Risk management goes global

Our risk society has changed everything, especially the way we view security.

Christopher Coker

Topics Politics

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  • We now live in a risk society, where we are increasingly wary of the consequences of our own actions. This has changed everything, especially the way we conceive security.
  • We no longer seek to insure against risks by constructing new world orders or putting together new security systems, as we did in the past. Instead, we have a risk management ethos which has emerged in response to the greater insecurity that seems to stem from globalisation.
  • The management of risk operates at two levels. One is surveillance, such as ‘global neighbourhood watch’ programmes. The second is the new ‘panics’ like the war against terrorism. All risk management strategies have hidden costs.
  • What the West considers a risk will be moulded by its values and norms, for risks, like anxieties, do not exist independent of our perceptions of them. Consequently, risks are contested.
  • Risks only suggest what should not be done, rather than what should be done. Doing nothing and demanding too much both transform the world into a series of intractable risks.

Seeking a general explanation for why our societies are more anxious about risks than ever is a matter that has engaged sociologists like Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and other writers for many years. All of them are agreed that it is common to what they call ‘second modernity’, ‘late modernity’, or the ‘post-modern age’.

The last expression is the one that has entered general currency. Speaking at the Davos World Economic Forum in 1992, then Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel remarked that sooner or later ‘politics will be faced with the task of finding a new, post-modern face’. And the same might be said of security.

In seeking a definition of the term post-modernity, we might invoke Baudelaire, who was not only the first writer to coin the term ‘modernity’ but also the first to describe ‘progress’ as ‘the great modern idea’. Today we are more sober about both progress and the future. While we still accept that things may progress, we now recognise there is a price to be paid.

We are now increasingly wary of the consequences of our own actions. We can no longer take progress on trust. Post-modernity has been defined as a ‘more modest modernity’, a sign of modernity coming to terms with its own limits.

The post-modern condition is one we all experience in a mode that is more than ever defined by risk; by the cluster of risks, insecurities and control problems that have played a crucial role in shaping our changing response to the world. Concern about risk is no longer a peripheral matter; it is built into the environment, culture and the everyday routines that guide our lives. In this sense we live in a ‘risk age’. Risk has become a way of thinking about one’s moment in history; it is not only inherent in the moment itself.

When did the risk community first emerge? For sociologist Mary Douglas, the current concern with risk is a product of globalisation and what it brings – a sense of vulnerability in being part of a world system. Douglas argues that this first manifested itself in the late 1950s, which saw a debate about ‘le defi Americain’, the fear that American multinational corporations were about to dispossess Europe of its economic sovereignty. For Ulrich Beck, the key period was the 1970s, which saw the rise of chemical hazards from the new industries and technologies that were global in their impact on the environment.

Technological change, like all change, poses risks, as shown by the industrial disaster in Bhopal, the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the birth defects from Thalidomide, the depletion of the ozone layer by CFCs. The more novel and fundamental the change, the less is known about its potential consequences and hidden costs. Hence a general mistrust of scientists, private corporations and governments – indeed, of the whole technology establishment.

Ulrich Beck recognises that all societies, whether pre-modern, modern or late modern, face dangers, but he reserves the right to use the term ‘risk society’ for the third era, our own, because it has changed everything, especially the way we conceive security. Risk consciousness has worked into the mindset of all communities, including the security world.

We talk of ‘the war on AIDS’ and ‘the war on want’ and ‘the war against crime’. The metaphors, in turn, invest the risks with even more apocalyptic overtones and even greater global resonance. They make us insecure because they have become endless, too large and too global and too apocalyptic to be contained within regimes or new world orders. The anti-globalisers on the US right may fear the rise of a new world order conspiracy, but the so-called conspirators, including their own government, do not feel in charge. Instead they confront what former US president Bill Clinton called ‘a world in which risk is endless’.

The globalisation of risk

It is a commonplace belief of our times that we think we are subject to risks that are potentially more catastrophic because they are global. As philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner explained, risk became central in our thinking and behaviour once we entered a global society. Globalisation has drawn us out of our self-contained national or local communities into a larger world which offers none of the old protections. It is impossible to offer private insurance against many, if not most, of the risks we now face; the market sets us free of the local but leaves us exposed to the global.

And global risks cannot be delimited spatially. Indeed, they are becoming more difficult to manage because of their non-localised nature. In the past, risks were largely perceptible: people could see unsanitary conditions for themselves and localised areas where they were at risk; they could choose, if they wished, to avoid them. Today the risks are global, implicit in post-industrialisation and in the main unseen.

