Conspiracy and Foreign Policy

The spectre of conspiracy looms large in politics and international affairs. We hear of covert Russian interferences in the 2016 US Presidential Elections or of renewed intrigue surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy over half a century ago. Intelligence dossiers, anonymous sources, secret meetings and suspicious connections make up the political world we live in.

By Christopher DOMBRES [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Conspiracies, in short, are a common aspect of international relations.  They feature in the rise and fall of governments and the pursuit of diplomatic negotiations.  Conspiracies have triggered wars and are at the centre of of many security issues.  Take, as a prominent example, the secret plotting and hidden networks behind terrorism, as well as the clandestine actions deployed to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks.

While common to world politics, conspiracies are, at the same time, often seen as paranoid perceptions about far-fetched scenarios.  Of all the ways an idea can be discredited, labelling it a ‘conspiracy’ ranks amongst the most effective. Images of delusion and irrationality immediately come to mind.Which conspiracies are real and which are paranoid?  And who decides? Answering this question is not as obvious as it seems. Yes, some claims about conspiracies are difficult to take seriously. Take the alleged involvement of the US government in 9/11. Other claims are less controversial, such as Al Qaeda’s many conspiracies to commit a terrorist act.

But the division between legitimate and far-fetched conspiracies is not as straightforward as it seems. In a new article in Security Dialogue, we show how the legitimacy of a conspiracy claim is closely linked to questions of power. Focusing on multiple conspiracies associated with 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, we show that the publicly perceived credibility of a conspiracy narrative is primarily linked to the authority of the actor advancing it and the context in which it is advanced.

On the one hand, US officials identified a range of conspiracies and presented them as legitimate and rational, even though some, such as Iraq’s supposedly covert development of Weapons of Mass Destruction or the alleged secret alliance between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime, are now widely considered false. On the other hand, conspiracies circulating in the Arab-Muslim world were dismissed in US policy circles and media commentary.  They were presented as irrational and pathological, even though some, like those concerned with the surreptitious operation of US power in the Middle East, were based on credible concerns.

Our analysis demonstrates that conspiracies and the narrative that surrounds them lie at the heart of foreign policy.  Identifying a phenomena as a conspiracy is an act of power: it can either present a situation as in need of a robust policy response, or it can delegitimize and dismiss a set of concerns that might otherwise be seen as credible and important. This is why analysing how some conspiracy narratives are positioned as paranoid, while others are taken as common sense, provides insights into the relationship between power, legitimacy and foreign policy.

The Crystal Peace: Civilian Militarism and Wake Civil Society in Colombia

In my special issue article “Building Civilian Militarism: Colombia, Internal War, and Militarization in a mid-term Perspective,” I talk about how civilian militarism became a large part of Colombian society over their years of internal conflict and how, within this context, Columbian civil society will be a key player in the success of the current post-conflict process.

Members of the FARC greet the crowd after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez signed a peace accord as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sat in a plaza outside the Cartagena Indias Convention Center in Cartagena, Colombia, on September 26, 2016, while attending a peace ceremony between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that ended a five-decade conflict. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State from United States (Members of the FARC Greet the Crowd) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In late 2016, the internal war officially ended thanks to an intense process of peace dialogues between the Colombian Government under the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos, and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). However, not everything has been peaceful or happy since then. The peace negotiations took place after more than 50 years of rough and dirty war, which affected thousands of Colombians and left deep scars of fear, mayhem, mistrust and anxiety in the local populations. All in a society counter-intuitively characterized by a middle-range of democratic function and a relatively stable economy- both rather uncommon by regional standards.

During the peace talks and after the signing ceremony, several sectors of civilian elite Colombian society indicated opposition to the agreement, particularly on points regarding the place of former FARC combatants in politics, the Truth Commission, and land reform. There have even been calls to destroy the pact and take military action against FARC and remaining insurgency groups at the same time that right-wing criminal groups have earned conciliatory goodwill instead. Thus, dissent around the peace treaty has been fierce from some quarters, and has become a hot topic in the political debates around the 2018 presidential election campaigns. In this respect, an elite- but significant- part of Columbian society are openly challenging the negotiated peace treaty’s legitimacy as a form of conflict resolution after decades of suffering felt by more marginalized and vulnerable groups. This contradiction is highlighted by Yolanda Perea, one of the victims of the internal war who lamented that “those who oppose to the peace in Colombia, are the same, who watch the war on t.v.”

