Security studies versus strategic studies: a history – part 1

War on the Rocks recently published an article by Joshua Rovner on the academic divide between security studies and strategic studies. Adam Elkus wrote a follow-up article elaborating on the differences and identifying ways that the fields could find common ground.

Several people on Twitter and Facebook remarked that they were unaware that security studies and strategic studies were actually two different fields, which made me realise that this is more of a niche distinction than I had thought.

So this two-post series will provide a history of how security studies and strategic studies formed and became separate (and sometimes warring) fields.

This first post covers the period up to the 1950s, before the stark divide had developed.

A few caveats:

  • I am not a member of either field, so these two posts will have over-simplifications and possibly errors. Hopefully people in these fields will challenge or add to this short history.
  • This history won’t cover the methodological issues raised in the War on the Rocks articles.
  • This history will focus mainly on the United States.


International relations

To begin, we need to go back to before either security studies or strategic studies existed, and start with the discipline of international relations [IR]. Academic disciplines rarely arise from purely intellectual interest; instead they are influenced by wider political contexts and problems. The discipline of IR was established after the First World War, by scholars who sought to contribute intellectually to preventing global conflict, signified by the creation of Chatham House in the UK in 1920 and the Council on Foreign Relations in the US in 1921. As Fred Halliday notes:

Economics began as a reflection on problems of trade and the industrial revolution; sociology as a response to urbanization; political science in reaction to democratization and problems of governance; geography as a reflection on the rise of a world market and empire; psychology in response to a new awareness of mental illness. In the case of IR its academic origins lie in the response to World War One, as a reflection, mediate but engaged, on why the efforts of diplomats, lawyers, peace campaigners, industrialists, feminists, working-class leaders and the rest, were unable to stop the slaughter of 1914-18.

A particular intellectual approach, termed realism, gradually came to dominate the field. Initially the dominant theoretical approach was liberalism, strongly influenced by German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ideals of international cooperation. However scholars who described themselves as realists challenged this approach, and emphasised international anarchy, the pursuit of power and the inevitability of conflict. A key realist text was E. H. Carr’s The Twenty Year Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, which was published on the outbreak of World War Two and seemingly validated by it. His 1946 preface to a republished version of the book accused the other theoretical approaches within IR of having “a glaring and dangerous defect… the almost total neglect of the factor of power”.

These aspects of the study of international relations – the desire to prevent global conflict, understand peace and war, and make sense of states’ competing pursuits of power – show that international security was a major focus of the discipline. But security was not initially considered a distinct field of study within the discipline, and there was no field of “security studies”. This only came about later, prompted by a largely separate academic development that occurred in the United States during this inter-war period.


(National) security studies

In the United States in the 1930s, an informal network of Ivy League scholars (such as Princeton’s Edward Mead Earle) began to create a distinct field of security studies. However, their focus was less on long-term notions of international security and more on national security. This was partly because their backgrounds were mostly not in international relations but in other disciplines (often they were historians). However, it was also because the 1930s were a less optimistic time for the democracies than the 1920s, given the Great Depression and the growing strength of totalitarian powers like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

This distinction between national security and international security implied different focuses of study. While international security implied efforts to prevent or manage global conflict between states, national security implied efforts to assist their own states to face the dangers posed by conflict, and to prevail.

However, it’s important to not treat national security and international security as entirely different focuses; for this network of US-based scholars in the 1930s they went hand-in-hand. These scholars feared that the totalitarian powers were undermining the “relatively stable international order” that previously existed, placing the United States at grave risk. In particular, Nazi Germany’s challenge to international security undermined America’s national security.

The notion of national security, being a broader concept than military defence, provided a way to understand the danger posed by Hitler, whose military forces did not pose an immediate physical threat to America. The Roosevelt Administration and the foreign policy establishment, including these scholars, saw the need to go to war with Germany in the late 1930s but much of the public was reluctant. Edward Mead Earle believed that “the isolationist tendencies of the public would melt away when it was presented with a well-articulated national security policy.” As it happened, Germany’s ally Japan made the job much easier by bombing Pearl Harbour. This brought America directly into the war, and set the stage for a new international order.

United Nations Fight for Freedom Wikimedia Commons

From this point on, the concept of national security became central to US policy:

World War II gave rise to the era of national security. This was an idea that would be institutionalized within American government and popularized in wider society. National security supplanted the more limited concept of “defense”. The disorder of the 1930s planted the seeds of an intellectual rediscovery of strategy as an intellectual discipline, and new weapons of greater range and lethality stoked fears in defense debate. Edward Mead Earle at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, along with Arnold Wolfers and Nicholas Spykman at Yale, led the academic embrace of the concept. But only after the United States formally entered the war did national security become an organizing principle for a new, complex bureaucracy. This would culminate in the creation of the Unified Command Plan of 1946 that placed large parts of the globe under geographically based military commands, and the National Security Act of 1947, establishing the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency.

