Bringing Context to 'Security': the Launch of a New Project

Jon Jones

What comes to mind when you hear the word 'security'? What security evokes for individuals, communities and nations around the world varies depending on geographic context, dominant ideologies and history. In other words ‘security’ is contested, and how it is experienced and perceived differs across societal and global hierarchies of class, race, nationality and sexuality. These hierarchies inform not only how security is experienced in everyday life, but also what - and who - are the causes of insecurity. Yet, narratives of security in the West likely elicit seemingly universal images of national security, immigration, terrorism, and rogue states that threaten geopolitical interests. Unchallenged by mainstream news and political discourse, prevailing definitions of security both nationally and internationally ultimately reflect the ideological interests of the dominant class that eclipse the many ways that security and insecurity are experienced and produced - realities that would otherwise contest hegemonic discourse. 


Whether it is the threat of other states and rising powers or non-state actors, dominant security concerns are often attributed to an 'other’ menacing the West from the outside, be it the ‘East’ or the Global South. These discourses and practices focus our gaze on the ‘other’ while obfuscating the economic, political, and military-security policies of the global North. The creep of security regimes into many, if not all, aspects of everyday life is the logical progression of self-fulfilling securitization discourses that increasingly see risk and threat permeating society both at home and abroad; although these discourses most explicitly characterize migrants, Muslims, and racialized groups, as the others within, seeping through, and outside of, secure national boundaries. National security interests are not just limited to securing the boundaries of the nation, but extend into the territories of ‘others’ themselves, through assemblages of coercion, control, and geopolitical influence. These pursuits are embedded in discourses of democracy and practices of liberalism that more often than not reproduce repressive power, conflict, and problematic binaries of good versus evil, security versus insecurity. 


The expansion of this discourse and practice in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center is illustrative of these dynamics. On September 20th, 2001, then president George W. Bush declared a ‘Global War on Terrorism.’ The stated objectives of the US War on Terror evolved in the following days, weeks and years encompassing hundreds of legislative, legal and structural reforms. Among the most prolific of these was the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which gave the president the authority to militarily strike those ‘he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.’ The four ‘Ds’ of the official US Anti-Terror Strategy (Defeat, Deny, Diminish, Defend) were to be carried out at home and abroad where the sanctuaries of terrorists in ‘remote regions and failing states’ would be defeated; the prospect of re-emergence would be ‘diminished’ by promoting economic political stability through ‘market-based’ reform, ‘good governance,’ and ‘the rule of law.’

 

However, a recent report by the Costs of War project has shown the staggering destabilization that has occurred under the global War on Terror during the past two decades. The report conservatively estimates that 37 million people have been forcibly displaced as a result of the eight ‘War on Terror’ conflicts that the US has either initiated or been directly involved in since 2001. In this same period, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism documents as many as 2,000 civilian deaths in US drone strikes from Afghanistan to Yemen, hundreds of whom were children. Far from defeating threats of terrorism and recruitment in target regions, the global War on Terror, and its legacies, have destroyed livelihoods and diminished prospects of economic and political stability for entire communities. These wars have triggered famine, fractured societies, and set in motion endless conflicts that have become proxy wars for regional powers, where ‘security’ justifications for rooting out terrorists are still echoed, yet their origins forgotten. Such colossal destabilisation reveals the problematic (neo)liberal discourses underpinning this security architecture that produces more insecurity than it resolves. Beyond the direct victims of this violence, the grand ideological narrative of the global War on Terror has reshaped the international sphere. It has accompanied the proliferation of a transnational security apparatus with the expansion of surveillance technologies, arms and security industries, militarized policing, and the appropriation of War on Terror discourses that are used to justify state repression of minority-ethnic groups where, under such regimes of securitization, the persecuted become defined by the very insecurities they bear witness to. 


Why do we perceive security in this way and what are its ideational lineages? While centers of power and authority -- the world over -- benefit from such discourse and practice to their own ends, its evolution in global dynamics has a more complicated history: one located in the legacies of colonialism and post-colonialism - imperial projects out of which constellations of reactionary, authoritarian and repressive power have been co-constituted. Such historical dynamics are obscured when the focus of ‘security’ centers on the spectacle of violence without context. Yet this is largely the focus of the commentariat: mainstream news outlets, influential think tanks, and academics often reproduce Western-centered, uncontested narratives around securitization. As a result they perpetuate global and local hierarchies and reproduce rather than diminish insecurity. 


What alternative ways can ‘security’ be spoken of and thought about, and how can we understand global dynamics through different lenses than those that shape and serve Western thought and interest? The field of Critical Security Studies has emerged to offer alternative ways of thinking about global security and insecurity beyond state-centered approaches. Scholars have deepened the field of enquiry by considering how security and insecurity work across different scales and actors. Postcolonial and Feminist approaches, amongst others, consider areas of human security, environmental security, border and national security at the multiscalar levels of global, community and the individual. Despite these nuances in their work, critical scholars continue to engage in an ongoing process of deconstructing the foundations of (critical) Security Studies. Knowledge production and methodology continue to emanate from Western schools while the Global South remains a site for empirical investigation, failing the advancement of non-Western perspectives and reproducing West/non-West binaries.


A new project, Security in Context, investigates how we have conceptualized narratives and practices of security. It does this by recentering security studies away from mainstream discourse towards global perspectives, which are often marginalized. The project director, Omar Dahi, emphasises that rather than exclusively focusing on ‘security,’ the initiative traces the multiple ways insecurity is produced and reproduced around the globe, often by actors pursuing traditional security. By emphasizing the many experiences of insecurity at different scales and registers, the project centers the notion of context. Through this, the Security in Context group aim to produce and promote knowledge that emanates from the sources of multiple contexts themselves, particularly on questions of peace and conflict, the political economy of security, militarism and geopolitics as they intersect with processes of climate change, population movement and reorganization of global powers. Moving in tandem with the academic sphere, the project also promotes public engagement and advocacy through collaboration with individuals and organisations, academics, activists and practitioners who support alternative thinking and policies on security. 


In October 2020, the Security in Context network hosted its virtual public launch. Members of the initiative introduced some of the core research areas of the project and invited reflections on some of the issues they seek to address, such as: how are threat, risk, and (in)security produced and negotiated at the intersections of data flows, technology and the built environment? What is the relationship between the financialization of the global economy and global increases in the militarization of production? How can we reflect critically on the legacies of the global War on Terror? And, what role do the carceral society, prisons, and the police state play in the intersection between race, neo-coloniality and security? The event also introduced Security in Context’s partner organizations. One of the core endeavours of the initiative is to re-orientate Critical Security Studies from its traditional centers towards alternative sites of knowledge production through the establishment of Global South research “hubs.” So far the network includes research centers in Turkey, Morocco, Lebanon, and Syria with plans to connect more in other regions. These hubs lead the research projects based on their own priorities and interests with the intent of establishing non-Western methodologies and frameworks for critical global studies.


As a collective, the Security in Context network provides a framework for alternative, evidence-based approaches to understanding how insecurity is produced around the world. Security in Context aims for flexibility that is adaptable to new ideas, pathways and collaboration. In a time of growing  xenophobia, racism, and militarism across the globe, the project launches as part of a broader groundswell of multi-national and community collaboration that challenges these trends and their parallels in the dominant discourse and practice of securitization.


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