Martin Shaw

The development of ‘common risk’ society: a theoretical overview

Paper delivered at seminar on 'Common risk society', Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 1995. Contents: New debates about international security/ Risk society/ Modernity and postmodernity/ Globalisation/Global state networks/Post-military society/Conclusions - a 'common risk' society

In this paper I draw together a number of overlapping theoretical debates about the development of modern society, to provide a framework within which this project may evaluate the development of military institutions. I begin by examining new debates about international security, in which traditional military concepts of ‘national security’ have been extended not only by the expansion of the issue-agenda, but also by a reconceptualisation of whose security we should be concerned with. I then examine the major sociological contributions to understanding the transformations of risk and security in modern society in general. Following this, I examine two fundamental debates which underpin this discussion of risk and security: concerning modernity and postmodernity, and concerning globalisation. In order to establish the relevance of these debates to the understanding of military institutions, I discuss two major areas of my own work. The first concerns the globalisation of state power: I argue that the understanding of globalisation and of the state are equally weakened by a failure to move beyond the concept of the state as ‘nation-state’. Instead, I argue that we need to understand the development of the transnational Western state, and especially in the current period, its global projection, as a context of military institutions. Secondly, I examine the development of ‘post-military society’: I argue that the decline in military participation in the West, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, together with other social and cultural changes related to globalisation, has transformed the context in which military institutions develop. In the final section of the paper, I attempt to draw together some of the issues in relation to the future of the military.

New debates about international security

Debates about security in the 1990s are taking ever more sociological forms. Even the more orthodox debates about international security are showing major signs of transformation. Buzan’s (1991) text shows how the project of national security, centred on the nation-state, which was the basis of security debate during the first half of the twentieth century, has been subject to major transformations. I reformulate these in the following four points:

(1) national security has been reconstructed as ‘international security’, concerning the security of the state-system as a whole rather than the security of the specific nation-state;

(2) linked to the reconstruction as ‘international security’, the issue agenda of security has been transformed in that military issues have been supplemented by a wide range of other issues, e.g. environmental, migration and gender issues;

(3) national security has been deconstructed because ‘nation’ and ‘state’ do not coincide, even approximately, in the majority of cases;

(4) national security has been displaced by a focus on individuals and communities rather than the state as the primary referent of security in an increasing literature.

Of these four transformations, only the first and second have been accommodated fairly straightforwardly, although with considerable debate, in the practice of states and in the academic literature of ‘international security studies’ within the international relations discipline. A concept which reflects the accommodation of the first point is that of ‘security community’, understood still as a ‘community of states’, which is advanced by Buzan, while the second point, the expanding issue agenda, is reflected in his among many other texts. The third and fourth changes, which have more profound implications for the statist conceptual basis of ‘national’ and ‘international’ security, are dealt with less successfully by Buzan (1991), but have been discussed by other authors.

Waever, in Waever, Buzan, Kelstrup and Lemaitre (1993), seeks to deal with the third transformation mentioned above, by advancing the concept of ‘societal security’, in which the referent of security is a ‘society’ understood as a national, ethnic and/or religious community. When elaborated in the context of Yugoslavia by Wiberg (in the same volume) it becomes clear that this concept is also highly problematic. Yugoslavia, like most states, did not consist of clearly elaborated and demarcated societies, but rather of overlapping, partially distinct but also partially integrated national-ethnic-religious communities, coexisting in a single society in which intermarriage and adoption of post-ethnic identities were also growing. A model of the world as consisting primarily of interacting ethnic-national-religious societies is little more adequate than the traditional equation of states with national societies.

The final point is represented by the work of Booth, who advances two somewhat different concepts. On the one hand, he advocates a radical liberal concept in which the individual is the primary referent of security (Booth, 1991a). In this argument, states must not be assumed to be providers of security: on the contrary, each state must be critically examined to see whether it presents threats or provide security, or some combination of the two. On the other hand, Booth argues (1991b) for a radical communitarian concept in which a plurality of communities form security contexts for individuals. Booth even sees a possible ‘community of communities’ replacing the framework of states as the infrastructure for human society.

