Shifting from Security to Risk in the New Geopolitical Reality

I have been doing a lot of thinking about risk lately. As I engage with leaders at various commercial and government organizations, I hear them talk about threats and vulnerabilities; about what they need to protect and from whom. What struck me recently, however, is that, despite all this discussion of risk, most organizations still have a Chief Security Officer, a Security Department, or something similar. Are organizations limiting their thinking when they simply refer to security?


We know that organizations tend to see security as a cost – not as an investment or even a revenue driver. As our focus centers more on risk in the geopolitical environment, we are wise to consider our lexicon and how it might constrain our perspective and possibilities. Words have power. Whether or not we understand the linguistic roots or cultural inflections of a word, we are nonetheless influenced by what it implies.


Chilean Sea Bass or Patagonian Toothfish?

At any high-end restaurant, you are likely to find Chilean Sea Bass on the menu. Expensive, you think, but probably delicious plated with roasted potatoes and broccoli. Would you like to try the Patagonian Toothfish? That does not sound nearly as appetizing. Truth told, both fish are the same – with one notable difference. The one we crave and pay high dollar for has a name that conjures finer images in our mind of flavor and experience. 


The point? Shakespeare was wrong. A rose by any other name would not smell as sweet. Names have power because they assign meaning. Which is why, as global contexts change, sometimes the names we use to function within them need to change too.


A History of War, Defense, and Risk

What does the Chilean Sea Bass / Patagonian Toothfish have to do with security, risk, and your organization? Too often, organizations allow titles, boxes, and bureaucracy to get in the way of real objectives. Changing a name can sometimes change a perspective; it can help to reflect the realities of a new world.  So let’s engage in a little thought experiment. 


Why not rename the Department of Defense to something more evocative of our current reality – namely, the Department of Risk?


Let’s consider the question by looking at how the Department arrived at its name in 1947. When the United States established the War Department in 1789, it encapsulated what nation-states did during that period: wage war. The National Security Act of 1947 created National Military Establishment; in 1949, an amendment to the Act consolidated the national defense structure, and the National Military Establishment became the Department of Defense. New technologies, lessons learned, and emerging geopolitical realities drove the transformation. We had shifted from a country that would wage war to that would focus on defending those things we value. The new title connoted an ability to defend, and it sent a message home and abroad – our citizens and our allies should feel safe in the knowledge that we will protect them against those would do them harm. Our national decisions were made based on the idea of defense – forward deployments and nuclear triads, all to deter aggression. We brought national resources to bear, but over the last 70 years, it has been the military that focused on our defense. The conflict was outside our borders.


A Case for your Department of Risk

Today, the U.S. is constantly balancing risk – making investments in one area and accepting risk in others to advance the overall strategic vision of the country. A Department of Risk would perhaps more clearly articulate what we want to protect and then bring all the tools in the national arsenal to bear in an integrated fashion to protect those things we value most.


Focusing on risk would allow us to put limited resources where we need them most. It also would help the people of our nation to understand that we have become accustomed to living in a world where we believe we are protected from threat. Essentially, renaming the department would remind the country of what is at stake and recognize that tradeoffs are required to protect us from risks of all kinds. (For example, unhealthy, overweight population that cannot fight is a risk to national security.)


Are you able to bring your senior leaders to the table to have difficult conversations about what you need to protect and where you can accept risk? Do you have honest conversations about investing in resilience as much as protection?


It is time to consider whether you are investing in a comprehensive risk approach for your organization or simply spending money on security.





About the Authors

Hans Davies

Hans Davies has been at Toffler Associates since 2007 and is a Director. His focus is helping organizations design imaginative futures that explore the nexus of humans and technology and their impact on security and protection. His specialties include security and resilience in the converging cyber and physical environments.  Before TA, he was an Analyst at SAIC supporting the Department of Defense Office of Treaty Compliance, focusing on reducing the danger and impact of Small Arms and Light Weapons, especially Landmines, across the globe. He earned a BA in History from Williams College and an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

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