The Many Faces of Security

By Brian Malczyk, Climate Security Fellow

This is part one of a series of articles on climate security


Consider what security means to you. Do you naturally associate security with your nation’s security? Perhaps your family’s safety from threat? As you may have guessed: it depends. Security requires an object to latch on to for it to be significant—whose security, or what are you securing? The word, “security,” assumes a quality of urgency or importance when inserted into inspiring or provocative political rhetoric. The clout of this concept, security, arises when the capacity for a militaristic response is part and parcel of the challenge—which is often the case. But this is not to say we are stuck with that association. Security can transcend those levels and go beyond the normal units of analysis. It can make use of its ability to mobilise towards a “good” objective—but for what purpose, and at what cost?

In brief, security’s theoretical history, as a component of an International Relations lens known as Realism, results from the rise of states as definable units. States, the narrative goes, seek survival above all. Definable areas of territorial control lead to monopolies over violence, which are then exercised to maintain survival. This view holds that the stronger the state, the better its ability to win contests for survival. Within this model, however, violent non-state actors seek to upend the traditional state-territory paradigm, and create their own small areas of control. Insecurity, as a result, crops up both through internal and external competitions for survival and control.

Towards the external, wars can be seen as clashes for the sake of security. States clash in those spots where one state’s security is seen to be at odds with another’s (Baldwin, 1997, p. 22). Unequal capacities, and varying degrees of uncertainty can prompt this dilemma. Today, however, national security has generally evolved beyond its use as a zero-sum vector—where one’s gain results in another’s loss. Collective security arrangements, with the most prominent example being NATO, allow for larger member states to stomach a relatively larger burden than smaller members for heightened security (Olson & Zeckhauser, 1966, p. 278). And, should an attack occur on one of its members, may invoke a response by one or more of its members under Article 5. Security, thus, can be shared and marginal costs of increasing it reduced. This minimalist view of security, however, forsakes a host of perspectives which stray away from the state as be-all, end-all. Monopolies on violence have led to more diffuse areas of contestation.

So, what utility does the concept hold? An ascribed sense of urgency. A security-anchored perspective often ascends to an area of high politics where a state’s existence is a value that security embraces. This value, in turn, often is seen in reference to an exogenous threat. In fact, we have become good at elevating certain issues into the “exogenous threat” realm—certain ideologies, human mobility, and others—where the notion of “securitisation” emerges (I’ll discuss this more in-depth in future articles with Think Together). Those issues within the arena of “low politics” often fall to the wayside when militaristic capacity is not a direct issue.

For an example of an object security requires for it to be significant, take economic security. Rather than in terms of overweening military strength, Schumpeter, in the early 20th century, argued for a “capitalist peace” that would take hold as a result of our valuing of universal access to markets. After the Second World War, the United States created an umbrella of protection in its role of ensuring economic security for her allies, but this was not sufficient in the scope of ensuring a lack of conflict, or peace. What was to be secured, in this case of economic security, was freedom to orchestrate economic policy as it coincided with one’s national interests. Autarkic approaches, or policies for self-sufficiency, were no longer necessary. The threat of your trading partner’s use of its monopoly of violence was not longer a fait accompli. Thus, we saw and continue to see grand appeals towards economic security for the purpose of peace, rather than military-endowed perspectives of national security: Fridtjof Nansen, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Arctic Explorer, and founder of the Nansen passport, asserted: “The only policy which can save Europe is that which resolutely regards all problems from an international economic point of view.” (as quoted in Emerson, 2010, p. 13) Despite progress towards this in the form of security communities, security remains within the lens of military response as seen in the current flow of interest in nuclear arsenals.

