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Privatised Risks, Omnipresent Dangers

By Elke Krahmann

The Western world has become obsessed with security risks, and one of the main beneficiaries are private companies that promise to protect us from “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns”, as former U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld famously put it.

(Note: this text is an edited compilation of Professor Elke Krahmann’s answers to questions by the Green European Journal.)

In the early 1990s the end of the Cold War, globalisation, and a changing political discourse led to a shift in our perception of security threats and an inclination towards risk management.

People in the West were no longer focused on what the Soviet Union would do or on other threats to their national borders. Instead, they started looking at broader issues. The state took a back seat, while the protection of people as well as a range of new issues from the social, economic, and even environmental realm found their way into the concept of security.

It is no coincidence that this shift occurred simultaneously with a growth in the private security sector that stretches from support for international interventions to public and private protection against numerous security risks. The first well-documented example of this trend was the Yugoslav War during the 1990s. In the wake of a serious conflict in Europe’s neighbourhood, Western European countries were hesitant to act militarily because they lacked the necessary capacities for an intervention abroad. Eventually, U.S. President Bill Clinton took the lead, but even the U.S. military could not carry out the intervention by simply relying on its own troops. Military contractors played an important role in supporting the logistics of the operation.

The company the U.S. relied on for these services was called Brown and Root. This firm continued to grow in the years that followed. It evolved into Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) and became for some years a subsidiary of Halliburton.

Outsourcing security

The trend of outsourcing military support functions to civilian contractors applies not only to international interventions. It started at the national level. In Germany, for example, military bases have been protected by private guards since the 1980s.

Military contracting is a long-established practice and only became publicly controversial when Western countries began to send contractors abroad to work in conflict zones. Today, international military and security companies support armed forces all over the world. Among the largest is the Constellis Group, comprising well-known private security companies, such as the infamous Academi (formerly known as Blackwater) and Triple Canopy. Both firms work primarily for the U.S. government, but there are many companies, including from Europe, that support a wider range of clients. These firms collaborate not only with states, but also with private businesses, such as extractive industries in Africa. Within the industry you find companies that provide protective services, such as the multinational G4S, logistic support companies, like the Dutch Supreme, and transport companies, like the German Xeless.

The use of contractors is frequently justified by the cost effectiveness of the measure, even though this aspect has been contested by experts, and has been disputed in recent interventions. In some cases, individual companies almost have a monopoly on the provision of certain services, facilitating fraud and abuse. The U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting thus reported that KBR, the single largest U.S. contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, had been charged for 32 cases of overbilling, bribery, and other violations. Nevertheless, it was impossible to end the contract because KBR was the sole provider of essential logistic services for these operations. Moreover, whenever the contractors have to employ their own security staff to protect them, the costs and rising insurance premiums are added to the bill.

In our societies, there is an increased emphasis on national differences. The idea that we can agree on global solutions and fight threats on a global level has failed.

The cost aspect is, of course, not the only rationale for military outsourcing. Civilian contractors can also be used by governments to circumvent troop limits imposed by Congress or national parliaments. In Iraq, for example, there was a clear restriction on the number of U.S. troops on the ground, but the size of the operation was almost doubled by the use of contractors.

A similar trend becomes visible, if we look at the use of drones: unmanned combat aircrafts deployed, among other uses, to kill enemy combatants in the Middle East. They help reduce the number of ground soldiers, but also make it necessary for the governments to rely on contractors as many technologies that militaries employ are so advanced that only the companies that produce them know how to use and maintain them. Often these technologies are purchased in package deals, comprising a weapon system as well as whole life-cycle support and management in the field.

The risk society

Closely linked to the broadening and privatisation of security, governments, international organisations, and businesses are increasingly turning to risk management. Risk is a pervasive concept that originates in the practices of the private sector. The underlying idea is that we can never know what the future will bring. There are always “unknown unknowns” – as former U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld put it, when referring to the nature of post-911 threats. And when it comes to unknown risks, it is impossible to address the root causes because they are also unknown. All we can do is to manage the consequences – send soldiers to the streets, intervene in a conflict, or rely on a wide range of counter-terrorism practices. Since there is always a risk that something might happen, there is always a demand to act. This benefits both the companies, who have the opportunity to sell something new, and the governments, who can demonstrate to their voters that they are responding to their fears (even if those fears are irrational). The management of refugee flows by protecting and increasingly closing Europe’s borders is one example. It illustrates how governments and private security companies, who have identified refugee management as a new market, focus on dealing with the results rather than the causes of conflicts and underdevelopment in the world.

