Fatton -The Impotence of Conventional Arms Control

Here we have a comment by network member Ben Goldsworthy on the paper ‘The Impotence of Conventional Arms Control: Why Do International Regimes Fail When They Are Most Needed?’ by Lionel P. Fatton. It’s available here.


Here’s what Ben thought earlier in the year when he wrote some updates for the website that I’ve been putting up. If you’ve anything to add, feel free to pop it in the comment box at the bottom.

This paper argues that arms control regimes are fair-weather friends, effective only during pre-existing periods of mutual détente and collapsing as soon as tensions raise and military thinking begins to push out diplomacy in something of a vicious cycle. The authors explain this theoretically through the ‘phenomenon of contextual adaptation’ and practically through the examples of early 20th-century Japan and 21st-century Russia, and their experiences with the Washington System and the Treaty on CFE, respectively.

A couple more examples would have been appreciated in order to better support the case, as well as perhaps some where things were pulled back from the brink (if they exist) in order to facilitate an examination into why they turned out differently, but nonetheless the authors make a compelling case that rather undermines the utility of arms control instruments. With the US government currenly shut down (again) due to partisan intrasigence on both sides (again), I’ve been wondering if perhaps some sort of arms control agreement might be necessary in order to enshrine the depths to which neither party can sink to win political points at the expense of the nation. This paper suggests that idea is unlikely to go anywhere whilst both parties are at odds.

This phenomenon of contexual adaptation also suggests a risk of introducing autonomous machines into the conflict decision-making process. Just as the military’s sway in government increases as a result of their expertise being increasingly sought out in response to a perceived threat, an autonomous system (say, one made by the military) could be just as susceptible to seeing every problem as nail-like through its hammer-like lens. Without mandating that all autonomous weapons systems be programmed by Quakers, I’m not sure how we get around this, as any attempt to write a set of global standards to which all AWSes comply will be just as prone to adaptation.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University

UK MoD – Future Force Concept

This is our final look at the last Joint Concept Note published by the MoD. It is about the UK’s Future Force Concept and looks at how the UK military will function in the cyber, air, land, and maritime domains both independently and in conjunction with NATO and other partners.

Here’s what we thought:

Though I don’t believe this report tells us anything particularly new, it is an excellent reference work for anyone seeking to gain an understanding of ‘where the MoD is at’, and where it sees itself in relation to the world going forward. In particular, the report is broken down into the main military domains (air, sea, land, space), with additional comment on the new cyber landscape. Of course we should note here that over all of this report is hanging the ever diminishing budget for UK defence forces which have in a sense forced the hand of the MoD in some areas where we can no longer make the same level of investment that we once could.  

However, in some ways, this could be to our benefit… As the report notes, traditionally, maritime systems have been designed to last for anything up to 50 years. However, with the rapidly changing environment, such lifespans are no longer sustainable, as new technologies are fast rendering expensive investments obsolete. If the limited budgets forces us to look beyond the traditional ‘old’ way of doing things then we may be able to extract additional value from our investments, or at least be more selective in our investments, focussing on our strengths such as innovation, skills and training, and forming closer working relationships with our allies.  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


This concept note seems to be a good analysis of how the UK military can do more with less people, less money, and less advantage over of adversaries. This note seems to be both pragmatic and optimistic. NATO seems to be the cornerstone of future British force deployments. As a Brit, it is a bit disappointing to think that the UK military is scaling down its ambitions as an independent force. But, as we know, the world becoming more complex requires lots of money, materiel, and personnel. Something that the UK government has decided not to fund. Considering that most of the threats in this note don’t require nuclear weapons, it does raise the question of whether they should be a top priority in the future. But, of course, the risk of not having them in a renewed era of state aggression could be too much for any government to take. 

I don’t know what any of the answers are. I’m not sure anyone really does. But, this concept note is a great step towards considering some answers. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

What do you think?

UK MoD – Future of Command and Control

This week we continue our look at the UK MoD’s Joint Concept Notes.

We’re looking at the Future of Command and Control this time. It’s a fascinating look into how leadership, battle management, and personnel management will function in the highly-complex futures we imagine.

