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date: 19 September 2017

Ontological Security and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

In the early 21st century, a stream of international relations (IR) scholarship has emerged that interprets states’ foreign policy processes, decisions, and international outcomes through the lens of a distinctive type of security, ontological as opposed to “physical” or “material” security. It is a concept that helps us think about how the ability to make choices and take action depends critically on our sense of self, which is itself produced in our actions, albeit often at the level of routines and background narratives. Bringing ontological security into the study of foreign policy in some cases points to different explanations for choices, while in others it adds causal depth and generates new implications. This article reviews the literature that treats foreign policy as an outgrowth of the pursuit of a multifaceted understanding of security, ontological and physical, and raises questions for further research.

Keywords: ontological security, routines, anxiety, narrative, shame, identity, elite manipulation

The field of foreign policy studies1 includes scholarship that examines a broad array of factors accounting for foreign policy processes and choices. Historically, this work has not been particularly paradigm-conscious or wedded to the labels of the broader discipline of international relations (IR). But since the early 2000s, several scholars have sought to link up this stream of scholarship to the discipline more explicitly (e.g., Hudson, 2005; Kubalkova, 2001a; Garrison, 2003). Some of this work focuses on synergies between foreign policy studies and constructivism (e.g., Kubolkova, 2001b; Kaarbo, 2003; Houghton, 2007), with Houghton (2007) arguing that foreign policy studies would do well to “hitch its wagons” to constructivism (Houghton, 2007, p. 24). Houghton and others (e.g., Smith, 2001, p. 38) point to a fit between the basic assumptions of constructivism, that power and interest are not material things but ideas, and actors make their world by acting on the basis of meanings, and Kaarbo (2003) particularly stresses the relationship between state identity and foreign policy choices as a key point of connection between constructivism and foreign policy studies.

Around the same time as foreign policy studies were experiencing this rebirth, a particular approach to identity, that of ontological security, was making its way into IR scholarship. Ontological security refers to the security not of the physical body but of the self or identity, the subjective sense of who one is that enables and motivates action and choice. The concept derives from psychoanalysis (Laing, 1965) and was scaled up to sociology (Giddens, 1991); building especially on Giddens, several scholars in the late 1990s and early 2000s began to draw on the concept to think about patterns of conflict and violence in world politics. Not all ontological security scholarship examines state decisions, but of the work that does there are two types. Some IR scholars begin with the premise that individuals need or seek ontological security and propose that states, as their citizens’ ontological security providers, make foreign policy choices to address societal ontological security needs. Other IR scholars treat states as if they were individuals, amending the IR assumption that states seek security to include that states seek physical and ontological security. Whether the ontological security-seeking unit is treated as the individual or the state, IR scholars drawing on the concept are interested in how ontological security needs might drive state level processes, choices, and outcomes.

This article pulls together the work on ontological security and foreign policy, first defining the concept and then mapping the various ways ontological security has been drawn on to shed light on state decisions and policy processes. Ontological security has been treated as an imperative that constitutes and affects state choices, and an ontological security lens endogenizes the state’s self-understanding or identity to its foreign policy. Stepping back from the map, we then identify questions that have been raised in or are emergent from the conversation among scholars of ontological security and foreign policy. There are methodological questions about the appropriate unit of analysis and referent objects of ontological security and about the causal direction between identity and choices. There are questions of the value-added of this particular approach to the constitution of identity, versus cognate identity concepts. Finally, there are conceptual questions such as the level of conscious awareness involved in practices of ontological security-seeking.

Ontological Security in World Politics

This section summarizes the central idea behind ontological security and lays out how it has been applied to questions in world politics. It then zeroes in on the particular subset of ontological security studies relevant to the topic of this essay: applications of the concept to the study of foreign policy.

Ontological security is a way of thinking about psychological well-being that links our psycho-social needs to structures of power and practice. A premise is that an individual’s identity is not best understood as a set of properties or a core essence that we simply have, but as a social construct, formed and sustained via practices and relations with others, including our embeddedness in social structures. From here, the specific intuition behind ontological security is that all social actors feel that they need a stable sense of self in order to get by and realize a sense of agency in the world. We need to experience ourselves as whole and continuous in time, as “being” and not constantly “becoming.” As Anthony Giddens puts it, ontological security is “the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action” (Giddens, 1990, p. 92). This is not to say that identities actually are stable and unchanging; ontological security refers to the feeling of stability: when we feel our identity is stable we are ontologically secure (Kinnvall, 2007; Browning & Joenniemi, 2016). This feeling is difficult to sustain, because on a deep level all humans know that life is actually not reliably stable, but fundamentally fragile, fraught with uncertainties, and above all finite. We know that we are mortal. However, if we were constantly aware of and thinking about our fragility and mortality we would be consumed by existential dread or anxiety and it would be impossible to live our lives. The starting point of ontological security is that this awareness must be suppressed. Ontological security gives us, in Paul Tillich’s words, the “everyday courage to be” (Tillich, 1952; Browning, in press).

Ontological security is formed and sustained in day-to-day practices, mainly our routines, and in the narratives through which we organize our sense of self, which in turn rely on our embeddedness in social and material structures. As Catarina Kinnvall puts it, simply by “doing day to day life we answer the questions of being” (Kinnvall, 2007, p. 30). Because our routines and sustained self-narratives are crucial to our well-being, we get attached to and emotionally invested in them and would feel profound anxiety at the thought of their destabilization. As the centrality of routines suggests, our feelings of ontological security are not something we are necessarily aware of. On a daily basis, we simply are ontologically secure and do not need to actively pay attention to the need for it, much less make choices to intentionally “pursue” it. Rather, we become aware of ontological security in the breach, when that self-stability is threatened. When aspects of the social and physical world that we rely on are destabilized or threatened and we can no longer sustain our routines, or our self-narratives are called into question, we can begin to feel as if we no longer know who we are. In such situations, we seek ontological security by reasserting routines or appealing to comfortable narratives. That is, ontological security-seeking means engaging self-consciously in practices that remind us of and reproduce who we feel ourselves to be. In this sense, the pursuit of ontological security differs from the pursuit of physical or material security, which is generally treated as an ongoing, intentional pursuit that consciously guides state choices.

