About the Author: The author is a 2021 graduate of National Law University, Delhi. He is currently working at Rural Electrification Corporation Limited.
Editor’s note: This post is part of the Reflection Series showcasing exceptional student essays from CCG-NLUD’s Seminar Course on Technology & National Security Law.
“National Security” is one of the foremost concerns of any nation state. However, the meaning of this term has acquired an overwhelmingly military character over time. This military approach to national security follows the assumption that the principal threat to security comes from other nations. While such an understanding was suitable a few decades ago health pandemics, climate change, technological changes etc. are challenging this notion today. This submission aims to identify the gaps in traditional understandings of national security and proposes redefining the concept.
This piece is divided into three parts- Part I looks at the traditional military approach to “National security”. Part II analyses the need to update this traditional understanding. Part III identifies “Human Security” as a modern and suitable concept of national security.
I. Traditional Military approach to “National Security”
The traditional approach has been to view “National Security” from a military lens i.e. ‘securing the nation from military threat’. The policy measures of nation States and many strategists have followed this understanding.
Weber found a monopoly on violence, allowing to deal with internal or external military threats, as a crucial condition for the State. Similarly, James Baker notes that while no common definition of “national security” exists, the core issues which warrant national security treatment will primarily include nuclear attack, terrorist attacks and conventional attacks. “National Security” is also used to justify “the maintenance of armies, the development of new weapon systems, and the manufacture of armaments”.
In many ways, it can be easily understood how this understanding of National security developed. Wars in 18th and 19th century were generally short. The security strategy in the past was focused mainly on “external military threats”, which consequently required corresponding military responses. However, in present times, such an understanding is inadequate.
II. Need to update the definition of National Security
i) Nature of threats is changing
Today, for most nations, the threat of military aggression has reduced considerably. Instead, nations have to face “environmental pollution, depletion of ozone, [global] warming, and migrations of refugees“1 among others. Health issues such as the Coronavirus pandemic, changes in technology, or spiralling economy as seen in many third-world countries are other threats to nations.
One of the greatest enablers of this change is technology. It is difficult to place technological threats within the traditional military approach to national security, yet it is undeniable that technological disruptions present great danger to the security of nations. The impact of technologies on the international security environment are all-encompassing.2 These include both conventional changes like technological weapons, and non-conventional changes like cyber warfare.
ii) Non-Military Threats can cause Military Conflict
Another reason for updating the present understanding of “National Security” is that a number of non-traditional threats can lead to military conflict. This makes it imperative for proactive policymakers to treat all such threats as National Security issues.
Scholars have studied resource conflicts, energy security, climate change and insecurity and tied them in with military conflicts. Some have found that “… water resource scarcity can be both the cause and the consequence of armed conflicts.” 3
Proactive policymaking demands recognising such threats before they acquire a military character.
iii) Conventional understanding of ‘National Security’ is narrow and patriarchal
If National Security means the security of a nation, it is imperative to define ‘nation’ first. While it is difficult to come up with a precise definition of a ‘nation’, it is submitted that any definition, that does not take into account the people is narrow in scope.
In this context, national security fails to include everyday experiences of a significant population. Further, the current definition is patriarchal and excludes the experiences of women.
J.Tickner finds that the traditional perspectives on security through a military point of view has marginalised or omitted women, which has resulted in a masculine and militaristic definition of National Security.4 Women, on the other hand, have defined security as “absence of violence whether it be military, economic, or sexual.”5 National Security, when understood as “absence of violence against people of the nation”, can then be extended to all other disempowered groups.
Similarly, the perception of security that many people of colour have in America, does not align with the dominant definition of national security in America. In the Indian context, crimes against underprivileged groups are not considered a national security threat. Understood in these terms, it is clear that the traditional understanding does not cover the security threats faced by disempowered groups in a nation. A definition that does not take into account is therefore severely lacking in scope, and needs to be updated.