It will be clear from this brief, far from exhaustive, summary that the international security security debate has moved on in a number of contrasting directions since 1989. Policy-making discussions of security have generally focussed on the first, and to a lesser extent the second, change, although the third development has been seen as raising problems for ‘international security’. The more radical agenda contained in the final point has yet to be taken on board in most policy analysis, but it is this which raises the question of a deeper sociological understanding of security.

Even Booth’s discussion only scratches the surface of an adequate sociological approach, based on an understanding of society as social relations in general rather than as particular communities (I argue this more fully in Shaw, 1994, chapter 3). It is the argument of this chapter that to understand not only security in general, but also the changing roles and characters of military institutions which are the subjects of this project, we need a fuller perspective on the transformations of modern society into a society in which risks are shared across social barriers and national boundaries (what this project calls ‘common risk societies’). I wish to discuss these changes under five headings, based on major themes of the sociological literature and my own research: risk society, modernity and postmodernity, globalisation, global state networks, and post-military society.

Risk society

The analysis of risks of various kinds has long been at the centre of a number of fields of social practice and research. In the field of ‘security studies’ risks have been discussed under the guise of military ‘threats’, and the new issue agenda of security has seen the discussion shift to ‘new threats’ of a non-military as well as military character. Concepts of risk are, however, at the centre of many other fields, from finance to transport and crime to sport. It is perhaps surprising that only in the last decade has ‘risk’ emerged as a major concept of general theoretical social science.

The term ‘risk society’ was introduced into sociology by Beck (1992). For Beck, modern society has changed fundamentally from a society characterised primarily by inequalities of wealth and income to a society where (although such inequalities remain) the chief problems are environmental hazards which cut across traditional inequalities. In this sense, in the contemporary world, society is characterised by risks such as nuclear and chemical pollution which - while not affecting everyone equally - nevertheless affect people according to new patterns and inequalities which are only partially related to those of income and wealth.

Although Beck authored the term ‘risk society’, the analysis of ‘risk’ is related more clearly to the concept of ‘security’ in the work of Giddens (1990, 1991), and it is this which I shall discuss in more detail. He sees modernity - the meaning of which we shall discuss in the next section - as double-edged: it has 'created vastly greater opportunities for human beings to enjoy a secure and rewarding existence than any pre-modern system', but it also has a 'sombre side'. Giddens links the concept of 'risk' closely with that of 'security', and he argues that the nature of risk has changed. There is a 'globalization of risk in the sense of intensity' (e.g. nuclear war) and in terms of 'the expanding number of contingent events which affect everyone or at least very large numbers of people on the planet' (e.g. changes in the global division of labour). New risks arise from the nature of modern social organization: there is risk 'stemming from the created environment, or socialized nature: the infusion of human knowledge into the material environment, and the development of 'institutionalized risk environments affecting the life-chances of millions' (e.g. investment markets). In addition, and very importantly, there is greater 'awareness of risk as risk', well distributed throughout society.

Giddens (1991) provides what could be described, in terms of Buzan's and Booth’s discussions, as a sociological text on the individual level of security. He argues that in conditions of modernity, individuals face not merely specific threats, but something much more fundamental. Daily life is forever reconstituted by the operation of a bewildering array of what Giddens calls 'abstract systems', knowledge-based patterns of social behaviour, coordinated through markets as well as bureaucracies, which govern the conditions of individual existence. The spread of these systems is global: 'In high modernity, the influence of distant happenings on proximate events, and on the intimacies of the self, becomes more and more commonplace.'

The security 'threat' which individuals face is, at base, the threat to their very identity from the ways in which abstract systems operate. The challenge to individuals is to construct and reconstruct their own identity, which is no longer given for them for them by traditional institutions and cultures, but are constantly at risk.

