Ole Wæver on Security in a Post-Western World

Ole Wæver, Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, and Director of the Center for Resolution of International Conflicts, delivered a CIRS Focused Discussion on October 27, 2014 on the topic “Global Security in a Post-Western World.” Introducing the lecture, Wæver noted that when world events change so quickly and so radically, it is always important to understand the basics of international relations theories, no matter how old-fashioned an idea that may seem. In international relations, it is tradition to want to comprehend the “big picture,” in terms of how one country relates to another and under what kinds of power relations within the international system.

Giving some historical background to the topic, Wæver explained that the idea of the singular “superpower” is one that has its roots in Eurocentric history, and goes back to a time where Europe was central to world events, especially during the colonial period and up to the Cold War. However, since the end of the Cold War, the question of what kind of international political system has replaced the older, more traditional bipolar global engagement of superpowers is still being debated in the discipline. There have been a great many shifts in global engagement. Nations have since attempted to adapt to the new transition and to the decline of powerful global ideologies as they reconstruct their security allegiances within power vacuums. Wæver argued that we are currently in a radically different system to that of the past bipolar world where giant powers faced off against each other. So, how did we get to this stage of finding ourselves in a post-Cold War period and, what he called, a post-West period? The answer is in what comes after bipolarity: is it unipolarity or is it multipolarity? Or, is it neither?

The post-Cold War period saw the rise of an ideologically-victorious United States, with power and influence all over the world. However, Wæver argued, it is evident from events of the recent past that the United States can no longer claim power based solely on market or military might. Around 2005, there was a turning point where the centric approach began showing signs of weakness. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars proved to be a poor strategy, and one in which the United States failed to dominate. Further, the 2008 global financial crisis completely damaged US legitimacy as a global market leader. “The US is really not dominant enough to be able to impose order,” he said.

Perhaps then the idea of multipolarilty could be considered a more appropriate definition in its acknowledgement of fluid and shifting alliances, but, Wæver argued, it is still a concept that is unsatisfactory to describe current international system structures. The idea of multipolarity is problematic since within any group of nations, some are more powerful than others. Thus, these concepts are unstable, and we need a new definition of what is taking place in the global balance of power.

Currently, the world is increasingly made up of many great powers with fewer superpowers in neither a unipolar nor a multipolar world. “No one is really thinking of themselves as global players, they are all anchored and rooted in regions, mostly interested in their own regions, somewhat interested in neighboring regions, and occasionally concerned about global questions,” he explained. Thus, if there is no longer an ongoing struggle for the prime position within the global order, we need a different type of definition, and a different type of understanding for this new global configuration.

In conclusion, Wæver said that, ultimately, many of these issues come down to basic assumptions and ways of thinking. In this sense, the current configuration of world politics is post-Western in three very distinct ways: in power politics that is no longer Western-centric; in the value order that is no longer based on a singular framework of interpretation; and, finally, in the understanding of international relations theory and concepts of polarity and global security, where we now see a greater role for theories that emanate out of different geographic and cultural contexts—ones that are not dominated by Western modes of thinking.

Ole Wæver is most known for coining the concept of “securitization” and developing what is commonly referred to as the Copenhagen School in security studies. His research interests include international relations and security theory, sociology of science, religion in international relations, climate change, conflict analysis, and the role of national identity in foreign policy. He has published and broadcast extensively in the field of international relations and securitization theory. His most recent publications include the contribution of a chapter to Capturing Security Expertise: Practice, Power, and Responsibility (Routledge, forthcoming 2015). His most recent peer-reviewed journal article, “The Theory Act: Responsibility and Exactitude as seen from Securitization” appears in International Relations (2014).

Ole Wæver, Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, and Director of the Center for Resolution of International Conflicts, delivered a CIRS Focused Discussion on October 27, 2014 on the topic “Global Security in a Post-Western World.” Introducing the lecture, Wæver noted that when world events change so quickly and so radically, it is always important to understand the basics of international relations theories, no matter how old-fashioned an idea that may seem. In international relations, it is tradition to want to comprehend the “big picture,” in terms of how one country relates to another and under what kinds of power relations within the international system.

Giving some historical background to the topic, Wæver explained that the idea of the singular “superpower” is one that has its roots in Eurocentric history, and goes back to a time where Europe was central to world events, especially during the colonial period and up to the Cold War. However, since the end of the Cold War, the question of what kind of international political system has replaced the older, more traditional bipolar global engagement of superpowers is still being debated in the discipline. There have been a great many shifts in global engagement. Nations have since attempted to adapt to the new transition and to the decline of powerful global ideologies as they reconstruct their security allegiances within power vacuums. Wæver argued that we are currently in a radically different system to that of the past bipolar world where giant powers faced off against each other. So, how did we get to this stage of finding ourselves in a post-Cold War period and, what he called, a post-West period? The answer is in what comes after bipolarity: is it unipolarity or is it multipolarity? Or, is it neither?

The post-Cold War period saw the rise of an ideologically-victorious United States, with power and influence all over the world. However, Wæver argued, it is evident from events of the recent past that the United States can no longer claim power based solely on market or military might. Around 2005, there was a turning point where the centric approach began showing signs of weakness. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars proved to be a poor strategy, and one in which the United States failed to dominate. Further, the 2008 global financial crisis completely damaged US legitimacy as a global market leader. “The US is really not dominant enough to be able to impose order,” he said.

Perhaps then the idea of multipolarilty could be considered a more appropriate definition in its acknowledgement of fluid and shifting alliances, but, Wæver argued, it is still a concept that is unsatisfactory to describe current international system structures. The idea of multipolarity is problematic since within any group of nations, some are more powerful than others. Thus, these concepts are unstable, and we need a new definition of what is taking place in the global balance of power.

Currently, the world is increasingly made up of many great powers with fewer superpowers in neither a unipolar nor a multipolar world. “No one is really thinking of themselves as global players, they are all anchored and rooted in regions, mostly interested in their own regions, somewhat interested in neighboring regions, and occasionally concerned about global questions,” he explained. Thus, if there is no longer an ongoing struggle for the prime position within the global order, we need a different type of definition, and a different type of understanding for this new global configuration.

In conclusion, Wæver said that, ultimately, many of these issues come down to basic assumptions and ways of thinking. In this sense, the current configuration of world politics is post-Western in three very distinct ways: in power politics that is no longer Western-centric; in the value order that is no longer based on a singular framework of interpretation; and, finally, in the understanding of international relations theory and concepts of polarity and global security, where we now see a greater role for theories that emanate out of different geographic and cultural contexts—ones that are not dominated by Western modes of thinking.

Ole Wæver is most known for coining the concept of “securitization” and developing what is commonly referred to as the Copenhagen School in security studies. His research interests include international relations and security theory, sociology of science, religion in international relations, climate change, conflict analysis, and the role of national identity in foreign policy. He has published and broadcast extensively in the field of international relations and securitization theory. His most recent publications include the contribution of a chapter to Capturing Security Expertise: Practice, Power, and Responsibility (Routledge, forthcoming 2015). His most recent peer-reviewed journal article, “The Theory Act: Responsibility and Exactitude as seen from Securitization” appears in International Relations (2014).

 

Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications