Upsurge in defence research awakens disciplinary divisions

Squeamish western Europe should take a more integrated approach to understanding war, says Ukrainian academic

April 25, 2022
 A woman holds and kisses a child next to a Russian soldier to illustrate Upsurge in defence research awakens disciplinary divisions
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The invasion of Ukraine has forced Europe to think seriously about war, but history and geography may determine which academic disciplines get an upswing in interest and funding.

The advance is broad, with politicians in Sweden and Finland contemplating Nato membership and treaty signatories such as Germany and Italy seeking to increase spending, the former pledging an investment of €100 billion (£83.4 billion).

The enlargement of standing armies will be accompanied by an expansion of defence research, said Viktoriya Fedorchak, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who has lectured armed forces across the continent. 

“There will be, probably, a decade of more funding in security and strategic areas, because you see the increase of military personnel being hired in different countries,” she said.

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The shift has reopened discussions about the study of war, a topic with academic approaches that run the gamut from the development of military doctrine through to critical discourse on the causes of conflict. 

In North-Rhine Westphalia, one of four German states to hold elections this year, the Green and Left parties are promising more support for peace research and the reintroduction of a “civil clause” in the state’s higher education law, forbidding universities from military work. 

Stefan Brackertz, a PhD student at the University of Cologne and civil clause campaigner, said recent events on peace research at his institution had been overcrowded. “A lot of people are interested in peace who were not before, or at least were not outed as peace friends, but there’s a lot of discussion about what it means,” he said. 

Dr Fedorchak said academics in her native Ukraine were less troubled by such divisions, favouring a more interdisciplinary approach than their counterparts in western Europe, who often divided themselves into war and peace studies. 

In the Baltic states, where the risk of war is perceived to be high, more practical approaches dominate, she said, whereas further west the focus is “more selective in terms of post-war or the humanitarian side of it”, and studies offer “a bit more [of a] pristine take on the matter”. “They also don’t like to be associated with warfare or military for various reasons,” she said. 

“Most of the universities are very, very reluctant, not very interested in it,” said Götz Neuneck, a retired physicist and German representative for the Pugwash Conferences, a scientist-led nuclear disarmament initiative that won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize, referring to defence research.

But despite understandable distaste, the topic of war is drawing attention across the continent, according to Antonio Calcara, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp who teaches European defence policy. He said his students in Belgium were more engaged since the invasion of Ukraine, although they often wanted to talk about daily developments in the conflict. 

He was sceptical that the invasion would dramatically shift attitudes to defence research in his native Italy, where he said a large local defence industry has few links with universities. 

Both Professor Neuneck and Dr Calcara agreed that a more interdisciplinary approach would strengthen scholarship about war, which is inherently technological and political. “Both communities should combine their insights and forces to discuss future strategic and technological challenges,” said Professor Neuneck, referring to a bridging of the war-peace divide.

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