Giddens argues that 'The notion of risk is central in a society which is taking leave of the past, of traditional ways of doing things, and which is opening itself up to a problematic future.' Control of risk is an essential part of the operation of abstract systems: '... all action ... is in principle "calculable" in terms of risk - some sort of assessment of likely risks can be made for virtually all habits and activities, in respect of specific outcomes. The intrusion of abstract systems into everyday life, coupled with the dynamic diffusion of knowledge, means that an awareness of risk seeps into the actions of almost everyone.' 'Risk assessment' is an essential component of the 'colonisation of the future' which is central to modernity.

Giddens argues that there has been a huge historical transformation of the nature of risk - and security. Preoccupation with risk in modern social life has nothing to do with the actual prevalence of life-threatening dangers. On the level of the individual life-span, in terms of life expectation and degree of freedom from serious disease, people in the developed societies are in a much more secure position than were most in previous ages. An impressive list follows of the ways in which the physical security of human beings has been enhanced in industrial societies; but it is balanced by a list of new risks: war, motor accidents, drugs, evironmental pollution, etc. Both can be seen as results of the operation of the abstract systems of modernity. 'In terms of basic life security, nonetheless,' Giddens concludes, 'the risk-reducing elements seem substantially to outweigh the new array of risks.'

The 'institutionalisation of risk' is seen as a fundamental characteristic of the new role of risk in modern society: 'A significant part of expert thinking and public discourse today is made up of risk profiling - analysing what, in the current state of knowledge and in current conditions, is the distribution of risks in given milieux of action.' Giddens distinguishes between 'low-' and 'high-consequence' risks: the former potentially within the control of the individual agent (e.g. peculiarities of diet which may have certain medical consequences), the latter 'by definition ... remote from the individual agent, although - again by definition - they impinge directly on each individual's life-chances.' Examples of high-consequence risks range from mercury in tuna fish to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Risk assessment is a complex and constantly changing affair even in the case of low-consequence risks; it becomes highly speculative in the context of the larger high-consequence issues.

The pervasiveness of risk is not therefore because life is now inherently more risky but because ‘in conditions of modernity, for lay actors as well as for experts in specific fields, thinking in terms of risk and risk-assessment is a more or less ever-present exercise, of a partly imponderable character. It should be remembered that we are all laypeople in respect of the vast majority of the expert systems which intrude on our daily activities.’ The risk climate of modernity is thus unsettling for everyone; no one escapes. Nevertheless, 'Thinking in terms of risk ... is also a means of seeking to stabilise outcomes, a mode of colonising the future.'

Substantively, Giddens argues, 'The abstract systems of modernity create large areas of relative security for the continuance of everyday life' but 'the wholesale penetration of abstract systems into everyday life creates risks which the individual is not well-placed to confront ... . Greater interdependence, up to and including globally interdependent systems, means greater vulnerability when untoward events occur that affect these systems as a whole.' At the limit, hypothetical events such as the breakdown of the global monetary system, or global warming (let alone nuclear war), indicate the dangers. Real socially-created disasters, such as the effects of the destruction of water and electricity systems in Iraq during the Gulf War, demonstrate the vulnerability of modern societies. A problematic dimension of Giddens' discussion is, however, that he gives little attention to the role of social and political inequalities in the distribution of risk: the Iraqi case illustrates both the relative insignificance of some traditional social inequalities, and the salience of new ones.

Modernity and postmodernity

Giddens’ discussion of risk and security is embedded in a thorough theoretical discourse of modernity and globality. For Giddens, there is no fundamental rupture between ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity’. The continuities of modern society are more important than the discontinuities. But if Giddens denies any radical historical rupture, in his analysis of risk he certainly identifies the features under discussion as novel characteristics of ‘late’ modernity.

