The Key Drivers of Human Security Discourse and the Challenge to Realism

By Stephen James
Cornell International Affairs Review
2011, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |

The enormous financial cost of maintaining and upgrading military force for any one state has led to what Camilleri calls the "transnationalization of defence" in relation, for example, to the production of military hardware and the pursuit of research and development. Obviously, waging war causes loss of life, injury, anxiety and trauma to many people, often aggravated by national conscription schemes.16

Michael Sheehan, drawing upon the work of Mary Kaldor and Lawrence Freedman, has identified aspects of "new wars" that challenge the simplistic model of interstate, nationalistic, territorial battles between regular forces in defence of their nations' security. War increasingly involves many non-state actors (for example, mercenaries, advisers, media representatives, humanitarian NGOs and INGOS); campaigns fought in cyberspace and via worldwide media; weaker parties in asymmetrical wars trying to shock and demoralize their opponents' publics (the Mogadishu effect) rather than necessarily to seize state power, or even to ‘win'; the outsourcing and privatization of military functions, including logistics, security, equipment and training; cultural motivations, such as fighting for a religious cause and/or to resist Western secularism; sub-state threats from, for instance, militias, paramilitaries, criminals, warlords, tribes, and security TNCs; and the decentralized funding of war through kidnappings, money laundering and the trafficking of drugs, arms, and people.17

Consistent with these conclusions about new warfare, James Kiras's work has demonstrated that globalization, particularly the emergence of new technologies, has made terrorist actions and messages by non-state actors more efficient, mobile, simultaneous, instantaneous, widespread and destructive than the first phase of international terrorism of the 1960s. Al Qaeda, for example, has been described as a global network of franchise operations that uses the media, the internet, "distance learning," improved transport systems and personal electronics, local sympathizers and "homegrown" terrorists to threaten and carry out simultaneous attacks in different parts of the world.18

The globalization of the economy and associated technologies, including those affecting transportation and the carrying of goods, have also reduced the importance of territorial space and challenged the economic, social and political security and autonomy of nation-states. This trend is only emphasized by the ongoing ramifications of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

As Jan Art Scholte has argued, there has been, first, an increased volume of money, goods, people and investments crossing borders (internationalization). Second, national borders have become more open, partly in response to neoliberal pressures and prescriptions from the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other bodies (liberalization). Third, borders are often transcended in regard to trade and finance (the "transborder economy"). These supraterritorial and "transplanetary" tendencies, to use Scholte's labels, have rendered the notion of isolated national economies under the absolute direction of their governments fictitious.19

With regard to trade, we may note, for example, the following features:

  • the prominence of "transborder production" the global sourcing of components and labour, worldwide factories, trade within global TNCs, preferential economic zones such as the maquiladora region in Mexico–USA.20
  • the phenomenon of "regulatory arbitration": global TNCs leveraging states by threatening to move their operations elsewhere.21
  • the challenges of extraterritoriality and the conflict of laws that reduce the relevance and impact of national jurisdiction and regulation.22
  • the rise of global, remote electronic commerce (for example, eBay, Amazon Books).

These developments can reduce the capacity of states to enforce human rights (for example, privacy and labour standards) and environmental standards, as well as their criminal laws (for example, regarding pedophilic pornography on the internet).

The impact of the globalization of finance was notoriously on display during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and with the onset and ramifications of the GFC in 2008. Some important aspects of the globalization of finance include23:

  • the globalization of money and credit arrangements: the ubiquity of the nowdeclining US dollar and "dollarization," the Euro, foreign exchange dealing, smart and credit cards.
  • "[t]ransplanetary banking": transborder deposits and loans, global instantaneous electronic funds transfers between banks.
  • global securities and investment: "transplanetary securities" such as euroequities, Eurobonds; global funds 24hour global, electronic trading of bonds, shares, derivatives, futures and options; the influence of investors on regulation.

Additionally, globalization is evident in the spread of human rights, in the rise of new transnational social movements, such as the peace movement, in the dramatic increase in the number of NGOs and in the ways that mass travel and almost instantaneous transborder communication foster these developments. Thus, so the argument goes, more of us might become empathic cosmopolitans and be more sensitive to the welfare of strangers in distant lands.24

And yet Scholte is right to emphasize, in response to the "hyperglobalists," that economic "globalization has repositioned the (territorial) state" rather than brought about its extinction. The state continues to be an important economic actor, participating in, rather than simply passively affected by, global processes. Economic globalization has been uneven, territorial space remains significant (for example, with regard to manufacturing, retail banking, locally-based corporations and national stock), and state decisions can affect the impact of globalization by regulating money flows, interest rates, TNCs, offshore finance and standards relating to human rights, labour and the environment.25

Nevertheless, human security discourse illuminates many features of global politics, economy and culture that traditional realists miss when they myopically focus on relations between sovereign states.


