The burden of insecurity: Using theories of International Relations to make-sense of the state of post-9/11 politics

This is a guest post by Runa Das, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Duluth.

The globalizing world of post-9/11 international politics unfortunately continues to be rocked by terrorist attacks impacting states and their civilians at a global level. Beginning with September 2001 (9/11) attacks on the United States, these unfortunate chains of events have (amongst many others) occurred in Europe (Madrid, 2004; London, 2005; Paris, 2015); Asia (Mumbai, 2008; Bali, 2002; Jakarta, 2005); Africa (Kenya, 2013; Tunisia, 2015); once again in the United States (Boston, 2013; San Bernardino, 2015); and, recently in Brussels (March 2016) followed by those in Pakistan (Lahore).

How do we as academics and researchers working at the theoretical intersections of the fields of International Relations and Security – who in various ways seek to engage with students, state leaders, policy practitioners, and, the broader intellectual community to bring about a world of peace and security –  make sense of (and deal with) these unfortunate incidents of terrorist occurrences that incur direct devastating consequences on states and citizens who remain victims of these occurrences? Also, at a more complex level, how does one make sense of the inter-connected issues of religion, culture, and identity of certain individuals, groups, and communities who may unfortunately become subject to implicit or explicit forms of profiling or stereo-typing as a result of these repeated terrorist occurrences? In sum, how do we as members of the academia deal with this “burden” of terrorism-prone insecurity pervading post-9/11 international affairs?

Indeed, it is common-sense that for every globally concerned citizen these terror crises are real threat issues with concrete and long-lasting physical-psychological impact on their direct victims; on these victims’ friends and families; and to any responsible and concerned member of the global community – irrespective of their gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, and geographical location – constitute a highly disconcerting state of human insecurity.

As such, the post-9/11 aftermath has justifiably witnessed an array of responses from state leaders all over the world to fight this terror through political, military, and counter-terrorism strategies; alliance-building amongst democratic/responsible states; as well as inter-state diplomacy and dialogue to secure a post-9/11 world of peace and security. These collective efforts are evidenced in the passing of the US Patriot Act by the US after 9/11; the creation of the United States Department of Homeland Security 2002; the passing of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act 2001 in UK; the European Union Framework Decision on Terrorism, 2002; Prevention of Terrorism Act in India, 2002; and so forth. In addition, there followed speeches by political leaders “assuring” security to their citizens residing at home/abroad; shoring up subway, airport, and other transportation and special law-enforcement security systems; and, last but not the least, an escalation of states’ military-nuclear defensive measures (also resulting in their rising military-defense budgetary expenses).

The above strategies reflect the traditional (mainstream) theoretical precepts of realism and neo-realism, which, with well-backed statist justifications, seek to make-sense of, understand, and deal with the post-9/11 anarchy . In these state-led approaches the assumption and existence of anarchy (whether ingrained in human nature or lurking in the international structure) remains given, and, in this sense represents a “problem-solving” or “problem-fixing” approach by states as rational and responsible actors to combat danger in post-9/11 politics.

Although views (especially from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Global Campaign for Free Expression) across the United States, UK, European Union, South Asia (India), and elsewhere have deemed these post-9/11 national security measures in their respective national contexts as being too militaristic; diverting significant economic resources for military-defense purposes; and bearing questionable human rights implications on certain individuals, groups, communities (namely in stereo-typing or profiling these groups based on their religious-cultural stripes) – at a general level a consensus also exists that these immediate state-led national security strategies may be pragmatic and rational short-term efforts to move towards (less militaristic, less restrictive) long-term strategies to curb these ongoing threats of terrorism.

