Publishing Disclaimer: In all of its publications and products, NCO Journal presents professional information. However, the views expressed therein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Army University, the Department of the US Army, or any other agency of the US Government.


International Security Evaluation

By U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Andy B. Anderson

U.S. Army Forces Garrison, Panzer Kaserne, Stuttgart, Germany

February 8th, 2019

Download the PDF

Four F/A-18C Hornets fly in formation

International security is defined as “the study of the threat, use, and control of military force” (Walt, 1991, p. 212). This field broadly examines the conditions for the use of military force, the effects of such use of force on both state and non-state actors, and distinctive policies that states may implement to mitigate, prepare, or participate in military conflicts.

This article provides an evaluation of traditional and non-traditional definitions of international security and their impact on the international system in the post-Cold War period, addressing such issues as the changing nature of modern warfare, the problems of humanitarian interventions in responses to such conflicts, and the dilemmas of counterinsurgency strategy as a remedy against instability and violence.

Continuity and Change in the Post-Cold War International Security Agenda

The end of the Cold War in 1989 was one of the defining historical events that signified the end of one era and introduced another full of peculiarities and uncertainties. The series of revolutions that swept over Eastern and Central Europe not only ripped the “;iron curtain” but also crippled the Soviet Union, which then collapsed in 1991 (Dannreuther, 2017, p. 15). Stephen Walt explains that during the Cold War, the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, devised their security policies in response to each other and that such East-West competition also molded the behavior of other states (1991, p. 225).

This bipolar structure of the international system clearly defined the power distribution throughout the other states in the international system and the race for the possession of power was important to prevent aggression from other states as well as influence them on various issues. Furthermore, Nye and Lynn-Jones (1988) add that although deterrence and game theories offered the basis for security issues, other aspects of security, namely cultural, economic, political, and psychological, were not given proper attention.

During the Cold War, deterrence theory— defined as “;the prevention of attack through the fear of retaliation” (Jentleson, 2014, p. 137)—increased in prominence in regards to the use of nuclear weapons. The deterrence capacity necessitates the combination of military, especially nuclear capabilities, as well as the intention to retaliate. This theory is closely connected to game theory, which focuses on mathematical models of cooperation and conflict between rational decision-makers (Myerson, 1991, p. 1).

Soldiers assigned to the 65th Field Artillery Brigade, and soldiers from the Kuwait Land Forces fire their High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and BM-30 Smerch rocket systems during a joint live-fire exercise, Jan. 8, 2019

Despite the demise of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, military force remains a central element in international security (Walt, 1991, p. 222). Military force continues to serve not only as the primary arbiter in both interstate and intrastate conflicts, but also as a powerful weapon in the hands of non-state actors despite transformational global changes with the end of the Cold War. However, the post-Cold War emphasis on the non-traditional aspects of international security has caused “unprecedented disciplinary introspection within the field” (Beier and Arnold, 2005, p. 41) and has led to the re-envisioning of the concept of international security.

In the post-Cold War period, the “conceptual shift from traditional state-centered security to so-called human security has transformed the concept of international security” (Kienscherf, 2001, p. 521). In effect, other aspects of security that were not given much attention during the Cold War have gained importance, particularly human security. According to Paris’ (2001) matrix of security studies, human security is “concerned with military or nonmilitary threats-or both-to the security of societies, groups, and individuals” (p. 98). This concept was initially described in the Human Development Report issued by the United Nations Development Programme in 1994. This report defined the scope of human security through seven dimensions: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, and political security (Acharaya, 2017, p. 482).

The concept of human security is closely intertwined with a multitude of new issues for international security, to include:

  • the changing nature of modern war, as evidenced by the increase in the number of intrastate wars, which are characterized by a seemingly new level of disregard for human security during warfare

  • humanitarian interventions, as responses to such conflicts, might present challenges to international security

  • the connection between human security and counterinsurgency solutions as a remedy against the spread of violence

Yet, due to the post-Cold War shift in the strategic landscape, the imminent risk of war between major powers has considerably declined. However, despite such decline, military conflict has acquired new forms. The changing nature of modern warfare can be seen through the prevalence of intrastate conflicts (like the conflicts in Iraq and Syria), especially in the developing world.

War has been traditionally seen as an irrational act. However, the new focus on various elements of human security uncovers the rational decisions of the aggressors (Murshed, 2002, p. 388). For example, some scholars argue that the “conflict trap” (multiple civil wars due to repeatedly replicating conditions that began the first civil war) connects poverty and violence (Collier et al., 2003, p. 79). However, the proponents of the economic “grievances” model of intrastate wars argue that civil wars, primarily in the developing world, are motivated by “grievances” that include extreme poverty, systematic economic discrimination of groups based on religious or ethnic differences, and poor social conditions (Murshed, 2002, p. 389). Moreover, the post-Cold War civil wars are characterized not only by extreme brutality but also by the neglect of basic humanitarian principles during conflicts (Dannreuther, 2017, p. 67).

