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Governing Borderless Threats

by Shahar Hameiri on September 28, 2015

The unfolding refugee crisis in Europe’s borderlands is a tragic reminder of how international security has changed. Traditionally, security was seen to involve building military strength to deter or repel attacks by other states. Today, beyond a handful of ‘flashpoints’, so-called ‘non-traditional’ security (NTS) issues dominate: e.g. irregular migration, drug trafficking, terrorism, piracy, pandemic disease, environmental degradation, transnational organised crime and cybersecurity. How are states and international organisations dealing with these challenges, and what does this tell us about statehood and politics today?

At first blush, it may appear that the ‘securitisation’ of NTS issues simply leads to states applying traditional security approaches to new problems. The deployment of navies to intercept and repel migrant boats, for example, suggest a militarised response to the complex social, political and economic conditions that are propelling refugee flows.

However, ‘hard power’ is, at most, deployed only temporarily to manage NTS issues, while Western governments and international agencies grope for longer-term solutions involving deep interventions into states and societies where these problems are seen to originate.

Thus, halting the refugee flow across the Mediterranean is seen to require Libya’s ‘stabilisation’, with extensive international involvement in ‘peace-building’ and ‘state-building’. Similarly, the Australian government has not only outsourced refugee processing to Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and resettled Australia-bound refugees in impoverished Cambodia. It is also intervening in countries where asylum-seekers transit to contain them there, seeking to build the capacities of customs and border agencies in places like Sri Lanka.

GBTResearch for my new jointly-authored book with Lee Jones, entitled Governing Borderless Threats, showed that such intervention to change how other states and societies operate is now the dominant way that powerful governments and agencies try to manage NTS threats. Because these threats are seen as transnational – spreading easily across state borders – they do not appear amenable to traditional inter-state solutions, like military force or diplomatic negotiations. Instead, they apparently require new forms of transnational governance that ‘fit’ the scope of the threat. But rather than transferring power wholesale to new or existing international organisations, this is pursued primarily by transforming states in at-risk territories. The goal is to change their domestic institutions and integrate them into multi-level, transboundary governance networks that can manage and contain security threats and risks.

Importantly, we found such processes were underway even in Asia – where elites are typically seen as extremely jealous of state sovereignty. In case studies of environmental degradation (Southeast Asia’s ‘haze’ problem), transnational crime (money laundering and terrorist financing), and pandemic disease (bird flu), we discovered considerable security-driven state transformation efforts.

For instance, to tackle bird flu, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) built almost from scratch animal health institutions in Indonesia – the epicentre of the global outbreak. Staffed partly by international experts, enacting standards set by global bodies, and linked to world health authorities, these agencies inspected over 170,000 farms and culled tens of thousands of poultry to contain disease outbreaks.

However, we also found that these interventions were always highly contested, with governance outcomes being powerfully shaped by local political and economic dynamics. Although these projects are generally depicted as neutral, technical, and problem-solving, in reality changing how domestic governance works, and to what end, always involves changing distributions of power and resources.

For example, Indonesia’s highly influential poultry sector deflected the FAO governance projects entirely away from commercial premises and onto ‘backyard’ farmers – households raising chickens mainly for subsistence. Since they are actually the victims of bird flu outbreaks originating on commercial farms, this has undermined efforts to curb the disease.

To analyse the diverse outcomes of efforts to manage non-traditional security threats, we have developed a framework, the State Transformation Approach (STA), combining state theory from Antonio Gramsci with work in political geography on the transformation and rescaling of the state.

First, we theorise the political process that drives the emergence of NTS governance as a kind of politics of scale, involving contestations over the appropriate scale at which a particular NTS problem should be managed, as well as over the governance instruments and actors seen as best-suited to managing the issue. The securitisation of NTS issues is constituted of both claims that existing nationally based forms of governance are inadequate and a related effort to construct new modes of regulatory governance at other scales. This typically entails the rescaling of parts of the national, or in some cases subnational, state, so that these are removed from a purely domestic context and are integrated into regulatory regimes operating on a regional or global scale.

Second, we theorise the form this politics of scale assumes using the concept of ‘state transformation’. Our conception of state transformation is premised upon the state theory of Nicos Poulantzas and Bob Jessop. We view the state as a social power relation, expressing the agency, interests, and ideologies of specific socio-political forces, particularly those of classes and class fractions, in given historical contexts. Political outcomes, including governance outcomes, are seen to be the contingent products of struggles between contending forces. State transformation, from this perspective, refers not merely to changes in the institutional architecture of states, but to a broader institutionalised and/or routinised transition in the distribution, production, and reproduction of political power within particular states. Placing the politics of scale in this context highlights that the rescaling of NTS issues and their governance is not a reflection of where a particular problem is ‘naturally’ best governed, but a strategic move to alter the balance of power in a particular issue area.


Third, whether and how security governance is rescaled, and how governance regimes actually operate, reflects the contingent outcomes of dynamic contestations between socio-political coalitions, whose relative strength is shaped by the broader political economy context. This is an ontological commitment, shaped by our state theory, but also reflects the specific nature of NTS issues. NTS threats are widely depicted as undesirable side-effects of economic development – ‘the dark side of globalization’. Because addressing NTS issues necessarily involves efforts to regulate the economic activities seen to produce, exacerbate, or facilitate them, they inevitably impinge on important economic interests, varying by issue area. Sectors and companies whose interests are served or threatened by governance innovations will thus join, or even form, coalitions to shape the rescaling of governance. This does not mean that governance outcomes are straightforwardly dictated by the most significant economic actors, as their relative strength and capacity to attract necessary support from other powerful actors in business, government, or civil society, varies considerably, depending on the historical development of state-society and class relations.

We found that the costs of security intervention were obviously shunted onto society’s poorest and weakest groups. Poor farmers bore the brunt of efforts to stop the use of fire to clear land for agriculture, while commercial plantations – the source of most serious transboundary pollution – went untouched. Money-laundering regulations were used to prosecute government enemies, while allies were spared.

The ‘solutions’ to NTS threats thus often reinforce the very inequalities in power and resources that spawn them in the first place. Western donors and agencies are often complicit, working around entrenched interests instead of challenging them, in order to maintain access and ‘show results’. In the name of international security, they often exacerbate insecurity for the most disadvantaged, while doing little to control threats and risks. This can only change if, rather than seeking to manage and contain security problems, we challenge the structures that generate them – structures in which Western governments and agencies are often themselves implicated.

Shahar Hameiri
Shahar Hameiri is Associate Professor of International Politics at Murdoch University. His book with Lee Jones, Governing Borderless Threats: Non-Traditional Security and the Politics of State Transformation, is available from Cambridge University Press.

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