Security for Whom? The Case for a Decolonial IR

Photo Credit: London School of Economics Department of Government Blogpost

The United States is coming to a crossroads today. With COVID-19 killing more people every day and Black Lives Matter protests happening all around the U.S., the conversation about systemic racism is more relevant than ever. Academics highlight the need to address the diversity of opinions in academic programs. Schools and universities are opening the conversation with experts and students in attempts to decolonize education through the introduction of spaces, resources and dialogues among all members of the university on how to envision different cultures and knowledge systems in the curriculum. The field of International Relations (IR) is at the center of this debate. Traditional IR theories have, for long, been introduced as the core of our understanding of the ways in which countries interact with one another. Realism, liberalism and constructivism all bring certain perspectives to the fore. However, today, many experts and scholars have warned against the dangers of teaching only those traditional theories. Postcolonial IR theory is a good way to analyze the limitations of our current leading theories. By highlighting the shortfalls of traditional security theories, such as realism and liberalism, critical security theories have emerged to fill in the gaps and produce theoretical explanations that are more applicable to diverse societies across the world.

Explaining IR as It Stands

One of the main critiques of mainstream IR theories is their ethnocentrism. Amitav Acharya, a Professor of International Relations at American University and eminent scholar of postcolonial theory, uses Ken Booth’s definition of ethnocentrism (“the inability to see the world through the eyes of another”)[i] to show that most theories of IR produced so far have only focused on the interests of the United States, or at least the “West.”[ii] Among other eminent scholars, Vivienne Jabri, Tarek Barkawi, Mark Laffey, Lee Jarvis and Jack Holland discuss the shortcomings and dangers of trying to create all-encompassing theories that only relate to certain parts of the world. One important strength of their work is the causal effect they draw between the historical context that led to the emergence of theories such as realism and their popularity. Postcolonial theory teaches us how the hegemony of political realism in the Cold War era led to a shift in focus from individuals to states in security studies discourse.[iii] Because the scholars of this movement were Anglo-American and focused on great power competition, this led to the framing of security threats in relation to their own experience and history in terms of war and society.[iv] There was this strong conviction that the stage of world politics was mostly located in Europe or “the Global North,”[v] because it was where power was centralized, and that their experience of the world was everyone’s.

The Consequences of the Absence of Postcolonial Literature

The world is not only made of and for the Global North, however. It is much more complex and diverse, which is why postcolonial theorists argue the importance of diversifying scholarship to promote a more holistic understanding of the consequences and situations that lead to war and peace. Adopting a solely Eurocentric approach is dangerous: it causes scholars to dismiss important dynamics in conflicts and provides a distorted narrative of history. For example, the view that Europe is separate from its colonies and self-producing, renders invisible the mutual constitution of core and periphery that is characteristic of great powers.[vi] Eurocentrism also overlooks the agency of non-state actors that falls outside the scope of realism, like the undeniably important role that the late Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro played in the Cuban Missile Crisis,[vii] and finally, it maintains the boundaries between “us,” the Global North, and “them,” the rest of the world.[viii] Power dynamics and uneven relations are central to security debates, but they become completely invisible in Eurocentric writings, such as Foucault’s writings on the Iranian revolution.[ix] Imperialism is used by both Barkawi and Jabri to exemplify the limits of Eurocentric approaches– by failing to acknowledge the consequences of imperialism on colonized countries and denying them autonomy, great colonial powers did not realize they were alienating populations and creating new enemies.

Waleed Hazbun, Professor of Political Science at the University of Alabama, gives us a good example of this ethnocentrism when analyzing Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s speeches in 2009 and 2011. He argues that even though Obama’s recognition of Arab states’ “self-determination” was seen as revolutionary in US foreign policy, it was only an adaptation to evolving U.S. interests in the region.[x] By centering his discourse around America, Obama proved how US-centric his interests were. It exemplifies this construction of the Arab world as “the other” by positing “American values” as opposed to “Muslim values,” creating two different blocs of ideas and values. This is why Hazbun asserts the need for postcolonial approaches to analyze and understand international relations from a multipolar perspective rather than an ethnocentric one.

