Critical Assessment of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Securitization Theory


            Security is one of the global issues that attract a lot of controversial debates because security threat is a concern of everybody in the world. Constructivists have come up with new framework of explaining securities issues that affect people. As a result, Copenhagen School (CS) of International Relations (IR) came up with a new security paradigm known as Securitization Theory. According to the securitization theory, security issues are socially constructed through a discourse. The theory has significantly changed the way people view security threats, especially at the global level. At the same, the theory is associated with some strengths and weaknesses. Some of the scholars argue that the theory perfectly explains modern security threats while others oppose the theory on the basis that is narrow, as it pays more attention to the speech of security actors while ignoring other factors. Therefore, the paper critically analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of securitization theory.

Review of Relevant Themes and Concepts of Securitization Theory

            The primary argument for securitization theory is that security is a speech act by security actors. By labeling an object a security threat, security actors make it a security issue. According to the argument by CS, security is based on survival (Cote, 2014). Therefore, according to CS theorists, an object becomes a security concern when it is portrayed as an existential threat to large number of people. Security actors make an object a security threat that should be addressed immediately using extraordinary measures (Waever, 1995). According to the proponents of securitization theory, something becomes a security issue, not because it is a threat to people or state, but because security actors have defined an object as an existential threat that needs to be eliminated to enhance the survival of the people or the world (Šulović, 2010). By claiming that something is a security threat to survival, security actors gain the power and authority to handle the issue through the use of extraordinary means. Therefore, according to the theory, something becomes a security threat only after it has been labeled as one, which makes security a self referential practice (Farrell, 2002).

            However, even though security can be constructed socially and intersubjectively, it is not easy to securitize every issue (Balzacq, Léonard and Ruzicka, 2016). In order to securitize an issue, security actors must make a securitizing move by presenting an issue to people as an existential threat to the survival to the target objects, which, in this theory, is known as referent object. For any issue to be successfully securitized, it must be accepted by the majority of the referent objects (Diskaya, 2013). Therefore, the success of securitization largely depends on the referent objects. It is only after an issue has receive acceptance of the majority of referent objects that security actors can move above the sphere of normal politics, which ends up allowing politicians, leaders, and elites in the society to break normal procedures and laws to implement extraordinary means of terminating a security threat.

            Therefore, securitization theory has four main concepts that include securitizing actors, the referent object, the referent subject, and the audience (Williams, 2015). Securitizing actors are the people who present as a threat to survival of large number of people. The referent subject is the entity or object that is threatening the survival. The referent object, on the other hand, is the entity that is threatened. Besides, audience is the mass agreement that is required by the securitizing actors to conger intesubjective status to a security threat (Williams, 2015). Generally, securitization is based on the perception that security has performative actors and characters, because it can be used to significantly change the social reality. The four concepts of securitization define successfully implementation of the theory in the real world situation.

            The audience is the most important concept of securitization theory because the paradigm is based on the assumption that securitization is an intersubjective process that heavily relies on the consent of the audience (Côté, 2015).  Therefore, the actors are only able to securitize an issue when it is accepted by the audience. However, proponents of the theory do not clearly what constitutes an audience. Therefore, the concept of audience in the theory is underdeveloped, as it is only defined as the people who securitizing actors are trying to convince to accept the use of extraordinary or exceptional procedure to eliminate the perceived security threat. In addition, there is a possibility of having more than one audience that needs to be convinced to accept the use of extraordinary. Nevertheless, the main point of the theory is that the securitization theory cannot be successfully implemented without the consent of the audience.

            Securitization has three main steps that define its success. First, the securitizing actors must identify existential threat that poses threat to the survival of many people (Waever, 1995). The second step is to make the threatening object and emergency issue that require immediate action to be solved. The emergency concepts make it easy for securitizing agents to convince the audience of the need to use an extraordinary procedure or take unlawful action (Taureck, 2006). The third step is the inter-unit relations, which is used to break some normal rules. As a result, securitization is a process and it is procedural.

            In addition, securitization is composed on security act and political act. Security act requires securitizing actor to communicate the language of security and convince people to adopt extraordinary measures to eliminate the threat. Political act, on the other hand, is based on political choices to portray the perceived security threat in such a way that can easily convince the target audience (Charrett, 2009). Therefore, according to the argument of CS, securitization is associated with the speech act because it depends on how an issue is linguistically portrayed as security threat. During securitization, speech act changes from being productive of security to inter-subjective construction of security.

