Emergency Politics
Security, Threats and the Duties of States

Dr Rita Floyd is Senior Lecturer in Conflict and Security in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. Her research interests include security and International Relations theory, environmental security and, more recently, ethics and security. She has a monograph forthcoming in 2019 (with Cambridge University Press) entitled The Morality of Security: A Theory of Just Securitization. This book offers a new way of approaching ethics and security by bringing together insights from moral philosophy via the just war tradition, and Security Studies via securitization theory. This book develops principles of just securitization concerned exclusively with when securitization (i.e. the use of emergency politics whereby putative threats are addressed using exceptional means) is morally permissible. Developing this project, her work for the ISRF takes her existing research on ethics and security further. Her project Emergency politics: security, threats and the duties of states, aims to unpick when securitization is morally required, tackling issues such as culpability in threat creation and the obligation to securitize. Whilst this project is ultimately intended as a research monograph in its own right, it builds logically on the assumptions of Floyd’s existing work on just securitization. After all, a theory of the obligation to securitize must begin by thinking about the permissibility to do so, as one can only have a duty to perform acts (i.e. securitization) that are permissible.


This project works at the interface between moral/political philosophy and International Relations/security studies with the aim of answering the curiously ignored, yet pertinent question: When, if ever, are states morally obliged to treat putative threats as a matter for emergency politics and address them using exceptional measures? This question has received scant attention because states have a moral duty to act on matters of national security. However, faced with the rampant proliferation of national security threats (real or perceived), states simply do not have the resources to treat all of them as emergencies warranting special measures. They cannot ‘securitize’ all of these issues. Neither is securitization necessarily the best solution – after all, there is no guarantee that acting by rendering threats a top priority and employing exceptional means makes for greater security. Furthermore, many threats are transnational and as such cannot be adequately addressed by one state.

This project answers the research question by utilizing the just war tradition which sets forth universal moral principles that govern the morality of war. Relevant for this project are those just war theorists working on the obligation to wage war, primarily because the international community now has a responsibility to protect citizens of other states from a select list of grave harms (including genocide) inflicted/tolerated by their own governments. Originating from these ideas, this research aims to establish the conditions and thresholds for when states are obliged to securitize, focusing on who has such duties, why and on what issues.

This research benefits scholars interested in the ethics of security (e.g. security scholars, philosophers, criminologist and law scholars) who can use it to recommend what governments should do in relevant situations. By furthering knowledge, this project also facilitates greater awareness of ethics and security in practitioner communities and among the interested public.

The Research Idea

Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, migration, climate change, fake news, infectious disease – the list of issues now commonly identified as matters for national security is long. National security traditionally designates threats to the survival of the state, and national security strategies specify what states are prepared to fight against using exceptional means that are not commonly part of the ordinary political process. 

The concept of national security is imperative to our understanding of the state as a social contract between those that govern and the governed. Unless states can provide the security of its citizens the social contract is broken. This also means that states have a moral duty to provide national security. This logic informs the proliferation of the rhetorical linkage between numerous world-ills and national security. While states may act accordingly as a result of this linkage,overall the expansion of national security is problematic. How, for example, are states to allocate finite resources if all world-ills are equally significant? Furthermore, ‘securitization’ always has adverse effects on some people. In short, while states may have a moral duty to provide national security, not all threats are most effectively addressed in this way; some require ordinary political solutions instead. Moreover, in the age of globalisation and transnational threats national security can be outdated. With the aid of moral philosophy and practical ethics, most notably the just war tradition that theorises the morality of war, this project will provide answers to the question when, whom and what states are obliged to securitize.


This research project develops from my work on the moral permissibility of securitization. This work is forthcoming in a monograph (The Morality of Security: A theory of just securitization) published by Cambridge University Press. That book develops a systematic normative theory of just securitization that sets out the conditions when actors are permitted to securitize; it does not examine whether and, if so,when states’ have a duty to securitize. As such this book is but one part of a wider research agenda on ethics and security.

In this complementary project, I want to engage with the question of moral obligation as opposed to permissibility. Like many moral philosophers I draw a sharp distinction between the circumstances when an act is merely allowed and an act that one has a duty to perform. A theory of obligation starts from permissibility because one can only have a duty to perform acts that are permissible. 

Moral obligation is key for those just war theorists interested not only in self – but also in other-defence (humanitarian intervention). Just war theorists develop inter alia moral principles for when the move from peace to war is justified. Of central importance will be the issue of last resort, for this specifies the point in time when nothing other than securitization can be done to deal with the threat. Paramount too will be the issue of culpability of actors in the creation of threats, as well as the question of who is obliged to securitize when states fail.

The Focus

This research advances a fresh approach to ethics and security by merging security studies with just war theory. Although war is an extreme form of emergency politics, cross-over between disciplines does not exist, in part because securitization scholars, who view securitization negatively, misconceive just war scholars as war-hungry. 

Instead of developing answers from a single case study my project will develop the argument by drawing on a series of well-known examples/issues, including global climatic change, cyber security and the European migrant crisis? In addition to individual state actors the research focuses also on collectives made up of state actors (e.g. NATO). As such this research will be able to give answers to – among others – the following real-life questions: 

Do states located in ‘the West’ have a moral obligation to secure small island states from rising sea-levels brought about by climate change for which it is historically most responsible?  