The Role of Security Studies Programs

One of the classes offered at the Georgetown Security Studies Program (SSP) is “International Security,” which requires students to read a text including the following excerpt: “Whose security? Our focus in this book is on security as it is conceived in the developed world. We are in other words primarily concerned with the meaning of security in advanced market democracies…Our focus is, in part, a simple reflection of the fact that we ourselves live in the developed world.”[xi] Approaches like these, despite being honest, prove problematic in a class on international security. The failure to integrate and write for larger audiences prevents us from acquiring a holistic understanding of the different dynamics in security.

Jarvis and Holland ask a crucial question: “security by whom and for whom?”[xii] Without postcolonial theory and other critical theories produced by the Copenhagen or the Welsh schools, we cannot fathom the idea that security might mean something for different people, and how certain institutions of the security apparatus can be oppressive and synonymous with danger for certain individuals. The death of George Floyd because of police brutality ends up being dismissed as irrelevant to the discipline of Security Studies if we do not teach and are not taught that systemic racism within security forces exists and remains a critical issue. What we teach and what we omit from the curricula is of central importance, as it determines what is relevant and what is not. If, in programs designed to provide expertise in the field of security, certain issues are not raised, such as the intersection of race and security, or how colonization deeply changed the relationships between countries, these will never be a consideration for the future policymakers enrolled in those programs, and systemic racism will remain a critical national security problem. Moving certain issues outside of the “Security Studies” discipline is highly symbolic. Georgetown University is a good example, where a class on “Critical and Human Security,” taught by Dr. Marwa Daoudy who introduced me to postcolonial literature, is part of the Arab Studies program and not offered in the Security Studies Module list. The lack of critical theories in the foundations of a security studies program hinders our ability to understand the relevance of realities such as racism when faced with security challenges.

By reviewing the different trends in Critical Security Theories and their development since the end of the Cold War, David Mutimer, a Professor at York University whose research focuses on critical social theory, argues that there is a very broad range of different schools of thought we can learn from.[xiii] By seeking to make changes from the present situation in order to free the oppressed in the future, critical theories aim to emancipate individuals from the chains of mainstream, ethnocentric approaches. “Gatecrashers” are individuals willing to emancipate themselves from exclusionary theories. Everyone in the security field, especially at the university level, ought to be a gatecrasher.


[i] Ken Booth. (1991). “Security and Emancipation”. Review of International Studies. 17(4): 313-326.

[ii] Amitav Acharya. (2000). “Ethnocentrism and Emancipatory IR Theory”, in Samantha Arnold and J. Marshall Bier, eds. Displacing Security, Toronto: Centre for International and Security Studies, York University, pp. 1-18.

[iii] Lee Jarvis and Jack Holland, Security: A Critical Introduction (New York/Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), Introduction & Chapter 1 (What is Security): 1-20; 21-67.

[iv] Tarek Barkawi and Mark Laffey. (2006). “The Postcolonial Moment in Security Studies”. Review of International Studies, 32(2), p.331.

[v] Barkawi and Laffey, p. 335.

[vi] Barkawi and Laffey, p.346.

[vii] Barkawi and Laffey, p.329.

[viii] Jarvis and Holland, p.1.

[ix] Vivienne Jabri. (2007). “Michel Foucault’s Analytics of War: The Social, the International, and the Racial.” International Political Sociology, 1: 79.

[x] Walid Hazbun. (2013). “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Challenge of Postcolonial Agency: International Relations, US Policy and the Arab World” in Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies, ed. by G. Huggan, Oxford University Press, pp. 217-234.

[xi] Dan Caldwell and Robert Williams. Seeking Security in an Insecure World (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,2005). p.4.

[xii] Jarvis and Holland, p.3.

[xiii] David Mutimer, “Critical Security Studies” in The Routledge Handbook of Security Studies, ed. Myriam Dunn Cavelty and Victor Mauer (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 45-55.

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