Power and Practice in Global Politics: From Private Security to the Global Right

A Talk with Rita Abrahamsen and Michael C. Williams

Quarterly Magazine: Security is interesting because what security is, and what feels secure changes almost every day. So, the question arises, what actually defines security? Can you provide examples from your research?

Rita Abrahamsen: The current pandemic climate certainly is a good illustration of your question and the subjective nature of security, and I think that we all somehow feel more insecure today. It reminds me very much of the work that we did on private security, where one of the key arguments was that security is also about knowledge; the more you become aware of your potential insecurity, the more insecure you feel, even if, perhaps objectively, that is not the case. This subjective nature of security and its link to knowledge and risk, we argued, is one of the reasons for the rapid expansion and globalization of the global private security sector. The more we become aware of our insecurity, the more security we want to buy and the more we seek experts to trust, but in both cases this can sometimes intensify feelings of insecurity rather than relieve them.

Michael C. Williams: At a purely conceptual level, you can see security as a good, in the sense of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc., or you could see security as a language and logic of danger, a feeling of danger. Security operates between those two things within a kind of continuum of risk. What one sees is how different things, different practices – viruses for instance, or automobiles – move along a scale of what we can almost call riskification: it’s not always an objective thing, it’s not always driven by objective risks, it’s driven by the massive amounts of politics, perceptions, and feelings. Again, in our work of security privatization, we saw this very clearly, in the sense that the expansion of the sector was closely linked to an awareness and subjective feeling of insecurity.

QM: It also means that a lot depends on who is telling the story. Could you comment on the question of legitimation strategies that comes along with this?

Abrahamsen: There has been quite a lot of debate around the extent to which private security in its various forms is legitimate, particularly in the early literature that focused mostly on mercenaries and private military companies. Our own work has been primarily focused on what we could call private policing or commercial security outside direct military engagement or conflict, although the boundaries are often very difficult to draw. In terms of legitimation, our research showed how the various practices of private security are legitimized by virtue of being deeply embedded within various governance structures and norms and values of governing. So, in part this is about the strategies of the private security companies themselves, but it is also about the practices of governance of governments, corporations and individuals in their everyday lives. One of the arguments we make in our research is that private security is legitimized by virtue of their connections to public authority, or to the state and international organizations like the UN. In this sense, it’s quite interesting to note that the debate about legitimacy seems to have faded quite a bit and these companies are perceived and treated internationally as much more legitimate than they were 10 years ago. On the African continent, where we did most of our empirical work, more militarized mercenary activities were perceived as quite illegitimate in the early and mid 2000s. At the moment, private military companies are heavily involved in for example Cabo Delgado in Mozambique and in the Central African Republic, but it doesn’t seem to attract much attention in the international media or in academic work.

Williams: When we began, our research was on commercial security, but the background to it was the growth of private military activities. If you take a look at the huge controversies around private military involvement in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s - early 2000s: massive international coverage, massive amounts of concerned people up in arms over the idea that Executive Outcomes was there, as well as the British company Sandline. If you contrast that to what is going on in northern Mozambique today, it’s quite striking. There’s absolutely nothing like the kind of reaction that you saw 20 years ago. And so, something has really quite profoundly changed. Part of this is the expertise and experience that private security companies have acquired over time, as well as the way in which they have been legitimized by virtue of being included in various security interventions by states and international organizations, doing various logistical jobs in peacekeeping operations, protecting refugee camps, clearing mines and so on. They’ve done a very good job in making the argument that they have the expertise; they have the experience. These kinds of organizations are no longer that unusual; they’re all over the place. There hasn’t necessarily been a conscious decision by anybody to say, ‘these things are now much more legitimate’, it’s almost an incremental thing, whereby they become normalized.

Abrahamsen: I think also in terms of the practice, it is a gradual thing. Once you’ve got this whole set of practices, of Public Private Partnerships, that says policing or security is not only the responsibility of the state, but also the responsibility of everyone, including business. We have this whole idea of business for peace, and everyone should kind of have a ‘whole of government’ approach, and the private actors should be part of that. You get institutionalized practices, institutionalized discourses that say that this is not only normal, but this is the way to do it.

QM: You talked about this ability of these paid companies to do logistical jobs and to work in different fields, which is in itself interesting because it expands the area of security that we are discussing. You are working on a book on the Merger of Development and Security. How deep are you in this topic at the moment?

Abrahamsen: Very deep, we are struggling to write that book right now (laughs.) But I’m glad you asked, since it connects to what we were just talking about, in the sense that it’s also a practice-oriented book. We are trying to explain, using Bourdieusian practice and field theory, how we got to where we are today in terms of the merger of security and development.

QM: I am interested in that point because of this idea of fields. Does this imply an understanding of security that transgresses the traditional fields of activity?