The current conflictual political climate is very disturbing for a society that seeks to move from a state of war to a state of peace. The situation can be understood by looking at the ongoing relationship and dynamics between Columbian civilian-militarism and a weak civil society. Both were present during the war and seem to have been a byproduct of widespread violence and insecurity, and the lack of leadership by political elites in building democracy over the years. On the one hand, civilian-militarism comes out of the tendency by Colombian political authorities to try to solve security problems through a hardline position supported by the armed forces and by taking measures to militarize police institutions and other aspects of society. For example, during the peace dialogues the Colombian Armed Forces had delegates in the negotiations and the current vice president of Colombia is a former top general of the highly militarized Colombian Police.

On the other hand, the fear and chaos produced by widespread violence and insecurity during the war, also contributed to this civilian-militarism through an ongoing justification of “national security logics”, which undermined attempts to consolidate a strong civil society in Colombia. Moreover, the negligence –or lack of interest- by political authorities to empower and protect civil society´s leaders became a normal aspect of Colombian society. Thus, to be a human rights´ activist, a journalist, a political dissident, a critical scholar, or even a normal citizen seeking to claim rights have become high-risk activities in Colombia, which is a clear disincentive against the formation of a strong civil society. This has fostered a general indifference among regular citizens and has contributed to the ongoing weakness of civil society actors in the current post-conflict process. Unfortunately, to keep the Colombian peace process alive, the active involvement of a strong (non-elite) civil society is required to support the peace agreement. It is thus very important to empower a broader civil society to play a role in demanding steady and progressive processes of demilitarization without ignoring the treatment of post-conflict threats to peace, or the possibility of new roles for the military and the police.

Doing security or doing military in Israel- why does it matter?

When you visit Israel for the first time you see uniforms everywhere and you might mistake the many soldiers on the streets for police officers or private security guards.  If you can tell them apart, you might even ask: “hey, aren’t they all doing the same thing?”

This is a common thought process and in many ways these different actors tend to be seen as one and the same and all part of an important national security effort to defend Israel and its population. However, when I started to talk to private security professionals in Israel, I was surprised by something that they kept on telling me.  They told me that no matter how important it was that a security guard had been through military service, it was even more important to have him[1] unlearn his military skills in order to for him to be able to learn new security-related skills. As a curious researcher, this made me very interested in the relationships between military identities and private security identities in Israel. Why was it so important to emphasize the differences between the soldier and the security guard, and what did it mean for those professionals?

Time to mull over identity. Photocredit: Israel Defense Forces (Relaxation) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I realized that security actors in Israel go back and forth between these different identities, sometimes emphasizing their military careers and sometimes emphasizing how security work requires much more than just a military background. This back and forth takes place in a society that is very militarized, meaning that the military is not only materially present (it is commonplace to see soldiers in the streets and military vehicles on the road), but that “things military” seep into every corner of society and its members’ minds. This is because in Israeli society, completion of a (combat) military service is crucial in order to be seen as a “good citizen.”

When the military is so important for a society, former members of this institution, such as generals, officers and the like, need to show that they are still worthy. What I saw during my fieldwork was that private security professionals would emphasize that completing a military service was crucial for new recruits, but not for the reasons I expected.  The military skills of shooting and patrolling, for example, were seen as not useful at all for good security work, in which other tactics were needed and different guns were used.

With all of this in mind, in my Open Access article I demonstrate how Israeli security professionals show us a new kind of militarism that is not solely dependent on a completed (high level) military career but also on (private) security skills.  By emphasizing the added value of their work in the private sector, these actors can further secure their status in a militarized society like Israel. In this way we can understand more about how military service and security work- as well as the relationships between them- influence our societies in ways we might not be aware of.

[1] High level security guards are almost always men

‘Ideal Perpetrators’ How we decide who is accountable for mass violence: A study of the French National Railways

In the wake of mass violence, holding every complicit person or group accountable is impossible. Rwanda discovered this after its 1994 genocide with an estimated 1,000,000 collaborators. Many still try to make sense of accountability for the Holocaust.

Over the years individuals (Adolf Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, and others) have faced trial and in the 1990s a slew of corporations (banks, insurance companies, and others) found themselves interrogated over their roles during Holocaust. Ultimately, only a few face trial. How are these few selected? Are they the guiltiest and does their conviction contribute to long-term security?

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright supports convicting the leaders and expunging the collective; holding everyone accountable prevents the society from moving forward. Scholars share Albright’s concern; John Braithwaite expressed concern about ‘shaming machines’ and Martha Minow about ‘blame cycles’ which promote revenge and potentially lead back into violence.

Those held accountable are not always the guiltiest or the most likely to promote future violence. They embody certain attributes helping them stand for the collective.  They serve as ‘ideal perpetrators.’ Criminologist Nils Christie wrote about the ‘ideal victim’ as someone purely innocent and free from blame. As an example, Christie offers an old lady coming home mid-Saturday after caring for her sick granddaughter and getting mugged. Now, we need a perpetrator purely evil enough to complete the scene.

An ‘ideal victim’ Source: Béria L. Rodríguez [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

To complement Christie’s work, I provide a framework for ideal perpetrators. They are 1) perceived as strong, 2) abstractable (inhuman), 3) representative of the nature of the crime, and 4) have a champion-opponent, someone who keeps them in the news.

To demonstrate, I use the example of the French National Railways (SNCF), which for the past decade has found itself embroiled in lawsuits and legislative battles in the U.S. over its role in the World War II deportation of Jewish deportees towards death camps.

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-027-1477-19 / Vennemann, Wolfgang / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

This article, published in Security Dialogue, side-steps the question of the SNCF’s guilt (addressed more fully in my forthcoming book), focuses on why the SNCF remains in the news while other culpable actors hide in the shadows (i.e. the French police who conducted the round-ups and corporations like IBM and Ford).

When we focus on one perpetrator, many other guilty parties hide in the shadows, like the guard in the photo above. Furthermore, by isolating the perpetrators always as someone or something outside ourselves, we skip the important work of considering how we, our policies, our societal values, etc. contribute to mass violence. Without this work, we will likely find ourselves in conflict again.

Scholar Vivienne Jabri argues the creation of these victim and perpetrator groups is violence. Once we begin to exclude members of society, we begin the process of legitimizing violence against them. We then become the agents of suffering and the cycle continues. If the processes of separating victims and perpetrators is violence, is it not vital to understand how we select our perpetrators?

Further reading:

Albright, Madeline, Conversation after presentation From Words to Action, the Responsibility to Protect, The United States Holocaust Museum, July 23, 2013.

Braithwaite J (2004) Restorative justice: Theories and worries. Visiting Experts’ Papers: 123rd International Senior Seminar, Resource Material Series 63: 47-56.

Christie N (1986) The ideal victim. In: Fattah EA (ed.) From Crime Policy to Victim Policy. London, UK: Macmillan, 17-30.

Federman, Sarah. The Last Trains to Auschwitz: The French National Railways’ Role in the Holocaust and the Struggle to Make Amends. (Under review)

Jabri V (1996) Discourses on Violence: Conflict Analysis Reconsidered. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Minow M (1999) Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.



“Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and the Ukraine Crisis” (2017)- Reviewed by Bohdana Kurylo

Elizaveta Gaufman, Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and the Ukraine Crisis, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 222 pp.: 9783319432007 (hbk)

Book Review by Bohdana Kurylo

The transformation of the Russian state under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, which has culminated in the current crisis in Ukraine, has been of great interest to security studies scholars. Hence, it is surprising that inquiry into Russia’s security politics has mostly remained the domain of neorealist approaches. In this light, Elizaveta Gaufman’s book, Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and The Ukraine Crisis, is a welcome contribution. The question that guides Gaufman’s inquiry, which reflects a concern shared by other second-generation securitisation scholars, asks: ‘under what conditions are threat narratives successful?’ (p. 4). In other words, what types of threat-framing are most likely to lead the audience to accept a specific threat construct?

Gaufman argues that the securitising move is successful if it is grounded in an existential threat and personification, whereby the threat is attached to an individual or a group. Importantly, the threat narrative must resonate with previous threat constructs, which are stored in the collective memory, and be broadcasted on the governmental level. Gaufman uses Halbwachs’ (1980) concept of collective memory to refer to a ‘shared pool of information held in the memories of two or more members of a group’. Given that the audience at stake is the general public, looking at social network discourses- or digital memory- was helpful for investigating whether the official discourse had gained support at the grass-roots level.

..Gaufman goes beyond securitisation theory’s narrow fixation on the adoption of extraordinary measures in order to ascertain the ‘success’ of a securitising act. Instead, the author shows that audience response can be a more precise indicator of successful securitisation..