This increasing government focus on national security helped security studies to grow. It’s worth noting that there was initially only limited interaction between the discipline of international relations and the emerging field of security studies, given the national focus and disciplinary diversity of the latter. Earle in particular felt that much of the more optimistic IR scholarship had become redundant after the League of Nations had failed to uphold its mandate. However, there was certainly some overlap, particularly after the Second World War. The newly dominant IR paradigm of realism sat well with security studies, and many security scholars did focus on “the study of the nature, causes, effects, and prevention of war”, which was a key component of the IR agenda.

It would take time for security studies and IR to become closer. What happened first was the Cold War mobilisation, combined with the US government’s desire for increased academic expertise on national security. This was a boon for security studies and resulted in a distinctive research focus within it which would grow to become the field of strategic studies.


Rise of strategic studies

The imperative for scholarly focus on strategy (specifically on military strategy) was outlined in 1949 by Yale scholar Bernard Brodie. He believed that strategy was “not receiving the scientific treatment it deserve[d] either in the armed services or, certainly, outside of them.” With two nuclear-armed superpowers facing off, security scholars feared the next global conflict would be apocalyptic, so a greater government and scholarly understanding of strategy was considered necessary to avoid catastrophe.

These scholars were also concerned that a long struggle against a fearsome enemy could lead to the militarisation of society, at odds with the United States’ domestic traditions. They believed that a strong core of civilian expertise in military affairs was needed to avoid civilian deference to the military (other than in the more operational and tactical questions that were more likely to be considered a purely military domain). Later civilian officials came to appreciate alternative sources of strategic advice, because of frustrations with some generals like Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay.

The field expanded rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, in the context of the American boom in higher education, as the government and private institutes like the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations invested heavily in the social sciences. Like area studies, strategic studies benefited from the expectation that it would give the United States the edge in its competition for global influence with the Soviet Union.

Strategic studies at this time was effectively a component of security studies. Government support helped turn strategic studies into a field in its own right, and it’s future looked bright.

But this would change. After the Vietnam War, the close relationship with government would hinder the field’s acceptance within academia. Meanwhile the broader field of security studies would become much closer to the discipline of international relations and establish a secure position within academia.

These changes will be covered in the next post.


Update 1: The second post can be found here.

Australia’s continuously expanding counter-terrorism powers

On the Friday before last, the Prime Minister and State and Territory leaders unanimously agreed on another expansion of Australia’s counter-terrorism powers. The proposed law would keep convicted terrorists, if they were deemed to be un-rehabilitated, detained after their sentences have been served.

The following Friday saw another news report on counter-terrorism legislation. The Australian reported on how decisions to revoke the citizenship of dual-national suspected terrorists (based on legislation passed in December) would be made.

The government has created a Citizenship Loss Board, which includes members of “ASIO, ASIS, the Australian Federal Police and a raft of bureaucracies, including the ­Attorney-General’s Department, the Immigration Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade”. According the report, the government is prioritising Islamic State (IS) members believed to be intending to return to Australia, but has still “cast the net as wide as possible”. It is currently unclear what role the judiciary will have.

These two reports, within the last fortnight, caused little controversy. But they demonstrate the illiberal trend that marked Australia’s counter-terrorism approach under the Abbott government, and which has become normalised under the Turnbull government.

Under Abbott, jihadist terrorism was portrayed as an unprecedented danger that required a constant rush of new laws. From September 2014 onwards, the government declared every few months that many of Australia’s counter-terrorism laws were inadequate and soft, and that new laws to increase the power of security agencies were needed.

To be clear, there are exceptional aspects to terrorism when compared to most other types of crime. These include:

  • the harm that one single major attack can do, in the form of mass deaths and injuries, enormous economic damage and dramatic political consequences;
  • the expectations on security agencies to intercept plotters and prevent attacks rather than just investigate attacks after they occur;
  • the transnational conflict aspect, whereby the terrorists are often inspired, assisted or directed by sub-state military entities at war with our society.

These aspects make some departures from traditional crime-fighting approaches justified, provided they are effective, proportionate, and consistent with human rights.

But most of these adjustments were already made a decade ago, with the legislative framework put in place by the Howard government after 9/11.

This older legislation did have problems, in that some parts went too far and others were unnecessarily complex. That was an unsurprising outcome of so much legislation being pushed through Parliament in such a short time (one international observer described Australia’s approach as “hyper-legislation”). But several of its core components were necessary and justified.

Measures such as passport confiscation, ASIO’s compulsory questioning powers, proscription of organisations and the criminalisation of preparatory activity for terror attacks, proved useful for Australia’s counter-terrorism efforts. Reviews by Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, and an independent review established by the Council of Australian Governments, judged these particular measures to be effective and appropriate. The jury is still out on some of the other measures introduced in that period, such as control orders.

So Australia already had a robust counter-terrorism regime. There was scope for changing some of the laws, given the evolving threat, changes in technology, and some of the shortcomings identified in the independent reviews. As the potential threat resulting from the Syrian conflict was apparent from at least 2012, there was an ideal moment for careful deliberation on how Australia could best adjust its laws.

Instead, there was little action at all until June 2014 (when IS seized Mosul and declared a “Caliphate”) and then we got another round of “hyper-legislation” in the form of constant tranches of new legislation.

