The Voices of War

70. Dr. Alexander Bellamy - R2P, Just War And Prospects Of World Peace - Part 1

VOW 70 | R2P


Today, I spoke with Dr. Alex Bellamy, who is a professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland.

He is the author of numerous books, including ‘World Peace And How We Can Achieve It’, which was the basis for our discussion today. However, as you’ll hear, we covered many topics, including:

  • Outline of Responsibility To Protect (R2P)
  • Origins of the World Peace movements
  • Similarities of the extreme left and extreme right
  • Individual rights as a bulwark to collective violence
  • Importance of ideology and narrative in motivating wars
  • The paradox of nationhood – internal coherence at the cost of external differentiation
  • Galvanising of identity when under threat
  • Internal contest for the American identity

Some of the topics we cover in Part 2, coming out on the 20th of October, are as follows:

  • Are humans wired for violence?
  • How states can actively reduce the likelihood of war
  • Clash of ‘Helsinki’ vs ‘Yalta’ visions
  • The paradox of US hegemony
  • The UN as a global project
  • Discussion on Interests vs Values
  • Military Industrial Complex and acquisition of arms
  • The role of International Humanitarian Law
  • Implementing laws we already have to achieve Peace
  • Rivalry between competing visions on how the world should be organised


If you like what you’ve heard, please consider liking and reviewing the show wherever you get your pods. You can also support the show on our Patreon page here.

Listen to the podcast here


Dr. Alexander Bellamy – R2P, Just War And Prospects Of World Peace – Part 1

Welcome to part one of my conversation with Alex Bellamy. As you’ll read, this was a five ranging conversation covering topics such as R2P, origins of the World Peace Movement, similarities between the extreme left and extreme right, a discussion on the importance of individual rights as a protective mechanism against collective violence, and the importance of ideology and narratives in motivating wars.

Also, the paradox of nationhood where internal coherence often comes at the cost of external differentiation, galvanising of identity when under threat, and a discussion on the ongoing internal contest for the American identity. Part two of this interview will be released on October 20. Finally, if you’re getting value out of the show, please consider becoming a patron of the show at Thank you.

My guest is Dr.Alex Bellamy who is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, and Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility To Protect at the University of Queensland. Before moving to Australia, Alex was a lecturer in Defence Studies for King’s College London at the UK’s Joint Services Command and Staff College. Anyone who has come across Alex and his work knows that he is a prolific writer on various aspects of peace and war.

He has published numerous books and I’ve had the pleasure of reading two of them. The first one I came across a few years ago was titled Just Wars: From Cicero To Iraq, and the other was titled World Peace and How We Can Achieve It, which I just finished and is the focus of our discussion, Syria Betrayed: Atrocities, War, And The Failure Of International Diplomacy and is writing War Manga: Vladimir Putin’s Imperial Wars, which will be published in 2023. Given the breadth of Alex’s expertise, it’s a real pleasure to host him on the show. Alex, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

You are a prolific writer. I don’t know how and where you find the time, especially in your professorship and supervisory duties. Congratulations. It’s incredible.

Thank you. Basically, all the content is the same. It’s just the title is the difference.

I’ve read two of your books. I can challenge that straight away, but I do appreciate the humility. Before we start unpacking some of the density of peace and war, which you are familiar with, how did you end up in this area? What drove your move into researching peace and war?

It begins back in the 1980s. I grew up in a small former mining village in South Yorkshire. Back then, the cheapest place you could go on summer holiday was called Yugoslavia. I absolutely fell in love with the place. All of my undergrad essays, when I did international relations at uni, had some spin on Yugoslavia. My PhD was on Croatian Nationalism.

My first book was on Kosovo whilst I’m at the Joint Services College there. I spent a bit of time with KFOR working on Serbian relations in Kosovo, the basic disarming KLA, and that sort of thing. I was building houses and new security architecture in Kosovo in the first couple of years of KFOR. Randomly, I applied for a job in Australia. Back in the days before Zoom, it wasn’t possible to keep up that level of work in Southeast Europe from Australia. I had to widen it out. I took the issues, problems, and ideas to inform the work from Yugoslavia and expanded that out peacekeeping ethics of war then eventually R2P.

