Tarak Barkawi. From War to Security-Security Studies-The Wider Agenda and the Fate of the Study of War

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2011 39: 701 originally published online 22 Millennium - Journal of International StudiesTarak Barkawi

the Study of War

From War to Security: Security Studies, the Wider Agenda and the Fate of

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Tarak Barkawi, University of Cambridge, UK. Email: tkb24@cam.ac.uk

Plenary Article

From War to Security:

Security Studies, the

Wider Agenda and the

Fate of the Study of War

Tarak Barkawi

University of Cambrige


This article critiques the wider agenda in security studies from the perspective of the idea of a war studies. It argues that security studies in any form has not adequately addressed the phenomenon of war and that IR more generally reduces war to an effect of the states system. An analysis of inquiry into the Second World War illuminates these points, while the Vietnam War is mobilised to show how the study of war can refigure our understanding of the international as a distinct social space. The conclusion suggests a new critical research agenda centred on politics, force, and war.


Second World War, securitisation, security studies, Vietnam War, war studies

In a widely cited article published in 1991, Stephen Walt found it ‘easy to identify’ the main focus of security studies: ‘the phenomenon of war’.1 Nearly 20 years on, no respon-sible university teacher of security studies could so limit the focus of the subject. There is perhaps no better sign of just how far the ‘wider agenda’ has advanced, or of the impact of securitisation theory, than that most such teachers would identify their subject matter as concerning the logics and practices of security, and would hasten to underscore that these topics can in no way be limited to the use of armed force or war. Buzan, Waever and de Wilde relegate Walt’s main focus to one sector among five.2 Buzan would leave ‘military affairs’ to strategic studies, which then can make its more ‘specialised 1. Stephen Walt, ‘The Renaissance of Security Studies’, International Studies Quarterly 35, no. 2 (1991): 212. 2. Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde, Security (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998).


contribution’ to the problem of national security, while security studies occupies the ‘holistic’ disciplinary high ground.3

A parallel development from war to security is evident in the institutions of state concerned with armed force. Ministries of war were relabelled ministries of defence just before and after the Second World War. Initially, these combined the armed services under one ministry, replacing secretaries of the army and the navy who had previously held cabinet posts in the US and the UK. During the Cold War, these institutions took on more and more functions concerned with ‘national security’, moving into intelligence, foreign policy and public relations among other fields. In political life generally, national security, while remaining rooted in the dynamics of military threat, became articulated with ever more diverse phenomena, from the diet of the working classes to practices of motherhood. Terms such as national interest, which in the US used to refer to the eco-nomic welfare of the population as a whole, became ever more strongly associated with security, which now took centre stage in politics.4 With the collapse of the only power

capable of existentially threatening the West in 1991, national security seemed briefly to revolve principally around the wider agenda of economy, environment and society, with force largely relegated to the role of international ‘good works’ in the form of peacekeep-ing and humanitarian intervention.

At stake in these developments is something more than the politics of language and the utility for state officials of reclassifying ‘war’ as ‘peace and security’. There has been a breakdown in the dialogue between the study of security and knowledge about war, a breakdown that is neither appreciated nor mourned. For the ‘wider agenda’, comprising securitisation theory, critical security studies and human security, a central aim was to detach the concept of security from what was seen as the undue attention and priority given to military affairs in traditional security studies. An unintended consequence of this move was the abandonment of the possibility of the critical study of war, which argu-ably should be at the heart of the discipline of International Relations (IR). A further consequence was the participation of wider security studies in the dissociation of war from security, a dissociation that assists liberal societies and their leaderships in imagin-ing that war is not, and has not been, central to the formation, course and character of Western states and societies – and much else – in world politics. Using Walt and secu-ritisation theory as foils, this article explores these consequences and the possibilities the study of war offers for IR.

Given the ways in which security studies as an academic enterprise is caught up in the public policy concerns of the day, it is perhaps no surprise that there was a parallel widening of the agenda both in inquiry and in practice. Equally, the very centrality of national security to the politics of the Western democracies demanded study in its own right, as security came to inform not only party politics and the course of elections, but also ideology, identity and culture, as well as nearly every area of public policy. That security could be articulated with almost anything was in part due to long-term trends in Western society through which material wealth and the health and welfare of the 3. Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear (Brighton: Wheatsheaf, 1983), 255–7.

4. Arnold Wolfers, ‘“National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol’, Political Science Quarterly 67, no. 4 (1952): 481–3.


individual – as opposed to political ideals that demanded sacrifice – came to dominate politics. But security’s chief advantage was in fact its inherent meaninglessness coupled with its seeming call for urgency and priority. As Arnold Wolfers pointed out early in these developments, security is an intermediate or derivative value that takes on meaning only in reference to a higher goal or purpose one is seeking to secure.5 The

proliferation of security politics is therefore a prime instance of what Max Weber called rationalisation, the increasing dominance of means over valued ends in modern culture, science and politics.6

