On ‘Macrosecuritisation’, The Pandemic, and The United Nations

International security has become part and parcel of the discourse within International Relations. Since the end of the First World War, notions such as ‘Collective Security’, ‘Security Maximisation’, or ‘Security Dilemma’ have become commonplace in the nomenclature of International Politics, especially as a result of ideological expansionism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the Cold War, the emergence of civil war as the predominant mode of conflict [1], global terrorism, and so on. Nonetheless, this notion of security is steeped in a certain statism that narrows the meaning of ‘security’ to safeguarding oneself from the dangers of another state, nation or people. Invariably, if we think of security in only this manner – i.e., as security from other humans, human groupings or human-based agents – the very notion of ‘security’ is tapered to exclude as much as it includes.

Although perhaps problematic in its own right, a more effective conceptualisation of security recognises that the very process of ‘securitising’ oneself from another entity is a process of both frontier and norms formation. In order to securitise, one must locate and distinguish oneself from the threat in linguistic terms so to name it as such. In this manner, the ‘Copenhagen School’ of security studies and international relations theory provide a consistent account of ‘security’ as a mutually constructive phenomenon with norms, values and language, which are all formed in the public ‘inbetweeness’ of peoples. ‘Securitisation’ therefore becomes more than ‘security from other humans, human groupings or human-based agents’, but rather “constituted by the intersubjective establishment of an existential threat with a saliency sufficient to have substantial political effects”.[2] This conceptualisation allows us an inclusive and phenomenal grasp of securitisation that centres its focus on intersubjectively formulated existential threats with socio-political consequences, be this threat human – through ideological contestation,  terrorism or nuclear proliferation – environmental – such as the Climate Emergency – or even epidemiological – as the current COVID-19 (C19) pandemic is.

As the year of C19 comes to a close, many will be reflecting on the odd character of the past twelve months as a result of the pandemic. For those who may question the status of C19 as a security concern in the first instance, according to the C19 dashboard (CSSE) by John’s Hopkins University, the cumulative total number of global deaths from the virus to date (31st December 2020) is 1,806,478.[3] How does this relate to other pressing security matters, at least as far as the number of deaths is concerned? Consider deaths from Terrorism as a comparative measure, for example.[4] With its definitional emphasis on terrorism as violent or threatening action undertaken by non-state agents, between 2000 and 2017 the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) recorded 271,464 deaths globally as a result of terrorist activity.[5] This means that since its outbreak in late 2019, C19 has killed over six-times the number that terrorist attacks did in the seventeen years between 2000 and 2017. One of the biggest disparities, however, is the securitisation of terrorism, experienced since the beginning of the Global War on Terror (GWoT), and that of C19.

When a security concern is acknowledged by a number of states as being a collective threat, one that a number of sovereign agents have both internally and externally intersubjectively constructed as a common existential threat, it becomes what the Copenhagen School thinkers Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver have coined as a ‘Macrosecuritisation’. In their own words, this is the: “identification of an existential threat to a valued referent object and the call for exceptional measures”, differing other securitisations in that “they are on a larger scale than mainstream collectivities in the middle [level of analysis] (states, nations) and seek to package together securitisations from that level into a ‘higher’ and larger order”.[6] Thus, when a security threat is held in common by states, an order based upon security emerges.[7] The GWoT is a good illustration of this. In the case of a common threat that is state-centric, what Buzan and Wæver explicate is the notion of ‘security constellations’, where threat becomes mirrored and mutually constructive with the referent object of securitisation. A good example of this is, naturally, the Cold War. Here The United States (US), alongside its allies and institutions of collective security (e.g. NATO), and The Soviet Union (USSR), with its allies and institutions of collective security (e.g. The Warsaw Pact), constructed one another as their primary existential security concern – magnetising other sovereign entities within their sphere of influence into this web of threat to form an ordered structure grounded on security – i.e., a ‘constellation’.

 These constellations of macrosecuritisation rely primarily on certain notions of all-encompassing universalisms. Buzan and Wæver lay out four categories of universalisms that underpin macrosecritisations: ‘Inclusive’, ‘Exclusive’, ‘Existing Order’, and finally, ‘Physical Threat’. I do not want to go through all four, but for the purpose of understanding: ‘Inclusive universalisms’ include ideological or religious beliefs that wish to optimise the human condition and are applicable to all humankind; ‘Exclusive universalisms’ are ideological beliefs that claim superior rights and status for a single group over humankind; ‘Existing Order universalisms’ concern threats to the institutions of the international order as whole, which can overlap with ‘Inclusive universalisms’ but could come as a result of common state interest (for example, the rise of transnational groups that can undermine sovereignty); and finally, ‘Physical Threat universalisms’, which, in Buzan and Wæver’s own terms, refer to: “claims about dangers that threaten humankind on a planetary scale” such as the climate crisis, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or diseases – they effect the physical fate of humanity as a whole.[8]