Ontological security is a conservative need, positing that on some level humans prefer stability to change. As such, if ontological security needs drive some political actions, then positing this need may help deepen our accounts of homeostatic tendencies in a social system, including the international system. At the same time, an insight from the psychoanalytic literature on ontological security is that too strong an attachment to a rigid, fixed self is more dangerous to well-being than accepting the possibility of change and growth. This suggests that some ontological security-seeking practices can be counterproductive. IR literature on ontological security reflects this nuanced approach to stability and change. For example, Kinnvall proposes that if ontological insecurity increases, the result can be a securitization of subjectivity, where an individual or group might appeal and become attached to an oversimplified Self-narrative entailing a juxtaposition to an Other, which can undermine both physical safety and identity, and lead to conflict and violence (Kinnvall, 2007, p. 34). Mitzen proposes that there are two types of attachment to routines, rigid versus healthy, which condition the actor’s ability to define and pursue goals (Mitzen, 2006a, 2006b). Rumelili focuses on how the anxiety associated with ontological insecurity might cause degeneration into violence but can be harnessed for good (Rumelili, 2015).

Ontological security scholarship in IR tends to be indebted to Giddens’ account, which by embedding the need in modernity suggests that ontological insecurity is pervasive and unavoidable. For Giddens, the dislocations of late modernity create ontological insecurity, which results in a retreat into identities that cause or perpetuate conflict and violence. This premise animates Kinnvall’s book, which argues that structural conditions of insecurity arise from globalization and lead groups to seek ontological security by reaching back and clinging to comfortable, familiar narratives of religious nationalism. Giddens’ premise also guides applications like those of Croft (2012a, 2012b) and Skey (2010), which focus on the dynamics of nationalism, social exclusion, and domestic policy and not on inter-state relations.

As the examples of Croft and Skey suggest, not all scholarship on ontological security in world politics is state-centric or even situated within the standard IR framework of states interacting in anarchy. Some examines state-society relations, while other work focuses on inter-societal relations. Indeed, many scholars of ontological security reject the application of the concept to conventional IR because it problematically reifies the state. For these critics, states can be productively assumed to be ontological security providers, but to assume the state “seeks” ontological security freezes social processes that must be treated as in process, and thus limits rather than enhances our understanding of patterns of conflict and violence (Krolikowski, 2008; Croft, 2012b; Croft & Vaughan Williams, 2016).

These are important critiques, but to some extent the concerns are external to the central focus of this article. The work reviewed here either accepts the assumption that states seek ontological security or does not explicitly reject or deny its theoretical productivity, and focuses on how the actions that are associated with ontological security-seeking condition foreign policy processes and choices and outcomes.

Ontological Security Meets Foreign Policy Studies: 2006–2016

Clearly, the concerns of ontological security scholarship and those of foreign policy scholarship are not identical. But in the past decade these streams of work have begun to come together. This section reviews the literature on foreign policy that draws on insights from ontological security, treating the bodies of scholarship Venn diagram-style—the work described is presented as representing the area of intersection between two distinct, overlapping bodies of work.

Broadly speaking, ontological security has been introduced into foreign policy studies via engaging with the latter’s two central foci, decisions and processes (Kaarbo, 2003; Hudson, 2005; Carlsnaes, 2013). Ontological security scholars ask, first: “how do foreign policy outcomes, when considered from an ontological security perspective, deviate from outcomes that would be predicted from IR’s conventional perspective on state interests?” Their second question is: “how is the process of making foreign policy complicated by ontological security demands?”

Both of these questions rest on the assumption that states seek security, and both implicitly suggest that the security states seek is more multifaceted than conventional IR analysis has assumed. In mainstream IR work, to seek security is foremost to seek to repel violence and maintain the integrity of the political unit. Scholars variously refer to this type of security as material or physical. By material, they tend to be referring to an interest in maintaining its (military or economic) power. When the state’s physical security is invoked, it tends to be in the context of maintaining the integrity of state borders and institutions, as well as the lives of its people. Ontological security is defined in contrast to both of these, as security of the self or subjectivity. Beginning from the premises that, first, power and interest are not material things but ideas, and second, that people act on the basis of meanings not material forces (see Wendt, 1999; Barnett & Duvall, 2005), ontological security analyses draw analytic attention to the centrality of a sense of (the socially constructed) self for intentional action. The idea is that the effects of power, interest, and institutions depend partly on the subjectivities of those engaged in reproducing them. This makes subjectivity is an important focus of research.

Ontological security scholars have pointed out that the state’s physical and ontological security needs sometimes seem to demand contradictory policies. For instance, why did Belgium fight Germany when it had no hope for a military victory and resistance would more likely lead to a total loss of sovereignty? Brent Steele argues that resistance in this case was demanded by Belgium’s ontological security needs, even if it meant Belgium’s potential death (Steele, 2008). Much of the literature on ontological security and foreign policy addresses the need to reconcile contradictory material and ontological security demands. The literature exists on a spectrum from cases where they are irreconcilable (as with Belgium during World War II) to cases where reconciliation requires modifying strategic choices or manipulating perceptions of those choices to create merely the appearance of reconciliation, and finally to cases where material and ontological security needs are not opposed, but can mutually reinforce one another.

Explaining Confounding Foreign Policy Choices

Some of the earliest IR scholarship on ontological security and foreign policy begins by addressing the irreconcilable cases, effectively asking, “why would a state adopt a foreign policy that so clearly deviates from its material interests?” Jennifer Mitzen’s and Brent Steele’s early works ask this question, dealing with extreme outcomes. Mitzen’s work on the security dilemma asks why states would continue conflicts even when their material interests do not demand them (Mitzen, 2006a); Steele’s work asks first why a state would fight a war when its material interests demand the opposite (in the case of Belgium), and then uses the case of Great Britain during the American Civil War to ask why states would not have wars when their material interests do demand them (Steele, 2008).

