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Global Governance and Biopolitics: Regulating Human Security

Global Governance and Biopolitics: Regulating Human Security

by David Roberts

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This seminal work is the first fully to engage human security with power in the international system. It presents global governance not as impartial institutionalism, but as the calculated mismanagement of life. David Roberts demonstrates that mainstream IR's nihilistic domination of security thinking blocks the realization of greater security for the world's most


This seminal work is the first fully to engage human security with power in the international system. It presents global governance not as impartial institutionalism, but as the calculated mismanagement of life. David Roberts demonstrates that mainstream IR's nihilistic domination of security thinking blocks the realization of greater security for the world's most vulnerable people and perpetuates the dystopia its proponents claim is inevitable.

In response, Global Governance and Biopolitics presents a viable means of preventing the termination of millions of everyday lives.

'Driven by the spectre of preventable poverty and suffering. David Roberts delivers a devastating critique of the neoliberal global order. This is a must-read for all those interested in not only social justice but the means by which social protection can be applied globally.' Mark Duffield, director of the Global Insecurities Centre, University of Bristol

'David Roberts has produced a tightly argued and impassioned manifesto for human security on a global scale. He offers a new and challenging vision of power, policy-making and security for the twenty-first century.'

David Chandler, professor of international relations, University of Westminster

'This book is an excellent critique of the theoretical games that academics can become distracted by and the hegemonic norms that policy-makers perpetuate as common sense.'

Pauline Eadie, co-director of the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies, University of Nottingham

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Global Governance and Biopolitics

Regulating Human Security

By David Roberts

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 David Roberts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-218-4



Depending on one's perspective, human security is either a project whose time has come or one whose time has come and gone. This chapter is a response to the 'death through discourse' that has accompanied human security's efforts to negotiate for itself a place in security practices around the world, leaving us fiddling while Rome burns. It is a challenge to the reproachful lack of urgency vested in the millions of lives that end unnecessarily and prematurely around the world. The chapter discusses the isolation and marginalization of human security, along with the incoherence of mainstream security's priorities, before foregrounding a means of recovering the human security idea.


State-centric security has rarely been concerned with the lives of human beings. Security concepts have traditionally been understood with regard to military hardware and, more lately, economic resources, technology and so on. The state in state-centrism is most ordinarily an anonymized entity at conflict with other anonymized states in a 'state of nature'. Mainstream IR has advanced into considering the role of international institutions in IR, but these are similarly anonymized and seemingly divorced from human creation and subjective determinism, as well as from the consequences of international institutional diktat. The discipline remains divorced from the social reality it claims to describe and in denial of the wider, global intellectual trend towards subjective normativity, as if, in the words of Slavoj Zizek, it is 'prepared, step by step, to accept as familiar a bizarre and morbid situation' (2002: 32). This is not to suggest that state-centrism has no place in security studies; but it is to highlight how security is studied almost without reference to the human population at large, prompting Professor Roy Preiswerk to ask, more than twenty-five years ago, 'could we study International Relations as if people mattered?' (1982). Nearly a quarter of a century later, Heidi Hudson was still asking the same question (2005). In the intervening period, IR broadly has moved a long way from its early, narrow confines; but it still rarely considers humans, either as actors in causation or as victims of security 'dilemmas', unless they are stipulated enemies of the progressive liberal order in which IR is situated (Sylvester 1994).

Realist argument has long been defined by assumptions of an immutable human nature and the fatalistic inevitability of violent interstate exchanges in an anarchic international environment regulated imperfectly by international institutions (Brown 2009; Crawford 2009; Booth and Wheeler 2008: 24–6). Furthermore, security is not 'real' unless it is possessed of certain characteristics. The 'real' matters of traditional security involve terrorism, nuclear weapons and rogue states, civil war, warlords and direct violence constituting 'hard' security. 'Soft' security is so labelled since it involves the abuse of human life on a very large scale, mainly by indirect causation, normally devoid of military weapons at the instant of their deployment, often absent obvious state involvement. For these reasons, the conditions of billions of people living in relative or absolute poverty, which threatens and/or extinguishes their lives routinely, is not considered a matter of security by the traditional security community. To securitize such issues is subjective, since it would allow for any 'existential threat' to accrue 'absolute priority' as a result of its dramatization, rather than its assessment according to 'objective' criteria (Patomaki 2008: 17). Such concerns are considered a matter of development at best, or human rights at worst, neither of which are considered priorities for or by public security policy. The focus of concern for those who inhabit this security domain lies with the state (the 'referent object'); international institutions (which are constituted of state membership); and global governance (which can be understood as the hegemonic process in international relations). The ability to maintain this security illogic is in part subsumed in its identity as 'traditional', since political tradition 'encodes power and hierarchy, allocates competencies (who may speak), constructs forms (how one may speak, what forms of discourse are proper), determines boundaries (what may not be named or conversed about), and structures exclusion (denial of voice)' (Baxi 1998: 129). In short, the dominance of such political traditions decides what we can think about in what context and disallows the potent notion that change is both possible and desirable.

