War in International Thought by Jens Bartelson: A Review

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The Book received the International Studies Association (ISA) Theory Section’s 2018  Book Award.


Based on the approach called historical ontology, first developed by Michel Foucault and Ian Hacking, Jens Bartelson, in his award-winning book ‘War in International Thought’, seeks to unearth the underlying and unvoiced assumptions about the nature of war. Bartelson contends that different conceptions of war have taken these assumptions for granted and consequently shaped our understanding of the nature of war. In his view, the idea of war being an inevitable historical reality has its roots in the widespread belief of war being a productive force. Bartelson, however, directs his inquiry, not into the productive capacity of war; instead, his focus is on the implications that the underlying belief of this being the case has on the current global order and the performative role that war plays today.

To such end, Bartelson employs the doctrine of dynamic nominalism: first developed by Hacking — which is also an integral tool of conducting historical ontology. Dynamic nominalism is the idea that, although what things can do or cannot do is not restricted to our description of them, when it comes to human beings, because of the ways we classify people and put them into categories, the resulting categories put limits on human actions. Such classifications mould people’s self-conceptions and subsequently, their actions. Moreover, the resulting categories, in turn, interact with the modes of classification and produce new conceptualisations and revisions.

In the same vein, Bartelson argues that the seeming inevitability of war as a historical concept and practice owes its roots to the historically constructed self-actualising beliefs about its meaning and necessity ­— even though war is neither a natural phenomenon nor a necessity. From the early seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, despite war being defined in manifold ways, from a law enforcing mechanism to one conducted between sovereign equals, the practices of attributing ontogenetic functions to war represent a striking continuity. The reasons for believing war as a means of law enforcement are often distinct from the reasons for believing it as an armed contest between equals. Believers in the ontogenetic capacity of war, however, create conditions where law enforcement and armed conflicts would make sense. Bartelson thus argues that the validity of the mantra “war made state and state made war” results from its looping effects: the concepts, categories and classifications devised by people to describe themselves are performative as they ‘loop back’ in their attempt to define and limit what they are required to represent and explain.

Bartelson ends his book by issuing a clarion call to the critics of war to stop committing the mistake of pinning faith on the assumption about the constitutive roles of war and violence; unless we stop continuing to subscribe to the violent imaginary about the ontogenetic capacity of war, he argues, its looping effects will further perpetuate while at the same time exonerating the human actors from culpability.

Bartelson’s observation on the modern-day attribution of ontogenetic conceptions to war deserves further comments. Since the end of the Cold War, the policy of non-intervention has taken a backseat, and military interventions in the guise of responding to humanitarian catastrophes and waging preventive wars have proliferated. From an ontogenetic framework, these interventions are attributed to be productive in the sense that they create the conditions of establishing new political orders in the so-called failed states by securing a monopoly over violence. Indeed, this exclusive focus on maintaining security has come at the expense of any attempt at instilling democracy. The preoccupation with the ontogenetic conception of war is laid bare by the insistence that monopoly over violence prefigures social and political order. In a modern world, where most conflicts are fought within national borders — a significant majority of which experience external interventions — Bartelson’s observations are insightful. Following Bartelson’s suit, a pertinent question could be raised vis-à-vis whether the insistence for prioritising security over democracy delivers the results it promises to deliver.

Existent research on this avenue supports contrarian viewpoints to those held by the purveyors of military interventions. When peace in the form of establishing a monopoly over violence is prioritised over democracy, neither peace nor democracy could be maintained in the long run. Indeed, insistences as such lead to the concentration of power in the hands of a few; thus paving the way of destabilising the order so precariously established by achieving a monopoly over violence. Military interventions launched to create a new and stable order often seem to yield the opposite result by creating grounds for further conflicts and through undermining post-conflict democratic stability.

