Marius Ghincea

Marius Ghincea

Marius Ghincea is a Ph.D. Researcher at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, pursuing a Ph.D. in Political and Social Sciences. Simultaneously, he is a Senior Teaching Assistant at the Johns Hopkins University, Bologna. His research agenda focuses on identity and foreign policy, FPA, transatlantic relations, the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU, and global political orders.

This is Sparta! Insights from international relations theory into what the post-Covid world might look like

2500 years ago, in his account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Athenian historian and general Thucydides made the ravages of the plague affecting Greece a central feature of the tragic decline and fall of the Athenian Empire. The plague ravaging the many territories that Athens had dominion over, at the time of a desperate struggle against its arch-enemy Sparta, undermined its power and hastened its demise. 

Today’s great pandemic consuming the world has produced similar reactions among some commentators. The trade and security struggles between the United States, as the receding hegemon, and a resurgent China have been interpreted by scholars and commentators as a reiteration of the ancient theory of power transition that defines Thucydides’ history. However, IR theory has more to say about the world of tomorrow than the dramatic effects that, according to Thucydides’ followers, the pandemic could have on security and trade relations between the U.S. and China. This piece seeks to offer a brief but comprehensive overview of the major approaches in IR theory, what they may say about the world after the end of this pandemic, and how it will affect global politics.

IR scholars are often criticised for their engagement in what seems a purely academic exercise centred on an obsession with theory and abstract debates. And, true enough, IR theory is ill-suited to providing pre-packaged solutions to current problems, but many scholars will argue that that is not their business. IR theory can provide insights into international behaviour, and may provide informed predictions about how international affairs may evolve and how states may react to shocks, but it cannot prescribe a course of action. Moreover, IR theory is not in fact a homogenous, coherent‘theory’, but a divergent set of theories and approaches which look at different problems and phenomena in world affairs from different ontological and epistemological positions. No one theory can provide a comprehensive interpretation or predictions of world politics. However, taken together, these theories can help decision makers and the public fill the gaps in the puzzle we call ‘International Relations’. The aim of this essay is exactly that: to suggest a way we can integrate various pieces of the puzzle in a comprehensible way that makes the most of what we know from IR theory. IR scholars produce knowledge, not ‘solutions’ˋ to policy problems; nevertheless, this knowledge can become a tool for devising fruitful solutions.

IR theory can provide insights into international behaviour, and may provide informed predictions about how international affairs may evolve and how states may react to shocks, but it cannot prescribe a course of action.

This essay is divided into three parts. First, it discusses the current pandemic through the lenses of the ‘agency-vs-structure’ debate in International Relations. Second, it uses the three mainstream approaches in IR to interpret and predict the effects of the pandemic on the development of the international system. Finally, it discusses what insights we can gain from other, more critical approaches in IR and their importance for understanding world events.

Changing the structure of world politics

International Relations is a discipline defined by structural theorising. Each of the three major schools of thought in the discipline, neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism, are theoretically dominated by a structural understanding of world politics. What makes them different is their assumptions about these structures and state behaviour. Neorealism and neoliberalism share a materialist understanding of structures, arguing that all that matters is the distribution of capabilities under anarchy. How wealthy you are (in weapons, natural resources, GDP, technology) defines your status and behaviour in the international system, which is taken as inherently anarchical and competitive. Where they differ is in their assumption about what drives state behaviour: relative gains, as neorealists argue, or absolute gains, as neoliberals suggest.

Constructivists criticise this materialist understanding of structure and argue that we should conceive structures as inherently social, as the product of social interaction. Structures are, therefore, the product of what we do and how we do it. This means that anarchy is neither pre-given, as the other two schools assume, nor exclusively based on material capabilities, but very much on ideas which give meaning to those capabilities. When the ideas actors have change, then their behaviour changes, and that produces a change in the structure of the international system.

Why does this matter in respect to the effects of the global pandemic in world politics? It matters because change in much of IR theory translates into changes in the structure of the international system. On the one hand, if the structure of the international system is material – defined by how wealthy you are – then change can happen only when the distribution of material capabilities (i.e. wealth) changes. Therefore, according to a materialist ontology, the global pandemic will produce change in the international system if it alters the distribution of material capabilities. On the other hand, if the structure of the international system is ideational, defined by shared ideas and norms, then change can happen whenever the overreaching ideas held by states change. It is thus apparent that the global pandemic can effect change in world politics if it produces changes in the way states (i.e. politicians) understand the world and their role in it.

How does this work in practice? From a materialist perspective, actual changes in the distribution of resources must happen in order for change in world politics to take place. This could happen due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, which may destroy economic capacity in some countries, decreasing their relative material capabilities and therefore shifting the relative distribution of capabilities. If, for example, the United States and Europe are substantially more affected economically than China because of the crisis in the medium and long term, and will experience lower rates of growth with higher rates of public debt, then China becomes relatively more powerful (i.e. it gains more assets than Europe and the US). Conversely, if the pandemic forces a reconfiguration of value chains in world trade, then the United States and Europe may benefit because of what economists call on-shoring, near-shoring, and shortening of value chains.

