Interview with Sir Lawrence Freedman

The war studies professor on Ukraine, writing speeches for Tony Blair and late career fame on Substack

November 24, 2022
Sir Lawrence Freedman
Source: Alamy

Sir Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, where he was vice-principal from 2003 to 2013. He was the UK’s official historian of the Falklands War and served on the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War from 2009 to 2016. His latest book is Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine (Penguin).

Where and when were you born?
Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, in 1948.

How has this shaped you?
I still identify as a Geordie. I suppose a combination of being Jewish, state-educated and from the North-East meant that I saw myself an outsider, even though I’m now a knight of the realm.

What kind of an undergraduate were you?
When I went to the University of Manchester in 1967 I was drawn into student politics. I became chair of the Union of Liberal Students and was involved with the National Union of Students, so was fairly left-wing and very anti-war but always anti-Marxist. My dealings with Trotskyists in the early 1970s, including antisemitism, left me disillusioned with political activism.

How did you end up in war studies?
I took a course at Manchester on science, technology, and government which covered the nuclear arms race. This got me interested. I then did my doctorate at Oxford under Sir Michael Howard, who had set up the war studies department at King’s that I went on to run. The first thing I did was to read his book, Studies in War and Peace, and immediately realised that this is what I wanted to do.

You were appointed professor of war studies at King’s in 1982. How has the department and the discipline changed?
When I arrived I had four colleagues – two historians, an ethicist and a sociologist – and only 20 or so students. I was not considered a proper academic as I’d come from a thinktank and met with policymakers and wrote for newspapers. My aim was to grow the department and that required raising its profile and bringing in grants. Growth took time, but once it took off in the 1990s with undergraduate as well as postgraduate degrees, it became rapid – so there are now more than 100 staff and 1,000 students.

With enormous amounts of real-time information available on social media, has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed the nature of war studies?
The Russo-Ukraine war is the biggest I have followed by far. Like the Falklands it is mainly between regular forces, and not an army fighting an insurgency, but the scale is quite different and the Russian tactics have been vicious when directed against the civilian population. Also, the detail with which one can follow the war is extraordinary, with maps and footage published every day. It is possible to get immersed in it. But this is a very grim and bloody war: no one in this area should ever treat it like a spectator sport.

In addition to having 115,000 Twitter followers, you have thousands of paid Substack subscribers who receive regular blogs from you and your son, Sam, a political commentator. Do you see more academics going down the Substack route?
I wouldn’t urge people to do it as a career move – you need a lot of followers before you can start paying off your mortgage. But I’ve enjoyed doing it with Sam. We’re an intriguing double act: he covers UK politics and I do foreign affairs. There is an appetite for this kind of commentary. I still write for newspapers but, for academics, self-publishing has its advantages: you write what you want and at a length that suits you. I’ve found that people welcome the historical background that can be included with long-form pieces. It also helps that it is up to date as published. It is an enjoyable way to write and certainly goes against the idea that everything online, or connected to social media, has to be reduced to a couple of hundred characters.

You’ve written extensively about political and military leadership and been involved in university management as vice-principal at King’s for a decade. Which is more difficult?
I’ve spent my career writing about policymaking – other people can recreate battles better than I can, but my strength has been showing how decisions are taken. My experience in university management added to my view of strategy. There is no point in acting like a military commander. People don’t jump to attention when you enter the room. You have to rely on persuasion. It helped to be entrepreneurial with an eye on fundraising and value for money. The best thing was always empowering exceptional people and bringing them together and seeing how they could achieve extraordinary results. That said, the pressures are different from the military sphere: however much you get things wrong in universities, people don’t die.

You provided a draft for Tony Blair’s famous Chicago speech on foreign policy. Do you regret this given how such thinking was used to justify the Iraq invasion?
I was asked to provide some ideas and – to my surprise – they ended up in a speech. The first part of my draft explained why it might be necessary to interfere in another’s internal affairs but then set five tests that needed to be met before any military intervention should proceed. Blair later acknowledged that applying these tests did not give a clear green light for the invasion. The Iraq inquiry stressed that one key test was not met: diplomatic efforts had not been exhausted. So, I don’t feel the draft was wrong. It is interesting that something I wrote in an afternoon became one of my best-known pieces of work.

What keeps you awake at night?
I started off writing about nuclear weapons strategy so if you can get your head around that, and still sleep, you can process most things.

Where will the conflict in Ukraine be in one year’s time?
I find it hard to believe we will be in a similar stage this time next year. My most optimistic prediction is that it will be over, and Ukraine will have prevailed. It is still possible that the war will be ongoing, at a much lower level.


1970 BA (Econ), University of Manchester
1971 BPhil, University of York
1975 DPhil, University of Oxford
1975-82 Appointments at Nuffield College, Oxford, the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House)
1982-2014 professor of war studies, King’s College London
2003 The Official History of the Falklands Campaign
2003-13 vice-principal (research); vice-principal (strategy and development), King’s
2013 Strategy: A History
2017 The Future of War: A History


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