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Backstage Politics

National Security in International Relations

In a hostile world where everybody distrusts each other and looks for their interest, national security becomes crucial in international relations. For this reason, it’s time to see what role it plays.




Today, I want to speak to you about national security and international relations. In general, world affairs are sensitive to this factor. Indeed, security is one of the most important concerns in this realm. It determines many decisions and shapes the way international relations work. That makes it a fundamental unit of analysis to understand world politics.

I want to address what national security is in the broader context of the global stage. What it represents for States, and how it shapes their behavior in their mutual relations.


National security and geopolitics


If I had to define the national interest, I think its core meaning is national security. I spoke about this question on another occasion, and I set out the relation between these two concepts.

In any case, for the current discussion it’s necessary to recall some basic notions about the national interest and its relationship with security. For instance, we have to bear in mind that the international sphere is anarchical. There are hundreds of different actors, and there is no authority above them. There is no a world government regulating relations between States. In this context, every actor manages its business in the best way it can.

States have different interests, and that makes rivalries arise. However, it’s important to make some clarifications before moving on. I refer to the fact that the dominant political unit on the global stage is the modern State. This is a sovereign and territorial entity that extends its exclusive authority over a specific geographical bound area. So, its borders limit the scope of its jurisdiction, but also the authority of other States. That’s important because it shows we’re talking about geopower. That means power has a geographical base insofar as who wields it also exercises it over a territory. And this authority is an exclusive right over a specific geographic area, with no interference from without or within. No one else has rights over that territory but the authority that vindicates it successfully. Successfully means that authority has the instruments to rule over that territory. That involves the existence of law enforcement agencies, bureaucratic organizations, and government agencies, the judiciary, the military, and so on.

We all know that land is a scarce resource. If States are territorial entities, land constitutes an essential part of them. Moreover, it’s a political, military, and economic force. The territory of the State shapes its capacities because it’s a warehouse of different resources that support its political, military, and economic power. This limited resource is something that States lust and struggle for it. It’s unequally distributed, and for this reason, there are power relations between countries. It also explains why there are many territorial conflicts all around the world. They show the importance of the land because it shapes the national interest, and affects the State’s security.

Then, we see that territory is fundamental to understand national security. It determines the location and influences on the internal capabilities of the State. All of this has a direct impact on the role that national security plays in international relations. Every State has to deal with its neighbors and the geopolitical fragmented global stage. It’s a competitive environment in which there is much at stake. What do I mean by this? States fight to survive, and it involves keeping their territorial integrity and their independence.


National security in international relations

We’ve seen the geopolitical character of national security. Nevertheless, what matters here is how security influences on State’s behavior, and shapes their foreign relations. In addition to this, I have to mention that security has broad implications in different realms. I refer not only to military affairs, but also to the economy, technology, health, and so on.

The control of any country involves the existence of specific governmental institutions. They are power structures that have their means to rule society. Insofar as they develop their activities in a particular geographical area, they exclude other States from getting access to resources within it. The territory they control is the base of their power. So, rivalries between countries are the usual situation for these entities because they don’t want to lose control over their territory. Otherwise, they would lose power.

In an anarchical environment in which State safety is the primary priority of its policy, power becomes fundamental. After all, national security depends on how much power the State can gather to protect itself. Yet, power depends on those resources that support it. Then, competition goes in that direction. All States look for more and more resources to get more power, and by doing so, they compete with each other. There is a power hierarchy, and it involves the existence of dominant States. They impose their interests on the global stage by establishing a favorable international order. The consequence of this situation is a competitive dynamic. What does it mean for national security? It means that power is a zero-sum game. The power a State gains is the power that another State loses. No matter the power in absolute terms that a State may gain because another State may attain much more power comparatively.

In this way, States are power maximizers because they depend on it to survive. So, we can understand international relations mostly thanks to the role of the search for safety. As a result, the need for security boosts the struggle for power and whatever makes a State powerful. That involves getting into conflict with other States because they have their interests, and they are contradictory.

