Debunking the Security Myth of Military Might

By Vitoria Basham

Using and maintaining military force as a means of achieving security:  a flawed idea?

In my recent article published in Security Dialogue I critique the longstanding idea that military force and the maintenance of strong armed forces provides security. This idea forms part of the social contract between liberal democratic states and their citizens, whereby individuals agree to abide by laws, and so relinquish some of their freedoms, in exchange for order and security. Taking the UK as my focus, I suggest that when we pay closer attention to how gender, race and class shape different members of society’s lives, there is a problem with this assumption that using and maintaining military power enables the state to make all of its citizens secure. Indeed, the old adage that military force equals security can be challenged because military interventions and maintaining a strong military capability can actually make some members of the population more insecure. For example, maintaining a strong military capability often entails trade-offs with other spending needs such as social security and welfare provision. Investing in the former to the detriment of the latter, can mean that the poor and sick become more vulnerable. Moreover, women disproportionately take on caring roles for children and sick and elderly relatives when the state retreats from providing key services.

…the old adage that military force equals security can be challenged because military interventions and maintaining a strong military capability can actually make some members of the population more insecure

By looking particularly at the UK’s involvement in recent airstrikes over Syria and at attendant debates on Syrian refugees I also explore how particular groups within society are disadvantaged by policies of military intervention that seem to rely on drawing racialized boundaries around the UK and fostering suspicion and hostility towards racial minorities. These ideas can make the wider population question who belongs, generating hostility towards migrants and asylum seekers fleeing military violence but also to people within society who may come to be seen as a drain or scourge on that society just because they look like ‘the enemy’. Therefore, by paying closer attention to the gendered and racialized aspects of militarism, security is revealed to be, at best, partial.

Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, give the peace sign (Photo: Eoghan Rice)- Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Finally, my article tries to highlight why we should all be much more concerned as citizens about the military interventions and the maintenance of military power that the state carries out in our name on the assumption that these practices make us more secure. Though liberal democratic populations often reject the kind of militaristic fervour often exhibited by the state when it calls for military intervention and the prioritisation of military spending, I argue that we need to be much more attentive to our ambivalence towards the militarism (waging war and constantly preparing for it) of the state. This is because militarism can thrive and go unchallenged just as much when it becomes seen as a normal feature of a chaotic world as it can in societies that fervently celebrate it. If the outcome of militarism, as I suggest is insecurity for citizens of other nations where our military intervenes and citizens within our own society, this is all the more urgent.


Confronting the Colonial- Even in Critical Studies

By Maria Eriksson Baaz and Judith Verweijen

At a time when colonial revisionism is seemingly on the rise and articles calling for re-colonization are published even in renown critical journals (though clearly and comfortably not without controversy), turning a critical eye towards ourselves as ‘critical’ scholars might be seen as ‘navel-gazing’ or even as dangerously diverting precious energy. While such interjections are certainly valid, we suggest that the recent trend of intensified pro-colonialism and racism calls for even more self-reflection also among self-proclaimed critical scholars (including ourselves). Rather than simply situating the problem elsewhere, we need to be vigilant about our own (inescapable) complicity – also by probing into how we (unintentionally) might reproduce the images inscribed in the work that we oppose.

“Socrates Looking in a Mirror”- Metropolitan Museum of Art Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Our concern arises not only from theoretical contemplation, but also from our experiences as scholars within critical military and security studies who mainly research armed actors in the DR Congo. Our analytical point of departure tends to be Congolese armed actors themselves, rather than transnational security fields or external interventions (like counter-terrorism programs or international private security firms). This focus regularly triggers the sense of being the odd one out both in journals and at conferences. Africa clearly occupies a marginal place not only– as many scholars have argued–in more mainstream International Relations and the related fields of security and military studies, but also in the scholarship we name ‘critical’.

