Going Danish: An Introduction to the Copenhagen School

The aim of this short essay is to introduce the Copenhagen School and social constructivism as political theories which will be analysed further in a later paper. This essay will analyse both the merits and disadvantages of the Copenhagen School and social constructivism, arguing that the theories of the Copenhagen School have the potential to revolutionise international security but, ultimately, are left in the shadow of long standing traditionalist values. This will be achieved by analysing the merits of the Copenhagen School theories, supported primarily by Wilkinson (2007), followed by an exploration of the disadvantages of the theories which inhibit its overall influence in the political sphere. Thereafter this essay will discuss where and how these notable characteristics, both good and bad, are applied in modern global international relations. This essay will then conclude by suggesting how revised application of the Copenhagen School theories could bring about constructive social change to modern international relations. Further to Wilkinson (2007) this essay will also be supported by key readings from McDonald (2011), Wæver (1995) Neumann (2010) and others which will be cited accordingly.

The merits of the Copenhagen School lie within the theory‘s approach to the evolution of security from that of the traditionalist military state into an overarching social construct which can be applied to any referent object, be it state or other collective group identity (Neumann 2010; Wilkinson 2007) , through the interpretation of what security does (McDonald 2011). Where as traditional international relations theory focus on practical application and empirical analysis (Burchill, Linklater, Devetak, Donnelly, Nardin, Paterson, Reus-Smit & True 2013) in the protection of the state and its sovereignty the Copenhagen School suggests that any referent object that is facing an existential threat can be securitised in so far as it has a perceived value within it’s community (Wæver 1995; Wilkinson 2007). By breaking down the state into smaller collectives, be they political divisions such as the military and economy, or into collective groups of race or religion, objects can be securitised more specifically (Wæver 2003). This securitisation can occur through traditional broadcast media channels but is more likely to occur through the actions pertaining to the localised referent objects and groups such as protest or lobbying (Wilkinson 2007). A contemporary example of this occurring within the framework of the Copenhagen School is given in Wilkinson (2007, p. 15-16) when the Kyrgyzstani government was overthrown citing, amongst other factors, an insufficient level of attention being paid to domestic security analysis in favour of the traditional regional and formal politics. This lack of attention resulted in the securitisation of opposition to the government and eventual revolt starting at a local level and ending in the toppling of a government. While this is an extreme example owing to a nations revolution it does well to showcase how, when securitisation actors are scaled back from the state and focused on a smaller referent object, they can enact genuine social change. The rise of this political event without the assistance of mainstream media also showcases how in the social media age social constructivism can be utilised to encourage political change.

Like all international relations theories the disadvantages of the Copenhagen School are highlighted when they are demonstrated in a way that is detrimental to society. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage in this sense then is the subjectivity of these theories of social constructivism. With only a series of frameworks and no prescribed method on how to use them the question of ethics arises, particularly when posed against delicate issues of international diplomacy such as migration. While it may be convenient for a government to create a narrative of fear in its population and a threat to their national sovereignty it may not necessarily be ethical or aligning to the Copenhagen Schools penchant for human rights (Diskaya 2013). A notable example of this, as documented by McDonald (2011), occurred during the 2010 ‘resecuritisation’ of asylum seekers for the first time since the Howard government’s Children Overboard scandal of 2001 (Head 2004; McGrath 2004). Just as the Howard government had done previously both major Australian parties brought the subject of asylum seekers to the forefront of the political narrative in the lead up to the election and in doing so stimulated a national debate on the validity of their migration into the country. By these actions the Australian govenrment enacted the securitisation of the group making them a target for those traditionalists who wanted to jingoistically protect their nations sovereignity. The end result created a narrative whereby the asylum seekers, now seen as a threat to the Australian way of life, were able to be either refused entry on arrival or detained in detention centres, with public support. Another contemporary example of this can be seen in the manner which the United States have approached the conflict in the Middle East and the “War on Terror” (Williams 2013). By securitising the threat of Islamic extremism and creating a perception of countries filled with dangerous weapons the US was able to justify a war effort which was then responsible for the securing of natural resources (Juhasz 2013). Not only doe these examples demonstrate how the theories of the Copenhagen School can be utilised to effectively enhance a chosen position within the political sphere but it also highlights the importance of educating the public to better understand them and pressure those with power to use them ethically.

