Realism and Human Security: A Map of U.S. Security Interests

Last week in my class we focused on security issues, and I compared and contrasted two powerful approaches in the field: Realism and Human Security. Realism is an older approach to security, which claims to have historical roots that stretch back to Thucydides, but perhaps truly began with E.H. Carr in the 1930s. Because of the theory’s richness it is difficult to summarize briefly, and it has evolved through time. But in general, its proponents argue that security is the key issue in international affairs. They also generally share a pessimistic view of human nature, and of the inevitability of war. Realists also view the international system as anarchic, in the sense that they doubt the ability of international law to limit conflict. Realism focuses on threats to the nation-state rather than populations, relies on the military as the key instrument in security, and draws on the usual tools of state-craft, such as alliance formation and power balancing.

Since the mid-1990s, Realism has been challenged by the idea of Human Security, which has quickly been advocated by middle-power countries such as Norway and Canada. This approach focuses on threats to individuals rather nation-states. It argues, for example, that influenza sometimes may be a greater threat to peoples’ lives than conventional military forces. It also suggests that Realism has numerous flaws. For example, its critics argue that Realism fails to take into account deaths caused by either civil wars or gang violence, even though these may cause more casualties than conventional military conflicts between opposing states. In this paradigm, a host of issues -water shortages, epidemic disease and organized crime- are considered to be security threats.

In order to get students to think about the differences between the two approaches to security, I use the map at the bottom of this post, which we had created for our textbook based on data both from the Arms Control Association and the U.S. Department of State (double click on it to see the full map).

Map based on data from the Arms Control Association and U.S. Department of State


I then ask the students some of the following questions: What do you notice about the map? Which nations are critical to U.S. security? Which are not? What countries were you surprised were missing? Somalia? What countries were you surprised were included? Do you agree with all of the information on the map? What do you think were the criterion for the choices? Look at the countries that are listed as drug suppliers. How are these nations linked to U.S. security? What regions seem to be most heavily represented? How would the map look different if it was based on a human security perspective?

The purpose of this exercise is to have students understand how an ideological perspective shapes the mental maps people create to represent the globe. Since every map represents choices, we find that maps are an important tool to foster classroom discussion. For that reason, we have a wide range of maps in our textbook, covering issues such as food, energy and health.

One note: please don’t use the map without giving credit to Smallman/Brown. And many thanks to Steph Gaspers (then an outstanding M.A. student at Portland State University, who since has moved on to bigger things) who created all the maps for our textbook.

Interested in military affairs? Click here to see my own book on military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman

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