Here’s what we thought:

This fascinating paper gives an insight into the MoD’s position on modern-day Command and Control and the challenges faced in the new operating environment. As with other of these papers we have looked at for TTAC, the emphasis here really is on flexibility and on greater understanding of the challenges. In particular the report emphasises the need to adjust Command and Control to a given mission and situation. While technology clearly provides many benefits to defence operations, the report also highlights the vulnerabilities that technologies bring about. Especially significant here in my view is the need to ‘maintain reversionary “off-line” modes and practices as a matter of course’ (46). 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


The first thing to strike me in this concept note is the clear belief that interstate relations are going to return to an age of persistent competition. From a hard-IR-Realist perspective we’ve never left this situation, of course. However to think that states will move from an era of cooperation to an era of confrontation presents a significant change to the status quo. AS anyone with a basic understanding of IR knows, this could be really dangerous. Although I suppose thinking about dangers and being a bit paranoid is one of the jobs our defence industry has, to think the worst and plan for it so we can all hope for the best. 

What seemed to come through in this note is that the MoD know that they need to make massive changes to how they command and control their forces particularly in complex battlespaces and confrontations below the level of armed conflict. However, it also felt as though the MoD don’t really want to do this. Also, I get the impression that rather than trying to innovate and be ahead of conflict trends, the MoD is reacting to how conflicts have changed. Of course, one must take into account how conflicts progress, and the enemy gets a say in how conflicts roll, but it does not seem as though the MoD are trying to dominate situations and set the tone for conflicts. 

I also get the impression that command and control has taken a lot of information from management studies. If one swapped some words around, I think this document could be equally applicable for commanders as MBA students. That is not necessarily a bad thing, leadership and management are key skills in both battle and business. But I can’t help thinking that the note didn’t seem to have victory in battle as its major focus. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

What do you think?

UK MoD – Human-Machine Teaming

This week we begin our triple-bill of Joint Concept Notes from the UK Ministry of Defence. You can see them all here. These are basically the documents which lay out how the UK military will develop in the future, and what it’s priorities and aims are over the next few years.

The first Note we are looking at is that focussed upon Human-Machine Teaming, available here. This considers how machines will work alongside people in order to get the best out of both to create the optimum operating environment for military success.

Here’s what we thought:


I found this to be a really insightful paper, outlining the MoD’s position on AI and robotics, and in particular, the role of the human in relation to the machine. While there are too many topics covered to address in a short blog response, I found it interesting that the report highlights the potential for technology to shift the balance of power, and to allow minor actors to increasingly punch above their weight. This then ties in with the report’s others comments about use, and the need to adapt quickly to changing demands. In the example of a 2005 chess competition, the paper demonstrates how a team of American amateurs with weak computers won, beating superior players and more powerful computers, demonstrating the importance of the interface between the human and the machine (39–40). While computer power is certainly important, such power used poorly or by unskilled operators is not a guaranteed success, and so we should not take success against ‘weaker’ powers for granted.  

I was also particularly taken by a segment in Annex A at the end of the report in which the authors address the question of autonomy. Here, the report suggests that for the foreseeable future, no machine possesses ethical or legal autonomy (57), within the scope of the report’s own definition. The report then re-states the MoD’s position from September 2017 that ‘we do not operate, and do not plan to develop, any lethal autonomous weapons systems’ (58), which is an interesting remark, given the MoD’s own definition of autonomy as describing ‘elements with agency and independent decision-making power’ (57).  

 Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


This concept note is a great overview of the major issues related to the employment of AI-based technologies alongside humans in conflict situations. Something the note mentions which I hadn’t given much through to is the potential revaluation of state power not in terms of GDP, but in terms of human capital and expertise relating to robotics and AI. Whilst in my work I usually consider AI in weapon systems, that mostly relates to tactical rather than strategic advantage. Whereas considering the impact of AI in a strategic sense is something I haven’t really thought about. As the note says (para.1.9), Russia and Singapore are nations that whilst they have a modest GDP in comparison to other states, have a high level of expertise in the underlying sciences fuelling AI and robotics. This has the potential to really change the way the world works, changing the landscape of power that has dominated the world since WWII. 

