Ethics & International Affairs Volume 22.4 (Winter 2008): Book Reviews: Theory of World Security [Full Text]

Dec 30, 2008

Theory of World Security, Ken Booth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 521 pp., $99 cloth, $36.99 paper.

David Mutimer (Reviewer)

Ken Booth describes Theory of World Security as the culmination of a thirty-year project. Indeed, it is a work of truly impressive scope, aiming to "explain and advance a case for a particular theoretical framework with which to explore and engage with the security of real people in real places" (p. xii). The theoretical framework, the "theory of world security" of the title, is informed by the "emancipatory realism" that Booth has been developing for more than a decade (heretofore labeled "utopian realism"), and is applied in the text to the broad sweep of contemporary world politics. Booth aims to illuminate a "New Twenty Years' Crisis" that global society is now entering (p. 1), and which he feels will culminate in the "Great Reckoning"—a concatenation of profound challenges to world politics. His central thesis is that to respond to that crisis we need a critical theory of world security, as only emancipation can produce true security.

In much of his ambition, Booth is successful. The work certainly stands as an integrative testament to one of the most extensive and influential contributions to contemporary security studies—tying most, if not all, of Booth's published work into this text. Theoretically, it delivers a more extensive version of the elements of a critical security theory than Booth outlined in his 2005 edited volume, Critical Security Studies and World Politics. Empirically, there are few if any contemporary problems not considered in his wide-ranging review of the present world. The book is written in an engaging and accessible fashion, again an explicit goal of the author. Indeed, in many ways the book works best as an engaging, acerbic account of the state of the world by one of the most interesting and interested of its observers.

Building to this statement of a critical security theory, Booth's recent works have been explicitly grounded in the tradition of post-Marxist thought in general, and the Frankfurt School in particular. In Theory of World Security, while retaining his intellectual debt to this tradition, Booth seeks to be both broader and more eclectic in his theoretical presuppositions, adopting an approach that, following Hannah Arendt, he calls "Perlenfischerei" (pearl fishing). The method involves Booth plucking pearls from a range of sources to string together his theoretical necklace, though I fear the work loses more in coherence of approach than it gains in its eclecticism. Nevertheless, the central theoretical commitments of the text are clear. Booth explicitly seeks to reclaim the enlightenment project of reason and progress informed by a commitment to a communitarian future that owes much to the vision of Jürgen Habermas and his student in International Relationsand Booth's colleague at Aberystwyth—Andrew Linklater.

There is one oyster bed into which Booth refuses to dive in search of his theoretical pearls, however, and readers of his work in the past decade will be unsurprised to learn that it is post-structuralism, for, as he writes: "postmodern approaches (as they generally do not like to be known) are invariably obscurantist and marginal, providing no basis for politics" (p. 468). The outright dismissal of post-structural security study poses several problems for the book. First of all, unlike Booth's critiques of realism, securitization, and constructivism, his critique of post-structuralism is not based on an engagement with the literature. There are no references to David Campbell, Cynthia Weber, or Hugh Gusterson, for example, despite Booth's explicit concern with communal conflict, ethics, identity politics, sovereignty, and nuclear weapons—the very grist of these leading post-structural writers' mills.

Not only does the lack of engagement undermine Booth's argument, but more important, it means he does not consider ideas directly germane to his own. For example, the book's notion of ethics is underdeveloped, for while Booth gestures to the "face-to-face" as the basis for overcoming the self/other binary, he does not consider the now extensive international relations literature that has turned to Emmanuel Levinas to provide just such an ethical consideration to world politics. While it is not clear precisely what drives the antipathy toward a body of literature that seems at so many places to align with Booth's own theoretical and political sympathies, it may well be its incompatibility with his thinly veiled eschatology. While he overtly denies any blueprint for the future, Booth sets out a range of features for his preferred cosmopolitan democracy that bear a marked similarity to white lines on a blue page.

It is ultimately difficult to argue with Booth's diagnosis of the present, which takes up the better part of the latter half of the book. He sketches out the range of challenges facing contemporary world politics, including deep inequality, the rejection of reason, the underdevelopment of global political institutions, and, of course, the overarching threat of climate change. It is a sobering look at the contemporary crisis, even if his notion of Great Reckoning seems rather overblown. It is also difficult to argue with the progressive political hope that infuses the praxis of his theory of world security. Few who label themselves progressives would reject a more egalitarian world order founded in a global democracy and committed to maintaining the basic rights of individuals within the rule of law.

Where some may find cause to quibble with Booth is in the connection between the theory and his analysis of the global present. For all of the book's concern with theory, it does not seem to this reviewer that the framework it elaborates has much to say about the state of the present. Booth has much—and much that is learned and insightful—to say, but not much of it derives from an application of his theory to the state we are living in. It is in this way, I think, that Perlenfischerei lets him down, as it does not provide a systematic way to think about the state of the world as much as a series of ideas that animate a progressive politics. Nevertheless, Theory of World Security is an important marker in the development of critical security studies, and more broadly in the vital task of thinking through the imperatives of the present. That the contribution owes more to the erudition and insight of the author than to the theoretical pearl necklace he assembles takes little away from its importance, and serves as a fitting culmination to a remarkable career's central project.

—DAVID MUTIMER The reviewer is Associate Professor of Political Science, York University, Canada, and Deputy Director of the York Centre for International and Security Studies.

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