’The Nature of War is Changing’ - Updating Deterrence with Roman Gerodimos

, par Christian Gibbons

'The Nature of War is Changing' - Updating Deterrence with Roman Gerodimos
Roman Gerodimos made ’Deterrence’ in part to address the profound disconnect between policy-makers working NATO and the general public. Photo Credit : the interviewee

Roman Gerodimos is an associate professor of global current affairs at Bournemouth University, UK and a faculty member at the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, where he has been teaching since 2010. His current research focuses on the challenges facing democracy due to globalization, digitization and extremism, threats to global security, and the role of urban public space, art and media in bridging divides.

In addition to his academic work, Roman has also written, directed and produced three award-winning experimental short films, including Essence (2018) based on an essay by legendary Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda. His first feature film, ’Deterrence’, is a documentary on Europe’s security and NATO’s past, present and future role in safeguarding this.

In this interview, our Global Affairs editor, Christian Gibbons, talks with Roman about his latest film, what’s new and what’s old in international relations today, how NATO and other organizations can keep evolving, and about the importance of values for European security.

Deterrence - Teaser Trailer 3 from Roman Gerodimos on Vimeo.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : In the past, your films have mostly focused on other subjects besides the ones which you teach about – things like cities, public space, and digital media. To what extent is this an extension of your work as a professor of global politics, and to what extent is this most recent documentary a continuation of preoccupations from earlier films ?

ROMAN GERODIMOS : I would say it’s actually both. The previous short films, which were sort of small, experimental, and slightly guerrilla, were very, very valuable as practice for me, as a way to acquire skills in filmmaking, editing, scripting, story-telling, etc. In a way, it was a logical next step for me to try my hand at the more conventional documentary format.

And in the process, I ventured out a little bit from these more artistic, or if you like, humanities or liberal arts topics into something that had more to do with current affairs. So these two worlds came together, as you say. And that also ended up being driven by a grant project that I got from NATO’s public diplomacy division.

The other thing I would say is that, although my first few films were about cities and space and media, this documentary wasn’t entirely a departure from that. Those questions of how we engage with space and with each other were quite crucial at the time, and they still are. And I very much think that although security and international institutions may be of a different scale than cities, these are still defining issues that we have to resolve or engage with as citizens.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : That was one sentiment that I walked away from the film with. You were in some ways interrogating public space, but at a different level than you had before in these past films. In the process, you also raise many interesting questions about continuity and change. For example, even if Russia is still a grave threat, hybrid warfare is not something which NATO had to deal with in the past. Conventional warfare may still largely be off the table, but disinformation seems to have become the new theme du jour. So what do you think has changed, exactly ? Is hybrid warfare just a symptom of the success of traditional deterrence strategies ?

ROMAN GERODIMOS : That’s a really interesting point. The continuity is two things, mainly. The first thing is that we shouldn’t forget that nuclear weapons are still the one thing, even more so than climate change, that can destroy this planet immediately. For me, that continues to be the foremost existential challenge that humanity faces in the 21st-century. So there’s continuity in the fact that nuclear weapons are still there, and they’re still a huge part of the balance of power and geopolitics as we know it. It’s just that this has become something which we take for granted. The other bit of continuity is propaganda. Different types of disinformation, and even fake news, have been around for a very long time – for millennia. But the way this is happening – the way that we live today, the way that we communicate today – that creates a unique blend that makes propaganda an existential threat for the fabric of societies.

The fact that the nature of war is changing is, for me, the main change. Perhaps the most important thing is that you don’t even know that a war is taking place. Until recently, if a war was taking place, there would be a physical aspect. There would be an invasion, there would be a conflict...and of course, these things still happen. But today, you can have a whole different ball game through fake news, through cyberattacks, even through pandemics. And this can lead to a total shift in the configuration of power or territory, without a single soldier having been engaged. And people wouldn’t even define it or understand it as war. So war is really becoming embedded in our daily life, and I think that’s really dangerous.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : As you say in the film : “in 21st century hybrid warfare, the target is not planting a flag, but winning the hearts and minds of the public.” But speaking of “the public” for a moment, there’s a heavy emphasis in your film on how different generations of Britons are responding to the challenges that NATO is now facing. And I thought it was really interesting that you focused so much on young Britons in particular. What exactly inspired you to look at the way that young people perceive NATO ? Do you think that more people should be asking how the venerable international institutions of the last century are perceived by Millennials ?

ROMAN GERODIMOS : Yes, absolutely. I would say that the foreign affairs community is kind of a bubble. Like any other practice community, really—you know, if you’re an architect, for example, or if you’re a community planner, you tend to focus on your own community. The problem is, this case affects everyone around the world. So I think that part of the motivation for this film was that, for a long time now, I could see an already huge gap between discourses and perceptions and interests becoming bigger and bigger.

