Are Security Threats Real or Imagined?


As far as the discipline of International Relations is concerned, ‘security’ and ‘threat’ are highly-contested concepts (Baldwin 1997: 10). Far more often than not, their inner nature has been deeply influenced by the historical context in which the two notions were first moulded. Security threats, whether they be real and objective or imagined and subjective, is still a matter to be put into trial by the academics. In turn, if the issue was to be analysed from a non-scholastic point of view, people would refer to those feelings of insecurity that perturb them and influence their daily action. The spread of the belief that today’s world is a dangerous universe, where it is best to play safe and to take all the precautions necessary to avoid the risk of being exposed to threatening situations, is rising consistently. But are there any real threats that can eventually put individuals in a position of danger or is this feeling of self-doubt a mere product of policy-makers’ cunning moves to achieve goals, such as gaining wealth and accumulating their power, while letting the individuals sink in growing uncertainties? In other words, are security threats real and objectively calculated, or are they socially constructed and subjectively perceived? The latter interrogative leads us in another direction. One could, in fact, argue that an answer to this controversial issue can only be formulated in the light of the analytical fragmentation and the subsequent interpretation of two dominant approaches in the field of IR, Realism and Social Constructivism. Being aware of such opposing approaches is not only plausible and reasonable from a logical point of view, but it is fundamental in order to solidly ground our understanding of the issue. In this essay, I will first attempt to give a clear explanation of what is meant by ‘security’ according to the so-called ‘traditional’ and ‘critical’ views. Secondly, I will make a distinction between what counts as a ‘referent object’ for realist and constructivist’s security policies. Thirdly, I will examine the process that an issue has to undergo in order to be prioritized over the others and to become an existential threat worthy of security measures. I will conclude by using a significant case study to analyse and explain why, in the international system, threats to security cannot be tied to a single approach, traditional or modern, but instead need to be reconsidered as a compromise made up of multiple layers.

The ontological conceptualisation of security and the shift in the focus of inquiry.

Throughout the centuries, the attempt to define security has been a task of major importance for several IR scholars. However clashing theoretical approaches might be, they all shared a common need, i.e. the conceptualisation of security as an ontological basis for any further argumentation. Notwithstanding this premise, not much attention has been devoted to clarifying this notion, therefore there is a persisting disagreement on what ‘security’ means exactly and on whether it is desirable to give a definition in the first place. The reason why such disagreement has arisen has proved to be related to the various historical periods in which different approaches have developed. More specifically the Cold War, besides being materialised in terms of an ‘Iron Curtain’ that demarcated the European boundaries between Capitalism and Communism, also acted as an ideological turning point between Realism and Constructivism.

Realists point out that security is about safeguarding acquired values. Arnold Wolfers rephrased Walter Lippman’s definition, arguing that security is “the absence of threats to acquired values” (Wolfers 1952: 485). David Baldwin later portrayed security as the “low probability of damage to acquired values” (Baldwin 1997: 13), arguing that there is way too much optimism in Wolfers’ “absence of threat” (Wolfers 1952: 485). These acquired values are nothing more than “national independence and territorial integrity” (Wolfers 1952: 489), and thus they objectively correspond to the nation-state’s selfish interests. In turn, constructivists emphasize that the notion of security is a social construct and, as such, should not be bound to a specific referent object. In his People, States & Fear Barry Buzan asserts that the “search for a referent object of security” has to proceed “hand-in-hand with that for its necessary conditions” (Buzan 1991: 26). As the reader might have noticed,

Security is usually discussed in terms of ‘enumeration of new threats and the identification of capabilities needed to counter them’, but there is little examination of ‘the meaning of security as such’ (Wibben, Human Security: Toward an Opening: ??)

The clashing tension between the realist theorization and the constructivist approach comes to blows when trying to establish what the referent object of security studies should be. Should it always be the state or should it rather be relative to the questioned sector? This problematic derives from the significant shift in focus that has taken place, alongside a massive change in the balance of history as a result of the end of the Cold War.

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A realistic perspective: security threats are real and objectively analysed.