Something else which caught my eye was the mention of how manufacturers can limit defence capabilities (para.1.14). By creating systems using certain techniques and methods, they become locked into hat system and might not be open to analysis or further exploitation by the military. In my research on AI in weapons, this can be problematic if the military, in particular when new systems are being tested, want to know what the underlying code does and how it works. Not knowing this can have serious impacts on military effectiveness and legal compliance. 

Whilst the note is focussed upon human-machine teams, something that stood out to me in paras 2.8-2.14 is the large number of tasks that the MoD intends to automate. To me, this seems to be reducing the human role significantly. Perhaps, then, the ultimate goal of human-machine teaming is not to have humans and machines working in symbiotic teams, but to have humans managing large machines teams instead. 

What is quite striking about this report is the similarity it has in vision to papers produced by the US military about network-centric warfare and systems-of-systems approaches to fighting wars in the 1990s. On one level it does seem like the same vision of technological superiority in warfare is just being regurgitated. However, on another, perhaps the visions is in vogue again simply because we are close to having the technologies needed to make it a reality. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

What do you think?

Heath-Kelly -Forgetting ISIS: enmity, drive and repetition in security discourse

This week we are considering Forgetting ISIS: enmity, drive and repetition in security discourse by Charlotte Heath-Kelly (Critical Studies on Security, 6:1, 85-99). It’s available here (open access). This article is a look at the security discourse of threat using psychoanalytical tools to investigate how and why threats never seem to be dealt with and how security never seems to be reached.

Here’s what we thought below. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

I have a problem with this paper. I think mainly, this is because, to me at least, it demonstrates just why some researchers are suspicious of interdisciplinarity, and the more abstract modes of thought.

At the core of this paper, the author argues that ‘Security never seems to make any progress’ (96) – there is always a new enemy, and the old enemy soon becomes forgotten. I am sure many readers would agree with this assertion, and certainly, in my own research, I have argued that security discourse is key to the operation of power both between discrete individuals, and between the individual and the state.

Where this paper goes wrong, however, I fear is in its focus specifically on the abstract with no recourse to the real world. In one example, the author argues that ‘Security is averse to vanquishing a particular enemy […] and making progress towards a state of security because the object of desire can never satisfy the fantasy. It fails and enmity must be restaged with a new enemy blocking the path to ontological security’ (90). However, there can be no escaping the fact that many threats are of themselves real, and make themselves known in a number of ways, even if their categorisation under a single banner of ‘terror’ is somewhat problematic.

The author argues then that if security were to ‘make progress’ it would thus ‘expose lack as a permanent condition of being, damaging interpolation in the social fantasy’ (97). However, it is also the case that if security were to ‘make progress’, there would be no threat, and people would not suffer at the hands of suicide bombers, knife attackers, hit-and-run drivers etc. There are also many other factors beside security that serve to construct social identity, and even if terrorism were not a thing, the absence of security discourse would not in itself expose lack as a permanent condition of being.

While I agree that security discourse is and of itself is something we should scrutinise for its discursive influence on daily lives, I fear that the author is over-analysing the problem and reading it in terms that are far too abstract, neglecting the real-world impact of the terrorism that feeds the security discourse to begin with. She also then ignores other factors feeding into this same discourse including media coverage, social media and the internet that locates threats within the knowable present. While the author may point to a ‘discursive forgetting’ (92) (a point which to some extent I agree with), I would rather argue that it’s not so much a ‘forgetting’ as such, but rather a ‘moving-on’, for the old enemy is required in order to position security apparatus as competent and thus legitimise the use of further powers to protect against future threats. It is not so much that we forget the old enemy, but rather that we know we defeated the old enemy, and as such are able to ‘defeat’ the next.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


This article is an interesting take upon securitisation. Generally I agree with the author that security discourse does seem to constantly need a new bigger enemy. The discourse always sounds like a Hollywood movie sequel where the new antagonist is always bigger and badder, and the good guys will have to dig deeper into themselves than they ever have before, etc., etc.. Plus, the next threat is always on the security horizon (pg.93), like a trailer for the next movie in the pipe line – although actually having intelligence agencies be aware of what might come next is of course a good thing. Issues might arise where the threat is overblown).