The change in the nature of modern war has led to the change in responses to such conflicts, contributing to the rise in the number of humanitarian interventions in the post-Cold War era. The norm of humanitarian intervention, or “responsibility to protect” (R2P), remains a controversial issue in international security (Kuperman, 2008, p. 49). R2P was defined by the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly as “the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means…to help protect populations from genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity” (United Nations General Assembly Resolution, 2005, p. 30). In other words, the U.N.’s responsibility is to protect innocent civilians, not just territory, from multiple threats that affect their well-being (much like they did to end the Kosovo War in 1999).

Afghan elders meeting

Although humanitarian intervention remains a primary strategy for conflict resolution, its status and results are contested. For example, Alan Kuperman (2008) warns about the moral hazard of humanitarian interventions. Moral hazard is defined as a problem in which the provision of risk protection unintentionally encourages irresponsible risk-taking, and, consequently, increases the probability of unintended outcomes. In the case of humanitarian interventions, moral hazard has promoted “some genocidal violence that otherwise would not occur” (p. 49). In Bosnia and Kosovo, the moral hazard dilemma explains the rebellions of vulnerable groups that triggered genocidal retaliation.

Human security is also closely tied to counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy as an effective countermeasure against the global escalation of instability and violence. COIN stresses “the need to protect civilian populations, eliminate insurgent leaders and infrastructure, and help establish a legitimate and accountable host-nation government able to deliver essential human services” (Eikeberry, 2013, p. 59). COIN’s proponents stress the necessity of this strategy in the post-Cold War era since they believe that human security and counterinsurgency generally pursue the same goals, namely offering security and essential services to populations. However, COIN’s critics argue that the end goal of this strategy is not the human security of populations but rather the defeat of America’s enemies (Kienschef, 2011, p. 522).

The changing nature of modern warfare and the challenges of both humanitarian intervention and counterinsurgency strategy represent some of the primary issues of concern in the post-Cold War international security agenda.

Traditional and Non-Traditional Threats to International Security

Traditional and non-traditional threats to international security significantly affect the international system in the post-Cold War era. The most relevant threats to international security are:

  • A challenge to the existing balance of power. This represents a traditional threat, which is a security threat that can only be directed towards states (Buzan et al., 1998, p. 37).

  • International terrorism, which is a non-traditional threat. This can be directed towards both state and non-state actors (Dannreuther, 2017, p. 207)

  • Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have characteristics of both traditional and non-traditional aspects of international security. Especially, when such weapons are possessed by rogue states and/or by international terrorist groups.

Due to globalization, non-traditional threats have gained prominence and continue to tilt the relative balance of traditional and non-traditional challenges to international security.

The danger to the existing balance of power is best represented through the Chinese pursuit of hegemony (leadership or dominance of one country or group over another), namely the Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the short-term and global hegemony in the future, based on its growing expansionism as well as its military modernization. This represents a traditional threat to international security.

U.S. Soldiers detonate a mine clearing line charge

According to the theory of realism, this balance of power is necessary due to the anarchical and chaotic nature of the international system, where the principles of statism, self-help, and survival play major roles (Dunne and Schmidt, 2017, p. 111).

Offensive realists argue that all states intrinsically strive to become a hegemon. Such an aggressive search for a position of a global hegemon of the international system can result in the inter-state war (Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 21). Since China is increasingly challenging America’s hegemony in Asia, the Thucydides Trap theory warns about the unavoidability of a war between the rising power (China) and the established power (the United States) (Allison, 2017, p. 81). The rising power’s demand for influence and respect triggers insecurity from an established power, and, for this reason, potential conflicts are possible in such an environment.

International terrorism represents a non-traditional threat to international security since “the combination of ideology, mobility, access to information, and lethality gives modern terrorist capabilities close to those of states without the latter&rsqo;s restraint” (Kiras, 2017, p. 416). In other words, international terrorism represents an effective strategy for weak states or non-state actors who can use acts of violence to influence powerful actors in the international system. Nye and Lynn-Jones (1988) claim that the study of the causes and effects of terrorism will remain one of the pertinent topics for international security. International terrorist activities are distinguished by the following characteristics: operations in a foreign country, domestic attacks against victims with international significance, and clearly defined international implications. Today, international terrorism predominantly demonstrates most, or all, the features of new terrorism, which is terrorism “that seeks the total defeat of its opponents” (Zelkin, 2018, p. 1).

New terrorism is defined even further with the following characteristics:

  • asymmetrical warfare with mass casualties

  • cell-based networks with weak lines of control

  • political, and religious missions

  • exploitation of the Internet and the media

  • acquisition, and possession of high-intensity weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)

In the case of international terrorism, the psychological and political effects of terrorist acts spread well beyond any domestic agendas (Martin, 2011). The proliferation of WMDs possess the characteristics of not only the traditional threat of challenges to the balance of power but also of the non-traditional threat of international terrorism.

In 1948, the United Nations defined the WMD as “atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effects to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above” (Baylis, 2017, p. 550).