And they are no longer delimited, even by time. Chernobyl and the hazard of nuclear contamination, like that of the pollution of rivers and the long-term dangers of toxic waste mean that the consequences of such hazards are not always immediate. One of the most poignant covers of Time magazine was of the children of Gulf War veterans who had suffered genetic defects as a result of their fathers’ possible exposure to chemical agents on the battlefield. The article that accompanied the photographs was called, ‘The tiny victims of Desert Storm’. And that is the source of many of our anxieties. In future, soldiers may survive a campaign, their children may not.

So when we conceptualise security we do so in terms of risk itself. The language of danger has now turned into the language of risk. Globalisation has ensured that the risk society, broadly speaking, is a society organised in a significant way around the concept of risk. Risk increasingly determines the discourse of security.

Policing risk

Every society that has faced dangers has evolved security strategies to deal with them. But the difference today is that the risks, being global, cannot be calculated with any degree of certainty. And being global, they cannot be insured against. If for no other reason than symbolism, the idea of private insurance is an interesting one, for it is impossible to privately insure oneself against nuclear disaster, climate change and its consequences, or the Asian financial crisis.

Only the most unlikely risks, such as alien abduction, are now covered by the insurance business – as is the case in Florida.

In a way, the situation is analogous to the fate of the welfare state in Western Europe. As risk expert Francois Ewald argues, the welfare state can be seen as an attempt to provide security for a people who demanded it after the trauma of the Second World War. The provision of services such as free health care, the creation of insurance schemes and the regulation of the economy were all undertaken to create security, or, at least, a sense of it.

The need for a new social contract, a lesson learned from the inter-class conflicts that had weakened Europe’s democracies in the run-up to the war, accounted to some extent for a form of capitalism that is still intrinsically different from the classical model.

In Germany, the government has more shares in more industries than any other government in Europe. It has a socially financed apprenticeship scheme and social welfare policies that are not usually seen as a necessary part of the market economy mechanism. In the German model (unlike the American model) a centralised level of control is considered preferable to decentralised power. Central controls are deemed necessary to prevent irresponsible fiscal policies likely to encourage high interest rates, high inflation and thus greater insecurity.

Of course, as the twenty-first century opens, the social market model is under increasing challenge. As labour costs have risen, the European economy has become less competitive.

What is true at the domestic level is also true at the international level. The new security regimes set up after the war, such as NATO and the Marshall Plan, were intended to secure for the peoples of the ‘free world’ the four freedoms promised by Roosevelt in the 1940s: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of worship and freedom of speech. Of the four, the first two – which amount to freedom from insecurity – were judged the most important.

Just as the welfare model is now under threat from the forces of globalisation which dictate that economies be as competitive as possible to survive, so the old security regimes like the anti-ballistic missile treaty are under threat too. The collapse of concepts such as the new international economic order in the 1980s, and the new world order in the 1990s, merely confirms an innate scepticism that risks can be eliminated or even significantly reduced. Instead, all we can do is manage them.

We no longer seek to insure against them by constructing new world orders or putting together new security systems as we did in the past. Instead, we have a risk-management ethos that has emerged in response to the greater insecurity that seems to stem from globalisation. Francis Fukuyama, the erstwhile prophet of The End of History, now writes of The Great Disruption that accompanies the risk culture.

And the management of risk now operates at two levels, both of which accompany a decline in the belief that the international community – or even the world’s last remaining superpower – can deal with the root causes of insecurity, as the founding fathers of the Western alliance once believed. One is surveillance: ‘global neighbourhood watch’ programmes, the constant war to minimise opportunities for offending; the practical, low-visibility operations that excite little public interest or debate. The second is the new ‘panics’ like the war against terrorism; the dramatic campaigns against new criminal scourges, and public demands for harsher punishment.

Both responses to risk emphasise control that, of course, is elusive, since there can be no termination of terrorism, or pandemics, or the trade in narcotics.

The principle military rationale is now ‘preventive defence’ against a myriad of dangers, most of them abstract and undefined. ‘There is a universe of potentials we have to deal with’, declared the US homeland security chief, Tom Ridge, after the World Trade Center attack.

‘When I was coming up’, claimed George W Bush on the campaign trail in 2000, ‘it was a dangerous world and we knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them and it was clear who them was. Today, we’re not so sure who the they are but we know they’re there’. In his tortured syntax, Bush expresses the abiding reality of the hour.

Compare this with his father’s speech on the campaign trail in 1988, when George Bush Sr promised the American people that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) would offer them ‘an exit from history’. In those (now remote) days, it seemed possible to offer people a permanent solution to the problem of nuclear war. Today there are no solutions, only risk-management strategies. The new world order that George Bush Sr offered in 1991 is no longer on anyone’s lips.