Apart from securitisation theory, the book combines enemy image research and memory studies to analyse threat narratives in Putin’s Russia. The presence of ‘the Ukraine crisis’ in the book’s title is rather misleading as it informs only one chapter. In fact, the book’s horizon is much broader, giving equal attention to at least five more different threat narratives. Having established its theoretical framework and methodology in chapters 1-4, the book moves on to discuss threat narratives with regard to the USA; fascism discourse in relation to the Ukraine crisis; Russia’s ‘spiritual bonds’; homosexuality; migration; and a cluster of specious non-existential ‘threats’, such as China and Russia’s Jewish population.

Gaufman goes beyond securitisation theory’s narrow fixation on the adoption of extraordinary measures in order to ascertain the ‘success’ of a securitising act. Instead, the author shows that audience response can be a more precise indicator of successful securitisation. In other words, the securitising move is successful provided that the audience re-articulates and co-constructs the threat narrative. Conceptualising the embeddedness of threat narratives at the audience level helps problematise the notion of the audience, addressing a major theoretical and methodological limitation of securitisation theory. Highlighting the importance of collective memory reveals the significance of the audience as a securitisation actor, whose role is usually hidden behind the speech of the securitiser. The book’s significant discovery is that the very authority to define the threat belongs to the audience ‘because it is the level to which prejudice is consigned’ (p. 40). Even in authoritarian contexts, such as Russia, the official security discourse ‘needs to be congruent with what society has to say about security’ (p. 21).

Gaufman also makes an interesting point that securitisation can be represented in the form of a spiral, originating from a speech act and culminating into extraordinary measures. The latter can, in turn, initiate another cycle of threat construction. In so doing, securitisation can be self-perpetuating and consist of multiple cycles. The idea implies that securitisation processes are more complex than usually conceived, but the author does not develop it further. Nonetheless, precisely this idea could allow the analysis to go deeper by uncovering the continuity and change of securitisation as a historical process.

As such, rather than being seen as a recent development initiated by Putin, securitisation related to the Ukraine crisis can be seen as just one of the many cycles of securitisation that have occurred through the centuries. For example, the perception of the Euromaidan as a fascist movement is essentially based on the original construction of fascism as a security issue. It might be that the resulting collective memory also functions as a binding force that makes securitisation a continuous process in history, albeit periodically dormant. Consequently, focusing predominantly on Putin’s Russia captures only one cycle of securitisation. A stronger historical perspective dissecting the continuity of securitisation could complement the book’s empirical findings. This would require concentrating on fewer case studies instead of trying to cover so many at the expense of their depth.

Furthermore, the book only briefly mentions the notion of mnemonic security – ‘protecting a certain flow of historical narratives’ – stating that it can function as a legitimation strategy (p. 6). Arguably, more attention could have been given to how securitisation may be used in the service of mnemonic security. The latter can be vital for salvaging society’s recognition of the sovereign as sovereign, especially when it comes to Putin’s Russia (Heath-Kelly, 2016). In other words, can securitisation be initiated in order to rewrite memory rather than memory be used to legitimise securitisation?

While addressing these sorts of questions would have strengthened the book’s contribution, it nevertheless offers a framework of analysis that can be applied to various threat narratives in democratic and non-democratic contexts alike. Bringing collective memory into the study of securitisation shows the need to understand the culture-specific embeddedness of threat constructs, as opposed to the many de-contextualised analyses of securitisation. Future research might consider expanding this framework beyond the focus on threats. One might analyse how collective memory impacts the construction of the referent object, the responses of the audience, security measures and the very meaning of security. Ultimately, given its security focus, this review cannot do justice to the book’s vast contribution to the fields of Russian politics, memory studies and digital humanities, which deserves a separate discussion.


Halbwachs, M., 1980. The Collective Memory. New York: Harper & Row Colophon.

Heath-Kelly, C., 2016. Death and Security: Memory and Mortality at the Bombsite. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

In the Sahel, militarism doesn’t give us a full picture

By Philippe M Frowd and Adam J Sandor

International security interventions in Sahel are multiplying. Military actions such as France’s Operation Barkhane, a Chapter 7 United Nations stabilization mission – MINUSMA, and increasing American military involvement in the region give these actions in the Sahel a ‘hard’, militarised image. Yet the number and scale of ‘soft’ operations operating in the name of counter-terrorism and border security should challenge this assumption. Law enforcement-driven training, and international advisory practices around defence and security, often retrain militarised practices and project an image of civilian, or even pastoral forms of power in the Sahel.

Our article makes a distinction between two ends of a spectrum of violence: from symbolic to martial.

