A decade and more ago, the human security doctrine was all the rage. Books, conferences, and even the foreign policy platforms of some governments were organized around it.
Today, while some embers still glow, the fire is out.
From the very beginning, some analysts, mainly, but not exclusively those subscribing to the realist school of international relations, were skeptical about an approach which seemed to them mushy and vacuous. Human security was seen as a thinly veiled excuse for reducing expenditures on international policy tools generally, and on traditional security instruments, such as the military and intelligence agencies, in particular.
Still, for much of the 1990s human security withstood the criticism, and indeed enjoyed significant prominence in the broader discourse.
A decade later, little remains.
An explanation of at least part of the mystery may lie in the relationship between domestic and international politics. In Canada, which had been one of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for human security, the disappearence of official reference to the concept coincided with changes in political leadership that occurred around the turn of the century. Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s successors, beginning with John Manley and Bill Graham, acting in a pattern which is both familiar and understandable, wanted to put some political space between themselves and their high-profile predecessor. As a result, official Canadian support for what had come to be known as the human security agenda, always controversial, gradually withered.
Public diplomacy, the technique which was relied upon to move that agenda, later took a similar hit.
That said, in international relations single factors rarely tell the full story, and in this case, too, forces much greater than changes in the Canadian political firmament were in play.
For starters, the definition of human security was always rather vague and contested. There was real tension between those seeking to limit the application of the doctrine to considerations related to the freedom from fear (ending war, building peace, furnishing emergency assistance) and those who preferred to include as well the more sweeping aspect of freedom from want (disasters, disease, and underdevelopment more generally).
That debate remains unresolved.
Secondly, the human security approach was never very evenly applied, and when it was attempted, the results often differed. Human security imperatives were ignored in the case of the international community’s failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda, and they are still overlooked in Darfur. Humanitarian interventions in Somalia and Bosnia (Srebrenica), on the other hand, ended in disaster. The one case study which might be judged a success, East Timor, was small scale, expensive, and has not been replicated since.
So, the record is mixed. And the reputation of the term has not been helped by its appropriation – if not hijacking – from time to time by certain parties in support of military intercessions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Among many contributing elements, however, it was the cathartic events of 9/11 and subsequent launching of the Global War on Terror which achieved most in terms of bringing concerns about the protection of the nation-state front and centre. Suddenly, hard security was back, and its primacy has been largely unchallenged since. Almost overnight international policy was re-militarized, and infused with aggressive new theories such as pre-emptive defense. Not only was the world deprived once and for all of the much-anticipated peace dividend, but 9/11 also restored defense departments, the arms industries, and the vast edifice which supports them to the pre-eminent position which all had enjoyed throughout the Cold War.
Threat conjuring and the politics of fear returned, big time, and human security has yet to recover.
In Guerrilla Diplomacy, I argue that in the age of globalization, development and security, like underdevelopment and insecurity, are fused. The challenge for policy-makers now is to find a way to insert diplomacy into the spaces between the two – spaces now occupied physically, intellectually, and in terms of resource allocation, by defense.
The human security doctrine, even if the time is not yet ripe for its rehabilitation, offers diplomats some useful insights towards that end. And it is that critical component of development to which we will presently turn.