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Introduction. A world of risk


Alyson J. K. Bailes

I. Introduction

II. Risk as a new security paradigm

III. Measuring the immeasurable

IV. The risks of risk management

V. Concluding remarks


Read the full introduction [PDF]


Security analysts, commentators and policymakers have increasingly employed the language and concept of ‘risk’ in place of the more traditional, and narrower, concept of ‘threat’. Risk embraces a wide range of problems for human security and survival. Public policies that take into account the whole spectrum of risk have more chance of correctly assessing priorities. Risk-based analysis also helps to underline the fact that risks result partly from a country’s—or an individual’s—own choices.

However, for both objective and subjective reasons, it is difficult to compile and compare all the risks facing a country. All relevant attributes of risk—not just impact and probability, but also domino effects and susceptibility to human influence—need to be assessed and compared across fields as diverse as conflict, terrorism, natural disaster and economic or social vulnerability. Subjectivity adds many distortions, including those caused by the observer’s own agenda and sense of responsibility. Comparing the views on risk hierarchies of government, private business and social actors might help to offset such biases. The focus of technical models for comparing and forecasting risk should be expanded in order to cover the transnational, often global, diffusion of many major risk factors today and to assess the vulnerabilities or resilience of the world system as a whole.

It is tempting to act to pre-empt, as well as limit and eliminate, risk. In traditional warfare or power play, the costs of this and the ways to reduce possible backlash are relatively well understood. The post-cold war environment has facilitated many kinds of interventionist action (not just military) but has made the consequences harder to assess and to master—especially when confronting non-state actors. Views on targets and the legitimacy of various methods vary widely around the world. Forceful approaches such as the USA’s military ‘pre-emption’ efforts can bring a stronger backlash than anticipated from stubborn opponents, the domestic audience and world opinion. Risk may also be ‘displaced’, so that the consequences affect innocent parties or rebound on the initiator by another route. Fundamentally, it is futile to address a risk without considering how one’s own behaviour may generate or aggravate it. Thus, risk-based security analysis may actually be a useful brake on potential recklessness.

Awareness of these complications could lead to decisions simply to live with some risks and focus on resilience and recovery. It also provides an argument for intensifying multilateral cooperation to seek shared solutions to shared risks—and to share the inevitable costs of tackling them. The modern concept of a ‘risk society’ may, thus, lead back to the older vision of a ‘global society’ with common security governance.


Alyson J. K. Bailes (UK) has been Director of SIPRI since July 2002.