The theoretical line of neo-liberalism (with its pillar of interdependence and a shift from high to low politics) is also seen by states as a pragmatic way to forge a post-9/11 interdependence among democratic and peace-loving states to fight post-9/11 terrorism. Nowhere better is this strategic interdependence seen than in the case of the post-9/11 alliances between the United States and the two South Asian countries India and Pakistan through multiple political-military; scientific-nuclear technological; counter-terrorist; and, socio-cultural (educational) collaborative strategies to fight their common post-9/11 anarchy. Indeed, these neo-liberal strategies, with their continuing reliance on military collaborative strength, have been able to control the spiraling of terrorism to a considerable extent. However, neo-liberalism, like realism and neo-neo-realism, has not really challenged structural anarchy (as given) in international politics. Instead, through an upsurge of nuclear, technological, and military collaborations (as has been witnessed between the respective duos of United States-India and United States-Pakistan) has created a greater climate of suspicion, hostility, and terrorism-prone anarchy between traditional regional adversaries (as between India and Pakistan) – not to mention sustaining through drone operations a climate of internal political instability in Pakistan (a military facet that also accompanies the strategies of globalization).

Caught in the mire of these intersecting terrains of realism, neo-realism, neo-liberalism, and their continued reliance on “problem-solving” approaches (either through militarism or military-technological interdependence) to fight terrorism, how can we as academics, researchers, and concerned audience of the global juggle with and go beyond these traditional theoretical insights of International Relations to consider alternative ways to make-sense of, understand, and deal with the terrorism-prone insecurity pervading post-9/11 world affairs?

At this point, one might consider paying attention to the critical theories of International Relations that, despite considered marginal by the mainstream theoretical views, are simply not content with the mainstream “problem-solving” approaches to deal with the burden of post-9/11 terrorism. Instead, this group representing the historical materialists, post-modern, post-structural, postcolonial, feminist, and the critical social constructivist approaches suggest a “how-possible” approach to make-sense of the terrorism-prone world of post-9/11 international affairs. With different substantive arguments (but under the rubric of critical international relations), these critical theories’ “how-possible” lenses may be used to ask probing and challenging questions that interrogate the “how and why” problems of the political, i.e., why/how such acts of terrorism happen to begin with; how the world of post-9/11 insecurity came to be as it currently is; how this insecurity is represented (and amplified) through actors’ discursive and representational dynamics; and, finally what makes this world of insecurity appear as common-sense before the global public/ intellectual community?  In this vein, these critical theories’ “how-possible” questions may also delve into the oft ignored (but important) historically-grounded and hierarchy-challenging questions such as how colonial histories; post-colonial trends of big power-politics; perceptions of inequalities underpinning the contemporary political-economy of globalization; inter-state hierarchies and power differentials between Western and non-Western states; and the Orientalist politics of “othering” non-Western states by Western states may explain “why” these acts of terrorism happen to begin with? In sum, rather than (or, in addition to) dealing with post-9/11 terrorism as an outcome of human nature (realism) or an anarchy-driven international structure (neo-realism), can alternative factors (that lie at the intersections of history, politics, political-economy, hegemonic-power, and anguishes of those impacted by these perceptions of power, hegemony, and political-economy) explain the historical roots and the contemporary manifestations of these post-9/11 acts of terrorism?

To conclude, one must admit that these acts of terrorism are real. In this context, one must applaud the efforts of states and their political leaders (supported by their academic allies in realist, neo-realist, and neo-liberal camps) to continue through state-led national security and globalization measures to provide security for all.

Yet, in this space of transition one must not mute or ignore the existence of the critical theoretical voices, which, not disconnected from or entirely discounting state-led national security measures, mark a space for themselves by representing more concerted efforts to historically interrogate the contemporary existence of post-9/11 terrorism. In this effort, the critical International Relations theories (namely the feminists and the post-colonial theories’ emphasis on agency) are also representative of people’s or civilian power that evidenced through numerous civilian networking across the globe (as evidenced through the Human Rights Watch; American Civil Liberties Union; Liberty; and, the 2015 unity march in Paris attended by 3.7 million civilians to defy terrorism) try to make-sense of, understand, and, proffer an alternative, civilian-led, and trust-based vision of peace and security in post-9/11 world affairs. In this vein, these critical approaches to post-9/11 security seek to balance their perceived excesses of state-led post-9/11 national security measures with less militaristic, less restrictive, and, more human-rights attuned notions of national security for all – irrespective of people’s race, religion, culture, nationality, and gender.