Moving forward, security becomes even more fluid when we look at its other iterations. Climate Change, for instance, can be associated within two such fluid lenses, human security—where “who” enters the fold—and environmental security, both aptly demonstrated by Floyd (2008). The need to associate climate change with a form of security merely permits a clear vector from which to gauge change in collective resilience. But this can be tricky. For one, environmental security can have tremendous benefits. For example, peace and safety can be fostered through cross-state settlement of resource access (Floyd, 2008, p. 58). Resource access, or environmental scarcity can prompt conflict, per Thomas Homer-Dixon, or cooperation. Indeed, it can prompt multilateral efforts to prevent environmental catastrophes, as with spent nuclear casings from decommissioned submarines (Floyd, 2008, p. 53) or the replacement of the Chernobyl sarcophagus. Within this context, two issues crop up: First, temporally, where the environmental threat must be sufficiently pressing. Conflict may spring up because of instability from variables inclusive of drought, desertification, and rising sea-levels, but these gradual (and in the latter case, tipping-point-like) climate change-derived processes can be often relegated in strategic importance. Second, the security component may be superficial given environmental security may prompt efforts to bolster resilience, or a state’s ability to respond to environmental crisis, but not necessarily the catalysts of climate change.

In terms of our security as humans, the perspective is extremely important but conceptually murky. A 1994 UNDP report first denoted human security as freedom from “chronic threats” and “disruptions in the patterns of daily life” (Paris, 2001, p. 89). Adding to this broadness, environmental security can be taken as part of the bundle that consists of human security (Floyd, 2008, p. 6). What is clear, despite all the academic or practical debate of its definition, human security represents an extension of what was first sought since after the Second World War: universal protection of human dignity. This ostensibly undeniable right, shared by all humans, is on a spectrum that entails greater or lesser degrees of protection. In some cases, it can be at odds with more traditional notions of security, like National Security. As Arctic shipping routes open amid receding ice coverage, a state’s nuclear strategy or ostensible need for economic security may trump considerations which include the livelihoods—social and physical prosperity—of Arctic peoples. In lieu of state survival through territorial integrity, if we look at individuals’ security, we can inject much-needed attention and urgency to the debate. What if it were the case that the stronger the state, the better its ability to care for the basket of goods that humans require.

In sum, security matters where the military is involved in its attainment, or else it drops out of high politics. Who or what is secured? The situation matters, as a contradiction can result, say, between the security of a culture versus that of the state. Speech act theory, in the form of securitization, demonstrates how a political entrepreneur can securitize an object, and subsequently elevate it to the arena of high politics. Climate change can gain focus from efforts to subvert its effect on National Security Strategy, thus falling under traditional national security—in CDS’ screening of “Age of Consequences,” this will be made quite apparent. On the other hand, those normally subject to international or state protection through variants of human security can have their security taken away by way of a use of rhetoric. Security is a dynamic perspective, and its championing can have a variety of effects on policy towards a basket of challenges. And so when thinking of security, you should have in mind: security… “For Whom, From What?” (Greaves, 2012)


Baldwin, D. A. (1997). The Concept of security. Review of International Studies,23, 5-26.

Emmerson, C. (2010). The future history of the Arctic. New York: PublicAffairs.

Floyd, R. (2008). The Environmental Security Debate and its Significance for Climate Change. The International Spectator,43(3), 51-65.

Greaves, W. (2012). For Whom, from What? Canada’s Arctic policy and the narrowing of human security. International Journal,67(1), 219-240.

Olson, M., & Zeckhauser, R. (1966). An Economic Theory of Alliances. The Review of Economics and Statistics,48(3), 266-279.

Paris, R. (2001). Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air? International Security,26(2), 87-102.


Brian hails from Toronto, and is a graduate of the Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies program at the University of Toronto (BA 2016). In his third-year, he was an International Presidential Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Succeeding this, he led North American Model United Nations in his capacity as Secretary-General. Brian also served as Co-President of the Canadian Red Cross group.

Brian is an alumnus of St. Michael’s Choir School (2012) and executive member of its alumni association, SMCSAA. He currently teaches piano and sings with several choral groups as a reflection of his background in music.

As a Climate Security Fellow at CDS, his research interest orbits the impact of climate change on state engagement with the Arctic and its people.