In our article for the special issue of Security Dialogue, we argue that our use of descriptors such as ‘militarism’ and ‘militarisation’ should not depend only on which agencies claim to provide security, or what types of equipment they use. Instead, we should focus on the type of violence they draw upon or authorise. Our article makes a distinction between two ends of a spectrum of violence: from symbolic to martial. If we assume that security is always about the justification and legitimacy of enacting violence, its non-destructive elements are symbolic. Think, for example, of how Nigerien Armed Forces soldiers, trained by a European Union civilian capacity-building mission, are tasked with shepherding ‘repented’ former Boko Haram rebels to integration centers in Diffa near the Nigerian border, and reporting on the circumstances of their surrender. The practice of reporting rebels’ return demonstrates a symbolic logic that reorients both soldiers and former rebels to no longer see each other as enemies, but as individuals worthy of protection and the rights of citizenship. The other end of the spectrum refers to the types of coercion which are specifically martial, relying on organised destructive violence.

French soldiers from the regional Operation Barkhane train Malian soldiers near the city of Ansongo (Image provided by authors- Photo Credit: Fred Marie- Flickr)

This spectrum is not simply an academic exercise — it is a way of contesting the idea that something is militarised simply because a military institution is involved. Our article uses two case studies, both involving a complex array of civilian and military actors, to show the payoffs of this revised way of thinking. The first case focuses on how international actors attempt to counter the crime-terror nexus that is said to exist in the Sahel. Here, we see how operations with seemingly militarised appearances reinforce bureaucratic, technical and even developmental objectives that lie far from martial violence. The second case focuses on efforts to combat irregular migration, in which some martial tendencies (like Italian ambitions to police the Niger-Libya border through military action) coexist with interventions composed of primarily civilian actors inculcating symbolic, rule-of-law focused modes of coercion.

A boat from Spain’s Guardia Civil in the port of Dakar. This boat hosts joint patrols of Senegal’s coast with local law enforcement agencies, to intercept irregular migrants at sea (Image provided by authors- Photo Credit: U.S. Naval Forces)

The Sahel is militarised in a range of ways, and applications of martial violence to solve intractable social problems are a key driver of ongoing security crises in the region. Yet the concept of (in)security gives us a finer grained understanding of how multi-actor responses to various crises — crime, migration, and so on — draw on different types of violence. Such an understanding helps us to pinpoint how various actors pursuing distinct forms of intervention in the Sahel pursue contradictory practices that range from the symbolic to the martial in order to tackle insecurity in this increasingly globalized security-centered space.


Why the Syrian regime has been targeting civilian infrastructure

The recent displacement of civilians and rebel fighters from the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta signals an important victory for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the face of these successes, it is worth remembering that the imminent downfall of Assad’s regime was proclaimed several times since the onset of violence in Syria in late 2011. Each time, Assad defied such predictions. How has his government, which several times looked so close to being toppled, weakened its rivals and ensured its continuity?

By Qasioun News Agency via Wikimedia Commons

In a new article, we argue that a crucial component of the Assad regime’s wartime success has been its strategic use of aerial bombardment. Bolstered by its allies, especially Russia, the Assad regime has consistently targeted public infrastructures in opposition-held areas, including bakeries, hospitals, markets and schools. Media outlets, policy experts and international aid organizations have written about the humanitarian and military dimensions of such raids at great length. Yet they overlook the key political logic underpinning these systematic attacks.

Disrupting opposition governance

Our findings suggest that regime concerns with rebel governance, rather than military calculations or sectarian motivation, best explain the Assad regime’s targeted bombardment of opposition-held areas. It also helps us understand the regime’s ongoing success in the war.

From 2013 to 2016, we conducted more than 100 interviews with civilians, activists, journalists and aid workers to explore how the regime’s aerial bombardment campaigns affected various rebel groups’ attempts to govern. We found that during the conflict, carrying out basic statelike functions, from mediation to education — what we term “performing the state” — has been one of the most important governing strategies undertaken by rebel groups. At the same time, the Assad regime actively targets these institutions and services to undermine and defeat rebels that seek its downfall.

State performances by opposition forces make political authority tangible, perceptible and concrete to local residents. During the war, rebel groups have established checkpoints that control the movement of people and goods, taxed local businesses, founded courts to resolve local disputes, coordinated agricultural production and organized schooling. In contexts where sovereignty is so hotly contested, such actions can help legitimize opposition actors. When executed successfully, they demonstrate an ability to govern proficiently and allow residents to consider an alternative to the Assad regime.

Why rebels provide welfare

Throughout the Syrian civil war, rebel attempts to perform the state have been frequent, deliberate and purposeful. One of the most important of these everyday practices has been the provision of welfare. In addition to aiding the livelihoods of local residents, service provision works to build community by signaling membership in a polity.

