Securitization Theory and the Energy Sector

Since the 1980’s, the Copenhagen School of Security Studies (as it is known today) has been developing a theory of ‘securitization’ in international politics. In the theory there is an explicit link between International Security Studies (ISS) and different perspectives on international relations. There are two important concepts in this theory: national security and the act of securitization. The former has been equated with state security because of the role of government in ensuring, addressing and (to a certain extent) creating security issues. The latter includes a number of different actors, but it mainly refers to “the social processes by which groups of people construct something as a threat”.

Identifying the state as the main actor in security issues is the reason why the theory takes a state-centered approach. A government’s constant strive for stability, safety and protection in all sectors is explains most of its actions. Also, Barry Buzan argued in 1991 that international relations are constantly based on the security needs of states and their interaction is a pattern of global security relationships. Security as such is therefore defined as: “the pursuit of freedom from threat and the ability of states and societies to maintain their independent identity and their functional integrity against forces of change which they see as hostile”. Whether this plays a role in the traditional hard-power perspective of military action or in debates on energy independence relies on the character of every state’s interests and capabilities. In this theory, it is the state which defends the identity of the nation and all aspects of public life associated with that identity, which largely reflects its basis on social contract theory as described by Thomas Hobbes.

Furthermore, the Copenhagen School have specified securitization as a process which “frames the issue either as a special kind of politics or as above politics”. When an issue is brought into the political arena, it is ‘politicized’ and a potential for compromise and peaceful resolution exists. If it is securitized to a point above politics, the same issue then becomes a threat to essential aspects of national identity and is often situated within a “logic of urgency and extreme measures”. If this has to be represented in a spectrum, then it ranges “from the non-politicized… through politicized… to securitization”. The last is an extreme where the topic is no longer debated in the political arena, but is handled quickly and “in ways which might violate normal legal and social rules”. An example of this is how the issue of civilian nuclear power has been present in the political arena since the 1970’s. In some states, it is not on the agenda at all because it is securitized to such a high level that any consideration of political debate on the topic is deemed a threat to society.

Also, securitization theory outlines the main actors which proceed to politicize and securitize issues. Such participants are defined as “actors who securitize issues by declaring something – a referent object – existentially threatened”, while these objects are “things that are seen to be existentially threatened and that have the legitimate claim to survival”. The actors in this debate include political leaders, bureaucracies, governments, lobbyists, pressure groups and civil society. These aspects have to be considered carefully when analyzing any issue because evaluating the ‘claim to survival’ is also a politicized question. Whenever society or its identity feels threatened by something, the issue can become securitized to a level that can lead to social unrest and political instability.

Furthermore, securitization usually occurs as a response to a threat to a state or group in society on a specific issue based on a sector. The Copenhagen School examines this through four lenses and therefore stresses the sectoral approach. First is the sphere of political security which is defined as the “organizational stability of states, their systems of government and the ideologies which give them legitimacy”. From this perspective, states with similar governmental structures would wish to willingly form a union to ensure their political survival. Second, the issue of economic security as being the “access to the resources, finance and markets necessary to sustain acceptable levels of welfare and state power” shows how financial forces can bring states together”. Sustaining a national economy is becoming harder in the age of globalization, where the systems of production and consumption have become greatly synchronized all over the world. Forming a community based on shared principles has become a tendency in the contemporary political and economic reality.

Further, societal security “concerns the ability of societies to reproduce their traditional patterns of language, culture, association and religious and national identity”. It is significant that states are not the only entities that can form communities. Societies under threat can also initiate a power relationship based on their mutual drive for protecting their traditions. This is a form of transnational cooperation on the societal level. Last, environmental security has risen very high on agenda and it concerns “the maintenance of the local and the planetary biosphere as the essential support system on which all other human enterprises depend”. The referent object being ‘the human environment’ makes this issue one of essential importance since it addresses all states, societies, nations, groups and peoples. The effects of this securitization can be quite extensive.

Yet, the Copenhagen School does not address the issue of energy security even though it would seem obvious that it is a topic of great interest and importance in contemporary international relations. Stressing its significance as a security sector in its own right requires that it be compared to the others. The sphere of political security is directly participant in the formation of international relationships on the basis of power accumulation. The aim of energy security is to provide self-sufficiency, which would make those relationships less necessary to the survival of each individual state, therefore decreasing their interdependence and the possibility of external threats, leading to greater national security. Also, from the viewpoint of economic security, the energy market is one sphere which is unpredictable and can therefore be considered a threat to the financial stability of the state. Energy security can accommodate a greater predictability of energy markets and a more stable economic situation. Further, the question of environmental security has proven to be one of the most complementary with the issue of energy because events in the latter affect the development of the former in an adverse way. Generally, it is considered that the energy systems of today are one of the major contributors to the securitization of the environment. The relationship between the two is one of constant competition, and yet they are so interconnected that it is hard to determine which is of more importance. Therefore, it must be recognized that energy is a topic which is linked to all the other security issues.

I propose that there is an essential bond between economic and environmental security which meet in the issue of energy security. The economic aspects of the issue are clearly applicable to the situation in the EU, since the internal market has created favorable conditions for integration and interdependence, therefore increasing market access and finances necessary for raising welfare. This process has so far been slow in the energy markets of the member states, but it is accelerating. On the environmental topic, there is a very high level of integration within the EU, where Community and member state action has been planned and put into gear to preserve the region’s biosphere. A re-designing of the energy system is a part of this plan, with renewable energy sources and nuclear power being central topics of discussion. Therefore, this triangle of interconnected security issues plays a central role in the energy security discussion.


Buzan, B. (1991). New Patterns of Global Security in the Twenty-First Century. International Affairs , 67 (3), 431-451.

Buzan, B., & Hansen, L. (2009). The Evolution of International Security Studies. Cambridge: University Press.

Buzan, B., Waever, O., & de Wilde, J. (1998). Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.


2 responses to “Securitization Theory and the Energy Sector

  1. Lubo,
    This is great post. Can you develop this concept a bit more? It may be useful to check out Global Guerillas blog for some non-state centric perspective. Thanks for the good work.
    DB Smith
    Comprehensive Approach Studies & Analysis (CASA) Policy Research Program
    National Defense University (USA)

  2. I agree with the link you refer to between environmental and energy security. Changes to definitions of security began about 20 years ago when some academians noted that there was no longer a pragmatic link between traditional schools of security (states as the main actors) and trans-national issues – like environment, energy, disease and poverty – that affected the stability of wider regions but were not incorporated into security studies. The idea was to afford greater attention to issues that had always been marginalized within politics – like the environment – in order to bring them to a level that would enable them to gain the attention they deserved – and needed – in order to be adequately addressed so as to ensure human security, not just for indiviual states, but for wider regions. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend reading up on the work of Thomas Homer-Dixon, who was a pioneer in this field and who continues to write extensively about environmental and energy security. The idea of “securitization theory” comes from a theoretical critical theory approach that doesn’t necessarily discuss “what should be securitized” and may not offer a practical approach to these issues as much as it does a theoretical one. I just read an interesting article about the theory, although I see I will have to do a bit more reading on it. In any case, great blog, great issues, good luck with your continued research.

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