The global pandemic can effect change in world politics if it produces changes in the way states (i.e. politicians) understand the world and their role in it.

However, from an ideational perspective, constructivists would argue that in order for shifts in material capabilities to happen, changes in ideas need to happen first. The economic ideas dominating the economic models currently operating around the world will define the level of growth, depending on how successful their growth models will prove to be. At the same time, constructivists stress that the international structure is ideational in nature and a product of social interaction. How political leaders decide to act during the pandemic and afterwards will affect how the structure evolves. If decision-makers choose a confrontational approach, then the world of tomorrow will be confrontational. If they decide to cooperate, then the future will be cooperative. In the end, the world is what states make of it.

The distinction between material and ideational structure is important not only because it emphasises different factors that affect change, but especially because it delineates the importance of actors as producers of change. For neorealists, for example, history is deterministic, and agency has almost no role in it. In the great scheme of things, neorealists believe that what matters is how material power shifts, not what people do or believe. For constructivists, human agency is at the centre of structure, defining and re-defining it constantly. Human action determines the future of the international structure, not simply how material resources are allocated. However, this structural perspective of change in world affairs is not all that IR theory has to offer.

Power, institution, and ideas in times of global pandemic

Neorealism as a structural theory of international relations is informed by the political theory of classical realism. Therefore, neorealists conceive the world as a dangerous, anarchic world inhabited by egoistic states that seek either their own survival (defensive realists) or to maximise their power (offensive realists) and use any tool at their disposal to achieve these goals. In a world where survival is the main goal and the survival of the fittest is the main mechanism of ‘natural’ selection, states can only rely on their own strength and cannot trust other states. According to this view, international organisations such as the World Health Organisation or historical phenomena such as globalisation are devised and used by great powers to further their power and enhance their control over less powerful states. This is one of the reasons why neorealists dismiss the role of international organisations as venues of cooperation, together with the assumption that all states seek relative gains, making cooperation difficult.

During the current pandemic, a neorealist will ask: how does the pandemic affects the distribution of power in the international system? As mentioned previously, power is understood here in terms of the material capabilities that states have at their disposal. Here, the economic component becomes particularly interesting for neorealists. If the pandemic affects the US economy much more than that of China, for example, then this increases the relative power of China, which over the medium to long term may build an economy which is substantially stronger than the American economy. In the short to medium term, a weak American economy may create opportunities for China to acquire US assets or push to ‘reform’ US-sponsored international institutions, increasing its global influence. The Chinese takeover of Western assets is perceived as a real danger in several Western nations, with Germany taking active measures to prevent Chinese takeovers of strategic companies. The United States may seek to do the same. At the same time, a neorealist would predict that the US will react by counterbalancing China, seeking to preempt or block Chinese takeovers of US-sponsored international organisations, and perhaps impose new economic protectionist measures and create incentives to near-shore or reshore the American manufacturing capabilities currently abroad. In the neorealist playbook, the pandemic will produce increased international tensions, a struggle for power and diminishing opportunities for cooperation.

In the neorealist playbook, the pandemic will produce increased international tensions, a struggle for power and diminishing opportunities for cooperation.

Reversely, neoliberalism suggests that the outcome of the pandemic will be the opposite of what neorealists foresee. Neoliberals assume that states seek absolute gains, not relative gains as neorealists do, and states have a tendency towards cooperation in order to reduce transaction costs and the negative effects of unwanted events, and to enhance the benefits from deeper and denser ties. This means that when faced with a pandemic of global proportions, states have a powerful incentive to cooperate. For neoliberals, international institutions reflect the desire of selfish states to cooperate in order to reduce costs and maximise benefits. Institutions such as the World Health Organisation exist to allow coordination between national health authorities, as a channel for knowledge exchange, and as a forum for deliberation.

Therefore, the question that neoliberals ask is: how does the pandemic affect incentives for states to cooperate internationally? If the pandemic reduces the incentives for cooperation, then a more neorealist logic will dominate world politics. But if the human and economic costs of the pandemic as foreseen prove to be substantial and able to be managed more effectively through global coordination, than the pandemic may increase cooperation and may enhance the importance of international organisations such as the WHO. Signs of increased coordination and cooperation, particularly on economic matters, are already visible. The leading central banks (the FED, the BCE, the CBJ, the BoE) have already signed swap and repo agreements that will provide almost unlimited liquidity in the currency of each party, and the FED is playing its role as the lender of last resort for the world economy. In healthcare we can observe some signs of regional cooperation in Europe, among Latin American countries and, to a lesser degree, in North America and Asia.

Neoliberals would predict the emergence of cooperation frameworks for pooling expertise, sharing knowledge about the virus and how to fight it better. This is visible in the quest to develop a vaccine, even if the Trump administration has been acting in a less cooperative way than the rest of the world. At the same time, the crisis is forcing states to reassess the limits of their cooperation, and to consider why certain cooperative frameworks such as the WHO have not lived up to their expectations by pushing forward reforms. But all these are defined by what ideas are circulating in the national capitals.

