Tuesday , August 3 2021

Traditional and Non-Traditional approaches to security; points of convergence and divergence


By Dimitra Kiousi
Postgraduate Student at the University of Glasgow, IMSISS Erasmus Mundus International Programme
ELIAMEP Internship


“A state’s territorial integrity is considered a fundamental value and any threats to that, automatically endangers its national sovereignty. For this reason, states are constantly competing with each other in order to acquire absolute security.”


This article delineates the core contentions between the conventional understanding of security and a more contemporary approach which broadens and deepens the conceptualisation of security. To that end, the contestation of the traditional and non-traditional security is demonstrated through the lens of the different theoretical approaches; Realism in both its classical and structural variants versus the concept of Human Security as a branch of the concept of Non-Traditional Studies (NTS).

To untangle the various divergences regarding the conceptualisation of security, this article will examine the following points of contestation:

  1. a) narrow versus wider security agenda (military vs non-military issues; b) the security referent (statism versus individuals; c) sources of threats (external vs internal and external); d) problem-solving approach (war as the problem or part of the problem); and e) cooperation.


Narrow versus Wider security agenda

Proponents of the traditionalist mindset posit the State as the main referent object that needs to be secured only from military threats. The content of military threats entails nuclear capabilities as well. According to Waltz (1979), the outbreak of a war is the least probable scenario as the intention is to deter and not to provoke the enemy. Nevertheless, as Snyder argues, “none can be sure that other’s intentions are peaceful, or will remain so. Since no state can know that the power accumulation of others is defensively motivated only, each must assume that it might be intended for attack”. This argument by Snyder, demonstrates that a state’s territorial integrity is considered a fundamental value and any threats to that, automatically endangers its national sovereignty. For this reason, states are constantly competing with each other in order to acquire absolute security. This competition is another vital assumption of the classical way of the Realist thinking. Security is viewed as a zero-sum game where the increase of military capability guarantees national sovereignty.

However, this focus on military threats fails to encompass wider forms of security that emerged since the end of Cold War. Scholars of the concept of Human Security offer a critique to the realist paradigm and its relevance to address contemporary issues whose context is not defined in narrow military terms.


Referent object: Statism vs Individuals

As it is defined by Younkyoo and Blank (2012:125) terrorism, trans-national organised crime, environmental security, illegal migration, energy security, internal security and human security are the main branches that work within the discipline of NTS. To indicate the core differences, the concept of Human Security will be extensively used. First, as NTS adherents commonly declare that the predominance of the military focused strategies during the Cold War can no longer be applicable to the agenda of new threats within the international system. Whereas under the traditional rubric of security the nature of threats is calculated in military capabilities and the scope of threat is national, the nature in the non-traditional outlook is non-military and the scope is transnational and non-state centric (Caballero, 2016).

Scholars of NTS criticise the premises of Neo-Realism and its-state centric characteristics demonstrating that statism can no longer be at the centre of the security agenda. This core argument by NTS proponents is related to their perception of security. Security, as Peoples and Williams (2015) underpin, is a derivative concept which can be interpreted in distinct ways. Whereas Neo-Realism emphasises the role of the State as the main referent object. Scholars of NTS support the extending of the security agenda to include individuals as the main referent object.

Furthermore, in the NTS’s worldview, different types of threats such as illegal migration, diseases, food scarcity can directly pose a serious challenge to survival and well-being of people and states. For this reason, the expansion of the agenda beyond the state-centric argument indicates that security is indeed a derivative concept as it allows for the development of distinct conceptions of security.


Broadening the Security Agenda – Sources of threats

As Peoples and Williams (2015) state, Barry Buzan was among the first scholars, who in his book People, States and Fear emphasises the need to expand the military-focused strategy so as to include environmental and economic parameters as well. Influenced by this assumption, Human security scholars further expanded this argument and stated that people, individuals are the primary actors that are threatened not only from military threats such as war or conflicts, but also from poverty, famine, climate change and organised crime.