… much literature on militarism in Africa construes it as ultimately imposed by ‘the West’– thus locating agency predominantly in ‘western hegemonic forces’. Africa is cast in such literature mainly in the role of the (passive) ‘victim’, the theatre in which imperialist plays are acted out…

But our concern is not only with marginality. As scholars researching Congolese armed actors we struggle with the question whether the tools offered by ‘critical’ frameworks really ‘fit’. For instance, can the toolbox of governmentality be helpful in understanding militarization in the DRC and the way this process affects those ‘in-between’ the civilian and the military, like army wives?

In a new article in Security Dialogue that is part of a special issue on militarism and security, we query into the use and signifying work of the concepts of militarization and securitization in relation to Africa scholarship. We suggest that the ways in which these concepts are applied and not applied risk reproducing familiar colonial imageries that we as critical scholars tend to locate elsewhere. Paradoxically, we argue, this reproduction occurs partly through the very commitment to reveal continued imperialist/neo-colonial relations. As such, our reflections recap earlier debates in postcolonial studies, where some warned that the field risks reproducing Eurocentrism by overstating the power of Europe/‘the West’ as the origin of history and as the all-pervasive force shaping social and political developments elsewhere.

As detailed in the article, much literature on militarism in Africa construes it as ultimately imposed by ‘the West’– thus locating agency predominantly in ‘western hegemonic forces’. Africa is cast in such literature mainly in the role of the (passive) ‘victim’, the theatre in which imperialist plays are acted out. A similar pattern can arguably be traced in some of the critical literature on securitization and Africa. This work addresses and conceptualizes securitization as something that characterizes ‘Western’ policies and practices enacted ‘upon’ Africa and sometimes pays limited attention to how securitization processes are co-produced and enacted by African actors themselves. Such a focus might contribute to recycling the classic imagery of passivity and the colonial idea of an Africa that only exists in relation to ‘the West’.

Signification is also at work through the concepts and approaches we use and do not use. As we discuss in the article, certain theoretical approaches and tool-boxes associated with supposedly ‘advanced (neo)liberal societies’ (like securitization) are rarely employed in relation to African actors. This selective use of theoretical concepts and tools threatens to reinforce portrayals of particular (supposedly) ‘liberal’ and ‘universal’ values, like freedom, human rights and democracy – in a familiar colonial manner – as exclusive properties of ‘the West’. This, in turn, produces Africa as a place where only brute force reigns, while concealing the ways in which ‘western’ societies also heavily rely, in Barkawi’s words, ‘on coercive power, deployed at home and abroad.’

Obviously, given the contradictory workings of colonial discourses – and thus the problematic nature of both discourses of ‘African’ Otherness and those of universalism and sameness (often termed ‘Eurocentrism’) – there are no easy answers to the dilemmas surrounding theory application. Neither do we propose to stop revealing continued imperialist/neo-colonial relations. We simply suggest that we, as (self-proclaimed) critical scholars intensify our scrutiny of our conceptual, topical and methodological choices – and continue to explore the possibilities to research otherwise.

Performativity of Security in Military Interventions

By Elke Krahmann

Many actors have embraced performance as a measure for the effectiveness and legitimacy of their international governance activities, ranging from the United States government to the World Health Organization and the World Bank.

In my recently published article in Security Dialogue, “From performance to performativity: The legitimization of US security contracting and its consequences,” I discuss why this approach is inherently problematic. I argue that the linking of performance to the achievement of publicly desirable ‘outcomes’ is not as simple and easy as it is portrayed. On the one hand, there is the question of how we can measure and attribute the outcomes of specific policies, activities or services. On the other hand, there is the more fundamental issue of how intended outcomes should be defined. What are ‘security’, ‘health’ or ‘development’ if we want to conceive of them as outcomes?

Taking the commercial provision of security during the US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as examples, I argue that even in expert discourses there are at least three different understandings of ‘security’. Each implies different outcomes and performance measures. Thus, security has variously been defined as: (1) the absence of harm, (2) perceptions of safety, and (3) security capabilities and strategies, such as deterrence, protection, resilience, preemption and avoidance.

Since the last appears to fit best the demands of attributable and measurable performance ‘outcomes,’ security capabilities and strategies have become the mainstay of US security contracts and contractor assessments. Security strategies and capabilities can be easily specified, observed and counted. Specific activities and capabilities can also be directly and exclusively attributed to individual contractors. However, this conceptualization directly equates activities and capabilities with security as an outcome. Instead of assessing the actual results of security services, deterrence or protective strategies and technologies are used as substitutes. In short, this conception of security replaces outcomes with a focus on ‘performativity’, i.e. the repetitive execution specific strategies and capabilities which are simply equated with the intended results.

Blackwater Security Company MD-530F helicopter in Baghdad, 2004- Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Instead of contributing to perceptions and experiences of security, some of the security activities demanded of US contractors have actually undermined them because contracting officials have disregarded local culture in their definition of ‘suitable’ security activities and capabilities

Performance assessments have thus shaped the provision and experience of security in Iraq and Afghanistan in two problematic ways. First, government officials and security have failed to see that they are not analysing the actual outcomes of contracted security services. As a consequence, contractors have been able to get away with behaviour that has had negative impacts on the local security environment. Excessive uses of force by firms such as Blackwater or Aegis have been noted, but the companies have been repeatedly rehired because of good ‘performance’ assessments.

Second, my findings show a problematic disconnect between security understandings and expectations of the international professionals who define contractor performance criteria and those of host state populations. Instead of contributing to perceptions and experiences of security, some of the security activities demanded of US contractors have actually undermined them because contracting officials have disregarded local culture in their definition of ‘suitable’ security activities and capabilities. The heavy armour and the visible deterrence measures demanded in US security contracts, for instance, have done little to win the hearts and minds of Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have been traumatized during years of conflict.

The Soldier We See

By Julia Welland

In contemporary Britain, the figure of ‘The Soldier’ is increasingly visible.

S/he (although the figure is, of course, nearly always a ‘he’) appears in documentaries, in art and museum exhibitions, in Armistice Day commemorations, guarding the 2012 Olympics, in ‘boot camp’ exercise regimes, in schools, as the ‘real heroes’ of reality TV programmes such as X Factor, in charity campaigns, on food and drink packaging, and the list goes on… As the annual hand wringing over the politics (or ‘un-political’) poppy not/wearing reveals, the soldier and the job they do appears to occupy an increasingly important – and visible – role in British society.

We should care about what bodies and stories are being made visible and told and whose are being ignored.

In my latest Security Dialogue article ‘Violence and the Soldiering Body’, I argue that this increased visibility is central to how the British public came to know and understand the recent military campaign performed by the British armed forces in Afghanistan and the violence that took place. Unlike the Gulf War and Kosovo intervention in which it was the military technology as opposed to military bodies that captured the public and media’s attention, the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan meant that the British (and American) public were flooded with images not of high-tech military weaponry, but a more ‘humanised’ looking war: soldiers patrolling wearing soft hats, soldiers interacting with local Afghans, and soldiers taking an active role in reconstruction efforts. The British public were also invited to ‘get to know’ these soldiers through all manner of mediums (television programmes, museum exhibitions, military memoirs…) that located not only a soldier’s potential war-fighting prowess, but also their personal traits, familial relations and even sense of humour. At the same time, the British public were confronted with the violence of the conflict through the highly public and publicized repatriations of killed soldiers and the increasing numbers of disabled and disfigured soldiers returning from the frontline – both frequently a result of the use of improvised explosive devices by the insurgent groups they were facing.

