The end of the Cold War sparked a debate over ideas of security in IR between ‘narrowers’ and ‘wideners’. The narrowers were concerned with the security of the state and often focused on analysing the military and political stability between the United States and the Soviet Union. Dissatisfied with this, wideners sought to include other types of threat that were not military in nature and that affected people rather than states. This expanded the security agenda by including concepts such as human security and regional security – together with ideas of culture and identity. Feminism had an important role in widening the agenda by challenging the idea that the sole provider of security was the state and that gender was irrelevant in the production of security. On the contrary, the state was often the cause of insecurities for women. Widening the agenda from a feminist perspective brought gender into focus by placing gender and women as the focus of security calculations and by demonstrating that gender, war and security were intertwined. It was an important development in the rise of a wider perspective on security. Whether one agrees with the wideners or the narrowers, the end of the Cold War indicated that security was an essentially contested concept – ‘a concept that generates debates that cannot be resolved by reference to empirical evidence because the concept contains a clear ideological or moral element and defies precise, generally accepted definition’ (Fierke 2015, 35). By pointing at the essentially contested nature of security, critical approaches to security argue that ‘security’ is not necessarily positive or universal, but context and subject dependent and even negative at times.
Because some administer security while others receive security, security produces uneven power relations between people. For example, in the context of the Global War on Terror, a person who looks Arab has been regarded with suspicion as a dangerous ‘other’ and there has been an increase in surveillance operations in Muslim communities on the presumption that because they fit a certain profile, they may be connected to terrorism. Viewed in this light, surveillance becomes a security apparatus of control and a source of insecurity. It is by questioning the essence of security in cases such as this that securitisation theory developed and widened the scope of security to include other referent objects beyond the state. A referent object, a central idea in securitisation, is the thing that is threatened and needs to be protected.
Securitisation theorists determined five sectors: the economic, the societal, the military, the political and the environmental sector. In each sector, a specific threat is articulated as threatening a referent object. For example, in the societal sector, the referent object is identity, while the referent objects in the environmental sector are the ecosystem and endangered species. It is only in the military sector that the referent object remains the state. By ‘sectorialising’ security, we understand that existential threats are not objective but instead relate to the different characteristics of each referent object. This technique also highlights the contextual nature of security and threats. Suicide bomb attacks, for example, are a greater source of anxiety for some people today than they are for others. Yet we often hear suicide terrorism framed as a ‘global’ threat. Securitisation shows that it is incorrect to talk about issues such as terrorism as if they concern everyone around the world equally. By talking about referent objects we can ask: Security for whom? Security from what? And security by whom?
Central to securitisation theory is showing the rhetorical structure of decisionmakers when framing an issue and attempting to convince an audience to lift the issue above politics. This is what we call a speech act – ‘by saying the words, something is done, like betting, giving a promise, naming a ship’ (Buzan, Wæver and de Wilde 1998, 26). Conceptualising securitisation as a speech act is important as it shows that words do not merely describe reality, but constitute reality, which in turn triggers certain responses. In the process of describing the reality we see, we also interact with that world and perform an action that will greatly contribute to seeing that reality in a different way. For example, referring to an immigration camp in Calais as ‘the Jungle’ is not simply describing what the camp really is, but portraying it as a lawless and dangerous place. Hence, threats are not just threats by nature, but are constructed as threats through language. In order to convince an audience to take extraordinary measures, the securitising actor must draw attention and often exaggerate the urgency and level of the threat, communicate a point of no return, i.e. ‘if we do not tackle this problem, everything else will be irrelevant’, and offer a possible way out (lifting the issue above politics) – which is often framed in military terms. In so doing, the securitising actor makes some actions more intelligible than others and enables a regime of truth about the nature of the threat and about the referent object’s nature.
An issue becomes securitised when an audience collectively agrees on the nature of the threat and supports taking extraordinary measures. If the audience rejects the securitising actor’s speech act, it only represents a securitising move and the securitisation has failed. In this respect, the focus on the audience and on process requires considerably more than simply ‘saying security’. This has generated criticism from some scholars, who recommend understanding securitisation as a long process of ongoing social constructions and negotiation between various audiences and speakers. Any security issue can be presented on a spectrum ranging from non-politicised (the issue has not reached public debate) to politicised (the issue has raised public concerns and is on the agenda) to securitised (the issue has been framed as an existential threat). When an issue is securitised, actions are often legitimised under the language of ‘urgency’ and ‘existential threats’ and are measures that may be deemed undemocratic in normal situations. Security measures in the War on Terror, such as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the use of torture, the increased surveillance of citizens, extraordinary renditions and secretive drone strikes, illustrate the logic of exceptionality. Had the War on Terror not been framed in a context in which a suspension of normal politics was permissible and necessary, these security measures would probably not have existed – nor would they have endured to the present day.
A successful securitisation places ‘security’ as an exceptional realm, investing securitising actors (nominally states) with the power to decide when the democratic framework should be suspended and with the power to manipulate populations. For Wæver (2015 and 2000), securitisation theory was built to protect politics against the disproportionate power of the state by placing the success and failure of securitisation in the hands of the audience, rather than in the securitising actor. Wæver also voiced his preference for ‘desecuritisation’ – a return to normal politics. After all, audiences are not complete dupes at the mercy of the securitising actor, and by making the process more transparent, securitisation theory endows the audience with agency and responsibility. In this context, the role of the security analyst moves from objectively analysing the threat to studying the processes by which securitising actors construct a shared understanding of what is collectively recognised as a threat. Securitisation theory is thus not so much involved with answering ‘why’ an issue has been securitised. It is more important that we be concerned with the conditions that have made the securitisation possible by asking ‘how’ questions: how has a specific language enabled the actor to convince the audience of the threat?