Realistic Collective Security: Some Theoretical Approaches

Table of Content

This paper is a survey of a few major ideas concerning collective security from a realist, critical and idealist point of view. Of the three, realism and idealism can provide satisfying definitions of collective security, but the real weakness of the idea is the lack of a moral consensus that binds all the actors together over one idea of peace for the world. Peace can be defined as a positive commitment to human development, but it can also be defined as an acquiescence in an unjust world order. This is the real weakness of the idea of collective security.

The concept of collective security has been the dominant idea of international relations since at least the end of World War II, however, it has remained more as an idea than as a reality. As of 2009, as an idea, it has captured most policymakers, but as an activity, it has been a failure in many significant ways. This paper will deal with some basic issues in defining and understanding collective security as a concept within the basic contexts of international relations theory. Both realism and idealism are used in this paper to provide different contexts for understanding and viewing collective security both as a concept and as a reality. Finally, this paper will seek to offer a tentative definition of collective security given both the theoretical and practical ideas found in the literature reviewed by this paper.

This essay could be plagiarized. Get your custom essay
“Dirty Pretty Things” Acts of Desperation: The State of Being Desperate
128 writers

ready to help you now

Get original paper

Without paying upfront

Realism is the approach dominant in international relations thinking for much of its existence. Its roots go back to Thomas Hobbes in the 16th century, and really find its basis in bringing order out of anarchy. Human beings are ultimately security seeking beings above all, and hence, see the state as their advocate in dealing with threats within and without.

For the laws of nature, as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to, of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.

Realism says, therefore, that there is no morality outside of self-interest, and morality, therefore can be reduced to self-interest. But there are two ways of looking at this in terms of collective security: the first way is that if the state is primarily a security seeking being (as are the citizens), then international security arrangements cannot be engaged in for any longer than the state involved sees its interest being served. Hence, there is no real basis for the security council other than that it can justify acts of war upon their enemies, which in turn, undercut the entire notion of collective security.

On the other hand, if the chaos of self-interest is found among states in a field of anarchy, then the idea of collective security may well serve the interest of all states, especially small ones. In other words, there is a way to use classical Hobbesian realism to make collective security work based solely on the interest of the partners. However, the problem is, as mentioned above, that words mean nothing, interest and force, everything. Only, therefore, in the redefining of self interest can collective security be brought into a realist context (cf. Also Forde, 1995).

Idealism is the approach (cf. Frederking, 2005) that sees moral norms as slowly developing throughout history. It is the approach, contra realism, that promotes the idea of collective security as a binding norm. Since realists do not see anything in the collectivity except the withering away of their sovereignty and hence security, realism cannot be the building blocks of collective security (Forde, 1995).

Only a serious idealism can be such a starting place.  In many ways, this is the central idea of collective security and must be at the center of any attempt to define it, that it has taken many wars and problems to convince mankind that such arrangements are necessary. This is reflected well in the preamble of the (1945) UN, in that its purpose is: to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

But Frederking’s work here is worthwhile, since it sees such moral ideas as developing over time, being defined by three sets of movement: first, that human interaction is socially constructed (Frederking, 2005, 364). This is to say that the experiences of the human community have been important in shaping what rules are accepted. Hence, collective security here is a mode of moral development, where the two world wars of the 20th century finally forced mankind to deal with collective security arrangements and take the idea seriously. Second, those social structures constitute identities and interests.

In other words, since mankind has been divided into states for a long time, the UN and other forms of collective security must work within that context. There is nothing in the UN that rejects the concept of the state, or of regional security arrangements. Here, the state remains central, but that it is now operating in an environment that realists reject: an evolutionary moral set of ideas that show collective security as an utter and complete necessity. And lastly, that agents and structures co-create each other. In other words, the developing moral norms that lie at the root of collective security arrangements derive from historical experience, they derive from states involved in balance of power arrangements, or regional security arrangements, experiencing war, and hence, developing into an international security arrangement that takes both states and the collectivity seriously, defining one with reference to the other (cf also Farrell, 2002 for a more theoretical approach to this issue).

The literature in the field of collective security is vast, and this paper can only deal with a small portion.  The UN Charter itself must be the starting place for this idea. It does not provide much by way of definition, but it does provide an understanding of procedures. In Chapter IV section 35, the document holds that all international disputes that are not solved at the regional level are to be brought to the security council. This council (VII, 41) can and does have the right to detail a response including sanctions, but if this fails, it can authorize the use of force. The UN’s Security Council will have its own military staff and that staff, donated from the members states, will decide the nature and number of troops at the ready, and their ultimate deployment (VII, 47, 1-4).

While the security council is central, the general assembly seems to be little more than consultive and powerless (cf. IV 12-13). The General Assembly does little but make recommendations and study issues. The real security apparatus is to be found solely in the security council. This generally seems to support the critical view of international relations ( a variation on the idealist view), since it seems to give all security responsibility to the security council, that is, the powerful states, leaving the weaker to the toothless general assembly (cf. Sklar, 1980; also Dryzek, 1987).

In Rappard’s (1946) work, we see an early attempt to define collective security given the above approaches and ideas. Since this work is almost contemporary with the founding of the UN, it is essential in understanding the moral roots present at the time in the development of the security council, etc. Basically, Rappard defines collective security as the “pooling of resources to protect rights” (Rappard, 1946, 195). In other words, collective security as moral roots, and cannot be considered as a matter of security in se, but only as defending the rights and interests of the people involved.

Furthermore, such arrangements must go beyond the old balance of power idea, or other ad hoc arrangements for security that have been tried and failed in the past. As a Swiss citizen, he uses the historical development of the Swiss cantons to illustrate his ideas of the perfect sort of the security arrangement of people’s of different languages and cultures realizing their interests lay in collective security. In some way, this is a means of bringing realism back in. It is self-interest and the need for peace that drove the cantons together many centuries ago, and hence, there is no conflict between realism and idealism here, in other words, idealism is simply realism taking its interests seriously (Rappard, 1946, 197).

But the ideas about collective security need to go farther. He beings up four specific questions that must be answered before collective security can be defined and implemented. These are: first, who decides? That has been dealt with before, it is the security council that decides. Though it makes some sense to bring in the general assembly to a greater role in such decision making, it remains another topic altogether. The basic decisions that need to be made are the level of threat that demands UN intervention, and the ways and means of that intervention.

Second, how are the burdens to be shared? This is also a question to the security council, in that their power must come with responsibility. The veto power of the security council provides these states with the primary responsibility for fielding and financing troops. Third, what of the spoils of war? Such things must go to the UN for its own development. Nevertheless, speaking about “spoils” in warfare conducted by the UN seems in bad taste, but the era of the article should be taken into consideration. (The above ideas can be found on page 198-199).

Another older example in terms of defining collective security can be found in the (1953) work of Thompson. Here, a strictly moral and hence idealist approach to international politics is offered. In fact, the very first page of the work is dedicated to the view that the idea of collective security can be found in the growth of a global moral sense after the slaughter of World Wars I and II. He defines the bedrock idea of collective security as “the attack on one state being an attack on all” (Thompson, 1953, 755). In other words, the idealist approach has developed to such an extent that a serious and satisfying idea of a single moral interest shared by all of mankind can be articulated and taken seriously.

But while the evolving moral idea is at the root of collective security, other variables have come into play that have helped define the idea over time. These are the growth of an international economy of interdependence, making bloody wars too expansive. This is a form of realism, where economic security is threatened by conflicts escalating out of control. If economics power is a form of security (few realists would deny that), then this argument provides a realist approach to collective security.

But further than that, the quick nature of communications and the developments of technology have made the ideas of collective security a reality, but has also made wars more bloody. Both of these developments work together in creating a sense of collective identity, a precondition of collective security (Thompson, 1953, 754). However, these ideas need to be protected from the influence of what Thompson calls “radical ideology,” including forms of nationalism and Marxism, that seek to divide the world on the basis of ethnicity or class, rather than see its moral unity. So here again, Thompson holds that it is ideas that undergird international affairs.

But what is more important in Thompson’s work is the nature of the preconditions for collective security. This is the central issue. There are several: first, there has to be a starting point, a status quo that should be defended by all. But, second, this requires a moral consensus concerning this status quo. At least the major powers should be of one mine on the basic needs of the international system relative to aggression and military security. Third, the states involved should use resources to mobilize troops at any sign of aggression (Thompson, 1993, 758-761). All three of these are really elements of one, the centrality of ideas: an understanding that the world, with all its flaws, is worth defending. But what is unsatisfying is that the status quo can be challenged fundamentally, and the rejection of “radical ideology” is reducible to special pleading.

An excellent attempt at using the theories of international relations to define collective security can be found in the (1993) work of Marrack Goulding. Here, the specific question of peacekeeping is used to define and understand the nature of collective security, and, like Frederking, he sees these norms as basically constructivist in nature, that is, being defined over time, through and n experience. In other words, peacekeeping as the active component of collective security, is defined by the actors working in specific contexts that is itself defined by the social roles of the actors, states, armies, etc.

From the failures in the Congo (1960-1964) and Lebanon later, the UN developed a series of views of itself that reflected these failures. In fact, the international community as such developed these in response to these failures. Collective security was redefined given th failures of Israel, Egypt, Somalia and many of the original 16 Cold War operation of the UN Security Council in conflicts (Goulding, 1993, 452-453). The rules and norms that developed out of these failures became the following:

First, that peacekeeping must derive from and remain under strict UN control. If other actors get too closely involved, they can hijack the operation and destroy it, or more accurately, simply use it for their ends. Goulding sees the Congo failure as based on this, through the Kosovo failure can also be seen to be taken over by Islamic movements in Kosovo that have used this force against Serbs. In addition, the Yugoslav conflict was divided between NATO and UN forces, sometimes working at cross purposes, with the UN attempting to be impartial and NATO clearly taking a stand against the Serbs.

Second, consent of all parties must be sought and maintained throughout the operation. This is central and is at the basis fo the UN charter: states and warring parties are to be taken as equal partners, and the UN is not really to be involved in value judgements. Though during the Cold War, this was not the case, for example, in Korea, where the security council, without the Soviet veto, sought to fight the North Koreans and Chinese in favor of the South. This approach was never taken again.

Third, as related to the second, the UN must strictly maintain its impartiality or the credibility of the security council is at stake.  Under no circumstances can an armed peace keeping mission be considered as anything other than impartial, seeking the peace rather than the victory of one party over the other. How this is applied in Iraq is far from clear.

 Fourth, that the principle of state sovereignty was not to be eroded. States need to provide the armies, the financing and the will to keep the peace in war-torn areas. The UN should not be seen to be an actor in its own right, but rather a neutral force that seeks its member’s consent to operate and finance an operation.

Lastly, Goulding holds that the lessons of the cold war brought the idea to the fore that force was necessary. The UN, while not having its own army, must be neutral, but that does not require mere moral suasion: the UN has the right and the obligation to use force against a clearly defined aggressor. This sort of aggression is the only clear moral judgment the UN can make, and even here, this is done by the military staff in consultation with the security council. (Goulding, 1993, 454-456).

Given all the above, can collective security be defined? A tentative definition will be attempted here. First of all, collective security is primarily a moral construct concerning a global and truly international construction of military and economic security, rather than having it being reduced to narrow foci of self interest or regional power politics (cf. Huntington 1996, here). That idea is present throughout. Collective security requires states and even economic actors to leave their narrow field of vision and understand that their own interests require a peaceful world. While realism is not the real start of such a view, such things as economic or environmental security permit realists to see the possibilities for security enhancing measures to be engaged b collective and global security arrangements.

Second, it depends upon a sense of moral consensus about the nature of state power. Without such a consensus, the idea of collective security collapses. But this is the real weakness of the idea: realists as well as critical writers will hold that such a consensus, if it exists at all, exists solely at the elite level. Many will claim (such as Sklar, 1980) that such a consensus exists solely to protect the current balance of economic power, with a wealthy north and a poor south. If there is no consensus, there is no collective security.

Third, as the UN charter holds, there should be no attack on the state as such, but on the use of state power. Bald attacks based on self interests are beyond the pale, they serve only to keep the international community in a state of anarchy, where the strongest alone survive and become dominant and wealthy. States should cooperate with the Security Council voluntarily, in that these states then put their money where their mouth is, creating a peaceful world by armed, yet completely neutral peacekeepers that hold the warring sides apart until a peaceful solution can be found. Again, the lack of moral consensus retards this process.


  1. Huntington, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon and Schuster, 1996.
  2. Laitin, David. Leadership: A Comparative Perspective. IO 28. (Winter, 1974) 89-117
  3. Haas, Ernst. Regime Decay, Conflict Management and International Organizations. IO 37 (Spring 1983) 189-256
  4. Forde, Steven. International Realism and the Science of Politics: Thucydides, Machiavelli and Neorealism. ISQ 39. (June 1995) 141-160
  5. This is an important text for understanding realism in both a historical and contemporary perspective. It is a skillful summary of how realism might accept the idea of collective security.
  6. Sklar, Holly ed. Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World      Management. South End Press, 1980.
  7. Frederking, Brian. Constructive Post-Cold War Collective Security. APSR 97 (2005) 363-378
  8. Farrell, Theo. Constructivist Security Studies: Portrait of a Research Program. International Studies Review 4 (2002). 49-72
  9. Rappard, William. Collective Security. Journal of Modern History 18 (1946) 195-2001
  10. Goulding, Marrak. The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping. International Affairs 69 (1993) 451-464.
  11. Thompson, Kenneth. Collective Security Re-examined. APSR 47. (1953) 753-772.


Cite this page

Realistic Collective Security: Some Theoretical Approaches. (2016, Sep 21). Retrieved from

Remember! This essay was written by a student

You can get a custom paper by one of our expert writers

Order custom paper Without paying upfront