Children Welcoming Home Hampshire Troops -Photo: Cpl Adrian Harlen RLC/MOD- British National Archives Wikimedia Commons

I argue that this increased visibility of a humanised and familiar British soldier, as well as the violences they endured, has produced particular effects. First, through the continued and increased attention given to British soldiering bodies and experiences, the bodies and experiences of Afghans who have lived in and through the (on-going) conflict for sixteen years are relegated to the sidelines or ignored altogether. This includes the estimated 26,000 Afghan civilians who are thought to have died a violent death and the thousands more who have died indirectly or suffered ill health due to exacerbated effects of poverty, malnutrition, lack of sanitation and poor access to healthcare that the conflict has increased and caused. Second, that this highly visible figure of ‘The Soldier’ can often bear little resemblance to the lived experiences of those who have inhabited the role. For veterans who face homelessness, alcohol and substance abuse, or simply feel their experiences are not being heard, this hypervisibility of an idealised soldier does not reflect their own day-to-day life, either on combat operations or back in the UK on ‘civvy street.’

Just as making invisible the tens of thousands of Iraqi dead during the Gulf War and the growing numbers of civilian victims of drone strikes, when a particular body is made increasingly visible, it is likely performing important work in constructing and narrating a particular story. With Afghan civilians continuing to live through extreme violence and political uncertainty, and British veterans being confronted by diminishing state support we should care about what bodies and stories are being made visible and told and whose are being ignored.

Agamben, Hobbes, and Rethinking Security in the Messianic Key

By Sergei Prozorov

Contemporary critical security studies increasingly turns to the problematic of political theology. This interest and inquiry into the theological origins of today’s political concepts and categories enables more effective critical interventions in contemporary politics. “Messianism” is one of the less explored aspects of political theology in security studies.

While its connotations of a fundamental rupture and the coming of something radically other appear to be of little relevance to the problematic of security, this article explores the implications of rethinking security in the messianic key.

In my recent Security Dialogue piece, “Like a thief in the night: Agamben, Hobbes and the messianic transvaluation of security,” I focus on Agamben’s reinterpretation of Hobbes’s Leviathan in Stasis, which restores an eschatological dimension to this foundational text of modern security politics. Hobbes’s commonwealth has been traditionally read as a secularized version of the katechon, a force that restrains the state of nature while drawing on its resources. Instead, Agamben argues that for Hobbes, the state is neither the analogue of God’s kingdom on earth nor the katechon that delays its arrival, but the profane power that will disappear when the kingdom of God is established on earth.

Drawing of frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan- c. 1650 Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

The Hobbesian state is thus in principle incapable of attaining the peace and security that it claims to provide, perpetually producing insecurity and violence in the guise of protection.

Rather than read Hobbes’s theory in the familiar terms of the exchange of liberty for security, Agamben insists that the Hobbesian commonwealth ensures no such trade-off and the Leviathan and Behemoth, order and disorder, remain entwined to the point of indistinction in every secular order. The Hobbesian state is thus in principle incapable of attaining the peace and security that it claims to provide, perpetually producing insecurity and violence in the guise of protection.

This diagnosis is confirmed by the contemporary transformations in the governmental rationalities of security that increasingly problematize the costs and inefficiency of security apparatuses and seek to devolve both the costs and provision of security to the subjects themselves through privatization, responsibilization and the ethics of resilience. And yet, the privatization, devolution or abolition of many of the security functions of the state do not entail its withering away. It is as if Leviathan not only learned to coexist with Behemoth, but also succeeded in making this coexistence the basis of something like an ‘ethics’ of eternal insecurity.

If pure security is unattainable, should critical security studies simply renounce security altogether? I argue that this would be counter-productive, since it is only from the perspective of security that the state could be judged and found wanting. The messianic approach affirms neither a pure security that cannot be attained nor the insecurity that no one could possibly want, but rather security from security, safety from the harm that comes with being secured by the Leviathan that always uncannily resembles Behemoth. Security is something that we desire and demand but, having seen that our demands lead to nothing more than insecurity, we are now content to be secure from it. Messianic security thus is a modest and transient – but still perfectly real – experience of relief from being secured.

Robot Wars

By Ian G. R. Shaw

There isn’t a day goes by without predictions—wild, wacky, and horrifying—about the future of warfare. Robots stand at the centre of so many of these prophecies.

