Announcing the Brearley Essay Prize 2023

The Stubbs Society is delighted to announce the opening of the 2023 Brearley Essay Prize. Aimed at year 12 and 13 students, the competition seeks to foster a deeper interest and understanding among school-aged students of the fields of foreign policy and defence. The competition also gives students an extra-curricular opportunity to write a university level essay while still at school. More can be found out about the competition here.


A New Partnership – The Naval Review

The Stubbs Society is delighted to announce a new partnership with The Naval Review. Stubbs Society members can now access a 50% discount on a subscription to The Review, which provides up to date, world leading articles and analysis of the maritime and naval industry. More information can be found in the gallery below. Join the Stubbs Society now to make use of this fantastic partnership.

Ukraine Conflict

Ukraine and China – Sir Clive Johnstone

Former Vice Admiral Sir Clive Johnstone addresses the Stubbs Society on a wealth of issues

The Stubbs Society was honoured to be joined by Sir Clive Johnstone, former Vice Admiral in the Royal Navy for a talk and Q&A on 6th June 2023. The event proved highly insightful: Sir Clive had a career which began with commands of frigates and culminated with him being Commander, Allied Maritime Command during which he oversaw NATO’s maritime forces. Through this prism, he gave the Stubbs Society an unparalleled insight into the state of modern naval warfare, examining: the South China Sea and the 9-dash line; the importance and utility of Britain’s new aircraft carriers; and Russia’s ability within the realms of undersea warfare and sabotage capabilities.

Additionally, Sir Clive gave the Stubbs Society a detailed overview of his thoughts of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. He outlined what he thought to be the next stages of the conflict, while highlighting the extent of Putin’s blunders and misjudgements. Similarly, he underlined the vast training programmes which the UK has provided and continues to provide to Ukrainian Soldiers, and the resultant effect that this has had on Ukraine’s ability to fight and adeptly strategize, often more successfully that their adversaries.

The Stubbs Society would like to extent our thanks to Sir Clive for making the time to talk to us, and to Oriel College for hosting. 


Technology and Ethics in National Security – Simon Hosking

The Stubbs Society for Foreign Affairs and Defence was delighted to host Simon Hosking for a lecture and discussion on 25th April 2023. Simon, having spent 20 years in the Foreign Office and now employed by Deloitte as a Partner in helping with Cyber, Defence and Security affairs, provided The Society with a fascinating insight into the world of cyber security. Mr Hosking highlighted the intricate decisions that policy makers are currently facing, emphasising the great difficulties associated with data storage, access and availability. In doing so, he opened Member’s eyes to the international moral maze that cyber-security currently dwells in, underscored by various sophisticated questions posed to the Members about which little agreement could be found. Additionally to the ethical questions considered, Mr Hosking elucidated a complex view of other international cyber-security questions, and urged members to consider the extent to which legislation could order the international cyber-world, another point about which opinions were greatly varied. The Stubb’s society wishes to thank Mr Hosking for taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak to us.

International Relations News Updates

Winner of 2023 Brearley Essay Prize revealed

We are delighted to announce that this year’s winner of the Brearley essay prize is Henry Rugg’s essay on ‘What makes a country powerful?’. This year the standard of entries was particularly high so we’d like to congratulate all those who submitted essays. The winning essay can be read below.

What makes a country powerful? Henry Rugg, Dame Alice Owen’ School

A Tale of Two Cities

The Malaysian city of Johor Bahru is connected to Singapore by a causeway merely a kilometre in length. Both cities are located at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, share the same equatorial climate and temperature, and share the geographical advantage of being at the nexus of major shipping lanes that connect the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Location-wise, Johor Bahru and Singapore couldn’t be more similar. But the economic differentials tell a markedly different story; Singapore’s GDP per capita is over 8 times greater than Johor’s (Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2021). The differences in the standard of living are equally stark: a person living in Singapore can expect to live around ten years longer than their neighbour in Johor (, 2022), which to put it in perspective, is the same difference in average life expectancy between the UK and Iraq. Furthermore, a Singaporean can expect access to government-subsidised housing and universal healthcare of a quality that the Malaysian government simply doesn’t have the money or resources to compete with. But given that Malaysia is considerably larger than Singapore (470x times larger to be precise) and has six times the number of people, you would surely expect Malaysia to have a better funded, better equipped military. Such an assumption would be incorrect; in 2022 Singapore’s defence budget of $15.8 billion staggeringly exceeded Malaysia’s budget of $3.9 billion (globalfirepower, 2023)