A traditional approach to security threats has to be considered in the light of an objective assessment of the world ‘out there’ or ‘as it is’. Realists act as an elite of scientists with very fixed conceptions of the surrounding environment. As such, they feel the need to “adopt a scientific approach to knowledge” (Browning, 2013: 13), meaning that they look at reality in an objective way and they hold a static state-centric vision. Instead of bolstering substantial changes, they pessimistically dictate “how to best cope with the world as it is” (Browning, 2013: 13). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the referent object of security studies is the state, and threats to security are all those directly posed to the state, all those menacing the survival of its core values. The nation-state is presented as the guarantor of security and, as such, it has the duty to act in a way that assures the safety of its boundaries. This entails every action to be inextricably tied to the state’s assumptions. Realists are convinced that the term ‘security’ is the equivalent of ‘national security interest’ (Wolfers, 1952: 481). As the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it, ‘how realistically we perceive our national interests’ is a core security concern (Kissinger, 1976: 182). Exempli gratia, in the international system -which is anarchic- where egoistic and self-interested individuals proliferate, absolute security is irredeemable, and thus states believe that the only way to secure themselves from external military threats is to increase their military forces. Yet by doing so, other states might be led to think that policies of armament are objective synonyms of imminent attacks and, consequently, of real and tangible menaces. In the field of International Relations, this “ironic cycle of unintended provocations” (Kanji, 2003: 2) is often referred to as the security dilemma, i.e. the belief that increasing one’s security means “rising insecurity for others as each interprets its own measures as defensive and measures of others as potentially threatening” (Herz, 1951: 7).

At this point, one could legitimately ask: “If everybody claims to perceive real threats, how is one supposed to identify real menaces, if present, with objectivity?” Put in another way: “Are all military affairs to be considered as real threats or are they real threats only in conditions of international anarchy?” As the constructivist Wendt argued “anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt 1992: 395), claiming that what is presented as a real threat in international anarchy is not necessarily a real threat in ‘this’ world. Therefore, can one assume that threats are objectively the same regardless of their political allocation?

The constructivist approach: security threats are socially constructed. How the community moulds the concept of securitization.

In Wendtianian terms, a security threat is what actors make of it and, thus, by no means can they be objectively assessed. Unlike realists, constructivists act as analysts in charge of presenting how the “general public and their leaders” mutually construct dangers (Dannreuther 2007: 42), thereby framing our experience of the world. In their Security: a new framework of analysis Buzan, Weaver and De Wilde -prominent members of the Copenhagen School[1]– argue that

Security is when an issue is presented as posing an existential threat to a designed referent object. The special nature of security threats justifies the use of extraordinary measures to handle them. (Buzan, Waever, De Wilde 1998: 21)

Before discussing how an issue, being prioritized over other issues, is presented as an existential threat, it is of essential importance to define what we mean by’ existential threat’ in the first place. An existential threat is whatever threatens the safety of somebody or something. As opposed to realists, who unceasingly commit themselves to a scientific state-centric vision, constructivists point out the need for each and every threat to be analysed in relation to the referent object of the sector in question, while sectors have been categorised as military, political, economic, societal and environmental. As for the military sector, the state is the entity that can possibly be in danger. For this reason, however much traditional security studies would try to pass off peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions as menacing in their nature, both might not be regarded as an existential threat to the nation-state. In the political sector, it is sovereignty that is the principle that can be existentially threatened, so that Brexit, for instance, is the most prominent deterrent to the European Union. In the economic sector, the referent objects are firms, and the threat of bankruptcy may act as an ultimatum for their existence, while collective identities and individual species are respectively referent objects of the societal and environmental sector.