            Hence, according to CS and other proponents of securitization theory, security issue is a matter of choice and it mainly arises due to political decisions made by strong leaders and politicians in the world. The choice is always actualized by labeling an object a security threat. But successful implementation of securitization depends on a number of factors such as the audience and the referent objects. Securitization is a social and political construction.

Case Study on the Application of Securitization Theory

            The best case explaining securitization theory is the one involving the Bush administration and Iraq. The act of President Bush and the administration clearly explains how security threat can be socially constructed to achieve the political agenda of a few individuals. Bush administration heavily relied on security utterances in order to communicate the level of danger posed by former Iraq president Saddam Hussein and his perceived terrorist regime (Sandhu, 2013). Through security utterances, the administration was able to convince many Americans and the world at large that Saddam is an existential threat to their survival, as he was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. Through the utterance, Bush and his administration was able to convince the public that it needed to use exceptional measures in order to eliminate Saddam’s regime. Interestingly, Bush managed to convince the world that Saddam could only be defeated by employing special and extraordinary security weapons. The speech by Bush and some of his administrators acted as securitizing moves by communicating the idea that existing and normal measures could not be used against Saddam and his regime.

            Even though Bush’s administration perfectly used securitization to fight Saddam, what is still controversial is whether it receives consent from the audience as being argued by CS in the securitization theory. According to different scholars who have examined the analyzed Iraq case, there are some shortcomings that can be associated with securitization theory. By examining the speech that was used by Bush’s administration, it is difficult to classify the case as a successful securitization (O’Reilly, 2008). There were more than audience that that the administration needed to convince and they included domestic and international audience. The administration was also forced to convince the opposing sides in the local and international audience. Therefore, even though Bush administration managed to convince a substantial percentage of the audience, there were also other important dissenting voices among the domestic and international audience. 

            Therefore, it is not easy to determine whether it is important to receive acceptance from the audience for securitization to be successful. It also emerged that there were some audience that were more important than others, as it seemed that there were formal and informal audience. For instance, the acceptance by the UK parliament appeared to contain more weight than the assent from the public (Stramer, 2010). Even though some of the sections of the public were demonstrating against the move, Bush administration went ahead to use extraordinary measures against Saddam’s regime and his people. Even though Bush administration received acceptance from UK and other formal audience, it did not get approval from the United Nations (UN).

            It is also interesting to note that Bush’s administration utterances were not based on security alone. The justification for attacking Iraq was also based on other factors such as need for democracy and the link between Saddam and Al-Qaida. The US also argued that there was need for regime change in Iraq. Consequently, this shows that it is possible to use other issues other than security to securitize an issue. Therefore, Bush and his administration were able to construct their securitizing move beyond security issues. The administration used both security and need for democracy to securitize Iraq.

            Bush administration also used security threat to enable it breaks some of the rules that guide the normal operations of human. For instance, the US introduced Patriot Act in 2001 that enabled the law enforcement agencies and intelligence to conduct intrusive searches on any suspect. The act was used to violate several acts of individuals. However, the main argument posed by the administration was that such act was important to enable law enforcement agencies to succeed in fighting war against terrorism. Therefore, the case illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of securitization theory.

Analysis of Strengths and Weaknesses of Securitization Theory

            Based in the information that is contained in the case study, it is clear that the theory has both strengths and weaknesses. One of the main strengtsh of securitization theory is that it portrays security as intersubjectively constructed phenomenon. Unlike other security theories, securitization theory explains how other sectors other than political powers influence security measures that are taken against the perceive security threats. It also explains how security is a negative concept that takes place as a result of failure of the normal political process. For instance, before invading Iraq, it forced Bush’s administration to seek approval of other players such as the UN and American people. Hence, it explains have security issues are complex and involves many players.

            Another strength of the theory is that it goes further to explain how to overcome the security dilemma that is facing various leaders and different parts of the world. First, the theory explains how security concerns the survival of the people. However, it goes beyond international relations issues to explain how to solve security threats in the world. In addition, the theory helps in explaining how political decides what is a security threat and the security measures that are put in place to eliminate the perceived threat. It also illustrates how perceived security threats are used to justify the breakage of laws and allocation of immense resources. Besides, the theory helps in explaining is a socially-constructed phenomenon and how it is developed through intersubjectively-understood social perception. Bush’s administration used securitization process to come up with Patriot Act that it used to violate the privacy rights of many people in the name of fighting terrorism. In addition, securitization was used by the administration to justify the killing of many innocent people who did not know the reasons behind the war.