Figure 1: The Johor-Singapore Causeway 

How can two countries be so close yet so different? Why is Singapore considerably smaller than Malaysia yet considerably more powerful? The vast disparities between Singapore and Malaysia can be explained by the divergent paths these nations took after the British relinquished colonial rule in the 1950s; Singapore created economic and political systems that generated growth and prosperity for the vast majority of its citizens, whilst Malaysia did not. In parsing the systemic differences between Singapore and Malaysia, this essay will establish a framework for power, viewed through the lens of a country that has not been endowed with a wealth of natural resources or land, but whose rise to power over the last half-century has hinged upon the strength of its economic and political systems.

Pluralistic political and economic systems 

Power and prosperity are intimately linked- without creating sufficient wealth a country cannot fund its defence, provide public services and technologically innovate. For a country to generate prosperity, and with it power, it must establish ‘pluralistic’ economic and political systems. 

A pluralistic economic system fosters economic activity, productivity, and prosperity for the benefit of broad subsets or ‘pluralities’ of people in society, not just for the benefit of a ruling political elite. The conditions that underlie a pluralistic economic system are an unbiased system of law, the provision of public services to create a level playing ground, and well-enforced property rights that are enshrined within the law- since an entrepreneur or business person who expects their produce to be expropriated or taxed away by the state has little incentive to produce. It is imperative that an economic system is based on pluralism, creating a society whereby anyone with a good idea can start a business, any person with a gift or talent for a particular activity can pursue it, and better, more efficient firms can routinely replace less efficient ones. The opposite of this is a repressive economic system designed by a ruling elite to enrich one subset of the population at the expense of the working population ie. kleptocracy. 

Where political power is repressive and unrestrained, it is in the interest of such absolutist leaders to create a political system that props up their power and allows them to extract resources and wealth from the economy to enrich themselves. Where the political system is pluralistic however, political power is distributed across a broad coalition of groups instead of being vested in a single individual or group; politicians are beholden to the will of the population and must yield to popular vote. 

State involvement; a balancing act 

Invariably, the state is inextricably connected to the creation of a pluralistic economic system because it falls upon the state to provide public services, enforce the law and uphold private property and proprietorship. Put another way, the success of an economic system is wholly dependent on politics, in what German philosopher Max Weber describes as the state’s ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force’ (Weber, 1921). But too much force, or too much centralisation may strip away the incentives to produce altogether. 

Although Singapore is held in high regard by many economists for being the standard bearer of market friendliness and market openness (Heritage Foundation, 2022), and for good reason, Singapore’s economic success is also down to several successful interventions by its government. Formed in 1960, the Singapore Housing and Development Board (HDB) was formed to provide affordable and high-quality housing for its residents, issuing properties on 99-year leaseholds. The programme has been an enormous success- more than 80% of Singapore’s 5.4 million residents live in housing subsidised by the government (Bryson, 2019). The fact that the government owns most of the housing in Singapore carries several additional benefits; it allows the government to enforce a restriction on citizens owning more than two residential homes, keeping supply high and prices affordable, whilst also allowing it to enforce minimum levels of occupancy of each of the main ethnic groups in the city — Chinese, Malay and Indian — to prevent the formation of “racial enclaves” and promoting racial integration (Bloomberg, 2020). A similar system of state sponsorship exists in Singapore’s Medifund system; powered by a three billion dollar endowment, the government uses the fund’s investment income to pay medical bills for those in financial need. Remarkably, more than 99% of applicants to Medifund are approved (International Citizens Insurance, 2021). 

Of course, the Singaporean system is not a replicable template for every economy due to Singapore’s unique position as a small island city-state, but that misses the point. The central argument of this section is certainly not that the state should preside over markets, or even that every country ought to follow the same policies that worked well for Singapore, but rather through the creation of a pluralistic political system, the state can enhance the functioning of an economy in ways that the market simply can’t. 