This traditional understanding of security, to the exclusion of other imaginings, has been the case since the emergence of the state system itself in the seventeenth century, once memorably represented by Susan Strange as the 'Westfailure' system, on account of the effect on international peace and stability of the violence its rules make inevitable (1999). Despite a miserable record in its self-appointed role of managing the affairs of the world, its authority has become so deeply institutionalized over the intervening centuries that its legitimacy is profoundly resilient to challenge. The events of September 2001 in the USA reinforced state-centrism and reiterated the vulnerability of the state to non-state actors, as did subsequent attacks in Madrid and London. The proximity of armed violence to the state in these instances reinforced its primacy in international relations and security debates, and the boundaries of the state are again emphasized as barriers against social, civil, political and military threats from without and, increasingly, from within (Kirchner and Sperling 2007; Jackson and Sorenson 2007). So substantive are realism and neo-realism in international relations that until recently to question their most central arguments and beliefs was to invite incredulity and resentment (McSweeney 1999; Freedman 1998). Feminists who did so were marginalized, as were environmentalists and economists. The discipline remains sealed from within, by those who stipulate what may constitute security and who it affects (Booth 2005; Ackerly et al. 2006). The expansion of security by way of 'securitization' by the Copenhagen School is but a limited expansion, since although it accepts that security agendas change, it remains focused on mainly traditional purveyors and providers of security and insecurity in the form of 'the role of political leaders in the articulation and designation of threat' (McDonald 2008: 569).

Mainstream security and IR thinking in response to such threat perceptions and priorities revolves first around prevention. In realist and neo-realist terms, this involves self-help, statism and survival (Dunne and Schmidt 2008). It revolves secondly around promotion, based on the liberal assumption that a combination of democratic politics and neoliberal economics will eventually lead to the marginalization of troughs of poverty, the elevation of and concordance with individual human rights, and wider international prosperity, which will eradicate key sources of tension in the international system and undermine the propensity towards interstate war. These are its key concerns: to defend the established-but-flawed state system as it stands until interdependency and the democratic peace are successfully habituated and institutionalized and the borderlands are brought under control. Although such thinking tolerates a marginal and narrow discussion of human security at its fringes, it marginalizes the life and death of millions of people in the developing world as extra-disciplinary, and refuses to engage seriously, if at all, with the indisputable fact that millions of human beings' existential security is routinely terminated – people are killed by – the violence of extreme poverty. The narrow version of human security that mainstream security tolerates prioritizes 'death by politics over death by economics' and ensures that the threats addressed by this school 'are not the most prescient ones globally' (Bellamy and McDonald 2002: 374). Virgil Hawkins makes a similar argument in relation to Africa, regarding the propensity of international policy-makers to focus on smaller problems in Africa while paying less attention, or ignoring, the epic disaster in the Congo, measured not only in terms of war but in terms of its detritus and of wider maldevelopment (2008). Such distinctions reflect a refusal or reluctance to engage seriously with the security dilemmas that kill most people. We may reasonably conclude that mainstream security quite deliberately ignores – since it consciously selects the other matters it defines, labels and prioritizes as security – the lethal challenges that confront billions on a daily basis and which, in some cases quite preventably, kill millions annually. In so doing, mainstream security thinking eschews the imaginative and groundbreaking, but inconclusive, schools of human security that deal with global, systemic, structural violence against civilians; and with the concept of power as culpable in worldwide, mass avoidable mortality. The ontological and epistemological comfort zone in which it resides and which it sanctions marginalizes or precludes the consequences of socially constructed power transmitted through the organs of global governance as determinative of massive but preventable human fatalities. They are indifferent to, rather than maliciously complicit in, such suffering. These schools intellectually distance themselves from such arguments and deify an epistemology and ontology that claim ownership of and lionize social scientific impartiality and systemic neutrality and objectivity (Booth 2005; Ackerly et al. 2006). Concisely put, the discipline of IR is, according to its critics, dominated by 'a self-fulfilling militaristic paradigm obsessed with power and violence, interest and status' (Richmond 2008: 99).

