Hostname: page-component-797576ffbb-5676f Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-12-02T10:55:10.344Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Reconstructing desecuritisation: the normative-political in the Copenhagen School and directions for how to apply it

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 November 2011


The concept of desecuritisation – the move of an issue out of the sphere of security – has been the subject of heated international political theory debate and adopted in case studies across a range of sectors and settings. What unites the political theory and the applied literature is a concern with the normative-political potential of desecuritisation. This article documents the political status and content of desecuritisation through four readings: one which shows how desecuritisation is a Derridarian supplement to the political concept of securitisation; one which traces the understanding of the public sphere's ability to rework the friend-enemy distinction; one which emphasises the role of choice, responsibility, and decisions; and one which uncovers the significance of the historical context of Cold War détente. The last part of the article provides a reading of the varied use of desecuritisation in applied analysis and shows how these can be seen as falling into four forms of desecuritisation. Each of the latter identifies a distinct ontological position as well as a set of more specific political and normative questions.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2011

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Buzan, Barry, Wæver, Ole and de Wilde, Jaap, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1998), pp. 4, 29Google Scholar.

2 See, for example, Huysmans, Jef, ‘The Question of the Limit: Desecuritisation and the Aesthetics of Horror in Political Realism’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 27:3 (1998), pp. 569–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Williams, Michael C., ‘Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics’, International Studies Quarterly, 47:4 (2003), pp. 511–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Aradau, Claudia, ‘Security and the Democratic Scene: Desecuritization and Emancipation’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 7:4 (2004), pp. 388413CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Alker, Hayward R., ‘On Securitization Politics as Contexted Texts and Talk’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 9:1 (2006), pp. 7080CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Aradau, Claudia, ‘Limits of Security, Limits of Politics? A Response’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 9:1 (2006), pp. 8190CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Behnke, Andreas, ‘No Way Out: Desecuritization, Emancipation and the Eternal Return of the Political – A Reply to Aradau’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 9:1 (2006), pp. 62–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Taureck, Rita, ‘Securitization Theory and Securitization Studies’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 9:1 (2006), pp. 5361CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Wæver, Ole, ‘The EU as a Security Actor: Reflections From a Pessimistic Constructivist on Post-Sovereign Security Orders’, in Kelstrup, Morten and Williams, Michael C. (eds), International Relations Theory and the Politics of European Integration (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 250–94Google Scholar; Roe, Paul, ‘Securitization and Minority Rights: Conditions of Desecuritization’, Security Dialogue, 35:3 (2004), pp. 279–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jutila, Matti, ‘Desecuritizing Minority Rights: Against Determinism’, Security Dialogue, 37:2 (2006), pp. 167–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Roe, Paul, ‘Reconstructing Identities or Managing Minorities? Desecuritizing Minority Rights: A Response to Jutila’, Security Dialogue, 37:3 (2006), pp. 425–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Floyd, Rita, ‘Towards a Consequentialist Evaluation of Security: Bringing Together the Copenhagen School of Security Studies and the Welsh School of Security Studies’, Review of International Studies, 33:2 (2007), pp. 327–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Åtland, Kristian, ‘Mikhail Gorbachev, the Murmansk Initiative, and the Desecuritization of Interstate Relations in the Arctic’, Cooperation and Conflict, 43:3 (2008), pp. 289311CrossRefGoogle Scholar; MacKenzie, Megan, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization: Female Soldiers and the Reconstruction of Women in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone’, Security Studies, 18:2 (2009), pp. 241–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Wæver, Ole, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, in Lipschutz, Ronnie D. (ed.), On Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 75Google Scholar. Page number refers to the reprinting of Wæver, , ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’ in Buzan, Barry and Hansen, Lene (eds), Sage Library of International Relations. International Security: Volume III – Widening Security (London: SAGE, 2007), pp. 6698Google Scholar.

5 Huysmans, ‘The Question of the Limit’, pp. 572–3. See also Roe, ‘Securitization and Minority Rights’, pp. 282–3.

6 Taureck, ‘Securitization Theory and Securitization Studies’, p. 59; Floyd, ‘Towards a Consequentialist Evaluation’, pp. 330, 335; Aradau, ‘Security and the Democratic Scene’, pp. 389–90 and 406; see also Williams, ‘Words, Images, Enemies’, p. 521. Floyd and Aradau are right that emancipation is refuted, but emancipation is not the only concept, through which a normative claim can be made. Floyd is also right, that Wæver describes ethical issues as the domain of ‘securitization studies’, but a possible distinction between securitisation studies and securitisation theory is not suggested elsewhere. As this article will show, if there is such a distinction, it must be one, that locates the former within the latter. Taureck, ‘Securitization Theory and Securitization Studies’, p. 55; Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, p. 252.