However, there are a few issues I have with it. First, the authors thoughts that a continuing military role after the liberation of ISIS-held territories is somehow problematic (pg.93). Of course there needs to be a continuing role for foreign-backed forces. How else to shattered communities rebuild their lives and cities? We know from the 2003 Iraq war and the War in Afghanistan that not doing enough reconstruction after high-intensity fighting is over results in problems later on.

Whilst reading this article I couldn’t help thinking of the constant pushing of a secruitisation discourse from US foreign policy magazines, periodicals, and think tanks. Many of them seem to be in a race to describe the newest threat and how bad it could be. Perhaps expanding upon this article to incorporate some ideas from media studies would create a greater understanding.

Further, the author (or perhaps the security discourse itself) doesn’t engage with the reality of threat. As we know from Steven Pinker’s work, we live in the safest time the world has ever known. I think acknowledging that whilst securitisation makes the threat of Islamic terrorists seem like the worst thing the world has ever seen, it is, of course, nothing of the sort. Although perhaps this criticism applies more to those people in the US foreign policy think tanks who never seem to remember this.

Overall, I enjoyed this article and found it to be greatly improved over an earlier version I heard as a conference paper.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.

Science Fiction: Visioning the Future of Warfare 2030-2050

This week we are looking at several different short stories from the US Army Mad Scientist initiative (wonderful title!), and their approach to envisioning the future of warfare between 2030 and 2050. We’ve all picked different short stories from their compendium and review them. The stories are available from this website.


The Weapons of World War Four by Oren Hammerquist (pp. 89–99) 

In this short story, a group of ‘chrome caps’ (tech soldiers) enter a village and engage with a group of enemies, using futuristic tech to engage their foes. This tech includes Skipper and Gnat drones, as well as augmented reality (AR) helmets and form-fitting body armour designed to stop bullets. 

One of the strengths of this story is the way that it doesn’t describe tech as an all-conquering panacea, and attempts to demonstrate some of the weaknesses of the military tech compared to low-tech knives and rocks. There is also then the question of power, and what soldiers might do if caught with ‘low battery’ in the field.  

While there are certainly some interesting ideas presented in this piece, there are a few areas that remain unexplored. For example, there is the nature of the relationship between the tech troopers and the military leadership. Given the nature of their armour tech and augmented reality, it is surprising that the troopers aren’t subservient to any higher power or even military computer watching as the battle unfolds. Similarly, there is no mention of camera equipment, or the use of such cameras to monitor and track soldier behaviour. 

Though the author may not perhaps intend it, the piece also contains a few telling moments of US military doctrine worthy of further exploration. At first, there is the implied racism that requests for assistance from natives must by definition be a trap (90–91)*, and the arrogance (I assume intentional) of belittling Europeans in their approach to war (91). There is also then the very interesting, if unexplored, line where the soldiers are ordered: “If you see anyone with a slingshot, shoot to kill!” (98). This has unerring similarities with US doctrine in Vietnam, and even the modern-day approach to targeted killing and signature strikes. In the world of high-tech vs low-tech warfare, can all civilians be deemed legitimate targets? 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

NB: I am prepared to give the author the benefit of the doubt and suggest this may be down to word count restrictions 

The science fiction short I have chosen to focus on from the Mad Scientist Sci-Fi Writing Competition is The Army’s Guardian Angels by Matthew Diehl (pp. 178-187). Diehl’s story is centered around a Lieutenant and his platoon who are sent on a rescue mission to save an NGO aid worker and a diplomat who are being held prisoner in an old mining facility by a local militia. The platoon is transported into the area (cue radar-absorbing wingsuits) to establish a clearer picture of the site and to determine the best way forward. Aided by an array of drones, the platoon begins the mission… 

When thinking about what we can learn from science fiction, particularly regarding the future of warfare, I think it can be tempting to focus our attention mainly on ideas within the narrative that are wildly divergent to how things are around us today. Whilst it may be true that it is often these divergent ideas that most vividly seize our imagination and excite fevered analyses, instances that maintain linear similarities to the present day can be equally fascinating and useful to consider. These moments hold a quiet significance that I think can become obscured by the very nature of their familiarity. An interesting example of one of these moments stood out when I read Diehl’s sci-fi piece. It got me thinking about the nexus that exists between divergent and familiar ideas and how exploring this might inform our thinking about the future. 

