The tragic events in Kabul in August 2021 marked the end of the US mission and ‘western’ military intervention in Afghanistan, but arguably also marked the end of the ‘comprehensive approach’ as a functional model for foreign intervention that integrates security and development into a peacebuilding strategy. In the conceptual realm, doubts regarding this approach long predated the scenes of August 2021. During the Bonn conference in 2001—at a moment in which Afghanistan was still in internal conflict—it was agreed that the country had to be economically and politically rebuilt while a UN mandated mission (UNAMA) would assist the Afghan authorities by keeping Kabul and its surroundings safe. In hindsight, it seems to have been an overly optimistic and maybe even naive plan to rebuild and develop a country that is still in conflict. To start understanding these events and their implications for international politics, it is relevant to take a closer look at the thinking behind international interventions over the past twenty years, and the alleged relationship between security and development.

Grossly simplified, the relationship between security and development is defined by the question to what extent development can be achieved without a secure environment, and to what extent a level of development is needed to establish a secure environment. More concisely, it is about ‘the struggle for priority between poverty alleviation and safety concerns’ (Glasius, 2008, p. 40). Although perspectives on this relationship have differed over time and per context, the general mantra for most missions at the beginning of this century has been: ‘There will be no development without security and no security without development’ (Annan, 2005). Missions that adhere to this mantra are built upon a combination of security forces and development. They bear names such as the ‘comprehensive approach’, ‘whole of government approach’ or ‘3D (Defence, Diplomacy and Development) approach’.

This chapter evaluates the application of the comprehensive approach in the last decades by placing it against the background of the human security concept. Human security was introduced in the 1994 UNDP report on human development with the intention to broaden the concept of security and not only focus on the military protection of territories of sovereign states (AIV, 2019). As such, human security is a concept that underpins and justifies the comprehensive approach. In this chapter, three different interpretations of human security are identified. These interpretations serve as an analytical framework to discuss if, and if so how, the comprehensive approach has a future as a strategy for intervention.

To set the stage for analysis, the comprehensive approach and the experience with its implementation is discussed below. What follows is first an elaboration of the comprehensive approach followed by a discussion of the underlying security-development nexus. Subsequently, three interpretations of human security are introduced, which set the stage for the evaluative perspective on the implementation of the comprehensive approach. In conclusion, it will be argued that a viable future for the comprehensive approach depends on which interpretation of human security is dominant at an institutional level.

The Comprehensive Approach

The term ‘comprehensive approach’ was developed against the background of the major crises of the 1990s: the end of the Cold War, the failed UN peacekeeping operations in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and subsequent doctrinal change in the nature of peacekeeping missions (Chandler, 2012; Gabrielse, 2007; Gammer, 2013; Rietjens & Bollen, 2008; Travers & Owen, 2007). It is an approach that searches for the integration of a variety of rebuilding initiatives that reflect the combination of security and development as a peacebuilding strategy. While a universal definition is hard to find, there is a shared belief that governments, donors, international organizations and civil society all play a role in seeking to address and prevent conflict, and often struggle to do so in a complementary and coordinated way. Therefore, this approach aims to combine developmental work, political support and security strategies, which makes the case for combining civil and military efforts. As such, the comprehensive approach is aimed at facilitating system-wide coherence across the security, governance, development and political dimensions of international peace and stability operations (Chandler, 2001; De Coning & Friis, 2011; Van der Lijn, 2011).

The comprehensive approach seeks to achieve greater harmonization and synchronization among the activities of the international and local actors, as well as across the analysis, planning, implementation and evaluation of the program cycle’ (De Coning & Friis, 2011, p. 3). The terminology used by governments and multilateral organizations, such as the UN and the NATO, differs. A variety of interpretations of the comprehensive approach exists, reflecting governmental and institutional preferences at national levels and in different international institutions. The approach has, for example, been used in policymaking (Briscoe & Van Ginkel, 2013; Clinton, 2009; Commission on Human Security, 2003) practiced by the UN, EU, AU, the World Bank, other international organizations, national governments, local and international NGOs and has been widely studied (Chandler, 2012; Frerks & Klein Goldewijk, 2007; Glasius, 2012; McCormack, 2011; Tschirgi, 2005). National implementation and policy-making on the comprehensive approach dates back to around 2003–2006 (mainly Sweden, the UK and Denmark). The Table 1 shows which organization uses what term, and indicates the particular (sub)system of local and international actors that these terms are used by. As shown, there are nuances and slightly different accents. However, in general it is safe to state that terms such as ‘the whole of government approach’, the ‘3D approach’ and the ‘integrated approach’ can all be grouped under the umbrella of the comprehensive approach.

Table 1 Modified from De Coning and Friis (2011, pp. 3–6)

Internationally, the concept was established during the Riga summit in 2006 and applied from 2006 onwards (ISAF). The UN established the concept as the guiding principle for complex future post-conflict operations, stating that ‘Integration is the guiding principle for the design and implementation of complex UN operations in post-conflict situations and for linking the different dimensions of peacebuilding (political, development, humanitarian, human rights, rule of law, social and security aspects) into a coherent support strategy’. Furthermore, the EU and NATO adopted the comprehensive approach concept to describe their respective initiatives to pursue coherence (IRSEM, 2010). The EU developed its approach in the wake of the Cold War, the Balkan crises, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent operations in Afghanistan.

The wide usage indicates that the comprehensive approach is attractive, while at the same time the variety in emphasis indicates that it is complex. It is a broad term that most actors will initially feel at ease using. Complexity starts when actual cooperation, coordination, integration or co-existence of development, diplomacy and development needs to be established on the ground. Several authors have formulated critique on the way the comprehensive approach has been implemented (Glasius, 2012; Paris & Sisk, 2009; Schirch, 2011; Van der Lijn, 2011). Such critique emphasizes, for example, the degree to which local ownership is truly achieved on the ground, or the degree to which coherence between different actors in the host nation and the national levels of contributing nations is maintained. These are issues of implementation. However, the conceptual basis of the comprehensive approach itself is also worth discussing, which we do below.

The Security-Development Nexus

In the introduction, it was argued that the comprehensive approach can be better understood against the background of what is called the security-development nexus. To clarify this, it is necessary to discuss why development and security are connected in the first place. Although today the relationship between security and development is a common topic on the agenda of international security, in the past the relationship between these two concepts was rarely considered, as the concepts originate from different domains. Security was believed to be the concern of states—referring to enemies, territorial control and armed coercion. In contrast, the domain of development was dominated by phrases such as foreign aid, poverty, education, health care, infrastructure and governance (Hettne, 2010). While during the Cold War security analyses had been primarily focused on interstate conflict between two superpowers, the period after the Cold War required a perspective on new multilateral peace operations in which more complex and less familiar tasks had to be performed (Johnstone et al., 2005, p. 57; Paris, 2004, p. 17). Particularly UN peacekeeping missions in the 1990s (in for example Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, East Timor, Kosovo) indicated a need for a new type of peace operation. After the emergence of intrastate conflicts and associated threats in the 1990s, the focus in political, military, humanitarian and academic realms shifted (Frerks & Klein Goldewijk, 2007, p. 23). Later, the Brahimi report (UNSC, 2000) also emphasized the need for operations in which interrelated political, economic, and developmental as well as security problems were to be addressed simultaneously, with a focus on people, as well as states.

This shift from a narrow military focus to a more integral view meant that security became just one aspect of a more extensive process. Consequently, the traditional peacekeeping paradigm changed drastically. When peacekeeping operations changed in nature, the dominant doctrine for international peace and stability became peacebuilding. Peacebuilding is more civilian than military in content, as it emphasizes the combination of political and development activities targeted at the sources or causes of conflict. In peacebuilding missions, the involvement of multiple actors (UN, NATO, regional organizations, development agencies, (international) non-governmental organizations) is required to perform more complex and less familiar tasks (Paris, 2004, p. 17). Peacebuilding interventions require a combined, coherent approach, including strategies from the realms of both security and development. More specifically, peacebuilding requires approaches that combine interventions in a coherent, i.e. comprehensive, way. This rapprochement of civil and military actors in crisis management forms the basis of the comprehensive approach.

