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‘The geopolitics of risk’: the new age of uncertainty

Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s former secretary of defense during the war in Iraq. DR

At a press conference at the US Department of Defense, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq by the allied forces in 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addressed a sceptical media, unconvinced by his government’s arguments for immediate intervention.

Reporters demanded to know what information could possibly justify an act of war against a peaceful sovereign state. Rumsfeld’s response went viral:

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

In other words, from a geopolitical perspective, he believed the very uncertainty created by the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction justified military action.

Proof or possibility of danger

We have entered a new age of uncertainty, with a new kind of geopolitical approach to risk. Let us examine this new reality, in which uncertainty – rather than proof and rationality – holds sway over political actions and reactions. In other words, proof of danger has become less important than the possibility of danger. Imagined danger now carries more weight that real danger.

We are living at a political juncture pervaded by the rhetoric of threat and insecurity. This is clear not only in discourses filled with fear, anxiety and uncertainty, propagating imagined threats, but also in the way our everyday experience of insecurity has changed, and in the sharp increase in security measures implemented by authorities.

These new discourses affect us deeply, even transforming us. They change the way we live our daily lives, our relationships with our loved ones and the way we apprehend others, what is alien, unknown. Threats to our safety are therefore not simple external objects that we can observe with scientific objectivity.

The end of a binary outlook

On the contrary. The particularity of risk today is that it concerns us directly. Perceiving, analysing and managing risk is a deeply human enterprise, which raises fundamental questions about who we are and the nature of society.

The notion of security and geopolitical attitudes to it have changed radically since the end of the Cold War. We have switched from a binary perspective (dividing countries into East and West) to a more complex approach, across multiple levels, involving various groups and phenomena: international crime, cyber-attacks, climate change, migratory flows, pandemics, terrorism, and so on.

Questions of security and insecurity are everywhere. It is no longer possible to divide the world in two – us and them, friends and enemies, good and evil, pure and impure, safe and dangerous.

Threats all around us

Troops patrolling the streets of Paris as part of the Vigipirate plan. Kevin B., CC BY-SA

Computer viruses are already on our hard drives, climate change is already being felt, potential epidemics are already present in the ecosystem and, sadly, terrorists are not beings from a far off, imaginary geopolitical landscape: they are already among us.

The question is no longer “How can we avoid all these threats?”, “How can we keep danger at bay?” or “How can we make the state invulnerable, untouchable?” but “How can we organise ourselves as a society in order to retain our identity in the face of these threats?” And this is not about biology or race, but about values: individual autonomy, respect for others, freedom, equality, tolerance, etc.

At the fundamental level, security is therefore a question of culture, identity, language, democratic institutions, etc. In other words, it has become a societal question, asking us what kind of society we wish to live in.

Experiencing the future now

If, as I believe, risk management has now become a social values issue, it is therefore a kind of ethics. But not in the sense of an external, autonomous code of conduct to determine our behaviour or that of others.

Ethics can be seen as the experience of uncertainty, of the unknown, the unexpected or even the unpredictable; as a way of asking what to do when we are uncertain, when we do not have adequate knowledge to know what to do – for it is then that we rely on our values. Values are therefore the primary lynchpin of risk management.

But just like the values we hold dear, risk is not about the present. It is about the future. It is about our behaviour in the face of future danger.

The question is not whether we want to die or suffer from these potential dangers. Of course we don’t: we want to live! The question is rather how we want to live, what living in society should mean, what values we should advocate for, which principles should guide us in the most difficult, burdensome times, in times of danger and insecurity?

Created in 2007, the Axa Research Fund supports more than 500 projects worldwide led by researchers of 51 nationalities. For more information on J. Peter Burgess’ research, visit the [Axa Research Fund] website (

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word

This article was originally published in French

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