Monopoly on the Use of Force: The Rules of the Game are Changing

“The state has not only lost its dominant position in economic terms but its pre-eminence as an actor in the use of force has diminished too” writes Herbert Wulf.

The current global security environment is extremely volatile. It is afflicted by protracted and complex crises and wars in several parts of the world, the resurgence of autocratic regimes, re-emerging geopolitical rivalries, unprecedented numbers of forced migrations and rising death tolls due to terrorist attacks, among others. The results of the states’ reactions to these challenges cast doubt on the effectiveness of existing political institutions and their ability to provide security. The future of the monopoly on the use of force and the provision of security is questioned. Security as a public good now appears to be universally at risk. Although the Westphalian monopoly on the use of force has not universally spread, it is widely aspired for and largely the base of the present international system.

Major changes in the arena of peace and security policy have taken place with the growing globalization during the twenty-first century, and new challenges and also threats have appeared. Among them are broader concepts of security like “human security” and “comprehensive security”, privatisation and commercialisation of the use of force, interventions in cases of weak and failing states, terrorism and transnational organised crime as a direct challenge to a state monopoly of force, blurring tasks between security authorities in domestic and external security (including the often intransparent role of intelligence agencies), the predatory misuse of force by states, and last but not least modernisation of technology.

In consequence, the rules of the game are changing. In global perspective the role of the state has undergone contradictory developments. The state has not only lost its dominant position in economic terms but its pre-eminence as an actor in the use of force has diminished too. Globalisation pushed the state back and the neo-liberal project is clearly geared to trim the state to its core functions. At the same time we have seen a renaissance of the state. Most interventions in conflict situations (be they militarily or non-military) are explicitly carried out with the aim of promoting democracy and state building.

How can the existing, sometimes chaotic security arrangements be managed?

How can security systems be arranged to produce inclusive security that benefits all citizens in safeguarding both human security and a just international order?

For all its flaws, the state remains a key actor in the provision of security. Its prominence rests on two pillars: First, international relations are still based on the assumption of national monopolies on the use of force in the different sovereign nation states, although security practices in the 21st century contradict this underlying ideal. Secondly, in principle, the heart of global security governance is still the UN system, with states as members, reinforcing the primacy of the state. This leads to a dilemma: The state today is generally found wanting in providing security; but wherever the state is weak, national, international and human securities have suffered particularly.

A closer look at the changing and interrelated local, national and global security environment reveals two opposing trends that impact on the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. First: Fragmentation of security provision. Numerous actors engage in both security provision and violent activities: state, hybrid, and private actors, including private security companies, rebel groups, militias, organised crime etc. This is a trend contrary to the ideal of a monopoly on the use of force. Second and closely related to the fragmentation is a trend to exclusiveness. Security no longer tends to be seen as a public good but instead security is available to favoured groups or to those who can pay for it.

These current global trends towards more fragmented and exclusive security provision undermine stability and threaten human security. Several lessons should be drawn:

  • The current global direction in which the monopoly on the legitimate use of force is developing toward both a more fragmented and exclusive security provision is highly problematic.
  • Due to different country and regional perspectives and expectations, rooted in historical experience, culture and traditions, security is provided in diverse formats. Diversity in security arrangements remains the norm around the globe, not the ideal of the monopoly of the use of force.
  • To achieve effective security provision the state is required to regulate and coordinate the various and fragmented security providers.
  • Fragmented security arrangements are not necessarily only negative; they can also signal emancipation of the individual. We need to recognise not only state-centered, rule-based security arrangements, but also non-state (relational) security provision. While formal institutions are important, one should not get fixated on them.
  • Given a choice between more state and less state, the preference is to stick with the state.
  • Both sustainable peace and inclusive and accountable security are not an end state to be reached once and for all but an on-going struggle embedded in local, regional, national and international power hierarchies and asymmetries.
  • The risk of instability is also heightened by some of the measures to fight insecurity, for example, by military interventions and counter-terrorism actions.
  • Technology will be an important driver in shaping the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Technology can be both a tool for repression and an equaliser or liberator.

Considering the various actors in security a global system exists with multiple layers of authority governing the use of force. In addition to states, some sub-national and supranational entities exercise a monopoly of force. Regional organisations play a role in legitimising interventions, as does the UN. At the local level, non-state actors can be legitimate and credible providers of security, especially if they are able to forge mutually beneficial and accountable relationships with the people. Accordingly, it is imperative to examine the practice of other security providers and not to remain fixated on the state as the sole legitimate provider of force or honest broker in conflict situations.

A mosaic of security arrangements has become increasingly dominant. How can such mosaics be structured, regulated or managed in order to provide legitimate and inclusive security? In order to make future security arrangements more inclusive and durable a two-pronged policy approach is required:

  1. Upholding the norm of state responsibility to provide security and facilitating state institutions where we can have reasonable expectations that they are able to claim and exercise a monopoly over the legitimate use of force and to provide inclusive security.
  2. Recognising the proliferation of actors engaged in security provision: Efforts should focus on establishing a legitimate and effective security architecture that coordinates and regulates the various security providers at the global, regional, national and local levels. Incentives must be created to foster cooperation among multiple security providers and strengthen public mechanisms to regulate and oversee security actors.

This two-pronged approach acknowledges the hybrid security contexts we are currently witnessing and proposes to deal with the existing mosaic security environments more openly. Provision of equitable and inclusive security by institutions governed by rules and laws remains an objective of many citizens in all parts of the globe. The distance from this objective varies greatly but virtually all societies today face the challenge of the declining legitimacy of state institutions coupled with growing fragmentation at the community, state and international levels.

This text draws on the Report Providing Security in Times of Uncertainty, published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES). Herbert Wulf is a co-author and co-chaired the FES Reflection Group on The Future of the Monopoly on the Use of Force 2.0? from 2014 till 2017.  The pdf report can be accessed here.