War in an Age of Risk by Christopher Coker

| March 11, 2010
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War in an Age of Risk, Christoper Coker (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 188 pp., $65 cloth, $25 paper.

Risk and the “risk society” thesis have recently entered the vocabulary of international relations scholarship. Moving from deterrence, defense, and imminent dangers, security scholars have paid increasing attention to the language and practices of risk, prevention, preemption, precaution, surveillance, and vulnerability. Christopher Coker’s War in an Age of Risk intervenes in these debates with an eye to the changing practices of war. As the preface points out, “war has become risk management in all but name” (p. viii).

The relation between war and the risk society is the focus of several recent studies that analyze the ways in which war itself has become transformed by the logic of the risk society. As defined by Ulrich Beck, “risk society” is one in which “human generated, anticipated risks cannot be restricted either temporally, spatially or in social terms” (World at Risk, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009). These new forms of risk that cannot be contained by insurance logic and institutions of industrial modernity are transforming social, political, and even strategic relations. In that sense, Donald Rumsfeld’s much-derided “unknown unknowns” are symptomatic of an important change rather than simply a tautological coinage. As Coker reminds us, Rumsfeld has uncannily defined the new logic of strategy and politics as formed by “the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen and the unexpected” (p. ix). Yet if these elements have been most often taken up in the international relations literature (and more largely in the sociological literature debating different approaches to risk and their relevance for understanding the contemporary world), War in the Age of Risk adds several new elements. In my view, three of these are of particular significance for further analyses of risk and (in)security: anxiety, complexity, and the future.

Coker underscores the role of anxiety as the dominant logic of the risk society. “What is specific to many of our own anxieties,” he argues, “is that they exist in the absence of any looming historical disaster” (p. 73). Not even climate change appears to be particularly similar in urgency to the Chernobyl disaster that prompted Beck’s writings on the risk society. Unlike fear, which is a response to definite threats whose existence is deemed to be “real,” anxieties in the risk society reside in the imagination. The subjective imagination is opposed to the immediate, to the calculable, or to the scientific. Anxiety is also oriented toward an unknown and uncertain future, while fears are focused on the present. Anxiety also appears to pertain more to subjective experiences of everyday life compared to the expert systems of risk management and the politics of fear. Although it is not Coker’s intention to make this last distinction, he brings to our attention a remarkably powerful and rather neglected concept in security studies. The continuum of anxiety, risk, and fear could be a very productive conceptual triad for analyzing questions of security and war.

Complexity is analyzed in several chapters—both as the new consciousness that everything is interconnected (chapters 2 and 3) and as an ethics of consequences (chapter 4). In a world increasingly defined by complexity, “it is almost impossible to anticipate and therefore insure against all the effects of going to war” (p. 105). Complex social systems are nonlinear, emergent, and self–organizing; the properties of such systems are more than the sum of their parts. Given these “emergent properties,” Coker argues, violence and war can become self–sustaining as the power of agents is increased exponentially through networking.

In the analysis of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is exactly the capacity to “network security” (p. 125) that is found lacking in the U.S. strategy. Thus, the Americans failed to manage the consequences of their intervention by failing to provide any economic and livelihood security for the Iraqi people. While the discussion of the U.S. strategy in Iraq has much that rings true, more theoretical detail and clarification about the role of complex systems and networks would have been helpful. Complexity theory, complex adaptive systems, self–organization, and emergent order have already traveled to numerous disciplines and areas of social life—from economics to literary theory, from history to fiction.

The third element that traverses the book is that of the particular temporal horizon of the risk society. The future as predictable and subjected to calculative technologies has always been a concern of security analysts and war strategists. Risk management understood along insurantial lines presupposed some continuity between the present and the future. War in the Age of Risk considers the transformations that the turn to an unpredictable future entails for war and security. The future can no longer be subsumed under the probabilistic, the repetitive, and the serial. The nonlinearity of complex systems can only create a future of continuous emergence and adaptation to new realities. Yet the future is not only the realm of contingency, of “unknown unknowns,” but of catastrophic unintended consequences and subjective anxiety.

Coker introduces another observation about the future, interestingly drawn from the work of the French philosopher Alain Badiou: that the risk society is also “fearful of ‘events'” and wedded to the state of affairs, a post–heroic world deprived of “projects” (pp. 183–4). While enmeshed in speculations about the future, the risk society appears to paradoxically lack a future that would radically change the status quo. As Badiou asks at one point: “Can the motif of a general threat provide the material for a politicised reading that the world is prey to capital?” (Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return of Philosophy, London: Continuum, 2004). Could a complex world marked by crises and functioning at the edge of chaos ultimately harbor the seeds of a genuine event? (From Badiou’s perspective, 9/11 is a pseudo-event or a simulacrum.) To make sense of this question, one would need to go beyond outside understandings of risk society and consider what a genuine political event can be.

Badiou’s question leads to another one about the reading of war through the prism of risk and vice versa. The specter of war reconstitutes the case studies in the book as areas of warfare. Climate change, disease, or the slums are integrated within a general discourse of war. Yet a lot of the literature on environmental change, health, and urban settlements has challenged many of these assumptions and has contested the linkages with war that the security literature and security professionals have too often promoted. Moreover, these analyses emphasize understandings of agency and political mobilization rather than risk and warfare. The risk society can offer a rather bleak diagnostic of the world. Perhaps it is time for International Relations to turn an eye to more optimistic analyses of agents and political acts that have emerged in other social science disciplines.


The reviewer is Lecturer in International Studies at The Open University (UK) and the author of Rethinking Trafficking in Women: Politics Out of Security (2008).

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Category: Book Review, Issue 24.1

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