Wealth equals diplomatic power 

Whilst being less than half the size of the country of Hertfordshire, Singapore had forged strong diplomatic alliances with the likes of China and the US, in spite of its lack of land mass, population and natural resources. This is chiefly because these superpowers have a vested interest in keeping Singapore their ally; Singapore is a leading exporter of financial services, computer chips (OEC, 2022) and houses an immense intellectual capital, not least due to its world-class education system. Over the last two decades, Singapore has consistently ranked near or at the top of the World Bank’s ‘ease of doing business’ report (Worldbank, 2019), has been listed by the Economist Intelligence Unit as the number one country for its ‘efficient and open economy,’(BBC, 2014) and is one of the few nations to receive a AAA credit rating (, 2023), deeming the possibility of a default on its debt massively unlikely. The reason that foreign nations such as China and the US like doing business with Singapore, and hence have strong, mutually beneficial diplomatic ties with Singapore, is because of its well-enforced rule of law, lack of political corruption and strong property rights. 

Malaysia, despite a larger population and abundance of natural resources, is not a formidable global superpower, and its problem is systemic. In a compelling report by Transparency International in 2012, Malaysian companies were found most likely to accept a bribe. In the same report, 50% of foreign businesses felt that they had lost out on business in Malaysia due to their competitors’ bribes being accepted by Malaysian officials (Wall Street Journal, 2012). Nothing illustrates Malaysia’s long-standing struggle with corruption more strikingly than the ‘1 Malaysia Development Berhad’ Scandal in 2015, in which Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund was systematically embezzled by its president and his cronies to the tune of $4.5 billion, in one of the largest financial scandals in history (BBC, 2019). In a political and economic environment where corruption runs rife, foreign countries are simply less likely to do business with Malaysia, and subsequently less likely to create enduring, mutually beneficial diplomatic connections. 

Wealth equals military power 

In 1966, Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made a bold statement of intent: Singapore must become a ‘poisonous shrimp’ to survive in a world of ‘big fish.’ Singapore has become just that. The country’s vast wealth enables it access to the best military equipment available; due to its flourishing private markets, much of Singapore’s military equipment is either produced or improved upon by its own defence companies (Business Insider, 2018). Due to its strong international relations, Singapore’s small size is not a limiting factor when it comes to its military; Singapore has struck deals with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan to allow them to place personnel and air squadrons overseas.

Malaysia, despite its superior manpower, is a lesser military force. Hobbled by huge public debt, a slipping currency and flagging economic growth, Malaysia has recently agreed on a barter in which it exchanges its palm oil for European military equipment- an alarming indication of the available funds for its military (FMT, 2021). Malaysia operates a considerably smaller fleet of aircraft than Singapore (globalfirepower, 2023), and much of the aircraft it has is not operational due to a lack of funds for maintenance (, 2021). The military disparity between Singapore and Malaysia exists because of their vastly different economies – Malaysia simply doesn’t produce enough wealth to maintain its military operations, nor does it innovate and update its military equipment in the way that Singapore is able to. 

The virtuous cycle 

Pluralistic economic and political systems create a cycle of positive feedback. The political system is upheld by positive incentives; politicians cannot extract resources from the economy because they are bound by the ballot of the public who can simply decide to not reelect them. As the political system begins to represent a broad plurality of groups, the great mass of people inevitably vote for policies that will enrich the broader population and not just a narrow elite. As the law is upheld and property rights are secured, any person with vision can set up a business and monetise their ideas, encouraging innovation, and in aggregate creating a more prosperous, advanced society. Much as it did in Singapore, increased wealth leads to increased government funding of the defence sector, and gives a country security should conflict arise, whilst improvements in technology lead to the creation of more effective military deterrents. This path to power is by no means a rigid archetype – Britain’s path has been different to Singapore’s due to their geographical differences for example – but their established position as global powers is hinged upon their successful pluralistic political and economic systems. 

When a country embarks on the virtuous cycle of pluralism, growth and innovation it is not always a straight and narrow path; it took Britain over a century to develop and refine modern democracy from the initial extension of the franchise in 1832, and for the US it entailed a civil war. But it is in the crucible of this virtuous cycle – with all its difficulties – that lasting, enduring power is forged.


Conflict Law

International Law and the War in Ukraine

Federica D’Alessandra addresses the Stubbs Society.

On Tuesday 12 February, the Stubbs Society was delighted to host Federica D’Alessandra, Deputy Director of the Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict at the Blavatnik School of Government. She gave a fantastic talk at New College on the role of international law in the war in Ukraine and how it might be used to bring Russia to justice.

