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When scholarship meets politics

Dr Eric Herring

Dr Eric Herring

A car bomb in South Baghdad, Iraq

A car bomb in South Baghdad, Iraq

19 September 2009

Dr Eric Herring from the Department of Politics conducts research into critical security studies, which relates security scholarship to progressive social change.

Traditionally, security studies focused on the study of strategic problems, especially those that relate to the use of military power by states, often in relation to other states. Before 1945, security studies was very much the preserve of the military. When nuclear weapons became viable, however, the US Government’s effort to make sense of these new weapons led it to fund the creation of a body of civilian and academic strategists, which was emulated in other countries. Consequently, academic security studies has to a great extent been funded by the state in order to help the state address specific issues.

The problems with that approach are twofold. Firstly, there are wider things that affect the security of states, such as environmental, social, political and economic concerns, so the threats to security are not just, or even mainly, military ones. Secondly, and more importantly, just because a state is secure, that does not necessarily mean that the population within it is secure. The state may even be the main threat facing the population. For instance, Saddam Hussein managed to secure his state for a considerable period of time, but at substantial cost to the inhabitants. Even in liberal democratic states, individuals and groups may be insecure while the state is secure. Hence there are significant tensions between what the state means by national security and what security actually means to society within that state.

Saddam Hussein managed to secure his state for a considerable period of time, but at substantial cost to the inhabitants

The notion of ‘critical’ security studies, the sub-field within which Herring works, gradually emerged to challenge traditional security studies. Its premise is that the state, including liberal democratic states, can be as much of a threat to society as it is a provider of security. Furthermore, critical security studies seeks to challenge rather than assist states in ventures that could be described as ‘imperial’, such as when one state invades or pressures another, primarily for its own interests and in an exploitative manner.

One of the important aspects of critical security studies is that the current agenda is not accepted at face value, but must be examined to ascertain how it was constructed and what interests that might serve. Thus when Herring became interested in the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions imposed on Iraq in August 1990, he began to research the political agenda around sanctions since he, personally, did not accept that comprehensive economic sanctions which have a devastating impact on the civilian population are a legitimate instrument of policy.

Iraq has become a fragmented state in which political authority is divided and disputed

As a scholar, however, Herring’s role was to understand and research what was happening and why, and assess the justifications for the policy. In the course of his research, he conducted fieldwork in Iraq and interviewed policymakers in New York and London in order to assemble a picture of the impact that the sanctions were having on the civilian population and on the political goals that were being pursued through them. This enabled him to contribute in a scholarly way to the debate about the legitimacy and effectiveness of such sanctions. Thus when Iraq was invaded by a US-led coalition in March 2003, the large number of contacts Herring had established, enabled him to extend his broader thematic concerns – about how critical security studies scholarship relates to progressive social change – to the case of the occupation of Iraq.

One of the outcomes of this work was a book, Iraq in Fragments, jointly authored with Glen Rangwala at the University of Cambridge, which examined what kind of Iraqi state was emerging out of the occupation. Their conclusions were that while the US expected to be able to establish a liberal democracy with an open economy that would serve as a key US ally in the region, the very nature of the US and British policy in Iraq had created incentives for unregulated local power struggles because the two countries were more concerned with finding local allies than with building a coherent state. Thus the main legacy of the US-led occupation, the authors contend, is that Iraq has become a fragmented state in which political authority is divided and disputed. Herring was invited to give evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence regarding these issues.

In the meantime, a significant body of elite and informed public opinion had emerged against the kind of comprehensive economic sanctions that had been imposed on Iraq. When the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs decided to conduct an inquiry into the UK’s sanctions policy, Herring was invited to act as its Specialist Adviser in July 2006. The position involved duties such as providing background briefings for committee members, suggesting and preparing questions for witnesses, and acting as principal author of the Committee’s report. The key findings of the Committee’s report were that:

• comprehensive sanctions are likely to result in severe suffering among the general population, with Iraq being a prime example

• the Government should ensure that objectives are always clear and  realistic, and that an exit strategy is developed before sanctions are imposed

• the Government should be more active in promoting systematic monitoring

and independent expert review of sanctions policy

• the costs to British business arising from compliance with UK sanctions policy were relatively minor


The House of Lords inquiry found that although comprehensive economic sanctions had been discredited among most of the academic and policy community, the British Government made it clear in its oral and written evidence that it disagreed. Its view was that while the sanctions had been costly for the civilian population – although they disputed the degree of cost – comprehensive economic sanctions may nevertheless still be worth imposing on a society, if the goal was sufficiently important. Consequently, other than minor concessions, the policy remained intact.

Although select committees can influence policy, Herring points out that wider political developments are often much more important. With regard to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes, for example, the committee’s report advocated a shift in emphasis away from sanctions towards positive incentives. Such a shift has in fact occurred, but as a consequence of the change from the Bush to the Obama administration, rather than because of any change in UK policy.

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