Security Complex

Security Complex Review

Barry Buzan

People, States, and Fear 2nd Edition,

An Agenda for International Security Studies in The Post Cold War Era.


Comprehensive security analysis requires that one take particular care to investigate how the regional level mediates the interplay between states and the international system as a whole. Unless that level is properly comprehended, neither the position of the local states in relation to each other, nor the character of  relation between the great powers and local states can be understood properly.

In security terms, ‘region’ means that a distinct and signification subsystem of security relations exists among a set of states whose fate is that they have been locked into geographical proximity with each other. Giving a firm identity to regional subsytems estabilshed two intermediate levels of analysis between system and states the subsystems themselves, and the pattern of relation among them. The only traditional subsystem idea with any potential for the purpose of security analysis is the notion of local or regional balances of power. But this idea has never porved very useful precisely because it was confined to that single dimension –power- on which the great power dynamics most strongly overrode and obscured the local ones. Although local balances of power do operate, and are a significant feature of the security environment, they can be easliy upset or distorted by movements in the globespanning resources of the great powers. Because of their susceptibility to external influences, balances of power are a much less realible guide to security relation in the periphery than they are at the centre.

In defining regional security, the principal element that must be added to power relations is the pattern of amity and enmity among states. By amity mean relationships from genuine friendship to expectation of protecting or support. By emnity means relationships set by suspicion and fear. Separating these two poles is a brod band of indifference and neutrality, in which amity and enmity are either too weak to matter much, or else mixed in a way that produces no clear leaning one way or the other. An extreme view of balance of power would hold that patterns of amity/enmity are a product of the balances of power, with states shifting theri alignment in accordance with the dictates of movement in the distribution of power.

A security complex is defined as a group of states whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securites cannot realistically be considered apart from on another. The name has advantage of indicating both the caracther of the attributes that defines the set (security), and the notion of intense interdependence that distinguishes any particular set from its neighbours. Security complex emphasize the interdepence of rivalry as well as that of shared interest.

In one sense, the idea of security complexes is simply an analytical device. As such it serces as a perceptual lens designed to bring the regional level of analysis more clearly into focus. It is a way of making the relative autonomy of regional security dynamics stand out from the local and systemic. It helps one to locate and indentify specific regional formation, and it provides a language and a framework for comparative security studies of different regions.

Security complex are an empirical phenomenon with historical and geopolitical roots. In theoritical terms, they can be derived from both the state and the system levels,. Looked at from the bottom up, security complexes result from interaction between individual states. They represent the way in whic the sphere of concern that any state has about its environment, interact with the linkage between the intensity of of military and and political threats. And the shortnes of the range over which are they perceived. Because threats operate more potenly over short distances, security interaction with neighbors will tend to have first priority. Seen from the top down, security complexes are generated by the interaction of anarchy and geography. The political structure of anarchy confronts all states with the security dilemma, but the otherwise seamless web of security interdependence is powerfully mediated by the effect of geography. Unless capabilites for transportation are very unevely distributed, as they sometimes are, all states will thus tend to be thrust into closer contact with their neighbours than with those further afield. By either of these routes, security complexes can be seen as characteristic products of an anarchic international system. They represent durable rather than permanent patterms within such a system. Other things being equal, one should expect to find these nodes of distinctively intense security interdependence existing throughout the system.

Security Complexes are in some sense ‘real’ is important, it is their reality which explain the mediating effect that they have on relatiion between the great powers and the local system. The reality if security complexes lies more in the individual lines of amity, anmity and indifference between statesm than in the notion of a self-aware subsystem.

The task of identifying a security complex involves making judgement about the realtive strengths of security interdependecies among different countries. In some places the interdependencies will be positive, as in the mutually supportive neutralities of Indonesia –Australia. In other negative, when very large power are involved a whole group of states can be bound together by a common threat.

 The principal factor defining a complex is usually a high level of threat/fear which is felt mutually among two or more major states. Security Interdependence can be poitive as well as negative, though instances of this defining a whole comples are rare. A situation like this typically indicates the existence of a boundary between a lower- and a higher level security complex. A lower complex is composed of local states whose power does not extend much, if at all, beyond the range of their immediate neighbours. This constraint on power is a key element in the existence of realtively self-contained local security dynamics among sets of neighboring states. A higer level complex, by contrast, contains great power, states like US and SU, whose power is sufficient to Impinge on several regions of what their enormous physical size make a cast ‘locak envinoment’. Higer level complexses thus become important when all of the levels of security analysis – domestic, regional, and global – are reintergrated. Given large power differentials between the higher and lower levels, one expects unequal intervention from higer and lower to be a nomal feature of the system. The question then becomes not a dispute about the boundaries of a security complex, but about the relative weight of local security dynamics in relation to those pressing on the region from outside.

Overlay occurs when the direct presence of outside powers in a region is strong enough to suppres the normal operation of security dynamics among the local states. It normally involves extensive stationing of armed forces in the overlain area by the intervening great power, and is quite distinct from the normal process of intervention by great powers into the affairs of local security complexes. Intervention usually reinforces the local security dynamics: overlay subordinate them to the larger pattern of major power rivalries and may even obliterate them. Under overlay, one cannot see with any clarity what the local security dynamics are, and therefore connot identify a local complex.