There were two main takeaways from the night. Firstly, international law is “not a monolith”. There is no single international court, nor is there one body of international law, which includes but is not limited to, international criminal law and its sister, humanitarian law. Secondly, the crimes relevant to Russia’s attack on Ukraine fall, broadly speaking, into two categories, with the crime of aggression (also known as a crime against peace) on the one hand and war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide on the other. When any offences in the second group are committed, the individual perpetrators (i.e., people all the way down the ranks) as well as the leadership are legally responsible, but under international law, only the leadership is liable for the crime of aggression. 

Federica began with what international law has to say about the use of force, which states are only permitted to use in self-defence or with UN backing in order to maintain or retore international peace. Violation of this constitutes aggression, which has been a crime since the trials of the Nazis and Imperial Japan that implicates both a state and its leader. What does this mean for the conflict between Ukraine and Russia? To the outside world, Russia is obviously the aggressor. This does not mean, though, that a third country can jump in to defend Ukraine instantly – Ukraine can of course defend itself but for third party involvement it must ask for military backing from other states or organisations like NATO before it can act. Until legal right is established, outside states cannot use force or they become responsible themselves. 

Laws govern not just the start of wars but conduct during them too; this body of law is known as jus in bello or International Humanitarian Law (IHL). It legislates methods of war (tactics and weapons), the protection of civilians always and combatants when not in active combat, and aims at limiting the “wanton loss of human life”. As such, sexual violence, torture, summary execution, and particular weapons and tactics are off-limits. In the last year, we have seen these laws ignored time and again, usually by Russia. It is true that violations have not taken place exclusively on one side, and that we are missing lots of data, but that is the broad pattern. From what we can tell, too, Ukrainian soldiers who commit any of these offences are disciplined by their superiors (as the laws of war require); this does not seem to be happening on the Russian side. 

Not exclusively but often committed during conflict are Crimes against Humanity, which are grounded in Human Rights Law and include offences like genocide. Russia’s initial justification for attacking Ukraine was, of course, that Ukraine was perpetrating genocide against Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine sought a judgement from the International Court of Justice about a) whether this was true, and b) whether Russia could use aggression to remedy it. We are awaiting judgement about the first, but Russia was ordered to stop military operations, which evidently has not happened. It has also been suggested that it might be worth looking into whether Russia is carrying out acts of genocide in Ukraine. 

We can do little more than speculate about what accountability, and the process of establishing it, might look like in this case. Several proceedings are underway already, and there is a relatively high chance that we will eventually see prosecutions for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, as there are multiple courts investigating these allegations. With aggression, the situation is harder, because of problems related to jurisdiction and diplomatic immunity. At a national level, both states have jurisdiction over their own soldiers and, additionally, over offences carried out in their territory. However, at a higher level, the International Criminal Court only has jurisdiction over aggression with a referral from the Security Council or consent from Russia, in accordance with the Rome Statute. Politically, though, neither is likely to happen soon. 


We’re back…

And we need you!

Hi all! I hope you’re all having a lovely third week and term’s not dragging on too much. If it is, why not shake things up and write for the Stubbs Society blog?

The Stubbs Society for Foreign Affairs and Defence is now back in full swing under the aegis of our patron General Sir Richard Shirreff. (Check out our term card elsewhere on the website!)

As part of that, we need pieces for this blog – these can be on anything under the heading “foreign affairs and defence”, whether historical or current. So whether you’re a fresher with no work or a procrastinating finalist, if you have an idea please email me at and cc in

International Relations Multilateralism UN

Brearley Essay Prize: Keynote Speech

The Executive Director of the Programme on International Peace and Security at the Blavatnik School of Government, Dr Federica D’Alessandra, made the following speech at the Brearley Prize Ceremony on the topic: “The United Nations, Multilateralism, and International Peace and Security: Outdated Models, or Best Hope for Humanity’s Future?”

Ladies, gentleman, Society members, dear students: good afternoon.

As someone interested in security and Foreign Policy smyself, it is a privilege to be addressing the Oxford Stubbs Society, especially on occasion of the awarding of the inaugural Brearley Essay Prize, which endevors to deliver us 10 of the most promising students of these disciplines.

I read each one of your essays, and I was extremely impressed. In fact, I’d like to begin by saluting each one of you who participated and distinguished themselves in this essay competition for your interest in international affairs, your intellectual curiosity, and your impressive research and writing abilities. If these essays are any indication of how diligently and masterfully you will engage in your University studies, I do not hesitate to say you have great achievements ahead of you.