7 Huysmans, ‘The Question of the Limit’; Williams, ‘Words, Images, Enemies’; Behnke, ‘No Way Out’; Taureck, ‘Securitization Theory and Securitization Studies’, p. 59; Diez and Higashino, unpublished paper presented at BISA 2004, quoted by Taureck ‘Securitization Theory and Securitization Studies’, p. 59; Aradau, ‘Security and the Democratic Scene’, p. 396; Stritzel, Holger, ‘Towards a Theory of Securitization: Copenhagen and Beyond’, European Journal of International Relations, 13:3 (2007), pp. 357–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Floyd, Rita, Security and the Environment: Securitisation Theory and US Environmental Security Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 1417, 26–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jutila, ‘Desecuritizing Minority Rights’, pp. 172–4.

8 Buzan et al., Security, pp. 142–3; Floyd, Security and the Environment, p. 9.

9 Aras, Bülent and Polat, Rabia Karakaya, ‘From Conflict to Cooperation: Desecuritization of Turkey's Relations with Syria and Iran’, Security Dialogue, 39:5 (2008), pp. 495515CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Åtland, ‘Mikhail Gorbachev, the Murmansk Initiative’; MacKenzie, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’.

10 This conception is located within ‘the classical tradition that contains Machiavelli as well as Arendt’. Buzan et al., Security, p. 144.

11 Ibid., p. 143.

12 Ibid., p. 23.

13 Ibid., p. 4.

14 Ibid., p. 23.

15 Williams, Michael C., The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 112CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Williams identifies these themes in a discussion of Morgenthau, but they are, as this article will show, at the heart of debates over politics and security more generally.

16 Huysmans, ‘The Question of the Limit’; Williams, ‘Words, Images, Enemies’, pp. 516–17.

17 Huysmans, ‘The Question of the Limit’, p. 584.

18 Williams, ‘Words, Images, Enemies’, p. 518; see also Williams, The Realist Tradition.

19 Williams, ‘Words, Images, Enemies’, p. 520.

20 Buzan et al., Security, p. 143; Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, pp. 284, 286.

21 Owens, Patricia, Between War and Politics: International Relations and the Thought of Hannah Arendt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 25–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Williams, ‘Words, Images, Enemies’, p. 523.

23 Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, p. 252.

24 For a further discussion of speech act theory and the Copenhagen School, see Balzacq, Thierry, ‘The Three Faces of Securitization: Political Agency, Audience and Context’, European Journal of International Relations, 11:2 (2005), pp. 171201CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vuori, Juha A., ‘Illocutionary Logic and Strands of Securitization: Applying the Theory of Securitization to the Study of Non-Democratic Political Orders’, European Journal of International Relations, 14:1 (2008), pp. 6599CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976)Google Scholar.

26 Norris, Christopher, Derrida (London: Fontana, 1987), p. 66Google Scholar.

27 Ibid., p. 67.

28 Aradau holds that desecuritisation is ‘the necessary supplement or challenge to securitization’, but she does not see it as supplementary in Derridarian terms, but rather as ‘deprived of any political sting’. Aradau, ‘Security and the Democratic Scene’, pp. 405–6.

29 Thus, according to Nicole J. Jackson, securitisation theory is difficult to apply to authoritarian states, because of the absence of ‘normal politics’ in those settings. Jackson, Nicole J., ‘International Organizations, Security Dichotomies and the Trafficking of Persons and Narcotics in Post-Soviet Central Asia: A Critique of the Securitization Framework’, Security Dialogue, 37:3 (2006), pp. 299317, p. 312CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Buzan et al., Security, pp. 4, 23–4.

31 Ibid., p. 29. For a further discussion of the relationship between the securitised and the non-politicised, see Hansen, Lene and Nissenbaum, Helen, ‘Digital Disaster, Cyber Security, and the Copenhagen School’, International Studies Quarterly, 53:4 (2009), pp. 1155–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Floyd, Security and the Environment, pp. 56–7, who suggests conceptualising desecuritisation as falling into two categories: the politicised and the depoliticised.

32 Owens, Between War and Politics, p. 26.

33 Williams, ‘Words, Images, Enemies’, p. 523.

34 Risse, Thomas, ‘“Let's argue!”: Communicative Action in World Politics’, International Organization, 54:1 (2000), pp. 139, p. 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Buzan et al., Security, p. 27.

36 Boswell, Christina, ‘Migration Control in Europe After 9/11: Explaining the Absence of Securitization’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 45:3 (2007), pp. 589610, p. 606CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 Ibid.

38 Doty, Roxanne Lynn, ‘States of Exception on the Mexico-U.S. Border: Security, “Decisions,” and Civilian Border Patrols’, International Political Sociology, 1:2 (2007), pp. 113–37, p. 131CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, p. 262.

40 Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 25Google Scholar.

41 Buzan et al., Security, p. 27.

42 For a further discussion of the concept of audience in securitisation theory, see Balzacq, ‘The Three Faces of Securitization’; Stritzel, ‘Towards a Theory of Securitization’; McDonald, Matt, ‘Securitization and the Construction of Security’, European Journal of International Relations, 14:4 (2008), pp. 563–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Wæver, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, p. 75; Huysmas, ‘The Question of the Limit’, pp. 572–3.

44 Floyd, Security and the Environment, p. 27.

45 Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, p. 266.

46 Much of the debate about responsibility has centred on the role of the security analyst, but I would argue that the audience for Wæver's plea for responsibility is wider than that and includes all who might manifest themselves as securitising actors. Eriksson, Johan, ‘Observers or Advocates? On the Political Role of Security Analysts’, Cooperation and Conflict, 34:3 (1999), pp. 311–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wæver, Ole, ‘Securitizing Sectors? Reply to Eriksson’, Cooperation and Conflict, 34:3 (1999), pp. 334–40, p. 335CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Williams, Michael C., ‘The Practices of Security: Critical Contributions – Reply to Eriksson’, Cooperation and Conflict, 34:3 (1999), pp. 341–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, p. 253; Bilgin, Pinar, ‘Making Turkey's Transformation Possible: Claiming ‘Security- speak’ – not Desecuritization!’, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 7:4 (2007), pp. 555–71, p. 559CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, p. 285, emphasis added.

49 Wæver, ‘Securitizing Sectors?’, pp. 338–9; Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, p. 283.

50 Floyd, ‘Towards a Consequentialist Evaluation’.

51 Elbe, Stefan, ‘Should HIV/AIDS Be Securitized? The Ethical Dilemmas of Linking HIV/AIDS and Security’, International Studies Quarterly, 50:1 (2006), pp. 119–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 One should keep in mind though, holds Stefan Elbe, that the constitution of ‘disease management’ as a technical-bureaucratic ‘bio-political’ issue might be as problematic as an explicit securitisation. Elbe, Stefan, ‘AIDS, Security, Biopolitics’, International Relations, 19:4 (2005), pp. 403–19, pp. 404, 409CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Banac, Ivo, ‘The Fearful Asymmetry of War: The Causes and Consequences of Yugoslavia's Demise’, Dædalus, 121:2 (1992), pp. 141–74Google Scholar; Hayden, Robert M., ‘Balancing Discussion of Jasenovac and the Manipulation of History’, East European Politics and Societies, 6:2 (1992), pp. 207–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, pp. 282–5.

55 Walker, R. B. J., Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 7480Google Scholar.

56 Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, p. 283.

57 Ibid., 284.

58 Wæver, ‘Securitizing Sectors?’, p. 339. For an alternative normative theory which distinguishes between morally right and wrong securitisations and desecuritisations, see Floyd, Security and the Environment.

59 For an exception, see Floyd, Security and the Environment, p. 27, n. 58, and pp. 33–8.

60 Wæver's ‘Moments of the Move’ from 1989 is an early indication of the ‘theory in the background’ strategy of securitisation theory. Footnote 1 refers to an earlier, unpublished paper on ‘the political move’ in Aristotle, Machiavelli, and ‘especially Hannah Arendt’, yet the present paper will be ‘burdened as little as possible by philosophical and theoretical discussions’. Wæver, Ole, ‘Moment of the Move: Politico-Linguistic Strategies of Western Peace Movements’, Working Paper no. 1989/13 (Copenhagen: Centre for Peace and Conflict Research, 1989)Google Scholar, printed in Wæver, Ole, Concepts of Security (Copenhagen: Institute of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, 1997), pp. 183210, p. 186Google Scholar. This ‘theory in the background’ strategy might have contributed to the controversy over the status of securitisation as political theory. Alker, ‘On Securitization Politics’.