Sociologist Ulrich Beck, who coined the term ‘risk society’, believed that our focus on risk, combined with the transnational nature of today’s threats, would lead to increased cosmopolitanism, i.e. the awareness that transnational risks can only be addressed through collective, global solutions. Instead, we see exactly the opposite: in our societies, there is an increased emphasis on national differences. The idea that we can agree on global solutions and fight threats on a global level has failed. There is a perception that multilateral policies and collective solutions cannot work.

Experience teaches us that we should abandon the idea that military interventions will lead to peace and security. Most peacekeeping and peace-making operations are merely risk management mechanisms.

According to sceptics, globalisation itself has benefited only a few people and some big companies, while most ordinary people suffer its consequences. We no longer believe that the Kyoto or Paris treaties can help us deal with climate change, nor do we trust in the European Union to help us feel more secure. Therefore, people turn to the nation state to protect them from global dangers.

The perception that states, communities, and individuals are exposed to diverse and different levels of risk, however, has led to the idea that individuals and communities should be given more responsibilities. This means that the state is retreating from part of its responsibility to provide security to all its citizens, and expects people, businesses, and local communities to adopt their own security strategies to protect themselves from various risks, such as floods or terrorist attacks. This individualisation of risk and the ‘responsibilisation’ of citizens for risk management is also a trend that companies are benefitting from, because now they can sell their services to everybody, one by one.

Addressing the causes

Today, Western countries spend more on peace-making and peacekeeping than on development, even though the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us that international interventions in regions that are not stable and democratic are unlikely to lead to sustainable solutions. War is returning to Afghanistan, ISIS is active in Iraq, and Libya is sliding into anarchy. It is very unlikely that U.S. and European leaders were aiming for these outcomes when they intervened.

Edward Luttwak has written an article titled Give War a Chance in which he argued that Western interventions and forced cease-fires are unable to solve conflicts as all they do is allow belligerent forces to reconstitute their forces. I tend to agree with his critique. In many conflicts where international interventions took place, the violence returned as soon as the foreign troops had gone. We should wait until the point at which the belligerents are willing to stop fighting without foreign military interventions. Even peacekeeping forces dispatched to police existing ceasefires, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Cyprus (the longest peacekeeping mission to date), have rarely led to lasting peace. Experience teaches us that we should abandon the idea that military interventions will lead to peace and security. Most peacekeeping and peace-making operations are merely risk management mechanisms. Instead we should focus on civilian solutions. This means addressing the causes of conflict before or after it breaks out.

In Europe, even the Green Party seems to be at odds with this idea. It has turned away from the pacifist discourse it used to follow in its early years. In Germany, for example, Joschka Fischer was one of the first politicians who supported an international military intervention during the Yugoslav war. In order to effectively address contemporary security issues, Greens need to return to the pacifist idea.

With the exception of some natural disasters, most of the security risks we face today – wars, terrorism, climate change – are man-made.

Pacifism is very unpopular these days, but maybe support for peace will return when people start to look out for their own interests. The global responsibility to protect is already becoming less accepted as people realise that the money spent on fighting wars could be better spent in many other areas. If we want to help other countries deal with their problems, we should support countries that are at peace by providing them with aid and support to strengthen their institutions. This can only be done effectively if it is in line with the ideas of these partner countries. Western countries and organisations cannot simply walk in and tell them what to do, they should provide help for self-help.

Security through engagement

Ulrich Beck argues that most of the time people create their own risks. With the exception of some natural disasters, most of the security risks we face today – wars, terrorism, climate change – are man-made. This is the reason why we need to include in our conception of security the question of relationships. By managing our relationships with the actors who we identify to be the sources of a threat, we can mediate risks, and we can even turn a perceived enemy into a partner. This is just as relevant when approaching Russia as it is when countering terrorism. The EU should take Russia’s fears about Western dominance seriously, and Western leaders should talk to Vladimir Putin to develop a vision of how Russia can be integrated into Europe, so that it does not feel alienated. This is the path Europe was taking during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, but it deteriorated due to policy changes on both sides.

The same applies to transnational terrorism and ISIS. Past examples show how important engagement is for resolving terrorist threats. In Ireland, peace was achieved through integrating the fighting factions into government. The same is happening now in Colombia, where a peace deal was struck with the Revolutionary Armed Forces, guaranteeing them seats in the parliament until 2026.

To eliminate security risks, we must look at the actors who are the sources. This applies to war and conflicts as much as to climate change. Only by recognising their grievances and interests, and through constructive engagement, can we move beyond risk management and achieve lasting and common security.

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Privatised Risks, Omnipresent Dangers

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