Christopher Cocker est professeur de relations internationales à la London School of Economics. Spécialiste des questions stratégiques et militaires, il mêle dans son analyse des approches historiques, philosophiques, anthropologiques et éthiques qui font de ses ouvrages des références incontournables. Il a bien voulu répondre à nos questions.
Part of your scholarship explores the notion of “post-modern war”. In your view, what are the key defining features of war in the 21st century?
My research has been looking at the extent to which war takes two forms: an instrumental and an existential form. The instrumental is why states go to war, the existential is what motivates soldiers on the field to go the extra mile. I think that in the 21st century, we will see this existential element of war hollowed out more and more. My current research is on robotics, cyber networks and the robotisation of war. It is clear that robotics and the relationship between human and robots will be the future.
How do you relate this aspect to your previous research on the « warrior ethos »?
The book was about the extent to which this warrior ethos can survive in a robotic world. It will, in terms of special forces and similar military units, but I think that the warrior ethos is something that is essentially under threat. People say that the great advantage of robots is that they don’t suffer from human weaknesses. In my next book, I go a lot about how engineers try to rend robots capable of taking their own moral decisions. All these aspects of virtue and ethics, that are at the heart of the warrior ethos and are drilled into the soldier so that he does the right thing on the field, are now questioned by moral philosophers, psychologists and social scientists. And the great thing about robots is that they are predictable 100% of the time. Our societies are valuing consistency as a moral principle, instead of character. That’s why the warrior ethos is under threat: because it is at its heart dependant on character.
Barbarous philosophers is drawing on continental philosophy, an approach different from mainstream American political science. What are the best intellectual tools to study war?
The reason I went back to philosophy is to investigate the nature of war. I consider myself a phenomenologist of war, and that’s what Clausewitz was, for example. Clausewitz was not a philosopher of war, he was a phenomenologist: he was trying to understand war as a phenomenon. My concern, when I started in this field in the 70s, was that American political science is based on the rational actor model, while I strongly believe that we do not act in our interests, because we do not understand what our interests are. I recently discovered a nobel-prize winning economist called Daniel Kahneman who argues that the reason why economists keep getting the basic facts about economy wrong is that they insist on the rational-actor model. But if they were to introduce irrationality in their models, they would not be able to do the mathematics. That’s why they gave him the price, and that’s why they ignored him: they know he’s right, but they can’t afford to admit it.
In the subject of war, the Americans try to get tragedy out of the picture. Strategic studies used to go back to the understanding of the basic features of human nature, which the Greek tragedy and philosophy gave us. Tragedy, just like strategy, is paradoxical. But this approach has been banned from American political science and strategic studies as taught in the United States, with disastrous results from Vietnam, through Iraq and now in Afghanistan. So, for people like me, it’s a losing battle, especially now that the nerds and the geeks take over the battlefield, and the Americans continue in that fruitless exercise of trying to make war scientific. Nevertheless, a lost cause is still a cause worth fighting for.
What will be the new fields of security studies in the next years?
I think it will be increasingly technological. Culture is the fashion of the moment, and that will continue for some time, but as we move into a world in which the United States become uninterested with interventions on the ground and focusing their energy on the war with China that is coming, then issues like cyber-space and outer-space will become critical. Two nuclear powers cannot fight a conventional war at land or at sea. The only way they can fight a war with reasonable safety is either cyber space, or outer-space. And in both cases, the war could be over in 48 hours, with a conclusive winner. So that is where, I think, the Americans will invest efforts and research, at least for the next 20 years.