears of global security experts have been laid bare. The human race is as close to an existential apocalyptic event now as it has ever been in its history. There seems then, there has never been such a crucial moment to discuss the fundamental concept of security, and its potential attainability.

The Security Concept

To arrive at a judgement on the attainability of security, it is logical to first settle upon an agreed definition of the term. In 1952 Arnold Wolfers published his famous article “National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol, which set out his belief that security is an essentially negative term, pertaining to ‘the absence of threats to acquired values’.

In its most basic form, the term security itself implies an absolute condition. As Buzan notes, ‘something is either secure or insecure’, to propose degrees would be to violate the basic syntax of the word. However the pursuit of attainable absolute security creates a plethora of practical issues.

If we take Wolfer’s phraseology cited above, then the absolutist position would be achieved only if any threat to values is absent. For this to be fulfilled, the party in question must first ascertain two practically implausible criteria.

Firstly, it must obtain what is understood in game theory to be a state of ‘Perfect Information’. This signifies a situation in which the player(s), when making any decision, is perfectly aware of all the events that have previously occurred, and any relevant events which may take place in the future. If we understand security to include Ullman’s natural threat concept, then by definition, a party may only qualify for absolute security once it is entirely aware of both the potential human and natural threats, and has eliminated any possibility of the supernatural. To attain absolute security in a given epoch, the party in question must first obtain this necessary scenario of Perfection Information. To preserve this situation indefinitely, one must acquire full knowledge of all future events which may affect this position.

Secondly, and just as unlikely, the party must reach a position in which, using Perfect Information, it can render these threats inconsequential. Likewise, for indefinite preservation of this position, infinite supremacy must be obtained. Only at a point of universal information and universal supremacy can absolute security be achieved at any given moment. It may be noted here that a situation of ‘perceived absolute security’ is also possible. As we will discuss shortly, Wolfers’ notes that security is a subjective term. This means that a party may be under the illusion that it understands the scope of all potential threats, and has the ability to neutralise them, but this fails to fulfil the aforementioned criteria for actual absolutism.

In reality therefore, given the current human condition, this situation is practically implausible. As Stephen Hawking once said, “the past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities”. As a human race, we find it hard to predict next week’s weather, let alone plan for it. How then, is a subsection of humanity expected to understand all potential threats, let alone future possibilities, and then create a situation in which these are eliminated? Given our current capacity, we may conclude that absolute security is currently unattainable.

The Essentially Contested and Subjective Nature of Security

As it is essentially implausible to reach a point of ‘Perfect Information’, security more often than not submits to Wolfers’ notion of ‘perception’. What one party may deem secure, another may deem unacceptable, as Wolfers’ points out ‘no policy, or human act in general, can escape becoming a subject for moral judgment’. Moreover, as David Baldwin demonstrates, security is also subjective in terms of which values should be protected . The history of security studies itself is blighted by this subjectivity, whether in the form of ‘Eurocentrism’, or its gendered lens. This is demonstrable simply from the fact that our understanding of security has changed over time.

This subjectivity creates a situation in which one set of security principles can never be objectively correct. Thus security can be labelled an essentially contested concept as, in Baldwin’s words, it is ‘so value-laden that no amount of argument or evidence can ever lead to agreement on a single version as the correct or standard use’. Both the subjective perception of what is secure, and the essentially contested notion of what should be secured, mean that plurality of opinion and objectivity become incompatible.

Utopian Security 

However, even accepting this analysis, absolute security may still be labelled as theoretically attainable. From an idealistic perspective, we may consider a utopic scenario in which we find a fundamentally universal commonality on the values which we are to secure. We, in essence, extinguish the plurality of subjective values. This determines a consensus which would make all man-made threats impossible, as there is no dispute between parties. In practicality this level of conformity stops nothing short of world domination by a single propagating ideal. Given a timeless component, this would create a situation of sustainable objective security against the human agent.

This however, is virtually impossible to imagine in practicality given the current context of humanity. Schneider notes in his critique of Waltz that this idealism is impossible without absolute equality. Only under equality will humans be content with shared values, and those who benefit from inequality often prefer to secure their subjective position rather than pursue universal security at the expense of their superiority. As George Orwell put it, they prefer a ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’ than any move towards this idealism of true security.

Even if you could create a common consensus on value however, you are still faced with the currently insurmountable issue of biodiversity. It is impossible to imagine a situation in which subjectivity is eliminated indefinitely from the human condition. Nevertheless, it is important to work towards this ideal of commonality, to at least attempt to find ‘a new formula for sharing the world with others’. The benefits of this successful ideal are too great to overlook.

Realistic Security

Whilst we search for this theoretical ideal however, we must concurrently retreat to a realistic perspective to prevent our values from being extinguished. Baldwin observes that the essentially contested and subjective nature of the security concept forces many commentators down the path of nihilism. As we have demonstrated, objective security as the prevention of the human agent is, for now, a practically unattainable ambition. That does not mean however, that we should deem all concepts of security valueless. Instead we may look to manufacture degrees of security which, although remaining subjective, may be compared for practical policymaking. In this scenario individual parties will look to maximise and maintain their own security, by pursuing policies deemed subjectively advantageous.


To sum up our conclusions therefore, we may state that the essentially contested and subjective nature of security means it is currently only universally attainable as a theoretical ideal. However, a valuable degree of security, using the information available, is currently attainable for subjective parties. With this analysis we may take a two-fold approach. On the one hand, it is important to maintain a search towards this theoretical utopia and attempt to find its practical roots in a universal value. On the other hand, whilst we look to do this, we must maintain our particular security policies to protect ourselves, as far as possible, in the current world of subjective plurality.


Image Courtesy of PXHERE

Key Sources:

A. Wolfers. 1952. “National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol.

B. Buzan. 2007. People, States & Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era.

D. Baldwin. 1997. The Concept of Security.

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