To Understand International Security, Consider Social Relations

By Jarrod Hayes, School of International Affairs, Georgia Tech

The world is a complex place. Social tides ebb and flow, diverse social systems interacting with agency to produce an ever-shifting mix of international challenges. This is all the more true in the post-Cold War global context, with the apparent stability of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union gone.

Part of that apparent stability (which the Cuban Missile Crisis and other near misses belie) was a sense that threat was easily diagnosed. From the Berlin blockade to the domino theory in Southeast Asia to Reagan’s Evil Empire, for Americans and many in the West, the primary threat was the Soviet Union and its allies. In the post-Cold War world, the nature and source of threat is apparently more difficult to deduce.

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In this context, the challenge for scholars is to try to understand how threats become real in the eyes of polities and societies, and what policies arise in response. To do so, analysts must import into their analysis the systems of meaning that underpin all social relations.  At their core, humans are social creatures; their use of language, a social technology, is what sets humans apart from other animals. Thus, if we want to understand international security—by its very nature a human social enterprise—we must incorporate the social ties that bind individuals into something greater.

Take, for example, the quasi-state actor called ISIS. It is itself deeply embedded in a social system of meaning, a specific narrative of Islam though which it legitimizes itself and draws new participants to its mission of violence. Analysts cannot understand ISIS as a phenomenon without taking account of those the filaments that bind ISIS and its adherents together. Those social systems of meaning pushed ISIS to undertake gruesome executions. These, in turn, were interpreted in the United States and Europe in civilizational terms, activating specific identity relations and ideas about legitimate behavior.

Likewise, we can see the societal basis of security emerge in the context of Russia and its behavior in Ukraine. By looking at how Putin built support for his policy at home in Russia, we can get a sense as to the political structures within which Putin operated that enabled him to pursue Crimea’s annexation. At the core, analysts need to understand how the Russian public made sense of Crimea and Russia’s relationship to that peninsula as well as the broader world.

One way of thinking about this to look at the way that Putin played on a shared emotional resonance in Russia, invoking a sense of Russian identity and post-Cold War victimization to justify annexation. Also at play is a shared imagination that Crimea is a primordial element of Russian territory, which is by extension an element of Russian identity.

The emotional aspect of territoriality is difficult to overstate. Just as the ability to visualize territory had a profound effect on the construction of sovereignty, intersubjectively shared emotional connections to the geographic identity of the state play an important role in how societies understand policy. Putin was able to infuse his moves in Crimea with emotional and identity content, which in turn shaped how Russians made sense of their security situation, Crimea, and Russian military moves in that province.

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In both these cases, reifying ISIS or Russia as some sort of objective threat out there in the system, without trying to understand how social systems of meaning enable behavior, is a recipe for failure. Moreover, these analytical spectacles can and should be turned to ourselves, to understand how our own shared systems of meaning lead us to construct the world in ways that may provoke the very outcomes we fear.

Fear is very appropriate here. Consider, finally, the attacks on Jewish targets in Paris and Copenhagen and the shared emotional response in European Jews. So strong is the common identity effect that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that Europe is not safe for Jews can tap into shared anxiety and resonate with the target audience. But we cannot understand such a claim without understanding how shared conceptions of identity channel emotional responses that, as neuroscientists are increasingly finding, are primary in our cognition about the world.

To return to my initial point, humans are social and we cannot understand security practices and outcomes apart from that social reality.

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