The key to Giddens’ position here is that he sees modernity itself as based on change and discontinuity. Modern society is based on processes of ‘time-space distanciation’ - the conditions under which time and space are organised are transformed so as to connect presence and absence, and are constantly re-ordered to permit multiple new ‘zonings’ of social life. A central feature of this distanciation is the growth and rapid transformation of abstract (expert) systems of knowledge. Social relations are ‘disembedded’ - ‘lifted out’ of local contexts of interaction - and restructured through abstract systems across indefinite spans of time-space. (At the same time, however, they need to be locally reconstructed, in what Giddens calls ‘re-embedding’ - thus there is also a new premium on what interpretative anthropologists and sociologists call ‘local knowledge’.) The rapidity of transformation also emphasises the need for ‘reflexive’ ordering and reordering - according to Giddens, modernity is itself deeply and intrinsically sociological.

Theorists of ‘postmodernity’ identify specific kinds of transition which they believe require specific theorisation, beyond the theory of modernity. Bauman (1992) is foremost among the theorists of postmodernity in seeing the way in which this implies the prior development of modernity. For him, postmodernity is modernity conscious of its own nature, a modernity ‘for itself’. Bauman contrasts the two as follows:


universality/institutionalised pluralism




He argues that the differences ‘profound enough to call for a separate sociological theory of postmodernity which would break decisively with the concepts and models of modernity and break out of the mental frame in which they had been conceived.’ For this theoretical emancipatio, he argues we must abandon ideas of ‘progress’, ‘system’ and an ‘organismic’ society: ‘the focus must now be on agency; more correctly, on the habitat in which agency operates and which it produces in the course of operation’.

The main tenets of Bauman’s theory of postmodernity can be summarised as follows:

1 the human habitat is highly complex;

2 there is no overall goal setting in human society - there are multiple agents;

3 agents are autonomous and only partly constrained;

4 habitat appears not as confined space but as chaos and chronic indeterminacy;

5 the modality of agents is one of insufficient determination, inconclusiveness, rootlessness;

6 the identity of agents is neither given nor authoritatively confirmed; there is an incessant and non-linear activity of self-constitution;

7 the only visible continuity for the individual is the body - hence the centrality of body cultivation in postmodern life;

8 a constant supply of orientation points and symbolic tokens is necessary;

9 these tokens depend on visibility, utility, and especially on expertise.

Giddens in fact makes similar points in his discussions of ‘self-identity’ (1991), but sees these as issues of modernity rather than postmodernity. Both writers see transformations of politics as resulting: for Giddens, ‘lifestyle’ politics replaces ‘emancipatory’ politics; for Bauman, postmodern politics is ‘tribal’ (postmodern tribes are imagined communities, constituted only by symbolic universes), based on desire and fear. It is a politics of certainty, centred on a search for social confirmation of choice, and linked to a new salience of ethics (Bauman, 1993), arising from the pluralism of authority (with the problem of which rules are authoritative) and the importance of self-monitoring, reflection and evaluation for autonomous agent.


It is evident that theorists of risk, modernity and postmodernity see many of the processes they are discussing as global transformations. The concept of globalisation is therefore central to the new social theory. The term is however used in different ways. A restricted meaning of globalisation is in wide use, which sees the process as one of global market liberalisation, the product of the last two decades. Other theorists use the term in a much broader historical perspective, however, and to refer to a much wider set of processes.

There are three principal transformations to which the broad literature on globalisation refers:

1 The first is indeed the globalisation of economic relations - not just of markets, but of production processes and (through transnational corporations) of the ownership and control of production. While there are disputes about the extent of globalisation - production and markets in the United States and Japan remain significantly more national than in Europe - few doubt that some globalising processes are underway.

2 The second transformation concerns culture. The tension inherent in culture, between the universality and openness of meaning in general and the particularity of given frameworks of meaning - between ‘culture’ and ‘cultures’ - has taken new forms in an era of rapid global mobility and communication. While tensions have centred around specific manifestations of global mass culture - the hegemony of the English language, the dominance of Hollywood, Macdonalds and Coca Cola - the more significant transformation is the strengthening of the global framework of culture, so that all particular cultures are now clearly seen as developing in relation to each other.