This fourth category of, with its connection to securitisation against disease as is referent object, brings us neatly back to C19. Acknowledging that the virus has killed in one year alone over six times the number that global terrorism did in seventeen, at the height of the GWoT, has the language of macrosecuritisation at the global level been effective, prudent or concentrated enough to respond to the global physical threat on the same, global, level? My claim is that it has not. One way we can evaluate this question is the extent to which the language utilised in the resolutions of The United Nations (UN) overtly discusses C19 in a frame of macrosecuritisation, or not, in relation to a past speech acts and linguistics.

In resolution S/RES/1368 (2001), adopted by the UN Security Council (UNSC) on the 12th September 2001, there was, naturally, a clear referent object of threat determined by all members of the UNSC, regarding “such acts, like an act of international terrorism, as a threat to international peace and security”. This is a clear speech act of macrosecuritisation. In the utterance of this recognition, the UNSC referred to the threat of international terrorism as a threat to global security, an utterance of intersubjective commonality that changed the ontological condition of the phenomenon from localised security concerns to one that is common to all – a macrosecuritisation. Do we see the same for C19?

If we look at the resolutions passed by both the General Assembly (UNGA) and the UNSC in 2020, there is evidence to claim this affirmatively. In A/RES/74/270, passed on the 3rd April 2020, the UNGA recognised “the unprecedented effects of the pandemic, including the severe disruption to societies and economies, as well as to global travel and commerce, and the devastating impact on the livelihood of people”, whilst equally expressing “optimism that the unprecedented crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic can be mitigated and successfully reversed through leadership and sustained global cooperation and solidarity”. By the passing of A/RES/74/306 on the 15th of September, the language utilised by the UNGA became more overtly macrosecuritisational, expressing that the task of the UN was to “work for peace and focus on the world’s common battle to defeat COVID-19”.[9] In the use of the term ‘battle’ we saw the first use of military language in describing the necessities of securitisation against the virus, perhaps acknowledging the existential threat C19 poses commonly to all. However, these are the utterances of the UNGA, where has the Security Council stood, being the central body of global security recognition and the primary plane on which security constellations become observable phenomenon.

In the single UNSC resolution concerned exclusively with C19, S/RES/2532, put to the council by France and Tunisia and passed on July 1st 2020, the council recognised: “that conditions of violence and instability in conflict situations can exacerbate the pandemic, and that inversely the pandemic can exacerbate the adverse humanitarian impact of conflict situations”, whilst clearly laying out the stakes of a weak internationalist response to the crisis by recognising: “that the peacebuilding and development gains made by countries in transition and post-conflict countries could be reversed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak”. Finally, in this resolution there was a coherent affirmation of the security threat that C19 poses in the consideration “that the unprecedented extent of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security”.

In the discussion that accompanied this resolution, Antonio Guterres (The Secretary-General of the UN) laid out how vulnerable, developing and post-conflict states face the reversal of security in the face of C19, such as in the Darfur region of Sudan where C19 has exacerbated efforts to forge and build a sustainable peace agreement, fanning the conflict despite the call for a global ceasefire, and how the effect of the pandemic may aid terrorist organisations.[10] Additionally, we can observe the work that the UN has done in its humanitarian work to ease the effects of the pandemic within those areas susceptible to ‘security backsliding’ and how it has done this without the collective funding it requires to achieve its aims of de-escalating such backsliding.[11] Nonetheless, this is not as strong a securitisation as observed in the past. The resolution here is lacking resoluteness, affirming only a likelihood of concern despite that by this point, in July 2020, there were already some half a million deaths worldwide – almost double that due to terrorism between 2000 and 2017.

The optimism that is expressed by the UNGA that the UN can successively act to mitigate the existential threat of the pandemic at the global level reveals two premises as we enter 2021, either (a) that the international effort has been weak and unsuccessful, or that (b) there has yet to be a common response at the global level. In either case, we can see that, despite the effort of the UN in its formal documental linguistics and humanitarian aid, the UNSC and UNGA have yet to award C19 its proper status as a macro-security threat, which, as Buzan and Wæver (2009) claim, mobilise a greater effort in the name of global security in the same way that occurred during the Cold War or as with GWoT. Indeed, what appears in all of these resolutions by the UNGA and UNSC is the foremost concern that its own targets towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are hampered, as opposed to the immediate human cost and loss of life from the pandemic itself.[12] This agenda is of the uttermost concern, with its seventeen goals that includes ending hunger and poverty for instance, which are noble causes that the UN should strive to achieve as the basis of its remit in The UN Charter. However, its immediate response to successfully mitigating the C19 crisis required more than just a recognition of the likelihood that international security would be endangered. Even as late as the 21st December 2020, resolution S/RES/2558 on ‘Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace’ devoted a single paragraph to C19 in which the UNSC stressed the full implementation of its earlier July resolution (S/RES/2532) and only emphasised the effect that C19 would have on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This is not a success, and the lack of coordination towards an international response has only served to exacerbate the requirement for greater humanitarian action.

As 2020 comes to an end, by looking at the graph below in the appendix, what we can see are the number of deaths related to C19 in each member state of the UNSC. The total figure on the 27th December 2020 came to 627,207 in these states alone. An approach from the UNSC that is rooted in a common recognition of C19 as the existential security threat it is, as the GWoT or the Cold War was, in the linguistic frame of a macrosecuritisation, may in turn provide the construction of the common response that so often flows from the common recognition of a security threat that endangers all. It is not enough to simply recognise a common security threat alone. To succeed against it is to provide a common response – and this can only be achieved through the intersubjective process of macrosecuritisation. Until then, sadly, 2021 will be much like 2020.


[1] Strand, Håvard, Siri Aas Rustad, Henrik Urdal and Håvard Mokleiv Nygård (2019) ‘Trends in Armed Conflcit, 1946-2018’, Conflict Trends, (3), Oslo: Peace Research Institute Oslo, pp. 1-4.

[2] Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, Japp de Wilde (1998) Security: A New Framework For Analysis, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., p. 25.

[3] COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (2020) ‘COVID-19 Dashboard’, coronavirus.jhu.edu, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html (Accessed 31st December 2020 at 10:42).

[4] I know that the two are difficult to compare, but I am concerned with just the existential threat of the phenomena – irrespective of the context or material of that phenomenon itself.

[5] Referenced in: Hannah Ritchie, Joe Hassell, Cameron Appel and Max Roser (2019) ‘Terrorism: Deaths From 1970-2017 – World’, taken from Global Terrorism Database (2018), Our World in Data, ourworldindata.org, https://ourworldindata.org/terrorism (Accessed 31st December 2020). For a discussion of the issues concerning the methodology of the Global Terrorism Database, see: Gary LaFree, Laura Dugan and Erin Miller (2015) Putting Terrorism in Context: Lessons From The Global Terrorism Database, Abingdon: Routledge, p. 22.

[6] Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver (2009) ‘Macrosecuritisations and Security Constellations: Reconsidering Scale in Securitisation Theory’, Review of International Studies, 32(2), pp. 253-276, p. 257.

[7] My initial thought here was to return to Kenneth Waltz, and his Structural Realist assertion that: “The goal the system encourages them [states] to seek is security. Increased power may not serve that end”, in Kenneth H. Waltz (1979) Theory of International Politics, New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., p. 126. Although not Structural Realists, what we see with Buzan and Wæver’s concept of ‘Macrosecuritisation’ is the creation of an order based upon the response to an external threat by a number of states that have constructed this threat in common. Thus, as power does not necessarily rid one of the threat, an engagement with common interest is adopted, adjusting the structure of the order to some degree in the name of common or collective security. Perhaps this is where Waltz and Liberal Internationalism can be fused, at least on this purely structural notion?

[8] Buzan and Wæver (2009) ‘Macrosecuritisations and Security Constellations’, pp. 260-261.

[9] Emphasis added.

[10] UN Web TV (2nd July 2020) ‘Maintenance of international peace and security: Implications of COVID-19 – Security Council Open VTC’, webtv.un.org, http://webtv.un.org/search/maintenance-of-international-peace-and-security-implications-of-covid-19-security-council-openvtc/6168956136001/?term=&lan=english&cat=Security %20Council&page=20 (Accessed 1st January 2020). This point is also made in A/RES/74/306 on p. 4.

[11] The United Nations (September 2020) United Nations Comprehensive Response to COVID-19: Saving Lives, Protecting Societies, Recovering Better, New York: The United Nations, https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/ files/un-comprehensive-response-to-covid-19.pdf (Accessed 1st January 2020)

[12] The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was passed in 2015 through resolution A/RES/70/1.

Published by K.J.O'Meara

K.J.O'Meara (Ba, MLitt) is an independent British political theorist whose academic interests include: The English School of International Relations, Arendtian Political Thought, Political Hermeneutics, Biopolitics and Critical Film Theory.

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