Resilience and resilient in Obama’s National Security Strategy 2010: Enter two ‘political keywords’

Published date01 February 2017
Date01 February 2017
Subject MatterResearch Articles
2017, Vol. 37(1) 36 –51
© The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0263395715614847
Resilience and resilient in
Obama’s National Security
Strategy 2010: Enter two
‘political keywords’
Sabine Selchow
London School of Economics, London, UK
Under US President Obama, the words resilience and resilient have been applied beyond the odd
occasion in the National Security Strategy (NSS) document. Through a systematic analysis of
the NSS 2010, the research behind this article sought to determine if there was anything in this
linguistic phenomenon of interest to scholars in political studies. The article argues that what
makes the appearance of the two words in the NSS 2010 relevant is not what these words do
but what is done to them in the text. It shows how the document constructs resilience and resilient
in a distinct way as symbolic tools with a high degree of semantic openness, a particular positive
connotation and deontic meaning. The article argues that the use of the two words in the NSS
2010 can be seen as an exercise in ‘occupying’ them with ideologically loaded meanings, which can
be interpreted as the actualisation of both words as ‘political keywords’. The article demonstrates
the relevance of this insight for political scholars as the ground for future explorations of the
popular discourse of ‘resilience’ through the concept of ‘political keywords’.
National Security Strategy, Obama, political communication, political keywords, resilience
Received: 6 February 2015; Revised version received: 5 June 2015; Accepted: 26 June 2015
The two words resilience and resilient are strikingly popular within the public communi-
cation of US President Obama. Obama has used the words in his public papers more often
than all of his Presidential predecessors combined. In particular, the application of resil-
ience and resilient under Obama has also, for the first time, extended beyond the odd use
in the document of the National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS is a key public docu-
ment within the US national security discourse that mirrors the Administration’s strategic
vision and worldview. It sets the tone for and legitimises security policies and strategy.
Corresponding author:
Sabine Selchow, Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development,
London School of Economics, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK.
Research Article
Selchow 37
Intrigued by the de facto debut of the words resilience and resilient in the 2010 NSS, I
was interested in what role these two words play in this text. This interest jumps off the
scholarship in political studies and international relations that acknowledges the produc-
tive and generative role that language plays (e.g. Beer and Hariman, 1996; Fairclough,
2001; also Chilton and Schäffner, 2002). Language is not just seen as any kind of means
of politics but as the very condition of its possibility because, unless physical force
is used, politics is about symbolic action (Girnth, 2002: 1). Political goals have to be
explained and opponents’ visions have to be criticised and deconstructed in an attempt to
secure public approval (Bergsdorf, 1991: 19). This is done through persuasion, argumen-
tation and an appeal to the audience’s emotions. It is done through the symbolic legitima-
tion of past and future decisions and the presentation of one (understanding of the) world
as more ‘real’ than another. Hence, the study of the use of language provides us with an
insight into a crucial aspect of the ‘world-making’ that is politics. It provides us with an
insight into how the world comes into being, in and for which political decisions are
designed and taken.
There is a well-established empirical scholarship that generates insights into this exer-
cise of ‘world-making’ through the study of political language. Scholars analyse the use
of metaphors (e.g. Howe, 1988; Lakoff, 1991), the framing of issues (e.g. Goffman, 1974;
Spielvogel, 2005) and other ways in which past, present and future ‘worlds’ are created
and decisions are legitimised (e.g. Dunmire, 2011; Fairclough, 2001). Yet, the express
analysis of the role of two specific linguistic signs in a political text is not a self-evidently
useful exercise for scholars in political studies. There is no a priori, theory-based ground
on which it provides insights that are relevant beyond linguistics. It is a primarily induc-
tive, text-specific exercise, in which the empirical findings show if there is value in it for
scholars in political studies to begin with. Consequently, more than in other language-
focused studies, the generation of such findings requires an experimental research design
and an analytical frame that leaves space for the discovery of what one is not expressly
looking for.
With the above in mind, I approached the appearance of resilience and resilient in
the NSS 2010 through an open-outcome analysis that was guided by the question of
whether there was anything in this linguistic phenomenon that is valuable for scholars
in political studies. I did this with the help of a triangular analytical frame, in which I
brought together insights from security studies, critical discourse analysis, text analysis
and politolinguistics with a grid developed from contemporary codified lexical mean-
ings of resilience and resilient.
My systematic analysis generated an array of different insights, with one of them
relevant for scholars in political studies: it unveiled a distinct construction of the words
resilience and resilient in the text of the NSS 2010. What makes the appearance of these
words in the NSS 2010 relevant for scholars in political studies is not related to what
these two words do but what is done to them in the text. The use of resilience and resil-
ient in the NSS 2010 constitutes an exercise in ‘occupying’ (Liedtke et al., 1991) them
with distinct meanings. They are ‘occupied’ with the idea of an abstract quality that is
constructed as follows.
1. A foundational prerequisite for US national security.
2. A distinctly American trait.
3. A ‘global’ value.
4. Something that can be demonstrated and shown.

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