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Science, Technology and the Logics of Preventive War

A new interdisciplinary series featuring scholars from the École Polytechnique and Columbia University will take place alternately in New York City and Paris. The inaugural lecture, discussion, and reception will be held September 13, 2016 with further events throughout the year. Live streaming video events will be available on the You Tube channel of École polytechnique.

Organizers : Frédéric Brechenmacher (Professor of history of science, LinX, École polytechnique) & Pamela H. Smith (Seth Low Professor of History, Center for Science and Society - Columbia University)

September 13, 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm - Maison Française, Columbia University


In this lecture and roundtable, we aim to explore issues concerning science and technology in war. The lecturer for this opening event will be Thomas Lindemann, a professor of political science at École Polytechnique and a visiting scholar at Columbia University.  His lecture will investigate the roles played by science and technology in the normative logics of preventive war.

Round table : Carol Cohn, Yasmine Ergas, Tim Halpin-Healy, Robert Jervis.

While not legally or morally accepted, the logics of preventive war spark not only real wars such as that of World War I or the recent Iraqi conflict (2003) but provoke security dilemmas, arms races and diplomatic frictions in East Asia or the Middle East. In more recent years, concerns with China’s “unavoidable rise” predict that a future conflict is unavoidable. Decision makers and social scientists who advocate preventive war, do so devoid of any (ideological inference) “ideo”-logics. They claim to be only attentive to the “objective world”. This conference, however, will question this assumption by revealing the existing value systems behind the preventive war concept.

The conference will focus on the impact of two special world visions on preventive war thinking in particular.  The first potential candidate is a “scientist” world vision.  At least since industrialization, war has become an increasingly planed designed and calculated event and modern science now participates in the definition of strategic threats. Preventive war logics can be based on a determinist vision of human agency. If our “minds” are shaped by material forces, then appeasement or concessions do not make sense.  Furthermore, science has transformed the vision of time. Preventive war is not an option if decision makers can envision frictions or even the intervention of gods in human fates such as during the Classical antiquity. The increased introduction of statistics and data compilation in the analysis of world politics has nourished the idea that time could be “linear” and that “rising” powers will “rise” in the future.  Such a vision is notably propagated by geopolitics and power transition theories. Finally, the framing of others by “calculus” demeans adversaries to an abstract force and eliminates any empathy for them. 

However, the logic of preventive war is not just about predicting the future but also about “acting”. The very determinist idea that “force” governs world politics can also reflect a virile vision of world politics where the weak is eliminated by the strong. Moreover, the very idea of “preventive action” can be linked to the gendered narrative of the hero-protector who takes decisive and efficient measures in order to save “virtuous people” or to save the weak, the poor and the “innocent children” and “innocent women”.  This inaugural conference will explore this alliance between science and a gendered vision of world politics by studying their influence on preventive war logics on WWI and on the Iraqi war 2003.