The Voices of War

71. Dr. Alexander Bellamy - R2P, Just War And Prospects Of World Peace - Part 2

VOW 71 | R2P


This is Part 2 of my discussion with Dr. Alex Bellamy, author of ‘World Peace And How We Can Achieve It’, which was the basis for our discussion. If you haven’t listened to Part 1 yet, I suggest you do that first, as some discussions in Part 2 might otherwise seem out of context. You can listen to Part 1 here.

Like in Part 1, we covered many topics, including:

  • 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 the laws we already have to achieve Peace
  • Rivalry between competing visions on how the world should be organised

During this chat, Alex and I discussed Samuel Moyn’s book, ‘Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.’ I previously spoke with Samuel about this book and its thesis. You can find that interview here.

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.

Dr. Alexander Bellamy – R2P, Just War And Prospects Of World Peace – Part 2

Welcome to part two of my conversation with Alex Bellamy. We’ll be picking up where we left off in part one. If you haven’t tuned in to that yet, I suggest you go back and do that first, as some discussions in part two might otherwise send me out of context. In this part, we’ll be exploring whether humans are wired for violence, how states can actively reduce the likelihood of war, the paradox of US hegemony, the perpetual tension between interests and values, the role of the military-industrial complex, and issues with the global arms trade, the role of IHL, implementing laws we already have to promote peace, as well as the ongoing rivalry between competing visions on how the world should be organised. Finally, if you’re getting value out of the show, please consider becoming a patron of The Voices of War at Thank you.

What all this comes down to is our need to group as an animal. Oftentimes, we forget that humans are merely animals. While we’re endowed with this powerful thing between our ears that gives us a voice and seemingly reason, war is an expression of our need to group, but it’s not inevitable.

This is something you talk about quite well. Despite all of this evolutionary pressure in many ways for our need to feel safe in our social groups to secure resources, food, water, and shelter, we are not necessarily biologically wired for violence. What are some of those arguments against the view that humans will always fight?

The critical argument against it is we have equally this capacity for cooperation. War is an outgrowth of not biological aggression but rather a capacity for cooperation. Participating in them all makes no sense from the point of view of pure biological aggression. How can we prove that we have this cooperative instinct?

If you can look at it historically, game theorists like to play called The Prisoner’s Dilemma, where it’s two people who’ve both been imprisoned on charges of robbing something. Basically, if you both cooperate, you can’t communicate with each other. If you both cooperate, you’ll be let off. If you stay silent, but the other person dubs you in, you’re going to get the worst outcome.

Whereas if you dub the other person in, you’ll get a light. What happens if you play the game is people dub each other in. Even though it’s rationally not in their best interest, they fear the defection of the other one more. Interestingly, it’s the same two people not looking at each other and keeping them in different rooms. If you play the same game over and over, what you find is that, over time, they learn to cooperate.

Even without communicating, just by reading the patterns of the outcomes, they learn. By the time they’ve done it 10,000 times, they’re cooperating every time. This shows us that the ability for social learning to learn the best, most optimal outcome is cooperation. Humans have both capacities in them, cooperation and aggression. There’s a very good biological reason why we have aggression.

Firstly is our common ancestors. We come equally from the aggressive chimps and the peace-making Bonobos but also learned in evolution. If adults don’t have an aggressive instinct, they wouldn’t protect their young from sabre-tooth cats, and their species wouldn’t survive. Our hardwiring has both this aggressive element and this cooperative element. Their intention with each other is not determined one way or the other.

Moving beyond that, we look at what political life looks like. Is it the case when we get into political communities, and it’s inevitably violent? If you pick up any history of the world, you’re going to have a depressing outcome. It’s going to become this war followed by that war. That’s how we structure our historical narrative. We structure it around the exciting stuff that happens. Kings leading armies into battle are more exciting than nothing very much happened this year.

If you fill in all the blanks, what you find is that there are far more years where wars don’t happen than where they do. You find huge time periods where war is rare. You can take different parts of the world for a time period, sometimes for hundreds of years. An example that I talk about in the book is Pax Romana. This beautiful paradox is that in the heyday of Pax Romana, Rome is constantly fighting wars on its borders.

VOW 71 | R2P
R2P: We structure our historical narrative around exciting stuff like wars. But if you fill in all the blanks, there are far more years where wars don’t happen than where they do.


If you live in a Roman province, if you live in Iberia or Italy, there are 200 to 300 years where you’re not going to experience war. It’s going to be good what happens over there, and you can find pockets of that through history, which suggests that you have this propensity that war isn’t always inevitable.

The flip side is that all of these things break down. The Phoenicians are a group that I like talking about a lot of these things. It is a civilisation in the most violent and bloody part of the world and the Middle East at one of the most violent and bloody times, but it never had an Army. Sure, they built ships for the Greeks, and they played off different empires, but they never had an Army, which is remarkable.

Even then, after a few hundred years, when Alexander arrived at the gates, the Phoenicians were unable, and that’s a fly in the ointment. That’s why you can’t go full hippie. For as long as there are those willing and able to use war, those that prefer a different path always have to prepare and think about war. They need to be prepared that sometimes war will be necessary to preserve the peace and deter the aggressors. Given that they’ve always been in those because war is contagious, that’s why thinking about peace also requires thinking about war in a fairly hard-headed way.

For as long as there are those willing and able to use war, those that prefer a different path always have to prepare and think about war. Click To Tweet

Without quoting too much, if you want peace, be prepared for war. I’m not exactly a huge fan of that quote because it does imply a lot more militarisation than you intend. It’s a fine line at which point you maintain a military for defensive purposes.

If you behave as if war is always going to be inevitable, it becomes inevitable because you’re acting and assuming, and you’re sending out signals. The crucial question is, how do groups of states and societies move from one to the other? It comes back to the European Union as a classic example. Look at the relationship between France and Germany. How does that transition? It’s conscious and deliberate.

When they’re setting up the coal and steel community, it’s not just because they want to share coal and steel. It’s with a broader purpose in mind. Similarly, with ASEAN. ASEAN is created in Southeast Asia. It’s a very different model to the European Union. For the end goal, it’s the same. We’re a bunch of new fragile states, each with lots of insurgencies and lots of problems at home. Let’s make sure that we don’t have wars between us by having really strong rules around sovereignty and non-interference to allow us to concentrate on building that leviathan at home.

Not always in the most liberal human rights-loving way, but the effect of that is to reduce the incidence of war and allow that state-building and nation-building process. It’s a conscious decision that political leaders are taking to go down one path rather than another. It’s not a linear thing. History is full of projects that start, hit rocks, reverse, and fall apart completely.

To what extent is that then a feature of less powerful states or medium power states rather than superpowers? Talk to the providence piece because, by God, they deserve it. Here, we can take China, Russia, or the US. We can take Turkey, even though we don’t know what it’s trying to do, Iran, or any nation that espouses some global influence, dominance, or sphere of influence.

Even if we talk about the articles of aggression, the countries that have signed, and it was 39 countries that have signed it, none of the really big players had signed on, which goes to show that it’s the less powerful nations they talk about peace, but the ones that want to be super powerful failed to talk about the war.

Where we are now, and it’s very clear in Europe, but you can see it more globally as well, is a struggle between two visions of how world politics ought to be organised. In a European context, we might call it, on the one hand, a Helsinki vision based on the OSC principles of sovereignty, human rights, and democracy states are entitled to make their own way, should respect human rights, and make alliances and join organisations with whomever they like. It’s essentially a liberal version.

You’ve got that model, and then you’ve got the Yalta model. In the Yalta model, the world should be carved up into spheres of influence, where great power has determined what happens in their sphere. Clearly, in Europe now, there’s a struggle between those two visions between Russia that has a very much Yalta vision, and it’s under Putin, but it’s not just Putin. It was there to a lesser extent, but it was obviously there before.

You see something not dissimilar with Chinese foreign policy. It’s not quite as fully developed as general aggressive, but it’s there. If you look at Chinese thinking on Taiwan or the South China Sea on its relations and what it’s near abroad in Southeast Asia, it is similar relations, somewhat to say that you see something similar in the way the US relates to the Caribbean during the Cold War, but you got Cold War frame there to put on. You’ve got a competition between these two visions of war politics, and it’s not clear which vision is going to play out. That would be critical to the Americans, but let’s be from a less critical.

I didn’t mean to. I agree.

The US is different from the others. The US, after 1945, actually bound itself to a common institution. This is one of the things that Putin doesn’t quite understand about the relationship between the US and Native. Yes, the US is the predominant member of NATO, but the US doesn’t dictate NATO policy. It has one vote, which is the same number of votes as Croatia.

VOW 71 | R2P
R2P: The US is the predominant member of NATO, but it doesn’t dictate NATO policy. It has one vote, which is the same number of votes as Croatia.


Does it have the same power or influence as Croatia?

Obviously, it has more influence, but it can’t control what NATO does. It can influence and shape, but thinking about power, if France and Germany decide to take a particular course, they can prevent the US. For example, the US wasn’t able to get NATO involved in the war in Iraq because several NATO members didn’t agree with that. If you look at Russian security institutions, it’s quite different. It is the idea that Moscow wouldn’t get its way in the CSTO or the Eurasian Union.

It’s an anathema. Also, when you look at global institutions, the US was crucial in forging the UN system or the Bretton Woods system. On the one hand, that creates a degree of institutional power for the US. The US is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It also binds the US. For example, if you think of the Iraq War, I’ve heard articles condemning what the US was doing, saying it was immoral and illegal.

The basis on which I was saying it was illegal was the very treaty conventions and charters that the US itself had bound itself to. The US is in this paradoxical position where it is a great power experiencing and wanting to do things, but at the same time, it has bound itself to these institutions, rules, and norms. It doesn’t want to fully move away from it. We talk about US politics. It bears remembering that for eight years, we had a president who voted against invading Iraq.

The wheel, in a sense, in the US turned full swing on Iraq and that decision on whether to intervene. Similarly, in the UK, governments were driven out of power because of primarily what was happening in Iraq. You have this struggle between these two visions of what world order should be.

A couple of things have happened in the last few years. Firstly, the idea of spheres of influence and rising powers has lost some of its shine. Although there are a lot of states in the UN who don’t want to come out and condemn Russia. They’re also not supporting Russia. Not even China is coming out and saying, “We think they’re doing the right thing.” Also, this idea of that war policy is going to pivot to these regional powers has fallen over Russia. It turns out it isn’t the power we all thought it was going to be. Brazil is not turned out to be the economic powerhouse people thought it was going to be. South Africa too is not how things looked a few years ago.

Although it’s still a contested space, recent events meant that Yalta’s vision of the world has lost some of its class. Also in this part of the world, as responses to China have become more assertive, so opinion has shifted. It’s not just in this part of the world. It’s not just usual suspects like Australia, Japan, and South Korea that are worried about China now. It’s Vietnam. The way you have Vietnam looking to the US as its principal security partner, something seismic is happening.

India is a country that’s about to become the most populous country in the world. The India-China relationship is not a friendly and clear one. There are opportunities for reinvigorating the Helsinki vision of a world, but it’s in trouble because of COVID and the global financial crisis. Also, the US war on terror took the shine off liberal international order.

VOW 71 | R2P
R2P: There are opportunities for reinvigorating the Helsinki vision of a world, but it’s in trouble because of COVID and the global financial crisis.


Also, credibility in many ways.

Totally. You can’t, on the one hand, say, “We are in favour of rules-based international order,” and then go and violate those four rules in the most obvious and blatant way without expecting people to question whether or not you support a rule.

Wouldn’t that rules-based order, by the opponents of it, be interpreted as the Pax Americana, which is basically what we could be saying here as well? The world has enjoyed peace, certainly during Cold War and then post-Cold War, known as the peace dividend, which was the US was the global hegemony. It started stepping away from it or did missteps like Iraq, which time and time again pops up in my discussions as a pivotal moment where it went against the very rules that it sought to establish.

It then undermined it and then allowed its opponents or those who have a different worldview, who didn’t enjoy the benefit of the Pax Americana perhaps as much as other nations did to give them a moral leveller, where they can say, “You are being hypocritical, US and broadly the West.”

How do we come back from that? That’s a really interesting one because it goes into this entire debate about interest source values, which is a topic that keeps popping up time and time again in my discussions. As nation-states, we pursue national interests, but we espouse in the global domain and also even in our militaries that we live by certain values. The Australian Defence Force has certain values that we espouse, but our mission as the defence force is to protect Australia and Australian interests.

In my view, there’s a chance for a clash if those two diverge when Australia supports the war in Iraq, which we did, which goes against our global values. It was in our national interest to wave the flag and go with our key pillar of security to the United States. What do you think about these things?

What’s different about Pax Americana is it was a conscious goal of institutionalising globalising Pax Americana. It wasn’t simply that the US was looking to impose its will on the rest of the world.

Please take the time to elaborate on the institution piece because that’s a really important point, and it goes to what we talked about in nation-states as well.

For example, we have the UN order. The US vision for the Post-Second World War world was a world governed by the United Nations. That UN order wasn’t something just dreamed up by the Americans and imposed on the rest but something negotiated. One of the full entry point partners in that was the Soviet Union. Yes, it’s true that this is pre-decolonisation, so those in the other states are not yet full partners.

Interestingly in our histories, we tend to write out the fact that Latin American states were critical in the negotiations. Yet, you have a negotiation between the US and the Soviet Union. The charter that comes out of that is a compromise between those two. Since ‘45, we have always had the tethering of US power to these common institutions that Washington cannot control.

A core tension of US foreign policies all the way back to 1945 is this troubled relationship between the US and the UN because the US can’t control it. After decolonisation, the US totally lost control of the general assembly, and the agenda ran away from the Americans. Even coming to where we started with R2P, just to give you an example, the one state that almost discovered the negotiations at the last minute on R2P was the United States.

It was John Bolton, so George Washington was the President at that time, and Bolton was the ambassador. When he arrived, he saw one of the final drafts and said, “There is no way on earth we are accepting this responsibility to go and protect other people from atrocities. That is not going to happen at all.” At that point, all the other objections dropped into the whole thing almost collapsed.

It took a clever slide of hand by the Americans and getting Condoleezza Rice to John Bolton and spit it all back together again. That comes in a negotiation where one of the key leads in the negotiation process is Rwanda. The country that introduced the whole thing to the general assembly is Guatemala.

Here is an interesting part about R2P. R2P refers to these atrocity crimes, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing stands out because it’s not a class of atrocity crimes, so what’s it doing in there? It was added in at the request of Pakistan, who wanted it in because of their activism on Bosnia. They said, “Because R2P is a response to Bosnia, and they even failed abysmally in Bosnia, it is essential that ethnic cleansing be added in.”

When we think of things like R2P and think, “This is a Western concept,” we iron out the fact that some of the terms of it were introduced by states from outside the Western. One of the interesting things about the UN order is it took on a life of its own. The US wasn’t able to control every aspect of it, so you’ve had this tension always in US-UN relations.

One of the interesting things about the UN order is that it took on a life of its own. The US wasn't able to control every aspect of it, so you've always had this tension in US-UN relations. Click To Tweet

What is national interest? National interest is a combination of basic material stuff. Most countries have very few of those drafted on material interest. What’s the other side of national interest? It’s values. We can’t know what we want unless we know who we are, what our normative moral values are, and the things we want to achieve in the world.

Those are things of values. Values are not separate from interests. Values shape interests. Within a democracy, the national interest and what the national interest is precisely the thing that national elections are about. What you get in national elections are different political actors offering different visions of what we think the national state of play is, what the national interest is, and what should be done. A classic example is you mentioned Iraq.

There are also things with Sudan that we have to do, but also this relationship with the US is absolutely fundamental to our security. Therefore, we have to join the invasion. The ALP’s position at that time was that we will support the invasion if it was authorised by the UN. The ALP accepted some of the points about Sudan. They said, “Our national interest is better served by supporting the UN order and by necessarily following the US into every war that the US wants to follow into.” You have two different accounts in that instance of what the national interest is.

There’s a massive difference between those in living our values in many ways as well. On the one hand, you’re acknowledging that we’ve signed up to this thing called the UN and UN charter, and you are saying, “If there’s a collective agreement or consensus that we ought to act, that’s then passed through Security Council, which is the body authorised to enact violence on behalf of the world. Sure, then that seems to be then morally sound.”

If we all of a sudden say, “Yes, we accept that. However, in this circumstance, out of our own national interest, we are going to go with the hegemon, who’s ultimately really stepping on their own toes here and is going into something that’s not moral or legal,” are we losing credibility? What does that mean to our political identity, our real attachment, and our values if we’re happy to discard them over national interests?

That’s right. Interests aren’t these fixed things that live up in the ether shaped by values and also by political judgment. To claim something is a national interest is a political claim. Either your claim is accepted, which allows you to do certain things, or it’s rejected. For example, we would be looking at Georgia in 2008. What does Georgia want? Georgia wants to join NATO.

To claim something is a national interest is a political claim. Either your claim is accepted, which allows you to do certain things, or it's rejected. Click To Tweet

What does Georgia have to do to join NATO? It has to deploy the best of its Army in Iraq so that when Russia invades Georgia, where’s the best of Georgia’s Army? It’s not defending Georgia. It’s sitting in Iraq because of a judgment about what was in the national interest and proved to be incorrect. We need to push past this idea of values and interests being binary and understand that one shapes the other.

Interests are very much shaped by values, history, context, and also mostly by political judgment. It’s a political judgment that will often be resolved by history. History will determine, but it’s a history that you can’t know at the time and a history that will also be shaped by the judgments that you make.

Here is one other question on this topic because I feel like you are very well-placed to tackle it. It broadly falls under this idea of the military-industrial complex because we do know that war and national defence is a lucrative business. We just have to look at the top five arms exporters since the invasion of Ukraine. Some of their shares have gone up 8%, others 10%, etc. War is good business. Do you think it’s undeniable to say that the military-industrial complex has no influence or that the lobby groups don’t have any influence on our national interests, and in some cases, they potentially even override our values?

I would confess to being a military-industrial complex sceptic.

Then you are the right person to answer this question.

Clearly, there are relationships of influence and interest. I don’t know of many cases where the influence is so great that it’s prompted the governmental non-state arm groups to do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily have wanted to do anyway. Some businesses profit from war, but it’s clearly also the case that over time war has become less and less profitable for states.

VOW 71 | R2P
R2P: Some businesses profit from war, but it’s clearly also the case that over time war has become less and less profitable for states.


Unless you’re in a situation where the state is so corrupted that its leaders would privilege business interests over the interest of their own state, I’m not sure that the economic force of the military-industrial complex would drive state policy. There is an issue, which is the question of the ease with which different actors can acquire arms, and the acquiring of arms makes opportunities available to them for using force to achieve their political goals. Those goals will probably already exist, but the easier it is for them to acquire arms, the more plausible it becomes that they could pursue their objectives by the use of force, whereas the opposite would be the case.

I do think there’s, in any scheme for world peace, a significant role to play in thinking about arms transfers. I put in the book that the arms trade treaty provides really good bad bones for thinking about that in terms of a legal obligation that says, “You can’t sell arms to states that you think would be likely to use them for aggression or to commit atrocity crimes.”

The law is very woolly, and there are lots of avenues in it, but you got bases to start thinking about how you control that. We shouldn’t over exaggerate the effects that that would have. If you think of Western War, for example, I don’t think there’s much relationship at all between the arms industry and the Western way of war. It may be that the development of more advanced technology has lowered our pain threshold. We think we can wage war painlessly on ourselves by using UAV drones. That may be something I know that Samuel Moyn has written this book about.

I’ve interviewed Samuel Moyn on the phases of that book, Humane.

That’s really compelling, but it falls down a little. I don’t think it can demonstrate a colossal effect, particularly in relation to International Humanitarian Law. I say his argument that by promoting the law, we make war appear more humane, and that makes it look more legitimate. It falls down if you look at the reason why wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became less legitimate in the West. It wasn’t because we were killing Iraqis and Afghans. It was because our own service personnel were being killed and wounded.

If you question IHL, what you potentially do is make the situation worse. Imagine a world without IHL. It doesn’t exist. The US can plausibly achieve complete victory in Afghanistan without sacrificing any loss of life at all to itself by simply covering all of Afghanistan in flame from above. In a world without IHL, nobody would say that’s the wrong thing. It would be like Roman Carthage.

In that scenario, rather than the powerful becoming more inhibited to use war, we start to think, “This is okay, isn’t it?” We can achieve what we want with no casualties to ourselves. It becomes more risk-free than what we have now. When you start to challenge things like IHL, the danger is that you undermine those things that inhibit the powerful. They can always achieve what they want by escalating because they’ve got the material power to do so. If you take away normative restraints, you encourage them to escalate.

I doubt whether populations would be so moved by them committed by their own size in a successful war that they would force their governments to back down. Russia is a case in point. Now, if Putin achieved a decisive victory by killing every man, woman, and child in Ukraine, a large proportion of the Russian population would celebrate that fact.

Also, Russia’s taken so many casualties, and so many body bags are coming home, but that also is not having the desired effect of diminishing their want to prosecute the war.

No. This comes back to what we were talking about with wars where they started. In every war, theirs is a just side. You don’t fight a war if you don’t think that what you’re doing is right.

You don't fight a war if you don't think that what you're doing is right. Click To Tweet

It requires sufficient lies to believe that because that’s in your interest in your social.

Sometimes the more casualties you take, the more right you think it is. With the First War, for example, one of the reasons why in 1917 you couldn’t have a negotiated end was because so much had been sacrificed. The idea that you might compromise with the other side would not have been sold. Ukraine is a real classic. When we talk about the land of peace, for example, this is the rational result for Ukraine. You look at what Ukrainians say, and 80% say, “No, we’re not going to straight away our land. We’re going to keep fighting. We’re going to take the cost in order to fight for our land.”

It’s incredible. I come to the time, Alex, but I do have to ask you one final question, and that’s the way you end the book. I guess it is quite hopeful in the way you end the book because you do talk about preliminary definitive articles for world peace. In many ways, you first say that we have all the ingredients for it already, but then you give some suggestions. I am conscious that I wouldn’t expect you to go through all of them, but maybe some of the key ones that you would identify as necessary for us to begin this reinvented idea of the possibility of world peace.

The structure of the preliminary and definitive articles is obviously stolen from Immanuel Kant. It’s an artifice that just to narrow down a discussion. The logic with what I identified as my preliminary articles is that these are all things that we already have, so they’re not figments of my overactive imagination or that things already exist.

The argument is that if we strove to make those things work better, we’re not going to get all the way to lasting world peace, but we are certainly going to make the world more peaceful. Those are things that we have internationally. We don’t need more laws. Maybe something around AI and robots, we do need more laws to technologies. On the core things, we have enough laws, things that are morally wrong, or that cause disorder are already at war. What we need is more compliance with those laws.

The first thing is abiding even when it’s difficult to do so, even when, in this case, your interests may require breaking the law. When you do that, you undermine the whole idea of a legal order, and others will do that more. The second thing is making sure that those laws are implemented by contributing to the institutions that are there to enforce and uphold the law. They’re contributing to the UN, sending peacekeeping. We know peacekeeping works for all of its problems.

We know that the better it’s done, the more it works. Contribute, pay the bills, send the troops, work with those institutions, and explore all potential. The other thing we have talked about is the arms trade. Take the arms trade treaty, fill in the gaps, and implement it. Make sure that we’re not arming states and non-state groups who are likely to use it for aggression or atrocities with it.

Stick to our values and our interest. Don’t sell to Saudi Arabia.

The fourth would be, and we talked about the European Union, building those security communities. We are working regional level to build communities of countries that basically, in their relations with each other, are taking war off the table. It’s not just that they don’t fight a war with each other. It’s not just that they have some common regional institution. War becomes unthinkable. It’s just not something we’re planning or preparing for. Australia, New Zealand, France, and Germany are security communities, and it’s more possible often at the regional level because you have those kinds of things.

It has more dense ties.

The fifth is this idea of a variety of hospitality, which is taken from camp, but it’s opening up trade and movement, something that’s not been possible during COVID. It’s also something that has this dark side because Ukraine shows sometimes, the more ties you have, the more sources of vulnerability you have. We’ve also got this whole concept now, like a grey area warfare and hybrid war, which is all about taking advantage of those increased connections.

Wherever you’ve got connections, you’ve always got those vulnerabilities. The overall trends are clear. That’s the first thing in any macro-historical trend. You’re going to find blips and vulnerabilities. The other thing is, even if you think about hybrid wars and a grey area wars, what’s also happening is those relationships are often deterring traditional wars.

If you are doing cyber wars or you are using your economic levers, you’re maybe doing that instead of sending tanks and missiles because you’re being deterred, and you are going to pay a price as well. You can’t realise the value of your element of the supply chain without the other side.

You also don’t know what the other side has got still in store. You also don’t know if you push the red button, whether it’s going to go bang or not whether they’ve hacked it.

You’re always going to have political actors that don’t have the same means and rationality. Vladimir Putin has been on his own interesting journey where he probably did at the start, but now he’s operating with very different rationality. You’re always going to have that because politics means having lots of different people in communities with different senses of rationality.

Still, the more you can open borders to trade the flow of ideas and the flow of people, the greater the dampening effects are going to be, especially if you’re doing it alongside the things as well. The sixth, which you mentioned in the crime of aggression, is criminal accountability. Nothing focuses the mind more than the idea that you might end up in the dark or prison.

It’s not just that people would fear the actual prison sentence. A prisoner isn’t the worst thing. If you’ve come from the battlefield, it’s such a great hardship. It’s the stigma. It’s the sense that you are a criminal, shunned, not a national hero. There are lots of studies at the moment saying, “ICC has no evidence that it deters,” but that’s because the likelihood of prosecution is still so remote that most perpetrators going into most wars assume, A) They’re going to win, and B) They’re never going to get prosecuted.

Especially if they’re on the winning side because we have to face that fact, which is the interest.

This is a big obstacle, but if you can work on extending criminal accountability, ICC is one avenue, but there are others, like using domestic jurisdiction to increase that probability so that, in future generations, there is an expectation that if I launch an aggressive war, or if I commit or order atrocities, I’m going to be prosecuted. It’s not going to stop it entirely, but it will reduce the number of circumstances.

It’s going to be a barrier to conflict. It’s what we talked about right from the start. It’s getting the conditions to a place where we disincentivise war. Now, our poor incentives or the fact that you can wage war, especially if you win, so that is a greater incentive to win and to galvanise the national effort to win from a leader’s perspective, then you can pretty much do what you like with relative impunity. That’s just a fact. There’s no politics in that. That’s the reality of it.

That’s right. Those are the six preliminary things. All are based on things that already exist. If states committed more resources and more political support to achieving those things, that in itself would make a difference. We are in an environment where most trends are moving in the wrong direction.

That’s my last question to you. You do make a reference to Christopher Clark’s incredible book, The Sleepwalkers. There are details of how the world blindly walked into World War I or the cascading effects of that once shot by Gavrilo Princip, and then the domino effect that it’s had. Given your last comment, are we sleepwalking again?

We may have sleepwalked in the opposite direction. The end of the Cold War made a lot of us think certain things were inevitable march toward democracy. I would include myself in this with my work on R2P. I thought that if you could make the right arguments and the right moral claims, you could find the shared values that you could build new consensuses and new agreements. We underplayed and assumed that we could continue making this incremental progress. History turns out that it doesn’t play out like that, and so we underestimated the internal tensions within liberalism itself. We talked already about the war on terror and how that undermined Western credibility.

Also, the global financial crisis has also undermined the attractiveness of the package being offered by the West. At the same time, the rise of China has increased the attractiveness of authoritarian capitalism that says, “We’ve solved problem development just like the West did, and we can do it without human rights and without the mess of democracy.” That’s become a different vision.

Also, we got Russia, and Putin has a very different view of Russian exceptionalism and challenge to the West. It’s taken us too long to work out that we were sleepwalking in the wrong direction. The West underwent corrections after Iraq eventually, and the shift to Obama was a correction to shift in Western opinion about what happened in Iraq and what was going on in Afghanistan was a pivot.

The damage has been done, and that sheen has been taken away. There were a number of years still where we were operating on the same assumption that, ultimately, everyone wants the same thing, that trade, international law, and corporations could bring most around. It turns out that that’s not the case at all.

VOW 71 | R2P
R2P: We were operating on the same assumption that, ultimately, everyone wants the same thing that trade, international law, and corporations could bring most around. It turns out that that’s not the case at all.


This is the story of the book I am writing about Putin. There is a story and a progression that was not until Crimean in 2014, and even then, a lot of Western governments still didn’t get it. This wasn’t something that appeared out of nowhere. This was something that goes back to Georgia in 2006, but there’s a narrative and a logic that we took too long to wake up to. There are ideological challenges offering radically different visions of how the world ought to be organised.

In the West, we made the mistake of tarnishing the package that we were offering and de-legitimising it both through economic crises in excess of neoliberalism and through violating our own rules, which has left us in a worse position to deal with now. What are these big new challenges to the whole order? One coming from Russia and a bigger one coming from China. China is obviously the larger one in the future.

We talked about these interests. Looking at the long term, one of the consequences of where Putin is taking Russia is that he’s making Russia a vessel of China. In the long run, Russia is going to become the junior partner of China and is going to struggle to try to balance China by also engaging with the West.

This mentioned the end of history. This is a very long-winded answer. A quote from Fukuyama of his book is probably the most quoted and least read of books. Fukuyama wasn’t saying history was over and nothing was going to happen. What he was saying is that liberal democracy has solved, as probably best we can, the problems of politics, all the problems that we’ve talked about. Fukuyama is saying he can’t see a better way of resolving the problems than liberal democracy.

Also, Putinism isn’t a challenge because Putinism is straight old-fashioned exceptionalism and authoritarianism. For a while, a few years ago, it looked like maybe China was offering a different model. The question, for now, is, as Xi Jinping becomes more authoritarian, is he tarnishing China’s alternative? Is he making China just another form of old-fashioned authoritarian that is going to fall into all the same traps?

Is China becoming less of a viable political challenge to liberal democracy? I don’t know the answer, but years ago, I would end by saying, “This is the great rivalry.” China now becomes more authoritarian versus this question, “Is it actually an alternative model, or is it just old-fashioned authoritarianism?” As we look at the chaos in Sri Lanka, it is partly driven by excessive and inefficient debt to China and the ports and all the rest of it. You have to ask, “Is China going to tarnish also the attractiveness of its own?”

Finally, it’s a great book by an Oxford academic, Rosemary Foot, on China in the UN. She argued that China is wanting to become more influential and assertive in the UN. She’s using lots of liberals to do that. She does that so China will start to require more responsibility for how well the UN does. For example, China offers an alternative to liberal peacebuilding, but if that alternative doesn’t prove to be better than liberal peacebuilding, then China’s vision is also going to be called into question.

If China can’t offer an alternative to the UN’s rules on the use of force or how the UN does humanitarian aid, if those things don’t turn out to be better, if China’s not a better peacekeeper than Sweden, then the UN’s failures are also going to become China’s failures in a way that they haven’t been before. We think of Bosnia. We think of the UN’s failures as Europe’s failure or America’s failure. As China becomes more influential, those failures will also become China’s, and that will have the effect of constraining China.

History repeats itself. Let’s hope that Taiwan doesn’t end up being China’s Iraq in that construct because that’s bad news for all of us. On that note, Alex, I knew this would be a fascinating conversation, so I feel like we could go for another couple of hours easily. Don’t be surprised if another invitation is in your inbox in the future for another episode.

It is nice talking to you.

It’s incredible. Given that this book was born out of you in the hospital, and I don’t want you to go to the hospital, but I do want you to lock yourself up in your house for a couple of weeks. I do look forward to reading your upcoming book and also your last one on Syria. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been an incredible conversation.

Thanks very much.


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