Welfare in Syria has an especially strong association with the state because of the Assad regime’s interventionist development model. Beginning in the 1970s, the Syrian government provided its citizens various forms of social welfare, including free health care, education, subsidized food and utilities. This was part of a tacit social pact in which public goods were provided in exchange for political compliance. The legacy of this unstated agreement remains potent to this day.

”State performances by opposition forces make political authority tangible, perceptible and concrete to local residents.”

Rebel efforts to provide bread and medical support — two services that have strong symbolic resonances in Syria and were frequently mentioned in the interviews we conducted — in opposition-controlled areas are hardly surprising. In the province of Idlib, they remain a crucial terrain for producing legitimacy and popular support for rebel groups to this day.

Conversely, the Assad regime has sought to disrupt these performances. By systematically annihilating the administrative institutions and public services that shape rebel-civilian relations, the Assad regime has delegitimized its competitors and prevented the emergence of coherent alternatives. Targeted aerial bombardment is especially effective in this respect. It works by not only inflicting military, financial and psychological damage but also interrupting and undermining everyday practices through which rebels generate local support and consolidate their rule.

Over the past three years, this tactic has allowed government forces to consolidate their control over strategic areas, while displacing local populations and concentrating opposition forces in designated towns and provinces. Most important, it has prevented the stability required to build alternatives to its governing institutions.

This is a shortened version of the full blog post, originally published by Monkey Cage. The full article is now freely available until 17 May 2018.

Brent Eng is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.

José Ciro Martínez is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

On Militarism and Security: a Special Issue Introduction

This blog post briefly introduces the Security Dialogue Special Issue on Militarism and Security: Dialogue, Possibilities and Limits, guest edited by Anna Stavrianakis and Maria Stern (Volume 49, Issue 1-2, February-April 2018). Here they talk about their own article for the special issue, which also serves as its introduction. 

By Anna Stavrianakis and Maria Stern

If your child comes home from school and tells you they participated in an obstacle course with some soldiers in P.E. class, should you be worried that their education is being militarized, pleased that they are learning physical skills and discipline, or both? If soldiers are digging wells and providing medical care in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane, is the region experiencing a purely military intervention against crime and terror, or is the population also being rendered more secure? When the Indian Army takes youths from Jammu and Kashmir on educational and national integration tours, are they  being exposed to new opportunities to learn about their country’s heritage and contribute to its development, or mobilized into a military legitimation campaign? If a nation’s critical infrastructure is crucial to the security of the population, what does it mean for the Trump administration to threaten nuclear first-use in response to cyber-attacks?

Now, security seems to be everywhere and nowhere, as well as always and never; and attaining security dominates news cycles, persists as a primary concern and impetus for policy, and pervades our lives and choices.

These questions, and the many more that can be taken from a glance at the news from anywhere around the world, prompt considerations about militarism, about security, and about their interrelationships. They invite us to think about how we are to make sense of organized violence, and of seemingly non-violent attempts at ensuring social order and keeping safe what we value, as well as the way these efforts complement, contradict or transform each other. During the Cold War, militarism was a key concept through which we considered such interrelationships – either in terms of the military-industrial complex, repeated military coups in the global South and the claim of state security, or superpower nuclear rivalry. In the 1990s, the concept of security took precedence in both academia and in the world of policy, and focused on a broader range of threats and a different set of responses, culminating in the current global efforts to fight terrorism.

The NHL’s Detroit Red Wings’ “Salute To Service” jerseys.


Now, security seems to be everywhere and nowhere, as well as always and never; and attaining security dominates news cycles, persists as a primary concern and impetus for policy, and pervades our lives and choices. Yet despite this shift seemingly away from militarism and towards an expanded notion of security, the coercive element inherent to militarism never went away; and with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, militarism – broadly understood as as the preparation for war, its normalization and legitimation – was back on the global security agenda. Developments in scholarship reflect these shifts. We have seen how Critical Security Studies as a field has flourished and how ideas central to its original critique, such as securitization and the importance of gender, have been adopted in the mainstream agenda. Recently, new critical projects, such as Critical Military Studies and Critical War Studies, have focused specifically on militarism and war. Aside from feminist scholarship, a puzzling divergence in the conversations has emerged, between security on the one hand, and militarism on the other.