Steele describes the material interests of Great Britain during the American Civil War (to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy to break up a potential hegemonic rival) and of Belgium during World War II (to avoid the loss of political independence in a war with Germany). In both cases, these countries choose a strategy that knowingly sacrifices their interest: Great Britain stays out of the Civil War and allows the reunification of the United States and thus the reconstitution of a future hegemonic state, and Belgium resists Germany despite being obviously unable to match Germany in the field.

Steele explains both of these by appealing to ontological security: Great Britain considered intervention into the American Civil War up until the Emancipation Proclamation, which made it clear to the British that the war was about slavery, and Britain understood itself as being an avowedly anti-slavery state: intervention on behalf of the slaveholding Confederacy would have been antithetical to its self-understanding (Steele, 2005, 2008). In Belgium’s case, its identity was that of a neutral nation, and not resisting would be antithetical to its self-understanding: Belgium’s “honor” demanded that it fight (Steele, 2008, p. 112).

Mitzen approaches a theoretical rather an empirical question: what explains the security dilemma? Arguing that the traditional realist explanation—that uncertainty of intentions forces states to adopt aggressive postures even when their preference is for the absence of conflict—is insufficient, she suggests that long-term conflictual relationships provide stable routines which are more comfortable than the uncertainty that results from changing relationships. Discomfort with change, even when change would be materially beneficial, leads to the perpetuation of existing conflicts (Mitzen, 2006a).

While Mitzen and Steele both approach ontological security from a perspective of explaining foreign policy outcomes that from a purely material perspective are confounding, their theoretical perspectives differ. One key difference that has been much explored is what could be called the “externalist” perspective of Mitzen, which emphasizes the importance of inter-state relationships and routines for an individual state’s ontological security, versus the more “internalist” perspective of Steele, which emphasizes continuity of a state’s biographical self-narrative, i.e., the domestic production and maintenance self-understandings (see Vieira, 2016 for an approach combining internalist and externalist).

This distinction in part is rooted in which aspect of ontological security each author stresses, anxiety-avoidance versus shame-avoidance. Mitzen focuses on existential anxiety, which always lurks below the surface and can be stimulated by a profound disruption of routines with significant others. At the level of states and the international system, when day-to-day foreign policy routines are ruptured, perhaps due to a crisis or shock, the state might no longer be able to predict the consequences of actions it has previously taken for granted. Not knowing how to respond can produce anxiety, which can undermine the state’s ability to feel as if it is preserving its identity on the world stage (great power, civilized state, etc.).

This approach is echoed in Bahar Rumelili’s work on conflict transformation (Rumelili, 2013, 2015). Beginning from the premise that identities that depend on negative hostile relations to others bring ontological security at the expense of physical, Rumelili asks how to transition from a situation where actors gain ontological security from conflictual relations to one where ontological security derives from peaceful relations. She argues that the prospect of peace can generate existential anxiety in states accustomed to longstanding routines of conflict. This anxiety can prompt processes that reactivate conflicts. The idea is that the conflict may have threatened physical security, but it provided ontological security. The prospect of peace, on the other hand, threatens that stability by disrupting both conflictual routines and narratives of the self that rely on the enemy Other. The contributors to this volume all begin from the premise that ontological security needs can frustrate peacebuilding initiatives (see also Kay, 2012; Rumelili & Çelik, 2017), drawing attention to the importance of policies that address both kinds of security needs. These authors also draw attention to the positive potential in ontological insecurity and anxiety. Anxiety can be harnessed for the good—as noted above, psychological wellness entails acceptance of growth and change, and this is only possible when anxiety can be managed rather than avoided. Because anxieties are heightened when conflicts are in process of ending, what’s needed are strategies to harness the positive potential without compromising physical security/safety.

Steele, by contrast, focuses on the need for biographical continuity, which is made salient by the emotion of shame, both retrospective (making up for past misdeeds) and prospective (avoiding future misdeeds). As he describes it: “States are haunted by those situations in the past where they obviously failed to live up to their standards of self-integrity, what we might term ‘sources of shame’” (Steele, 2007, p. 907). In Steele’s telling, the inaction of Great Britain during the Civil War was because siding with the slaveholding Confederacy would be seen as shameful for abolitionist Britain, and thus Britain could not intervene to aid the Confederacy regardless of its interest in a politically divided North America. Steele additionally describes NATO’s 1990s campaign in the former Yugoslavia as driven by retrospective shame over the past failures of the United Kingdom, United States, and Germany to do the moral thing (Steele, 2008, Chapter 6). This failure manifests as “a discursive expression of remorse or regret” experienced by both individuals and vicariously by groups (Steele, 2008, p. 55). Most subsequent work using ontological security implicitly assumes that surprising foreign policy choices are made in order to avoid anxiety, shame, or both.

Also interested in shame, Ayşe Zarakol’s work on apology addresses the reluctance of non-Western states to issue apologies for misdeeds of the early 20th century: Turkey and the Armenian genocide, and Japan and its history of imperialism. In these cases, an apology has no material cost and might have some substantial material benefit. So why the reluctance? Zarakol explains that issuing the apology might have material benefits, but it would also have ontological costs in the form of forcing each state to “reconsider its sense of self” (Zarakol, 2010, p. 7). Issuing the apology would be tantamount to accepting the historic Western stigma of these countries as “barbarians,” and be an unacceptable affront to national pride—particularly when the West does not fully acknowledge the harms that it perpetuated during the same period. Here, as with Mitzen and Steele, material interests and ontological interests were irreconcilable, and ontological security takes precedence: no apology is offered.

Subotic and Zarakol dig deeper into the roots of the disconnect between national and international elements of state identity, drawing on Michael Herzfeld’s work to propose that the modern nation-state faces an “existential dilemma,” between the shared ideas, practices, and narratives that bind the state and the norms that a state must adhere to as a member of international society (Subotic & Zarakol, 2013; Herzfeld, 2004). Prakash and Ilgit (2017) apply Subotic and Zarakol’s argument to the case of Erdogan’s Turkey. These arguments highlight how, from an ontological security perspective, a state’s core security interests can be irreconcilable. Internationally shameful actions might be actions felt as necessary to maintain the integrity and social cohesion of the nation-state. This can lead the state to deny that the event was shameful, as with the Armenian genocide, or to seek to redeem that shame with future deeds when their position is more secure, as with Europe’s intervention in Yugoslavia (Zarakol, 2010; Steele, 2008).

Ontological Security and Restricting Foreign Policy Options

In the last few years, scholarship on ontological security has expanded to focus also on cases where material and ontological security are reconcilable. That process requires either that decision-makers constrain the state’s strategic options to those that are consistent with perceived ontological security needs, or that elites shape identity or narratives to make preferred strategies acceptable.

Amir Lupovici discusses Israel and the problems it faces when attempting to confront the material threat posed by militant Palestinians (Lupovici, 2012). The state of Israel has three identities: Jewish, democratic, and “security provider.” Israel’s ontological security needs demand that it act in ways commensurate with all three. But Israel’s strategic options are such that it can uphold only two of the three, finding itself in a perpetual situation of what Lupovici calls “ontological dissonance.” This leads Israel to practice policy strategies of avoidance. That is, Israel adopts a policy that permits individuals to avoid grappling with their inability to uphold all the pillars of their identity and the associated psychological strain. A key manifestation of this strategy is the separation barrier built between the conflicting populations within Israel. While the wall provides little in the way of physical security, it creates a mental barrier and enough ambiguity about the meaning of Israeli policy to allow Israelis to avoid grappling with the contradictions within their three identities (Lupovici, 2012).

Jelena Subotic’s work on ontological security and Serbia’s Kosovo-regarding foreign policy begins with the observation that Serbia’s material interests (in the form of diminished EU membership prospects) are harmed by its persistent refusal to recognize Kosovo. Serbia’s ontological security places a high premium on Kosovo, to the point of Kosovo constituting Serbian identity: Kosovo plays a starring role in Serbia’s national narratives. As a consequence, Serbia’s leaders were restricted from pursuing the nation’s material interests by the Serbian public’s reluctance to sacrifice a territory laden with historical meaning. But these narratives are not immutable, and Subotic argues that they were deliberately manipulated by Serbian elites through selective activation of tropes of Serbian sacrifice and victimhood. In this way, Serbia’s elites could make a policy that had previously been ontologically unacceptable into one that was palatable (Subotic, 2015).

These themes are echoed by Zachary Selden and Stuart Strome, who make similar arguments about India in the post–Cold War era. India had maintained an uncooperative relationship with the United States during the Cold War thanks to an identity based on nonalignment, quasi-socialism, and wariness of the United States, but following the collapse of the Soviet Union, India’s economic and military interests shifted in such a way that it needed the United States to help address threats emanating from China and Pakistan. Consequently, Selden and Strome argue that the Indian media began to shift the national narrative away from nonalignment and quasi-socialism to democracy, which made a stronger relationship with the United States ontologically palatable for the Indian public and eventually self-sustaining (Selden & Strome, 2016).

In both of these articles, the theme is the manipulation of the foundations of societal ontological security by elites—in the form of political elites or media elites—to make a strategy that previously would have been ontologically unacceptable into one that can be adopted without compromising ontological security. This highlights the process of justification and priming that goes into the selection of any controversial foreign policy.

Other work on elite choices in the context of societal ontological security takes a more “bottom up” perspective and explores why particular rhetoric or narratives resonate with publics. Ty Solomon develops the emotional investment that publics have in the common sense that underlies political institutions and policies, drawing on Lacan to help account for the resonance of Neoconservatism and of the Global War on Terror in the United States (Solomon, 2015; also see Solomon, 2014). Dmitry Chernobrov asserts that individuals within states interpret world events in ways that protect their ontological security. Recognizing that unexpected events can disrupt their sense of continuity, Chernobrov demonstrates the existence of an “illusion of recognition,” whereby individuals misrecognize uncertain events as familiar to maintain their sense of continuity. Uncertainty can cause a crisis in the ontological narrative, or it can be imagined in ways that reaffirm that narrative (Chernobrov, 2016, p. 8). For Chernobrov, these narratives are not merely stable but narcissistic, tending to imagine the self as virtuous and the stranger as inferior.

Ontological and Physical Security as Mutually Reinforcing

Finally, there are cases where physical and ontological security are not divergent: no reconciliation between them is needed, as the threat to material security is equally a threat to ontological security. Yet the ontological component of the threat may provoke particular kinds of policy responses not predicted by a material threat alone, or may enhance the perception of a material threat.

May Darwich applies this to the case of Saudi Arabia. She points out that the rise of Islamist governments in Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2012 threatened the Saudi regime’s ontological security by threatening its distinctiveness. The regime justifies its political control by a claim to being the “protagonist of ‘true’ Islam” (Darwich, 2016, p. 9). The rise of potential rivals to this claim led the Saudi government to adopt foreign policies that discredited the Shia government of Iran and the “unfaithful, treacherous, and radical” Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Over time, this shifted Saudi identity narratives, which began as pan-Islamic but narrowed with each generation of challengers until restricted to Salafi-Wahhabism. This maintained their distinctiveness and thus maintained their ontological security.

