The evolution of state and global security

Major essay written for POLS5130: International Peace & Security at the University of New South Wales, Semester 2 2014. Final mark: Distinction

Drawing on your own analysis of a case study, explain the meaning of security in contemporary global politics.


The term “security” has conventionally denoted the condition of a state being free from harm or threat (Devetak, et al 2012:499). Traditionally security concentrated on the sovereign state being free from threat by war waged by other states; a strongly realist interpretation that has informed foreign policy and the meaning of security in global politics (Evans & Newnham 1998:490). However, since the end of the Cold War, post-positivist schools of thought have challenged this and allowed for the theory and practice of security to include non-traditional ideas, such as human security and environmental security. This paper demonstrates that although there is no single definition of ‘security’, the concept remains strongly Western-centric and relies heavily on traditional interpretations of international relations, despite its evolution to include non-traditional agendas. Health and human security theories have been incorporated into the practice of global and statist security, but they are treated in a traditional manner. The meaning of security in contemporary global politics is exemplified by the international response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The purpose of this paper is not to pass judgement on, but rather to explain, that security still ultimately strives for an absence of threats to the sovereign state. This paper will first briefly discuss how classical values have been enriched by “new” values to inform the meaning of security. It will then investigate how health and human security concerns are treated in theory and in practice. This will lead into an exploration of how infectious diseases and epidemics, as non-traditional security threats, are securitised and dealt with in a traditional manner by predominantly Western states (McInnes & Lee 2006). An analysis of the international response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will demonstrate how security in contemporary global politics has evolved beyond its realist and traditional parameters, incorporating more ‘globalist perspective’ ideologies (Davies 2010) with the influence of non-government actors like the World Health Organisation and Médecins Sans Frontières. Ultimately, security remains Western-centric and steeped in classical values.

The evolution of security

The classical definition of “security” centres on concepts of states and sovereignty; that is, at its simplest definition, a nation’s security is determined by its ability to defend itself (Burke, in Devetak et al 2012:163). Although realist and liberal approaches to security differ, one thing that they have in common is their focus on the state, with little or no concern for individuals or a global perspective. However, the practice of security is never as clear-cut as theory suggests. Security in global politics is state-centric, but the classical values of security since the end of the Cold War have been enriched by ‘new’ values to inform the meaning of contemporary security. For example, the concept of human security, which emerged over the 1990s, is a theory that attempts to broaden the traditional idea of security from ‘national’ and ‘military’ to a more ‘people-centred’ perspective, in order to deal with the “multiple threats faced by ordinary people in an increasingly globalized world” (Chen & Narasimhan 2003:181). Realist and liberal theories do not consider non-military and non-state threats – such as disease, poverty, and environment – to be security issues. But how can a state be considered “secure” if it cannot protect its citizens from disease, injustice, or premature death? With the rise of human security theory, there is little doubt that the practice of security in contemporary global politics does indeed consider these issues to be threats to security; for example, HIV/AIDS has been securitised by the United States and other Western nations (Elbe 2006), and Western nations’ responses to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa adequately demonstrate the conflict between national interests and global security. Human and health security are without a doubt part of national security agendas – though treated very much in a traditional manner as opposed to their theoretical intents. In order to demonstrate that security in contemporary global politics still ultimately strives for an absence of threats, both traditional and non-traditional, to the sovereign state, health and human security concerns and their treatment in contemporary global politics is examined.

Human and health security theories are both considered relatively young schools of thought (Rushton 2011), however upon closer inspection there is “nothing new” about health as an international issue (McInnes & Lee 2006:5). The 1918 flu pandemic comes to mind – a disease that infected 500 million people and killed 3—5% of the world’s population at the time, making it one of the world’s most lethal natural catastrophes (Blainey 2005:392). Infectious diseases, unlike states, do not recognise sovereignty or the international system, and global attempts to halt the spread of disease pre-date the establishment of the World Health Organisation (McInnes & Lee 2006:5—6). Human security straddles liberal and critical approaches, shifting the focus of security from the state to the individual human being and incorporating a wide variety of concerns and possible threats to their personal security. One of these concerns is health, which is still “some way away” from a universally agreed definition (Rushton 2011:781). Health security, for some scholars, falls under the banner of human or global security – but despite the ‘global’ descriptor, the practice of health security seems to be far more in line with classical ideas of national and international security. In fact, McInnes and Lee agree that attention to health issues marks the successful attempt to move health beyond the global and development agenda into the realms of foreign and security policy agendas of Western states, and that the manner in which public health issues appear on foreign policy and security policy interests exposes more the concerns of state security than human security (2006:6—9). Health concerns are well and truly involved in the security policies of contemporary Western states – and although they have not replaced more traditional concerns like war and military defence, they are similarly treated in a classical manner.

Security in contemporary global politics has evolved beyond its conventional meaning. It remains a strongly Western concept, immersed in traditional ideas of warfare and state boundaries, but it has evolved to include non-traditional threats, such as health security, and adopts other human security-related ideas to fit the mould of the statist perspective rather than the global. An example of this is exemplified by Western states securitising epidemics.


Securitising health, epidemics, and infectious diseases

When an infectious disease securitised – that is, is framed as a security issue – it is typically lent a sense of “urgency” wherein it is not just presented by officials as a health or development issue, but is highly politicised as a matter of national security (Elbe 2006:120). The process of securitising epidemics or pandemics allows it to obtain political interest and financial resources usually associated with more traditional concepts of security by the state in question, not unlike how a state would react to war (Selgelid & Enemark 2008:457). Such a response to an infectious disease is not unfounded. After all, an infectious disease with a high mortality rate is certainly capable of threatening the existence of a society. Widespread epidemics can destabilise countries, destroy economies, and cause unprecedented amounts of fear and panic in populations. The Liberian Information Minister, Mr Lewis Brown, said on October 1 2014 “the effect of Ebola is being seen not just as a public health situation, but…also a political situation”; Liberia is just ten years out of conflict, and Ebola is “threatening” Liberia’s peace and security (The Epoch Times 2014, p.8). Identifying appropriate responses to epidemics are not just for scientific judgement; they are subject to political and ethical assessment (Selgelid & Enemark 2008:457). Thus, emergency measures are required to address the situation, resulting in securitisation of health, infectious diseases, and epidemics.

But whose security is it? Although Ebola has not properly reached Western states, as of October 2014, there is no doubt the virus is causing security concerns. President Obama on October 14 declared Ebola to be a “national security threat” to the US (The Daily Telegraph 2014, p.24), and numerous Australian newspapers and media outlets are identifying the virus to be a threat to national security while the government is hesitant to send aid (Uhlmann 2014). HIV/AIDS, SARS, and other highly infectious diseases over the past decade have been responded to in a similar manner. The alarm over lethal infectious diseases is understandable from a security policy perspective, as there is no doubt of the risks an outbreak poses to domestic populations and economies. But whilst the World Health Organization is stressing the need to approach this outbreak from a global perspective (WHO 2014), Western countries – despite some sending aid – have securitised the virus on a national level. Rushton rightly states that most of the diseases framed as major security threats in the West are endemic in parts of the developing world (2011:780). The spread of deadly epidemic infectious from primarily African countries “heightened” concerns of Western countries over fears of risks to the health and economic well-being of their citizens; ultimately, the securitisation of infectious diseases reveals the concerns of Western politics are often times greater that the concerns of global public health, and the “global health agenda” is “inappropriately skewed” towards the West over developing countries and the areas where diseases are already endemic (McInnes & Lee 2006:8—12).

The securitisation of infectious diseases involves actions taken by predominantly Western states for the interest of Western states. Although the concept of health security is derived from human security theory, the treatment of health security is highly politicised and transformed into matters concerning the state’s sense of security – that is, freedom from threat. Security theory and practice has evolved, but despite the influence of globalist perspectives and human security theory in contemporary global politics, security remains strongly state-centric and Western-centric. An analysis of the ongoing international response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa will demonstrate this.