Although robots have existed for decades, and even longer in the human imagination, recent leaps in artificial intelligence (AI) promise to break with old limits. Robots that are no longer soldered to factory floors, are now crawling on the ground, whizzing in the sky in swarms, or skimming the seas. Robots are thus set to rewire the exercise and spaces of state (and non-state) power. The who, or rather, the what, of warfare is shifting. What’s not yet clear is how.

In 2013, the US Navy’s X-47B became the first autonomous drone to land on an aircraft carrier. Photo by Timothy Walker. Wikimedia Commons

Academics have written extensively on how drone warfare has transformed sovereignty, territory, and power. But autonomous robots—rather than simply remotely piloted systems—are qualitatively different from the Predator and Reaper drones of the war on terror. Autonomous AI enables robots to act for themselves, severing their dependency on humans. Will these future robots revolutionize the battlespace and upturn the logics of organized violence? Or will they simply exacerbate pre-existing modes, geographies, and infrastructures of world politics? And how will the US military project its dominance in the robotic age? These types of questions motivated me to write my recent Security Dialogue article, “Robot Wars: US Empire and Geopolitics in the Robotic Age.

How are robots changing the fields of reality in which power and violence are exercised?

I’ve long been fascinated with robots. Whether good or bad, our cultural perception of robots is suffused by decades of science-fiction. Think Terminator, or Robocop, or Ex-Machina. These kinds of fictional robots, with steel skeletons and artificial flesh, fascinate us precisely because they press against our humanity. As these humanoids get closer to who we are, the ethical and moral quandaries only intensify. And on the battlespaces of the future, these quandaries may indeed be commonplace. But we are not there yet. We remain at the dawn of war in the robotic age. Which is why it’s so interesting to investigate the futurologies conjured by the US defense community. What’s important is not whether these military futures will actualize—but the type of work they do now: facilitating research, investment, and pre-emptive strategic changes.

My article attempts to theorize the looming robot wars. As a political geographer, I’m keenly interested in what we might call a spatial or worldly understanding of robots. That is, on a deep ontological level, I ask: How are robots changing the fields of reality in which power and violence are exercised? To answer this, I construct what I term a “a more-than-human geopolitics” to examine how robots are materializing new security worlds. This framework narrows to focus on how robots are shifting the logics and infrastructures of US empire. The term empire highlights the dominance of the US military in world politics—together with the geohistories of the US as an empire-state. But what of empire in age of robotic proxies?

A swarm of swallows. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service. Wikimedia Commons.

I answer this by constructing three spatial concepts: (1) Swarm-space; (2) Roboworld; and (3) the Autogenic Battle-Site. Animated by advanced and autonomous AI, an important new robotic geography will be the non-linear swarm-spaces of miniaturized drones cooperating in emergent, atmospheric formations. Mass, it appears, is back: yet mass in future conflicts mirrors the swarms of bees, fish, ants, and birds in the natural world. After exploring the planetary basing strategies of drones in Roboworld, the final part of the paper examines the autogenic battle-site. This is the name I give to the robotic battlespace of the future: where robots don’t simply respond to the directions of pilots, but autonomously generate, target, and neutralize threat conditions in real-time.

In short, robots will materialize new geographies of state violence. This evolves conflict from the discrete battlefields of old wars, the eventful battlespaces of new wars, to the robotic battle-sites of swarm wars. In the conclusion of the paper—A Robot Empire—I discuss some of the consequences that robot wars will have for accountability. The risk is that democracy is alienated from the act of killing—on the loop, but no longer in the loop. An empire of indifference fought by imperial robots.

War-Making, International Law and Environmental Infrastructure

By: Jeannie L Sowers, Erika Weinthal, and Neda Zawahri

The extensive targeting of civilian water and energy infrastructures by a range of state and non-state actors, including regional powers and armed groups, has marked the post-2011 wars in the Middle East and North Africa. The effects on human welfare and ecosystems are long-term and poorly understood.

Our recent SD article, “Targeting Environmental Infrastructures, International Law, and Civilians in the New Middle Eastern Wars,” draws upon an original database to analyze the targeting of environmental infrastructures in the conflict zones of Syria, Yemen, and Libya. We define environmental infrastructures as systems of providing water, energy, waste, and sanitation that sustain human livelihoods and well-being. These basic services and infrastructures serve as the bedrock of human security, particularly in urban areas. Through mapping the targeting of infrastructure, we demonstrate that targeting environmental infrastructure is an increasingly prevalent form of war-making in the region, with long-term adverse implications for state capacity, human security, and conflict resolution.

Our work’s distinct contribution is that it highlights the implications of the indirect targeting of civilians. Indeed, the targeting of environmental infrastructures has emerged as a central aim of the parties in these conflicts, rather than as an unintended consequence. Warring parties in the MENA have increasingly targeted water and energy infrastructures with justifications that these are tactical weapons of warfare, dual-use objects, or mere ‘collateral damage.’ Our work indicates that targeting infrastructure allows militias and state security forces to displace urban populations, punish civilians perceived as sympathetic to the enemy, and gain access to the infrastructures that underpin modern life.

Tishrin Dam in Syria- Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Targeting environmental infrastructure is an increasingly prevalent form of war-making in the region, with long-term adverse implications for state capacity, human security, and conflict resolution.

As further observed in the so-called ‘new wars’ of the 1990s, we suggest that intermittent periods of rebuilding and reconstruction of infrastructure are often not durable, as regional and domestic conflicts fester even when intensified periods of violence subside. Repeated cycles of infrastructure destruction mean long-term ‘de-development’ of these areas, with attendant health impacts and ecosystem damage. The repeated targeting of environmental infrastructure thus reflects the multiplicity of war-making forces involved in these conflicts. As highlighted in the ‘new wars’ literature, the agents of war include not only domestic and foreign militaries, state security forces, and hired ranks of thugs and mercenaries, but also client and proxy forces supported by regional and global powers. The variety of actors involved complicates attempts at humanitarian assistance and creates norms of conflict in which all parties employ indiscriminate and punitive tactics.

Lastly, despite international humanitarian law and international environmental law that prohibit attacks on civilian infrastructure essential for human survival or that cause damage to the natural environment, international law has acted neither as a deterrent nor as a means to prosecute perpetrators. Sparked by the increasing prevalence of ‘degenerate wars,’ international law has indeed articulated mechanisms to protect both civilian and environmental infrastructures over the last half century. Nevertheless, given the conflicting interests of regional and great powers in the area, such legal norms and mechanisms have proven to be ineffectual in these conflicts. Our research thus sheds light on some of the gaps in international law regarding environmental infrastructures, especially regarding dual-use infrastructure.

The Political Economic Logic of Liberal Exceptionalism

By Jacqueline Best

These are interesting times for scholars interested in the concept of “exceptionalism” and emergency.

As I have pointed to in my recent article in Security Dialogue, “Security, economy, population: The political economic logic of liberal exceptionalism,” prior to the recent wave of right-leaning election wins it seemed that we were entering into a post-exceptionalist moment.

Yet, even before the recent rise of the extreme right in the United States and across Europe, there was already evidence of the persistence of exceptionalism, particularly in the context of the 2008 global financial crisis. Before we give up on exceptionalism as a useful concept, we should consider the possibilities of reworking it by recognizing its political economic dimensions.

Sign of the Times Foreclosure by Respres- CC by 2.0 Wikimedia Creative Commons

Emergency actions were defined as responses to the imminent threat of an economic meltdown, which transformed their unusual policy reactions from a political choice into an economic necessity. This necessity became the justification for treating the issue as an exceptional problem … a kind of economic exceptionalism similar to the process of “securitization” that we see in the security arena.

When Western governments responded to the financial crisis in 2008, they did so in terms of exceptionalism. American President George W. Bush appealed to the “extraordinary” threat of global and national financial meltdown in order to justify bailing out AIG and other firms, while the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne invoked the dire threat of the loss of economic sovereignty (as had occurred in Greece) in order to justify an “emergency budget” of austerity measures.

In both of these cases, we can see a similar logic at work: emergency actions were defined as responses to the imminent threat of an economic meltdown, which transformed their unusual policy reactions from a political choice into an economic necessity. This necessity became the justification for treating the issue as an exceptional problem that needed to be removed from the usual political process, suspending certain economic and democratic norms—a kind of economic exceptionalism similar to the process of “securitization” that we see in the security arena.

This is not a new phenomenon. Both the United Kingdom and the United States made extensive use of emergency powers to address economic crises, including widespread efforts to put down strikes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, while President Roosevelt used the Trading with the Enemy Act to push through key measures of the New Deal.

Why do governments rely on economic exceptionalism? Foucault’s later lectures on security, biopolitics and population give us some clues. With the development of liberal forms of government starting in the eighteenth century, he suggests that “security” and “political economy” became linked in a very particular way. This was because a new form of power emerged “that has the population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument.”[i]

Today, efforts to govern and secure modern populations continue to rely heavily on political economic thinking and practice. Yet free market economies bring instability as well as growth. There is a core tension in contemporary liberalism between the capacity of free markets to foster the good life, and their tendency to massively disrupt that same good life through periodic crises.

It is not just war that has the potential to threaten the very existence of a liberal state or the global system of states. We should therefore not be surprised if, like wars, economic crises also tend to push politics into the register of exceptionalism, as we have seen in recent years.

[i]    Foucault, M. (2007). Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. London, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 144. Emphasis added.


Making the Invisible Visible – Satellites, Visual Technologies and Environmental Security

By Delf Rothe

How can satellites promise to predict future environmental risks and threats?

Global warming and resulting environmental changes are unfolding at an ever-faster pace. Natural disasters threaten the well-being of communities across the globe and debates around whether environmental change can (or should) be considered security risks are more topical than ever.

Seeing environmental risks

My recent article in Security Dialogue, ‘Seeing like a Satellite: Remote Sensing and the Ontological Politics of Environmental Security,’ offers a new perspective on environmental security. This perspective focuses on the crucial role of visual technologies, such as satellite observation, for the identification of environmental risks and threats as well as the definition of appropriate coping measures. The article traces how satellite observation technology and the idea of environmental change as a security problem itself, both emerged in the same context of a militarization of the geosciences during the Cold War. Satellite technology rendered large-scale environmental change visible, thereby allowing the emergence of a global conscience for problems such as climate change, the ozone hole, and deforestation, among others. At the same time, the fusion of military and research needs established novel relations between actors in the security and the environmental fields. While satellite technology remained firmly in the hand of the superpowers’ militaries, environmental security at that time also had its focus primarily on nation states in the context of ‘threats’ like looming resource conflicts or an influx of environmental migrants.


Weather Satellite- Public Domain Wikimedia Commons



In the aftermath of the Cold War the opening of satellite technology to a range of nongovernmental actors like environmental and development NGOs and researchers went along with a redefinition of environmental security in general.





A redefinition of environmental security

In the aftermath of the Cold War however, the opening of satellite technology to a range of nongovernmental actors like environmental and development NGOs and researchers went along with a redefinition of environmental security in general. Today, NGOs are using satellite imagery in their work to provide protection to local populations and ecosystems against natural disasters and environmental changes – thereby shifting the focus of environmental security from nation states to local communities. Further, an emerging commercial intelligence industry around global players like Google or DigitalGlobe promises to make future environmental risks predictable through what the article calls ‘big environmental data’ – the collection, harmonization and analysis of a broad range of data sources.