This explanation makes clear that the development of the comprehensive approach required the adoption of a security-development nexus, which in the 1990s was triggered by the historical events in the international arena. Already at that time, these ideas were connected to an underlying concept of ‘human security’. Human security is generally recognized as a ‘people-centered, comprehensive, context-specific and prevention-oriented framework through which national capacities could be strengthened’ (UN Secretary General, 2012, p. 4). Essential in this view is that no longer states, but individuals are the prime actors, perpetrators and victims in this new type of violence (Kaldor, 2007). It became current in international policies and challenges the traditional agendas of power, particularly because it places the needs of the individual—not the state—at the center of the security perspective.

The concept was introduced in the UNDP report of 1994. The UNDP report notes that: ‘human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life-whether in homes, in jobs or in communities. Such threats can exist at all levels of national income and development’ (UNDP, 1994, p. 47). The later, broad definition is often summarized as ‘freedom from want’; the first, as ‘freedom from fear’. This difference represents a difference in understanding of what human security could be. It appears that a subtle emphasis is put on either the security or the development part of the security-development nexus. Notwithstanding such nuance, the shift towards human security represents a significant shift in point of orientation and therefore also a shift in commitment in international politics. This indicates that the development of the comprehensive approach required (1) establishing the conceptual relation between security and development, i.e. the security-development nexus, and (2) the shift in international relations from an emphasis on state security to human security.

While the postulate of a security-development nexus has not been very controversial, the concept of human security has. One of the issues is that the concept is used for different purposes. Sometimes human security is used strategically, on other occasions it is used in a more activist framework, and yet others use the concept in what can be called an idealistic interpretation. Some see it as a new paradigm, others as a continuation of an old state-centered vision of security. Some use it as a potential basis for action on the ground; others apply it solely as a policy discourse. Some will claim that this vagueness is intentional, in order to enable all to agree on something, others see the potential of and continue to express the need for clarification. Such critiques focus on potential intentions behind human security and therefore also on the very integrity of—comprehensively approached—missions that are conducted in its name. These differences in perspective on ‘human security’ are significant, because they indicate that the justification for a comprehensive approach does not inevitably follow from an unequivocal definition of ‘human security’. Therefore, depending on a particular perspective, efforts at organizing ‘comprehensively approached missions’ could be evaluated quite differently. The next section offers a framework to categorize different positions in relation to human security.

Perspectives on Human Security

In this section, we describe three appreciations of human security. These three appreciations refer to different ways of understanding political intentions behind the concept and, as a result, the understanding of the concept shifts accordingly. These appreciations are based on Jansen’s literature analysis of the comprehensive approach on an Operational, Institutional and Conceptual Level (2014) and are described as Believers, Instrumentalists and Radical Critics, each with a different appreciation of human security.


Believers claim that human security offers a feasible replacement for the realist view of state-centered security. Chandler illustrates this by stating that ‘human security –thinking challenges the traditional agendas of power and place the needs of the individual, not states, at the center of security discourses’ (Chandler, 2012, p. 224). Tara McCormack (2011, p. 235) describes this interpretation as presenting a radical challenge to the security paradigm in which the primary concern is on the security of the state. ‘In its traditional form state security is centered on the preservation of the sovereign state from external threats and activities of other states’ (Chinkin, 2005, p. 1) both in terms of territory as well as in terms of ‘political and physical integrity’.

Believers claim that human security can and should be understood as a realistic alternative paradigm, in which the security (and rights) of individuals can be protected, either in the broad or the narrow meaning. Believers would see it as a task to achieve a (sustainable) people-centered security, in which a to be defined, or contextualized balance between security and development would exist. This type of operationalization of human security can be recognized in the policies of the UNDP and some of the early adopting countries, such as Canada. The UNDP, for example, puts more emphasis on the developmental element (broad interpretation), while Canada increasingly focuses on violent threats, thus conceiving of human security in its narrower interpretation (Glasius, 2008, p. 42). Both sides would agree that the actual implementation of human security is possible and beneficial. The believers, as we identify them, would hold that it is possible to work from a human security concept towards a better balance between security and development strategies. This would lead to a high degree of cooperation between civil, military and local actors.