3 Global political transformations are seen as more problematic than economic or cultural transformations, because of the enduring centrality of the nation-state. Given the crucial importance of state forms to the military institutions which are at the centre of our project, I deal with this issue separately in the next section of this paper. Here, however, I wish to note that -regardless of specific supranational state networks - there have been major transformations of political culture. Western political ideas like democracy, human rights and of course nationalism itself have gained near-universal currency. Most states pay them at least lip-service and individuals and political movements everywhere utilise them in political struggles.

While all three transformations have undoubtedly accelerated in recent decades, not least since the end of the Cold War, all can be traced back over the centuries during which Western capitalism, culture and power networks have gained global reach (Robertson 1990). In this sense, globalisation can indeed be linked, as Giddens proposes, to modernity rather than to postmodernity. These specific processes which I have outlined can be understood as manifestations of the basic transformations of time and space which he sees as key to modernity. At the same time, it may be correct to see particular postmodern phase of globalisation. In particular, modernity was in many ways confined within the framework of the nation-state until recent times. It is important for the general understanding of modernity and globalisation, as well as vital for our specific task of understanding military institutions, to examine the relation of transformations of state forms to the historical phases of modernity and globalisation.

Global state networks

A central weakness of contemporary social theory is that it offers an inadequate understanding of the state in the era of globalisation. Most social theory treats globalisation, if not as a purely economic phenomenon, then as a social and cultural one, and rarely as a set of processes which concern politics or state forms.

Moreover, seminal works in the recent theory of the state such as Giddens (1985) and Mann (1986, 1993) treat the contemporary state explicitly as a nation-state. (Mann’s multi-volume study has not ventured, of course, beyond 1914, so in his case this is understandable.) International political theory, recognising that global power networks have developed massively since 1945, has developed alternatives to the language of ‘state’ to understand them - primarily through analyses of ‘governance’ at the levels of international organisation and, recently, also of civil society (Walzer, 1995; Falk, 1995).

The major problems of these approaches is that they de-emphasise those aspects of global power relations which are specific to states, especially military power. It is of course very important that certain relations which were heavily militarised, or mediated by military power - intra-Western relations between the major European states, the United States and Japan, for example - are now primarily political and economic rather than military in form. The significance of this transformation needs to be understood: but just as it means that the role and forms of military power has changed (not been abolished), so it means that power must still be understood in terms of ‘state’ as well as of ‘governance’.

The point here is not simply that the nation-state remains important, that the major ‘international organisations’ are in fact comprised of nation-states, or that civil society institutions depend for much of their impact in international politics on influencing nation-states, although of course all these are true. The more important point is that theorists of ‘global governance’ share with more conservative realists, and indeed many social theorists of the state, a mistaken assumption that ‘state’ means nation-state. Historically, the modern nation-state is only one form of state. Just as it was not always dominant in the past, so it may be losing dominance in the present, and may not be dominant in the future.

To repeat: my point is not the one made by many economic and cultural theorists of globalisation, that the nation-state is somehow being eclipsed by the growth of world markets and global culture. Such theorists, also equating state with nation-state, generally argue that state power is becoming less important. Both these writers and their more cautious, nation-statist critics (see Hirst and Thompson, 1995) miss the point. The nation-state is in decline (only relatively, since absolutely nation-states remain very powerful), not so much in relation to the market and global culture, but in relation to regional and global forms of state power. The real issue for social and political theory today is to analyse these new forms of state power and their relations to nation-states, both of which are critical to the future of the military. Unfortunately for our purposes, there are no widely accepted, adequate approaches to these issues. In the remainder of this section of the paper, I will try to specify the issues further and to suggest the outline of a possible approach.

Theories of modernity have generally seen the nation-state as its corresponding political form, while theories of postmodernity have generally emphasised the weakening hold of this form, and the development of more turbulent, multi-level politics (for example, ‘post-international politics’, Rosenau, 1990). What these theories, as well as theories of globalisation, neglect is the importance of regional and global forms of state power. Historically, indeed, the regionalisation and implicit globalisation of state power, in the West, preceded and was a necessary condition for the recent economic and cultural forms of globalisation.

In any discussion of the modern state, we need to look at the relationships between nation-state and global and regional forms. We need to recognise that the global projection of Western economic power depended on particular ‘global’ forms of state, the European world-empires, and that is inaccurate to see the dominant form of the ‘modern’ state purely as a nation-state, since the most powerful nation-states also took this imperial form. Similarly, the transition which took place after 1945 was to new global and regional forms of state power, the Cold War blocs. Certainly the Soviet bloc - a regional form of state power in northern Eurasia and east-central Europe - failed partly because it accommodated the nation-state only in form, while suppressing the substance of national autonomy. But the transatlantic Western bloc was never merely an alliance of independent nation-states: from the onset it involved the subordination of nation-states to transnational structures.

The Western system since 1945 has been one of nation-states together with transnational state institutions, but most Western nation-states have largely lost the central characteristic of traditional nation-states: they no longer ultimately resolve their relations with other nation-states by war, except as part of the Western bloc in relation to enemies of that bloc. Only the USA, the bloc leader, has the autonomy of traditional great powers, and it mainly acts through NATO and increasingly with UN legitimation. The military autonomy of the post-imperial European powers, the UK and France, has been severely limited since Suez, and episode like the Falklands war and the French intervention in Rwanda appear as the exception which proves this rule. Two other former great powers, Germany and Japan, still have minimal military autonomy, as do the remaining nation-states of Europe and the wider West.

Transnational military institutions and the suppression of traditional military competition between nation-states is of course only one side of the transformation of the Western state. The developments of other forms of transnational institution, from the increasingly integrated regional polity of the European Union, to the exclusive Group of 7 and the inclusive GATT, WTO, IMF and World Bank, can all be seen as consequences of Western military-political integration after 1945. At the same time they have consolidated that integration and created a complex, overlapping set of transnational state institutions with the functions of integrating of the West and managing the world economic and political system. Clearly there are great contradictions and unevennesses in the ways in which these institutions carry out both these functions. But the transformation of the Western state, compared to the system of militarily competing world-empires and nation-states of the period before 1945, is enormous.

The question that arises from this argument for this project is how these processes have developed further since 1989. There seem to be contradictory trends. On the one hand, the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet state and bloc leaves the Western state more powerful than ever before. Without the danger that interventions will trigger East-West conflicts, the West has been able to take military action to manage local wars, and has been able to utilise United Nations institutions previously neutralised by the Cold War, even involving the Russian Federation and other post-Soviet states in its actions. On the other hand, there has been both an assertion of nation-statism, among Western as well as former Soviet bloc states, and the growth of ethnic nationalism leading to state fragmentation, which has taken largely political forms in the West but military and even genocidal forms in some states outside the West.

These apparently contradictory trends are however related, not just as some have noted in that nationalism is a reaction to global and regional integration, but also in that state fragmentation poses new challenges to the ability of Western-dominated global institutions to manage world politics. It is precisely because some wars of state fragmentation become constituted as ‘global crises’ that the Western state finds increasingly that it is acting as a global crisis-manager and utilising global institutions in the process. These processes, in turn, work against the tendency towards fragmentation within the West, so that even as economic competition between the major constituents of the Western bloc grows, their political-military cooperation in the face of the major global crises (despite frequent disagreements over policy) is maintained.

It is also important to note the interaction of these processes of global state formation with the processes of economic, political and cultural globalisation. The Western state is increasingly drawn into managing the global economy because its own economic integration, and the success of each government’s economic policies, is inextricably bound up with the overall strength and stability of the global economy. The Western state is drawn into managing global political and military crises, especially local wars, because of their implications for regional stability, but also because with global media coverage, crises are transmitted into Western societies and affect public opinion. (I have discussed these processes in more detail elsewhere: see Shaw, 1996.)