In this world of uncertainties and risks, the only option open to governments is to police the world. And in a globalised age we see the emergence of a new concept of policing which takes its cue from the domestic model, where people have moved from ‘community policing’ to ‘policing communities of risk’. In many Western societies, ‘disciplinary’ techniques are no longer aimed at altering individual behaviour. Policing is no longer corrective or transformative.

We have replaced the old moral and clinical description of criminals with a risk one: cost. There is no longer concern with treating individual offenders or even rehabilitating them, but instead of classifying groups according to the dangers they pose to society and managing them accordingly. The target group is no longer the criminal but the community of potential victims. Hence the interest in ‘zero-tolerance’ policing, ‘moving on’ criminals or potential criminals, and the constant surveillance of those potential criminals, individuals or groups, in order to make policing more effective.

If constant surveillance too has become the vehicle of risk management at home, it is also the vehicle of global management. Where rogue states (rather than situations) are identified, they are designated members of ‘risk groups’ and are subject to constant surveillance by satellite. Variously described as ‘rogues’, ‘pariahs’, ‘outlaws’ and most recently ’states of concern’, they are all part of the new strategic lexicon. Iraq heads the list but others are not far behind. The surveillance of northern Iraq is aptly named ‘Operation Northern Watch’.

Air power is the preferred medium by which risks are policed. It began with the no-fly zones in northern Iraq above the thirty-sixth parallel, and in southern Iraq below the thirty-third. Both were established after the 1991 war to protect the Marsh Arabs and Shiite Muslims in the south and the Kurds in the north from Iraqi reprisals, after uprisings in both areas of the country had failed to unseat Saddam Hussein.

No-fly zones are justified by UNSCR 688 (5 April 1991), which deems the Iraqi repression of these minorities ‘a threat to international security’. In the course of time the air missions have become less an instrument for protecting the Kurds (they have little impact on Iraqi actions on the ground) so much as constraining Saddam Hussein’s freedom of action.

By the end of the 1990s, the USA and Britain had launched 200,000 air sorties in all. By then the policing had become permanent. When Bush sanctioned the first air strike of his presidency in February 2001 he described the mission as ‘routine’.

And when we do turn to the military option we do so to reduce the opportunities for bad behaviour, to prevent them from posing an even greater risk in the future. The style is one of containment, confinement and dissuasion. Since there is no end to the problem (as opposed to the enemies) we face, since there is no end in sight to nuclear proliferation, managing insecurity will probably continue well into the future. It is the only insurance we have.

But we should also recognise that all risk-management strategies have hidden costs. Sanctions against Iraq have led to enormous human suffering. As a 1999 UN report stresses, ‘the gravity of the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people is indisputable and cannot be overstated’ – the country has experienced ‘a shift from relative affluence to massive poverty’.

In Serbia the percentage of the population living in poverty after the Kosovo War rose from 33 percent to 63 percent. 250,000 Serbs lost their jobs as a result of the bombing. And to keep Milosevic on the defensive, the West insisted on a ban on reconstruction aid and for the first time put pressure on the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross to reduce their existing programmes to Serbia.

So, the ‘war’ against terrorism, like those against crime and the many other ‘uncertainties’ and challenges that form the West’s security agenda, are often invisible in terms of their consequences for people on the ground. And this raises an awkward question. War is largely transparent; crisis management is not. War involves victims; crisis management does too, but its victims do not always appear on the TV screens or even enter the public consciousness.

In its distaste for ‘war’ and its preference for engaging in ‘risk-management strategies’, is the West becoming more ruthless, and aggressive? War, writes American Foreign Policy professor Michael Mandelbaum, once the policy of the strong, is now the policy of the weak. ‘Wars’, however, are purely the policy of the strong; and a little more honesty and self-awareness might make the Western management of global risks appear less arrogant or morally disengaged for the rest of the world.

NATO as a risk community

Since 1991, NATO has been evolving into something generically different from the organisation that we know from the Cold War. It is becoming more responsive not only to transnational factors and concerns, but also to the problem of risks.

Sociologist Benedict Anderson taught us that nations are ‘imagined communities’. A nation must first exist in the minds of its citizens before it can hold together on the battlefield or the football terraces. The Cold War saw the emergence of two international communities and the re-imagining of nations that made them up. The most successful act of invention was in Europe, as both Germany and France reinvented themselves as Europeans. ‘Anyone who wants to be a German must first become a European’, declared the conservative German politician Franz Joseph Strauss in the 1950s.

The new Germany became a civilian power with a strong emphasis on equality and social and civil rights. Even more of a break with the past was its evolution into an anti-Bismarckian state that measured its success in the marketplace, not on the battlefield.

The second Western invention in this period was NATO. For the first time, it was possible to imagine a Western security community, the arm of Western civilisation. For a time there was even talk of creating an Atlantic Community with its own executive and legislative institutions.

In our globalised age, the idea of ‘imagined communities’ has been extended globally. It now encompasses what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls other ‘imagined worlds’ or landscapes. Appadurai talks of a ‘historically situated imagination’ of the people who inhabit them, and attributes them largely to the force of globalisation.

The four kinds of community he identifies are ‘ethno-scapes’, which refer to the socio-spatial maps of mobile persons, tourists, immigrants, refugees, and guest workers who straddle places and communities; the ‘finance-scapes’ of global capital, currency markets and stock exchanges of the world; the ‘media-scapes’ of electronically produced information and the images of the world disseminated by them; and ‘ideo-scapes’, the political ideologies of social movements and anti-globalisation protesters. All these imagined spheres are shaping the perceptions of their respective members; they are moulding their view of their globalised world.

Can we add ‘securi-scapes’ to the list? And if so, what would they look like? In the 1950s, social scientist Karl Deutsch described NATO as a ‘security community’, a community which generated security by integrating its members into a close knit alliance, a social grouping whose members dealt with each other peacefully. Deutsch applied a typically sociological concept, ‘community’, to the international arena, arguing, contrary to classical international relations theory, that a community could exist not only within the boundaries of a state but also across states.

Security communities, argued Deutsch, share common norms, values and political institutions. Their main function is to keep the peace between members. And NATO is still committed to that mission. After the Kosovo War, the NATO secretary general Javier Solana maintained that the operation should be seen as a commitment to ‘the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations of the NATO members themselves enshrined in Article 2 of the Washington Treaty’.

Today, however, the condition of peace is largely taken as a given. NATO could be more accurately described as a risk community which secures the interests of its members against the new global insecurity they face.

As Ulrich Beck writes, the world is made up no longer of regional groups but socio-scapes, or post-national communities that share risks. And although he doesn’t use the term ‘securi-scape’, the term seems a more useful one than Deutsch’s concept of a ‘security community’, for it captures the flavour and immediacy of the risk environment which NATO’s Security Concept identified in November 1991 – a ‘new security environment’ constituted not only by immediate threats (of which there were at the time few) but unnamed and eponymous ‘security challenges and risks’.

Eight years later, the revised Concept declared that the security of the alliance was threatened by a wide variety of risks which were often ‘multi-directional’, and increasingly difficult to predict. They included ‘uncertainty and instability in and around the Euro-Atlantic area…[which] could evolve rapidly’. Clearly, NATO has tried to escape the strictly realist logic of the balance of power which predicted its own disintegration after the Cold War in the absence of any enemy to counterbalance.

Today the perception of risk has replaced the immediate threats of the past. Thus the problem of refugees is becoming vitally important. In August 2001, Britain’s foreign secretary justified the Kosovo intervention by claiming that half the asylum seekers in the country that year had arisen from the international community’s failure to act decisively in Bosnia in the early 1990s.

Other global risks are casting a shadow. In 1996, NATO hosted a major international conference on the safety of blood transfusions in battle zones, and the importance of maintaining non-contaminated deep freeze storage blood for use by member states in future peace-keeping operations.

Even in the way they conduct war, the individual members of the alliance are distributing risks by contracting out to the private sector. And the same is true of peacekeeping. In Kosovo, 16 private companies were involved in clearing the country of mines and unexploded cluster bombs, ranging from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who were performing a public service to private companies who were working for profit.

Cluster bombs, in fact, are far more deadly than land mines. When hidden (and in Kosovo, 10 percent failed to go off) they are far harder to detect and dispose of. But even de-mining has its risks. As of 1998 in the American sector of liberated Kuwait 84 contract de-miners have been killed (more than the number of US soldiers killed in combat by enemy fire).

But there is more to risk than that. Globalisation has ensured that the risks specific to communities are mediated by values. ‘Risks cannot be understood’, writes one analyst, ‘outside their materialisation in particular mediations, be they scientific, political, economic or popular’.

What the West considers a risk will be moulded by its values and norms, by its own way of life. For risks, like anxieties, do not exist independent of our perceptions of them. NATO is not so much a ‘securi-scape’ but a risk community, because of the values its members share in common.

