The Risk Society at War: Terror, Technology and Strategy in the Twenty-First Century

  • Published

The Risk Society at War: Terror, Technology and Strategy in the Twenty-First Century by Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 224 pp.

With the end of the Cold War, Western strategy shifted from defeating tangible threats to managing risks. This has restructured new technologies, doctrines, and agents. Describing and analyzing this change forms the cornerstone of this book. Danish professor Mikkel Rasmussen has written other strategic analyses of Western civilizations and their constructs in the post–Cold War world, including The West, Civil Society and the Construction of Peace (Palgrave, 2004). His latest text is complex and requires careful reading as well as a strong background in the historical and current social and military strategic concepts described. Using “reflexive rationality” as the structure for his analysis, Rasmussen asserts that risk politics has changed strategy. A chapter on revolution in military affairs (RMA) shows how this concept has little to do with technology but must be understood in social terms, especially in the post–9/11 construct. While communications and information technology may have shaped the perfect battle (e.g., the advance on Baghdad in 2003), it has not formed the perfect war, and that, Rasmussuen argues, is not possible. He shows that while a Clausewitzian approach may acknowledge the RMA, war remains the continuation of politics—today’s political elites seek to manage risk rather than engage in political processes or wage war that will allow them to achieve their goals.

Rasmussen has produced an analysis of the strategy formulation process illustrated with modern warfare examples, including the Balkans, Iraq, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Military organizations, in contrast to political institutions, have been slow to adopt preemptive strike doctrines, since burden of proof and democratic legitimacy interfere with stated risk-adverse goals embraced by twenty-first-century politicians.

Rasmussen focuses on the United Nations concept of war and bases his concept on the “bureaucratization of war,” which challenges the notion that states conduct international affairs with the knowledge that war will be conducted only as a last resort. Instead, international agencies have taken on a larger role, and Western states no longer expect to conduct war against other states. As nontraditional, nonstate enemies like al-Qaeda have emerged, states have had to rationalize the fight in new terms.

Risk-averse Western states equipped with RMA-enabled militaries no longer need to put large forces on the ground, but they must place large numbers of individuals in nongovernment agencies to rebuild or bolster failing states and their societies. The building blocks of strategy—technology, doctrines, and—have all evolved, since perfect security is no longer possible, and Western states must engage to manage risk.

According to Rasmussen, the strategic issues currently confronting the Western world are the Iraq/Afghanistan war, the rise of Chinese military power, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Since Western societies cannot agree on strategic ends and also disagree fiercely on the means to achieve security, the risk framework presented in this text may prove useful in solving the twenty-first-century strategy development dilemma.

The bureaucratization of warfare has turned war into a risk calculus rather than the meaningful political instrument that Clausewitz described. Because Western governments, according to Rasmussen, believe they face enemies who view war as more of an opportunity than a risk means that the West must somehow shed the bureaucratization of war. The current set of struggles have become rule-altering—in other words, the UN rules of warfare set down after World War II that keep war and violence under the purview of states are no longer viable. Both state actors and nonstate combatants now use war to change the international political system. Clausewitz defined war as making a state do something it did not want to do; today’s conflicts appear to redefine the nature of political communities themselves. Strategy is thus no longer the rational, scientific enterprise Clausewitz described in which strategists balance ends and means. Instead, it has once again become the art that Machiavelli wrote about in The Prince—a way of pursuing policies that is different from any other and where the stakes may be existential. This definition comes close to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis.

This is a very complex strategic text; readers who enjoy or are searching for new strategic context to define the first part of the current century are well served. The author proposes a new theory in terms of rationality as an attempt to define the changes that confront Western or at-risk societies today.

Gilles Van Nederveen, USAF, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."