One of the major research programs in security studies centers around the process of “securitization.” Participants argue that whether or not we treat something as a threat to national security is often a matter of political choice, rather than the result of its inherent characteristics. Moreover, once something becomes viewed through the prism of a national security threat—once it is “securitized”—it changes the nature of political debate. At the most basic level, it “ups the stakes.” It makes it easier to justify devoting blood and treasure to addressing it. Securitization creates a “politics of exception.” Policies that we would normally consider much more problematic, such as suspending certain rights and liberties to address the threat, seem not just acceptable, but even necessary. Along these lines, securitization theorists maintain that securitization can short-circuit democratic deliberation—and enhance the power of the state—by constraining the possibility of dissent.
It’s often easiest to grasp securitization dynamics through illustrations. So let me offer a few.
- From the 1970s onward, the use and traffic of illegal drugs in the United States became increasingly securitized. By the 1980s, the United States was supposedly fighting a “War on Drugs.” Characterizing the illicit drug problem as a security threat—rather, than say, a public health problem—drove significant resources into law enforcement. It also enables politicians and judges to carve out exceptions to constitutional protections when illegal drugs were involved. The most famous of these exceptions involved Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure.
- Even after the 9/11 attacks, the United States had a choice about how to handle transnational terrorism. Is terrorism primarily a law-enforcement or a military problem? Other countries have adopted a different balances when it comes to how to confront terrorism, with different implications for civil liberties. The Bush Administration opted to frame the issue as a “War on Terror,” which justified significant exceptions to prohibitions on torture and restrictions on domestic surveillance, as well as the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, the United States might would likely still have invaded Afghanistan under the rubric of a more law-enforcement oriented approach—after all, the country harboring the perpetrators of the most deadly foreign attack on American soil in history refused to cooperate with US demands to bring them to justice—but it is possible that he overall mix of policies adopted would have looked rather different.
- There’s a running debate about how much to securitize climate change. Those who choose to represent it primarily a security problem, say “second only to nuclear war“, think that doing so will make it easier to convince governments to take costly steps to combat it. Indeed, although progressives tend not to think in these terms, most ways of tackling climate change involve restrictions on economic freedoms and property rights. Thus, some left-leaning critical scholars worry that securitizing climate might help motivate action but at the cost of going too far in carving out exceptions to democratic deliberation and civil liberties. It could even serve the interests of the military-industrial complex.
In many respects, this is part of what’s going on when it comes to pushback among civil-libertarians, and some progressives, over Trump-Russia. They worry that the Democratic party will constitute Russia as an existential challenge to American security—far beyond what its actual military threat justifies—and thus lead to overly confrontational policies. Progressives also, the argument goes, risk playing into the hands of the national-security state and justify abridgments of civil liberties. It’s not surprising, then, that it sets off alarm bells when liberal anti-Trump voices blame progressives for undermining the FISA process and opening the door to the Nunes memo.
While most of the bloggers at Lawyers, Guns and Money have been harshly critical on the likes of Glenn Greenwald when it comes to Russia-Trump in general, and with respect to accusations of “McCarthyism” in particular, it’s also important to recognize that they do have a point. I think the calculus is wrong. It is precisely the history of illiberal and undemocratic American policies that skeptics like to point to that should make us worried about Trump and Trump-Russia. But we should also not ignore the downside risks of, in essence, securitizing Trump and Trump-Russia.
However, I want to suggest that there are a number of areas in which progressives should be less worried about downside risks and more willing to securitize policy disputes on our own terms. Consider two examples.
First, we are currently witnessing a strong push by the Trump Administration to securitize legal and illegal immigration. Progressives look at these efforts primarily through the lens of racial politics and the demonization of “the other.” They’re entirely correct to do so, but we also need to realize that repeated invocations of MS-13, foreign-born and foreign-looking terrorists within our midst, Mexican rapists, and the like are, conjointly, efforts to securitize minorities.
In the face of these developments, our instinct is usually to try to de-securitize immigration. We emphasize that immigrants—illegal and legal—are not a threat, and that treating them as such is racist. This is correct. We should do so. But in the face of securitization effort, it also makes sense to turn the tables. Our anti-immigrant policies are, in fact, a threat to American security and prosperity. There are a wide range of reasons why this is the case, from compromising counter-terrorism policy to undermining American leadership in science and technology.
But sometimes securitizing anti-immigrant and anti-minority policies may frame the debate in ways that make us uncomfortable. Clinton got attacked for stigmatizing Muslim-Americans when she made the argument that Trump-style policies will make us less safe against domestic terrorism. The difficulty is that this criticism is fair, but also potentially counterproductive when it comes to fighting back against constructing the Muslim community as a security threat—that is, to (correctly) frame the American-Muslim community—and securing its rights and goodwill—as a security asset.
Second, and perhaps less thorny, I believe that progressives would do themselves a favor if they relentlessly securitize a variety of their policy priorities, such as large public investments in education, science and research, and transportation infrastructure. Forget “Make American Great Again,” what we need is a Progressive National Greatness platform. The advantage we have is that policies that combat inequality are, in fact, critical to preserving medium- and long-term American power. As I’ve argued before, the United States is still coasting on the diminishing returns of massive Cold War investments in these areas. Republican policies are actively crippling American national security.
Moreover, Trump-Russia is finally bringing into public consciousness the globalization of kleptocracy and oligarchy as a threat to American democracy and security. This can only be tackled in ways that link the fight against inequality at home to transnational concentrations of illicit wealth and even the exploitation of the same machinery—tax havens, shell corporations, and the like—by the law-abiding wealthy and corporations.
Securitization moves always carry with them dangers and risks. But progressives should not cede the domain—and the rhetorical force that comes with it—to the populist right, post-fascists, and other scoundrels. This is especially true in areas where our policies will, in fact, make America more secure, and where the implications of doing so net expand freedom, rather than reduce it.