Neorealism and neoliberalism presuppose that the way the world works and what interests states have as pre-givens are objective facts which can be taken for granted. Constructivists dismiss this as a lack of sophistication, and even an outright misunderstanding of how world politics works. Instead, constructivists such as Alexander Wendt argue that world politics is “what states make of it”. The beliefs and identities of political leaders define how the world is and how it will evolve. National identity, culture, political interactions play a substantial role in making sense of the world and constructing it as it is. The choice between competition or cooperation results, not from changes in the distribution of power or the incentives states have, but from their identities and beliefs. A state may exhibit bellicose or friendly behaviour in international politics depending on the ideas and identity defining its society and political elite. But these ideas and identities change over time, especially because of crises which force people to reassess their beliefs and who they are.

Therefore, a constructivist would ask: how does the pandemic change shared beliefs and identities, and what effect would these changes have on world affairs? If the pandemic produces new ideas and identities that promote competition and conflict, then international relations will be defined by conflict. Conversely, if the pandemic produces solidaristic and cooperative ideas and identities, then world affairs will be characterised by increased cooperation and harmony. The world is what we make of it; it is constructed by us according to our beliefs about what is appropriate.

A neorealist or neoliberal would find it hard to answer why states would build air bridges to transport COVID-19 patients from Italy to Germany, for example. Constructivists, instead, would say that this sign of solidarity is the result of the beliefs dominating the public debate in the societies of Italy and Germany and among the political elites of those two countries. Another example is the reappearance of policy debates about resilience, ideas about the need for strategic autonomy in the production of vital products such as medicine, or the need for European solidarity.

Malign actors may seek to produce bellicose beliefs and identities by promoting polarising ideas, or fake news which provokes anger and fear, or reframes truthful news in ways that promote conflict and social tensions. The world is what we make of it, as constructivists say.

At the same time, constructivists would caution about the impact of misinformation and information warfare on which ideas and identities become dominant. Malign actors may seek to produce bellicose beliefs and identities by promoting polarising ideas, or fake news which provokes anger and fear, or reframes truthful news in ways that promote conflict and social tensions. The world is what we make of it, as constructivists say.

Who is right? None of them and all of them. While these three major approaches to international relations are often framed in opposition to each other, they illuminate various parts of international politics. Practitioners and policy elites should use them together to make sense of the world and to build better calibrated and critically informed policy responses to global challenges such as the current pandemic.

Society, discourse, and security in the world of tomorrow

IR theory may be dominated by neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism as the three major approaches to the study of world politics, but they are not alone, and several other theories and approaches can fill other gaps in the puzzle. Among them, new liberalism and the critical approaches to IR and security studies are frequently mentioned in disciplinary debates.

New liberalism is a contemporary reformulation of interwar liberalism, and was proposed primarily by Andrew Moravcsik. New liberal theory looks at domestic dynamics to explain foreign policy. In its most common formulation, new liberalism argues that the most important actors in world politics are not the states, but the domestic groups and actors which define state policy and thus influence world politics. Adopting a bottom-up approach to foreign policy analysis, liberals assume that domestic actors have different interests and are in a constant struggle to shape state policy. Therefore, foreign policy is defined by this confrontation between various groups seeking to influence foreign policy. As a result, the question asked by new liberals is: how does the pandemic reshuffle or reinforce the configuration of power and influence between domestic groups?

In Europe, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic have the potential to increase the power of those social and political groups which seek a more solidaristic European Union, pressing for more social transfers at the European level and more integration, especially with regards to monetary and fiscal issues. This may overcome the long dominance of austerity- driven fiscal hawks that have ruled the higher echelons of power in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris and Brussels. If that happens, the configuration of power between these groups will change, and consequently it will shift the policies adopted at national and European level.

In other parts of the world, such as in the United States, the effects of the pandemic are harder to discern, but they seem to be producing a new wave of social unrest which may or may not unravel the current political configuration, and with it the American foreign policy. In an increasingly dangerous world, ‘America First’ could become an even more persuasive idea, and the US may seek to shore up its current unilateralist and isolationist foreign policy. In totalitarian or authoritarian regimes faced with increased death tolls, such as Russia or Belarus, the regimes may seek to enhance their power over society by increasing the levels of oppression and intrusion, as well as the elimination of political opponents.

Finally, another perspective comes from the Copenhagen School’s ‘theory of securitisation’, which argues that security is intersubjective and socially constructed. This means that there are no inherent security threats, and that all threats are defined socially through processes of persuasion by powerful actors, which seek to securitise – to take outside the sphere of normal politics and life – certain issues. The pandemic itself has been securitised in much of the world, as an existential threat to life and our societies, with leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel using a martial language, talking about a ‘state of war’ in relation to the pandemic and the imposition of exceptional measures (i.e. lockdown).

In Europe, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic have the potential to increase the power of those social and political groups which seek a more solidaristic European Union, pressing for more social transfers at the European level and more integration, especially with regards to monetary and fiscal issues.

If issues related to the pandemic or its aftermath are subjected to further processes of securitisation, this may further impact world politics. If the virus continues to be an existential threat, social, economic, and political links may be distorted by the perception of danger. If travel between countries becomes impossible, as the risk of infection during transit appears too great, then trade routes will be cut and investment and tourism will be imperiled. This, in turn, could escalate into political and diplomatic tensions and conflict between countries who ban travel to certain countries and those who are thus affected.