Cooper (1995) has provided a typology of states in the light of some of these changes. He argues that there are three types of state in the modern world: ‘post-modern’, i.e. principally Western states, in which the transformations we are discussing are well advanced; ‘modern’ or traditional nation-states, i.e. most non-Western including the very populous Asian states, in whose relations with each other war is still a major medium; and ‘pre-modern’, i.e. states which have never achieved the characteristics of stable nation-states, especially in Africa, and which are tending to disintegrate. Some such categorisation is important because it emphasises that the relations of nation-states to global trends are very varied. Emergent global networks of state power are centred on the West, and there are differences among as well as between states in each of these categories, in their relationships to them.

Post-military society

The final set of theoretical issues which I wish to examine concerns the role of military institutions and values in society. The classic nation-state, in the period of high modernity, was associated with a mode of organisation of war, total war, with a form of military organisation, the mass army, and with a form of military culture in society, mass militarism, all of which have been subject to major transformations over the last few decades. I do not wish to resume the full literature on military institutions, which will be discussed more thoroughly in other papers, or the related developments in military strategy and technology since 1945, with which participants will be familiar. I want to emphasise the transformations of the wider socio-cultural context of militarism which are connected to these processes.

The shift in military technology to nuclear weapons and high technology meant that the mass army as it had been known historically, in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, was becoming outmoded even during the Cold War. The corollary of this was the decline in military participation, and especially of military service as a component of citizenship. Where, as in continental Europe, military service has survived until recently (or still survives) this was because of the greater threat of land invasion (compared to ‘offshore’ states like the USA and UK), long-established national traditions of military service (e.g. France), national beliefs concerning the democratic significance of conscription (Germany), the costs of a professional military (East and Central Europe) or local conflicts (Greece). Despite these varied reasons for the continuation of conscript armies, the main trend was for conscripts to be replaced by weaponry and professional soldiers. This trend was reflected in outright abolition in the ‘offshore’ states, but in shorter terms of service, liberalised conscientious objection and avoidance of sending conscripts into combat situations, in continental states.

Corresponding to these changes in the institutional basis of militarism in society, there were major changes in the culture of militarism, most evident in the ‘offshore’ states but developing too in continental European states. The most significant of these was the displacement of traditional military values and symbols from central places in national cultures. The glamour, reverence or at least respect which had attached to the military, its hierarchy, uniform, etc., in the eras of colonialism and world wars diminished in significance. In their place came ‘armament culture’, focussed on the fascination of weaponry and technology in general (Luckham, 1984) and ‘spectator-sport militarism’ mediated by television (Mann, 1988).

The twin transformations of the institutional and cultural bases of mass militarism in Western states led to an increasingly ‘post-military’ society in these states, in which militarism no longer took the same forms or had the same significance that it had had during the previous era (Shaw, 1991). Militarism as a cultural residue of the world wars and other wars still played a significant role, partly as an element in a general consumer entertainment culture.

It can be argued that, with the ending of the Cold War, the ‘post-military’ tendency is likely to accelerate in the pacified Western-dominated core of world society. The revival of classical nationalist militarism in regions like former Yugoslavia, in grotesque, caricatural and even genocidal forms, only partially offsets this main tendency. Indeed it even acts as a spur to it by forcing Western states and civil societies to define the principles and institutions of a pacific, liberal-democratic world order. In this context, even military institutions come to be defined in a ‘post-military’ way, as peacekeepers and agents of humanitarian assistance or, more radically, as peacemakers, world police forces or (as I think we could more accurately describe them) war-managers. While some left-wing critics see a decidely Orwellian tendency in this redefinition of peace and war, others might interpret it as a characteristically postmodern transformation.

Conclusions: a ‘common-risk’ society

The idea of ‘risk society’ has posited the idea that not only traditional social divisions but also political borders are crossed by new sources of danger. In this sense, the idea of wider communities of risk is inherent in the idea. At the same time, theories of modernity and postmodernity suggest that these communities will be plural, overlapping and subject to constant transformation, rather than fixed and determinate, given for example by a single set of political boundaries.