The narrowness of mainstream security studies both invites criticism and begs explanation. Some critics have proposed that part of the explanation for the narrowness of mainstream security's ambit lies in the learned masculine character of the discipline, which associates matters of life security, either biologically or socially, with care and 'the feminine' (Sylvester 1994; Blanchard 2003; Walker 1984). Some critics suggest that such deeply habituated, institutionalized and socialized masculine behaviour not only disconnects from the feminine Other, but is also 'hard wired' to 'hard' security notions through association (Peterson 1992; Connell 2000). Certainly, this would seem to be borne out by the persistent prioritization of direct violence that kills very few, compared with a focus on indirect violence, which kills millions of (mainly female) human beings, from maternal mortality through to infanticide (explanations for and concern with which is primarily located in economics and resource distribution). Yet other critics have intimated that realist security is persistently blind to wider global lethality because considering such matters as security reveals extensive networks of partisan power across the entire field of international relations, since human insecurity is a function of asymmetrical power relations (Newman 2001; Roberts 2008a; Chandler 2008a, b). And, from the critical security studies perspective, if realism were to consider the implications of power and causation in human security, their ontological and epistemological foundations would inevitably be substantially challenged (Booth 2005; Booth and Wheeler 2008). Similar explanations for realist boundaries are to be found in social constructivist, postmodern and post-structural critiques (Wendt 2003; Ackerly et al. 2006; Berenskoetter and Williams 2007).

Global security is routinely defined, in the post-cold-war setting, with reference to the priorities and needs of the global North, or those in 'secure' states, as Mark Duffield refers to them. In this sense, security is far from global, since a wide range of subjective insecurities that plague billions of people in the maldeveloped world remain unaddressed. Furthermore, it is defined first in relation to vulnerability to direct violence, primarily from without, whereas security for the poorest 2 billion in the global South derives mainly indirectly, proximally from within but causally (mainly) from without. This latter point is important, since it underscores a central notion of this work: that power, expressed through the ideas and organs of global governance, produces indirect violence that results, quite avoidably, in millions of deaths. This relationship connects the 'production of suffering and responsibility for it' (Veitch 2007: 2). Those secure in the North hold great power; the insecure in the South, by definition, do not. Those who rank security in the former imperial metropolises are mainly white; those who die from lack of security in the ex-colonial peripheries are mainly people of colour. In gender terms, in the global North, those who prioritize security in terms of direct violence are mainly males, with a minority female element (normally white). In the global South, female fatalities from indirect violence outweigh male fatalities dramatically. The management of life through global governance, to which I shall turn shortly, differs for people of colour. It is impossible to sidestep the conclusion that those who have secured themselves from indirect violence prioritize security threats according to their remaining insecurities, reflecting Matt McDonald's question of 'why particular representations of threat resonate with particular communities, and how particular actors are either empowered or marginalized in "speaking" security' (2008: 564). These dissonances reflect the subjectivity of power and the asymmetries of opportunity and potential therein embedded. They reflect the subjectivity of the idea of security. Despite the unavoidability of this conclusion, the dominant security schools and policy-makers do not ask, in any substantial fashion, what security means to different people; who decides who and what is to be secured; from what risks and threats are they to be secured; and from what these risks and threats arise.

These questions are conspicuously absent from mainstream security debates. This neglect is considered by John Gerring, who identifies eight criteria for concept formation: familiarity, resonance, parsimony, coherence, differentiation, depth, theoretical utility and field utility (1999). As we will see in the following sections, human security is excluded and denied as a security concept by mainstream security debates not just because those who determine what counts as security cannot identify with those who are most vulnerable to avoidable death in the largest numbers (such as children in parts of Africa and Asia), but because human security and its mortal constituents are not familiar and do not resonate as security matters, since most security policy-makers have never been short of water or lived near landmines. Parsimony of security policy is a consequence of the limited economic pot and limited familiarity, while broad human security has been derided for incoherence because its lack of clear conceptualization has sometimes left it bereft of workable policy. Much of Gerring's account holds true, mainly with reference to familiarity and resonance. The matter of coherence, however, demands that we turn to substantial and valid criticism of human security, since such grounds are presented as justification for the concept's exclusion.


Human security is about placing ordinary living human beings everywhere front and centre of the security question. It puts us, our vulnerabilities and our related needs, varied as they are, at the fore of all the calculations policy-makers make about security. It is about asking questions about our own personal security, rather than the security of an anonymous, bureaucratic entity we call 'the state' or 'the system'. If we consider that the kinds of avoidable mass violence illustrated in Table 1.1 deserve more than indifference, and if the route to that debate is to be considered as a security matter (since it is, for the people killed by such threats), then human security is presented as a means of bridging the gulf between those who determine narrowly what security is, and those who die for lack of a broader, but feasible, imagining. Human security marks a departure from how we normally think about global security, in terms of the state, of sovereign territory, of civil and ethnic conflict, of anti-state terrorism, of nuclear weapons and other such obvious challenges to state security, and in terms of the institutions of state used to address such threats. Perhaps surprisingly for some, relatively few people die in such traumas, as Table 1.1 suggests. Even amid the most extreme terrorist violence, more women were murdered in the USA in 2001 by intimate partners than died in 9/11, which is not to demean the brutal slaying of thousands of innocent civilians at the hands of al-Qaeda. It is, instead, to offer some perspective on the range of violences that human security addresses as beyond the conventional consideration.


Excerpted from Global Governance and Biopolitics by David Roberts. Copyright © 2010 David Roberts. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Meet the Author

David Roberts is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Ulster.

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