In work echoing Mitzen’s, Karl Gustafsson revisits the relationship between ontological security and the security dilemma. Discussing the relationship between China and Japan, he argues that rather than growing disparities of each state’s material capacity driving their increasing antipathy, the problem is “perceived misrecognition”: China failing to recognize Japan’s identity as a peaceful state, and Japan failing to recognize China’s identity as a past Japanese victim (Gustafsson, 2014, 2016). In this way, material capabilities are interpreted in ways that are more threatening than they would be if each state recognized the other according to their self-conceptions; perceived misrecognition exacerbates a traditional security dilemma.

Similarly, while not necessarily stories of material threat, Christopher Browning and Marco Vieira each have drawn on ontological security to deepen our understanding of state identity. Browning discusses the adoption of policies of “nation-branding,” or strategic campaigns to market a national brand to a global audience, such as “Cool Britannia,” “Incredible India,” and “Chile, Always Surprising” (Browning, 2015). These campaigns are justified with reference to the economic and political benefits that can accrue as a consequence of a positive reputation. But Browning argues that these campaigns also produce ontological security, providing citizens of the advertising country with a coherent narrative of their society, of national mission and purpose. Like Chernobrov, Browning also highlights the importance of self-esteem: it is not just ontological security in the sense of consistency of self, but national dignity that is an objective, secured through the recognition that a successful nation-branding campaign elicits. Vieira (2016) is interested in the resilience of the Non-Aligned Movement, arguing that it can be traced to the way it meets ontological security needs of its member states for recognition. He argues that the Non-Aligned Movement persists in the post–Cold War era became and continues to be a “community of shared meaning” for post-colonial states that helps resolve their insecure status within the international community (Vieira, 2016, p. 3).

Emergent Questions

Reflecting on the scholarship, four sets of questions emerge. The first two, unit of analysis and causal direction, already are addressed in ontological security scholarship. The latter two questions, regarding cognates and consciousness, emerge from the conversation between ontological security and foreign policy studies.

Unit of Analysis

One key question is “whose ontological security?” For example, there are four different ways one might unpack the notion of “Belgium’s ontological security.” It might be treated literally, as if a state is the type of entity that actually has ontological security needs; it might be treated in an as if sense, with the premise that productive insights to dynamics in world politics are possible when we make this assumption; it might be taken to refer to the ontological security of particular, individual decision-makers involved in a foreign policy situation; or it might be that Belgium’s ontological security is shorthand for the ontological security of Belgian society, which can be supported, undermined, and manipulated by elites. Mitzen and Steele both grapple with this, identifying these perspectives and providing elaboration on and justification for each of them (Mitzen, 2006a, pp. 351–353; Steele, 2008, pp. 15–20). But extant scholarship on ontological security and foreign policy is not always clear about which perspective it adopts. While theories of how ontological security influences foreign policy decision-making are framed with language that suggests the “states as people” perspective, qualitative case analyses tend to emphasize individual elites and their perspectives on what is acceptable to both members of the public and other elites, an approach which sidesteps or avoids the question.

Recent works within the ontological security framework, including Lupovici (2012), Subotic (2015), and Selden and Strome (2016), emphasize manipulation by elites of narratives that provide society with ontological security, often discussing this in terms of elite “activation” of particular elements of a narrative, invoked specifically to suit their purposes at a given moment. The elites in question can be political or media elites. This type of analysis suggests that the ontological security that matters is that of the mass public: their narratives of national mythology and their conceptions about the identity of the state. Elites, by contrast, appear in these accounts as unaffected by the narratives. Decision-makers are focused on the material considerations of the state and constrained in their strategic options because of the ontological demands carried by the public. Gustafsson’s (2014) analysis approaches the ontological security and state policy relationship in this way as well. He focuses on the conditions of possibility for effective elite manipulation, homing in on the portrayal of Japan in China’s War Museum exhibits. The relationship between China and Japan is crucial to the self-identity of each, Gustafsson argues, and one practice this results in is Japan paying close attention to its portrayal in China’s museum exhibits. Such exhibits can, it is felt, create conditions that are permissive of China acting with hostility toward Japan. At times Japanese decision-makers have even intervened diplomatically to influence how Japan is depicted, which suggests that elites pay attention to the conditions of possibility for various policies to be effective. Elites here are managing the narratives but apparently unaffected by them.

An opposite perspective would be that taken by Steele, who argues that ontological security concerns equally affect a nation’s elites: elites could be constrained by their own conceptions of the nation and desire to avoid national shame (Steele, 2005, 2008). Some existing scholarship on ontological security and foreign policy can be interpreted in ways that permit both the ontological security of elites and that of masses; other work places a clear emphasis on one or the other.

While ontological security as applied to international relations tends to focus on the state, one can also look at sub- and supra-state identities and how they can affect foreign policy. On the one hand, a recent piece by Steele examines ontological security at the subnational level by examining the importance of the biographical narratives of the CIA and how they facilitated certain choices with regards to use of torture (Steele, 2017). On the other, Christine Agius examines the importance of Nordic solidarity and national identity, highlighting how this supra-national identity can be either unifying and or create international tensions for the states that share it, depending on the pressures they are subjected to (Agius, 2017).

The lens of ontological security is sufficiently flexible to allow each of these perspectives, and each may offer different analytic purchase on different cases. For example, the “as if” approach is the simplest and can yield hypotheses that can be readily compared to conventional IR realist hypotheses. However, this approach raises important questions, about both the applicability of psychological assumptions to collectives and the ethical-political implications of privileging the state’s needs over those of the citizens inside. A societal approach can be productive, but it, too, raises questions, since it can risk treating society as monolithic. Trading the reification of the state for a reification of society is hardly the answer to the problem, as critics of societal securitization have long argued (McSweeney, 1996, p. 85).

