Adam McCauley: You were recently asked to give a public lecture on the causes of war, new and old. While you were careful to clarify the sheer number of potential causes of conflict, which ones worry you most today?
Prof Sir Adam Roberts: It is easy to point to a bewildering number of potential causes of war, and one has to be very careful before drawing any conclusions. However, the tendency in the field of international war has been a steadily downward trend, at least in terms of interstate conflict. There have been far fewer international wars since 1945 than in most earlier periods. However, the thing that worries me is our short-term and impulsive political thinking about crisis and war – in a way that lacks real consistency. This trend is driven by the need for instant solutions even when the problems are long-standing, and, by their nature, extremely difficult.
Does part of this concern stem from the rise of populism and anti-intellectualism in the West? And if so, where might we find a solution to these problems?
Democracy has always involved the possibility, and actuality, of populist policies or ideas dominating the majority, and our current brand of anti-intellectualism is perhaps natural given a historic suspicion of “aristocracies” claiming superior knowledge of the world. Especially when the existing aristocracy has, to some extent, failed. I persist in thinking that the US involvement, unsuccessful as it was, in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, and one could go on, were all liberal wars. At their heart, the decision to act relied on a belief that history's arrow pointed in the direction of liberal democracy. Populism gains strength by highlighting these recurring failures of the policymaking elite. I think it’s the job of academics to show an ability to assess, soberly, and without any superiority, why this populist revolt has occurred, and also to recognise that some traditional liberal approaches to international problems may need to be rethought.
What has been the most meaningful shift in the way we study or think about conflict?
The most important shift has been the abandonment with the obsession of the East/West confrontation as being the major cleavage or conflict, to which all other topics were, at one point, subordinate. This framing of international relations was fairly widespread and led scholars to interpret every Left Wing or Communist revolt as part of a Soviet masterplan. That was never a good way of approaching international relations. Freed from this perspective, the last generation of scholarship has explored the local sources of conflict and engaged in better understanding of the distinct cultures and histories involved. I personally think that that change has been more important than some of the changes in IR theories.
Some of your more recent work tackles the topic of terrorism. What are your key insights about how this security challenge is, or ought to be, studied?
In an article about the directions of future research, I suggested there is merit in considering terrorism as a form of action rather than as a type of movement. This distinction matters, given that many movements that have been labelled “terrorist” have offered a great deal of other things. The clearest example was the African National Congress which, quite shockingly in my view, was claimed to be a terrorist organisation by both the US and UK governments.
This is easier said than done, of course. If you adopted this approach these days, you could be classified as someone who is ‘soft on terrorism’ but I think a more discriminating approach to terrorism has some clear policy advantages. Indeed, in Northern Ireland, the British government declared its aim was to reduce the number of terrorist incidents to a minimum, rather than eliminating terrorist actions entirely. The advantage of setting expectations according to a reduction instead of eradication of terrorist attacks, alone, means those attacks look less like terrorist successes.
What is one major assumption in the study of war that has been proven false during your career?
One theory or theoretical approach that has consistently been proven wrong has been the idea, held by certain Realists, that power tends to grow. Stated simply, the theory claimed that units, in this case states, wielding power would progressively get bigger. This is particularly clear in Morgenthau's book, Politics Among Nations. But then we had decolonisation that has increased the number of states to the present 190 plus. The international system has gone through the process of fission, not fusion. As a result, it is quite interesting to read through subsequent editions of Morgenthau’s book, as editors try and explain these competing or conflicting trends. It is a bit like astronomers trying to justify the Ptolemaic system with ever more complicated theories and diagrams because they couldn't bear the beautiful simplicity of the Copernican system.
What guidance would you offer young scholars?
Don’t be afraid to take risks. One of the things that worries me about our research culture is our requirements to prove that research is entirely safe, and if you're dealing with international relations you are necessarily dealing with situations that are, by definition, difficult and dangerous. And our academic culture of safety can, at times, go too far. It will always be more important to teach people how to handle dangerous situations safely, than to try and persuade them not to go.
Adam Roberts is Senior Research Fellow, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, and Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College.