Given the way that the ideas, practices and methods that are understood as security or militarism shift and slide historically and in terms of contemporary politics and academic inquiry, why and how does it matter what we label them, and how are we to study them? In our introductory article for this Special Issue, we argue for a reinvigorated conversation about security, militarism and their interrelationship, given that their meanings are never settled, and that current critical scholarship already creatively addresses both concepts and practices in productive and eclectic ways. Yet, we also underscore that despite the all too present move towards security in both critical scholarship and more traditional policy circles, we do need to keep talking about militarism; but also that the old ways will not suffice. We need to pay attention to our conceptual vocabulary and our methodological tools because of the racialised, classed and gendered practices of militarism and security; the ongoing challenge of Eurocentrism and methodological nationalism in intellectual knowledge production; the paradoxical role of the state in organised violence; the spectrum that links intimate partner violence to state military violence; and the ways in which militarism and security (as concepts, practices and even as method or goal) shape each other. It is the mutual relationship between militarism and security – at times reinforcing, at others transforming, and occasionally weakening – that academics need to keep on studying.

(Images: Wikimedia Commons and, public domain)

Valuing Critical Feminist Insights on Militarism and Security

By Annick Wibben

Many Security Studies scholars still query the usefulness of feminist approaches to security. Or rather, they quite simply ignore the significant contributions made by Feminist Security Studies scholars [see e.g. Stern & Wibben 2015]. Sometimes this means that they miss, or are puzzled by, observations such as the finding that women might be supportive of hawkish foreign policy approaches that a feminist scholar might quite easily explain (much scholarship examining the women = peace thesis has found it to be problematic at minimum; see e.g. Aharoni, 2017). Other times it leads to scholars posing seemingly new questions or proposing approaches (such as those focusing on the everyday or vernacular security) that have long been a key feature of feminist work.

The Security Dialogue special issue on ‘Militarism and Security: possibilities, dialogue and limits’ does not make this mistake. Indeed, the call for papers specifically noted that while mainstream and critical security studies scholars tended to pay little attention to militarism since the end of the Cold War, “many scholars, such as feminists and political geographers, never abandoned militarism or militarisation and continue to produce some of the most innovative work.” Arguably, feminist scholars have traditionally had more to say about militarism/ militarization, than about security – an area of research that only started to get more attention in the 1990s when J. Ann Tickner’s Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspective on Achieving Global Security and Betty A. Reardon’s Women and Peace: Feminist Visions of Global Security were published (I point to some of the reasons in my contribution to the special issue).

Given this context, my article specifically explores how feminist scholars have thought the concepts of security and militarism together – as militarized security, on the one hand, and everyday (in)security, on the other hand.

“Rather than thinking of militarism and security as distinct, critical feminist scholarship has consistently maintained that we cannot think of security without thinking about the militarist logics that are deeply embedded in it, not least when we continue to examine militarist state practices that dominate our present-day understandings of security, even in its critical variants” (Wibben 2018, 144).

Most importantly, feminist scholarship is explicitly guided by an interest in gender, which in the case of militarized security often implies a focus on (hegemonic) masculinities. Looking at shared gender norms governing the conduct of men as well as servicemembers generally, can help explain the difficulties of integrating women into militaries – as well as the quite predictable twist and turns of debates about such a move (see e.g. MacKenzie 2015). What is more, these hierarchical gendered norms intersect with racial and sexual distinctions that affect a variety of differently-located bodies, such that men are also variously affected by these norms.

US President Donald Trump’s January 2018 tweet comparing the size and power of his “Nuclear Button” to that of DPRK Leader Kim Jong Un’s

Anchoring the paper in an engagement with debates about lifting the combat exclusion for women in the U.S. military, I find that while the move is long overdue, the integration of women into state militaries is not purely a case for celebration and the variability of gendered norms complicates the picture. For example, while (white, heterosexual) men have traditionally been more able to claim military masculinity (in the U.S.) – some women and LGBT service members have also harnessed it, particularly in the recent debates about their full integration/ ability to serve openly as Aaron Belkin (e.g. 2012) has pointed out also. What is more, since gender norms rely on broad societal support, feminists have also researched the variety of ways in which everyday experiences of militarism shape the lives of those living in highly militarized societies such as the U.S. (e.g. Enloe 2000), also affecting their perceptions of security. Feminist scholarship has exposed how appeals to security are often couched in the language of protection, replete with gendered myths of women at the home front and men at the frontlines, even when women have long served on the frontlines and men on the homefront accept militarist logics also.