The international response to the Ebola outbreak – State vs Global

“You can’t fight off Ebola the way you fight off a cold. Ebola does in ten days what it takes AIDS ten years to accomplish.” (Preston 1994:86.) This, if nothing else, is one of the reasons why Ebola has been so heavily securitised by Western states. The virus is fast and the outbreak currently in West Africa is due to a newly identified strain of Ebola, one that has a 50% mortality rate. Such a virus requires swift action, and populations need protection from it. In 1994, Richard Preston wrote that the Ebola virus had “not yet made a decisive, irreversible breakthrough into the human race” but noted that it had emerging in “microbreaks” in Africa (1994:85). His concern was that a microbreak would develop into an epidemic, and given the mortality rate, “the possibilities were global.” (Preston 1994:85). His prediction seems to be a reality: the 2014 ongoing outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is the largest outbreak of the virus ever recorded. Over the past 38 years since the discovery of the virus, 24 outbreaks in Africa have been recorded by the World Health Organization – and none of those outbreaks exceeded 500 cases.

The international response to the current Ebola outbreak has been substandard at best, and has been subject to heavy scrutiny by the World Health Organization and Médecins Sans Frontières, amongst other non-government organisations. The first recorded case was in December 2013, though the outbreak did not become of international concern until the case numbers and death rate spiked in the past few months. As of October 2014, there are approximately 9000 cases of Ebola recorded and over 4500 deaths (WHO 2014). Interestingly, the WHO and other NGOs are attempting to securitise the outbreak at a global level by fear-mongering a global and humanitarian response to the Ebola outbreak, a technique that has been traditionally employed by states seeking to securitise an issue. The WHO claimed that the virus outbreak would reach Europe by the end of the year, and in mid-October released another statement warning that “new cases could reach 10,000 a week by December” (Sengupta 2014). The use of language is an example of how a threat is securitised in a traditional manner; fear, politicisation, and the urging of governments to approve emergency measures to address the situation. The WHO’s securitisation of Ebola appears to have had an effect; the United States, in addition to increasing their border security measures and hospital guidelines, is sending 3000 troops – including engineers and medical personnel – to West Africa to aid in halting the spread of the virus, though notably the White House said that service members would not be “responsible for direct patient care” (ABC 2014). This speaks of the concerns of Western state; that is, viewing security as primarily being in their own state’s best interests. Australia has reacted somewhat differently to the US. The government announced Australia would provide $2.5 million to the WHO, $2.5 million to Médecins Sans Frontières, and $2 million to support the United Kingdom’s delivery of front-line medical services (ABC 2014), but as of 22 October there is no plan to send Australian personnel, troops or medical, to physically aid the outbreak in West Africa. The government’s reasoning for their lack of direct action is because there is “no current capacity to evacuate Australians in the region to safety if they contract the virus”, and Labor leader Bill Shorten was accused of “reckless disregard” for the safety of health workers by calling for Australians to help contain and fight the virus in West Africa without a credible evacuation policy in place (Cheng & Maiden 2014, p. 15). Although the global threat to human security is well known, Australia’s hesitation to make a commitment to the aid effort in West Africa is due to deeply embedded ideas of security: the nation’s security and its citizens are placed above global security.

The international response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa encapsulates the meaning of security in contemporary global politics almost perfectly. Security in contemporary global politics is still largely traditional in practice. Non-traditional threats to security are treated, and dealt, within traditional parameters, however there can be no doubt that the contemporary meaning of security is in a constant state of growth and has evolved from the traditional (and predominant) realist definitions at the urging of non-state actors such as WHO and Médecins Sans Frontières. There is a desire to approach security with a more globalist perspective, but it may be some time before such thinking, or practice, becomes a reality.