So, one conclusion we can draw from all of this is that security needs direct States’ behavior. In this way, they also shape international relations. Besides, we see this interaction between security needs and the global dynamic depends on geopolitical factors. Geopolitics turns out to be fundamental because of the nature of the units of the international system. They are territorial entities, and their respective territories determine their interests.

The extension of the territory, the disposition of borders, population, raw materials available, distances, communications, and so on, they all shape the national interest. At the same time, they also define the security requirements of the State. Material forces are fundamental to get the power to have protection. They affect national capabilities. Besides, we can’t forget the role of the government in the organization of these resources. Methods of government may be crucial to strengthen the State in the global sphere. They determine if the State can mobilize the resources available in its territory, and that’s more important for its security than its theoretical potential.

Nevertheless, States have different methods or strategies to survive in the competitive environment of world politics. The strengthening of internal capabilities is one option among many others to ensure national security. Yet, it’s not the only way to do it. National security imperatives lead some countries to take advantage of the unstable and chaotic international stage. Many actors competing in the world power hierarchy represents an interesting scenario to look for allies or the formation of coalitions. They might be helpful to counterbalance possible rivals, and also to avoid putting national security at risk. Although power is unequally distributed, and some actors concentrate more power than others, it flows through international relations. And the way States do that is by reaching agreements, creating alliances, and so on. They combine their unequal capabilities to ensure their national security. They do it despite their disparate interests.

In any case, what we can conclude regarding all I’ve discussed so far is that national security conducts State’s behavior. For this reason, it plays a decisive role in international relations due to the need to survive. Aside from other motivations that influence on world politics, national security is the core of all concerns of any State. In that way, every country organizes its foreign relations according to this reality, to get as much power as they can to stay alive.


National security and strategy


National security and power go together. The latter is the guarantee of the former. We’ve also seen how they work in international relations. However, we shouldn’t consider national security and power in narrow terms. Power is something ambiguous because there isn’t only one way to dominate people. Rather than that, there are many methods. In the international realm is the same. Power is not only the military. Probably the military strength of a nation is the most important of all factors for its security. Despite that, power also depends on other spheres, such as the economy, technology, ideology, politics, and so on.

Military strength is essential, but it doesn’t work if statesmen don’t combine it with other instruments. As I said, they may be varied. They all play a specific role when they work together to support the national might. That allows the State to ensure national security, and at the same time to achieve a better position in the global realm.

The economy is also essential insofar as it provides material support for the national strategy to protect the State. In addition to this, technological innovation is also remarkable when it gives a comparative advantage in different fields. That may be the case in the economy, but also military affairs, politics, and many more. Ideology and culture are means to extend influence and gather social support to the State’s policies. They are relevant as soft power.

These factors, and others I haven’t mentioned, influence on national power and have much to do with the security needs of the State. They are integrated into the national strategy, and they all together contribute to defining how the State manages its foreign relations. That’s a crucial matter because it also establishes the way States conduct their behavior, and adapt to the changing environment according to their strategy. It’s something I’ll discuss soon in a forthcoming video, so, subscribe now, and you won’t miss anything.


Question of the day


Question of the day! So you think national security should be the primary goal of any country in the international realm? Post your opinion in the comments section below, and I’ll check it out.


Bibliography used:

Strayer, Joseph, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State

Strayer, Joseph, Medieval Statecraft and the Perspectives of History

Gilbert, Felix (ed.), The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze

Tilly, Charles, Coercion, Capital, and European States: AD 990-1992

Mann, Michael, The Sources of Social Power

Poggi, Gianfranco, The Development of the Modern State

Anderson, M. S., The Origins of the Modern European State System 1494-1618

Spruyt, Hendrik, The Sovereign State and its Competitors

Le Goff, Jacques, La Baja Edad Media

Giddens, Anthony, The Nation-State and violence

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