One might rightly wonder: “What, who and how is an issue transformed into a matter of security or shown to be existentially threatened?” Buzan et al. asserts that the answer lies in a key-term, i.e. securitization. Securitization is the process by which a general issue is recognised as an existential threat. Yet this process is built up through consequential steps in which two actors play a key-role, the securitizing actor and the ‘audience’. The securitizing actor, alias a political leader, is someone who performs the ‘securitizing move’, rhetorically identified as the ‘speech act’[2]. The task consists in declaring a state of emergency by recurring to apocalyptic statements, such as

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If we do not tackle this problem, everything else will be irrelevant (because we will not be here or will not be free to deal with it in our own way). (Buzan, Waever, De Wilde 1998: 21)

If and only if the securitizing move raises consensus and it is generally accepted by the ‘audience’, the issue is successfully securitized and it becomes an ‘existential threat’. Donald Trump’s securitizing move, i.e. the Muslim ban, cannot be considered as being successfully securitized because the general public hasn’t legitimated the ‘speech act’. Contrariwise, war is an empirical example of a successful securitization that, being so recurrent, ends up being institutionalized. Once an issue is securitized, it moves out of the realm of “normal politics into the realm of emergency politics, where it can be dealt with swiftly and without the normal (democratic) rules and regulations of policy-making” (Taureck 2006: 54; Buzan et al. 1998: 24). The ‘securitizing actor’ and the ‘audience’ democratically negotiate and establish what existential threats are under which circumstances. As Buzan et al. underline, “security is a self-referential practice, because it is in this practice that the issue becomes a security issue -not because a real threat exists” (Buzan et al. 1998: 24). From a constructivist point of view, the realist’s presumption of assessing threats objectively goes beyond humans’ means. Threats are in fact inter-subjectively constructed “rather than being natural or inevitable” (Newmann 2001: 247) since “what constitutes a threat for one is not necessarily the referent object for the other” (Buzan et al. 1998: 30).

How social constructivism has challenged the traditional realistic view. Case study: nuclear weapons are real or imagined threats?

– almost anything can be a threat

CATASTROPHIC, TOO pessimistic and deterministic (timeless and irrevocable)nature of the threats, analysis of the world in itself!

– assumption: It is out of human’s domain to establish which threats are really threatening survival, they are inevitable and there is nothing to do except for facing the crude reality. It is not possible to consider a nuclear weapon in every case a threat. What if the missil tank is a peacekeeping force?

At the same time, it is illogical to affirm that a nuvlear bomb of a powerful state is threating whereas a bomb of allies doesn’t pose any threat.

SELFISH construction of threats: with the excuse of needing to shiftthe focus of enwuiry of the individuals, impact of ideas and values (newmnn, 247). eventually defyning the concept of human security, they ended up prioritizing issues according to the selfish interests of the securitizing actor. For constructivists try to push the notion of human security forward, they somehow end up shadowing the selfish construction of security threats. Both bigo and wibben “when experts push for particular forms in which security of humans ought to be prioritized. Bigo showed how the securitizing actor together with the general public has securitized immigration. Issues are prioritized according to selfish interest.

 Wibben makes an important point that our conceptions of security come from specific political visions, underpinned by certain ontological and epistemological assumptions. For instance, when experts call for elevating human security as a security concern, they are pushing for particular forms in which the security of humans ought to be prioritised. I

Politicians have used the policy of securitization to satisfy their own interests, being legitimated to do whatever through the speech act. ” Murray Edelman has explained how the social construct of the politicalspectacle works.He has demonstrated how the construction of situations as problems is useful for politicians: the politicians can manage them in order to justify their own authority. It enablesthem, for example, to negate other problems or to transform struc-tural difficulties into easy targets. (Bigo 2002: 68-69)

the presupposition that it is possible to control the flow of individuals at the borders of thestate (bigo 1992:69)

Murray Edelman,

Pièces et règles du jeu politique

(Paris: Seuil, 1991),a translation of his Constructing the Political Spectacle

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), with a specific and important foreword7

Chandler (Security Dialogue, 2008): human security has reinforced rather than challenged existing policy frameworks and is too easily co-opted by political elites.

Security is a social construct with the meaning ofsoceurity depending of what is done with it. taureck


Threats are real in the sense that there is sth threating the survival of the individuals, yet this cannot be objectively assessed and it is not deterministically given

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They are imagined in the minds of the politicians andthen presented as threatening, yet it would be irrational to claim that the speech act has no correspondence to the external reality.

