International Security 26.2 (2001) 87-102
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Paradigm Shift or Hot Air?
Human security is the latest in a long line of neologisms--including common security, global security, cooperative security, and comprehensive security--that encourage pol-icymakers and scholars to think about international security as something more than the military defense of state interests and territory. Although definitions of human security vary, most formulations emphasize the welfare of ordinary people. Among the most vocal promoters of human security are the governments of Canada and Norway, which have taken the lead in establishing a "human security network" of states and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that endorse the concept. 1 The term has also begun to appear in academic works, 2 and is the subject of new research projects at several major universities. 3 [End Page 87]
Some commentators argue that human security represents a new paradigm for scholars and practitioners alike. Despite these claims, however, it remains unclear whether the concept of human security can serve as a practical guide for academic research or governmental policymaking. As Daniel Deudney has written in another context, "Not all neologisms are equally plausible or useful." 4 Two problems, in particular, limit the usefulness of the human security concept for students and practitioners of international politics. First, the concept lacks a precise definition. Human security is like "sustainable development"--everyone is for it, but few people have a clear idea of what it means. Existing definitions of human security tend to be extraordinarily expansive and vague, encompassing everything from physical security to psychological well-being, which provides policymakers with little guidance in the prioritization of competing policy goals and academics little sense of what, exactly, is to be studied.
Second, the most ardent backers of human security appear to have an interest in keeping the term expansive and vague. The idea of human security is the glue that holds together a jumbled coalition of "middle power" states, development agencies, and NGOs--all of which seek to shift attention and resources away from conventional security issues and toward goals that have traditionally fallen under the rubric of international development. As a unifying concept for this coalition, human security is powerful precisely because it lacks precision and thereby encompasses the diverse perspectives and objectives of all the members of the coalition. The term, in short, appears to be slippery by design. Cultivated ambiguity renders human security an effective campaign slogan, but it also diminishes the concept's usefulness as a guide for academic research or policymaking.
This is not to say that human security is merely "hot air" or empty rhetoric. The political coalition that now uses human security as a rallying cry has chalked up significant accomplishments, including the signing of an anti- personnel land mines convention and the imminent creation of an international criminal court. The alliance of some states and advocacy groups has altered the landscape of international politics since the end of the Cold War, as Richard Price and others have shown. 5 But to say that human security has [End Page 88] served as an effective rallying cry is different from claiming that the concept offers a useful framework for analysis, as some of its proponents maintain. 6 Campaign slogans can be consequential without being well defined. The impact of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society rhetoric, for example, was arguably significant--serving as a focal point for political supporters of his reformist social agenda--but the exact meaning of the term "great society" was obscure. Similarly, one can support the political goals of the human security coalition while recognizing that the idea of human security itself is a muddle.
This article proceeds as follows. First, I examine existing definitions of human security. Second, I explore the limits of human security as a practical guide for academic research and policymaking. Third, I examine recent efforts to narrow the definition of human security. Fourth, I consider ways in which the concept might, despite its limitations, make a contribution to the study of international relations and security.
What Is Human Security?
The first major statement...