Williams: Absolutely. What we’re trying to do is to look at this historically, and we’re trying to treat development as a transnational field of practice that comes into being as an autonomous field, and therefore has certain specific dynamics, recognizes certain forms of authority and capital. While development has long historical roots, we argue that it only emerges as an autonomous field of practice after world war II and with decolonization.  The story of the book is the way in which that field emerges, and then subsequently becomes radically transformed as part of broader struggles within the field and in interactions with other transnational fields and the broader field environment. So much so, that the development field today would have been literally incomprehensible to someone in the 1960s.

Abrahamsen: As a global field, as an autonomous field, development emerged in the midst of the Cold War, and while security was a central preoccupation at the time its relationship to development was very different. Security – which then was either about national security or peace – is sort of squeezed out of the field of international development. As part of the process of field autonomization, security, defence and the military become constituted as the opposite pole and in the book we analyse the dynamics and forms of capital involved in this transformation. When we get to the merger of development and security, which begins at the end of the cold war, and then escalates with the attacks of 9/11 and the preoccupation with the global war on terror, security is able to ‘invade’ the field of development. Security knowledge becomes development knowledge, as part of the well-known slogan that ‘there can be no development without security’. That is where you get to a point where military personnel and various security actors and their knowledge becomes part of development knowledge, and therefore they become powerful actors within the field of development.

Williams: When we first started thinking about this, we had spent a couple days at a goldmine in Tanzania, researching new security practices in resource extraction. The mine was completely cut off from the surrounded areas, surrounded by a 9km long, 10-foot-high concrete wall and barbed wire. The people we met inside were community development workers who were literally sitting in the same office as global private security operatives and working together with them. We just thought to ourselves: this would have been completely inconceivable in the 1950s and 60s, and yet here they are, not without tensions, but here they are, hand-in-hand, working for a global gold mining company in a walled compound. So, let’s try to figure out how on earth this could have happened. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

Abrahamsen: Let me add that as we tried to explain our experiences, we came to the conclusion that existing accounts could not really capture the multiple dynamics at play.  For one, it was not only a merger of development and security, or a security-development nexus.  It was also a merger of the corporate world with development – a corporate-development-security nexus, if you like. Another thing that was striking to us was that when we first started working on private security, the NGOs were mostly radically opposed to private security in all its forms, whereas a decade later they work hand in hand with security actors and corporate actors. The book seeks to provide a field and practice-based explanation for this transformation. One aspect of the explanation goes back to what we discussed previously, namely that NGOs came to realize that in many parts of the world they could not operate unless they themselves hired private security for protection – they frankly can’t work if they don’t have private security. Then, things also changed in terms of funding: NGOs must now have funding and partnerships with the private sector, and there is a strong push towards tripartite funding schemes involving states or international organizations, business and NGOs. There is much more to it, and in the book we seek to explain the transformations in the field through a focus on its specific forms of capital and what we call an interest in disinterest.

QM: There is a western preoccupation – even a paranoia – focussed on managing risk abroad in order to ensure security at home. Is the western idea of security, then an extension – or a remnant –  of postcolonialism? Does postcolonial criticism factor into your research on development and security?

Abrahamsen: In many ways, yes absolutely, and we have both also written about this previously. For example, I wrote an article way back in 2005 called ‘Blair’s Africa: The Politics of Securitization and Fear’, which shows how the preoccupation with security at home can have very detrimental impacts for development ‘abroad’ and for people in the South. It’s very striking how the current development model prioritises security, and the danger is that the security of ‘here’ comes to take priority over the welfare and development of distant others. One of the things that interests us is how the field has transformed to such an extent that military and security actors can now claim development expertise, and how development actors are sometimes the most eager supporters of security solutions.

QM:At a recent practice theory conference at the Centre, there was a lively debate about  how one can meet practitioners and how to generate trust with informants, particularly in the security area. Can you build trust over a zoom conference?

Abrahamsen: I think it would be very difficult – in fact  impossible - to do the work we have done over zoom. I could not see how you can get the level of trust, how you can get people to open up. In the security field, there is often a lot of initial mistrust and suspicion that has to be overcome in the first encounters, and this would be very hard to do over zoom. Also, I think it’s much easier for potential interviewees simply to say "no" to requests for a zoom meeting.  It’s different when you turn up at their doorstep day after day.

QM: If you are a young researcher, you don't know people, you have not grown network – relations that develop on the ground over the course of years. You can of course always write about the literature, but would this alter research strategies when it comes to fieldwork?

Williams: Our view is very strongly that to the extent you can, you have to go out there and engage with the area of practice that you are looking at. It is one thing to imagine what a mercenary or a private security contractor might be like, and its quite another to meet a bunch of them in real life. It changes your view. It changes also their view of you. And you will get different things from them, and you will learn different things by observing their routines and everyday practices. In our private security work, interviews and observations of the day to day routines of private and public security actors were invaluable, and often we learnt the most important things when we least expected it. The pandemic and the way it has paused fieldwork of all kinds poses a serious challenge for practice-based research, and this is particularly devastating for young researchers and for those who are in the middle of their PhD research.