Conclusions

IR theory cannot provide prepackaged forecasts or solutions about and for the world after the pandemic, but it can suggest further possible trends in world politics, depending on the theoretical assumptions each approach supports. Neorealism assumes conflict as the natural state of the world, and therefore predicts more conflict. Neoliberalism presupposes cooperation and foresees as much. Constructivism tells us that it is what we make of it, that nothing is predetermined, and what matters is the ideas and identities that come out of this pandemic. New liberals look inside the state and tell us that what matters is how domestic groups will be affected by the pandemic, while the Copenhagen School argues that the socially constructed understanding of threats will define much of the world after the pandemic. Who is right? Again, none and all at the same time. Every one of these theories provides a piece in the larger puzzle we know as world politics. Understanding what each of them has to offer and what its limits are can help practitioners to better understand what is happening and prepare better for tomorrow.

The anxious Union. Overcoming the culture of insecurity

By Marius Ghincea | Florence

The European Union prides itself on ‘making war unthinkable’ among its member states, and credits the European integration process for the great achievement of Pax Europaea, the longest period of peace in much of Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Making war unthinkable and materially impossible was the main original purpose of the European project, and represents one of the main pillars of the narrative of European identity that legitimises the European Union, at the same time providing it with significant global normative power (Schuman 1950; Diez and Manners 2007). But if Pax Europaea has been such a stupendous success, then why are the Europeans feeling so insecure, fearful and anxious about so many issues?

Successive surveys have shown that Europeans do not feel secure in an otherwise peaceful Europe, with fears and anxieties running higher in the last decade than at any other point in time since the end of the Cold War (Eurobarometer 89 2018; Borger et al. 2015). The regular Eurobarometer published by the European Commission and other surveys show increased levels of insecurity and anxiety linked with factors unrelated to the more ‘traditional’ aspects of security, such as socio-economic well-being, personal safety and terrorism, climate change, and immigration and national identity, especially in Central and Eastern Europe (Eurobarometer 88, 89; Dennison et al. 2018; Hunyadi 2016). These findings confirm that while military-related insecurity has diminished since the end of the Cold War, other types of insecurities have become more prominent and emerged to replace the ‘traditional’ fears that dominated Cold War-era Europe.

In the last decade, the European Union has faced significant, even unprecedented, overlapping challenges for which in the eyes of many Europeans it has frequently failed to provide adequate solutions. And even when it did so, the emergence and overlapping character of these challenges created social and political reactions that still have the potential to undermine the European project (Kinnvall, Manners, Mitzen 2018).

These overlapping challenges undermine not only the credibility of the European Union as an effective actor, at home and on the global stage, but also show the fluid and artificial character of external/internal divisions. External challenges like the refugee flows from the war-torn Middle East, the lingering conflict in Ukraine and the resurgence of a bellicose Russia converge with domestic crises caused by a decade of economic stagnation in much of Europe, the emergence of nativist populism across Europe, and the unpredictable Brexit process.

These external and internal challenges are serious and pose various levels of risk to the security of the European Union. The legitimacy and normative power of the EU on the world stage and at home depend on successfully providing not only effective solutions, but also a sense of security.

The existential threat to Europe is not necessarily the sum of the challenges and crises pressuring it, which in themselves are manageable. The future of the European Union hinges on its ability to manage the culture of insecurity that dominates the European public spaces, which is effectively taking hold of the public agenda.

The challenges and crises that Europe faces are real, but the way the European societies relate to them, through the lens of a dominant culture of insecurity, makes Europe incapable of acting effectively.

This culture of insecurity produces political paralysis, creates societal instability and narrows the policy options available to decision-makers, while at the same time decoupling them from the set of values and principles that define the European identity and its political tradition.

The challenges and crises that Europe faces are real, but the way the European societies relate to them, through the lens of a dominant culture of insecurity, makes Europe incapable of acting effectively, undermining its political institutions and its fundamental values. It forces European nations to look inward instead of outward, narrowing their focus to providing immediate relief to these deep-seated and culturally produced anxieties and fears.

Moreover, this insecurity is being encouraged by foreign rivals through information warfare, and instrumentalised by far-right and far-left domestic parties against the political mainstream, fuelling radicalism, heightening political alienation, and halting progress on important issues.

In order to overcome the various challenges facing Europe, the European Union and its member states must tackle the ideational and material sides of this systemic crisis simultaneously. The problem posed by the culture of insecurity that dominates European public life will not disappear even if all the external and internal challenges are resolved.

The dramatic decrease in the number of refugees arriving on Europe’s shores, basically ending the refugee crisis, has not decreased immigration and identitarian anxieties, as the most recent surveys show. While this culture of insecurity provides some opportunities for enhanced cohesion and solidarity, at least on some issues, it primarily creates political paralysis and undermines European and national political institutions.

Therefore, it is essential that the European institutions and national governments manage this culture of insecurity systematically and through a decentralised but coordinated pan-European strategy aimed at decreasing the sense of insecurity and increasing the sense of hope and trust in political institutions.

The purpose of this article is twofold. First, I focus on the production of insecurity in Europe, drawing attention to how insecurities emerge, become naturalised and are taken for granted, forgetting that these are essentially social artefacts that are culturally produced by our societies (Weldes et al. 1999, 9). The way we conceive the world and the events affecting us are shaped by these ‘taken for granted’ insecurities that permeate our culture and public discourse. Cultures of (in)securities define the way the general public and the elites perceive and respond to challenges and crises, empowering certain actors and policy options while marginalising others.

Second, I suggest several approaches that may provide effective and relatively efficient alternatives to the culture of insecurity that dominates the European public spheres. The most significant approach consists in mixing narratives with policy actions targeting the symbolic references of Europe’s insecurities. These include the promotion of counter-narratives that deploy rejuvenated liberal myths, and of the memory of the past, both as positive and as negative, in conjunction with proactive policy measures to reduce the immediate day-to-day worries about the future.

What is a ‘culture of insecurity’?

On culture

‘Culture’ has long been a fundamentally contested concept (Gallie 1956; Cobley 2008) which often awakens passionate debates over its meaning, characteristics, and even its purposefulness. Even so, culture permeates much of the existing scholarship in the social sciences, especially in political science and anthropology.

Moreover, our societies rely on ‘culture’ as an important symbolic tool to justify and describe collective and individual behaviour, historical processes, and even societal and institutional frameworks. Culture represents a system of intersubjective meanings, reinforced by practices and institutions, that human collectivities use to weigh and interpret physical and social reality.  

These systems function through meaningful symbols produced, reproduced, and disseminated through discourses, practices, and institutions. In turn, these dictate social acceptability, behaviour, desire, thoughts, and feelings. Culture, as an ideational structure shared by a human collectivity, provides a coherent, consistent, and continuous way of looking at the world, offering the necessary tools for effective and, sometimes, efficient decision-making.

 Culture liberates and constrains, creating the tools for comprehending the world but at the same time setting the limits of this comprehension. Moreover, culture plays a determinate role in defining identity, providing ontological security and oftentimes a sense of purpose. The culture(s) of our societies can make us feel secure and strong or insecure and weak, irrespective of the facts on the ground and our actual strength. The events in the physical and social world become meaningful through our social interpretation of them, and this interpretation subsequently defines our response (Berger and Luckmann 1966).

 This interpretation is neither pre-given nor universal in nature; it emerges from the constant competition between social narratives and performative practices that dominate the public sphere. This competition produces winners and losers, and the winning interpretative narrative and practices become habitualized and naturalized through mutual acceptance. Therefore, it is important to note that our own insecurities are not the direct product of the challenges we face, but are the result of the dominant interpretation of these challenges, which can be explicit or implicit.

On the production of insecurity

When it comes to the production of insecurity, we can distinguish between two main ways of creating a sense of insecurity in humans: linguistic and practice-based approaches. These two approaches can be performed separately or together, converging or diverging depending on the specific social and political context. Insecurity is not produced only in reaction to exogenous or endogenous social and physical events, but it may also produce these events in a circular process of co-constitution. Even more, these processes are the ones establishing the border between what is conceived as security and insecurity (Bigo and McCluskey 2018, 2-3).

First, the linguistic production of insecurity is realized through so-called processes of securitization. Securitization is a discursive process that transforms nonpolitical or political matters into ‘security’ issues that require extraordinary measures. It represents an extreme form of politicization that justifies extraordinary policies and institutional measures in order to eliminate or alleviate the perceived threat (Buzan et al. 1998, 25).

Such securitisation attempts are undertaken by securitising actors that have the political capital and legitimacy to attract and maintain the attention of a target audience, be it a small elite group in a national government or the general public, which the actor seeks to convince in order to allow for the use of exceptional measures or the reallocation of resources.

The collective securitization of Muslims in the European Union is such an example. Entire religious and ethnic communities have been reframed from benign to collective well-being and security into potentially existential threats (Kaunert and Léonard 2019; Hansen 2011) to European societies in various sectors of life, including public safety, culture and identity, or economic welfare.

Similarly, as Szalai (2017) shows, the refugee crisis that affected Europe starting in 2015 is another well-known case of securitization, which in his words has been a source of ‘enacted melodrama’ performed by the European governments, especially that of Hungary, as a political spectacle that reframed what seemed like a humanitarian crisis into a threatening ‘invasion’ of Europe by non-European, non-Christian immigrants (Szalai 2017; Postelnicescu 2016).

While the linguistic production of insecurity is more typical of those who have political capital, such as politicians and government professionals, it is also possible to engage in securitization from outside the government. Journalists, non-profit actors, and foreign actors are among those with enough resources and access to the public sphere to reframe certain challenges as existential threats to a certain referent object.

Second, the practice-based production of insecurity results through institutional, individual, or collective practices, habitualized procedures, or technologies employed against a target: sometimes with the intention of creating chaos and uncertainty, and at other times to create a perception of security of control. The practices and technologies that seek to produce security can have the side-effect of producing insecurity and co-constituting the security/ insecurity nexus (Pfaff 2010; Bigo 2002, 2014; Huysmans 2002).

In the military field, states are crippled by uncertainties derived from asymmetric information and strategic opacity, always seeking to become relatively invulnerable but always discovering that the pursuit of increased security always causes increased insecurity. This (in)security paradox more often than not produces security dilemmas that spiral into threat and finally war, if states fail to properly signal benign intentions. Similarly, in non-traditional security settings, the pursuit of security often is the catalyst that produces insecurity.

As Didier Bigo shows in his expansive scholarship, European governments’ pursuit of securing Europe’s borders has constituted the threats that these borders are created to protect against. Domestically, the economic and other societal policies and practices that are intended to increase the general welfare are creating the social and identitarian dichotomies that create social conflict and produce deep-seated perceptions of insecurity.

Non-state actors can also produce practice-based insecurities, especially terrorist organizations and radical domestic political movements. Terrorist attacks are practice-based insecurity-inducers that seek to produce fear and uncertainty.

Most terrorist attacks have small material and human consequences, but they produce gigantic insecurities among the target population. This is why some scholars, like Alex Schmid (2006), define terrorism as psychological warfare.

But this is only one side of the coin, because governments that devise counter-terrorist policies and programs also produce insecurity in order to build political support and cohesion around the desired course of action against terrorist organizations (Ahmed 2015). Therefore, it can be said that both state actors and non-state actors produce insecurities for political, strategic, or as a side-effect of other actions or narratives.

When this sense of insecurity becomes systematic, when it is felt by significant segments of society, reframing the public space and changing the social priorities of a collectivity, we can say that a ‘culture of insecurity’ has emerged. The sense of insecurity drives action but can also produce paralysis, which usually requires radical upheavals of the status quo to overcome. It is therefore essential that status quo forces understand the risks – and opportunities – posed by dominant cultures of insecurity.

Producers of insecurity in Europe

The production of insecurity always presupposes the existence of at least two actors’ part in what we may very well call a dialectical transaction. In this transaction, one party tries to inflict upon the other – with or without the acquiescence of the other – fear, anxieties, and a general state of insecurity regarding something the other values.

Generally, an implicit or explicit recognition of a source of insecurity is needed for such a transaction to even be considered by the actors involved. The recipient of the insecurity needs to acquiesce to the dangers posed by the source of insecurity and to develop the emotions, set of beliefs, and behaviour associated with the sense of insecurity. The refusal or even contestation of the insecurity produced may result in the producer failing to achieve the desired outcomes, and may even result in the emergence of counter-interpretations of events and situations.

The production of insecurity can take place through linguistic approaches, which involves convincing an audience about the existential threat posed by something or someone; or through practice-based approaches, like a terrorist attack or the imposition of security-enhancing technologies that themselves constitute the insecurity they seek to prevent.

Both approaches make use of pre-existing myths, interpretations of social reality, and historical & political paradigms that dominate the public space. Nationalism, personal freedom, identity narratives about minorities and non-Europeans provide a framework in which the production of new or resurrected insecurities takes place, and in which these insecurities subsequently compete for attention and dominance of the public space.

In this section, I will discuss the most common producers of insecurity in Europe, in their linguistic and practice-based forms.

Revisionist political groups: producing narratives of insecurity

Far-right and far-left political groups have long traditions of producing anxiety and fear as tools for electoral success. Most European populist parties, both on the right and the left, instrumentalize insecurity as a driver for political success.

When these marginal political groups acquire political power, they transform the production of insecurity into state policy and publicly construct financed campaigns of vilification that seek to reproduce the sense of insecurity, purposefully promoting a culture of insecurity that allows them to remain in power and, even more, to adopt extraordinary measures that undermine checks-and-balances on their own political power.

These vilification campaigns, which are instrumental in promoting a culture of insecurity and which allow revisionist groups to alter the political system to their desires, are building on pre-existing exclusionary conceptions of nationhood.

These ‘us vs. them’ nationalist conceptions are deep-seated and inherent characteristics of national identities, especially in ethnically based forms of nationalism (Smith 1998, 55-56). Revisionist groups make use of century-old identity cleavages and historical myths in order to legitimise and promote their narratives of insecurity, and are effective because they are based on living traditions that are taken for granted.

The vilification and securitization campaigns, both linguistic and practice-based, of Fidesz in Hungary are such an example. Similarly, populist parties across Europe, from the economic insecurity narratives promoted by Alternative for Germany against Germany’s membership of the Eurozone to the anti-immigration propaganda promoted by Mateo Salvini’s Lega Nord, are excellent examples of how marginal political groups produce and use insecurity as electoral tools.

Russia: Enhancing and spreading insecurity

Another source of insecurity in Europe resides in the subversive actions of third-state or state-supported actors. These states, notably Russia, use disinformation, hybrid and information warfare to enhance and spread insecurity (Thomas 2016; Stebbins 2018).

By doing so, they seek to undermine the political status quo and cause chaos in European societies, forcing them to be more inward-looking. The methods used by Russian-backed information warfare rarely produce new insecurities, and usually focus on enhancing already-existing narratives which produce insecurity, spreading them further and targeting vulnerable demographic segments (Rummer 2017; Morgan 2018; Spaulding et al. 2018).