It was the 1994 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that established the concept of Human Security. To fully comprehend the concept of Human Security and its mains differences with the traditional paradigm, it is crucial to consider certain parameters. As the UNDP report underpins, human security perceives the relation of military and non-military as highly intertwined. Nevertheless, advocates of the concept support that states should move away from the narrow military perception – that one’s state territorial integrity could be protected only by arms. Therefore, the nature of threats is not military calculated. A second parameter would be the range of the threats’ scope.

As demonstrated above, traditionalists focus on the national level where the main source of insecurity against the state is external. In contrast to this national scope, a proponent of Human Security would argue that the scope is both internal and transnational. Internal, because the state itself articulates the main cause of insecurities and transnational because other threats are recognised such as climate change, poverty and terrorist attacks that can either have domestic or international implications. Lastly, a third parameter would entail the distinct objectives. Proponents of the traditionalist paradigm seek to preserve the status quo. The means to that end seems to be the maximisation of power. Nonetheless, the concept of Human Security seeks to ensure peoples’ security and the well-being of society. Therefore, the  purpose of the concept is to promote sustainable development that will mitigate the outbreak of a conflict and simultaneously will enhance human security.


“The dominance of the state-centric concept over the concept of Human Security questions the boundaries between national and human security.”


Problem-Solving Approach

According to the problem-solving theory, War is considered the principal “problem” within the international system. Traditionalists tend to assume that a) the main referent object is the state; b) states seek to attain security given the anarchic nature of the system; c) war between states is the recurrent component of the international system.

Proponents of NTS however, criticise this approach by emphasising its narrow narratives. They are opposed to these perceptions, stating that war is “part of the problem” and not the core feature of the system. If we accept that war is a natural feature of the international system, analysts are quite limited when it comes to the production of knowledge as the scope is strictly within the context of war and its repercussions. For this reason, NTS argue that depicting war as a part of the problem and not the problem itself, scholars are able to expand the security agenda and include non-military issues that can equally threaten states’ and its citizens’ integrity. Adherents of NTS perceive that globalisation is the main cause that transforms the challenges into non-traditional ones and this shift can directly lead to an outbreak of conflict or even war. Accordingly, a sole focus on war would enhance the constant struggle for preservation of a state’s status quo. This could prove to be quite problematic because as Galtung (1996) depicts, states can be the main source of structural violence – meaning that they can impose restrictions to civilians, and oppress their human, political and social rights in order to safeguard the state system.


Cooperation: A bone of contention

Cooperation, either at a regional or international level, is indeed an issue where traditionalists and non-traditionalists diverge. According to Grieco (1988), realists are sceptical when it comes to cooperation among states. Given the competition among state-actors aiming for a maximisation of power, international cooperation is less likely to emerge as states seem pessimistic regarding the successful outcome of this endeavour. The anarchic nature of the international system determines the state’s national objectives and therefore, the prospects of international cooperation appear unrealistic.

Nevertheless, due to emerging threats within the international system, such as civil wars, environmental degradation and economic stagnation, “multilateral cooperation” is vital. NTS focus on cooperation at a multilateral level because the scope of the emerging challenges is transnational. To cite an instance, according to Marzęda-Młynarska (2016:5), the characteristics of organised crime are in constant transition in terms of “scale, (and) inability to predict its transmission and speed”. Therefore, due to the unpredictability of the threats’ characteristics, a NTS proponent would argue that the classification of a phenomenon/challenge with transnational traits only as a national concern, would significantly limit its prompt and successful mitigation.

To draw a conclusion, one could argue that the aftermath of the Cold War indicated a shift from a narrow military understanding of the security discourse to a wider agenda that includes non-military threats within the international system whose confrontation is of equal importance. The source of threats, the security referent, the broadening of the conceptions of security, the problem-solving approach, national versus regional or multilateral cooperation have been used to depict the contention between the traditionalists and non-traditionalists. However, the dominance of the state-centric concept over the concept of Human Security questions the boundaries between national and human security. As P.H Liotta illustrates, to “privilege one dimension to the exclusion of the other can only spell disaster” (Liotta 2002:475).



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Younkyoo K. and Blank S. (2012). Non-Traditional Security in Central Asia: Contending paradigms and Current Perspectives. The Korean Journal of International Studies. [online]. 10(1).p. 123-152 Available at http://www.kjis.org/journal/download_pdf.php?spage=123&volume=10&number=1.

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