Guest post by Gergana Tzvetkova, Chair of the IAPSS Student Research Committee on IR Theory
We live in dynamic times of fluidity and uncertainty. Orders and regimes, principles and ideas are constantly questioned, reconstructed and redefined. The concept of security is no exception, as it continues to expand. Today, we talk about human security, environmental security and hybrid warfare. Security clearly transcends material concerns. This short contribution is inspired by discussions in the European Union (EU) about disinformation coming from third parties and the need to counter it. Disinformation campaigns and hybrid threats are frequently mentioned in EU documents – see the 2016 EU Global Strategy, the 2016 Implementation Plan on Security and Defence, the 2016 Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats a European Union response, etc. In 2015, the East StratCom Task Force was established to expose disinformation.
Drawing on these developments, I argue that a key consequence of globalization – the massive information flow – is undergoing a process of securitization. However, relying on major debates within Securitization Theory, I suggest that this might not necessarily be a bad thing.
Securitization and desecuritization are linked to the work of the Copenhagen School of IR. Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde describe securitization as a speech act (Buzan et al., 1998, p. 26). What matters is not the ‘reality’ of a threat, but whether it is socially constructed as such. Discourse is a vital medium for formation and transmission of security-related messages. Taking a different direction, Thierry Balzacq (2011) sees securitization as a pragmatic (sociological) practice, which unfolds and has to be analyzed at three levels – Agents, Acts and Context.
But is securitization a bad thing? Wæver considers securitization a negative conception and supports desecuritization (Buzan et al., 1998, p. 29). This is a solid argument if we consider an issue X, which, being securitized, could pull away efforts and resources, needed to resolve other issues. However, other scholars have suggested that securitization and security have a positive side. Rita Floyd, for example, proposes a “consequentialist evaluation of security” – securitization can be both negative and positive, depending on its consequences compared to any alternative solution (Floyd, 2007, p. 337). Similarly, Paul Roe claims that the distinction between the two poles of security lies in the “normative judgement over the values that are pursued” (Roe, 2008, p. 779). Crucial are values and concepts that justify securitization, and words and policies that embody it.
Two questions arise. First, is (dis)information undergoing securitization at EU level? I believe the answer is “Yes.” Second, is this securitization taking a negative or a positive turn? I believe the answer is “It is too early to tell.” To sketch my arguments, I look at the very recent European Parliament resolution of 23 November 2016 on EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda against it by third parties. It is an ambitious and divisive document, approved with 304 votes to 179, with 208 abstentions.
The centrality of discourse necessitates examining words and language tools used in the document. Below are some sections from the resolution, italicized by me. The text talks about disinformation and propaganda warfare, hostile propaganda and hostile state and non-state actors, which incite “fear and uncertainty in EU citizens.” The resolution calls the Russian strategic communication a “part of a larger subversive campaign to weaken EU cooperation and the sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of the Union and its Member States.” Towards the beginning of the text, it is argued that information warfare technologies threaten “EU Member States’ sovereignty, the security of their citizens and their territorial integrity.” Even where security is not directly mentioned, we come across words freely attributable to its dictionary – hostility, fear, warfare. Uncontested sovereignty and territorial integrity are markers of any independent and unthreatened polity. Furthermore, their preservation is a matter of physical survival and a vital security-related interest. The utterances quoted above are strong and purposeful enough to allow us to consider information and disinformation an issue undergoing securitization.
The second question requires much more space and a much deeper analysis. A good starting point for the latter could be crystallization of the different levels of analysis, identified by Balzacq, as well as the respective units of analysis, with regard to this specific issue. Securitization of information risks taking a negative turn, if it is cleverly manipulated by the original sources of disinformation. This might lead to a backlash against the EU, which could be depicted as an undemocratic entity, which restricts freedom of speech and tilts at windmills. Securitization of information could take a positive turn, when vested in messages similar to those discussed by Floyd and Roe. Namely, it must be directly linked to the preservation of everything that the European Union and its Member States embody and transmit in terms of values, knowledge and desired role in the world. A step in this direction is made in the section from the EP resolution claiming that propaganda is “undermining and eroding the European narrative based on democratic values, human rights and the rule of law…” In the part on Daesh, the document calls for a counter-narrative to oppose powerful propaganda efforts. Such calls point to something, which is as important as the transmitted messages – namely, the policies that follow and fulfill them. In order for the EU to make the most of the securitization’s positive potential, it should consistently pursue positive and self-assertive activities that increase awareness about its values and interests, as well as its own know-how.
This contribution does not intend to give answers but, rather, to pose questions. I believe everybody will agree that new threats, or old threats in new disguise, should not be ignored. The European Union has to mobilize its tools, capacities and knowledge to face disinformation, even if that means securitizing the issue. At the same time, it should be careful not to carry such processes too far and risk being labeled ‘biased’, ‘undemocratic’ or ‘populist.’ The EU faces the difficult task of finding the right formulation for counter-disinformation messages and policies.
Balzacq, T. A theory of securitization: origins, core assumptions, and variants. In T. Balzacq (ed.). (2011). Securitization Theory How security problems emerge and dissolve. Oxon and New York: Routledge.
Balzacq, T. Enquiries into methods: a new framework for securitization analysis. In T. Balzacq (ed.). (2011). Securitization Theory How security problems emerge and dissolve. Oxon and New York: Routledge
Buzan, B., Wæver O. & de Wilde J. (1998). Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
European Parliament. (November, 2013). Resolution of 23 November 2016 on EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda against it by third parties. Accessed 3 December, 2016 at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&reference=P8-TA-2016-0441&format=XML&language=EN
Floyd, R. (2007). Towards a consequentialist evaluation of security: bringing together the Copenhagen and the Welsh Schools of security studies. Review of International Studies, 33, 327–350. doi:10.1017/S026021050700753X.
Roe, P. (2008). The ‘value’ of positive security. Review of International Studies, 34, 777–794. doi:10.1017/S0260210508008279.
Tzvetkova, Gergana. (2016). Words that Corrupt: European Union’s Clash with Disinformation. Working Paper. International Conference “Europe as a Global Actor”, ISCTE-IUL, Lisbon, Portugal.
Gergana Tzvetkova is a PhD candidate at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. Her research interests lie in the field of international relations, international security, human rights and global governance. She is currently the Chair of the IAPSS SRC on International Relations Theory.