Finally, many of the elite manipulation arguments, while suggestive, remain underdeveloped theoretically. It would be useful to relate the arguments ontological security scholars develop to other logics or mechanisms, such as securitization (Buzan, Waever, & de Wilde, 1997) or rhetorical legitimation (Krebs & Jackson, 2007). It also would be helpful for ontological security arguments to link more explicitly to work in foreign policy studies on this relationship. There is a lot to draw on: Houghton (2007) notes that the relationship of foreign policy–making elites to society has been a longstanding concern among scholars of foreign policy, going back to the 1960s (e.g., Snyder, Bruck, & Sapin, 1962). To cite one example, in recent work Cristian and Kaarbo (2012) discuss contestation of foreign policy both horizontally among elites and vertically between elites and publics. Nonetheless, as Aldrich and others point out, while it is generally accepted that elites have leeway to manipulate the expressed foreign policy opinions of the public, “the mechanisms that give them that leeway are still little understood” (Aldrich et al., 2006, p. 487). An ontological security lens could shed new light, potentially offering insight to the processes behind, and conditions for success of, elite manipulation of foreign policy narratives. As Solomon’s work nicely demonstrates, an ontological security approach also can draw attention to manifestations of receptiveness other than expressed public opinion. Other ontological security scholars could do more to specify the particularity of ontological security resonance relative to these other mechanisms.

Causal Direction

A second question, emerging from engaging the ontological security literature that emphasizes routines, is a gloss on the agent-structure debate: “does who we are cause what we do, or does what we do cause who we are?” Until now both the literature and the questions emerging from the literature have been framed starting with a given actor with a set of pre-existing ontological security demands (rooted in biographical narrative, conceptions of identity, etc.), and then discussed how those demands affect foreign policy processes and outcomes.

For example, the action-identity relationship is presented by Mitzen as the fundamental cause of the security dilemma: states that see themselves as status quo states become recognized as revisionist as they are forced to adopt more aggressive roles to deal with states they fear could be aggressive. Taking this a step further, by adopting a foreign policy strategy consistent with ontological security demands, a state reinforces the underlying narratives and identities that produced those demands in the first place. Using Subotic’s work on Serbia and Kosovo as an example, if Serbian elites selectively activate particular elements of Serbian national identity to convince the public that a given foreign policy is acceptable, pursuing that foreign policy reinforces and amplifies the narratives that they embody over time, potentially altering the demands that ontological security will make in the future. The possibility of change in the meaning of autobiographical narratives is the emphasis of work by Delehanty and Steele, in which they discuss how multiple narratives within a state compete with one another. Their perspective is that this narrative competition is a struggle essentially internal to the state, but an implication of their argument is that the constraints that ontological security places on a state’s foreign policy options can change over time (Delehanty & Steele, 2009).

This approach to discerning the empirical impact of ontological security on foreign policy begins with a controversial move by freezing a moment in an ongoing process. Taking as given the state’s sense of self at T1 amounts to treating a process as if it is an essence. For ontological security scholars, this is a methodological, not an ontological, choice—in order to do causal analysis, the variables must be separable—and the focus is on how what states do feeds back on, reinforcing or destabilizing, their subjectivity or identity. But of course methodology can be read as implicit ontology. Those who engage in this sort of work could be more attentive to widening the lens of the analysis and acknowledging the limitations of that particular explanatory approach.


A third question would seem to represent a more profound challenge to the ontological security literature: “what is the added value of drawing on the concept of ontological security rather than an alternative?” Frequently, ontological security is tied to words like “identity,” “role,” “recognition,” and “self-esteem,” each of which can be found in foreign policy scholarship that does not otherwise mention ontological security. Ontological security is not a synonym for identity or any of these other identity-related concepts. The trick is to specify the dynamics and outcomes an ontological security approach makes newly visible or articulable, which would otherwise not be apparent in analyses drawing on these other concepts alone.

For example, foreign policy scholarship already considers how identity affects foreign policy, often drawing on the concepts of roles and images. In this work, identity concepts are treated as variables overlooked by conventional IR’s focus on materialist explanations of state behavior (Herrmann, 2013, p. 336), and they are developed in cognitive terms. Ontological security productively overlaps with and reinforces this work, drawing attention to affect and emotion. Consider the concepts of roles and images, which are incorporated into Mitzen’s theorization (2006a, p. 357, 2006b). Consistent with ontological security, a premise of role theory in foreign policy studies is that individuals need a stable sense of identity, and that this sense of identity is social and can operate at the level of states. Scholarship on foreign policy roles proposes that states adopt roles, which place behavioral expectations and demands on states in a social context and which affect foreign policy choices (Holsti, 1970; Chafetz et al., 1996, p. 733; Thies, 2010, pp. 4–10; Wehner & Thies, 2012). Scholarship on foreign policy images proposes that people form images of other states on the basis of perceived relative power, perceived threat/opportunity, and perceived culture. These images can operate like stereotypes, and the people who hold them will draw inferences not based on empirical data (Herrmann, 2013; Herrmann et al., 1997).

From an ontological security perspective, individuals rely on roles and make inferences from stereotypes because they are acting from a need. Those roles and images provide certainty and a sense of continuity and stability in an uncertain world, and actors are therefore attached to them. This stickiness, rooted in affective dynamics of attachment, has not yet been thematized in foreign policy scholarship; ontological security provides one possible starting point.

Second, ontological security scholarship also overlaps with work on status and the need for self-esteem. Indeed, Catarina Kinnvall ties ontological security and self-esteem together as early as 2004, when she talked about how shared mythologies of the past—in the form of “chosen glories” or “chosen traumas”—can serve to provide comfort during periods of ontological insecurity and existential anxiety (Kinnvall, 2004, p. 755). Ned Lebow clearly articulates the relationship between the two concepts in his 2008 book: he argues that ontological security is fundamentally about identities and values which leaders are incentivized to respect in their policy decisions, and self-esteem—a sense of self-worth—is a critical component of identity and is maintained through a “quest for honor and standing” (Lebow, 2008, p. 26). Self-esteem influences ontological security in the sense that one should expect the identities that ontological security seeks to uphold to have some incorporated component of positive self-worth. Browning links ontological security and self-esteem together in his discussion of nation-branding: a branding campaign provides both ontological security (a consistent sense of national identity and narrative) and self-esteem (a positive image of the state which is packaged for global consumption). Similarly, Chernobrov points out that people interpret unexpected events as familiar, in order to evade anxiety and ontological insecurity, and also in a way that puts themselves in the best possible light.