61 Wæver, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, p. 75.

62 Ibid., p. 77.

63 Ibid.

64 See for instance, Wæver, Ole, ‘Ideologies of Stabilization – Stabilization of Ideologies: Reading German Social Democrats’, in Harle, Vilho and Sivonen, Pekka (eds), Europe in Transition: Politics and Nuclear Strategy (London: Pinter, 1989), pp. 110–39Google Scholar; Wæver, Ole, ‘Conceptions of Détente and Change: Some Non-Military Aspects of Security Thinking in the FRG’, in Wæver, Ole, Lemaitre, Pierre and Tromer, Elzbieta (eds), European Polyphony: Perspectives beyond East-West Confrontation (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 186224CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 Wæver, Ole, ‘Conflicts of Vision: Visions of Conflict’ in Wæver, Ole, Lemaitre, Pierre and Tromer, Elzbieta (eds), European Polyphony: Perspectives beyond East-West Confrontation (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 283325,CrossRefGoogle Scholar p. 294.

66 Wæver, ‘Ideologies of Stabilization’, p. 116.

67 Wæver, ‘Conflicts of Vision’, p. 324, n. 82.

68 Wæver also quotes Richard K. Ashley to the effect that the inside/outside dichotomy is highly likely to keep informing states' view of their security. Wæver, ‘Conflicts of Vision’, pp. 293–4.

69 Wæver, ‘Ideologies of Stabilization’, p. 115

70 Wæver, ‘Conflicts of Vision’, p. 314.

71 Wæver, ‘Moment of the Move’, p. 205; Wæver, ‘Conflicts of Vision’, p. 316.

72 Wæver, ‘Ideologies of Stabilization’, p. 116.

73 Wæver, Ole, ‘Three Competing Europes: German, French, Russian’, International Affairs, 66:3 (1990), pp. 477–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, pp. 261–2.

75 Ibid., p. 285.

76 Buzan, Barry and Wæver, Ole, ‘Macrosecuritisation and Security Constellations: Reconsidering Scale in Securitisation Theory’, Review of International Studies, 35:2 (2009), pp. 253–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

77 Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, p. 262.

78 On the possibility of disappearance as progress, see Floyd, ‘Towards a Consequentialist Evaluation’, p. 343, n. 56.

79 There might thus be some overlap between desecuritisation as détente and Paul Roe's ‘security through management’. Roe, ‘Securitization and Minority Rights’.

80 Valentina Pop, ‘Hungary Heading for Fresh EU Controversy with “History Carpet”’, (12 January 2011), available at: {} accessed 11 August 2011.

81 Wæver, ‘Ideologies of Stabilization’.

82 Aradau, Claudia, Rethinking Trafficking in Women: Politics out of Security (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

83 Wæver, ‘The EU as a Security Actor’, p. 262.

84 Bilgin, ‘Making Turkey's Transformation Possible’, p. 566.

85 Behnke, ‘No Way Out’. p. 64.

86 Ibid.

87 Roe, ‘Securitization and Minority Rights’; Roe, ‘Reconstructing Identities’.

88 Aras and Polat, ‘From Conflict to Cooperation’, p. 512.

89 For a fuller account of this triple move, see Walker, R. B. J., ‘Lines of Insecurity: International, Imperial, Exceptional’, Security Dialogue, 37:1 (2006), pp. 6582, pp. 7880CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Ashley, Richard K., ‘Geopolitics, Supplementary; Criticism: A Reply to Professors Roy and Walker’, Alternatives, 13:1 (1988), pp. 88102, pp. 94–5Google Scholar; Campbell, David, National Deconstruction: Violence, Identity, and Justice in Bosnia (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), pp. 209–43Google Scholar.

90 Constantinou, Costas M., ‘Poetics of Security’, Alternatives, 25:3 (2000), pp. 287306, pp. 288–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

91 Behnke, Andreas, ‘The Message or the Messenger?: Reflections on the Role of Security Experts and the Securitization of Political Issues’, Cooperation and Conflict, 35:1 (2000), pp. 89105, p. 90, 96CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

92 Åtland, ‘Mikhail Gorbachev, the Murmansk Initiative’, p. 305.

93 Lammers, Karl Christian, ‘Denmark's Relations with Germany since 1945’, in Branner, Hans and Kelstrup, Morten (eds), Denmark's Policy towards Europe after 1945: History, Theory and Options (Odense: Odense University Press, 2000), pp. 260–81, p. 265Google Scholar.

94 MacKenzie, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, p. 245.

95 Ibid., p. 244.

96 Buzan et al., Security, p. 4, emphasis added.

97 Hansen, Lene, ‘The Little Mermaid's Silent Security Dilemma and the Absence of Gender in the Copenhagen School’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 29:2 (2000), pp. 285306CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

98 For two attempts see Hansen and Nissenbaum, ‘Digital Disaster’ and Floyd, Security and the Environment.