War and Intelligence Conference – Aberystwyth 2014

On the 3rd and 4th of June, 2014, the Security Research Group, at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University, held “War and Intelligence Studies: Challenges for the 21st Century: A Postgraduate and Networking Conference”

SRG Photo

The SRG Committee thanks the British International Studies Association Postgraduate Network (BISA-PGN) for funding the conference. As well as funds from BISA-PGN, the SRG was able to secure funds from the Department of International Politics and the SRG’s own annual budget. The SRG was also able to benefit from generous material support from the Department like the use of the Department’s Main Hall, lobby, kitchen, printing and welcome pack materials.

In attendance there were:
12 presenters (PhD Candidates, 7 from Aberystwyth, one each from Warwick, St. Andrews, Nottingham, LSE, and Newcastle)
3 Guest Speakers: Professor Andrew Lambert (KCL), Dr Chris Kinsey (KCL), Dr Gerry Hughes (Aberystwyth)
8 chairpersons (7 Aberystwyth lecturers, 1 recently retired Professor)
4 attendees (Aberystwyth PhD and Master’s students)
Please see the conference handbook for full details.

The SRG is pleased to report that the conference was a success. Only one presenter on the handbook failed to appear. The conversations in the Q&A were extremely rigorous and thought-provoking, but most of all constructive for the PhD candidates. The atmosphere of constructive engagement was taken to heart by all present and we think everyone received great feedback and further ideas that students can take on board as their theses develop.

The topics of the papers varied, from Big Data, women in intelligence, US geopolitical discourse, the English School and the social institutions of outer space, Polish-Russian communities regarding Kaliningrad, private military companies, children in warfare, civilian unmanned aircraft, Clausewitzian theory, and psychology and counterinsurgency in the digital realm.

Our visiting guest speakers provided sterling lectures and provoked much discussion. First, Dr Kinsey very much joined in the spirit of the conference by presenting a current co–authored work-in-progress of his own. He presented on the much-ignored topic of modern military logistics and contracting, using postcolonial theory to explore the possible exploitation of third-country nationals in supplying Western expeditionary force. An intense discussion followed on the issue of logistics and economic power relationships demonstrating the need and attractiveness of further research in this area.

Second, Professor Lambert – flanked by Professor Martin Alexander – delivered an energetic and impassioned keynote lecture on seapowers, landpowers, and ‘total war’. The lecture spanned from the classical history of the clash between Rome and Carthage to Pax Britannica in the 19th century culminating in observations of China as a landpower ill-suited to the musings of Alfred Thayer Mahan. He argued that seapowers are inherently limited powers, uninterested in “ruling the world”, annihilating, or subjugating first-rate landpowers. The discussion afterward centred upon Britain’s
continued dependence on the sea for bare life and its seapower conundrums with an ever-shrinking military budget.

Two workshop sessions were held. One explored the prospects and pitfalls of various publishing paths, chaired by Dr Jenny Mathers and Dr Chikara Hashimoto. When and how to publish were burning questions on the minds of the junior academics and many useful tips were provided to help PhD candidates stand out in an increasingly competitive job market. The second workshop session explored at careers in the discipline, which was chaired by Professor Martin Alexander and Dr Huw Bennett. How to pitch one’s skills and target job applications were some of the time-saving strategies proposed.

Two roundtables, chaired by Dr Jan Ruzicka and Dr Alistair Shepherd, served as lively general seminars to discuss the themes and burning issues that had arisen during the course of events. The limits of studying contemporary warfare issues, impartiality and the threat of patriotism in research, and the problems of public discourse were some of the recurring topics.

In addition, constant references to the catastrophic events of one hundred years ago were made throughout the conference. The looming anniversary of the ‘Great War’ served as a useful benchmark to contrast with past experience, but also to draw similarities. Indeed, the more things have changed, the more things seemed to have remained the same. The return of the ‘attractiveness’ of geopolitics and strategic studies as methods to understand war and peace seems to coincide with this anniversary, following its relative decline throughout the later years of the Cold War and the Post-Cold War era. However, as the work presented at the conference shows, we would do well to consider other modes of thinking in addition to the classical approached, such as postcolonial economic approaches, the questions of gender, and the implications of information overload. Indeed, ontological, epistemological, and methodological diversity within war and intelligence studies was evident thanks to this Conference.

The conference dinner proceeded well on the 3rd of June, held at the Pier Brasserie. The weather in Aberystwyth co-operated and our guests were able to enjoy a sunny evening and typically beautiful seaward sunset as the night drew in. As luck would have it, for our dinner on the second night of the Conference with Professor Lambert, the sun again was present to provide a marvellous end to the Conference.

Overall, this conference provided a rare opportunity to bring together junior academics in war and intelligence studies to present works in progress to audiences in the same general field, away from the British centre of gravity of London. Aberystwyth provides an academic environment that invigorates the theoretical mind and draws the policy world to it to gain alternative views on policy-relevant issues. We hope that this will be the first of many postgraduate-orientated strategic studies conferences in Wales.

For more information, please see the event blog here.

Bleddyn Bowen
blb7 [at] aber.ac.uk