But while these two concepts are clearly linked, we should not assume that ontological security and self-esteem are synonymous. Ontological security is not self-esteem, and ontological insecurity is not the absence of self-esteem. Rather, ontological security is the presence of a stable self-understanding, which can include positive, neutral, and even negative components, while ontological insecurity is the absence of a stable self-understanding and resulting existential anxiety, and not a negative self-conception. Ontological insecurity is uncertainty, not negative certainty. Conflating the two means losing the ability to identify how routine behaviors that may not be obviously “positive” can nonetheless sustain a state’s ontological security.

Zarakol’s work on Turkey and Japan demonstrates some of the difficulty. In her argument, elites and intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire and Japan internalized stigmas that their states were “backward,” and this negative self-understanding drove both nations to try to “Westernize” to try to overcome the stigma and join the community of “civilized” nations. This extended period was thus one in which elites recognized their states as having negative status (Zarakol, 2010). Similar self-understandings could historically apply to minor powers (which recognize negative status as compared to great powers), non-state actors, or others. These states could, as Turkey and Japan do in Zarakol’s telling, need to constantly reconcile the contradictory elements of their identities, and often have trouble doing so.

In the same way, “recognition” is an important part of both the ontological security and self-esteem literatures, but it means something subtly different in each. For ontological security, “recognition” is about the Other acknowledging the identities of the Self in a way that reinforces the Self’s understanding of its role in the relationship; for status, “recognition” is about the Other acknowledging the positive qualities of the Self. Two states treating each other in an adversarial manner—for example, the American/Soviet relationship during the Cold War—is “recognition” from the first perspective (each side acknowledging the adversarial relationship) but not necessarily the second (it does not mean the Soviet Union is offering the United States any respect, and could in fact mean quite the opposite, depending on circumstance).

In sum, on the question of cognates, clearly ontological security offers a distinctive take on identity. Moving forward, a research task for scholars of ontological security and foreign policy will be to pay more attention to, and better specify, the relationship between ontological security dynamics and the effects of concepts within the same family.

Levels of Consciousness

Finally, scholarship that applies ontological security to questions of foreign policy often begs a question that is central to ontological security more generally, namely the level of consciousness that the pursuit of ontological security entails. Do actors explicitly decide: “I will choose policy X because it makes my identity more secure, even if it physically hurts me?” Or do actors find themselves choosing or having chosen policy X without realizing it was prompted by ontological security needs? That is, it is important to consider what could be called the level of conscious awareness at which ontological security operates. This is not a question when we think about material security: policy-makers always know their territorial, economic, and political security concerns and pursue them deliberately. But with ontological security it is not so clear: states may be aware of the ideational or narrative forces which compel them to act in certain ways, or they may be affected by these forces without being fully aware of their influence. To draw on Giddens’ terminology, the question is whether ontological security operates at the level of discursive or practical consciousness, or whether its operation might even be described as unconscious. The existing literature varies in how self-conscious actors are in pursuing ontological security, ranging from intentional and deliberate to habitual/practice to entirely unconscious.

Representing a purely discursive consciousness approach is the ontological security literature focusing on elite manipulation. In this branch of the literature, elites are aware of the ontological security concerns of the masses and deliberately manipulate them to make strategies designed to address material concerns acceptable to those masses. From the elite perspective, they’re consciously aware of the mass public’s ontological security demands and seek to accommodate them while also achieving their physical security objectives. Subotic offers the quintessential example of this perspective: Serbia’s elites desired closer economic ties with the EU, which meant they needed to alter their relationship with Kosovo, they knew such alterations would be difficult given the Serbian public’s narratives about Kosovo’s symbolic and historical importance, and they sought to manipulate the public in order to alter the narratives in a way that made sacrificing Kosovo more palatable. In some work, elites are treated as if conscious of the demands ontological security makes not only on a nation’s public but also on themselves. In Steele’s descriptions of Britain during the American Civil War, for instance, elites were self-consciously aware that their options for intervention in the Civil War were restricted by Britain’s anti-slavery identity, not only because the masses felt strongly about the slavery issue but because they themselves also did: acting in support of the Confederacy would have been a shameful act. Similarly, Darwich’s descriptions of why Saudi Arabia’s leaders reinvented the state’s identity in increasingly sectarian terms are of an elite group, consciously aware of and addressing an ontological threat.

Whether mass publics are consciously aware of how the state’s policies meet (or not) their ontological security needs is less clear. Chernobrov’s work demonstrates that mass publics interpret unexpected events differently depending on their perspectives in order not to compromise their ontological security demands; similarly, Lupovici shows how strategies can be selected based on their ability to permit members of the public to avoid dealing with incongruities within a national identity. Subotic treats the group narratives that constrained the ability of elites to act as highly internalized (2015, p. 8), which may suggest that the public is unaware of the way in which those narratives are affecting their foreign policy preferences. For Gustafsson (2014), Japan perceives how museum exhibits affect memory, collective identity, and thus perceptions of Japan, but it’s not clear whether Chinese citizens ought to be thought of as sponges absorbing the narratives or as critical appropriators of the exhibits and discourse. In all of these cases, the identities or narratives held by the mass public unconsciously influence a state’s foreign policy perspectives or strategies without that public being entirely aware of the effect.