The press as a producer of insecurity

While not usually perceived as a producer of insecurity, mass media represents one of the main producers of insecurity in Europe. Intentionally or not, mass media across the continent produces, disseminates, and enhances the insecurities they seek to explain (Lamour 2018). In this way, the press metamorphosizes from being a simple conduit of knowledge and information into the producer of that knowledge and information, framing facts to induce desired reactions and political outcomes. Emotion sells papers and increases TV audience ratings, creating perverse incentives for news outlets to enhance and promote strong emotional responses, and therefore to frame social events, facts, and even ordinary news in ways that provoke insecurity.

Moreover, the acquisition of media outlets by media moguls, like the Murdoch family in the United Kingdom, transforms these media outlets into tools of securitization for political or ideological purposes. Framing challenges and crises as potentially existential threats allows media outlets to remain relevant in an increasingly decentralized environment, with plenty of information, at the cost of destroying the fiber of society and undermining democratic politics and its liberal tradition.

Security professionals: maintaining purpose by manufacturing insecurity

Finally, a very important social group that produces insecurity is made up of security agencies and security professionals. Governmental security agencies, as bureaucratic organizations, need a reason to exist and to justify their public budget. In order to maintain and increase these budgets, security agencies need to convince legislators and decision-makers that their existence is justified by the emergence or existence of security threats, risks and vulnerabilities which need to be contained, eradicated, or alleviated (Huysmans 2002; Ghincea 2006).

In pursuing these justifications, security agencies seek and define the threats they need to combat, directly or indirectly producing insecurities in society by reframing social and political events. This does not mean that objective.

security challenges do not exist, but the way we relate to them and the way we respond to them is the result of the social interpretation provided by security technocrats and professionals that have an invested interest in justifying their own work and in increasing the budgets available to them (Huysmans 2002). Therefore security professionals, in the pursuit of their own purposefulness, can produce insecurities that reinforce and justify their own work in the eyes of decision makers and the society they seek to serve.

How to overcome the culture of insecurity?

The sense of insecurity that dominates the European public sphere risks undermining the entire European project and dismantling over half a century of progress towards integration. No single, pan-European strategy can be employed in all the member states of the EU, but national strategies can converge at the European level on the most essential aspects that need to be covered, and pan-European coordination should be an endeavour undertaken by EU supranational institutions such as the Commission and the Council.

As stated earlier in this article, an optimal approach to overcoming the culture of insecurity in Europe requires mixing counter-narratives and proactive policy actions that could undermine the existing culture of insecurity and promote a culture of security and hope among the most seriously affected segments of European societies. In this section, I suggest potential approaches that can be used to overcome the culture of insecurity and promote a culture of security that is based on liberal values, political and cultural pluralism.

Counternarrative: promoting the liberal worldview

The European Union and a majority of its member states are engaged in campaigns to combat disinformation and manipulation online. These seem to have been fairly effective in combating ‘fake news’, especially with regard to media literacy, but in my view these efforts have so far been ineffective at undermining the culture of insecurity (see also Levinger 2018, 131-132).

The disinformation and manipulation campaigns promoted by foreign actors tend to enhance and disseminate an already existing sense of insecurity that has been promoted through other means by domestic actors, especially radical political movements, certain media outlets, and even governmental agencies, as I have argued in the previous section.

Therefore, these campaigns against disinformation must be undertaken together with positive campaigns promoting counternarratives that reinforce liberal democracy formed universe formed of mythology, liberal values and principles, and build trust in democratic political institutions. It is not enough to simply signal the falsehoods promoted by revisionist actors, because those that believe such falsehoods are already alienated from the mainstream of society and have no reason to believe such signals.

What is required is a reinforcement of the liberal universe as the single most desirable and achievable option (Tuck and Silverman 2016). Moreover, it is essential for liberal counternarratives to blend offline and online realities, assuring an overlapping between the online experience and real-world feelings and social engagement (Meleagrou-Hitchens 2017).

Learning from rivals

Another important step in the process of overcoming the culture of insecurity is to learn how insecurity is produced and reproduced by those actors that engage in such endeavours. The best sources of learning about how to overcome a culture of insecurity are the very same actors that create this insecurity.

By studying and investigating their methods, approaches, and processes of production, dissemination, and improvement, liberal actors can find ways not only of undermining them, but to use the same methods for the production and promotion of counter-narratives that seek to provide an alternative worldview to that promoted by those who maintain a culture of insecurity.

Practices & policies: words into deeds

An essential component of any strategy that seeks to undermine the culture of insecurity consists in combining security-enhancing linguistic approaches with practice-based approaches. It is not enough to say that we are secure, that everything will be well, and that the future is bright; these words need to be transformed and associated with deeds.

Policies and programs intended to alleviate economic anxieties, reduce segregation, enhance intercultural communication, and promote an inclusionary national identity should be undertaken and effectively promoted by governmental and non-profit organizations.

Words need to be matched by deeds in order to be fully effective, especially because the alienation of vulnerable social groups has occurred in relation to the liberal worldview, which has failed to meet expectations and failed to provide what it promised. Therefore, it is essential that security-enhancing practices are employed together with positive narratives.