Evaluating the shift

As I note in my article, the question of how to evaluate these developments is not easy to answer. The shift of environmental security thinking away from nation states towards the protection of endangered communities, as well as the growing availability of satellite data, are certainly welcome changes. NGOs’ access to high-resolution imagery also provides them with the means to monitor and control populations at a distance. However, in a commercialized satellite intelligence market imagery is far from being freely available. Instead of military secrecy, it is now property-rights regimes and the heavy price tag on satellite images that can limit access to that data. Finally, the promise of ‘big environmental data’, with the goal of rendering the future predictable, draws on a problematic understanding of societies as quantifiable structures that misses the complexities of socio-environmental relations.

Impunity, the Postcolony and the Promise of Justice

By Henrique Furtado

Impunity’ figures in 9 out of 10 lists of the biggest difficulties faced by societies in the so called Third World. Ask anyone for a quick synthesis of the ‘problem’ with African, Asian, Latin American countries and impunity – the absence of punishment for those who violate moral, legal or social codes – will certainly be there, side by side with ‘corruption’, ‘backwardness’ and ‘underdevelopment’. Impunity is a pressing issue in a country pervaded by violence such as Brazil. Currently figuring as the most lethal democracy of the world in absolute numbers, Brazil has witnessed roughly 60,000 assassinations (the same number of American soldiers lost in Vietnam) on average, per year, for the past two decades. The levels of violence in the country trump those of far more discussed international conflicts.


In a recent article published in Security Dialogue entitled On Demons and Dreamers: Violence, silence and the politics of impunity in the Brazilian truth commission, I discuss how the way we understand impunity in the present depends on the way we remember violence in the past. In this sense, Brazil is quite an emblematic case. From 1964 to 1985, an anti-communist military dictatorship ruled in Brazil waging a ‘dirty war’ to defend Western capitalism. Under the military regime, agents of the state were responsible for arbitrary detentions, torture, extrajudicial executions, and forced disappearances. Different claims from human rights activists range from 434 to almost 10,000 fatal victims. More than three decades have passed since the end of the dictatorship and, despite some commendable attempts, none of these crimes were properly punished. Worse, citizen security in the country remains militarised.

The Resistance Memorial, São Paulo/ Taken by author

… the way we understand impunity in the present depends on the way we remember violence in the past…

The transition to democracy in Brazil was defined by a pact of forgetfulness. The elites decided to ‘let bygones be bygones’ and the mass of self-proclaimed liberal good-citizens, who stood as silent bystanders while rights were violated, applauded. This pact of silence, forgetfulness and impunity helped to create a myth among activists, politicians, and social scientists that Brazil lived under a ‘culture of impunity’. In other words, the absence of criminal accountability for perpetrators of violations of human rights in the past was supposed to explain the absurd levels of violence witnessed in the present. As the logic goes, the amnesty of perpetrators led to an abnormal banalisation of violations of human rights. This myth, wholeheartedly supported by the Brazilian truth commission, is part of what I call the ‘politics of impunity’: the belief that violations of human rights in postcolonial societies are abnormal vis a vis the protection of civil rights in ‘healthy’ liberal societies.

In my article I explain how the Brazilian truth commission rightfully defended the punishment of those who participated in systematic acts of state terror in the past. But, more importantly, I also argue that this will never, in and on itself, resolve the systemic problem of violence in Brazil. The military are of course guilty of perpetrating violations of human rights in the past, but they are not guilty of creating a whole ‘culture’ where the lives of certain groups are treated as disposable. A culture that could be easily normalised by a few parsimonious measures of transitional justice. Most victims of violent crime in Brazil today are non-white, young males from deprived communities. Paradoxically, and against the idea of a ‘culture of impunity’, they also form the bulk of the country’s massive prison population. These groups are victimised (and continuously punished) by a system of inequalities (racism, sexism, dispossession) that far transcends the scope of the military dictatorship and that was not sufficiently discussed by the Brazilian truth commission. These inequalities are not specific to the postcolony, they are most certainly not unique to Brazil and they will never be overcome. At least not if we continue to talk about the impunity of the military without fundamentally addressing the violent system they were fighting for.