Halfway through Diehl’s story, the reader is introduced to a unified pair of combat robots that are (somewhat menacingly) named The Twins. The Twins are designed to fight as a pair and are drafted in to assist the rescue effort by clearing a network of tunnels filled with enemy fighters. The robots are described as each having ‘…one arm equipped with a machine pistol, with the other arm free to manipulate doors, climb obstacles, plant explosive charges or throw grenades’ (p. 184). The fictitious systems are also capable of autonomously picking and eliminating their own targets. Soldiers in the unit are depicted as notably cautious of the robotic duo, with one emphasising that he is “…perfectly happy to stay out of [the Twins’] way” after seeing the pair “rip through a bunker back home”. Although this incident is not elaborated upon, the notion that the robots went awry and destroyed something they shouldn’t is insinuated. Whilst the autonomous, highly mobile and weaponised robotic twins are certainly a divergence from today’s robotic systems in use on the battlefield, the sense of volatility over the robots’ capabilities and functions feels very familiar. This is analogous to the unease and concern widely felt today regarding the potential development of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) and the unpredictability that may come along with them. Accordingly, these worries may not jump out as particularly striking or notable within the storyline as they are a continuation of a line of thinking that we are very familiar with. However, by projecting today’s less-than-positive sentiments surrounding LAWS firmly into the future – specifically into a narrative in which LAWS are an accepted and active part of the fighting force – the significance of this linearity starts to emerge. It denotes a sense of normalisation of this unease/distrust towards a potentially unpredictable robotic system and comes across (through its casual delivery) as just an accepted and normal element of the human-machine dynamic within the unit. Was adapting to/accepting this unease the trade-off for the overall advantages that these robots deliver? Whether intentionally or not, Diehl’s depiction nods to the lingering anxiety (or inevitability?) that LAWS may end up being deployed (out of wartime necessity) before such systems are deemed dependable or fully trusted by the military establishment employing them. This concern is raised again when soldiers are warned not to “get ahead” of the Twins’ while they carry out their job – a measure seemingly to ensure that they and the rescued civilians in tow are not accidentally targeted by the robots. 

This highlights the potential that science fiction offers for learning valuable lessons pre-emptively. The conflicting issue of a useful combat robot versus a lack of human trust in that robot, for instance, may present significant challenges to a combat unit if such a circumstance ever came to pass. How would unit/team functionality be affected if soldiers were distrustful or concerned of their robotic teammates malfunctioning? How might this compromise the unit’s ability to successfully coordinate effect in a hostile, confined and chaotic situation? And what kind of innovative safeguards would need to be incorporated beyond software and IFF systems (Friend/Foe Identification) to maintain trust at a high enough level to ensure human-machine teaming of this sort could deliver on the battlefield with optimal efficiency? Perhaps first and foremost we should be asking – what contingency plan is in place (or, indeed not) for such an unpalatable eventuality? How would the immediate advantage of speed gained by a rival employing LAWS be assuaged effectively without resorting to a knee-jerk like-for-like deployment? These are difficult questions about a situation that many of us hope will not come to pass, but the importance of asking and answering such questions should not be swept aside by that hope. By peering into possible futures, science fiction allows us – whether directly through the narrative or through our own inferences and interpretations – to gain an insight into potential problems on the horizon. In so doing, fiction can offer us a unique window of opportunity: to take account of and move towards remedying possible lapses in our present day thinking/approach/planning that might otherwise lead us to problematic scenarios tomorrow. 

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University 


The story I read was ‘Memories of Cordite, Sinew, and Steel in a Non-Binary Future’ By Lieutenant Colonel Yukio Kuniyuki (p.100-108). At its heart is a tale that despite advances of the future, in society, tech, and in adventure, some parts of war remain the same. Although this story includes ideas of individuals of non-binary genders, increasing  numbers of women in militaries, transhuman modifications, railguns, advanced fuels, space exploration, holo-casting, and missions on Mars, the point seems to be that the nature of war remains constant. Whatever happens in the future, and whatever alliances are created, war will always be about dominating the enemy and taking their treasures. 

It would do us good to remember these facts. Intellectual thought is not immune from fashion, and it is not uncommon to hear people who think a new idea is revolutionary and going to change the world – only for it to be much the same as before. Hybrid, drone, counterinsurgency, and counterterror have all be talked of in recent years as though they are new forms of warfare, or as though they alter the character of war. They don’t, they are just different forms of irregular warfare. Which is still all about dominating the enemy. Nothing much has changed about actual warfare, it would seem. People, mostly men, are still killed and maimed by it, and the families left behind are still hollowed out. 

Our interface with war has changed, however. Since the Gulf War we’ve been able to see updates on how wars progress daily, now of course we can go onto YouTube and Instagram and watch as much video as we can manage of drone strikes, soldier’s body cam footage, and the mangled bodies following an apache helicopter attack. I’m not sure if this is paradigmatically different from the Gulf War on TV, it may just be faster. Regardless, it does seem to have altered our thinking about war, reflecting the trends of combat in research and discussion. This could be a good thing to see the worth of fighting almost contemporaneously, or it could ignore the more meaningful long-term issues such as the increase from the Napoleonic wars of civilians constituting about 90% of casualties. 

Whilst science fiction can enable us to look into interesting and useful issues in contemporary trends, it struggles to delve into the long-term problems. Perhaps wider issues may be worth considering in our research, I know I certainly am. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University. 

Using science fiction as a tool for understanding bigger issues… 

This week we are using the blog ‘Political Science Fiction’ by Chris Borgen as a springboard to discuss how science fiction in particular can be used as a method for understanding bigger issues. In his blog, Borgen discusses a number of fiction works and how they have brought on thinking about larger issues. Hopefully you will have had a similar experience that you can tell us about in the comments.

Here’s what we thought:

In this blog entry, Borgen sets out to highlight that science fiction can be a useful tool for international lawyers and foreign policy professionals. He notes that certain works provide a useful optic through which law and international policy can be considered and gives the example of Iain Banks’ ‘Culture’ series, which challenged prevailing notions of good and evil, moral relativism and ends-based justification. The ability for fiction to convey ideas that contest mainstream thought or challenge dominant narratives is certainly one of the key components that makes fiction such a useful tool for learning. Fiction can evoke alternative visions of the world (and its possible futures), or as Borgen puts it, fiction can be a way of seeing the present from a new angle. However, despite brief declarations of science fiction’s usefulness (and a great list of recommended sci-fi reads) Borgen does not reflect further on why fiction is such a useful tool or how we might get the most out of it, which I think could have been useful for gaining a greater understanding of fiction’s deeper potential. This got me thinking about what it is about fiction that makes it a particularly good tool for learning and about the process of this learning itself.

One of the greatest powers fiction both wields and enables is that of vision. By capturing a certain vision and anchoring it in place – be it through ink on a page or images on a screen – fiction both offers a vision (that denoted by the author) and demands a vision (an interpretation from the reader). As these two distinct visions collide, an ether bursting with overlapping and opposing ideas/thoughts, points of familiarity and drastic divergence is created. In order to glean the most useful insights from fiction, I think we as readers must seek to continually inhabit that chaotic space of conflictual ideas, endeavouring to tease out the unapparent by seeing beyond the surface narrative. A quote I am particularly fond of articulates one aspect of this learning opportunity nicely: ‘Vision is the art of seeing things invisible’ .1 By seeking out the invisible within fictional narratives – the unaddressed and the unarticulated by an author for example – readers can awaken useful lines of inquiry that may inform our understanding of today’s reality or tomorrow’s future. It is not only what is said or depicted within a fictional narrative that should capture our attention, but also what is left unspoken. What might such instances (whether purposeful omissions or simple oversights) reveal about the limits or flaws in our current thinking and exploration of certain issues?

