Security: the unmentionable debate

While there are genuine points of disagreement between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, the centrality of ‘security’ is not one of them. I wish this were not the case.

Both candidates seem to agree that security ought to be the basis of foreign (or even domestic) policy decision-making. They differ, of course, on what exact measures would make America ‘secure’ – but their debates have centred around the degree of threat from specific quarters (immigrants, refugees, trade, etc.) rather than the overarching importance of security.

Security refers to the broader practice and narratives around real or perceived threats: how are certain issues characterized as threats to citizens’, national or global security? What kind of responses become permissible because of such characterization? ‘Security-talk’ makes foreign policy appear apolitical; useful only if it protects American citizens from existential threats. The language of security amplifies all threats so that they appear existential and justifies militarized, repressive state policy. ‘Fear and prejudice are conscripted to the service of state and local projects’ (Goldstein 2016).

Consider the ‘dangers’ of undocumented migration, for instance, a subject on which Donald Trump has had much to say, and a topic which straddles both domestic and foreign policy. The rhetoric of national security has long been used to mask virulent, racialized immigration laws, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the security measures put in place along the US-Mexico border after the attacks on September 11, 2001. More recently, national security been used to justify US funding for Mexico’s southern-plan, which aims to militarize and better police Mexico’s southern border, stopping Central American migrants from traveling through Mexico to the USA. These measures are underpinned by the alleged criminality of all undocumented migrants (Chacón 2006) which in turn poses a threat to citizens and the nation. Trump is not alone: Clinton too, supports strong border policing, despite evidence that more policing has little effect on the volume of migration, and instead results in increased migrant deaths, as they are forced to travel along more dangerous routes (De León 2015).

The point is this: there may be good reasons to have restrictive immigration policies (although I cannot think of any) – but the unquestioning use of the security framework has justified particular forms of repressive anti-migrant action. By the same token, national security has been used to justify targeted drone strikes, support Saudi airstrikes (which may amount to war-crimes) in Yemen, and erode civil liberties, without questioning the causal link between these actions and citizens’ well-being. Clinton has even suggested that trade treaties like NAFTA should only be signed if they further American national security.

It is unlikely, of course, that foreign policy can ever be completely divorced from security. That said, it also seems clear that security does not need to be the only determinant of foreign policy. What would even a partially de-securitized foreign policy look like? That is the presidential debate that I would have liked to see.


Goldstein, Daniel, M. 2016. “Some Thoughts on the Critical Anthropology of Security.” Etnofoor 28, no. 1: 147-152.

De León, Jason. 2015. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Univ of California Press.

Chacón, Jennifer M. 2006. “Unsecured borders: Immigration restrictions, crime control and national security.” Conn. L. Rev. 39: 1827.

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