Security complex is the role of economic factors. In looking for the sets of states that constitute security complexes, one is primarily concerned with the military, political, and societal dimension of security. The reason that these sector are the most relvant to patterns of theart and amity/anmity that define the set is because ecomonic realtion are not nearly so much conditioned by geograohical proximity as are military and political ones. Consequently, the problem of ecomonic security is likely to have a quite different relation dynamic from that of military and political security. Economic factor do play a role in determining both the power os states within their local complex, and their domestic stability and cohesion as actors. They may also play an important role in motivating the patterns of external interest in the local complex, they can affect the prospects for regional intergration, which can influence how a given security complex evolves.

The two components of essential structure in a security complex are first, the patterns of amity and enmity and, the distribution of power among the principal states. Major Shift in either would normally require a redefiniton of the complex, This approcah allows one to analyse regional security both in static and dynamic terms. If security complexes possess structure, the one can look for outcomes resulting from either structural effect of processes of structural change.         

            In analysing a security complex in terms of its distribution of power, the logic is the same as that for analyysing the polarity of the system as a whole. But unlike in system analysis, shifts in the distributin of power in a subsystem can occur for either internal or external reasons. Power shift can also result from differences in the rate of development among actors. The acquistion of powerfull strike weapon such as nucler armend missile can very quickly change preception of power and threat, possibly even sufficiently to redefine security complexes.

Power shifts resulting from external factors are similarly diverse. External actors can change the power structure of a local complex in two ways: either by joining it, if they are adjacent, or by making alignment within it, wheater they are eutger adjacent and/or member of a higer level complex. External actors can impigne upon the local distribution of power in may ways short of actually joining, and thereby redefining, the complex. They can add to power of local states directly, either by arms supply, or by the direct involvemnt of their own forces.

            The distribution of power in security complex shapes the possibilities for alignment. The pattern of amity and enmity shape the whole character of relations within the region. Shifts in the pattern of hostility occur either because an existing dispute has been resolved, because new disputes have developed. External actors have a much lesser impact on the pattern of local hostilities thay they do on the distribution of power. The internal and external changes bearing on any given local secuirty complex are usually both numerous and countinuous.

            Maintenance of the status quo means that the essential structure of the local complex – its distribution of power, and pattenr of hostility – remains fundamentally intact. For this outcome to occur does not mean that no change has take place. Rather, it means that the changes which have occured have tended, in aggregate, either to support, or else not seriously to undermine, the structure. Several powerful extrenal actor have brought their influence to bear on the complex, but again the sum of their impact has been to sustain the existing structure.

            Internal trasnformation of a local complex occurs when its essential structure changes within the context of its existing out boundary. Such change can come about as a reslut either of decisive shifts in the distribution of power, or of major alternation in the pattern of hostility. Within complex, changes in the distribution of power can have the same sort of structural effect as those commonly used for describing the international system as a whole. Whatever the starting bumber of poles of power within a comple, change can move it eiher towards greater  concetration or towards greater diffusion. At one extreme is the possibilities of a monopolar, or hegemonic, complex in which a singel power dominates a set of minor powers.

            External transformation occurs when the essential structure of a complex is altered by either expansion or contraction of its eisting outer boundary. Minor adjusment to the boundary may not affect the essential structure sugnufucantly. The addutuin ir deletion of major states, however, is certain to have a subtansial impact on both the distribution of power and the patter of amity and enmity. Once a security comples is established, extrenal transformation will be infrequent, and mark very large change in regional security dynamics.

            Overlay means that one or more extrenal power move directly into the local complex with the effect of suppresing the indigenous security dynamic, it is quite distinct from the normal process of intervention by great powers into the affairs of local security complexes. Local security concerns are subordinate to the security orientation of the dominating power, and this orientation is reinforced by the stationing of that power’s military forces directly within the local complex. The local states acquiesce in their own subordination either because they collectively fear some other outside power, or because they fear the further unrestrained operation of their own local security dynamic.    The likely result of overlay is that the suppresion of the local security dynamics, and protection againts another external power, is gained at some cos in entanglement with the larger security dynamic of extrenal powers.



Security complexes are a typical product of an anarchic international structure. Yet they come much closer to reflecting the operating environment of most national security policy-makers than do system level abstraction about the distribution of power in the system. Security complexes not only define intense and relatively durable local pattenrs, but also serve to guide and shape the impact of larger external powers on these local patterns. The local and external patterns tend to reinforce each other’s rivalries through the addition of resources and allies. The impact of this higher lower level relationship is normally greater on the local pattenr because of the disproportion in resources. The local states do have considerable influences ever how external power impinge on their affairs. But they have little ability to control external penetration unless they are able to resolve the local rivalries which generate the demand for external power. Conversely, the externanl power cannot easily moderate or control the local security dynamic because they depend on it for access to the region. The process of rivalry among the great powers automatically reinforces the  existing local rivalries in a pattern that is difficult to break.


This entry was published on October 21, 2012 at 6:22 am and is filed under Global Security, Review Article. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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