St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference: A Review

On Saturday, the 1st of February, the St Andrews Foreign Affairs Society hosted the University’s third annual foreign affairs conference, exploring the last decade’s most fashionable security discourse with the title: “War on terror: what now?”

Image courtesy of Martin Lyle, © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Martin Lyle, © 2013, some rights reserved.

After a brief introduction from Professor Nicholas Rengger, Head of the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, the conference opened with a presentation from St Andrews’ own Dr Sarah Marsden of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence exploring the metrics involved in defining ‘victory’ between Western and Arab media in the global war on terror. She concluded that Western media upholds ideological and military benchmarks, citing death tolls, limits to American power, and the ‘hearts and minds’ battle frequently to calculate success; while Arab media uses primarily political analysis emphasising defence of democratic standards, progress in making the world a safer place, addressing root causes of terrorism, and defending Islam. By both standards, she concluded, the West, and particularly the Americans, are certainly losing the global war on terror.

Professor Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics and the Royal College of Defence Studies continued on this relatively grim note with an incredibly engaging discussion on the ethics involved in the war on terror, exploring how the changing character of warfare may require a new interpretation of ethics in combat. Professor Coker cited traditional ‘just war’ arguments against considerations of evolving military technology, focusing both on the literal and psychological changes that have accompanied the escalating use of drones in the war on terror. Concluding with a suggestion that future military conflicts may be entirely mechanised with the development of advanced technologies, and the potential for these robots to be programmed to interpret both the Geneva Conventions and social interpretations of jurisprudence.

Needless to say, the Foreign Affairs Committee luncheon was abuzz with discussions of this futuristic proposition; ranging from considerations of human psychology to applications of Volcan wisdom.

Dr Paul Rogers, professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and global security consultant for Oxford Research Group, delivered a historical analysis of the evolution of the war on terror in the past two decades, citing both the intrinsically visceral reaction of the United States to the 9/11 attacks, and the influence of the Project for a New American Century on the events that followed. The war on terror as a reaction to 9/11, Dr Rogers argued, has ultimately facilitated the international expansion of Al Qaeda, as the decision to target the organisation as a legitimate enemy has validated the group in the eyes of some. The concept of Al Qaeda, he argued, has become a sort of franchise as an idea used to recruit new members and quickly expand globally, as has been seen particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia.

While the title of the conference may have suggested a day of debates on the future of both counterterrorism and terrorist campaigns, speakers were largely reflective in their remarks, distinctly reflecting on ‘what could have been?’

The afternoon’s speakers panel acknowledged this tendency to ‘focus on the rear-view mirror,’ instead of the uncertainty of the future. This was evident with the nostalgic discussion question: How should the United States have responded to the 9/11 attacks?

Dr Louise Richardson, distinguished terrorism scholar and Principal of the University of St Andrews, offered the most idealistic proposition; suggesting that the United States could have responded without any military reaction; instead focusing on the international dimension of the attack as an ‘attack on humanity’ rather than an attack on the American people. If government officials had commissioned foreign reporters and filmmakers to showcase the stories of first generation American and immigrant victims ‘living the American dream,’ huge victories could have been possible in the ‘hearts and minds’ war. People of 62 nationalities were killed in the attacks on 9/11, and, by telling some of their stories to their respective courtiers of origin, the United States could have garnered empathy and support around the world, discouraging support for future terrorist campaigns while honouring the lives lost. This, in conjunction with a special international legal court and a Middle Eastern coalition to place international and especially regional pressure on Afghanistan to cooperate, could have enabled a huge increase in soft power security and some sense of retribution without a decade of war.

Ah, what could have been!

The full day conference passed quickly given the high level of engagement between presenters and audience members and range of interesting topics explored, though I suspect many attendees and lecturers alike left the seminars’ events with greater curiosity and uncertainty regarding ‘what now?’ in the global war on terror. This is perhaps not a fault of the conference, but an indication of the myriad intricacies that affect the future of international security. Media, social forces, weapons systems, politicians, state actors, non-state actors, and apparently humanoid robots were all identified as integral to varying degrees. When pressed for a hard prediction, one panellist joked that such a claim would only come a professional consulting contract and a check for many thousands of dollars. I suspect the irony in that was limited.

Overall, the conference went off without a hitch; unless one is to count the wine spills incurred in good fun during the festivities between students and speakers immediately following the lecture.

When asked for final, on-the-record comments on the conference at the Scores Hotel bar in the early hours of Sunday morning, both Professors Rengger and Coker responded in unison: “It was excellent!”

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