There’s always a gap between policy-makers and people on the ground. But what was particularly problematic was how policy-makers have assumed what would be of interest to people, or what would engage people, or what people would already know. The way they talk about security is very much based on these assumptions. But, you know, I can still remember walking to my class one day, and saying “I’m going to talk to you about the new Cold War”, and hearing a student say in response, “What’s the old Cold War ?"


ROMAN GERODIMOS : We need to retell the story. I mean, it’s history, but it’s not ancient history. It’s history that has a direct effect on how we live our lives today. And it doesn’t always make for very comfortable conversation to go up to someone in NATO and say, “these people don’t even know what you do, or what you stand for”, but it’s true.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : That’s a real eye-opener. Is it also related somehow to the divided opinions we’ve seen in the past few years about NATO and other international organizations ? For instance, the WHO is not an organization that people think about on a regular basis, either. But recent challenges have really put it in the spotlight, and I think that the only consensus that has come out of that is that it hasn’t done a fantastic job, that it needs to change. How does something like that impact NATO’s mission in the 21st century ?

ROMAN GERODIMOS : At the end of the day, what the WHO, the UN Security Council, and NATO all have in common is that they are organizations that are fundamentally intergovernmental, that are based on consensus. But now, what you now have is a situation where, because of broader geopolitical developments, certain countries are starting to go their own way.

There’s now a wave of authoritarianism, not only with Russia, but with China, Turkey, and Latin America. There’s even some of that within the European Union as well, in Hungary and Poland. In the 1990s, when American-style liberalism was dominant, governments became less important : it was more about the experts, more about the stakeholders. But now I think we’re going back to a model where national governments matter, and when national governments start to flex their muscles in these forums, and use these organizations, not only to serve global public health or security, but to further their own national interests.

That creates a fundamental tension. And I think that’s really the problem at the moment with both NATO and the WHO—in very different ways, of course. With NATO, the need to please everyone at the same time is fundamentally at odds with the need to be effective, to take action, and to catch up with what’s happening in the world.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : So how can NATO update its repertoire for the 21st century ? In the documentary, for example, you discussed whether NATO should actually respond to a cyberattack by invoking Article 5. But then there are things like media literacy, too, which could serve as a kind of inoculation against disinformation in democracies.

ROMAN GERODIMOS : Well, by invoking Article 5, I don’t necessarily mean that we should nuke Moscow if Russia carries out a cyberattack. But if you can attribute a particular cyberattack to a group that is associated with a country or a government, you can put countermeasures in place. And these needn’t be about nuclear or conventional weapons. It could simply involve expelling diplomats, like Britain did after the Salisbury attacks. It could be cyber countermeasures, it could be freezing assets, it could be something else—or a combination of these things.

In the documentary, we’re basically asking : what does collective defense and deterrence mean in the age of hybrid and cyber warfare ? And I think that’s a really difficult question, because of the nature of the threat. How do you make a decision that is going to stop the other side from attacking you with these in the first place ? That’s what deterrence means.

As for media literacy—I totally believe in developing media literacy, and I think that has to be a part of the mix. There’s only so much that governments or international organizations can do at this point – although I do think that social media conglomerates have a huge part to play as well, by minimizing fake news, or making it harder to spread.

But there’s also a prerequisite for media literacy. The problem isn’t the people who are already media literate. The problem is accessing the people who are anti-vaxxers, who believe in conspiracy theories – people who are outside the spectrum of reason and logical debate. So media literacy is not just about fostering critical thinking, it’s about something more fundamental that goes to the core of our civilization. It’s about whether we are still interested in critical thinking. In other words, about values.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS : Yes, you also end up making a certain argument about values at the end of the documentary – could you expand upon that ? If shared values are essential to protecting NATO, how do we protect shared values ?

ROMAN GERODIMOS : To be honest with you, if you asked me what I thought the one big takeaway from this documentary should be, it’s this question of values. And I think that there are two really, really important things there. One has to do with NATO internally, and the conflict of values. Can NATO unify around a core set of values ? How should NATO define those values ? “Freedom” is good, but what does freedom mean when your borders are so fluid that Turkey can go into Syria on a whim ? I think what Turkey is doing in places like Syria and Libya poses an existential threat for NATO, because aside from creating a problem for other member-states, it creates a branding problem for NATO. NATO will lose its credibility if member-states individually carry out acts that go against its fundamental values. The second point has to do with young people and what I was saying about before. International organizations will become fossilized and obsolete if they can’t engage young people. And the way you do that is by persuading them that you are actually working for their values.

These values are under threat at the moment, and our collective security is basically being held together with packing tape. Political leaders in NATO, in the UN, and in the EU need to ask themselves what these organizations are really about. Are there meaningful values that we can gather and work around ? I see this documentary as something that will help get the ball rolling, and engage people who are not normally engaged in this debate. And I think the rest will follow from that.

More information about Mr. Gerodimos and his work can be found here.

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