R2P has been the mainstay of our work for many years. I started off with being an R2P sceptic when the commission first reported, I thought, “This will never get anywhere, will it?” and then it did. We got the consensus of the UN and it took off. In the many years, we spent working on that but it all starts on holidays.

What piqued my interest there was Croatian nationalism. I find that fascinating because that rearing its ugly head as we speak in Bosnia, and I’m not sure if you’re tracking or following what’s been happening with the office of the higher representative. There have been some challenging issues in Bosnia that is certainly been fuelled at the very least by some Croatian nationalists, which is a fascinating topic, but as far as R2P, is it a coincidence that you arrived, pushed the R2P issue, and then Australia, funnily enough, one of the brilliant proponents, or has been if I’m correct of R2P. I would think that you might have had something to do with that.

It’s partly a coincidence and party it’s me jumping on the bandwagon. The original commission that came up with the idea of R2P was co-chaired by Gareth Evans, the Foreign Minister. Australia was at the entry point. The centre that I run spans out of ideas that Gareth had about creating a global network of centres. He set up one in New York, which is our partner institution. I was bandwagoning on Gareth, but it’s been telling that governments have both stripes and have backed R2P at our centre equally. Gareth succeeded in making it a nonpartisan issue. Australia’s commitment has been fairly strong to R2P. Governments have both stripes have been among the leaders of R2P in New York.

Australia's commitment to R2P has been fairly strong. Share on X

I don’t want to get too bogged down yet on R2P, but a potted version for those who are unfamiliar with the responsibility to protect, so they can actually contextualise what we’re actually talking about here. Maybe you can give us a nutshell of what R2P is.

R2P comes out of those failures of humanitarianism in the 1990s. It has two sets of problems. One, we might call the problem, which is where you have genocide, but nobody wants to step in to stop it. That’s one problem. The other problem, we might call the problem of Kosovo, where you have ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities, but you have a divided UN Security Council. What do you do? Should states act unilaterally outside the council as NATO did in Kosovo?

For those interested, there’s a beautiful series of speeches that Kofi Annan, who was then the UN Secretary-General gave at the end of the decade. He basically challenged the international community. He said, “It can’t be the case that sovereignty can protect the perpetrators of genocide from outside intervention. We can’t have a world like that, but similarly, we can’t have a world where states or groups of states act outside the UN system and take their own license to intervene wherever they want. We have to find a way of reconciling these things.”

Canada paid for a commission study on this issue and that was the commission we’ve already talked about that was co-chaired by Gareth Evans and Algeria’s Mohamed Sahnoun. They came up with the idea of the responsibility to protect. Gareth tells the story of how the phrase popped into his mind one day in the shower. They had a fear of consultations. R2P became the framing phrase of response, which was to change the way we asked the question. It’s not a question primarily of the rights of interveners, but rather a question about how best to protect people from atrocity crimes.

Once you pose that question, you find firstly, there are lots of other things that can be done short of intervention to better protect people, but where those other things fail, you create a set of responsibilities that you try to nudge institutions like these security council to recognise that it has responsibilities and to take action. This idea was negotiated and agreed by the UN in 2005. Every single state in the world signed up to a vision of the responsibility to protect.

It is huge. That’s rare.

It’s worth bearing among every state signed up. It says three things. One, they say, “All states have a responsibility to protect their populations from atrocity crimes.” No ifs. No buts. We all have this responsibility. Secondly, we should all help each other to fulfil this responsibility. Sometimes atrocity has happen not because it’s the state that’s perpetrating it, but because the state is unable to protect its own population.

For example, UN Peacekeeping Missions with the protection of civilians’ mandates. They fall in this second pillar of R2P. They’re there to support the state and they’re there with the consent of the state. The third step, which is the controversial step, is where all states agreed that when those first two steps are manifesting in failing, the UN Security Council has a responsibility to take timely and decisive action, including the use of force, should it be deemed necessary.

We say that the third bit is controversial, but it’s important to stress that none of that is changing anything in the UN Charter. The powers that the UN Security Council has to authorise intervention existed since 1945. It’s there in Article 39 of the UN Charter. It’s always been there. It’s more a statement of commitment to implementing already existing laws through already existing institutions. The idea was that by finding stakes into this agreement, you could nudge them to more collective action, both pillars 1 and 2. It’s thinking about how to use peacekeeping, how you might use economic measures, and how you might support civilian architecture to protect populations, but also, thinking about pillar three and armed intervention when it’s necessary.

Having the moral courage to acknowledge when a wrong is being done and then take action without letting your politics get in the way.

It’s a core function of the UN Security Council. It’s not an added extra. It’s a function and that’s changed. In the 1990s, the Security Council was often tied up in debates about, “Mass Atrocities matters of international peace and security is something that happens in a single state. Is that really a concern of the Security Council?” As you know, the UN had a peace operation called the UN Protection Force. It wasn’t mandated to protect anyone. Going back to the ‘80s and ‘70s, the whole idea that the UN might intervene to stop genocide and Mass Atrocities was anathema. You were crazy if she suggested that’s what Security Council was for.

There are many links there that would love to unpack and not least one that comes to mind when I first spoke with Tony Ingesson from Lund University in Sweden, who did research on the subcultures and what drives the culture to stand up and protect. He talks about the NorBat or the Northern Battalion in Bosnia, where the colonel and not a highly senior officer, but it showed the institutional trust of the Swedish National military architecture to the person on the ground. He decided that if he is to fulfil the mandate of the UN Security Council minus the politics, then he needs tanks. He needs to be up-gunned.

He needs to be able to stand up and fight the perpetrators of, as we now know, genocide in Bosnia. They did that and have earned some great respect. Sweden, as a nation, has earned some great respect in Bosnia because of that because they took the R2P although this was before the actual concept of R2P. They took it to heart. There’s a moral imperative that we need to protect those who can’t protect themselves.

I was in Stockholm a couple of years ago talking about Sweden people in Maley. It’s something similar. They’d been ordered to retreat from an area that was under attack. They decided not to retreat and to stand their ground. As a result, the village that they were deployed in wasn’t attacked, but because the local commander disobey orders, he was subject to UN and national inquiry as to why he’d done that. It goes to that question of moral courage that raises, and also his interpretation of the mandate. If the mandate says, “Use all necessary means to protect civilians,” in a plain English version of what that means.

I find it ironic that it’s Sweden, which hasn’t had a war for hundreds of years and is known as neutral, but it’s setting the standard of what apolitical and neutral really mean. That’s the irony of the UN. You can’t send peacekeepers into a war zone without the teeth to enforce peace. If I’m now guessing toward the book World Peace, we have to link your passion for R2P and world peace because the book is emerging post your R2P work. What’s the link? How do you link R2P to world peace and this book?

VOW 70 | R2P
World Peace And How We Can Achieve It

There’s a funny little personal story about that. The day of the Brussels bombing. I was in Brussels as a consultant for the UN to give a report to the EU on basically the protection of civilians from non-state armed groups. On that day, for reasons entirely unrelated to ISIS, I ended up in a Brussels hospital and spent a week there. A dear friend in Switzerland came and bought me a home in Switzerland for a couple of weeks before I made it back to Australia. That three weeks of sitting on my back and limited reading options, I’m thinking about the fact that when you work the world of R2P, you’re really in the world of Band-Aids unless you think more broadly about the underlying causes of war and atrocities.

We’re forever going to be in crisis response mode and a home in that state. When you work, like in your podcast, people who work in international humanitarian law and the humanitarian space. There’s always a crisis. Now the academic literature on humanitarianism has always started with the idea that there’s a crisis. It’s the nature of the beast.

This World Peace book came out of that experience of being forced to sit on my back for three weeks and realised that there are bigger sets of issues that we need to think about, debate, and discuss that we often don’t debate and discuss. Unless we think about those bigger issues, we’re never going to move from crisis response mode. That was the impetus for starting to think about world peace. The tagline for the book was, “Recovering world peace from the beauty pageants.” I’m trying to make something that is seriously studied, thought about, and debated.

I was going to ask you what the response has been to your book. Have you found that the response has been like that where people viewed the book as a naïve optimist dreaming of world peace?

Totally. Writing that book feels like you are working on that and saying, “World peace?” It’s like that moment at a cocktail party where you yourself are left alone.

Leave hippie over there.

There was quite a lot of that. That’s why in the book, I try to stress the point that I’m not making the argument that it’s likely much less than it’s inevitable. I’m not even arguing that we’re heading in the right direction. It’s simply that this is something that is possible and we know some of the things that can be done to make the world more peaceful. The more of those things that are done, the more peaceful it would become.

The other thing is that world peace isn’t a finished state. It’s not something you achieve and then you have it. It’s something that’s continually going to be worked and strive for and that you’re continually going to be facing challenges, but it’s in the striving that you achieve greater levels of peacefulness and lay foundations for future peacefulness as well. There is a lot of cynicism and scepticism, but I should also say that on the other side, the book hasn’t gone down equally badly on the traditional peace activist side because I’m trying in the book to make world peace more realistic.

World peace isn't a finished state. It's not something you achieve and then you have it. It's something that's continually going to be worked for and strived for. Share on X

On the peace activism side, there are certain assumptions that have actually inhibited peace movements in the past. One assumption is that war is a pathology and traditional. If you go in assuming that, firstly, you’re misunderstanding war. Secondly, because of that, you are not going to come up with ways of addressing why wars happen, managing wars, and limiting wars. Also in peace activism, there are certain difficult canons. For example, peace activists are ideologically opposed to the idea of nuclear weapons and there are good reasons why you would be ideologically opposed to nuclear weapons. From that, you build assumptions that say nuclear deterrents fail. Those assumptions are patently untrue.

We’re seeing them play out.

Steven Pinker who wrote this book on the decline of war argued that Ukraine shows that nuclear deterrence doesn’t work. Actually, Ukraine shows the precise opposite. Ukraine wasn’t able to deter Russia so it got invaded. Meanwhile, Russia is able to deter NATO so NATO can’t engage directly. Whatever else we might say about nuclear weapons, there’s obviously all the sizes are well-known. We can’t say categorically that nuclear deterrence doesn’t sometimes work because it does.

VOW 70 | R2P
R2P: We can’t say categorically that nuclear deterrence doesn’t work because sometimes it does.


We’re seeing that it does. As close as we came to the nuclear Holocaust during the Cold War, that’s the name. It never went into the hot stage. There’s something that resonates with me as you’re talking. In my head, what I see is that there is a recipe for war or there are conditions that will make war more likely. We know this through decades of research. We know that conflict rises when inequality rises. We know when people’s livelihoods are threatened that the chances of some instance of conflict will occur.

We know even when the temperature is hot that there’s a greater likelihood of conflict. if I’m reading your book right, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to turn the other side of the same coin. That is for peace, there are also conditions that will give a greater likelihood of peace to emerge, return or be sustained. That’s how I took the book, which is why it speaks to me. I’m a free-will sceptic, which we don’t need to get into the idea of free will or determinism because neither really matters. What’s important is realising that we exist in an environment and we respond to that environment based on the stimuli that we receive.

If we are creating the right frameworks for us to engage with the other, whoever the other might be, in a more peaceful, more cohesive way, then we are therefore reducing the chances of any misunderstandings and conflict. One place where I do want to start or get to now is the fact that this is nothing new. We have this resistance to the idea of world peace. In world piece, there’s a giant history of peace movements. In a nutshell, can you give us a broad overview of the extent to which the peace movement has gotten and then perhaps why it fell off into the hippie movement and the idealists?

Your sense of the book is right. The way I explain it simply would be to say there’s a body of literature that links the Civil War in Syria to the droughts that occurred in Syria in the years leading up to it. It says drought creates all sorts of issues that lead to civil war. The problem with that is precisely the same external stimulus or drought in, let’s say, Queensland, does not have the same effect. It creates problems, but those problems are managed. What is the difference? What is going on in Queensland that means exactly the same meteorological event doesn’t produce the same outcomes? That’s why you get into governance, democracy, human rights, economic well-being, and justice, all of that.

If we can unpack what’s going on, what are the sorts of things stable stakes do but other stakes don’t do and do more of that, then we’re onto something. A few years ago, I supervised a PhD student who asked exactly that question. What he did was to compare three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that were neighbouring countries that had very similar backgrounds in terms of colonial backgrounds and ethnic mixes but then had very different trajectories post-independence.

For example, looking at Botswana. Why is it that Botswana didn’t go down the same path as many of its neighbours? What was going on there? I’m trying to learn from that. You take exactly what I’m trying to do in the book, which is trying to unpack what makes certain states and societies more peaceful than some of the paradoxes that come with that.

To touch on that, why is it a country like Sweden that hasn’t had a war for hundreds of years that’s willing to stand up for R2P go into fight? There has to be a reason. In the evolution of this nation, the Imagined Community we call Sweden is by Benedict Anderson. It’s an incredible book. There has to be a reason in the evolution of that country why Sweden is the one that’s standing up for R2P.

What’s interesting about Sweden is that they weren’t always like this. Sweden was once an aggressive imperialist, which again goes to another key theme of the book, which is an immense capacity for change. Japan managed that change in one generation. We have this capacity for change and adaptation. The irony of the global peace movement is that it reached its greatest pinnacle at the very moment of its greatest catastrophe, which is 1914.

VOW 70 | R2P
R2P: The irony of the global peace movement is that it reached its greatest pinnacle at the very moment of its greatest catastrophe, which is 1914.


In 1914, literally millions of Europeans are members of peace societies, attending meetings, attending international conferences and developing all sorts of schemes for world peace. It is seen as something that is fundamental. You have different sorts of peace movements. You have a Christian-based movement, nonconformists, the Marxists and the whole idea of the Marxist International. It’s the lesson of the Marxist where you’ve got the greatest shock in 1914 because it marks the craziest statement that the world unites. There’s an assumption as the world hurdles to catastrophe, the workers will realise their common solidarity and will reject the impulse to war because it was what happens after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

It is in the Balkans in Syria, my birth city. I’m not saying there’s a pattern here.

We talk about these immense structural features or this huge collision of power, yet had Arch Franz Ferdinand’s driver not reversed down the wrong road in Sarajevo, the whole of human history would’ve changed. It’s remarkable. What happens after that is that the workers of the world don’t unite. They rally behind their nations. It turns out that nationalism has a greater pull on them than does Marxist Solidarity.

You have all of these peace movements. They do the same thing. What’s striking is how quick and rapid it is. It isn’t even much debated. As we look back and now we tend to call it war fever when we think of the war is going over by December. That’s not actually what happened. In fact, very few people thought the war was going to be over by December. Most people who thought about the war at all was going to be a massive struggle.

Come back to where we started about Just Wars, people on both sides believe that it was a just necessary water fight, but you had this collective impulse. Sigmund Freud had to go back and start redoing some of his theories because he was like, “How did I get caught up in this? I thought I was a rational, sensible person and there suddenly, I was waving the Austrian flag and go, ‘Yes, let’s go and crush Serbia?’”

When he looked back at it, he was like, “What was going on there?” You had this destruction of the global peace movement at ironically, the moment of its greatest power. Now it comes back slightly after the First World War in the form of national movements in support of the League of Nations. In Britain, you have this national subscription and a national plebiscite that shows huge support for the League of Nations.

As the leagues creep and fail, that support ebbed away and then into the Cold War, the peace movement then moves into the anti-nuclear movement and pro disarmament. It has an uncomfortable relationship with the Soviet Union. Let’s be frank. Parts of the left of the peace movement had a significant blind spot when it came to Stalin, for example, and it still does. If you look now at the so-called anti-war movement, a lot of it is pro-Mr. Putin’s wars and anti were opposed. There’s an ideological blind spot there.

It is funny if I can take your view on this. The far left and the far right are close together in some of these views. As you’re saying about Mr. Putin’s war, there’s this idea in the far-right circles that what he’s doing is protecting his people and country. He is standing up against the aggression of the establishment and the global empire. We’re hearing the same on the far left.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Massacres and Morality. I was trying to trace the principle of civilian immunity in practice. One of the big anti-immunity ideologies, I call an ideology of selective extermination, which basically says that some people are not fully right-bearing people to say it’s okay to exterminate them. What’s interesting is both communists and fascists in explaining their selective extermination, they use precisely the same logic of the argument.

VOW 70 | R2P
Massacres and Morality: Mass Atrocities in an Age of Civilian Immunity

There are certain groups of people, either by the membership of a particular class in Ukrainian or members of a particular ethnic national group like the Jews don’t have the same rights as the rest of us. Exterminating them is not as bad as it would be to exterminate Russians or Germans, for example. Although the surface laws of their arguments look different because they’re picking on different groups, the actual moral logic of what they’re saying is almost identical.

It’s motivated by the same, which is fascinating. This talks about the power of narrative and identity to deeply embody beliefs that if you were pulled out of that social group, slapped around a little bit and went, “Do you realise what you’re saying? Let’s look at what your narrative looks like from this angle.”

Most of us would hit a cognitive bumper that would maybe make us ask questions. Whilst we’re inside this fever, and I asked you the question about ideology in some of the questions I sent to you before, which I’ll get to in a second, it strikes me as it’s almost like a glue between people but also gives you internal coherence as to how you view the world, which then comes to this idea of nationalism.

You made a point that nationalism, when we were talking about World War I, it overrode the leaps and bounds humanity had made in embracing the idea of world peace. How does this happen? Why does it happen? Even in the book you talk about its evolutionary significance. Maybe if you can weave those. I know it’s been a little bit incoherent here, but over to you, Professor.

This is why the idea of individual rights is important. As soon as you move away from the idea of individual rights as a cornerstone for political ideology and particularly in the context of war, you put yourself on a conveyor belt that leads towards things like collective responsibility and violence. That’s where individual rights is significant. One of the struggles that we have in late modernity is that the foundations of rights are being called into question. One of the horrible long history lessons is the Christian Revolution achieved the idea of saying, “In the eyes of God, everyone is equal.” To a Greek or Roman, that sounded absolutely nuts. They’re not equal, but that was the Christian Revolution.

As soon as you move away from the idea of individual rights as a cornerstone for political ideology, you put yourself on a conveyor belt that leads towards collective responsibility and violence. Share on X

You had a basis there for individual rights because, in the eyes of God, everyone is equal. Once we moved to, “After this, I killed God,” because, in the law, he is right to confirm. The US Declaration of Independence says, “These are inalienable and unquestioning,” which tells you probably neither of those things.

As they are increasingly challenged, you open the door to collectivism and collective violence. That way leads to things like, “Sometimes you have to torture and kill some people in order to achieve a higher goal.” That’s why I think rights is fundamental. I’m much more vulnerable than we think they are unless we make better arguments for rights and centre rights. We’re in real danger.

I never thought about it to that depth, but now that you say it, it’s a slippery slope. If you ever slightly go, “Well, maybe, just,” it’s the gateway drug to the opium of the people which will be then the nationalism and any kind of ideology. I’ve never thought about it that way, but it makes sense.

Coming back to thinking about ideology when you talk about that horseshoe. If you think of post-1989, why so many former communists become nationalists? It is because they’re much more similar than communism and liberalism. They’re both collective. The group is more important than the individual. You have a set of structural similarities between communism and nationalism than you do between communism and liberalism.

That turns the whole relationship on its head and says, “There are certain things that the state can’t do. Individuals are free to choose their own identities. Maybe individuals have multiple identities, and the salience of those identities will be different in different sorts of situations.” Whereas communism wants to narrow everything down to class, nationalism wants to narrow everything down to a nation.

That’s a penny-drop moment for me when I think about former Yugoslavia and what’s happened in the post-communist and a socialist Yugoslavia in the emergence replacing Tito. The very same players that were surrounding Tito couldn’t do what Tito did. In other words, they couldn’t unite a nation of disparate identities, but they still had been programmed in the same mannerism, behaviour, and habits as to how a society or social group should function.

The only thing that remained for them is the idea of nation and nationalism or ethnicity, which was very close in fully world. In the Balkans, ethnicity and nationality are closely intertwined. That’s one of the underlying causes in many ways for the conflict. That’s a penny-drop moment for me. That links the cognitive leap between communists and nationalists.

Two things. It locates the individual as part of a bigger hole. That gives individuals a sense of purpose that is above and beyond themselves. It also ties them to a past and a future. It links them to an often imagined past. They think of Vladimir Putin invoking the Kiev and Rus. There are about thousands of years of gap between Keiv and Rus collapsing, and Russian nationalists going, “I think we’re the inheritors,” as if nothing had happened much in the thousands of years in between. Let’s say you have that link to an imagined past, but also a link to a future and to some project that’s bigger than oneself. This attaches to war because one of the things that some of the literature gets wrong about war is when we associate war with human aggression.

They say, “War is a product of human aggression.” War is not primarily about human aggression. An army full of individually aggressive people who are pursuing their own self-interests through aggression is not a very coherent army. In fact, you’re going to struggle to get anyone to volunteer to fight in the army at all if they are driven by their immediate self-interest and aggression. War is a highly cooperative undertaking. It involves people volunteering to sacrifice their own immediate self-interest in order for some greater good.

War is a highly cooperative undertaking. It involves people volunteering to sacrifice their own immediate self-interest in order for some greater good. Share on X

Sometimes there might be mysteries that greater good is going to be a monetary payoff, but you can’t mobilise mass armies. They can do quite well but they’re already starting to strip the barrel of what they can mobilise through to cancel it. You need some bigger idea that will persuade people that what they’re sacrificing themselves for is the greater good and the good of others.

This is where in the Western world, you can also link back to a Christian ethic, the idea that our ethics is not just about us and our own excellence but our relationship and care for others. You find other traditions that say the same thing, but in the Western world, whether you buy the theology or not, you can’t miss the power of the morality underpinning that central move.

Nationalism ties people together that way. It has also a relationship to a state that a state is often promoting those big virtues as well. One thing about the book is that this creates a paradox because this combination on the one hand solves the problem of internal violence. If we do the Thomas Hobbes move and go, “What would life be like without a state?” “It’d be nasty, brutish and short because we’d all be struggling for our own security and we’d all have to use force preventively on our neighbours to stop them from doing the same to us.”

How do we get out of that problem? We have a state that has a monopoly on coercive power. We all agree to submit ourselves to the state. What we can add to Hobbes’ Leviathan is that a state that relies on coercion alone is not going to be very efficient and effective. It’s going to spend most of its resources coercing. It’s better if people voluntarily follow the state so you get legitimation. That can be through nationalism. It is one of the more powerful sources of legitimacy. We follow the law, not only because we think the state will punish us if we don’t, but because we think it’s the right thing to do because we’re part of a community of people that have similar values and aspirations and want the same thing.

We perform certain rituals together at the same time. That binds us together and that solves the problem of day-to-day violence. As of result, the rise of the modern states is associated with a sharp decline in everyday violence, and we still have. Intimate partner violence is still a big issue, but we don’t have the daily things down the road. You’re not likely to have your house invaded tonight or burnt down. If it does, it’s a strong likelihood that the perpetrators will be caught and punished. Now the flip side of that is that those groups that are the most successful acquire identities and senses of common purpose that are strong but they’re also very different to those of the neighbouring communities.

In solving one problem, you create another problem, which is that you end up with neighbouring groups with different languages, sets of moral values, sets of perceived interests, and senses of their own history and future destiny. Therein, you build a causal logic for war. War is not just about the clash of material interests. Some are about material interests, particularly in the past whether you controlled a particular cornfield determined whether you’re going to start the next winter or not.

Most wars nowadays are not like that. What you have is clashes of values, identity, and destiny. If you look at Ukraine, this is the war about Russian identity? Russia is a country that has always been, to some extent, imperial. Way back to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, Russia has been uncertain about what Russia means and it’s always had a quasi-imperial view. Oddly, its sense of its own identity is connected to a foreign country, Ukraine. How many capital cities have a statue to a saint associated with another capital city in their central square?

VOW 70 | R2P
R2P: War is not just about the clash of material interests. Most wars nowadays are clashes of values, identity and destiny.


Historically, the attention that’s being lived out as we speak.

That’s the core paradox of the nation and the state. In solving one problem, it creates another. It’s also why projects like the European Union as boring as the European Union these days. It’s an immense revolution because what the European Union is trying to do is resolve that international problem. Not by doing what Tito did in subjugating national identities to some other identity that no one quite buys into. Whether you were trying to do that, it’s failed utterly but by bringing them together into a new shared destiny and identity.

It’s a shared identity that sits above the local individual, tribal, whatever it might be to the cantonal, national, regional and then to European in many ways. If I understand what you’re saying correctly, the idea of a state has solved this problem of the other in my immediate neighbourhood. If I take an island nation like Australia, whatever it means to be Australian or Australia, it’s captured on this island. It creates a level of certainty with those that I’m dealing with because we all have the same passport and broadly speaking, share the same values, etc. The problem is that because of that increased national identity of Australia, it’s created a bigger gap between Australia and now a new other, whoever that other might be.

Therefore, it makes it much easier and much more palatable to attack the other to protect this new identity that has developed. There’s a question here as well that springs to mind. Given that the experiment nations like the US, Australia, and Canada, Australia is 23% foreign-born. The US is not far off that or it’s around there. They’re often referred to as social experiments of bringing multiculturalism into one place and blending it into a new national identity. Particularly in the US case, is there any link between forging and building a national US identity with its almost aggressive stance towards the world and militarisation?

This is a question that popped up into my mind as you were talking. It’s an unprepared question. Do you see where I’m getting at? Because of this tension that you’re describing, creating us here versus them over there, the moment my identity is threatened strengthens. We’re seeing this in Ukraine. If the Ukrainian identity has been threatened and it’s galvanised, it’s reacted with an equal and opposite reaction to the Russian invasion. Any thoughts if you have on this broad?

On Ukraine, the key outcome of the war, whatever happens, is that Putin has achieved a very thing he didn’t want to achieve, which is a strong sense of Ukrainian shared identity forged in war, which is decidedly not Russian. That was the thing he was hoping to avoid. For Australian readers, the way I’ve thought about it is that this is Ukraine’s Gallipoli moment, but a million times more intense because they’re not fighting on some distant shore. They’re fighting on their own lands. They’re not fighting an unknown enemy. They’re fighting a neighbour. It’s also not just a small section of society. Luckily, it’s a small number of Australians who are directly involved. This is all Ukraine. This is a whole society phenomenon.

You’re seeing a galvanisation of the Ukrainian nation and also a resolution to tensions. It’s questions in Ukrainian politics about, “What it means to be Ukrainian? Is it a Eurasian or a Western identity? Are we looking back to history or looking forward?” All of those things, whatever missile that Russia fires at Ukraine, it’s helping to resolve those very questions.

A war often tends to have clarifying effects. I’ll go all the way back to my PhD on Croatian Nationalism. One of the things that I found was that sentiment in Croatia about the vision of nationalism that the government was selling was very much influenced by your proximity to the war. Obviously, it hurts the government crimes and their own species. Those within Mainland Croatia, let’s call it, who were directly impacted by the war were much more likely to buy into the government’s narrative than those say Therians for example, who never more than a third of historians bought into what Jewish man was selling. There was always a huge degree of scepticism.

It’s funny you say that history is the only one that’s voting central parties and it’s the only one that still has Tito’s street names. It still has partisan monuments. It’s very cosmopolitan in its approach to the world.

It shows how ideas and things relate. If a narrative of this other constitutes a threat, if it turns out that the other actually does constitute a threat, if shells are landing down the road, then you’re going to buy into it. You’re going to do it because you believe it, but also because in your search for security, you will rally behind those offering security to you. You are more likely to buy into it. I am absolutely no expert on the US at all. It wraps the ideology of manifest destiny. This idea that America itself is a providential state bestowed by benevolent God to achieve great things in the world. There’s a dark side as there is to most state-building projects, but very clear in Australia and in the US, which is of course the extermination of indigenous peoples.

That was driven by manifest destiny. It must be that we are legitimate in doing this and you’ve got wrapped in as well with ancient ideas about providential war. It is something that I always tell my students about. I think of providential war as something that was thousands of years ago. It’s the idea that a decision on the battlefield tells you it’s God’s will, “If you win, then you must be right because if you weren’t right, you would’ve lost.” It is still very powerful. It’s there. You see it in the US Westward expansion and you see it in the sense of American exceptionalism. This idea that America is different from other countries is not just because of its material power but because of its confidential role. In fact, it has material power because of its confidential role.

The idea of providential war is still very powerful. You see it in the US westward expansion and you see it in the sense of American exceptionalism. Share on X

You have this sense of American power. The flip side there, it’s easy in the conversation to overgeneralise. It’s important to stress that this is always contested. The other thing about the US is it’s also a great experiment in democracy. It’s an experiment to which Europeans and others would look at how it exists.

One of my favourite political theory books is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey to America. It’s trying to understand what this thing called democracy. Is it going to take off? Is this something we could do in France? That means that all of these things have always been contested. In US politics, you have got this great contest between increasingly bizarre republicanism and a sense of extremist protestantism but on the other hand, you’ve got the other America, which is the America of Black Lives Matter, Barrack Obama, and Joe Biden. That’s a very different vision of what America’s place in the world should be.


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