Securitization of everything or how to lose the sense of security at all

by Patrick Truffer. He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs and completes a Master of Arts program in International Relations at the Freien Universität Berlin.

2015-001We live in a VUCA-world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (Judith Hicks Stiehm, “The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy“, Temple University Press, 2002, p. 6). In this world, “security” seems to have been lost: the economic carelessness of some European countries threatens social security, the war in Ukraine could endanger public order and therefore the security of Europe, the terrorist organisation “Islamic State” threatens regional security in the Middle East, jihadists returning to the West endanger the security of social cohesion and epidemics, such as Ebola, endanger health security. This list could be continued, which symbolises the underlying problem: The original narrowly defined term “security” has been used since the 1980s in an extended sense (Ole Wæver, “Securitization and Desecuritization” in On Security by Ronnie D. Lipschutz, Columbia University Press, 1995, p 46f). Based on the Copenhagen School, a topic is attributed to “security” in international relations if it deals with an existential threat that needs to be addressed immediately with extraordinary measures, which may also legitimise the use of force. Accordingly, the prioritisation of a non-existentially threatening issue, which is addressed subsequently with extraordinary measures, is referred to as securitization (Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde, “Security: A New Framework for Analysis“, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998, p. 21ff).

With the example of the securitization of the US aid deployment to combat Ebola this article shows how it is possible to securitize nearly everything with the purpose to enable the implementation of extraordinary measures.

Securitization of the Ebola epidemic by the US government
There have been repeated outbreaks of Ebola in Africa since 1976, but the number of deaths per outbreak was limited to a few hundred until 2014. With over 24,000 cases and nearly 14,000 deaths until end of March 2015, the epidemic that has existed for nearly a year represents a new dimension, and has affected countries, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, that were previously spared from Ebola (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Outbreaks Chronology: Ebola Virus Disease“). Carried via air traffic, four “uncontrolled” cases occurred in the US, with one death. The securitization of the Ebola topic in the US took place after four American citizens in West Africa were infected, evacuated to the US and treated, but before the first “uncontrolled” Ebola case occurred in the US.


On 16 September 2014, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before he met “with some of these men and women, including some who recently returned from the front lines of the outbreak”. According to the Copenhagen School, Obama’s address at the CDC was a main securitizing speech act, which was aimed at three recipients: the US congress, to grant extraordinary measures to combat the disease, the US population, to put the US congress under pressure to grant the extraordinary measures, and the international community of states, to mobilise them to contain the epidemic.

In his speech, Obama noted that this epidemic “is not just a threat to regional security – it’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economies break down, if people panic”. He therefore justified his decision, to treat Ebola as a “national security priority“, to provide extraordinary measures to combat the epidemic and to deploy military resources in Liberia at their request. The US forces were therefore meant to introduce “their expertise in command and control, in logistics, in engineering”, which are better at this “than any organization on Earth”. For this purpose, he urged the US congress to grant the necessary funds for the deployment.

Through this securitization, the US congress was pressured to grant the requested funds. Since Ebola was presented to the US population as an existential threat, which endangers global security and therefore also one’s own safety, a member of congress would think twice about whether he would vote against the approval of funding. Obama’s strategy was in fact successful: in October 2014, the US congress approved 750 million US dollars for the deployment of 4,000 US soldiers.

At the international level, the UN Security Council resolution 2177 was adopted on 18 September 2014. The resolution called for immediate assistance and to end the isolation of the affected states. However, the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) – the first-ever UN emergency health mission – is not part of resolution 2177, it was decided upon in the same session of the UN Security Council. While the consequences of HIV/AIDS for the security of Africa were discussed in the UN Security Council on 10 January 2000, resolution 2177 first dealt with a health issue under the context of international peace and security (Gian Luca Burci, “Ebola, the Security Council and the securitization of public health“, Questions of International Law 10, 23.12.2014, p. 32). As a consequence of the resolution, the states concerned were provided with around 1.2 billion US dollars available until mid-November 2014. These funds helped to slow down the spread of the Ebola epidemic.

A U.S. Air Force Airmen part of the Joint Task Force assigned to the 628th Medical Group at Joint Base Charleston checks the temperature of personnel gaining access to Roberts International Airport as a safety precaution (Photo: Staff Sgt. Gustavo Gonzalez).

A U.S. Air Force Airmen part of the Joint Task Force assigned to the 628th Medical Group at Joint Base Charleston checks the temperature of personnel gaining access to Roberts International Airport as a safety precaution (Photo: Staff Sgt. Gustavo Gonzalez).

With the securitization of Ebola, the Obama administration achieved the granting of extraordinary means. Due to the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives and the small Democratic majority in the Senate, these extraordinary means would hardly have been approved without securitization. At the international level, the assessment is difficult, because the US is only one of the members of the UN Security Council. If the securitization was also not crucial for the mobilisation of additional funds at the international level, it at least increased the pressure on other member states and UN organisations.

Despite the importance of Ebola, the designation as a “threat to global security” is hardly justifiable. By comparison, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic claimed an estimated 284,000 lives world wide. With a securitization, possible negative side effects must also be weighed, for example panic reactions, such as those that were fueled by the media after the first “uncontrolled” Ebola cases in the US, discrimination against groups of persons or the unnecessary restriction of basic rights (cf.: Burci, p. 35ff). For example, the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Illinois announced at the end of October 2014 that they wanted to subject all medical personnel from West African countries affected by Ebola to a 21-day quarantine and some US politicians have requested a restriction of freedom of travel to and from the West African countries affected by Ebola.

Another side-effect of securitization is the unnecessary implementation of extraordinary measures. In case of the deployment of US troops of a size of a brigade it is questionable if it was the most efficient use of the available resources. Until April 2015, the US has spent 1.4 billion US dollars on its Ebola mission in West Africa, with most of it going to Liberia. Deploying the military alone cost 360 million US dollars, not including the construction, staffing and operating expenses at the treatment centers it built. After all, the US ended up creating facilities that have largely sat empty: Only 28 Ebola patients have been treated at the 11 treatment units built by the US military – 9 centers have never had a single Ebola patient. The wasted money, for example, could have been put toward rebuilding Liberia’s shattered health care system or backing the efforts of local communities. Unfortunately, in case of a securitized issue, resources are often used where they generate a positive public relation for the securitizer instead where they may have the biggest impact to solve underlying problems (Norimitsu Onishi, “Empty Ebola Clinics in Liberia Are Seen as Misstep in U.S. Relief Effort“, The New York Times, 11.04.2015),

Last but not least, health issues traditionally are not part of the responsibility of the UN Security Council. They should be reserved primarily for the WHO or the UN General Assembly. An extension of the responsibility of the UN Security Council could overburden this institution and undermine its credibility due to lack of effective measures. UN resolution 2177 therefore lists no effective measures, but rather it is more a symbolic incitation.

A Liberian soldier in the Ebola Task Force tried to enforce a quarantine in August 2014 by confronting a woman in Monrovia (Photo:  John Moore).

A Liberian soldier in the Ebola Task Force tried to enforce a quarantine in August 2014 by confronting a woman in Monrovia (Photo: John Moore).

The problem with securitization is that nearly everything (not only Ebola, also HIV/AIDS and other diseases, Cyberspace, electrical power supply, terrorist attacks and so on) can be placed in a context of a hypothetical existential threat. This exaggerates a real threat potential, generates – under the impression of an immediately necessary response – pressure on people in power, and unnecessarily enables the use of extraordinary measures. The associated medial coverage creates a sense of a continuing state of emergency as it was after the September 11 attacks (interestingly that wasn’t the case after the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 7 July 2005 London bombings). Jumping from one alleged existential threat to another, people will finally lose the sense of security at all – or who still speaks about the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa anymore?

More information
A harsh critic about the militarization of global health: “[The militarisation of global health] is worryingly authoritarian, bad for public health, and strategically counterproductive. Despite its impressive logistics, the army makes only a marginal contribution to international disaster relief—and often makes things worse. Nor do soldiers “fight” pathogens — and the language of warfare risks turning infected people and their caretakers into objects of fear and stigma.” (Alex de Waal, “Militarizing Global Health“, Boston Review, 11.11.2014).

This entry was posted in Basics, English, Patrick Truffer, Security Policy.

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