Fiction is a multifaceted and ongoing process, one that begins with the author, but then wholly surpasses the author to evolve and take on a new form in the hands of the reader. With each reader’s interpretation comes a unique vision of that narrative itself, one that is imbued with countless connotations specific to that individual’s own lived experience. If fiction is a multi-layered process, then the way in which we learn from it can be too. Whilst thinking about this, I was reminded of an observation made by literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes on the difference between authors and writers. He notes that whilst writers consider their work an attempt to resolve an ambiguity of some sort, authors know that their work ‘inaugurates an ambiguity’ and offers itself to the reader as ‘…a monumental silence to be deciphered’.2 For me, this absolutely sums up the power of fiction as a medium: fiction is always a starting point and never a final destination, it is a literary spark that ignites a much vaster constellation. A constellation of thought just as much as of vision. Coming back to fiction as a tool for learning, particularly the idea of addressing the unarticulated within narratives, it is by deciphering these silences that we begin to see beyond the narrative itself and expand this constellation further. By doing so we can arrive at a deeper understanding of the limitations in the ways that we think, observe and approach certain issues; lessons vital for improving our present reality and impending future.

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University 

1) Jonathan Swift. (1745). Thoughts on Various Subjects (Further Thoughts on Various Subjects).

2) Roland Barthes. (1972). Critical Essays, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, p.190


This week’s topic is one that is very close to my heart. I am currently reading for a PhD on essentially, just this point – using science fiction to reconceptualise our understanding of modern-day biopolitics alongside the emergence of the computerised state. As such, I am more than interested in the link the author describes between SF and statecraft, plus issues relating to citizenship, surveillance, technology, autonomy and military ethics.

We should not forget here that SF is absolutely fundamental in helping normalise new technologies, or even inspiring new uses to which technology could be put. Star Trek for example, helped normalise the concept of computers in the home, while the likes of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein all helped stoke the public imaginary for humankind’s first forays into space.

One caveat I would raise here however is that while we can certainly use SF (and other fiction) to help us understand ‘bigger issues’, we do need to be careful how we analyse them. Many texts can be misrepresented or misunderstood based on a cursory, simplistic analysis, and this can only harm our understanding as a result. After all, often there is much more meaning to be found between the lines in what’s not said, rather than what is.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

In general, I think that fiction can be an excellent tool for enabling understanding and discussion of greater issues. Primarily I would put this down to the emotional connection that skilful writers can create between readers and characters, and the sympathies that one can develop with someone completely different. Afterall, there’s nothing quite like developing understanding of another’s perspective when it is too emotionally difficult to think any other way – I doubt anyone could walk away from To Kill a Mockingbird without a greater understanding of race relations. Nor could anybody walk away from James Ellroy’s works without an appreciation that all people have deep faults.

Secondarily, the artificial nature of fiction allows for situations to be created which force difficult decisions that may never happen in real life. The upshot of this is that major issues we may have been ignoring are suddenly very much in the frame. For instance, John le Carre’s A Delicate Truth shows us how even in times of human rights, some degree of social mobility, and being shielded by middle class sensibilities, we never consider the truth that everyone without power can be done over purely so that those with power can retain and expand their power.

Of course, political science fiction isn’t all good. Because stories are open to interpretation, people remember them differently. This causes some annoyance in my own work on autonomous weapon systems. I’ve lost count of the number of articles (both periodical and peer-reviewed) which suggest Asimov’s rules of robotics as the basis for governing killer robots. This is despite the entire point of his books being that his rules sound good but don’t work in practice. Perhaps this is also symptomatic of modern academic life, that there are such great pressures on people that most people don’t have the time to do their own work the justice it requires.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

To what extent do you expect nuclear weapon proliferation to change in the next 20 years? 

This week we round out our consideration of nuclear weapons with the question ‘To what extent do you expect nuclear weapon proliferation to change in the next 20 years?

 There are, of course, no correct answers. But it is interesting to try. If you try, let us know what you think in the comments box.

