The Risk Society at War: Terror, Technology, and Strategy in the Twenty-First Century by Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen
|Reviewed By:||Joshua Rovner|
|Reviewed in:||The Journal of Politics|
|Date accepted online:||14/01/2008|
|Published in print:||Volume 69, Issue 04, Pages 1210-1230|
Scholars increasingly use the concept of risk to explain the evolution of domestic and international regulatory policies. Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen believes that risk is also changing how we think about strategy and war.
Two important changes define the relationship between risk and strategy. The first is the rise of globalization, which has produced a web of international organizations that mediate state actions. According to Rasmussen, international norms have made war illegitimate in most cases, meaning that the Clausewitzian notion of war as an instrument of politics is no longer valid. The traditional conception of war has been replaced by the "UN approach," in which war is only acceptable it if has the approval of the international community and meets a number of strict legal criteria. Globalization also has a dark side, however, because the decreasing costs of travel and communication have empowered nonstate actors who exist outside the Western legal framework.
The other important change is the emergence of the "risk society" in the West. Risk societies try to manage future risks instead of solving present problems, and obsess about preventing nightmare scenarios from occurring. In the past, strategists thought about how to use force to achieve clearly defined state interests. The rise of amorphous dangers like proliferation and terrorism has made such linear thinking impossible, however, and societies have adopted a mentality that stresses limiting exposure to risks. One unfortunate result is that states have become vulnerable to "boomerang effects," because preventive actions inevitably lead to unintended consequences. For example, aggressive counterterrorist strategies are counterproductive if they end up increasing support for terrorist groups.
Rasmussen offers a number of provocative claims, but he makes no attempt to test them. The book's main proposition is that Western societies demand strategies to mitigate risks, and that after 9/11 the main risks come from nonstate actors. If this is the case, then risk societies should be more willing to accept preventive military action, just as they are agitating for preventive regulatory policies on carbon emissions to stave off global warming. Western allies are deeply divided over the logic of military prevention, however, and the Bush doctrine has met with increasing opposition. Rasmussen observes near the end of the book that preventive logic "apparently does not translate well from environmental issues to security issues" (p. 194). This is an important observation, but it contradicts the central premise of the book. The risk-society thesis also suggests that Western publics should clamor for aggressive policies that mitigate risks. As he puts it, "inaction may be the best thing considering the boomerang effects, but for a public demanding action that will not be good enough" (p. 200). This does not explain why President Bush and Prime Minister Blair had to work so hard to justify the war in Iraq. Rasmussen's thesis suggests that risk societies should push leaders to take preventive action, not vice versa.
In addition, Rasmussen does not justify his claim that international politics have fundamentally changed since the end of the Cold War. It is not at all clear that the great powers recognize the UN approach to warfare. International disapproval certainly did not stop the United States from invading Iraq, and the power of international law is still limited by the lack of a reliable enforcement mechanism. Moreover, the idea that states have stopped thinking in terms of great power rivalry is demonstrably false. The United States is watching the rise of China very closely, and Russia is increasingly concerned about what it sees as NATO encroachment.
Despite these problems,