The idea of ‘common risk’ (or threat) is not, of course, entirely new to the military. The major threats to national security in the Cold War period were common threats, rather than national ones. Most Western states today face virtually no serious national military threats: the only serious threats which can be envisaged are ones which are likely to threaten the Western system of power as a whole. Even in a traditional military sense, therefore, Western states have worked in a perspective of ‘common security’ for almost half a century, establishing a ‘security community’ in the process. As my discussion of the globalisation of state power has suggested, the framework of the ‘Western state’ has been central to the transformation of state power on a world scale.

The discussion suggests, however, that the issues have moved decisively beyond this situation. There is much evidence from the practice of states to support this contention: not only in developments in military practice, but also changes in their ideological practice. It is now commonplace to refer not just to ‘the West’ or ‘the democracies’, but to ‘the international community’. This community has a nebulous existence: its active and recognised members are the 200 or so member-states of the United Nations, but behind them are the individual members of world society, whose rights and interests are increasingly seen as the benchmarks for international action. However inconsistently Western states and the UN respond to genocide, human rights abuse, anti-democratic regimes, global poverty and environmental degradation, it is an extremely significant transformation which has turned these issues into definers of world politics.

The ‘common risk society’ is therefore, in the largest sense, the global society which is coming into existence (Shaw, 1994). As individuals, and in civil society institutions as well as in states, we increasingly recognise ourselves as sharing a common social space with other human beings across the world. The transformations of economy, culture and politics which I have discussed have created the infrastructure of a world society. Within this emergent world society, there are multiple segmentations and differentiations, within which more restricted communities of risk are defined. The problem is to identify the most significant of these, to establish their relationships to the growing discourse of global community, and to define the military role in relation to them.

The idea of ‘common risk’ has therefore multiple meanings for contemporary transatlantic and European militaries, as we would expect from the discussion of changing ideas of security with which this paper opened. On the one hand, there are relatively well-established ideas of common risk and security in relations with non-Western states. These ideas have undergone a major change, because they no longer centre around a single, manifest opponent (the Soviet bloc). It is possible, however, to redefine the traditional military threat from a range of non-Western states - not just from Russia, or China, but (in regional contexts) from lesser states like Iran or Iraq.

On the other hand, there are common risks for members of human society, arising from sources as diverse as environmental change and political turbulence. Although we can define these ‘common risks’ for world society, in fact they affect different groups very unequally. People in poor regions are often worse affected by environmental problems and have fewer resources to deal with them than people in the West. Civilians in war zones are killed or become refugees, whereas people in the West watch wars on TV. The plight of the more extreme victims becomes a ‘common’ problem for the world political system as a whole, and for its Western centre in particular, because of increasingly globalised communications and political systems.

Not all ‘common risks’ represent military problems, of course. Global environmental challenges require common decision-making and policy institutions, but only where these fail - as in the ‘water wars’ which some predict - will there be military fall-out. There was a tendency after 1989 to define ‘refugees’ as a growing ‘security threat’ in Europe: but refugees are people who have security problems and they do not generally pose military problems for states. In Europe, the problems posed by refugees fleeing from war zones (as opposed to refugees within war zones) have been administrative, economic and social rather than military, although in Rwanda, for example, refugee camps have provided powerbases for genocidal militia and could well be seen as a possible source of military threats.

We need to define the military dimension of a ‘common risk’ global society. The main problems seem to be the threats to the safety of civilian populations from state fragmentation and reformation in some regions of the non-Western world, notably Africa and in the ex-Communist regions, the Balkans and Caucasus. These problems pose the issues of developing globally legitimate political authorities and institutions, to protect human life and human rights, and transforming Western and other military forces into institutions capable of managing wars and enforcing legitimate political will. We are still in the early stages of developing such an agenda, and it may be superseded in the short or medium term by any major resurgence of conflict between Western and significant non-Western states. However, it is in this direction that the idea of ‘common risk’ societies should push us to develop our analyses.


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