19 Jun

War and Political Theory

Posted By polity_admin_user

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By Brian Orend

I’m happy to blog here about my latest book, War and Political Theory. I was excited to be asked by Polity to be one of the very first titles in their new series: “…and Political Theory.” The possibilities are quite endless, and I get to do the one on war and armed conflict. I’ve been writing about such subjects for over 20 years now, and it never ceases to amaze me how the subject never grows old: alas, human proclivities, and the sub-optimal structure of our world, make political violence a permanent, and ever-evolving, facet of the human experience.

This book tackles nearly every major issue related to contemporary warfare, and from a less argumentative and moralized perspective than my prior writings. The focus here is more on a satisfying synoptic perspective on war, from both descriptive- plus prescriptive viewpoints. The large opening chapter, e.g., is on “the ontology of war”, which is to say understanding political violence and how it’s changing, and who the major- and manifold actors are in wartime, as well examining the deep and provocative theories which strive to explain the most primordial and enduring causes of war. Tons of empirical examples abound throughout the entire book—indeed, I had to cut back on some! But my perspective, inspired by Michael Walzer for instance, is that you can’t ever have too many concrete examples when it comes to war: these are our case studies and “experiments”, which allow us ever-better knowledge about such an important subject. The goal is to contribute to both factual AND theoretical mastery of warfare.

The book then develops the contrasting Big Picture extreme perspectives of realism and pacifism, and develops them both with charity and care, and focusses on the cases which both doctrines—and all the sub-perspectives therein—most want to use and describe. The development of the extremes creates the space for the substantial, yet more complicated, middle ground, which is the overlap between just war theory and international law (more narrowly, the laws of armed conflict). Though the latter two are not exactly the same thing, they do share many of the same understandings regarding why war breaks out, and plausible ways of trying to both restrain it and judge it. Personally, I think the extended chapter on just post bellum is the best thing I’ve ever published on justice after war, perhaps the subject for which I’m best known. I go far beyond my prior theorizing and have deepened my knowledge of the relevant cases.

The final chapter was a blast to write, as I get to gaze into my crystal ball and think about the future of warfare. On the one hand, we’re already there, with drones, swarming mini-drones, robots and AI, “weaponized narratives”, ultra-surveillance and fake news and—above all—cyberwarfare in all its forms. Here, I both hook back into chapter 1 discussions about the essence of warfare (and whether, and how, these new forms count as such), as well as delve into detail about factual cases and implications for new forms of war, with a heavy emphasis on cyber. Yet the future is not all space-age super-tech: as I write, such tools as well as some of the very oldest (like siege warfare, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and using mass starvation as a tool of war), are being deployed in Syria, Yemen, sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps once more in Libya, as humanity confronts its inability to contain its atavistic drives towards dominance and blood-soaked subjection.

I think it’s fair to say that, compared to my prior work, the conclusion here is darker. But, as I’d want to say: that’s not me, it’s the world. Not one of perpetual peace, alas, but one more like that of constant conflict. In an era of rising tribalism, and fracturing internationalism, reflection on war and political theory is more apt than ever.

Brian Orend is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. His new book War and Political Theory is now available from Polity.