With the theory of securitisation, it is possible to investigate security threats from wars to climate change

Professor Ole Wæver has explored what happens when we turn traditionally non-military issues into security threats.

Professor Ole Wæver is famous for his research on language and security that is at the core of securitisation theory, known as the Copenhagen School of security studies. During spring 2022, Ole Wæver is working at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies as Jane and Aatos Erkko Visiting Professor conducting research on a speech act theory of politics.

Wæver’s key idea was inspired by politics during the late Cold War, when the countries of the Eastern Bloc had an expanded concept of security.

“They wanted to be able to securitise a lot of cultural, political and economic interactions in order to control society,” Wæver says. “Simultaneously, but for very different reasons, environmental and peace researchers advocated a ‘wider concept of security’ to address new dangers, without asking whether it was necessarily great to have these issues handled in terms of security."

Out of this realization came the theory of securitisation, which explains what labeling something as a security issue means.

“By referring to security, societies have the ability to designate something as an existential threat, which therefore has to be met with all means necessary and taken out of normal politics,” Wæver explains.  “We don’t have a ‘securitometer’ to measure how big threats are,” he adds and argues that security issues are constructed in speech so that a protector is allowed to use extraordinary measures to ward off a danger.

Crazy idea of a young PhD student

To invent a popular theory is often a coincidence. Wæver thinks that he was lucky as a young PhD student to be given  freedom to read widely and develop new ideas instead of providing just the most obvious answers in the research project where he was hired. However, his ’crazy ideas’ were not readily accepted. He presented his theory of securitisation in a PhD seminar in 1989 but was discouraged by all professors present: “Your ideas do not fly”.  

For many years, securitisation theory remained an obscure working paper and became widely known and cited only when Wæver was asked to contribute to an American anthology dealing with security, where the editors explicitly asked for people to come with their wildest idea. Then, the terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001 contributed to the global spread of Wæver‘s theory, particularly among young scholars: the ‘global war on terror’ permeated societies, curtailing civil liberties and justifying surveillance.

Security of the pandemic and climate change

For Wæver the COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of securitisation. It demonstrated the trade-offs instilled into the process of securitisation as it showed how defining something as an extreme situation made it possible to use extreme measures that are more top down, authoritarian, enforced and potentially less democratic.

Although securitisation might mean that we get things done, the theory brings attention to the dark side of this mode of getting things done.

“The theory basically says that ideally things should be dealt with on their own terms. Environmental issues as environmental issues, religion as religion and so on.,” Wæver summarises the original intent of his work and theory.

Yet, climate issues might be running out of any real prospect for a non-security resolution.

According to Wæver, climate change may in many ways be the most challenging case for the theory. Securitising the climate might give us some hope, although it is ‘dark hope’.

“It’s a painful route, but we are increasingly aware that no pleasant routes exist,” he says.

A security complex centred on the EU and Russia, and the war in Ukraine

Wæver sees a lot of securitisation in the context of the war in Ukraine, but another security theory from the Copenhagen School, namely that of regional security complexes, explains it better. It proposes that world security is structured regionally, and in Europe there have been two important regional security complexes after the end of the Cold War, one centred on the EU and the other on Russia.

“It was always obvious that Ukraine was the riskiest case in that relationship and that it had to be handled with special care,” Wæver says. “In that sense, if one had taken more seriously the regional map and how to mediate and handle the unique position of Ukraine, it would perhaps have been possible to avoid this war. Obviously, this in no way reduces the responsibility of the Russian leadership for their war of aggression.”

Wæver says that he always admired the sophisticated understanding and creativity of Finnish foreign policy.

“If Finland joins NATO, there might be, in a bigger picture, a loss in the creativity and flexibility that Finland provided.”

However, Wæver says that he understands well why Finns now want to join NATO and he trusts that  they will bring their special experiences and insights regarding Russia with them to NATO.

 Ole Wæver will give a public lecture titled “Climate change as a security issue” on 12 May 2022 at 17.00 (at Metsätalo, lecture room 1).

Further information

Kaisa Kaakinen, research Coordinator, The Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, kaisa.kaakinen@helsinki.fi, +358 2 941 22493

Ole Wæver

Ole Wæver is Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen and founder of the research centers CAST (Centre for Advanced Security Theory) and CRIC (Centre for Resolution of International Conflicts). He coined the concept of ‘securitization’ and co-developed what is known as the Copenhagen School in security studies.