Securitisation theory embraces this meaninglessness with the idea that any referent object can be ‘securitised’. In its beguiling and apparently irresistible combination of the objectivism of positivism with the relativism of constructivism, it decisively breaks the link between security and war. In sharp contrast to the civilian strategists who dominated the national security debate during the Cold War, securitisation theory has helped to spawn a generation of security studies specialists many of whom know little about weap-ons systems or military operatiweap-ons. With minors in the philosophy of inquiry, they focus on topics like culture and identity, the environment and immigration, human trafficking and gender. Force and war are most likely to be approached (if at all) within an ethical register, or with a concern for overcoming the problem of war rather than as direct objects of inquiry (e.g. peace-building, conflict resolution, or security and development). Of course, mainstream security studies continues unabated, and the public sphere as well as councils of state have an ample supply of scholars and other analysts advocating and analysing various national security policies. Securitisation theory would seem to have added an important and rigorous dimension to the study of security, while responding in appropriate fashion to the ‘real-world’ widening of the security agenda since 1945.

There remains a disturbing parallel between a discourse of national security that transforms the relationship of force and politics into one of protection from threat, pro-liferating means to security in the relative absence of debate over ultimate ends or purposes, and a security studies that participates in this process. Underlying this parallel is a mutual distancing from ‘the phenomenon of war’, but one that works differently in practice and in inquiry. While practices of the use of force have changed, for war is historical, there remains no shortage of organised violence in world politics, or of the use of force to pursue political values. Thus the renaming of war departments did not mark a turn away from war, but rather a transformation of the public discourses through which war was spoken of and legitimated. These discourses came to revolve around the notion of defence from aggression, articulated initially with the identity politics of the Cold War, even as Western power was used ‘offensively’, to forge a world order conducive to Western interests. Force was regularly used to see off alternatives to this order, principally in the Third World, but was referred to in languages of police actions and assisting allies.

In inquiry based on the wider agenda of security, by contrast, there has been a prin-cipled and substantive move away from war and force. Indeed, this is the whole point of 5. Ibid., 492.

6. Tarak Barkawi, ‘Strategy as a Vocation: Weber, Morgenthau and Modern Strategic Studies’, Review of


the wider agenda.7 This would not pose any particular problem if only we could believe

Walt’s claim that the core of traditional security studies has been and continues to be ‘the phenomenon of war’. In fact, neither security studies nor IR inquire into, much less theorise, war as a set of social relations and processes. They study things like the inci-dence of war in the international system, the causes of war, crisis decision-making, the dynamics of alliances and so on, none of which are the same object of analysis as ‘war’. Perhaps surprisingly given their self-identity, these disciplines are part and parcel of the decentring of war in the organisation of social-scientific knowledge inspired by the European Enlightenments. The distinction between traditional and wider security studies is in part based on a shared misunderstanding of war and what the study of it might entail. Strategic studies serves as a prime example. Strategy concerns how to prevail in war, and more broadly how to use military force among other instrumentalities to achieve political ends. It is not about the study of war per se. Strategy, as a tradition if not always in practice, has a major advantage over security studies in respect of the problem of rationalisation in that it necessarily foregrounds valued ends. But that does not make it a social science adequate to the ‘phenomenon of war’, however essential an understanding of strategic thought would be to such a science. Thus the idea that ‘military affairs’ can be left to strategic studies while security studies gets on with the business of analysing the ‘logic of security itself’ mistakenly assumes that strategic studies and traditional security studies amount to a war studies.8 They do not.

To the extent it is convincing, the implications of this line of argument are shocking. In a world made in no small measure by ongoing histories of organised violence, we lack a social science of war. The discipline supposedly most concerned with the question of war and peace – IR – does not actually study the social and political relations that com-prise war and its effects. The subdiscipline of security studies, which both traditional and critical scholars assume has been focused on war, has not in fact been so focused. Now, in a world in which everything from passenger air travel to religion is fundamentally informed by war, major elements of that subdiscipline positively celebrate the marginali-sation of war from the academy.

In fact, there is not even much of a grave on which the party goers from Copenhagen, Aberystwyth and elsewhere might dance. For war is in the strange position of being both taken for granted in its meaning and radically underdeveloped as an object of inquiry. The first section below develops the argument about the lack of a war studies; the second illustrates the consequences for IR through the example of the Second World War; the third maps out how a focus on war produces a different window on ‘the international’ than does beginning with sovereign states and their security dilemmas. The conclusion takes up the slippage that occurs when the relationship between politics and force is rationalised in security terms.

7. Although cf. Vivienne Jabri, Discourses on Violence (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996) and War and the Transformation of Global Politics, 2nd edn (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Jennifer Milliken, The Social Construction of the Korean War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001); Iver Neumann, ‘Identity and the Outbreak of War’, International Journal of Peace Studies 3, no. 1 (1998); Michael Williams, Culture and Security (London: Routledge, 2007).


