Omario Kanji

October 2003

In the context of conflict resolution, the definition of "security" depends on one's perspective. At the simplest level, security may be defined as "the quality or state of being secure," "freedom from danger," or "freedom from fear or anxiety." Of the many other levels on which one can analyze security, the most relevant here are individual, group, regional, national, and global. Our task is then relatively simple; we consider how security is defined at these different levels. What emerges is a framework upon which security agreements are constructed and implemented.

Individual Security

Carolyn Stephenson

talks about alternative definitions of pursuing "security."

On the individual level, security is most often understood as safety. This safety includes freedom from harm, whether physical or psychological. Threats to an individual's security can produce the fear or anxiety mentioned above. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all people are entitled to "security of person." This declaration reinforces the concept of freedom from physical and psychological harm. Yet, what measures will be taken to protect an individual from harm? The most common forms of protection are legal structures that protect individuals from threats to their security. These include, but are not limited to, laws against murder, sex crimes, bodily harm, theft, and psychological harm such as coercion. The state assumes responsibility for constructing and implementing these legal regulations. In addition, security can be related to one's ability to attain the fundamental physical needs of a home, food, and socio-economic needs such as a job. The concept of individual security can therefore be linked to an individual's perception of her or his standard of living. The individual may thus equate security with a high standard of living.

Group Security

Discussing regional security requires us to first define the extent of the "region." Since we have placed the regional beneath the national level in this hierarchy, we are speaking of a physical area within a nation, which could be a collection of provinces, cities, or states. If there were certain religious, national, or ethnic groups that dominated a region, we would still speak of their security at the group level. What is regional security, then?

The simplest concept of security at the regional level could be economic, implying protection of regional interests. Perhaps a regional association with, or ownership of, a valued resource could provoke desires for security, and the responsibility for protecting that security would rest on the region. For example, labor or trade unions perform this function. Other notions of security at this level could be to maintain a certain standard of living. In this realm, members of a regional group might want to protect themselves from mass immigration, which could occur due to the region's coveted resources. The region might seek to ensure its security by campaigning against this immigration. Threats to security are often cited here, usually connected to issues of lowered living standards. On a more subtle level, religious, national, or ethnic groups may shrewdly promote their interests under the guise of regional security, and may elevate their group security to a regional priority level.

National Security

Angela Khaminwa

quotes Susan Collin Marx, "If we don't coexist, we all co-destruct."

Morton Deutsch

talks about the importance of security at both the international and interpersonal levels.

The national level of security is probably the most often examined and contentious definition of security. The nation-state often assumes the role of guarantor for individual security, group security, and perhaps regional security; for example, agricultural subsidies or steel tariffs are one way in which a nation-state protects a region within its boundaries from a foreign threat.

After ensuring individual, group, and regional security, how does the state define its own security? Lasso and Gonzalez state that "the entirety of conditions -- political, economic, military, social, and cultural -- necessary to guarantee the sovereignty, independence, and promotion of national interest..."[1] defines security. We can then ask what threatens those five conditions. Security from the military viewpoint is highly visible, and a nation will act when it is threatened militarily. Economic threats can also be simply defined, although domestic protectionism can often clash with international trade agreements signed by the same nation. A nation's claim that its protectionism helps ensure national economic security can cause international uproar. (For example, see the essay on Development and Conflict.)

Tension is introduced when a nation defines what in particular guarantees its political, socio-economic, and cultural security. For example, actions undertaken to protect cultures can easily be interpreted as discriminatory or racist. Cultural security is especially difficult to define and protect in heterogeneous, democratic societies such as the United States.

Socio-economic security can also assume controversial definitions and interpretations. Surely a rapidly aging population can threaten socio-economic security. A further question is what measures the state will undertake to solve the problem. Tension can again be introduced if the state or the society chooses to blame a specific group for the threat to socio-economic security. Here, security definitions are at odds since the state is protecting its own security by threatening a group's security.

Perhaps the most ambiguous aspect of security is that of political security, which may be very broadly defined. Often, a nation will react to threats to its political philosophies, as well as threats to its culture, society, or economy. The term "national security" has recently been used to justify "security" procedures within the United States as well as military action outside its borders. This widens the parameters for national security definitions, and implies a wide range of actions available to a nation.

Global Security

Global security is a relatively new concept, and conjures up images of organizations such as the United Nations. Global security, however, may be undermined by national security concerns; if one nation feels threatened by another, then global security cannot exist since members of the world are in disagreement. Global security is also undermined by negative judgment by one nation of another's philosophy of government. If nation A decides that nation B's governing methods are wrong, nation A will not submit to a global authority that allows nation B's methods to continue. Global security is thus a weak concept, since it assumes a supranational entity to whose judgment nations would yield in matters of disagreement. This is obviously a far-fetched goal, which is unlikely to be realized in the near future. As resources such as land, water, and oil are increasingly coveted by nations, global security has little chance to emerge as a durable concept in international relations.[2]

The Security Dilemma

At the national and global level, providing security creates a dilemma. It is generally thought that security is provided with a strong military that can deter attack. Yet, the development of military strength can be seen as a threat by the other side, which then increases its own military investment. This, then, actually decreases both sides' security, rather than increasing it. Security is actually a positive-feedback system. The more security I feel, the more secure my opponent(s) will feel, because I won't have to arm myself against them. But the less secure I feel, the more I will arm, and the less secure my opponent will feel as well. This security dilemma is what fueled the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and indeed, it is much of what is fueling the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis and North and South Korea. (There are other factors in all of those conflicts as well, but security is a big issue.)[3]


The concept of security, on all levels, is related to basic concepts of human psychology. If threatened, people will react and take necessary defensive measures. At the individual level, one can sometimes ward off threats by exercising caution in his or her daily life. He or she may arrange additional security measures, such as alarm systems, weapons, or perhaps changing residences. This same type of reaction may occur on the group or regional level. On the national and global levels, more formal structures of defense and security agreements exist. Nations might activate defense systems to react to overt threats, but this can threaten the other side, thereby reducing security, rather than increasing it. Furthermore, they might cooperate to create security agreements such as NATO, which foster cooperation and collaborative defense and security measures in the face of a perceived threat.

[1] L.H. Lasso, G. Gonzalez, in B.M. Bagley, S.A. Quezada, Eds. Mexico in Search of Security, (University of Miami Press, 1993), 4. <>; see also Brian J. Bow,  and Arturo Santa Cruz, The State and Security in Mexico: Transformation and Crisis in Regional Perspective (Routledge, 2012). <>.

[2]. For further discussion of global security, including applications to the War in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), see: Peter Hough, Understanding Global Security, (Routledge, 2008). <>.

[3] This paragraph was added by Heidi Burgess. It was not part of the author's original essay, but as editor, I took the liberty of adding it.

Use the following to cite this article:
Kanji, Omario. "Security." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <>.

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