Hugh White nicely joins the fray in focusing on the key difference between risks and threats: time. That is, a risk can turn into a threat over time, and vice versa. As Hugh says, risk may be the ‘foundation of defence policy’ but I think we should be sure about what choosing such an approach leaves out.
In an earlier post, I noted that risk management is not a strategy. As Hugh said more eloquently then me, risk management is ‘about preparing against the possibility that dangers might arise in future.’ This means having defence capabilities available just in case, ready to respond to particular events if they occur—and we really, really hope they don’t. By contrast, as strategy has a defined end, defence capabilities are developed and used to try to achieve that end.
If we see military forces as being used as instruments for pursuing ‘politics by other means’ in the best Clausewitzian tradition, then military forces are useful across the spectrum of peace and war. From our point of view as a rather smug status quo power, then we may wish to try to shape our future in a particular direction that ensures that bad things do not happen to us, using the military as one tool amongst many to that end. This is conceptually a long way from sitting and waiting for a tragedy to occur.
Some hold that risk management is more than just awaiting events—that is, it involves being so obviously prepared that this shapes another’s thinking and they are dissuaded from taking ‘risky’ actions. This however sounds somewhat like deterrence, a strategy focused on someone at some time to convince them not to carry out some act. In short, shaping the future into a particular kind of desired international order.
Risk is about preparing for possible dangers, strategy can be working to try to make them not happen. Which is better for us? To paraphrase Clint Eastwood ‘do we feel lucky’? Or should we at least try to make our own luck?
We should think carefully whether risk management is the best foundation for our defence policy as there may be alternatives worth exploring.
Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW.