How can Critical Security Studies approaches be applied to the `the war on terrorism´?

Essay, 2009
12 Pages, Grade: 73 von 100 Punkten



1. Introduction

2. `Welsh School´

3. `Copenhagen School´
3.1. Securitization
3.2. Desecuritization

4. Other CSS approaches

5. Critic on the Critical Security Studies approaches

6. Conclusion

7. List of abbreviations

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This essay deals about the approaches of Critical Security Studies (CSS) to the `the War on Terrorism´ (WoT). To understand the approaches of CSS it is important to know, that this view has its origin in the critique of the traditional approaches realism and liberalism. A consequence of this is CSS do not see the state as most important referent object. In contrast to realism and liberalism it is the approach of CSS to look for alternative referent objects beside the state.

But CSS are not just one approach. It is divided into different schools or drifts. This essay wants to research, how these schools and drifts analyse the WoT. Central to this are the paragraphs 2 and 3, which deal about ´Welsh School´ and `Copenhagen School´. These two are most important drifts inside CSS. The other drifts will be discussed in paragraph 4. Afterwards in paragraph 5 it will be pointed out where the failures and critic points of CSS in general as well as in its drifts are.

Even if the impacts in its drifts differ, CSS is based on the Critical Theory/ `Frankfurt School (Habermas) and on Poststructualism (Foucault). This means on the one hand that CSS does not take the state as the most important referent object, but thinks more broadly about the reasons for (in-)security. And on the other hand CSS researchers according to Critical Theory claim reality to be socially constructed and want to look behind the empiricist world. In context of WoT we will see later that this means a critic on official or governmental standpoints.

The debates between CSS and governmental or traditional approaches start at the definition of terrorism. Definitions of terrorism are broadly discussed in practical politics and in International Relations (IR). Because this is such a high-class topic, an own definition will be used in this essay. So `terrorism´ shall be defined as `an act of political motivated non-state violence for achieving a declared aim´. Of course this definition will be discussed in contrast to the definition CSS researches made.

From the debates in the public and the media one has of course a general understanding of WoT. It can be stated here that WoT is mostly understood as fight of the `Western´ world against the global militant Islamist movement known as Al-Qaeda. This situation will be important for the further analysis but also a more abstract definition of WoT is necessary here. According to the terrorism definition above and to the theories of Clausewitz WoT shall be defined for this essay as a `number of political acts using other instruments than political instruments including military force to defeat a non-state actor and/or arguing this actor out to achieve its aim´.

2. `Welsh School´

As mentioned above for CSS in general the `Welsh School´ is likely to be a counterpart to the traditionalist (neo-)realist and liberalist approaches. The influence of Critical Theory and the aim to look behind the empiricist world can be seen by the `Welsh Schools´ critic of neorealists, stating those would bring “a series of foundational claims that are presented as “facts” about the world”[1].

In context of the WoT realists would argue there is an empirical reality one could recognize[2]. A realist would claim there is no doubt that Al-Qaeda as the aggressive part attacks the US and the `Western world´. Threatened by Al-Qaeda `Western´ countries would have to defend themselves. But this would just be the point for CSS, wanting to look behind the realist studies and playback of “collective meaning structures[3]. By analysing social processes and political intentions `Welsh School´ scholars would state threats by terrorism “become constructed as “social facts””[4]. Connected to the definitions made above scholars would ask, if the threat from global Islamist movement really exists or if this threat is created by political elites for some reason. `Welsh School´ would analyse how the acting of Al-Qaeda fits into the interests of `Western´ politicians/elites and further state the threat of terrorism to be even more constructed by those to achieve their interests. In another case, accepting an existing terrorist threat, these scholars would question the collective accepted and by traditional scholars argued reasons for terrorist attacks and the WoT.

An example for a `Welsh School´ scholar like this is Ken Booth. He argues the United States (US) would partly be self-responsible for the terrorist threat because of “its sometimes brutal foreign policy”[5]. In addition to his Booth declares it to be easy for US governments create threats socially because of the US society. Furthermore the US government had done so many times in the WoT[6].