What are the viable alternatives to securitization for dealing with inter alia: terrorism, climate change, migration, cyber security, infectious disease? For how long should alternatives be tried before securitization becomes necessary? 

Besides genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity should the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ norm pertain to other threats, if so, which ones? 

What role does moral culpability in threat creation play in the obligation to securitize where collective state actors are concerned? For example, ought ‘hawks’ within the ranks of NATO to have to pay greater share of the defence budget than more peaceful nations?

Theoretical Novelty

Not least due to Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the often unethical conduct of the security services in the on-going securitization of terrorism, the ethics of security has grown in importance in academic writings. With few exceptions (e.g. the philosophers Sorrell, Lazar) these works fall into two broad groups. 

The first group is comprised of scholars who reject securitization, because they view the practice of extraordinary politics as negative othering, as well as the deliberate creation of fear and thus the controlling of populations (Huysmans, Neocleous). 

The second group is composed of those who – while recognising securitization often has ill-effects – wish to retain the mobilising power characteristic of security and use it to make the world a better place. (Burke, Booth). 

The first approach suffers from the weakness that there are some real, catastrophic existential threats (e.g. the bubonic plague) that clearly require securitization. The second approach is problematic because it ignores the finiteness of resources at a state’s disposal, and it is also not clear how states are to be convinced to act in the selfless cosmopolitan ways informing this approach.

My project offers a third way. By developing normative principles that specify when states are morally obliged to securitize I retain the mobilization power inherent in, and unique to, security, yet by setting the threshold high I do not succumb to utopian ideals that have little practical application in the here and now.


My project is interdisciplinary in nature; specifically it will involve the following academic disciplines:

– moral philosophy with a view to uncovering the meaning of moral obligation as distinct from moral permissibility, including through works by Scanlon, Miller, Prichard; 

– early modern political thought:the role of the state in connection with the provision of security, specifically works by Hobbes, Locke, Mill and Rousseau;

– political philosophy:especially with a view to communitarianism as found in the work by  Miller, Walzer, MacIntyre  and cosmopolitanism as developed by Caney, Fabre, Brook;

– security studies/strategic studies:with a view to understanding the nature and scale of threats (Moaz, Freedman, Strachan), as well as the meaning of security and securitization, Buzan, W╛ver, Bushby; 

– International Relations:especially the English school and within that normative pluralism and solidarism associated with the works of Williams, Jackson, Mayall and Wheeler, Dunne, Linklater, respectively; 

– practical ethics/ political theory/moral philosophy: with a view to understanding the just war tradition, specifically the works of Walzer, McMahan, Rodin and Pattison.  

Inspired by philosophy’s dominant method wide reflective equilibrium (which sees researchers revise and reflect on a moral problem taking into account rival theories) this research develops the reflective method, whereby the ethics of security is approached by reflecting on which considerations of the just war tradition are relevant for – in this case – the state’s obligation to securitize. Although my project is primarily theoretical, I will exemplify these principles through a variety of pressing empirical examples, including the European migrant crisis and NATO’s efforts to address cyber insecurity.

Work Plan

This research would be undertaken starting 31 December 2018, giving me time to complete ongoing research projects before embarking on this new research. 

First, I will spend time reading and fully understanding a huge range of works across the different disciplines, specifically on the concept of the state, moral obligation, and just war theory concerned with duty. 

Second, once a draft plan has emerged I plan to share my interim findings with both the security studies and just war communities. Specifically I plan to hold a one-day workshop on the moral obligation to securitize in the University of Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of Global Ethics of which I am an affiliated member. I also plan to present my work at the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. 

Third, I also aim to put together a special edition (most likely in the Journal of International Political Theory) exploring the nature of objective existential threats bringing together contributors from within security studies and philosophy (notably just war scholars). 

Fourth, I also aim to reach a wider audience by writing a few shorter pieces on moral obligation and contemporary security issues for The Conversation and The Guardian’s comment is free section.  

Fifth, the central output of the fellowship would be a monograph on the question of the moral obligation to securitize. Like my last two books, I expect that this book would be published with Cambridge University Press, while Oxford University Press is also a possibility.


A research monograph on states obligations to securitize published with a renowned University Press will sustainably define the nascent field of ethical security studies for years to come.

This project will further ISRF’s broader ambitions of interdisciplinary work by forging close links between security studies and moral and political philosophy. While scholars within these fields work on closely related questions of war and peace, little cross-fertilization between them exists. Both the workshop and the special edition would facilitate such all-important cross-fertilization. In addition, both offer opportunities to invite and connect with those criminologists and law scholars with an interest in the ethics of security.

Beyond this, my interest in and dedication to just securitization is driven by one overarching thought. I believe that the world we live in would be much improved if citizens of democratic states were able to hold their governments accountable for when, why and how they securitize, just as they hold politicians accountable for fighting wars and how they fight them. Just securitization, however, is able to change the world for the better only if it becomes so well-known that its language becomes adopted by practitioners and its ideas common parlance. Just securitization has a chance of becoming better known only if more scholars, from different disciplines, begin to work to develop competing accounts. My attempts at cross-fertilization between just war theorists and security studies scholars, as well as the outputs of this research will serve as important steps in that direction.