If 2014 provides a centennial occasion to reflect on the definitive conflict of world history, it might also be said to invite sharp contrast with the wars in which we find ourselves entangled today. The global war on terror has become a household name and a political phenomenon since the spectacular atrocities of 9/11, fuelling academic speculation and military spending in almost equal proportion. It’s not simply to avoid the somewhat painful irony of morbidly reciting Sassoon and Owen whilst continuing to drop bombs and fly drones over the Middle East that we find ourselves questioning its coherence; the ‘war against an abstract noun’ shows no signs of neat conclusion or tangible victory. ‘What now?’ is an urgent and difficult question which begs a response.
Saturday’s Foreign Affairs Conference, hosted by the Foreign Affairs Society, took this challenge as its theme and lined up an impressive array of speakers to offer their perspectives on the topic. In introducing the conference, Nicholas Rengger, head of the School of International Relations and professor of political theory at St Andrews, was careful to discourage social-scientific crystal-gazing; hubristic arrogance was to become a recurrent object of scorn as the day progressed. But, as conference participants were left in no doubt, 2014 provides an opportune moment, with troop withdrawals from Afghanistan balanced by unsettling regional horizons in the Middle East and Africa, to re-evaluate, re-appraise and re-apply conventional wisdom.
The continuities of conflict were perhaps driven home most by Christopher Coker, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. Echoing Clausewitz, Coker insisted that for all the talk of novelty and hermeneutical rupture, the battlefields of today admit an ‘unchanging essence’ of war beyond reach of even the most rapid technological advances. The strains of conflict in the age of the ‘strategic corporal’ have, however, moved militaries away from a traditional commitment to Aristotelian virtue ethics; information overload combined with the ‘dehumanising’ influences of computerised warfare have left traditional moral decision paths obsolete and unreachable. Such a thesis is certainly convincing – if a touch depressing – but Professor Coker only just kept hold of the reins on an otherwise fanciful intellectual flight. ‘Ethical robots’ may well be round the corner to fight tomorrow’s wars, but only if your understanding of ‘ethical’ is the non-conscious application of categorical imperatives (the latest realisation of this vision at MIT has worked on implanting Geneva Convention protocols in robotic technology). To use the slightly sharper formulation of Professor Rengger at the subsequent round table: ‘utopian nonsense’.
The challenges of finding the imaginative resources needed to reassess the war on terror were highlighted at the outset by Dr Sarah Marsden, a lecturer in terrorism at the CSTPV at St Andrews. Her exhaustive research has identified significantly different metrics of success and failure in western and Arab perspectives on the conflict, and suggested that cognitive dissonance in policymaking circles has often prevented singular gains from being transformed into a successful strategy. Unless we understand how the global war on terror is perceived, in radically different circumstances, by Arab cultures, we stand little chance of ‘winning hearts and minds’ or even simply avoiding the antagonism stoked on a daily basis in communities saturated with a profound suspicion of western integrity. In fact, Dr Marsden’s argument might have been pushed further. After all, the ‘war on terror’ itself arose as a discourse because of certain narrative possibilities. The great mistake of so many of those determined to combat global jihad in the west and elsewhere has been to assume control of political language, without stopping to ask why particular frames of reference seem to roll so easily off the tongue. To put it another way (as Dr Marsden acknowledged in comments following her presentation), Al-Qaeda pulled off the political trick to end all political tricks in goading the west into speaking of a ‘war on terror’ in the first place.
These and many other themes were pulled together in a fascinating round table discussion, chaired by the principal, Professor Louise Richardson, at the end of the afternoon. A familiar line of argument was certainly present: the war on terror has been marked by hubris and arrogance, framed by overreaction and excessive militarism, and layered over with often discomforting imperialistic goals. But this conference was nothing if not imaginative: counterfactuals were seriously explored on several occasions, and not a single speaker let themselves slip into anything like an unthinking or stale criticism of a very easily criticisable US administration. After each presentation, the audience responded enthusiastically with thoughtful and focussed questions which invariably encountered substantial and lengthy responses. This was, in other words, something more than a series of undergraduate lectures.
A final point should be self-evident: this could easily have been a scholarly colloquium. The fact that the entire day was planned, funded and managed by a student society is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The St Andrews Foreign Affairs Society deserves a resounding chorus of applause for bringing a highly polished event to fruition, engaging an excellent selection of speakers in a format which was comfortable, well-ordered and stimulating, and continuing to provide exposure to some of today’s most fascinating and pressing debates for those who, in only a matter of years, will have to contend with their outcomes in the world at large.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons