Student Series
08 September 2020

The Politics of Commercial Security

Since the end of the Cold War, security and military matters have ceased to be governed primarily (let alone exclusively) by states and the public. Companies and markets that have always played a role have become ever more central in security governance, and their roles and functions ever more diversified. 

In many areas, the commercial is deeply entangled with a public that can no longer operate without them. The public is inside the private and vice versa. In other areas, professional networks spanning the public and private have authority over security, turning the Weberian insistence that defining the legitimate use of force is a public prerogative into an formality.

Finally, in many areas of security management the public is all but absent from governance. Security is entirely commercially governed, through market relations between a range of non-state actors including security professionals, insurance companies, NGOs and companies. They write their own contracts, best practices and codes of conduct that govern behaviour. These changes have far-reaching political implications.

At the Graduate Institute, we explore these politics empirically and theoretically in a course focused on the politics of commercial security. Students conclude the course by carrying out an independent research project exploring a specific aspect of these politics through a case study. 

In this series, four students summarise the core insights from their projects.

David focuses the stillborn coup by Silvercorp in Venezuela and the re-emergence of classical concerns with Mercenarism, including those surrounding the accountability of security professionals and the potentially destabilising implications of their actions for the international system.

In her study of G4S management of the Mangaung Prison in South Africa, Richael probes the politics of assumptions about national security governance. In Mangaung, the “efficiency, transparency, accountability and operational innovation” often justify the shift from public to private with their absence.

Analogously, Yamini and Keshav, probe the politics of assumptions, connecting marketing and the diffusion of security governance models. Rafael Advanced Defence Systems markets its work for the Israeli Defence Force reinforcing the idea that there is an Israeli “playbook” for effective security governance.

Finally, looking at Bellingcat, August shows how markets can sustain political alternatives, including intelligence that aspires to be “for the people and human rights”. Together, these projects underscore the varied politics of commercial security that clearly merits engagement beyond easy dismissal and unfounded generalisation. 

The articles in this series are based on the independent research of Graduate Institute students. The findings and interpretations are therefore theirs.