III. “Human Security”- A Modern understanding of National Security
Put forth in 1994 by the United Nations Development Program, ‘Human Security‘ very simply relates to the security of people. Erstwhile Prime Minister of Japan Obuchi Keizo called Human Security “the keyword to comprehensively seizing all of the menaces that threaten the survival, daily life, and dignity of human beings”
In essence, Human Security puts “people first” and recognises that the security of States does not necessarily translate to security of the people in it. This has been borne out of the events of the 20th century – world wars, multiple genocides, and the realisation that conventional notions of security need to be challenged when serious violations of rights occur.
The advantages of a human security understanding of national security are manifold:
i) People first approach
The biggest advantage of this concept is that it puts people first in its definition of the ‘nation’. It recognises different forms of violence and threats that individuals face every day. It brings into focus “structural violence” i.e. “the indirect violence done to individuals when unjust economic and political structures reduce their life expectancy through lack of access to basic material needs.”6
Understanding National Security as “absence of violence for people in a nation”, also allows us to recognise new unconventional threats that arise in the 21st century.
ii) Radically alters Public notions of Emergency and Urgency
There is normative value in recognising ‘Human Security’ as ‘National Security’. By recognising violence against individuals as national security threats, it sends a message that threats faced by individuals are the most important threats that any nation faces. It legitimises the security issues faced by groups that are not dominant in a nation.
“National Security” issues receive utmost urgency and importance in policy making. As Sachs notes, “Questions of “security” are often given pride of place before other potential policy concerns.”
This leads to a number of questions, why should emergency conditions and sense of urgency be reserved only for military threats? Why should crimes against women be considered any less urgent in a country which reports 87 rapes per day? Why shouldn’t crimes against Scheduled caste and Scheduled tribes be considered as urgent? How do nations issue national or local emergency in times of military conflict, but go on about in a routine manner when extreme gender, social and economic injustices exist?
By equating human security issues with national security threats, it is these questions that we can answer adequately. Crimes against minorities, women and other groups, poverty, lack of access to healthcare and education, and other social, economic and environmental ills that plague nations have become normalised to such an extent that all these issues have become routine. The concept of ‘Human Security’ challenges this status quo.
iii) Leveraging Public Trust
National Security threats often generate public trust and public consensus swiftly. Public trust is an important part of a democratic system,7 while a lack of public trust is one the biggest obstacles in governance. By recognising “Human Security threats” as “National Security” threats, this public trust can be leveraged to improve governance.
As Lester Brown notes, while responding to a national security threat, “the ‘public good’ is much more easily defined; sacrifice can not only be asked but expected, it is easier to demonstrate that “business as usual” must give way to extraordinary measures.”
If such consensus and unity could be achieved with respect to “Human security”, it would allow governance to take place a lot more efficiently.
The traditional understanding of National Security in terms of military threats to the State is no longer adequate in the 21st century. Today, ‘Human Security’ offers a more holistic understanding with its ‘people first’ approach. It recognises and legitimises the experiences of disempowered groups and challenges conventional notions of security.
Human Security offers multiple advantages as an analytical concept, and holds normative value by contesting the traditional understanding of a nation, urgency and emergency. The definition of Human Security is broad, but that acts as an advantage for it covers a wider range of threats, including the new threats caused by technology and climate.
This redefinition of ‘National Security’ does pose challenges relating to vagueness, increased powers of the executive, conceptual and funding issues, among others, but overall provides a strong base for policymakers to realign their priorities as per the requirements of today.
*Views expressed in the blog are personal and should not be attributed to the institution.
- Kalevi J. Holsti, The State, War, and the State of War (1996), Pg. 15.
- Group Captain Ajay Lele, “Technology and National Security” Indian Defence Review Issue Vol 24.1 Jan-Mar 2009.
- Swain, A., 2015. “Water Wars”. In: International Encyclopaedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 25. Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 443–447.
- Tickner J. A. (1997b), “Re-visioning Security”, in: International Relations Theory Today, eds. K. Booth, S. Smith, Polity Press Cambridge.
- Tickner, J. (1993). “Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security” Political Science Quarterly.
- J. Ann Tickner, “Re-visioning Security,” International Relations Theory Today (Ken Booth and Steve Smith, eds., 1994), p. 180.
- Beshi, T.D., Kaur, R. “Public Trust in Local Government: Explaining the Role of Good Governance Practices”. Public Organiz Rev 20, 337–350 (2020).