Reference list

Ahmed, S. (2015). ‘The “Emotionalization” of the “War on Terror”: Counter-terrorism, fear, risk, insecurity and helplessness’. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 15 (5), 545-560. Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966).

‘The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge’. New York City: Anchor Books. Bigo, D. (2002). ‘Security and Immigration: Toward a Critique of the Governmentality of Unease’. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 27 (1), 63-92. Bigo, D. (2014).

‘The (In) Securitization Practices of the Three Universes of EU Border Control: Military/Navy – Border Guards/Police – Database Analysts’. Security Dialogue, 45 (3), 209-225. Bigo, D., & McCluskey, E. (2018).

‘What is a PARIS Approach to (In)Securitization? Political Anthropological Research for International Sociology’. In A. Gheciu, & W. Wohlforth, The Oxford Handbook of International Security (pp. 116-133).

Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. Borger, J., Kirchner, T., Petit, T., Leszczynski, A., Paci, F., & Carbajosa, A. (2015, February 4). ‘What are Europeans afraid of most?’, The Guardian

Buzan, B., Waever, O., & Wilde, J. d. (1998). ‘Security: A New Framework for Analysis’.

Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishing. Cobley, P. (2008). ‘Culture: Definitions and Concepts’ in W. Donsbach, The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publications.

Dennison, S., Franke, U. E., & Zerka, P. (2018). ‘The Nightmare of the Dark: The Security Fears that Keep Europeans Awake at Night’.

Brussles: European Council on Foreign Relations. European Commission. (2018). Eurobarometer 89. Brussels: Eurostat. European Commission. (2019). Eurobarometer 90. Brussles: Eurostat.

Gallie, W. B. (1956). ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56, 167- 198.

Ghincea, M. (2016). ‘The Securitization of Migration in Europe: A Theoretical Analysis’.

“Power, Pace, Security” Academic Conference, III edition. Bucharest: The Security Studies Group. Hansen, L. (2011).

‘Theorizing the Image for Security Studies: Visual Securitization and the Muhammad Cartoon Crisis’. European Journal of International Relations, 17 (1), 51-74.

Hunyadi, B., & Molnár, C. (2016). ‘Central Europe’s Faceless Strangers: The Rise of Xenophobia’. Budapest: Freedom House. Huysmans, J. (2002).

‘The European Union and the Securitization of Migration’. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 38 (5), 751-777. Kaunert, C., & Léonard, S. (2019).

‘The Collective Securitization of Terrorism in the European Union’. West European Politics, 42 (2), 261- 277.

Kinnvall, C., Manners, I., & Mitzen, J. (2018). ‘Introduction to 2018 Special Issue of European Security: “Ontological (In)Security in the European Union”’. European Security, 27 (3), 249-265. Lamour, C. (2018).

‘Mass Media and Border Securitization in Europe: Investigating the Metropolitan “Mediapolis” in an Era of RightWing Populism’. Journal of Urban Affairs . Levinger, M. (2018).

‘Master Narratives of Disinformation Campaigns’. Journal of International Affairs, 71 (1.5), 125-134.

Manners, I., & Diez, T. (2006). ‘Reflecting on Normative Power Europe’. In F. Berenskoetter, & M. J. Williams, Power in World Politics (pp. 173-188). New York: Routledge.

Meleagrou-Hitchens, A. (2017). ‘The Challenges and Limitations of Online Counter-Narratives in the Fight Against ISIS Recruitment in Europe and North America’. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 18 (3), 95-104. Morgan, S. (2018).

‘Fake News, Disinformation, Manipulation and Online Tactics to Undermine Democracy’. Journal of Cyber Policy, 3 (1), 39-43.

 Pfaff, W. (November/December 2010). ‘Manufacturing Insecurity: How Militarism Endangers America’. Foreign Affairs.

 Postelnicescu, C. (2016). ‘Europe’s New Identity: The Refugee Crisis and the Rise of Nationalism’. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 12 (2).

 Schmid, A. (2005). ‘Terrorism as Psychological Warfare’. Democracy and Security (1), 137-146.

Schuman, R. (1950, May 09). The Schuman Declaration. Paris.

Spaulding, S., Nair, D., & Nelson, A. (2018). ‘Why Putin Targets Minorities’. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies. Stebbins, H. (2018, April 17). ‘Narrative and Information: Russian Cyber Operations’. International Review

Szalai, A. (2017). ‘Securitization as Enacted Melodrama: The Political Spectacle of the Hungarian AntiImmigration Campaign’. ECPR General Conference 2017, Univesity of Oslo. Oslo: ECPR.

Thomas, T. (2016). ‘Russia’s 21st Century Information War: Working to Undermine and Destabilize Populations’. Defense Strategic Communication (1), 10-25.

Tuck, H., & Silverman, T. (2016). ‘The Counter-Narrative Handbook’. London: Institute for Strategic Dialogue

Weldes, J., Laffey, M., & Gusterson, H. (1999). ‘Introduction: Constructing Insecurity’ In J. Weldes, M. Laffey, H. Gusterson, & R. Duvall, Cultures of Insecurity: States, Communities, and the Production of Danger (pp. 1-35). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.