Taking the current state of the world into account, believers will have to admit that human security has ceased to be of importance. While political leaders from all continents are withdrawing to their national agendas, it is not possible to maintain that human security offers a feasible replacement for state security at this moment in time. As such, seen from this perspective, the comprehensive approach will likely soon disappear from international policy agendas and once again be replaced by a security-dominated paradigm.

The Radical Critics

The second category can be labeled the radical critics, following McCormack. She claims that human security is ‘symptomatic of a disengagement of the more powerful nations from the developing world and represents the end of attempts to substantively alter non-Western societies (…) Thus the human security label is something that can be stuck on to any number of initiatives or projects, giving an appearance of strategic purpose and coherence but with little content’ (2011, p. 256). The radical critics argue that the concept of human security aims to re-establish old or existing power relations, without taking the individual as the focal point for any strategy at all. According to this strand, the local population, instead of being a central factor, is often framed as a victim or a bystander (Glasius, 2012). This inherently is the opposite of what ‘human security’ (in its broad meaning: as a potentially empowering participative concept) should be aiming for, according to this interpretation.

According to radical critics, human security is a transformed version of state-centered security, and cannot be taken as a serious, feasible or even instrumental option for security strategies. Some radical critics tend to understand human security in a broad sense and do not see states capable of protecting against the insecurity that states have often created themselves. Other radical critics argue that using human security is just making it ‘fit in the current practices’ (Glasius, 2008; McCormack, 2011). Radical critics would dismiss the concept of human security as a basis for either doctrinal or operational strategies altogether.

According to this perspective, using a concept like ‘human security’ amounts to using dangerous rhetoric. Radical critics will be less surprised by the current course of events. Initiatives to create a human security force would be no option for the radical critics. In other words, they ‘see human security less as a policy agenda within the existing structures, but rather as a radical critique of those practices’ (Bellamy & McDonald, 2002, cited by Glasius, 2008, p. 39). Creating a human security force would thus, in this interpretation, either be no option, or just (dangerous) rhetoric.


Rather than seeing human security as an alternative to more traditional state-centered approaches, instrumentalists see human security as a welcome addition to state security. They do not interpret the shift of focus from the state to the individual as a paradigm change. Some instrumentalists will have a more pragmatic orientation, and understand the two types (explicitly not paradigms) of security as complementary (United Nations, 2012). Paris acknowledges the instrumentalists by stating that ‘as a unifying concept for this [broad] coalition, human security is powerful’, referring mainly to its political possibilities, not to its potential for academic analysis (2001, pp. 88–89). Instrumentalists use human security as a framework to achieve other goals—not necessarily only human security. According to an instrumentalist perspective, the concept of human security can legitimize or even give importance to certain civil and military actions. An example of this interpretation could be the ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ strategy—where developmental or humanitarian activities are, for example, used to develop better local contacts. The Barcelona report provides another good example of an Instrumentalist interpretation, arguing that ‘human security is vitally connected to the security of Europeans, and that the European Union therefore has a critical interest in developing capabilities to make a contribution to global human security’ (Study Group on Europe’s Security Capabilities, 2004, p. 28). Instrumentalists would make a plea for what can be framed as a ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ strategy. Here the concept of human security will complement state-centered security strategies, entailing more international and inter-organizational cooperation, rather than ‘true’ cooperation with the people in need of ‘human security’. They can be placed in between the more extreme positions of believing and radically critiquing. For them the comprehensive approach can continue to be an influential strategy. On a more critical note, this could be called ‘window dressing’, i.e. referring to human security while working on own (national) security.

