Is Human Security a thing? Is it a good thing?

Yesterday I attended the Great Plains National Security Education Consortium’s (GNPSEC) 2012 Colloquium, held here at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.  The topic of this year’s conference was “human security,” and the panelists presented academic papers on a wide range of topics related to that subject.  What prompted this blog post was that, at the end of the conference, the moderator posed the following questions to the audience:

– Does the human security paradigm provide any additional value to the study of international relations?

– Does it do more harm than good?

This was following on comments made by one of the last panelists that one of the chief problems with human security is that the concept is overly broad.  He argued that it does not tell us much because its scope includes all of human welfare.  As he put it, when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

I think these criticisms are misplaced because they don’t quite capture what the human security paradigm is: a paradigm.  It’s a prism through which to look at the world, not a tool to provide additional leverage on already existing scholarship. What the human security approach does is provide an alternative way of identifying concepts that are relevant to the human political experience that might be ignored by more traditional approaches.  When we conceive of the purpose of international relations as inter-state order or security, we ask certain kinds of research questions but tend to ignore others.

Right now I’m thinking about this in terms of telos, the old Greek idea of purpose in an enterprise.

Telos is an idea from the ancient Greeks, most famously associated with the work of Aristotle, that everything in existence has a purpose.  The purpose of some domain is what drives all action in that domain and is what provides the criteria by which actions in those domains are judged.  The purpose of sailing is get a boat from one place to another.  Anything done by a sailor that is not helpful to that purpose is bad seamanship.  Moreover, there was a master purpose that Aristotle located in politics.  The purpose of government, according to Aristotle, is to facilitate the perfection of the people living under it.  The city exists “not merely so we can live, but so we can live well.”  (And when Aristotle says “live well,” he does not mean free of discomfort.  He means bringing our lives as close as possible to the most perfect form that is available to us; i.e. achieving our full potential).  Because the well-lived life is the highest purpose of any human being, all our other actions are subordinate to that telos.  And because politics is the way by which we identify and pursue this human flourishing, it was “the master science.”  The substance of that science would then be identifying those things that make that telos more achievable.

What the human security paradigm is offering modern scholars is a new telos for the academic study of world politics.  What I mean by this is that human security offers a different way of identifying what kinds of events are important and therefore worth studying, with subsequent implications for dependent variables of interest and what kinds of measures are necessary to capture them.  It might be easiest to conceive of this in opposition to some alternative purposes.

The realists, Machiavelli to Morgenthau and beyond, identify the purpose of politics as maintaining security, and specifically the security of the foreign affairs policymaker (the sovereign).

Economists, including most IPE scholars, identify the purpose as the maximization of efficiency.

The English School, at least with regard to Hedley Bull, said the purpose is the maintenance of global order.

What these all are lacking is any interest in the lives of the great majority of human beings.  Security, order, efficiency, as those things have been conceived by scholars and scholarly policymakers in the past, do not take account of the quality of human lives.  Knowing whether some policy increases GDP per capita does not tell you whether that policy is improving life in that society.  For one thing there are distributional issues, but also a whole range of “externalities” (so called because they are external to the efficiency paradigm) like environmental degradation and cultural impoverishment.  “National security” maintained by a delicate balance of power that requires occasional wars to correct imbalances and the dedication of large percentages of societal resources into military spending neglects the often acute insecurity felt by people within borders vis-à-vis their governments or violent non-state actors like organized crime.  And “order” is a joke when it provides carte blanche for state leaders to abuse their populations under the protection of the sovereign right to non-interference.

The human security paradigm is an attempt to relocate the political Good away from the level of the state/sovereign and place it at the level of the individual.  Such a shift would be more consequential than yesterday’s critics realize.  It is only by resort to the telos of IR scholarship that we can identify the concepts we should use in our work, not to mention prioritizing what is more important and what is less so.  Contrary to this idea that human security prioritizes everything, what instead happens is that the human security idea puts the priority on the sense of security felt by individual human beings, without prioritizing some persons over others.

This was illuminated in the presentation of Dr. Glenn Phelps of the Gallup polling company.  Since 2005 Gallup has been conducting yearly surveys in nearly every country in the world on a variety of issues.  Yesterday he focused on trends in two questions that are asked on all surveys: 1) on a scale of 1-10, how well is your life going right now?  2) on a scale of 1-10, how likely do you think it is that your life will be better in five years?  Gallup has combined the answers into a single index that they conceive of as ranging from suffering to flourishing.  Here’s where it gets interesting: 1) changes on this index were not strongly correlated with changes in GDP per capita, and 2) they were a better predictor of the outbreak of political unrest than was change in GDP per capita.

In other words, the old paradigm of using GDP per capita as a measure of development is misguided.  And research using GDP per capita, whether as a dependent variable or independent variable, cannot plausibly claim that what that number is tapping is quality of life.  This has big implications for a lot of social scientific research.

It is interesting to note that human security is not the only attempt at this shift in telos.  We also have the human rights literature, and the work on capabilities such as Sen (1999) and Nussbaum (2011).  It seems that all three of these are attempting to shift the telos to the individual level, though with slightly different emphases.  Human security is often framed as “freedom from…” (fear, want, etc.).  The human capabilities approach talks about not only eliminating barriers to individuals but also providing them with the support they need (education, health care, etc.) for them to pursue their individually chosen life plans.  The human rights frame is broader still, probably not least because it is older.

It might be that these 3 views should be seen as competing approaches to placing the telos at the individual level, with potentially important differences in what dependent variables would be most central to international relations scholarship and what measures would be best used to capture their variance.