. they are mediated by the meaning we ourselves give to nuclear weapons rather than to reality

e.g. Constructivist assumption:

– a nuclear weapon doesn’t pose a threat by itself (ARGUABLY YES)

– Why the US view North Korea’s nuclear weapons as a threat and not Britain’s?

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s securitisation of Saddam Hussein’s ‘WMD programme’ for the British public in the lead up to the 2003 invasion is a useful case study here. Depending on our reading of the Copenhagen School, the ‘securitisation’ of Saddam and his ‘WMD programme’ may have occurred exclusively through public representations depicting the regime and its WMD programme as imminently threatening, through the vote in Parliament legitimising 23

Blair’s deployment of troops, or even at the point of invasion itself. While the latter

might seem the least likely reading,

The system is not deterministically given Brhaviors are socially constructed and can therefore change. (newmann, 247). Threats are socially constructed rather than being natural or inevitable: identity and interest derive from the social processes of interaction leading to expectations of costs and benefits attached with different types of behaviour within a system (newmann, 248)

Constructivists: Finally, three important constituents of a speech act are: its internal features (the security form, grammar of security, enunciation of an existential threat and so on); social conditions regarding the position of authority of the securitizing actor (how easily would the audience accept the claims of the securitizing actor); and features of the alleged threat (a tank is more threat-like than a comb, for instance; or to use our example above, a North Korea bomb is more threat-like than a British bomb for America because of the institutionalisation of the North Korean threat).

Realists: whoever the nuclear weapon belongs to, it is a threat. A foreign tank crossing the border.


Threats to security are real and tangible. One cannot deny that whoever is the owner of a nuclear weapon the presence of a nuclear weapon is menacing the international security commission. However, saying that threats are real is misleading and too generic. what each state perceives as a threat is a variable.

allocation Rather, it is a blurred misrepresentation of the world ‘out there’. This is to highlight the fact that what is regarded as a real threat in anarchy, being ‘what states make of it’, is not an objective reflection of the real threats. It is simply a reflection of the dangers out there. , provided that actions are unavoidably bounded to mere state’s assumptions

‘Is not insecurity of any kind an evil from which any rational policy maker would want to rescue his country?’ (Wolfers, National Security: 494)

The world is not a universe of all against all

From a real basis, security threats are developed and constructed according to the will and mis)perceptions of policy-makers. This is to say that some security threats are prioritized over some others and consequently they might be seen as a matter of national security worth of becoming part of the security agenda.

A security threat is what is presented as a security threat

A security threat is always the other state


BALDWIN, D. (1997) “The concept of security.” Review of International Studies 23: 5-26.

BROWNING, C. (2013) International Security: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

BUZAN, B. (1991) People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era. London: Hemel Hempstead.

BUZAN, B., WAEVER, O. AND J. DE WILDE (1998) Security: A New Framework for Analysis. London: Lynne Rienner, Chapter 2.

DANNREUTHER, R. (2007) International Security: The Contemporary Agenda. Cambridge: Polity Press, Chapter 3.

HERZ, JOHN H. (1951) Political Realism and Political Idealism. Cambridge University Press.

KISSINGER, H. (1976) “Documentation: Foreign Policy and National Security.” International Security 1(1): 182-191.

KANJI, O. (2003) “Security.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder.  <>.

NEWMANN, E. (2001) “Human Security and Constructivism.” International Studies Perspectives 2: 239-251.

TAURECK, R. (2006) “Securitization theory and securitization studies.” Journal of International Relations and Development (9): 53-61.

WENDT, A. (1992) “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization 46(2): 391-425.

WIBBEN, A. (2008) “Human Security: Toward an Opening.” Security Dialogue 39(4): 455-462.

WOLFERS, A. (1952) “National Security’ as an Ambiguous Symbol.” Political Science Quarterly 67(4): 481-502.

[1] The Copenhagen School is a school of security studies, which was established in 1983 by Barry Buzan with his first publication of People, States & Fear.

[2] The term ‘speech act’ is rooted in the linguistic philosophy of J. L. Austin and John Saerle and it emblematically represents the rhetorical structure of securitization.

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