Not all ontological security scholarship shares the belief that elites are conscious of how their ontological security demands affect their decisions. While Zarakol and Steele both emphasize the importance of shame and the desire of elites to avoid it in their foreign policy choices, Steele treats the effect of shame as being more overt: decision-makers are typically aware of why a given action will cause them to feel shame. Zarakol, by contrast, treats shame in the Turkish and Japanese contexts as a product of fundamental insecurity within their national identities. Elites may be aware that apologizing for a past act may cause them to feel shame, and yet not entirely understand why. They may be conscious of the consequence of ontological insecurity and how that affects their foreign policy decision-making, but not be fully conscious of the cause of their discomfort.

Other scholarship treats ontological security as operating outside the realm of discursive consciousness for all social actors, elites and publics alike. As Mitzen puts it, citing Giddens: “On a day-to-day basis identity is not ‘held in mind’; actors concentrate on the ‘task at hand’ and the need to stabilize one’s ends is cognitively set aside (Giddens, 1991, p. 36). That is, self-integration is maintained at the level of ‘practical’ consciousness while purposive choice occurs at the level of ‘discursive’ consciousness” (Mitzen, 2006a, p. 346). Mitzen treats states as performing identity-maintaining routines that are entirely unthinking and habitual: “The need for ontological security is so deep, and our attachment to routines so profound, that we rarely see ontological security in daily life” (p. 348). While the perspective Mitzen presents is explicitly one that treats states as people, she also emphasizes that these routines exist in individual behaviors: both elites and masses are influenced by ontological security and their need for routine, and they may not be able to articulate that influence. In this telling, security dilemmas persist because they are familiar, comfortable social practices, not because of any conscious reflection on whether the behaviors that sustain them and their value or lack thereof.

Another, underexplored but also more controversial, possibility is that ontological security needs implicate the unconscious—whether for individuals or for collectives. The idea is that our subjectivity or sense of self is not just produced and sustained through our choices but is also embedded in our practices, both in the sense mentioned above, that ideas about the self are embedded in our practices, and also in the sense that some ideas about the self are systematically shut out by our practices. Even ideas that fail to enter our conscious awareness may nonetheless influence or guide behavior. This latter notion is linked to the concept of the unconscious. John Cash has drawn on ontological security to propose that the existence of a “deeply sedimented political/cultural unconscious” embedded in discourses of the nation is relevant to state behavior (Cash, 2004). Drawing on Kristeva, Cash proposes that ideas repressed at a societal level can leak out in behaviors that inhibit or undermine peace processes. Cash is specifically concerned with policies of national reconciliation, and brings in an ontological security–informed approach that complements and takes further the work of Rumelili (2015) on post-conflict. But it might be productive to consider how the unconscious could be implicated in interstate relations as well (Mitzen, 2016, pp. 243–244).

To focus on anything but discursive consciousness diverges more from a conventional security studies approach, since it suggests a more nuanced relationship between security needs and foreign policy choices. States (or elites) do not pursue ontological security the way they pursue material security. This does not mean that we cannot identify the effects that ontological security has for foreign policy; ontological security needs to motivate and help account for choice. But it may make identifying specific instances when a state chooses “X, not Y” more difficult. On the other hand, it opens up areas of new research. First, scholars could draw attention to resonance; an ontological security lens helps scholars think about why particular discourses and policies resonate for different actors and publics. Second, rather than focusing on particular choices, scholars might do well to take a longer time horizon. The pull of ontological security might be more easily demonstrated over time.


The point of this review has been to examine the overlap between two streams of scholarship that have only recently become acquainted, ontological security and foreign policy. We laid out the concept of ontological security and unpacked the relevant subset of that scholarship, highlighting points of productive engagement and some limitations of current scholarship, and identifying areas of further research. While the work reviewed suggests the distinctiveness of an ontological security approach, it also manifests a communication gap. As the new kid on the block, the burden is rather more on ontological security scholars to facilitate these conversations, especially by highlighting synergies and specifying divergences with concepts more familiar to a foreign policy readership. But scholars of foreign policy should do the same.

The bulk of this article has bracketed a fair bit of the ontological security scholarship, and in closing we would like to revisit that move. In 2001, Steve Smith cautioned constructivist scholars to be wary of too readily assimilating the constructivist focus on ideas and identity into extant foreign policy studies, with its positivist methods and state-centrism. He invited them instead to embrace potentially radical implications of their starting points for the study of foreign policy, in the hopes of broadening and deepening what we treat as foreign policy in the first place (Smith, 2001).

Because the starting point of an ontological security approach is that ontological security need-meeting is always going on at many levels in world politics, Smith’s cautionary note seems particularly apt and leads to two final observations about the importance of ontological security for foreign policy. First, foreign policy choices succeed or fail depending not only on how they are received by other states but on how they are received by society. This societal receptivity is a complex and multilayered process in which ontological security plays an important role. Even work that nominally is on ontological security and foreign policy sometimes overlooks these deeper processes, in ways that limit the analyses. So, for example, when extant ontological security work on foreign policy is critiqued for not providing a thorough account of resonance or for underspecifying mechanisms of acceptability, this suggests that concerns from the wider scholarship on ontological security need to be brought back in. This is an important area of future research (for a step in this direction, see Kinnvall & Svensson, in press).

Second, the potential relevance of ontological security for a state’s foreign policy might remain underexplored if the analytic focus is confined to the choice. As we discussed, ontological security may operate at many levels, including the level of the unconscious—in which case it is less appropriate to think about how ontological security affects “choices” than it is to think about how ontological security affects the absence of choices. We encourage scholars to be creative in their applications; ontological security presents the opportunity to push the traditional boundaries of foreign policy analysis in new and interesting ways.


The authors would like to thank Catarina Kinnvall, participants in the State-Making and the Origins of Global Order in the Long Nineteenth Century (STANCE) seminar, Lund University, April 2017, and the two anonymous reviewers for comments on a previous draft.


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(1.) Carlsnaes (2013, p. 298) distinguishes between Foreign Policy Analysis and Foreign Policy Studies, where the former is the more narrow term, methodologically and substantively, and the latter is a broader one referring to the field as a whole. This review article focuses on the more encompassing notion of the field.