Civilisations, Barbarity, Conquest, Legitimacy and Crimes of War


The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of this year has cast a glaring new light on a very old but ever more urgent question. In his lecture John Dunn asked, if there are any terms on which the human population of the world could still hope to live with one another in peace and personal freedom into a future of many generations? Could we still create together a modus vivendi of real duration? We know now, as we did not yet know in the year 1940, in which John Dunn was born, that any future generational horizon is in ever starker jeopardy because of the colossal and ever less controllable harm we are inflicting as a species on our global habitat. We know, as we could have known in much of Europe for at least three centuries, that the world was then, as it mercilessly remains, a vast distance from realising those terms and that it could not in principle realise them at all rapidly. We still have only a tiny repertoire of forms through which to try to act collectively on any scale: international agencies, civilisations, states, peoples (or, if you prefer, nations) – each of doubtful efficacy and eminently questionable legitimacy. Which of these forms could still take how much of the strain and how and why could war still feature as anything but grounds for despair within that ever more desperate struggle? We have never had any clear idea of how the world could be made a just world for its human inhabitants. Do we still have any rational horizon for collective hope over time?

John Dunn is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at King's College, Cambridge, Harkness Fellow at Harvard, and Fellow at King's College in Cambridge. He is currently Krzysztof Michalski Fellow at the IWM.

IWM Rector Misha Glenny introduced the speaker and moderated the evening.

A transcript of this event is available as a download.