The Future of the Comprehensive Approach—An Evaluative Perspective

The human security concept implies a significant shift in international politics from a state-centered emphasis to an emphasis on the individual and this shift indicates a different kind of commitment within international politics. The recent events in Afghanistan have shown that continuing with variations of the comprehensive approach as the main strategy for international interventions is not an obvious path to take. We argue that the future of the comprehensive approach as a feasible option for military intervention, depends on which underlying focus on human security comes to dominate policy making. Depending on which appreciation becomes dominant, the comprehensive approach can continue to play an important role.

A comprehensive approach cannot be meaningfully employed if the relevant actors (ranging from headquarter-level to boots-on-the ground level) lack a common understanding of method, goal and intention. Until today, there has been no such common understanding. Experiences with nation-building programs in the last decades have led to critique on the very possibilities of achieving such ideals. This has led to analysis of the limitations of nation-building and peacebuilding (Chandler, 2017; Lake, 2016), which essentially come down to a critique on the possibility of ‘social engineering’, i.e. the development of blueprint solutions to social problems (Ellerman, 2006). Over the last years, this has led to a less ambitious international agenda, an agenda more focused on domestic goals and—if abroad—on short military interventions, rather than on long-term missions. This critique on the limitations of nation-building ambitions has been explicated by the United Nations itself in a critique of its own former policy (United Nations, 2015):

Countries emerging from conflict are not blank pages and their people are not “projects”. They are the main agents of peace. However, the international approach is often based on generic models that ignore national realities.

Although these discussions about how to achieve societal transformations are certainly relevant, we argue that beneath methodological discussions about too much or too little social engineering, there is a normative discussion. In that sense, we side with Verweij, who elsewhere in this book (chapter “‘Moresfare’ and the Resilience Paradox: Ethics as the Terra Incognita of Hybrid Warfare and Its Challenges”) refers to moresfare as ‘the use or misuse of values and norms as a weapon of war or as a way to achieve a political objective’. Moresfare would be, for example, misusing values as a pretext for intervention, while the underlying intentions are political or strategic. While this position appears to be close to the radical critics discussed above, this is not so. In the same chapter, Verweij points to the relevance of Kaldor’s concept of the security force and as such she does not dismiss concepts such as human security as the radical critics do. In other words, she points to the importance of taking ethical reflection seriously and asserts that such reflection should be the very foundation of intervention.

Conclusion and Discussion

In essence, the three perspectives on human security discussed above are three normative perspectives on international intervention. In the Netherlands and elsewhere, the so-called war on terror has been the theory underlying foreign policy from the beginning of this millennium. In a sense, this provided the opportunity for a coalition between instrumentalists and believers: interventions that followed upon realists’ estimations of international situations offered the conditions for believers to aim at establishing human security ideals. Perhaps such a coalition can be seen as a rationale for the security-development nexus. From the perspective of radical critics, such a coalition is essentially a perverse coalition that a methodological discussion might even obscure. After all, idealism may constitute an outward justification for a more cynical instrumental agenda.

As regards foreign policy, while there is a broad consensus that the era of the war on terror is over, it is not clear what will follow. Some argue that we are on the brink of an era of great power politics (Biscop, 2021). What that means for the foreign policy of the EU and the Netherlands seems as yet unclear. As a firm believer—at least in its manifest rhetoric—in the past, the foreign policy of the Netherlands has committed to a comprehensive approach. However, it seems clear that the era of large-scale and enduring military intervention connected to a nation-building agenda is over. What will that mean for foreign policy in The Netherlands? What will that mean for the security-development nexus, and the relationship between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence? After all, this nexus meant that both ministries, each representing a part of the security-development equation, became connected in a specific way. If there are future military interventions, will they be focused on more limited and more achievable goals? Or will both ministries shift attention to great power politics and—for example—the different military organization that this requires? Will that lead to a totally different kind of cooperation between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence, one that does not rely on the security-development nexus? These are questions for further analysis research. What this chapter aimed to indicate is that answers to such questions depend on pragmatic considerations regarding achievable goals, methodological perspectives on how to pragmatically achieve such goals, but also on normative orientations.