Considering both the merits and disadvantages that have been outlined in this essay the underlying point of contention then becomes how are the theories of the Copenhagen School applied to international relations and, in doing so, how are they interpreted. The benefits of social constructivism can be seen throughout Europe and the EU where individuals are granted freedom of movement between member nations are free to settle within the local communities. Depending on the political views of those interpreting this theory however this is not always necessarily a good thing. Many far right European movements believe that this is a threat to their freedoms, similar to the manner in which the Australian government presented the asylum seekers in 2010, and attempt to securitise these migrants which again brings about the issue of the theories subjectivity. Were the theory more rigid in its application then it may have the potential to become more widely accepted in international relations, though by the same token were the theory to become too rigid it could gravitate more towards that of a traditionalist theory which would undermine it’s position of social exploration. Similarly the issue of subjectivity can be explored again when considering conflicts between two states, as opposed to factions and referent groups within them. While the Copenhagen School encourages securitisation of local socio-political practices (Wilkinson 2007) it is not uncommon for nations which may share similar religious beliefs, such as those in the Middle East, to find themselves at odds over any manner of difference from traditional land ownership to historical disputes and even division of natural resources. There may be any number of causes for conflict however it is the manner in which the opposing sides frame the issue that determine its interpretation. Similarly to the United States using a war on terror to secure resources so to may a perceived religious dispute, such as that between Israel and Palestine, be used to frame a dispute over land. Ultimately, in both instances, the disputes eventually fall back to traditional measures of security which end in conflict.

Based on the theories demonstrated in this essay for the teachings of the Copenhagen School to be effectively applied positively to international relations the political sphere would need to better understand how they are utilised and have been utilised in the past. As this would require acknowledgment of past instances where perceived threats may have been embellished to appear as more dangerous to the populace than they were there may be reluctancy from traditionalist states to commit this level of transparency for the sake of progress. This is somewhat ironic as, by virtue of the specificity in which of the Copenhagen School theories can be applied, traditional security could be enhanced by diversifying how each manner of the state is securitised. Ultimately, regardless of theoretical approach, the securitisation of states will remain in the hands of the governments who serve and it is therefor the obligation of the people to better understand how they want to be protected and exercise their democratic rights accordingly.



Burchill, S, Linklater, A, Devetak, R, Donnelly, J, Nardin, T, Paterson, M, Reus-Smit, C and True, J (eds) 2013, Theories of international relations, 5th edition. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

 Diskaya, A 2013, ‘Towards a Critical Securitization Theory: The Copenhagen and Aberystwyth Schools of Security Studies’, 1 February, viewed 7 January 2018, <http://www.e-ir.info/2013/02/01/towards-a-critical-securitization-theory-the-copenhagen-and-aberystwyth-schools-of-security-studies/&gt; 

Head, M 2004, ‘Australia: Howard’s 2001 election lies return to haunt him’, wsws.org, 25 August, viewed 7 January 2018, <https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2004/08/howa-a25.html&gt;

Juhasz, A 2013, ‘Why the war in Iraq was fought for Big Oil’, CNN, 15 April, viewed 7 January 2018, <http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/19/opinion/iraq-war-oil-juhasz/index.html&gt;

McDonald, M 2011, ‘Deliberation and Resecuritization: Australia, Asylum-Seekers and the Normative Limits of the Copenhagen School’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 281-295.

McGrath, C 2004, ‘Mike Scrafton speaks live about children overboard affair’, The World Today, 16 August, viewed 7 January 2018, <http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2004/s1177463.htm&gt;

Neumann, I 2010, ‘Chapter 8 National security, culture and identity’, in M Dunn Cavelty & V Mauer (eds) 2010, The Routledge Handbook of Security Studies, Routledge, London, pp. 95-105. 

Peggs, A 2017, ‘How Momentum changed British politics forever’, Huffington Post, 13 June, viewed 7 January 2018, <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/adam-peggs/momentum-jeremy-corbyn_b_17054254.html&gt;

Wæver, O 1995, ‘Chapter 3 Securitization and desecuritization’, in R Lipschutz (ed.) 1995, On security, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 46-86.

Wæver, O 2003, ‘Securitisation: Taking stock of a research programme in Security Studies’, viewed 7 January 2018, <https://www.clisec.uni-hamburg.de/en/pdf/data/waever-2003-securitisation-taking-stock-of-a-research-programme-in-security-studies.pdf&gt;

Wilkinson, C 2007, ‘The Copenhagen School on Tour in Kyrgystan: Is Securitization Theory Useable Outside Europe?’ Secuirty Dialogue, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 5-25.

Williams, P 2013, Security Studies: An Introduction, 2nd edn, Routledge, London.


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