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Jenna L. Cauble, dog handler, with the Provost Marshall's Office, K9 Section, Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, poses for a silhouette photograph with her Military Working Dog

On one hand, WMDs and the wish to possess them can quickly alter the balance of power in the world and radically change the status of weak states in the international system (Libicki, 1999, p. 30). By making use of such technologies and weapons, the weak states can change the probability of success of aggression against a strong state’s invading army.

On the other hand, the prolific spread of the WMD technology in many of its forms provides the potential for non-state actors, such as international terrorists, to act aggressively against other state and non-state actors.

Such a dilemma, in turn, presents significant challenges to the efforts to limit or combat such proliferation that negatively affects international security and the international system. Moreover, WMDs in the hands of international terrorists drastically changes the calculus of deterrence since such groups, especially with apocalyptical or religious goals, are not likely to respond to the same incentives and punishments that direct the states’ behavior in the international system (Dannreuther, 2017, p. 246). Meaning, extremist groups will be less concerned with the negative impact of their actions causing mass deaths or casualties since they have less valuable assets to lose in contrast to those of the larger states which govern territory or rule people.


Much like the geo-political arena, the International Security field is a constantly evolving and perpetually broadening field of study. The relevant threats of today (evolution of modern warfare and terrorism, challenges of humanitarian responses, the dilemmas of counterinsurgency strategies, etc.) may be completely different than the dangers of tomorrow. Now, more than ever, we need international security specialists that can predict and react appropriately to whatever challenges the future unleashes upon the world.


Acharya, A. (2017). Human security. In J. Baylis, S. Smith & P. Owens, (Eds.), The globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations (p.480-495). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Allison, G. (2017, September/October). China vs. America: managing the next clash of civilizations. Foreign Affairs, 96 (5), 80-85.

Baylis, J. (2017). Glossary. In J. Baylis, S. Smith & P. Owens, (Eds.), The globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations (pp.204-218). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beier, J.M., & Arnold, S. (2005). Becoming undisciplined: toward the supradisciplinary study of security. International Studies Review, 7(1), 41-61.

Buzan, B., Waeve, O., Wilde J. (1998). Security: a new framework for analysis. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Collier, P., Elliott, V. L., Hegre, H., Hoeffler, A., Reynal-Querol, M., & Sambanis, N. (2003). Breaking the conflict trap: civil war and development policy(World Bank policy research report). Washington, D.C.: World Bank and Oxford University Press.

Dannreuther, R. (2017). International Security: the contemporary agenda. (2nd ed.). Maiden, MA: Polity Press.

Dunne, T., & Schmidt, B. (2017). Realism. In J. Baylis, S. Smith & P. Owens, (Eds.), Breaking the conflict trap: civil war and development policy(World Bank policy research report). Washington, D.C.: World Bank and Oxford University Press.

Dannreuther, R. (2017). The globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations. (pp.101-115). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eikenberry, K. (2013, September/October). The limits of counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from

Jentleson, B.W. (2014). American foreign policy: the dynamics of choice in the 21st century. (5th ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Kiensherf, M. (2011, September). A programme of global pacification: US counterinsurgency doctrine and the biopolitics of human in (security). Security Dialouge, 42(6), 517-535.

Kiras, J. (2017). Terrorism and globalization.In J. Baylis, S. Smith & P. Owens, (Eds.), The globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations (p.402-418). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kuperman, A. (2008). The moral hazard of humanitarian intervention: lessons from the Balkans. International Studies Quarterly, 52, 49-80.

Libicki, M. (1999/2000, Winter). Rethinking war: the mouse’s new roar.Foreign Policy, 117, p. 30-43.

Martin, G. (2011). Terrorism and Homeland Security. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mearsheimer, J.J. (2014). The tragedy of great power politics.. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Murshed, S. M. (2002, July). Conflict, civil war, and underdevelopment: an introduction. Journal of Peace Research. 39(2), 387-393.

Myerson, R.B. (1991). Game theory: analysis of conflict. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nye, J.S., & Lynn-Jones., S.M. (1988, Spring). International security studies: a report of a conference on the state of the field. International Security, 12(4), 5-27.

Paris, R. (2001, Fall). Human security: paradigm shift or hot air? International Security, 26(2), 87-102.

United Nations General Assembly Resolution. (2005). Final Document of the World Summit 2005. United Nations. Retrieved from

Walt, S.M. (1991, June). The renaissance of security studies. International Studies Quarterly, 35(2), 211-239.

Zelkin, A. (2018, May 21). What’s so new about “new terrorism?” ThoughtCo. Retrieved from


Master Gunnery Sgt. Andy Anderson is an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps. He currently serves as the Operations Chief for Marine Corps Forces, Europe and Africa in Stuttgart, Germany. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts (MA) degree in International Relations with a concentration in International Security at Norwich University. He is a member of SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. He previously served as the Operations Chief for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit while deployed five times in the Indo-Pacific region. Anderson has deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and twice in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Back to Top