To argue like this Booth of course uses another definition of terrorism as used in this essay. His definition can be seen as typical for the `Welsh School´. He defines terrorism to be “a method of political actions that uses violence (or deliberately produces fear) against civilians and civilian infrastructure in order to influence behaviour, to inflict punishment or to exact revenge. […] Such acts can be committed by states as well as private groups”[7]. But Booths definition does not fit and the definition used here is more exact. At first a terrorist act has not to be a political act. Of course it has a political motivation, within a broader understanding of the term `political´, but just the motivation itself does not make it a political act. Secondly targets of terrorism do not need be civilian nature. For example the Pentagon on 9/11 and the USS Cole in 2000 have been military targets. It can be no doubt that if one claim the attacks on the World Trade Center to be terrorist acts the attack on the Pentagon was also a terrorist act. Thirdly states cannot commit terrorist attacks. There may be political or juridical illegitimated acts of state violence similar to terrorist activities, but this has to be differed from actions of non-state actors. For example a non-state actor has no political opposition or parliamentary control, which could force it to apologize for such an act. The inner nature of states and terrorist organizations is too different to declare they would act equal by using force.

But the `Welsh School´ does not only see the US but also political realism as “as part of the problem in world politics”[8] and inconsequence of as part of the problem in the WoT. Connected with the statement that “Critical approaches promise to be ethically progressive”[9] one can see that the ´Welsh School´ and with it CSS as a hole has a strong normative core. So it is clear when `Welsh School´ Scholars do a research on the WoT the number of answers they will find is limited. By using the sentence from Robert Cox “Theory is always for someone and for some purpose”[10] and even the `Welsh School´ scholar David Mutimer arguing that all “Theory […] is not political neutral”[11] one can state that the `Welsh School´ is more likely to be an instrument of promoting politically left views in IR against the right/conservative realists and liberals.

This left political approach combined with the aim to show the social construction of security in connection to collective identities can be found in Simon Philpotts and David Mutimers analyses about US foreign policy and the countries identity. They argue forgetting about own historical crimes would be part of the US identity, so the US would be “a United States of Amnesia”[12]. They declare “`the US´ is imagined identity”[13] which is built up partly on pop cultural and Hollywood elements[14]. The dominance of the belief in freedom in the US foreign policy is considered to be constructed by the ongoing amnesia of US own crimes and this amnesia has the effect that US crimes always happen in a similar way again[15]. Applied on WoT this approach would mean the WoT in its hole is an illegitimated or even criminal act. In their whole analyses the authors never seriously mention the point that there could be a specific earnest reason why US politicians decided to act in specific way, including the decision to use violence in several ways. This shows the normative core of the `Welsh School´ and its limited possibility for perception a second time.


[1] Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams, “Broadening the Agenda of Security Studies: Politics and Methods,” in International Security Vol. 3, ed. Barry Buzan and Lene Hansen (London: SAGE, 2007), 138. Accentuation in original.

[2] Ibid., 142.

[3] Ibid., 146. Accentuation in original.

[4] Ibid., 150.

[5] Ken Booth and Tim Dunne, “Worlds in Collision,” in Worlds in collision: terror and the future of global order, ed. Ken Booth and Tim Dunne ( Houndmills, Basingstoke and Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 2.

[6] Ibid., 3 et seqq.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] Ken Booth, “Critical Explorations”, in Critical security studies and world politics, ed. Ken Booth (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005), 3.

[9] Ibid., 12.

[10] David Mutimer, “Beyond Strategy: Critical Thinking and the New Security Studies”, in Contemporary security and strategy, ed. Craig A. Snyder (London: Macmillan, 1999), 81.

[11] Ibid., 81.

[12] Simon Philpott and David Mutimer, “The United States of Amnesia: US foreign policy and the recurrence of innocence”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 22, no. 2 (2009): 302.

[13] Ibid., 305.

[14] Ibid., 304.

[15] Ibid., 305-313.

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How can Critical Security Studies approaches be applied to the `the war on terrorism´?
The University of Sydney  (Center for International Security Studies)
New Security Challenges
73 von 100 Punkten
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Felix Seidler (Author), 2009, How can Critical Security Studies approaches be applied to the `the war on terrorism´?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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