What is War from the Antipodes? Contesting the Western Derivatives of International Security

Security studies as a discipline has mostly concerned itself with the security relations among states. This is, owing to the concrete analytical categories of its mother discipline i.e. international relations as well as security studies’ own instrumentalisation as an academic canon for the struggles between great powers. For half a century succeeding World War II, the discipline was informed particularly by the cold war politics. Events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Nuclear Non-proliferation, Star Wars, and the likes have been setting defining themes for the field. This makes security studies exclusively focused on the states which are no less than a great power e.g. imperial powers of the nineteenth century Europe and the United States of America and The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics of 20th century. After the end of the cold war, the world started encountering new forms of threats which are mostly from non-state actors. This however, has broadened the horizons for the security debate yet the perceptual dogmatism of the field largely remains in its place. Despite very strong global anti-terrorism discourse, the discipline of security studies is still struggling to construct definite and viable imaginaries along these new threats. This can be mainly because the great power baggage of the discipline keeps it from considering the role of weaker state-actors in the making of current international fabric and the same has trickled into post-cold war security thinking. Therefore, conventional security thought comprises great powers’ perspectives regarding hostilities of international politics.

Despite very strong global anti-terrorism discourse, the discipline of security studies is still struggling to construct definite and viable imaginaries along these new threats.

Security studies’ abstinence from understanding terrorism as one of the many responses to the American world order and the war on terror as a continuation of the centuries long violent conflict between the global north and the global south renders impossible the proper representation of the actors involved. For instance, Osama bin Laden in a video message translated and published by The Guardian and BBC; “Resist the New Rome” proclaimed that the resistance against the ages old West’s occupation of their lands will continue. The global war on terror hardly pays any heed to this side of the debate to preserve the prevalent positioning of the aggressor and the victim in the discourse. This pushes the reasons and stimulants behind the inception of Al-Qaeda and others of the like, entirely under the carpet which is mainly why security thinkers are mostly unable to fathom the enigma of Islamic fundamentalism.

Furthermore, the security studies predominantly perceived conflicts with non-state entities under the rubric of asymmetric conflict, something outside the arena where great powers lock horns, denying the global south the acknowledgement of its role in shaping of the contemporary world. For instance, the Cuban missile crisis is never treated by the US security academia as a Cuban issue. Whereas, Fyodor Burlatsky, a Khrushev’s close aide admitted that Fidel Castro as a first influence played a crucial role in the enactment of the crisis. Likewise, many of the 20th century national liberation movements in the global south were understood by the American policy makers as derivative elements of the cold war and not as active contributors to history. So subsequently, the dominant security epistemologies are totally indifferent toward the experiences of the global south that led to the current wave of Islamic fundamentalism. They do not even acknowledge its role in compelling the mainstream security thinking to perceive the threat of non-state entities as a cornerstone to twenty first century international security thinking, as Islamic fundamentalist threat is an offshoot of the interaction between Islam and the West. In current circumstances, any armed resistance against northern domination can be branded as “terrorism.” Such misrepresentation of the global south leads to flawed theorisation of the conflicting parties. Hence, it is appropriate to argue that the discipline of security studies in general lacks methods and analytics to study anything outside the definition of great power. Kenneth Waltz, a stalwart of the realist paradigm, proclaimed that realist understanding of the world is only applicable to the politics of great powers and is not a universal manual. But the old intra-imperialist realist problématique  still has currency in dominant security interpretation of the world.

it is appropriate to argue that the discipline of security studies in general lacks methods and analytics to study anything outside the definition of great power.

In the years following détente, scholarship of critical international relations became prominent with Robert Cox. It was followed by many other critical projects in the discipline. Realism, liberalism, and Marxism were the theoretical perspectives the field mostly bothered itself with before. Now there is an immense theoretical space already built up by the likes of emancipatory critiques of global order, Neo-Gramscian readings of the north-south relations, and post-colonial international relations. This has really enabled the academics to imagine the coercive social patterns, production of power, perpetuation of violence, and hegemony of culture on a global scale enriching the difficult planetary level of analysis of IR and security studies. Now that in the last three decades, the peripheral threat of non-state actors has progressively become central, the juncture is named as “the post-colonial rupture in the history of the security relations” by Anne McClintock. This has invoked many long-ignored patterns of conflict popularly dubbed as relics of the middle ages. This calls for a comprehensive incorporation of the perspectives of the weak in security studies. The discipline indulges into a chronic amnesia about complex colonial experiences which the global south does not tend to forget. A view from the other side of the metropole, the side that the west perceived as the state of nature in contrast to its own contractual world, challenges the settled colonial geographies and periodisations of conflicts. It is as Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey note that there was not one World War II, rather many. One was for the US, one for the European imperial powers, one for Japan, and many others for European colonies in the world. All these experiences have collectively contributed to the shape that the international politics has taken today. A robust engagement between northern and southern ontologies of conflict can make available to security studies the categories that can make contemporary global security concerns more addressable. In addition, the questions like security dilemma, nuclear non-proliferation, arms control, and disarmament and securitisation should also be reassessed with reference to post-colonial context. A project of the sort requires strong epistemic communities in the southern hemisphere.

Hamraz Sarwani

Hamraz Sarwani

is an Assistant Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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