            However, there are also a number of weaknesses that are associated with securitization theory. The main weakness of the theory is that it does not clearly explain what constitute an audience and the role of audience in securitization process. It merely mentions that the audience is the subject that securitizing actors need to convince to accept the use of extraordinary measures to remove the perceive security threat. At the same time, it only states that securitization process can only be successful when the securitizing agents receive the consent of the audience. Therefore, the theory vaguely defines the concept of audience, which plays an important role in the securitization process.

            According to the Iraq case study, it is clear that there is more than one audience that Bush Administration needed to convince in order to use extraordinary measures against Saddam’s regime. It is also clear that only a section of the audience was able to accept the use of extraordinary force against Iraq. By the time the US forces were invading Iraq, some of the audience, such as the UN had not approved the Bush’s decision to attack Saddam and his regime. Therefore, there is a need for the theory to have a clear definition of the audience. It should also explain the number of audience that the securitizing agents need to convince in order to use exceptional measures against the perceived threat. In addition, there is need for the theory to explain whether some audience is more important than others. For instance, in the case of Iraq, it was clear that the approval of strong western countries such as the UK was more important than the acceptance of UN and common citizens. Hence, the concept of audience is underdeveloped in the securitization theory.

            Another weakness is that the theory does not explain whether other issues other than security can be used to securitize an object (Sethi, 2015). Bush’s administration used other issues such as security and need for regime change to securitize the Iraq threat to the survival of Americans and the world as a whole. It seems that the non-security issues can also be used to securitize an issue. However, the theory only limits securitization to security issues. It does not explain whether securitizing actors can use issues such as democracy to constrict a security issues that need to be eliminated through the use of extraordinary forces. In addition, there is a need to clarify whether non-security issues can be used to securitize an object or whether they must be combined by security concerns.

            The theory also does not explore the reasons why securitizing agents decide to treat an object as security issue. Even though CS and other proponents of the theory acknowledge that the process of securitizing an issue as a security threat to survival is subjective, they give no explanation on why such choices are made. This is a weakness because conceptualizing security based on securitization theory can make a person to ignore the way in which security is viewed and understood, especially among different actors. However, in the case of Iraq and Bush’s administration, there is an explanation on why there was the need to take stun security measures against Saddam and his regime. Bush’s administration alleged that Saddam was producing nuclear weapons that could lead to mass destruction (Gillombardo, 2016). There was also the allegation that Saddam’s regime was violating the democratic rights of common people. The theory should clearly explain why an issue is treated as security threat survival by the securitizing agents or actors.

            In addition, securitization theory is narrowly constructed. It merely deals with the relationship between securitizing agents and objects. However, it fails to recognize the fact that security is a global phenomena that is also dynamic as it keep on changing. Therefore, focusing security on the act of speech a lone is narrow. In the case of Iraq, apart from part from utterances of Bush’s administration, securitizing actors was forced to seek approval of international community, including the UN. The administration knew that the security issue was beyond referent objects and it concerned the whole world.


            Securitization theory is one of the modern security theories that explain how political leaders are using the power of communication to create perceived security threats in order to justify the use extraordinary measures. The theory also explains how the audience or stakeholders in the society contribute to security measures that are taken against the perceived threat. However, like many theories, securitization theory has both strengths and weaknesses. It is the only theory that clearly explains how security threats are socially constructed and how they are used to justify the use of exceptional measures. However, it does not clearly explain some of its concepts such as the audience. Therefore, securitizing theory still needs some improvements.


Reference List

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Cote, A., 2014. Securitization Theory and Foreign Policy Decision-Making: Areas for       Collaboration?.

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Sandhu, J., 2013. The Securitization of a Despot: How the Bush Administration securitized          Saddam Hussein.

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Stramer, J., 2010. The Language of War: George W. Bush’s discursive Practices in Securitizing    the Western Value System in the War on Terror. Oxford, United Kingdom, p.67.

Šulović, V., 2010. Meaning of security and theory of securitization. Belgrade Centre for Security Policy.

Taureck, R., 2006. Securitization theory and securitization studies. Journal of International           Relations and Development, 9(1), pp.53-61.

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