Does the international community not have a responsibility to aid the victims of Ebola in West Africa? Do sovereign states not have a responsibility to themselves and their own citizens to halt the spread of the virus before it spirals out of control? What good are realist concepts of “self-help” and non-intervention when Ebola, and other infectious diseases of high lethality, are incapable of understanding sovereignty and state borders? If there could be up to 10 000 cases of Ebola diagnosed per week by December 2014 it could spread to Europe by the end of the year unless there are global efforts to contain it, does that not require states to de-securitise the virus on a state level and act on globalist health concerns instead? These are questions that deserve answers, but, much like the definition of security in contemporary global politics, the ‘right’ answers are not so easy to come up with.

Selgelid and Enemark consider that the bar for disease securitisation should be set high, in order to limit the context to involving rapidly spreading pathogens (2008:464). Ebola certainly falls under this category. As such, Australia’s hesitation to respond to the outbreak of Ebola should not be considered illegitimate, though it should be subject to analysis. Australia’s physical global position is, as pointed out by Andrew Bolt, too far away to safely bring home any health workers who may contract the virus – and there is no guaranteed high-quality hospital care from Australia’s allies closer to West Africa (Bolt 2014). Given the nature of this particular virus, would Australian doctors and nurses be able to do all that much to stop the spread of the disease? Humanitarian assistance, although desirable from a human security perspective, will still put individuals at risk who might not otherwise have ever been at risk. As of 22 October 2014, the World Health Organisation declared Nigeria clear of the virus. In light of Nigeria’s success in containing the outbreak, Bolt argues that the only way to stop the spread of the virus is to encourage authorities in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to take control, and that Australia’s best contribution would be to help develop a vaccine or cure rather than sending personnel (Bolt 2014).

McInnes and Lee write that the state focus is “problematic” from a global public health perspective (2006:12); Evans and Newnham argue in favour of humanitarian assistance, stating that it should be viewed “not as a voluntary act of charity, but as a legal requirement” (1998:231). Although the securitisation of infectious diseases in order to protect a state’s population is not unreasonable, the international community ought to bear in mind that no individual government can guarantee a secure national situation or produce an effective response to epidemics (Frenk & Gómez-Dantés 2010:150). To address epidemics, and particularly the current Ebola outbreak, international collective action is essential. The world has worked together in the interest of global health and human security in the past. One of the most successful international actions was the eradication of smallpox (Frenk & Gómez-Dantés 2010:150). Weiss describes the elimination of smallpox as “perhaps the most spectacular illustration of why moving beyond narrow conceptions [of security] ultimately will better satisfy national interests” (2012:154). Why has the same not been done for Ebola? Perhaps because no cure or vaccination for the virus currently exists, the threat of further exposure to states is greater than the current situation. Global security and state security concepts are at odds with each other, and there is no single or ‘right’ answer.

There can be no doubt that security in contemporary global politics remains highly politicised and highly traditional in nature, relying on concepts of state and sovereignty. However it is also clear that security has evolved, and continues to evolve, to include non-traditional values in its definition.



Security in contemporary global politics is complex and often times contentious. The very essence of the word “security” is almost inseparable from politics (Booth 2014:60). It is Western-centric and possibly too broad to be adequately defined or handled, either by individuals, states, or the international community. However, through an analysis of the international response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the meaning of security in contemporary global politics can be marginally discerned. Contemporary security is embodied by a multitude of different schools of thought: realist, liberal, and human security theory. Contemporary security is capable of recognising non-traditional threats, and although it has evolved beyond the canon theories it still relies heavily on classical interpretations. Health and human security theories have been incorporated into the practice of global and statist security, but they are treated very much in a traditional manner. Epidemics, such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak, are taken out of the global context by states and securitised, demonstrating how ‘new’ values are taken to fit the mould of traditional security theory and practice. The international response to the outbreak has been varied, but ultimately telling of the contested meaning of security in contemporary global politics. Security, despite its evolution to include and accept non-traditional values, ultimately means to protect the state from external and internal threat. Security is largely traditional and Western-centric, and in today’s world it still ultimately strives for an absence of threats to the sovereign state. However, it is capable of recognising global security threats and appears to express a conflicted desire to approach security from a more global, human security perspective.



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