Although the ontogenetic conception of war deems certain types of war to be conducive towards establishing a stable social and political order, particularly those that are carried out by the West, as it simultaneously considers others types of wars to be destructive to the political order and recommends them to be suppressed, in reality, however, hardly any difference could be discerned between the two. It seems that the ontogenetic conception of war played a crucial role in Western military interventions in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq justified were under the guise of preventive warfare, while humanitarian concerns justified the intervention in Libya. However, neither monopoly over violence could be established, nor could any cohesive social and political order be formed.

In a similar vein, Bartelson’s thesis about the co-constitutive relationship between war and law that has evolved on par with the sovereign state and current global order is particularly illuminating. It transpires that the laws of war are not universal; instead, they vary across spatial borders. When violence is waged in territories inhabited by people deemed as savages by the West, the laws of war, which otherwise put specific constraints on waging war, need not apply — unbridled violence can be waged against the native savages. Such distinction is made because the natives are considered unable to abide by the proper conducts of war — who are only capable of savagery.

Another looping effect is at play here: the ontogenetic conception of war being a productive force, that played a constitutive role in the formation of international law, is being modified and constrained by the very same international law that not only makes a distinction between productive and uncivilized wars but also hands over to the West the prerogative to wage battles in crude ways beyond its borders. The treatment of the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp is probably the most lucid practical manifestation of such dichotomous application of international law. Because the Guantanamo Bay lies beyond the constitutional jurisdiction of the United States, the United States government considers it acceptable to deny detainees the rights that are considered inalienable on United States soil. Does it mean that the ontogenetic conception has given rise to a particular concept of sovereignty where military capabilities determine to what extent international law should be applied or followed?

A pertinent could be raised about the central contentions of Bartelson’s theses. Has the looping effect of the ontogenetic conception of war formed a closed loop — as a result of which war, despite its contingent instantiations, will be waged in perpetuity? Does it create an “Iron-cage” as described by one of the reviewers of the book? If not, how should we approach the ontogenetic conception of war if we aim at untangling this loop? Another question concerns the doctrine of dynamic nominalism that Bartelson employs in his book. Dynamic nominalism states that the resultant categories interact with the modes of categorization and bring new conceptualizations and revisions. However, is it ever possible for the categories to dismantle the very same modes of categorization that gave rise to them in the first place? If so, would that be a possible way to escape the ‘iron-cage’ of the ontogenetic conception of war?

As Bartelson points out, subjectivity seems to be at the heart of the ontogenetic conception of war. His analysis lends further credence to the idea that knowledge production has subjectivity at its core. Those who contribute to the perpetuation of the ontogenetic conception of war remain nonchalant to this very fact. By that same logic, the knowledge Bartelson produced also has a subjective element. However, as correctly pointed out by his critics, by not situating himself, Bartelson does not seem to address this issue. If we take up the mantle on his behalf, what new phenomena would we discover? Bartelson’s analysis seems particularly euro-centric. Although the global south is, to a certain extent, moulded by European ideas about sovereignty, laws of war and conceptions of war, to what extent can Bartelson’s theses be applied in the global south? Do his theses equally apply to countries in the global south who conduct military interventions? If we are to bridge Bartelson’s theses and those that originated in the global south, i.e., the post-colonial theory, how should we approach? In his book, Bartelson seems to have taken the initiative, but further clarification would have undoubtedly benefited the interested readers.



About the Author

Jens Bartelson is a professor in political science at Lund University, Sweden. Jens Bartelson received his doctorate from the University of Stockholm in 1993. His fields of interest include international political theory, the history of political thought, political philosophy, and social theory. Jens Bartelson has written mainly about the concept of the sovereign state, the philosophy of world community, and the concept of war in international thought.


About the Book:

Analyzing how the concept of war has been used in different contexts from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, Jens Bartelson inquires into the underlying and often unspoken assumptions about the nature of war, and how these have shaped our understanding of the modern political world and the role of war within it.

The Book received the International Studies Association (ISA) Theory Section’s 2018  Book Award.



Siddhartha Dhar is a writer and translator. He is currently a student of Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden. His twitter handle is @dh_siddhartha




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