*This is a slightly modified essay I recently wrote for a class taken last semester

Sam Seitz

International security (IS), the international relations subfield I most closely study, is a constantly evolving and expanding field that is often forced to adjust its scope and focus to explain changes in the international system. One such shift began to occur during the 1990s as the end of the Cold War revealed problems previously suppressed by the superpower struggle. Specifically, issues such as environmental degradation, pandemics, and terrorism increasingly came to the fore. This shift in focus mirrored a broader acceptance of human security, which focuses on the security of individuals instead of states, as a valid and important element of the IS research agenda (Inglehart and Norris 2012, 71-72). Unfortunately, this movement toward human security has gone too far. While individuals’ wellbeing and security are undoubtedly important and worthy of study, focusing on human security to the exclusion of the state expands the domain of IS too much. Therefore, while issues of human security can and should be incorporated into IS scholarship, they should be limited to areas in which they can be shown to impact state structures. To go further risks overextending the field of IS to the point of meaninglessness.

Part of the problem with human security is definitional. There is simply no consensus on what, exactly, human security entails. Indeed, the 1994 UN Development Report that first introduced human security included no less than seven components: economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security, and political security (ibid., 74). At a very general level, one can say that human security focuses on the wellbeing of individuals, but this definition is incredibly broad and can encompass issues as diverse as financial security, access to food, the existence of an effective healthcare system, and the presence of honest and effective law enforcement officers. This definitional morass is compounded by the fact that different countries and scholars choose to emphasize different areas of human security that more closely comport to their individual priorities and interests than to any particular standardized framework. As Paris (2001, 88) notes, this lack of precision is extraordinarily limiting because “[it provides] policymakers with little guidance in the prioritization of competing policy goals and academics little sense of what, exactly, is to be studied.”

Another serious issue with human security is its frequently normative and politicized framing. For example, Cynthia Schneider (2017, 2) provocatively asks if realism’s focus on the balance of power rather than on empathy “provide[s] an appropriate foundation for twenty-first century students and practitioners of foreign affairs? Does it translate well in today’s globally connected world?” Perhaps not. But then, this begs the question of whether IS should seek to be primarily prescriptive or descriptive. It may very well be the case that more empathetic policymakers are better policymakers. But if no policymaker bases his or her decision primarily on empathy, this is somewhat of a moot point. Of course, it is impossible to fully separate disinterested analysis from normative advocacy, as empirical findings in political science can and do shape the policy process. Nevertheless, one must be careful not to conflate emancipatory or political goals with descriptive analysis, lest one run the risk of generating the same kind of overly broad and underspecified definition of human security critiqued above. To paraphrase Mohammed Ayoob (1995, 10), equating human security with any values or causes that a particular scholar deems noble risks totally obfuscating the meaning of security.

There is still value in studying individual’s security, though. As Inglehart and Norris (2012, 77) convincingly argue, trends such as globalization, cultural changes, and the decline of interstate warfare have made the public in many countries much more interested in issues broadly associated with the human security agenda. Moreover, by leveraging data from the World Values Survey (WVS), Inglehart and Norris demonstrate that one can operationalize human security and, at least to some degree, overcome the problem of arbitrariness in most human security definitions. Instead of defining relevant components of human security based upon the particular interests or concerns of the scholar, Inglehart and Norris are able to define them in terms of the issues and concerns of actual populations (ibid., 82). This certainly helps operationalize human security and highlight salient research areas, but it does not demonstrate that human security should exist within IS.

As Paris (2001, 89) points out, just because issues within the human security agenda have inspired domestic groups or engendered policy movements like the anti-personnel landmine convention does not make these issues a necessarily useful framework for analysis. Indeed, if Inglehart and Norris are correct that sources and perceptions of personal security vary widely across countries, it raises the question of whether a broad agenda of human security makes any sense at all. Connections between the different subcomponents of human security may exist, and they may have implications for international security more broadly. Yet, it seems clear that many of these connections are too marginal to justify the creation of an umbrella category of human security. To quote Paris (2001, 92) once more, “The observation that all human and natural realms are fundamentally interrelated is a truism, and does not provide a very convincing justification for treating all needs, values, and policy objectives as equally important.”

This does not mean that human security has no place in IS. Instead, it suggests that human security should be confined to studying the linkages between the security of individuals and the security and stability of the state. This definition is superior because it recognizes that human security cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. The difference in the security of Malians and Danes, for example, is almost entirely a function of the states in which they reside. And questions of state security also impact potential policies for mitigating human insecurity: Outside actors can intervene in weak states to provide humanitarian relief and create more secure environments, but this is not the case in strong states. While the U.S. would have little trouble intervening in the Central African Republic to improve human security, this is simply not an option in North Korea. Importantly, this definition of human security does not exclude the study of non-state actors. One could, for example, examine the ways in which the insecurity of internally displaced people in poorly protected camps increases insurgent and terrorist access to child soldiers, swelling insurgent ranks and weakening the central state by exacerbating civil conflict. Indeed, Achvarina and Reich (2006) have studied this exact question, demonstrating how one can successfully link issues of individual, human security with more traditional questions of state security. Unlike Inglehart and Norris’ (2012) somewhat broad interpretation of trends in the WVS, which in many ways is closer to sociology or psychology than IS, Achvarina and Reich’s (2006) study is much more clearly related to questions of state security. This allows it to better interact with and shape the broader IS literature base, thus yielding a more useful and productive contribution.

The safety and security of individuals is an important research agenda both because it enriches our understanding of conflict and because it has powerful implications for humanitarianism. However, most current definitions of human security are too ad hoc and underspecified to be of much value. Moreover, by embracing such expansive views on what constitutes security, many scholars of human security risk diluting the term to the point of meaninglessness. By considering individual’s security in the context of state security, however, scholars can rescue human security and ensure that it receives the focus it deserves while also guaranteeing that it will be able to productively contribute to current IS scholarship.



Achvarina, Vera and Simon Reich. “No Place to Hide Refugees, Displaced Persons, and the Recruitment of Child Soldiers.” International Security 31, no. 1 (2006): 127-164.

Ayoob, Mohammed. The Third World Security Predicament: State Making, Regional Conflict, and the International System. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishing, 1995.

Inglehart, Ronald F. and Pippa Norris. “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Understanding Human Security.” Scandinavian Political Studies 35, no. 1 (2012): 71-96.

Paris, Roland. “Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air?” International Security 26, no. 2 (2001): 87-102.

Schneider, Cynthia P. “Performing Empathy: Lessons from the Stage for Policymakers.” Arts and International Affairs. July 19, 2017. https://theartsjournal.net/2017/07/19/performing-empathy-lessons-from-the-stage-for-policymakers/.