The Strange Absence of War Studies

Walt moves from the idea of the ‘phenomenon of war’ to this definition of security stud-ies: ‘the study of the threat, use, and control of military force’.9 What is the difference between ‘war’ as a central object of systematic inquiry and this definition? The definition is what might be called a strategic appropriation of war, of a kind that happens when Carl von Clausewitz is taken to have defined war as the ‘continuation of policy by other means’.10 Although he can be quoted in this way, Clausewitz’s conception of war vastly exceeds such an instrumental approach. At a minimum there is the matter of the variable relations between his trinities of people, government and army and their attendant characteristics of passion, reason and technique.11 For Clausewitz, and many of the thin line of major thinkers who have tackled war as their centrepiece, a key dimension of war is its socially generative properties.12 War consumes and reworks social and political orders. As a strategist and staff officer, Clausewitz enjoins leadership to think carefully about ends and means in war, for war is a resistant medium for instrumental action. As a philosopher of war, he is attentive to the ways in which war undermines and even reverses the relations between ends and means, as in his ideas of total and true or absolute war. He repeatedly emphasises war’s capacity to unmake certainties, in chaotic and unpredictable ways.13 This was in part a reflection of his own experience of a period of violent social transformation occasioned by the Napoleonic way of war and its impact on a profoundly conservative Prussian military and society.

These larger themes, which Clausewitz would take to be central to any notion of war, are offset in Walt’s definition, which invokes the use and control of force, and the idea of a threat – an intentional action which can be made and responded to in a more or less rational fashion. War as a force that might rework and operate upon these intentions, their bearers and the social formations of which they are a part is not centred in Walt’s defini-tion. Instead Walt emphasises the strategic, instrumentally rational element. For him, security studies is necessarily concerned with the policy issues of the day, and so war is approached from the point of view of statespersons and their decisions and policies, in line with a long tradition of work in IR. At the same time, security studies must not neglect larger theoretical questions.14 But here Walt turns to IR theory, the central object of analysis of which is a system of sovereign states, not war.15 His research agenda for the future is concerned with things like the role of domestic politics, the sources of cooperation and political economy.16 Walt goes from strategy to international politics, whereas Clausewitz takes up strategy as a route into an account of the fundamental char-acter and nature of war. Walt offers only a policy science of war, along with a cognate not 9. Walt, ‘Renaissance of Security Studies’, 212.

10. Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 87. 11. Ibid., 89.

12. See, for example, Hans Delbrück, History of the Art of War, 4 vols (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990); Michael Howard, Captain Professor (London: Continuum, 2006).

13. Katherine Herbig, ‘Chance and Uncertainty in On War’, in Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, ed. Michael Handel (London: Frank Cass, 1989).

14. Walt, ‘Renaissance of Security Studies’, 222–3. 15. Ibid., 219.


a core discipline, IR, like an MBA taught with sociology but without economics. This is because the relevant core discipline – war studies – does not exist except in fragmented form, as a grab bag of disparate topics cobbled together from a variety of disciplines and sources.

The ultimate reason for this state of affairs has to do with some presuppositions in the Enlightenment organisation of knowledge that inspired and shaped the social sciences. As Michael Mann observes: ‘From the Enlightenment to Durkheim most major sociolo-gists omitted war from their central problematic’, believing ‘future society would be pacific and transnational’.17 Proceeding in this manner was possible even as wars raged

inside and outside Europe because many Enlightenment thinkers understood civilisation as a teleological process through which violence – barbarous, rude, uncivil – was being removed from society.18 Rational inquiry and debate, embodied in the academy, were

conceived as the very antithesis of force and as chief instruments in the progress of civility, a view elegantly recapitulated by Jürgen Habermas as the ‘forceless force of the better argument’.19 Today, this othering of violence from inquiry is registered

institution-ally in the lack of university departments and scholarly associations principinstitution-ally devoted to war.20

Of course there is a great deal of scholarly writing devoted to war and military mat-ters, located in a variety of disciplinary subfields. But in the absence of a discipline, war itself is not centred as the object of analysis and debate, as itself the focus of a continuing scholarly conversation. At issue are the concerns of some other scholarly conversation, such as the relationship between war and state-building, the effects of war on public opinion and elections, the war-proneness of the international system, the legality or eth-ics of war, or the consequences of war for society. Whatever insights may be derived about these subject matters, they do not centrally concern war per se. Of course we learn much of war through studies of these and other kinds. But the dangers are that what war consists of is taken for granted, usually as the clash of arms, and that it is addressed only in and through the terms of a discipline or scholarly project principally devoted to some other subject. In other words, war is reduced to another social domain. War appears as a builder of states in historical sociology, a pattern of public opinion in political science, an effect of the international system in international relations scholarship, or a disrupter of personalities in literature and psychology. War is strangely decentred and fragmented as an object of inquiry, in ways intensified by the institutional diversity of the sites where war is studied.

One response to this situation has been the interdisciplinary study of war, as in the world’s leading department of war studies at Kings College London (KCL). There, a diverse and changing array of subjects is taught, from military history and sociology to strategic studies and IR. The department’s core idea of studying war ‘in the round’, through the lenses of different disciplines, was a progressive response to ‘drums and 17. Michael Mann, States, War and Capitalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 147.

18. John Keane, Reflections on Violence (London: Verso), 14ff.

19. Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1984), 25.

20. Partial exceptions include the Society for Military History (http://www.smh-hq.org/) and the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society (http://www.iusafs.org/). However, neither military history nor armed forces and society are the same object as war.


trumpets’ military history. At its richest, this has included philosophy, ethics and literature, but no matter how many subjects are brought to bear on war at KCL or similar programmes, core questions remain unanswered: how are these subjects justified conceptually and theoretically? What unifies this field of inquiry other than use of the word ‘war’, or a common-sense understanding of what this word might refer to?

The lack of a theoretic core in actually existing war studies becomes evident when a comparison is made with other interdisciplinary formations. War studies is not based on a considered critique of the disciplines, as is the case with the array of studies that came of age in the 1970s, such as gender studies, race studies and cultural studies, and which evolved their own bodies of theory. With some exceptions, it does not call for a revision or restructuring of existing disciplines and approaches, another claim associated with interdisciplinarity in the humanities and social sciences. The supposedly interdisciplin-ary study of war in fact mostly amounts to multidisciplinarity, where scholars retain their separate disciplinary identities and concerns.

Earlier efforts to provide a basis for the study of war, such as those of the historians Hans Delbrück and Michael Howard, have gone astray, crowded out by, among other things, the policy-relevant focus of much of security studies. Military history, an essen-tial foundation for any war studies, remains a mostly limited enterprise with a restricted university presence, especially as regards major departments and core disciplinary debates. The work of academically respected historians related to war tends to concern political, social and economic contexts rather than wartime operations. This is the dis-tinctive stamp of what is known as the ‘war and society’ tradition. The impact of war and military organisation on state, society and economy, rather than the conduct of war, is the usual focus of this kind of scholarship.21 It was not intended to centre war in this sort of

approach to war and society, which in part ‘owed its popularity to the implicit suggestion that it was possible to do the history of war while leaving war out of it’.22

By contrast, Delbrück sought to keep armed forces, politics and war in the same analytic frame, offering reinterpretations of major historic and social transformations by developing the neglected political-military dimension. Similarly, for Howard, war and society are entwined in mutually constitutive relations.23 War is shaped by, and

shapes, social context. The implication is that war cannot be studied only as the conduct of military operations, much less as the history of decisive battles. War, as it were, exceeds ‘war’ as the clash of arms and is related to a whole range of social phenomena on and off the battlefield. This was a war and society approach that sought to keep war centred while also placing it in a broader context.

Perhaps because they were historians, Delbrück and Howard made little effort to critique, revise and incorporate theoretic traditions from the social sciences. This meant that no intellectual basis was laid for a discipline, no core object of analysis and set of approaches sketched out or debated. A key insight was left to lie fallow. If war’s excess is taken seriously, that is, the idea that war shapes the social relations in which it is embedded, then war is present beyond the war front and beyond wartime, in and among 21. Stephen Morillo with Michael Pavkovic, What Is Military History? (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 40. 22. Doyne Dawson, ‘The Return of Military History?’, History and Theory 47 (2008): 598.


apparently pacific social, cultural and economic relations. Any conception of war limited to the clash of arms, such as the measures of battle deaths extensively used to identify incidences of war in quantitative analyses, necessarily misses this crucial and intrinsic dimension of war. ‘[W]ar must be seen as a social activity related to the whole complex of social life and organisation.’24 Analysis faces the apparently contradictory demands

of centring war, while simultaneously seeing it as ‘shot through’ the surrounding social context.

What these insights might mean for our understanding of the ‘phenomenon of war’, and how they might be developed in ways which speak to the concerns of international studies, can only be sketched in crude terms here. The absence of a discipline cannot be made up for in a small library, much less an article of this length. An initial point to keep in mind is that, as rich as Delbrück, Howard and the historical sociologists are in their understanding of war as compared to IR and security studies, they are astoundingly Eurocentric in their focus. Indeed, military history, military sociology and strategic studies are almost entirely concerned with the armies and wars of the great powers, which are mostly located in Europe and the West. Another relative weakness of these thinkers is their unfamiliarity with more sophisticated conceptions of culture and cultural relations, of how culture might be a primary sphere for war’s effects, one intimately bound up with politics, economy and society.

The Even Stranger Absence of the Second World War

Few would dispute that IR and security studies are profoundly shaped by the Second World War. The core debate between realists and liberals regarding the amelioration of great power conflict – realpolitik versus international institutions – rests upon competing accounts of its origins and aftermath. Work on the war-proneness of different regime types – the so-called ‘Democratic Peace’ – grew out of these debates. Normative orienta-tions across a range of posiorienta-tions in IR and security studies draw sustenance from moral tales of the ‘good war’ as a struggle between democracy and totalitarianism, civilisation and barbarism. More fundamental, if less remarked upon in disciplinary literature, is the international system before the war – one largely composed of European great powers and their empires – and that after the war, in which the sovereign states system rapidly went global and imperialism reverted to more informal modes. However characterised, the Second World War marks basic shifts in the character of world politics.

Yet note that in this overview the social, political and cultural processes of the war itself remain a black box. It is taken for granted that the war changed everything, but just how it did so is left unaddressed in the discipline concerned with war and peace and the subdiscipline supposedly focused on ‘the phenomenon of war’. It is also more or less taken for granted that we know what the war consisted of and when it began and ended. But just how is it that the war consumed one world order and spat out another? The Second World War cannot simply be seen as having destroyed the old world in some direct cashing out of the pre-war balance of power; it helped to generate and shape the new, not least in the extraordinary mobilisation of American world power it called forth. 24. Martin Shaw, Dialectics of War (London: Pluto, 1988), 11.


At best, IR manages to say something about the causes of war and the sources of inter-state peace, while traditional security studies can tell us a great deal about strategies of coercion and deterrence, offensive and defensive force postures, and the dynamics of alliance relations. Elsewhere, military history focuses on wartime operations and war and society literature on the war at home; sociology covers the growth of the Western state’s administrative and welfare capacities and the development of its international reach; and military sociology – born during the Second World War and closely tied to the state – has something to say about the morale and effectiveness of armed forces. Notably absent, for the major conflagration of the 20th century, are efforts to theorise and under-stand the war itself as a set of reciprocal processes and relations.25 That is, while the

social science disciplines defined by the nation-state – history, sociology, political sci-ence – have literatures addressing various processes and effects of the war on their objects of analysis, the only discipline concerned with the international does not address the war as a combined set of international social relations, a set of relations all are agreed transformed the world.

An important reason for this is the dominance of the idea of the sovereign state and the states system as the core focus of IR and security studies, which even critics must respond to. This plays out in different ways for different approaches, but what it means is that war can only be understood on an analytic terrain defined in advance by some form of IR theory concerning relations between states. In this way, war is deprived of its own properties as a social phenomenon, for there is no necessary reason why one would begin to understand, theorise and study war from the point of view of the states system, however important a cognate subject it might be. In IR, war is reduced primarily to an effect of the states system.

Some of these points can be illustrated and their implications traced by looking at the Correlates of War (CoW) data set and its construct of the Second World War.26 This data

set and the terms of analysis it has evolved have shaped discussions across a range of literatures and approaches well beyond the specific interests of its creators. For CoW, the essential identity of the entities which engage in war is defined in terms of the sovereign states system, producing a set of possibilities oriented around territorial states that are members of the international system: interstate war intrastate war and an evolving residual category of extra-systemic war. Wars are given a strict duration established by battle casualties over time, suffered by a state’s own armed forces for it to be counted as a participant in a war. A war can only fall into one category at a time, and so can only be one kind of war in any given year between any given participants. This is CoW’s principle of mutual exclusivity of wars. CoW deals with the fact that some wars trans-mutate between categories by dividing them into phases, with the separate phases being placed in different categories of war.

The essential point to underline here is that all of this is to frame war by reference to the sovereign states system, which in the CoW ‘dataverse’ begins after the Napoleonic wars. What a war is, who fights in it and how long it lasts are all decided by reference to 25. Although cf. Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War (London: Verso, 1986).

26. The CoW data and explanations of its categories and coding are available at: http://www.correlatesof war.org/.


criteria derived from an account of the sovereign states system. A basic problem for this approach is that war is an older phenomenon than the sovereign states system. Whatever one makes of Small and Singer’s argument for beginning in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, it is an argument about states and the kind of wars they may fight, not about war as such.27 Moreover, the positivist reduction of war to a set of generic observable

indicators deprives any given war of its historicity, of any specific transformations it may have occasioned (and not only with respect to states). Wars do not leave history just as they found it; rather they can fundamentally change the course and character of events, structures and relations. The Second World War, interstate war number 139 for CoW, is not just another war. Its social fecundity is evidenced in spectral fashion in the CoW data set by the many more system members (i.e. sovereign states) that appear in the years fol-lowing the war, as the new states were granted sovereign recognition. Observable indica-tors – time and battle casualties – also frame a war’s duration for CoW. Thus the Second World War, which still appears every day on our television screens, its victorious order of battle still sitting on the UN Security Council, its discourses and contested memories still informing identity politics in and beyond the West, is safely contained by CoW between the dates of 1939 and 1945.

If we accept that war is a socially generative force, we cannot take for granted the identities of the entities which engage in it, nor define its geographic and temporal scope solely in terms of sovereign territorial states and their battle casualties. This is especially so in the case of a war that played out in interconnected ways across different regions, articulating various peoples and their diverse struggles, transforming political entities and producing new ones. CoW’s dates, for example, work to centre the war in the West. For the Chinese and the Japanese, the war began much earlier, ending for the former in 1950 only to spill over directly into the Korean War as Korean communist forces returned home from China to make possible the invasion of South Korea. More generally, Western prestige in Asia never recovered from the daring and well-executed campaigns by which the Japanese toppled the Europeans in the Far East in the six months from December 1941. Due in large part to the social and political energies unleashed by these campaigns, which took down colonial orders built over three centuries, a whole series of struggles across the Asian rim ensued well after the putative ‘end’ of the war.28 CoW heroically

tries to disentangle these conflicts into separate wars, some interstate, some intrastate, some extrastate, some in phases among all three. Extrastate war number 456 is the conflict that ‘started’ in August 1945 when Indonesian nationalists, who had been fight-ing the Japanese occupation forces, declared independence. They faced off first against British Indian troops sent to take the Japanese surrender and then against Dutch forces trying to reclaim their prize possession. Lacking any grip on the international relations that comprise empire, much less the social and political processes of war, CoW is left carving out wars by reference to its formal criteria and observable indicators. This is not so much to study war as to reduce it to analytic and methodological terms derived from IR theory.

27. Cf. J. David Singer and Melvin Small, The Wages of War 1816–1965 (New York: Wiley, 1972). 28. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941–1945 (London:


CoW has more to say directly about war than almost any comparable scholarly enterprise in IR and political science. Yet, rigorous as it is in collecting and coding data in its own terms, CoW does not penetrate war’s internal operations; its positivism works to deprive war of its social content. Numbers of battle deaths and a typology of war tell us little about war as a social process, which draws in peoples and polities, economies and cultures, and reworks them amidst their violent, reciprocal embrace. The effects of the Second World War are vast and continuing, and they have something to do with what happened in the war itself.

Because there is no war studies which delves into and theorises these processes, we tend to reduce the war’s effects to other social processes. So, for example, constructivist security studies cites ‘norms’ as an important source of decolonisation, not the exhaus-tion of the imperial powers in war, or the ways in which Japanese victories provided public lessons in the collapse of the imperial world’s racial hierarchy and the venality of the whites once they were on the run.29 Indian independence, in a whole variety of ways,

is impossible to imagine without understanding the interaction between the indepen-dence movement, its British overlords and the social, political and cultural experience of the two world wars, as well as how they shaped the political economy of the empire. The way in which the Raj broke up, generating successor states and their identities, politics and conflicts, is intimately bound up in the stresses and strains of an empire at war, and in the particular experiences of that war for all concerned. Yet while I could cite various histories that would support these claims, and invoke some general properties about war from Clausewitz, Delbrück and a few others, as well as some insights from a developing literature on violence in social theory and sociology, that is about all the Western acad-emy has to offer in the face of ‘the father and king of all things’.30

While the logics and practices of security are certainly a legitimate object of inquiry, it is I hope now possible to imagine a rather different response to Walt from the one offered by Buzan, Waever and de Wilde: the critical study of the phenomenon of war.

War and the International

IR and security studies scholars, especially of a more traditional ilk, may have experi-enced a growing sense of frustration as they read the pages above. Of course the states system is the site of the problem of war and whence theorising must begin. CoW may be wrapped in knots by the complex interface between sovereignty and the statistics of war, but the tradition of realpolitik entails no necessary commitments other than a world composed of armed political entities in the absence of a common power. When states choose to go to war, the conditions under which they do so and the strategies they pursue are the proper focus of any security studies, for these matters have existential signifi-cance for states and their populations. Consequently, the question of war and peace has been the subject of a long tradition that begins with Thucydides and has properly issued in a modern social science.

29. Neta Crawford, Argument and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). 30. Heraclitus, Fragments (London: Penguin, 2003), 29.


The argument of this article, however, is not that a war studies should replace security studies. The realist tradition has a wholly legitimate object of inquiry, and it is more or less obvious why political leaders, their military staffs and learned advisers turn to the traditions of statecraft and strategic thought to analyse and decide upon policy. The strategic appropriation of war has a great deal to offer in this respect, for statespersons desire to make rational calculations in so far as they are able. The argument here is rather that war exceeds these matters, that war plays a constitutive role in social and political relations that goes well beyond matters of strategy and security, and that in the current organisation of knowledge we can only glimpse this role in a fragmented fashion. A proper war studies would complement strategic and security studies, offering new insights on how war transforms the entities and relations which comprise world politics, the very ground on which strategies are made and security politics occur. But such a war studies would also go well beyond matters of state, to the cultural and social relations set in train by reciprocal organised violence, conceived as a distinct set of processes requiring their own modes of inquiry. The extraordinary social energies generated by the violences and sacrifices of war continue to work their effects long after the guns fall silent, and they do so in ways that constitutively interconnect peoples and places.

In order to illustrate and clarify some of these points, it is useful to turn the tables on IR. What happens if we approach the international as a distinct social space from the perspective of war, rather than approach war from the perspective of the international system of states? The Vietnam War has generated a fair amount of literature in security studies and IR, which can be notionally compared to what a wider war studies might offer, and the alternative histories and sociologies of world politics it might suggest. The first point to note is that the ‘American social science’ is reflected in the IR litera-ture on Vietnam broadly conceived, as is the strategic appropriation of war from a US perspective.31 Strategies of coercion, of the use of airpower, and analyses of

revolution-ary guerrilla war and counter-insurgency are the focus of much writing, as is the problem of limited war amidst the nuclear stand-off between the superpowers. Other political science literature considers the domestic political side of the war, and in particular the question of public opinion and of the war powers of Congress and the executive. Some of the most interesting IR literature to come out of the war began to combine these two strands to address the question of why the US lost.32 In these efforts, the dynamic

interaction between peoples and polities at war becomes a central object of analysis and a causal force in its own right. Similarly, some of the strategic literature probes the action–reaction cycle that particular uses of force engender, and in counter-insurgency theory this began to evolve a sociology of South Vietnam as a combatant society caught up in the reciprocal play of violence.33

This is a richer literature on the internal dynamics of a war than IR manages for the Second World War, and in that respect reflects the deep and profound connections that developed in the decades after 1945 between (US) questions of state and work in security 31. Stanley Hoffman, ‘An American Social Science: International Relations’, Daedalus 106, no. 3 (1977):


32. Andrew Mack, ‘Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars’, World Politics 27, no. 2 (1975): 175–200; Gil Merom, How Democracies Lose Small Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).


studies.34 But if this more or less exhausts the kinds of questions that security studies is

interested in, it hardly exhausts the relations that comprise the Vietnam War and its effects. Three further types of question can be imagined and are more or less reflected in scattered literatures. The first is the enormous impact of the conflict on US politics, society and culture, making a war 8000 miles away the most significant event for the US in the second half of the 20th century. This impact continues in everything from Hollywood films to electoral politics to the subjectivities of people transformed by wartime events. It plays out also in US foreign policies and the identity politics on which they are based, and shapes US use of force and the principles around which its armed forces were reorganised in the wake of defeat, which produced the volunteer professional army that made possible the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the first decade of the 21st century. In the 1990s, Kuwait and Iraq were subjected to the kind of bombing they were in part to escape the Vietnam syndrome, which returned again to help legitimate the invasion of Iraq. These various effects of the war on US society and the world can be traced in disparate literatures, but do not exist under a common analytic frame; nor are they explored with reference to the generative powers of war, but rather are addressed within diverse disciplinary terms from cultural studies to political science.

A second area the Vietnam War throws up is explored only in a very few sites of which I am aware. War is a reciprocal set of relations which draws in the parties to a conflict and reworks them in combined ways. An example of this is the Tet Offensive of 1968, which played out in differentiated but intertwined ways on the battlefield and in the vari-ous combatant societies, their leaderships, high commands and populations. Yet, very few studies of war place both (or all) parties to the conflict in the same analytic frame. Some conventional military history does this by accessing archival and other material from both sides of a battle or campaign, but this hardly begins to address the multiple interconnections between war front and home front, much less the larger social contexts of interest to a critical war studies. Examples of work that does bring together in the same study two social formations locked in violent conflict include Howard’s book on the Franco-Prussian War and Inga Clendinnen’s marvellous study of the Spanish and the Maya in the conquest of the Yucatan, which looks at the different ways in which the events of the fighting and occupation were constructed and experienced on both sides.35

While it does not address the Haitian side of the equation, Mary Renda’s Taking Haiti explores both the experience of US occupying forces in Haiti and the effects of various representations of this experience in US society, working out some of the constitutive social and cultural connections between war front and home front.36 While the demands

of this kind of inquiry for fieldwork and languages are challenging, and very little of it exists in respect of Vietnam and the US, it has the great advantage of offering a vantage point from which the ‘comet like vibrations’ radiating out in all directions from the fighting can be observed.37

34. Ido Oren, Our Enemies and US: America’s Rivalries and the Making of Political Science (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).

35. Inga Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Michael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War (New York: Macmillan, 1962).

36. Mary Renda, Taking Haiti (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

37. Clausewitz, quoted in Arden Bucholz, Hans Delbrück and the Germany Military Establishment (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1985), 25.


The third area the wars in Vietnam point to are the intertwined histories of war and empire in the making of the modern world. Setting aside the recent infatuation with the term in US political discourse, empire has often been constructed in political-economic terms. More recently, the ‘imperial turn’ literature has addressed in cultural registers the mutual constitution of core and periphery.38 Aside from the study of counter-insurgency,

imperial war remains mostly a niche literature concerned with exotic campaigns. Yet the consequences of ‘small wars’ for metropolitan and world histories are immense. Such conflicts have regularly led to political disruption, crisis and even regime change in the metropole, as for Italy in Ethiopia, France in Algeria and Portugal in Angola and Mozambique. These histories criss-cross and interconnect events that we normally consider in Eurocentric and great-power frames. Ho Chi Minh’s war arguably began at Versailles, where he learned that Western liberals had little interest in his people’s fate. But CoW divides his war into four, including the Second World War (during which Ho fought the Japanese); the French war, which began with British Indian and rearmed Japanese troops fighting the Viet Minh in 1945; the first phase of the Vietnam War, which CoW codes as an intrastate war having no categories for the US-created but sovereign entity of the Republic of Vietnam; and the US-led war from 1965. The international his-tories and sociologies by which anti-imperial violent struggles are interconnected, shap-ing one another39 as well as culture, society and politics in the West and elsewhere,

represent an almost wholly unexamined area for inquiry.

War and empire as sets of international relations both share the quality of being ‘full spectrum’ social phenomena.40 That is, they involve the complete range of social,

cul-tural, economic and political relations, shaping everything from matters of state to gender relations, from high politics to popular culture. The vision of the international that arises from war, as from empire, is of a ‘thick’ set of co-constitutive social relations, not a ‘thin’ set of state relations. Moreover, war and empire lead to analyses not of relations between pre-given entities like the sovereign and national state that inform so much work in IR and the social sciences generally, but of the international processes by which social and political formations such as nation-states are created, undone and remade. States do not make war so much as war makes states and societies. A proper war studies therefore would help further work in IR which seeks to recover ‘the international’ as a distinct and under-studied social space that is the proper object of a social science of international relations.41

Conclusion: Give War a Chance

The point of this article is not that war studies should supplant either traditional or wider security studies, much less securitisation theory. Rather, and firstly, it is to argue that 38. See, for example, Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler, eds, Tensions of Empire (Berkeley: University

of California Press, 1997).

39. See, for example, Rebecca Karl, Staging the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002). 40. Cf. Tarak Barkawi, ‘Empire and Order in International Relations and Security Studies’, in The International

Studies Encyclopedia, ed. Robert Denemark, Vol. III (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

41. Cf. Justin Rosenberg, ‘Why Is There No International Historical Sociology?’, European Journal of


the disciplinary backdrop against which the wider agenda was launched was not as imagined. Traditional security studies has only a very narrow strategic grip on the phenomenon of war. War and military affairs cannot be left to strategic studies because only aspects of these topics fall within a strategic approach. Indeed, the very idea that something like war can be controlled ‘strategically’ is part of the modern politics of war, by which political leadership fosters an aura of rationality and command against the powerful centripetal logics of war. Policy-oriented security studies assists in this illusion with its careful studies of crisis decision-making, deterrence and coercion as well as its overall emphasis on instrumental rationality.

Secondly, it is argued here that this strange decentring of war in the discipline most concerned with war and peace is part and parcel of a larger antagonism between war and the Enlightenment organisation of knowledge. The social sciences and humanities mostly have been content to leave the study of war to state officials and military staffs, who have every reason to monopolise knowledge of war, for rational control of force lies at the core of the legitimacy of the modern state. One of the first casualties of the critical study of war would be the very notion of force as a rational instrument, and therefore a critical war studies offers potential challenges to the foundation of political power: the command of force.42 The article’s main argument is a call for precisely such a war studies.

These last points regarding legitimacy begin to point to some of the power–knowledge relations around war, and their centrality to politics. One of the strands of critique of securitisation theory has been that it uncritically reflects the security politics of liberal democracies.43 A critical war studies would extend this line of critique in at least two

ways. Liberal democracies normally present their wars as defences against aggression, signalled by the renaming of war ministries invoked in the introduction. The violent imposition of Western power on the states and societies of the Third World during the Cold War was known as the defence of the Free World. Securitisation theory participates in this defensive liberal politics of war by obfuscating the possibility of aggression, or what are sometimes called wars of choice. Security politics only kick in when a threat to a referent object has been successfully securitised. Accordingly, security politics for securitisation theory always take the form of defence, of the protection of values from an existential threat. While securitisation theory allows for the possibility that leaderships cloak their offensive plans in defensive language, it offers little purchase on those offensive plans themselves. That alternative political projects and insurgencies in the Third World were securitised as a threat to the American way of life does not address the planning by the US state to create a world order conducive to US interests, and to do so through the frequent and regular use of force. The constitution of military forces in subordinate states through mechanisms of ‘advice and support’ and the orientation of these forces towards internal security was a primary modality of the operation of US power, a counter-revolutionary strategic offensive as it were, productive of small wars and their effects around the world. While securitisation theory might get to some aspects of security discourse around Third World revolution and communism in US politics, it 42. For further discussion of this point, see Tarak Barkawi and Shane Brighton, ‘Powers of War’, International

Political Sociology (forthcoming).


hardly begins to address the relations at work here between force, politics and informal empire. Needless to say, neither does traditional security or strategic studies.

This participation of securitisation theory in the defensive legitimation of liberal uses of force is one dimension of the slippage that happens when we replace politics with security, a slippage Wolfers was so concerned to warn us about. Securitisation theory imagines it has a critical handle on this slippage, in its analysis of the movement from normal to emergency politics. But the widening agenda engages in a prior sleight of hand through precisely this slippage. If we think only of security, then of course a range of threats arising from the different sectors – environment, identity, economy – come into play. A threat of violence is only one type of threat to my security. However, in respect of politics, force is not just another sector. For Max Weber and an important tradition of political thought, force makes possible politics through the provision of order, and sets limits on the kind of politics that are possible, often doing so through complex inter-national hierarchies centred on its constitution and use. It is all too easy to forget amid the everyday world of Western societies that our states too, and the orders they provide, rely on coercive power, on an iron foundation deployed at home and abroad. Greater clarity may be achieved by refiguring security as an ideological term and imagining a new critical research agenda based on politics, force and war. Security and war need once again to be put in dialogue with one another.


Thanks to the editors of Millennium, Asli Cavilik, Faye Donnelly and Nivi Manchanda, for comments on an earlier version of this article. Thanks also to the participants at the Conference on the Politics of Securitisation, Centre for Advanced Security Theory, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, 13–14 September 2010, and to those who attended the Closing Roundtable, International Relations in Dialogue, Millennium Annual Conference, London School of Economics, 16–17 October 2010. The section on ‘the strange absence of war studies’ draws on a co-authored article with Shane Brighton, ‘Powers of War: Fighting, Knowledge and Critique’, International Political

Sociology (forthcoming).

Author Biography

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, UK.