My main concern is less nuclear proliferation among states, but rather non-state actors. In my view, ISIS, and other groups, represent perhaps the biggest global threat today. While Iran and North Korea certainly remain a threat, they are at least ‘fixed’ and locatable, and we have heard some positive movement coming from North Korea. The real danger however to me is not so much nuclear weapons as it is biological and chemical weapons that are far easier to make and disperse. Given this fact, I fear that bio-chemical weapons may well become the new nuclear bomb. 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

Within 20 years, I would have expected Iran to have gained a nuclear weapon. Considering their regular breaching of previous nuclear deals, I am not surprised at their breaches of the current deal. This is aside from the fact that the current deal does not allow for inspection of military sites, so they could be developing bombs and just hiding them from inspectors well within the terms of their deal. 

For North Korea, I have no idea. If Trump’s surprisingly effective diplomacy actually works we could be looking at a de-nuclearised Korean peninsula. Or, a nuclear war. I don’t think anybody knows what will happen. 

However, because nuclear is such a large threat, I think it is generally pretty well maintained. I am far more concerned about powerful military (or dual-use) technologies proliferation to terrorist groups and other violent non-state actors. There is on predicting how this would play out when motives and operational capabilities of future terrorists cannot be predicted. All we know is that technology is democratising and de-centralising power, and that includes the possibility for violent action. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

Sagan – Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb 

Continuing our look at nuclear proliferation, this week we take a look at ‘Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb’ by Scott Sagan (International Security 21, no. 3 (1996): 54), available here. It is over 20 years old now, but still provides plenty of interesting points and is definitely worth a read. Let us know what you think.


Published now over 20 years ago, this article from International Security gives a good oversight of three key models to assessing the motivations behind nuclear proliferation: the security model, the domestic model, and the norms model. Each model certainly has its pros and cons, and it seems slightly strange to me as a modern reader to find out that just so little work was done prior to this article to consider any option other than the security model. The recent example of North Korea would certainly seem to suggest that nuclear proliferation in some cases is far more skewed towards the domestic and norms approach, rather than security. It is then perhaps testament to the legacy of this paper that examples such as North Korea have essentially demonstrated that the author is ‘right’ and that nuclear proliferation is far more nuanced and complex than the chain-reaction-approach suggested by the security model alone.  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


What was nice to see in this article was an acceptance that understanding nuclear issues is really hard. Perhaps it is due to my limited reading on nuclear proliferation being focussed on a number of modern papers on nuclear weapons, or that some of the players in the push towards the recent nuclear prohibition treaty presented that argument as relatively simple to make, but it does seem that a lot of thinking on nuclear weapons is fairly simplistic. Perhaps the influence of game theory parsing the discussion down to simplified win or lose terms helped with this, and indeed that is a valid route of enquiry. But I felt it refreshing to read this piece and have someone acknowledge that dealing with nuclear weapon politics is really difficult. I also liked the thorough way in which the author dealt with the troika of reasons states have for wanting to develop nuclear weapons. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University  

Moshirzadeh – Discursive Foundations of Iran’s Nuclear Policy

 This week we continue looking at nuclear proliferation with a specific look at Iran. Obviously the focus of a lot of attention in relation to its nuclear programme, this weeks paper ‘Discursive Foundations of Iran’s Nuclear Policy’ by Homeira Moshirzadeh (Security Dialogue 38, no. 4 (2007): 521–43), available here) looks at Iranian nuclear policy from a few years ago, It is interesting to see the simliarities before the most recent IRan deal and now. Let us know what you think.

This article gives an interesting insight into some of the wider factors surrounding Iran’s nuclear policy, relating it back to three key rationales: independence, justice and resistance. Just as with other readings we’ve addressed / will be addressing on nuclear proliferation, this article presents a complex picture that is far more complicated than a simple security-based approach would suggest. I was particularly interested by the author’s suggestion that a kind of national ‘identity politics’ of sorts is the prime motivator for Iran, and the influence of how they see themselves in relation to others (523).  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

Reading something on Iranian nuclear policy from inside Iran was really interesting. Indeed, in the post-modern times that we are living in, it seems that nobody is prepared to even consider view points that come from the opposite end of whatever spectrum is under discussion. So it was good to go against this trend in order to learn something from a new perspective. Perhaps it would be good for foreign policy experts to read more of this type of stuff in order to appreciate why Iran keeps cheating on nuclear deals that it, and the P5+1, spend so much time and money negotiating.  

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University