As current international politics show, whether the puzzle of what to make of women in various fighting forces, the leadership by women in states embracing genocidal policies, or the nuclear stalemate between the U.S. and North Korea, security studies scholars ignore feminist insights at their own peril. As Carol Cohn noted in her recent New York Times Opinion Editorial, “this is not about individual men or women. Ideas about masculinity and femininity already distort the ways we think about international politics and national security. And they matter.” It would indeed behoove security and military studies scholars to take feminist work seriously.

Postcolonial states and ‘excessive militarism’: The Indian story

By Swati Parashar

Do all states embrace militarism as a natural condition of their existence? Can militarism in different states be differentiated in content and form? How do states engender security through militarism? How is civilian consent built around militarism, especially in postcolonial states? In an era when populist regimes seem to dominate the political landscape and militarism has acquired new legitimacy and popular appeal, shaping public policy and everyday lived experiences, these questions beg further attention and research.

The unevenness of militarism can be gauged by its absence, its nominal presence, or its excessive occurrence.

In this article for the recently published special issue of Security Dialogue on militarism and security, I first question the ubiquitous deployment of ‘militarism’ in the singular which flattens out any differences in its manifestations across time and space. The unevenness of militarism can be gauged by its absence, its nominal presence, or its excessive occurrence. This variation in the understanding of militarism is necessary in order to understand the different trajectories of militarism both in Western and non-Western/postcolonial contexts.

I further unpack the relationship between militarism and the Indian state embedded in ‘postcolonial anxiety’. Sankaran Krishna (1999) refers to postcolonial anxiety as a persistent desire among Third World states to be considered equal to Western/European models of the enlightened liberal state. This anxiety leads to ‘mimetic constructions’ of the European/Western social order where ‘the story of what once happened in Europe constitutes the knowledge that empowers state elites as they attempt to fashion their nations in the image of what are considered successful nation-states’. Militarism follows the same story.

Vice Chancellor Professor Jagadesh Kumar, along with veterans from the armed forces, pays tribute after instilling the ‘Wall of Heroes’ for fallen soldiers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in May 2017.

Although ‘postcolonial anxiety’ enables militarism at various levels of governance and state interventions in the everyday lives of the citizenry, in India it engenders militarism not in the immediate aftermath of independence from colonial rule, but as an anomaly since the end of the Cold War and the advent of globalization. The globalized world order of the 1990s and the move to democratize ‘security’ in discourse and practice, has led to what I call, ‘excessive militarism’ in India that thrives on the shared consensus between the state and citizens that security is a collective enterprise in which the material and affective labour of militarism must be performed by both sides.

‘Excessive militarism’ helps us understand both the historical evolution of the Indian state and its current obsession with formal military institutions and informal military culture. In recent times, we have witnessed large scale intolerance of any critique of the military and militaristic values which raise questions about the nation-state and its fragile sovereignty. Military culture is steadily making inroads into various aspects of civilian life, including celebration of cultural events and on university campuses. Humanising the soldiers is an important political and cultural project to inculcate military ethics and values among the civilian population.

The conflict between the Maoist insurgents and the Indian state is reflective of the security-development nexus and the excesses of militarism on both sides. Source: The India Today Group.

Moreover, the Indian state has adopted the ‘development’ narrative, presented as a quid pro quo arrangement between the state and the citizens where the latter are obliged to enable, approve and participate in the securing of the state as their primary duty, in return for development benefits. Security is presented as a precondition for implementing developmental assistance programmes, particularly in conflict-ridden areas. The Maoist conflict is a good example where ‘threat’ and ‘security’ is adopted by both the state and the Maoist insurgents, while citizens embrace military logics and military ethos, both to contest the state’s violence and to confer legitimacy on the state. In the existing perpetual state of (in)security and (under)development, militarism’s excesses become both the causes and the consequences of this conflict.

‘Excessive militarism’ helps us understand both the historical evolution of the Indian state and its current obsession with formal military institutions and informal military culture.

The article essentially highlights the gradual transformation of the postcolonial Indian state, from Gandhian ideals of nonviolence, promoting the idea of pluralistic India as a peaceful abode of the persecuted, to the realist ideals of survival though strong military measures. Militarism in India is not a direct response to exceptional circumstances or any singular catastrophic event (such as the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the USA), but a gradual yet steep militarization of all aspects of society, polity and structures of governance. This might be the case in other postcolonial states, which must be analysed in their various contexts.

I hope that the overall conclusion of the article inspires more conversations; how militarism opens up new spaces for understanding the complex state-building processes of postcolonial societies, the fraught and textured relationship between the state and citizens, and the constant tensions and negotiations between civilian lives and military culture.