Now based in the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University, Dr Stephen James studied Arts and Law at the University of Melbourne before completing a PhD in Politics at Princeton University, where he was a Princeton Wilson Fellow and Lecturer. In 2006, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance at Griffith University. He is the author of Universal Human Rights: Origins and Development (New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2007), edits the journal Global Change, Peace and Security and is on the Editorial Review Board of Human Rights & Human Welfare. He can be contacted at


This article, in revised form, is drawn from a larger working paper: "Human Security: Key Drivers, Antecedents and Conceptualization." (Working Paper No. 1, Institute for Human Security, La Trobe University, 2010: <>). The research was supported by a research fellowship in the Institute for Human Security, La Trobe University funded by the Australian Research Council and the Australian Academy of Social Sciences. I also thank the editor of CIAR for his valuable suggestions.


  1. Dan Oakes, “Defence Spending Questioned,” The Age (Melbourne), 10 March 2010, 2.
  2. See Stephen James, “Human Security: Key Drivers, Antecedents and Conceptualization.” (Working Paper No. 1, Institute for Human Security, La Trobe University, 2010: <>).
  3. For a very useful introduction to the range of theoretical perspectives on human security, see the special issue of Security Dialogue 35, no. 3 (September 2004).
  4. Pauline Kerr, The Evolving Dialectic between State-centric and Human-centric Security, Working Paper 2003/2, Department of International Relations, Australian National University, Canberra (September 2003).
  5. Commission on Human Security, Human Security Now (New York: Commission on Human Security, 2003), iv, 2, 4.
  6. Ibid., 6, 9, 12, and passim.
  7. See Mike Sheehan, “The Changing Character of War,” John Baylis, “International and Global Security,” Ngaire Woods, “International Political Economy in an Age of Globalization,” Richard Little, “International Regimes,” Peter Willetts, “Transnational Actors and International Organizations in Global Politics,” John Vogler, “Environmental Issues,” James T. Kiras, “Terrorism and Globalization,” Edward Best and Thomas Christiansen, “Regionalism in International Affairs,” Jan Aart Scholte, “Global Trade and Finance,” Caroline Thomas, “Poverty, Development, and Hunger,” and Ian Clark, “Globalization and the Post-Cold War Order,” in John Baylis, Steve Smith and Patricia Owens (eds), The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations 4th edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Chs 12, 13, 14, 17, 19, 20, 21, 25, 26, 27, 32; Joseph A. Camilleri, “Security: Old Dilemmas and New Challenges in the Post-Cold War Environment,” Geojournal 34, no. 2 (October 1994): 134–145; Joseph A. Camilleri and Jim Falk, The End of Sovereignty? The Politics of a Shrinking and Fragmenting World (Aldershot, Hants: Edward Elgar, 1992); Steven Slaughter, “Globalisation and its Critics,” in Richard Devetak, et al. (eds), An Introduction to International Relations: Australian Perspectives (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Ch 25.
  8. I thank Joseph Camilleri for the structure employed here to examine the drivers of the development of the human security concept.
  9. Willetts, “Transnational Actors,” 332.
  10. Ibid., 332–334.
  11. Camilleri, “Security,” 139–143, and generally Camilleri and Falk, The End of Sovereignty?; Willetts, “Transnational Actors.”
  12. Willetts, “Transnational Actors,” 331–332.
  13. Scholte, “Global Trade and Finance”; Camilleri, “Security”; Slaughter, “Globalisation.”
  14. Slaughter, “Globalisation,” 303; Camilleri, “Security,” 139–144; Scholte, “Global Finance and Trade,” 452; Best and Christiansen, “Regionalism”; Willetts, “Transnational Actors.”
  15. Camilleri, “Security,” 136–138.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Sheehan, “The Changing Character of War”; Willetts, “Transnational Actors,” 337.
  18. Kiras, “Terrorism”; Willetts, “Transnational Actors,” 338.
  19. Scholte, “Global Trade and Finance,” 453–461; Camilleri, “Security,” 140–141; Woods, “International Political Economy”; Willetts, “Transnational Actors,” 335.
  20. Scholte, “Global Trade and Finance,” 457–458.
  21. Willetts, “Transnational Actors,” 335; Woods, “International Political Economy,” 253.
  22. Ibid., 336.
  23. In what follows, I rely on Scholte, “Global Trade and Finance,” 459–462.
  24. I thank Robyn Eckersley for drawing my attention to these concerns.
  25. Scholte, 453, 462, 466; Slaughter, “Globalisation,” 295–296 (on hyperglobalism).

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