Breaking new ground in security politics

Dr Rita Floyd

If we lose the environment all other battles will be meaningless, Dr Rita Floyd tells Ros Dodd.

As she took her place in the lecture theatre on her first day at a UK university following four years of globe-trotting, German-born Dr Rita Floyd knew instantly what she wanted to do with her life.

‘I travelled to different countries, working and learning English, but then I decided I wanted to go to university, but not in Germany,’ recalls Rita. ‘So I enrolled on the Politics and International Relations course at the University of Portsmouth. The first lecture was on the changing nature of war and I remember sitting in the lecture theatre and thinking, “This is it; I’m going to do this for good”. I could understand everything – the logic and the English.’

More than a decade later, Rita, now aged 35, has carried out extensive research into environmental security and security theory and is now, as a Birmingham Fellow based in the University’s Department of Political Science and International Studies, focusing on conflict and security in a broader context. In particular, she is developing a theory similar to the ‘just war theory’, which she hopes will eventually lead to a democratisation of security politics. 

Rita’s interest in security studies was ignited when – as an undergraduate - she read Norman Myers’s book Ultimate Security: The Environmental Basis of Political Stability, which argued ‘that environmental security is ultimate security, because if the environment goes to pieces, then we don’t need to talk about any other form of security, such as that relating to war, because we won’t be here.’ 

This became the inspiration for Rita’s PhD thesis, but the more she delved into the subject, the more she came to realise that environmental security, as Myers presented it, wasn’t the solution in itself. 

‘It’s a very complex concept: “environmental security” might mean only that the military is adopting green practices.’ 

Since arriving in Birmingham in April 2012, Rita has been working on ‘developing a ‘just securitisation theory’. 

‘When I was working on environmental security, I realised there were better and worse forms of securing the environment from the point of view of human wellbeing,’ she explains. ‘Some benefit human beings; others just benefit the armed forces and states.’ 

Under the Clinton administration, for example, the US government had an environmental security policy, but this amounted to little more than the defence department greening its policies by cleaning up military bases from Cold War contamination. The UN, on the other hand, has always championed a more cooperative approach to environmental issues, such as driving forward protocols to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. 

‘The environment is connected to human well-being – we all need clean air and water and so on. But if security practice can be good or bad regards environmental security, surely the same differentiation exists in other sectors of security, such as political and economic security.’ 

Rita - in part inspired by her political philosopher husband Dr Jonathan Floyd (St. Hilda’s, Oxford)- has found herself increasingly concerned with ethical issues – and the need to differentiate on the basis of what’s ‘just’ and what’s ‘unjust’. 

‘If you’re looking at security from only an environmental point of view, you are looking at whether or not human beings can survive: but if you have two groups fighting each other in a conflict situation, which group should survive? Can you have good versions of security if one group of people stands to lose out? There are security analysts who think you can’t.’ 

So Rita started working on ‘a just securitisation theory’. 

‘The theory I’m working on now states that the analyst can develop a set of criteria that, if fulfilled at the same time, would render a particular instance of securitisation (security in practice) morally justifiable.’ 

Rita has drawn up a set of criteria, which have turned out to be quite similar to the ‘just war theory’, differentiating between justice before, during and after securitisation. The criteria include among others that there needs to be a just cause, they specify that the securitising actor needs to be sincere in his intentions, they specify that the response is proportionate and aims to cause, or risk the least amount of harm possible, they also specify that the response should be appropriate to the threat and not exceed it. Only if all criteria are fulfilled, securitisation is morally justifiable.’ 

These criteria are, she says, a work in progress ‘They are obviously quite controversial, and I haven’t got all the answers yet. But one of the issues I’ve looked at is climate change. At the moment, I argue that there is a just cause only where there’s an objective existential threat to a morally justifiable referent object. I argue that we need to look at the natural sciences and what they tell us about the likely consequences of climate change and to compare that literature to research from the social sciences – for example on state failure – and ask if climate change is likely to contribute to this or not.’ 

Rita’s research breaks new ground because, unlike other security scholars, she sees a clear dividing line between the role of the security analyst – in this instance, her – and security practitioners such as the EU or UN. 

‘I believe that securitisation is defined by practitioners, when perhaps it shouldn’t be. If they identify something as threatening and address the problem by policies they consider to be security policies, then we as analysts are in no position to say that what they’re doing is not security because it doesn’t conform with particular ideas of security that I have. 

‘I also can’t step into the security equation and say “from where I stand, there isn’t really a problem, so you shouldn’t turn it into one”. 

‘So what becomes very important is ethical evaluation of security practice: When is it right to shift an issue out of ordinary politics and into the range of emergency politics, where it can be dealt with by extraordinary means? Those are the questions I try to answer.’ 

What Rita would like to influence – and she has already worked with a think-tank in Brussels and the UK– is the process by which decisions are made about what or who requires security. 

‘Thanks to the “just war theory”, we know there are certain circumstances under which war may be justified. This has led to the fact that war has been democratised a bit. It’s debated; it’s not just OK for a government to say “we’re going to war” without any discussion. They have to justify it now. The same, I hope, can happen with security policies.'