QM: Let’s switch to the New Right. Rita, I was very interested to read a blog post which you wrote. I noted one sentence that I found perfect: ‘The Right Family attacks the liberal world order where it hurts most; at home.’ It was about the Geneva Consensus a right-wing international declaration that supports a very conservative picture of the family. Is this family ideology an issue that is directly linked to the new right?

Abrahamsen: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s fascinating because in the Global Right Research Project that we are both involved in, we’re really trying to see how the global right works at the level of ideas, of ideologies, and networks, and the family is one of the ways in which it tries to do this. The Geneva Consensus is one example but there are many other attempts to hone in on and defend the traditional family. On the surface these initiatives can sound quite innocent, but when you look a little closer they are all anti-gay, anti-same-sex marriage, and anti-abortion. There are several examples of trying to make international or transnational connections around this issue, and in opposition to accepted international values and conventions, like the International Declaration of Human Rights. And that’s why I say ‘the global right attacks the global order where it hurts the most; at home’ because sometimes we don’t appreciate why people support these movements. But many people are value-conservative, and the Global Right is mobilizing those kinds of sentiments – ‘we are defending you; we are just like you’ – it’s hard for nice, lefty, liberal intellectuals like ourselves to understand, but across the world, those kinds of viewpoints are often stronger than we’d like to admit.

QM: You mentioned there is a strategy, a politics of enmity.

Williams: We have an article in International Political Sociology where we explain this in more detail, and show how the Global Right has effectively mobilized a politics of enmity. One element of this is to build alliances. There is a quote in the article from Aleksandr Dugin that we really liked. He basically says ‘it doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you oppose what we oppose, you are our friend. We will make alliances with everyone as long as your dislikes are the same as ours, namely the current global order’. In this way, the strategy is quite ‘reactionary’; they don’t necessarily have a position of their own, they are reacting against something: If you can understand what they are reacting against, or what they say or feel they are reacting against, then you can begin to understand how they work, rather than looking for some unifying core that they all share, because most of the time they don’t. Another aspect of the politics of enmity is the identification of a clear enemy, namely what they call the ‘new elite’ of experts, international bureaucrats, and intellectuals, whom they contrast to the ordinary people.    

QM: The radical right has often been accused of anti-intellectualism (climate change denial, misinformation campaigns, ‘fake news’). In your estimation, what are the intellectual motivations of the New Right?

Williams: An important part of our work has been precisely to debunk this view of the Right as anti-intellectual and plain dumb. It’s a tempting position, and obviously not all right-wing street protestors are closet intellectuals! Far from it, but in our view we underestimate the Global Right at our peril. Our work has thus in large part been about trying to uncover the intellectual roots, ideologies and political strategies of the contemporary Right, showing how there is a theoretical and ideological underpinning to much of their thinking and action.

QM: You are not researching authoritarianism of all sorts. You focus on specific racist-ideological configurations.

Abrahamsen: It is very difficult to define the Right or the Global Right. We have avoided the use of labels like populism and populist authoritarianism, and by and large we try to resist very strong definitions, or drawing very clear boundaries. In part this is because we see the Right as a fluid movement or ideology, and part of its success stems precisely from this fluidity and ability to build alliances. That said, one of the key themes we have focused on is the nativist element in much of the thinking of the Global Right. What unites many of these disparate groups is a nativist belief of where we come from and how we ought to organize life.

Williams: We think that in many of these cases there is something more going on than simply authoritarian populism. Our sense is that one needs to understand the specific articulations of this and then the way in which they try to make linkages across different national traditions.

QM:  Rita and Michael, thank you both very much for this talk.

A last question*

QM: Meeting your practitioners half way finally raises the question whether you already met George Clooney.

Rita: (laughs) No. I suppose you are referring to a blogpost I write that was quite critical of Clooney’s politics towards South Sudan.  No, I never heard from him, but I got news from one of my students, “Rita, when I google your name, I get pictures of George Clooney.”

Michael: She doesn't get a lot of Christmas cards from George.

Rita: That would have been nice.

Michael: May be not.


* Rita Abrahamsen 'Letter to George Clooney'

Rita Abrahamsen in Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) at the University of Ottawa. She is the author (with M.C. Williams) of Security Beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2011); Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and the Good Governance Agenda in Africa (Zed Books, 2000); and numerous articles in international peer-reviewed journals.  


Michael C Williams is University Research Professor in Global Political Thought in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is the author (with R. Abrahamsen) of Security Beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2011); Culture and Security (Routledge 2009); and The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2005) as well numerous articles on international relations, security, and international political theory.


Global Right

The rise of radical conservative political movements is one of the most striking developments in global politics. The project investigates the global rise of radical conservative political movements. These developments mark more than shifts in electoral politics. Above all, they represent a potentially momentous disruption of the liberal international order, whose regimes of human rights norms, free trade, alliance relations, and climate policies are increasingly subject to contestation.

Global Right is linked in research partnerships with the World Order Research Program at uOttawa’s Center for International Policy Studies https://www.cips-cepi.ca/.

Website: https://globalright.ca/

Download Pdf

                                Next Article