I would also like to express my gratitude to each one of your parents, for their dedication to your future, which, based on what transpired from the essays is very clearly our collective future, as well as for their support in your cultivation of knowledge and expertise, inescapable conditions of serious statecraft and principled leadership.

When I was asked to deliver this lecture, I dwelled on what would have been a topic that could suit the diversity of backgrounds and interests we have in the audience today.. I am told all of you wish to perfect your understanding of the genealogy of modern times through the lenses of history and statecraft.

I am not a historian, but history is certainly one of my favorite disciplines. Without historical memory, in fact, humanity is bound to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Except, that given the direction of our arms race, and the pace of our innovation and technology, including as applied to novel and sophisticated systems of weaponry, repeating past mistakes might as well cost us the ability to make any future ones.

Statecraft is also one of my favorite subjects to study, in particular the type of statecraft that results in innovative solutions to current challenges. I am fascinated by, and admire the type of leadership and statecraft that, in the course of contemporary history, has manifested itself in the establishment of a multilateral system of institutions –from the United Nations, to NATO, to the EU, and other regional organizations for security and cooperation- that, albeit utterly imperfect, has nevertheless brought about levels of peace and prosperity that are without a doubt unprecedented.

To this creative and courageous leadership as a form of statecraft, today we juxtapose the sentiment of many leaders around the world determined to undo the progress the international community has made since 1945, by sewing divisions with narratives and political agendas that pit “us” v. “them”, and by arguing we should “reject globalism” and instead fold inward, and look at the world, including our allies, with fear and mistrust.

So I told myself that today, addressing this group of young leaders who without a doubt will take on the helm of our societies in just a matter of years, was a golden opportunity to make a plea on behalf of multilateralism, not as an anachronistic and outdated model of statecraft, but –if history teaches us much- as the only hope and possible path forward humanity has left.

Some of you in this audience have written interesting essays on the necessity to reform the temple of multilateralism, the United Nations, and its Security Council in particular, as well as why these attempts at structural reform have failed. So, I decided to use the story of how the United Nations came about to highlight a tension that is itself, in my humble opinion, the “original sin” of the flawed system of international institutions we have today.

And while I hope to engage in a broader discussion about the United Nations that goes beyond its structural deficiencies, I also want to talk about leadership, and particularly the type of leadership I think we need today, which I hope you will be able to provide when your turn comes to lead.. And if my words will inspire even just one of you to become, or perhaps continue to be, a proactive agent of change, I will consider this Lecture to have been a success.

So let’s begin with some history, some facts and figures.

It is August 1941. Hitler’s death march across Easter Europe is almost complete when he orders the invasion of the Soviet Union. It has been almost a year since the United Kingdom defended itself from the devastating bombing campaign of the Luftwaffe. The United States is not yet at war. Yet President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill are in conference “somewhere at sea”—the same seas on which the Battle of the Atlantic is desperately being fought. On August 14, the two leaders issue a joint, visionary declaration, destined to be known as the Atlantic Charter.

The document contains the leaders’ “hopes for a future world” after a war that, by its end, had consumed 80 million lives, 50 million of which civilian, about 20 million of which were battle related deaths, another 30 million deaths by famine and widespread disease. It is striking that in the face of a destruction of such scale, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were capable to imagine a world in which people could live in “freedom from fear and want”, where nations would seek “no aggrandizement, territorial or other”, and where the use of militaristic force would be abandoned; “aggressor nations” would be punished and disarmed.

The historic statement outlined what Yale professors Oona Hathaway and David Schapiro have called a vision for a ‘New World Order’, in contraposition to and so radically different from the ‘Old World Order’ that preceded World War II that would become its ‘photo negative’. A New World Order where “states no longer have the right to conquer other states; waging aggressive war is a grave crime; gunboat diplomacy is no longer legitimate; and economic sanctions are not only legal, but the standard way in which international order is enforced”.

The historic statement did more than just outline a vision, however. It set forth the basis for the process that lead to the establishment of the United Nations.

Indeed, within four years, with the war still not officially over, a conference of 46 nations was convened by the Allied powers in San Francisco, where the Charter of the United Nations was eventually drafted.