But it is because risks, though real enough, are also social constructs that they are contested. Whether we think them significant or not, or long term or short, will rest on judgements of their potential. For risks are often ‘virtual’: they are real in principle but have yet to materialise in practice. The sociology of risk is the science of potentialities and judgements about probabilities.

And this may raise unique problems of its own. Indeed, in protecting a unique way of life the Western community confronts two challenges.

In 1997 the USA’s National Security Strategy for a New Century declared that one of the principal aims of a security policy should be ‘to prevent, disrupt and defeat terrorist operations before they occur’. This principle is embodied in environmental law. A variety of precautionary principles are in use, ranging from soft to strong formulations.

A relatively soft formulation appears in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which states that: ‘to protect the environment a precautionary approach should be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’

In other words, regulators can take cost-effective steps to prevent serious or irreversible harm even when there is no certainty that such harm will occur.

A stronger formulation is set out in the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Bio-Safety, which states that: ‘lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient…knowledge regarding the extent of the potential adverse effects of living, modified organisms on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity in the party of import, taking also into account risks to human health, shall not prevent that party from taking a decision as appropriate with regard to the import of the living modified organisms in question…to avoid or minimise such potential adverse effects.’

This latter formulation drops the requirement that prevention be cost-effective and shifts the burden of proof for safety on to exporting countries.

When dealing with threats such as terrorism, risk communities may find the ‘precautionary principle’ attractive – the consensus that whenever a threat arises it is important that precautions be taken against it. The case made by the USA for attacking Taliban specifically invoked the concept of ‘anticipatory self-defence’ (the right to defend itself against anticipated attacks in the future, a new concept that many Americans would like to see enshrined in international law).

Thus, the importance attached to positive proof that bin Laden was responsible for the World Trade Center attack, which led the Alliance to invoke Article Five of the Washington Treaty for the first time in its history, may no longer be required in the future.

The problem is compounded by the fact that risk communities are pre-disposed to engage not in deterrence but in dissuasion. States may be increasingly inclined to threaten others in a different way from the past: not so much ‘if you do this such an action will happen but if you don’t do this the consequences could be dire’. Wasn’t that exactly the principle of the US action against the Taliban?

In a proactive and pre-emptive age the alliance may no longer react to threats, so much as attempt to pre-empt them. Whether the Europeans could be brought around to endorse this – on all or any occasions – is a moot question.

Another reason why the USA and Europe may find themselves in conflict in future is inherent in the risk society itself. Risk communities have no way of testing the adequacy of the response to a particular problem; such as missile defence and proliferation. Once they know the risk, they have to take a decision: whether to build a defence shield or not, and that is purely a matter of expert opinion and no two experts can ever agree.

Risks only suggest what should not be done, rather than what should be done. Doing nothing and demanding too much both transform the world into a series of intractable risks. This is what sociologists call the ‘risk trap’. There are no prescriptions for how to act in a risk trap but there are antithetical cultural reactions.

In the case of missile defence, the USA has come to the conclusion that it would incur more of a risk if it did not build; Europe (no less threatened) seems to be more impressed by the risks of breaking the conventions against missile defence. And no doubt the Americans are weighing up the risks of finding themselves in alliance with countries that are likely to respond less positively than they in the face of a missile threat.

It is still possible, of course, that Europe will sooner rather than later adopt its own missile defence system. At a NATO summit in 2001, the Italian prime minister told his colleagues that missile defence could possibly be a common project. Spain is installing the Aegis weapon system on its F-100 frigates; Italy is co-producing the Principal Anti-Air Missile System featuring the Aster-A short-range interceptor. These could all provide a point of departure for European collaboration with the USA in constructing a missile defence system of its own.

But the national missile defence issue also is much more likely to divide than to unite the risk community which NATO is in the process of becoming. The Alliance may only hold together if the USA recognises the risks are global; that they cannot be met by a unilateral response. If, on the other hand, the USA feels that a ‘local’ response would be preferable then the risk community faces the threat of breaking up.

It is a feature of risk communities that everything is contested; but the more they are contested the less of a community it will appear to itself, if not the outside world. If Europe and the USA define risks differently it is difficult to see how a coalition dynamic could survive for long.

Christopher Coker is reader in international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), and author of Humane Warfare (Routledge 2001) (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)) and Waging War Without Warriors?: The Changing Face of Military Conflict (Lynne Rienner, 2002) (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

This an edited version of a paper given at the Goodenough-Chevening conference, Risk, in London on 12 April 2002. It is to be published as Adelphi Paper No 345 Globalisation and Security (International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2002), ISBN 01985 167-11

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