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Regional Security Complex Theory in

the Post-Cold War World*
Barry Buzan

This chapter explores the problems of using regional analysis to think

through the security agenda of the post-Cold War world. It starts with a
summary of traditional regional security complex (RSC) theory, with its
military–political focus, and its firm regionalizing logic, and looks at how
that view is still relevant in the post-Cold War world. Section 2 surveys the
changes in the nature of the security agenda, examining the rise of
economic and environmental security, with their new types of threat and
new referent objects, and the decline in salience of military–political security
issues amongst the great powers. Section 3 investigates whether three of the
‘new’ security sectors – economic, environmental, societal – contain a
regionalizing logic, and if so, how it works. Section 4 reintegrates the analysis.
It looks at the merits of treating sectors separately, or amalgamating them
into single, multi-sectoral security complexes.

Traditional security complex theory

Security complex theory was first sketched out by Buzan in People, States and
Fear (1983, 105–15; updated 1991, ch. 5). It was applied to South Asia and
the Middle East (Buzan, 1983), then elaborated, and applied in depth to the
case of South Asia (Buzan and Rizvi et al., 1986), and later to Southeast Asia
(Buzan, 1988). Väyrynen (1988) and Wriggins (1992) have applied versions
of it to several regional cases, and Wæver (1989), Buzan et al. (1990), Buzan

* This chapter is an updated version of Buzan (2000). There has not been space in the
update of this chapter (first written in 1996) to incorporate all of the new develop-
ments of regional security complex theory. Anyone wanting the full operational
version should consult Buzan and Wæver (2003). This update was written before the
US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

F. Söderbaum et al. (eds.), Theories of New Regionalism
© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2003
Barry Buzan 141

and Wæver (1992), and Wæver et al. (1993) have used it to study the post-
Cold War transformation in Europe. An extensive update and application of
the theory has been made by Buzan and Wæver in Regions and Powers
Like most other regional theory, security complexes address the level of
analysis located between individual units and the international system as a
whole. The theory posits the existence of regional sub-systems as objects of
security analysis, and offers an analytical framework for dealing with them.
Also like most other work in this area, it has been focused primarily on the
state as unit, and on the political and military sectors as the principal forum
for security relations. This framework is designed to highlight the relative
autonomy of regional security relations, and to set them in the context of
the unit (state) and system levels. One of its purposes is to provide area
specialists with the language and concepts to facilitate comparative studies
across regions, which is a notable weakness in the existing literature.
Another is to offset the tendency of power theorists to underplay the
importance of the regional level in international security affairs. This
tendency was exacerbated by the rise of neorealism in the late 1970s (Waltz,
1979), which focused almost exclusively on the power structure at the
system level. It seems reasonable to expect this bias to decline naturally with
the demise of strong bipolarity at the system level, and the advent of a more
diffuse international power structure.
The essential logic of the theory is rooted in the fact that all the states in
the system are enmeshed in a global web of security interdependence. But
because most political and military threats travel more easily over short
distances than over long ones, insecurity is often associated with proximity.
Most states fear their neighbours more than distant powers, and conse-
quently security interdependence over the international system as a whole
is far from uniform. The normal pattern of security interdependence in a
geographically diverse anarchic international system is one of regionally
based clusters, which we label regional security complexes (RSCs). Security
interdependence is markedly more intense between the states inside such
RSCs than with states outside it. RSCs are about the relative intensity of
inter-state security relations that lead to distinctive regional patterns shaped
by both the distribution of power and historical relations of amity and
enmity. The traditional definition of a security complex was a set of states
whose major security perceptions and concerns are so interlinked that their
national security problems cannot reasonably be analyzed or resolved apart from
one another.
This definition was updated to take account both of the formal switch to
constructivist method, and to move away from state-centric assumption.
The standard definition is now: a set of units whose major processes of secur-
itization, desecuritization, or both, are so interlinked that their security problems
cannot reasonably be analyzed or resolved apart from one another (Buzan et al.,