Ethics & Global Security: the OCIS session

Just last week my new book, Ethics & Global Security: A Cosmopolitan Approach, co-authored with Katrina Lee-Koo and Matt McDonald, was published. This happy event coincided with a panel at the Oceanic Conference on International Studies – chaired by Professor Toni Erskine (UNSW) – which heard searching commentaries on the book by Professors Robyn Eckersley (University of Melbourne), Jacqui True (Monash University), and Tim Dunne (University of Queensland). Matt McDonald introduced the book (listen to him here-mp4), and he and I responded to points made by the commentators and members of the audience.

Tim has kindly agreed to allow me to share his comments here, and I will include the others as they become available.


Professor Tim Dunne, Melbourne, 11 July 2014.

Thanks to my UQ colleague Matt McDonald for inviting me onto the panel but most of all thanks to Anthony, Katrina and Matt for providing the study of security with an innovative and provocative book that will, to my mind at least, advance new thinking in the subfield of security studies.

What can be said, in the time allotted, about the contribution of Ethics & Global Security? The first and most obvious point is to welcome the authors’ injunction to conjoin security and ethics. This is nicely set out in the Introduction when they argue ‘whether people live or die, whether they suffer or prosper – which people live and prosper and where they are able to do so – are ethical questions’ (p.4).

While bringing ethics into security is not a new argument, at the same time it has not been articulated with quite such clarity in a student-friendly book. Moreover, readers will recognised that the authors have used to good effect their complementary areas of expertise which are in the successive chapters on identity, force, environment, terror, humanitarianism.

There is no hint of any tension or inconsistency in the text. Although I did wonder whether Anthony had been out-flanked by his co-authors when I read the withering critique of ‘post-structuralist approaches’ for their failure ‘to provide a viable account of progress in global politics’ (p.176).

What makes the book’s treatment of ethics and security particularly compelling is the consistent application of cosmopolitan principles to a range of security issues. I also think the book is, at times, courageously even-handed in condemning all producers of insecurity – for instance, in the chapter on Terrorism, the unjust violence perpetrated by terrorists and the disproportionate force used in the name of counter-terrorism.

What can be said, in the remaining minutes, about those aspects of the book that are less compelling, or at the least, open to question?

My main contention or probe is to suggest that the argument in the book risks being both too cosmopolitan, and not cosmopolitan enough. I recognise that this is a logic-defying form of argumentation that is only afforded to discussants and not to authors – though in my defence I think it is the case that the ‘too much’ and ‘not enough’ parts of my argument apply to different aspects of Ethics and Global Security.

How, then, is it too cosmopolitan? First, to my mind there is insufficient attention paid to differential capacities to provide for security. We are told that Principle 1 of the cosmopolitan security project holds that it is the ‘responsibility of all states and security actors to create deep and enduring security for all human beings…’. This is relatively uncontentious until one asks the rubber / road question about who exactly bears this responsibility, and how much of a burden is it reasonable for any community to bear in pursuit of global security?

Early in the book, there is an admission that while all deserve security, actors have differential capacities to deliver this goal. In many other areas of political life, such unequal capacities play much less of a role in determining outcomes; the equal right to vote in democratic societies that is blind to the power of the individual, welfare systems built on universal needs irrespective of the wealth of individuals, and constitutionally embedded rights and freedoms that apply irrespective of social class, gender or ethnicity.

This point takes us right back to the story of the international, a story of politics that has been inhospitable to cosmopolitanism for 350 years. In my understanding of the international, it is perfectly possible to believe that there is a universal entitlement to security, but be sceptical about the possibilities of advancing ‘thick’ cosmopolitanism in a culturally divided world order in which international institutions chronically lack both authority and legitimacy.

Yes, there is evidence of a greater ‘cosmopolitan moral awareness’ in global politics today, but policy-making continues to be constrained by state power and interests. The authors critique those sorry comforters (Kant’s phrase, not theirs), such as myself, who recognise the moral limits of cosmopolitan and seek refuge in the quest to civilise state practice; this, they contend, is ‘unacceptable’ because it ‘reinforces the status quo’ (p.42).

What arguably reinforces the status quo are claims about the mutuality of security (p.50) that lack traction among decision-makers. The way to persuade states to take their responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities in South Sudan is not to imply that this will somehow enhance the security of India or any other large troop contributing country – because this is plainly not the case in their eyes. Even protective interventions that have the consent of host states put the lives of theirpeacekeepers at great risk.

My point here is that I would like to have seen greater emphasis in the book on individual and collective agency. Few right thinking people in privileged parts of the world would dissent from the claim that there should be a universal entitlement to security from the worst atrocities – the greater challenge is persuading those with a surplus of security to take concrete measures to reduce security deficits locally and globally. The most effective strategy in this regard is to widen and deepen the norm of sovereignty as responsibility – and the differential obligations that flow from it.

The book that has done more than any other to tackle the dilemma of how responsibilities are differentiated, albeit in the context of the US and its role in the world, is the Bukovansky et al book on Special Responsibilities: Global Problems and American Power. Perhaps future work by Tony, Matt, and Katrina might take up the challenge to stipulate more clearly how differential obligations are assigned and what reasonable limits can be set on the sacrifices that surplus security societies should make.

How, then, is the book not cosmopolitan enough? In conjoining security and cosmopolitanism, the basic claim of the book is that ‘all individuals, regardless of their identity, are entitled to security’ (p.70). Is it not the case that cosmopolitanism demands much more than a right to a life that is secure from violence? What about the other demands that are more social and political, such as an entitlement to lead a good life – one that is oriented towards universal conceptions of justice and dignity, and is regulated by the moral law.

Two questions follow from this point: do the authors agree that the ‘cosmopolitan security project’ is only one dimension of cosmopolitanism, and if so, how does it fit with the other requirements for global citizens to live moral and fulfilling lives. It is useful to recall here that Henry Shue’s original formulation of basic rights supplemented the right to security from violence with the right to economic and social subsistence.

Putting this point the way around: is it not the case that it possible to have security from violence but still be chronically weak and socially excluded?

This leads me to a final point about the framing of cosmopolitanism in the book. It was very clear in their treatment of non-cosmopolitan approaches that national and state-based conceptions of community are atavistic, but in a culturally diverse world, this surely begs the question when are local identifications morally and politically acceptable? For example, when would it be morally acceptable for local communities to dissent from the view that climate change is a global security problem – when their communities faces other kinds of existential risk such as that posed by more powerful regional neighbours intent on denying their security.

This is not to suggest that there is no acknowledgement of these dilemmas in the book. Clearly the authors acknowledge the existence of plural conceptions of ethics. Still, if there is ever a second volume of Ethics and Global Security, I would like to see how the universal and the particular are to be negotiated according to the cosmopolitan security project.

In summary, this book is an immense achievement; it is likely to shape both the teaching and theorisation of security in IR. It is a book that boldly embraces Kant’s injunction that ought must imply can – and how many books on security studies can we say that about? I can only think of one other and that is Ken Booth’s 2007 work Theory of World Security.

1 Comment

  1. steffishel says:

    Reblogged this on Installing (Social) Order and commented:
    I spent last week at the Oceanic Conference on International Studies in Melbourne. Here’s one of the amazing panels I attended on a new book that will improve security studies in in IR immensely. Check it out.

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