Global Security Cultures

  • Published

Global Security Cultures by Mary Kaldor. Polity Press, 2018, 234 pp.

In Global Security Cultures, Mary Kaldor expands on her well-known “new wars” hypothesis to deliver an insightful analysis of what she terms “the security gap.” This gap exists between the conditions that render an ever-growing segment of the global population insecure and ways of thinking about security practices which hew too closely to outdated geopolitical imaginaries or entertain an out-sized faith in technology. Kaldor is, as with her earlier paradigmatic work on the “new wars,” a committed adherent to the human security approach: the idea that the changing nature of war means that conflict needs to be read through the lens of the individual and their (lack of) access to essentials and political process rather than through the lens of state competition or territorial control.

The core insight of the text is that the sets of ideas and practices that organizations use to reconcile this gap—to come to a sense that they know how to “do” security—represent a security culture. A security culture “brings together objectives and practices” (p. 7). Kaldor’s argument is that there are four such cultures operating today, none of which effectively grasp the realities of insecurity even though they authorize particular kinds of intervention and military action; they each create a security gap. These are a geopolitical culture that foregrounds great-power relations and is largely a residue left by the Cold War, a new wars culture wherein civil society and citizens become the targets of warfare designed to enrich belligerents, a liberal peace culture caused by notions of humanitarianism and peace-building, and a culture of long-range assassination and surveillance wrought of the war on terror. Further, especially in the case of the latter culture, these can become self-serving logics in the sense that their application, mismatched as they are to the realities of insecurity, can exacerbate the very threats they are tasked to address.

Kaldor’s analysis should be read as making two provocative claims that ought to inspire further reflection and research but which are not fully elaborated in the text. One is that the liberal peace security culture is best equipped to address the reality of insecurity, but it has to date remained too wedded to traditional, geopolitical concepts of war and territorial considerations. She argues that the failure of the liberal peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina was due to international negotiators’ fixation on the allocation of territory between ethnic groups. The negotiation process actually strengthened (if not helped to create) ethnic divisions by denoting these groups as relevant parties and discussing their relative control of territory in a manner more suited to great power conflict than civil war. This incentivized rather than dissuaded inter-ethnic atrocities and violence, leaving the country fractured.

Kaldor’s argument should be taken seriously and fits well in the growing discussion about the increasingly contested division between diplomacy and warfare. Her argument, on this score, raises a series of interesting questions and distills the shortcomings of the liberal peace approach in a way that is unparalleled. Her point is nuanced in the sense that it can be read as illustrating how the mantra that diplomacy as such is a better way to manage contemporary conflict is shortsighted and requires more nuance. But her direct engagement with the case itself is a small, observational point of the text. Further, she offers little beyond a conceptual sketch of what non-geopolitical diplomacy does (or would) look like in practice.

The second provocative claim she makes, which will be of more direct interest to those in strategic studies and readers of SSQ, is her contention that the War on Terror culture has become self-reinforcing. Disenchanted with counterinsurgency operations, largely because they are also a form of military action that creates a security gap, Western military planners have moved toward a counterterrorism strategy tied to private contractors, special forces raids, and “assassinations” via drones. These means cause instability, drive the recruitment of insurgents and terrorists, and, in a roundabout way, actually create the threats that justify these means. In many ways this is the least novel aspect of her text given that this is a well-trodden critique. What is thought provoking is that this culture is set against the other security cultures creating something she calls “hybrid war.” Ukraine and Syria are provided as examples. Conceptually, this is an interesting schematic for thinking about why contemporary security threats seem to be so decentralized and unclear from the perspective of military affairs. Again, however, the text remains theoretical and offers little on how warfare can be more effectively used.

In sum, Kaldor’s argument is in many ways enviable— she has taken an expansive set of literatures, set them against each other in insightful ways, and provided a highly useful conceptual framework. However, what practices should follow from these insights are not the priority of the text, and it therefore will speak more directly to theorists. This is a bit of a disappointment given the potential for further elaboration that comes embedded in this work. More direct engagement with doctrinal planning, operational designs, and tactics would perhaps have deepened this part of the argument and made it more likely that practitioners would read it and be ceased by its argument. These are, however, precisely the people who would benefit from reading the book.

Jack Adam MacLennan


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."