With at least five tranches passed so far, Australia has a greatly expanded body of national security laws. Some of these measures were sensible and justified (fast-tracked passport confiscations, increasing ASIS’s ability to spy on Australian terror suspects overseas, allowing “special intelligence operations”), some were unjust (citizenship-stripping, no-go zones, the excessive media restrictions in the “special intelligence operations” legislation), and some were ambiguous (lowered thresholds on a range of existing powers like control orders). But regardless of where one stands on each specific law, it is clear that all the changes went in one direction.

They all involved increases in government power, explicitly at the expense of liberty.

This approach, of treating the terror threat as so exceptional that more and more departures from traditional rules of evidence and rights protections were constantly needed, was accompanied by apocalyptic rhetoric. While such rhetoric has been a feature of Australian security politics for over a century, it reached a remarkable level under the Abbott Government. Attorney-General George-Brandis described the threat as existential, while Foreign Minister Julie Bishop likened it to the Soviet Union.

The whole approach contributes to a wider polarisation. For some small parts of the community, this approach risks feeding fears that the current threat of al-Qaeda and IS-inspired terrorism is a catastrophic and unmanageable problem, contributing to the backlash against multiculturalism. For other small sections of the community, it risks feeding fears that terrorism is a phoney threat manufactured to increase state power and smear Muslims. Rather than facing the threat with calmness and unity, it encourages fear and unnecessary division.

When Malcolm Turnbull came to power, his rhetoric signalled a different approach. He did not portray the threat as catastrophic or frame it in a way that risked implicating Muslims collectively. His rhetoric acknowledged the seriousness of the threat but projected optimism about overcoming it.

However, even the inclusive language is under challenge, and the “hyper-legislation” approach has barely slowed down.

The news reports over the last fortnight, of potential indefinite detention post-sentence and the creation of the Citizenship Loss Board, show how normalised this type of law-making has become. Other ideas suggested by Federal and State politicians have included secret trials and 28-day detention without charge. With Federal MP Andrew Nikolic (who is now Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security) having declared after the Paris attacks that civil liberties debates were now “redundant”, it looks like Australia will keep steadily heading down this path.


Critiques of terrorism studies: a brief introduction

Following on from my post on internal assessments of terrorism studies, this is a short post to introduce readers to critiques of the field, and some thoughts on where I stand myself.

There are four common types of critique, which are:

  • Left-wing critiques: These portray terrorism studies as uncritically accepting Western state priorities and assumptions, and consequently producing flawed analysis. See this example from Richard Jackson (or this shorter one).
  • Right-wing critiques: These portray terrorism research as forms of terrorist apologia or as attempts to push a ‘politically correct’ agenda. See this example from David Martin Jones and Carl Ungerer.
  • Policy-utility critiques: These contend that terrorism research rarely provides workable ideas for counter-terrorism policymakers and practitioners, and that academics just prefer to criticise rather than offer helpful suggestions. See this example from Mils Hills.
  • Methodological critiques: These contend that terrorism research usually lacks empirical rigour, and that it is theoretically under-developed and full of conceptual confusion. See many examples in this article by Lisa Stampnitzky.

The political critiques (‘political’ not in the pejorative sense but in the sense of being concerned with politics of such research and its potential impact on people’s lives) are widespread, and anyone researching in the area will regularly encounter them. In their worst variants, the political critiques mean that terrorism studies gets slammed as either a haven for right-wing academic frauds who have sold their souls to state power to demonise official enemies, or as a haven for left-leaning namby-pamby academics who would rather hug terrorists than have them be defeated. This is best seen in the rage that the Brookings Institution’s Will McCants generates from such opposing types such as Glenn Greenwald and Robert Spencer.

In their stronger variants, these political critiques need to be reflected on and engaged with.

My own position is not neutral; I don’t find both sides to be equivalent. Instead, I find some variants of the leftist critiques compelling. It’s certainly true that the field mainly focuses on groups that threaten Western countries. I disagree quite a lot with the work of Arun Kundnani, particularly Chapter 4 of his latest book (the field focuses far less on religious ideology as a causal factor for terrorism than you would expect from his writings), but everyone in the field should read it. These types of critique are particularly important because they often come from members of communities subjected to stigmatisation and harmful policies in the name of countering terrorism.

I find the right-wing critiques weaker, which is likely a result of my own politics tending to be centre-left liberal. But there’s been some times when I’ve found the right-wing critiques to hit the mark. For example, some scholarship on Hezbollah has indeed indulgently accepted their denials of involvement in terrorism.

I’m sympathetic to the policy-utility critiques, but am also wary of the risks of imposing narrow conceptions of policy-relevance on academia.

And last, I agree a lot with the methodological critiques, as would much of the field. As noted in my post on internal assessments, the emerging dominant view is that the field has dramatically improved in the past five to ten years, but that we definitely have a long way to go.


Update 1: Changed the Mervyn Bendle example to one by David Martin Jones and Carl Ungerer, on 5 April 2016.