In the course of two months, countless debates and differences of opinions constellated the 3500 delegate strong conference. Controversies ranged from the role that regional organizations that held security, defense, and mutual legal assistance and cooperation agreements should play, or the role that the new organization would have vis-à-vis generating new laws for the international community.

These 400 meetings in the course of only 2 months often saw crisis escalate to the point some feared the conference would break up, and no organization could be created. Above all, the right of each of the “Big Five” (which included the four sponsors plus France) to exercise a “veto” on action by the powerful Security Council provoked long and heated debate.

The smaller powers feared that when one of the “Big Five” menaced the peace, the Security Council would be powerless to act, while in the event of a clash between two powers not permanent members of the Security Council, the “Big Five” could act arbitrarily. As we will see, these fears, it turns out, were not unfounded. They strove, therefore, to have the power of the “veto” reduced.

But the great powers unanimously insisted on this provision as vital, and emphasized that the main responsibility for maintaining world peace would ultimately fall most heavily on them anyways.

Not having forgotten that the United States’ failure to join the United Nations predecessor, the League of Nations, ultimately caused the League to falter, in the interest of setting up the world organization and ensuring that all great powers participated, smaller powers had to eventually conceded on the veto.

Each delegation was, in fact, acutely aware of the need to set up a system that would prevent the world from falling again into the tragedy of another deadly world war, which could as well have annihilated the human race. For this reason, all nations were determined to set up, if not the perfect international organization, at least the best that could possibly be made.

While inspired by the values and principled outlined by Roosevelt and Churchill on that August 14, the Charter was indeed the result of a compromise among several visions of the world order. As such, it contained some idiosyncrasies from the start.

On the one hand, the Charter set the stage for what some drafters imagined would eventually become a self-contained system of world government, much akin to a worldwide federation of United Nations.

The Charter did indeed set up an embryonic form of world government, composed by a legislative body, the UN General Assembly, in which each State, no matter how big or small, would have one vote, and which would take decisions by a 2/3 majority; an “Executive” branch, the Security Council; and some form of “judicial branch”, an International Court of Justice, that would help the organization fulfill its ability to “settle international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace, by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law”.

The UN Charter also established the three founding pillars of the UN system: 1. peace and security, 2. human rights, and 3. Development, which together provided a framework for the whole organization to tackle challenges its predecessor, the League of Nations, could never have foreseen.

On the other hand, however, despite this “normative” vision that called for a self-contained system of world government, the Charter was punctuated by both subtle nods and explicit references to national sovereignty as the ordering and primary element of this new organization. This notion of the primacy of national sovereignty, and its tension with the aspirations of the newly established organizations, it turns out, is very much what made the system flawed at its foundation.

Because of the primacy of sovereignty, for example, the organization’s most democratic and representative body, which is mandated to legislate for the benefit of the entire international community, was made unable to impose binding decision on any of its members, this power being in fact reserved to the most undemocratic and unrepresentative body of the three, composed by 5 permanent members who hold the prerogative to veto any decision that might counter their national interest, or that of their allies, proxies, and protégés. These 5 permanent members were to serve next to a number of rotating states, 6 up to 1965, and 10 ever since, elected for a 2 year term. While all members can contribute a majority vote to any decision- any such decision can be struck down by any of the P5s vetoes.

The “judicial” branch of the organization was also crippled in the name of sovereignty, as member nations would not be compelled to accept the Court’s jurisdiction, like any party to an otherwise regular social pact would be forced to do, but would voluntarily agree to its acceptance. Furthermore, the Court’s proceedings were set up to be more akin to a “civil suit” among nations than anything else.

Despite “aggression” was in fact declared the “supreme international crime”, and despite after the war the Allied powers had set up war crimes tribunals in Europe and in the Far East to try the criminal actions of the Axis, and in particular their “aggression”, the world had to wait for another 53 years, in 1998, for the Statute of an International Criminal Court to be adopted; and in the end even this world criminal tribunal was constituted as an organization independent from the United Nations (given the P5 vetos, that was intentional). Because of this, to this day, despite being 130 countries strong, this Court does not count Russia, the United States and China, 3 of the 5 permanent powers among its members.

Even more fascinatingly, despite the supreme international crime (that is starting a war in violation of the UN Charter, or a war of aggression) was recognized to be criminal ever since 1945, it took another 71 years after this precedent was set to for an international tribunal to be granted again the ability to try world leaders for planning or initiating wars of aggression. Indeed, that provision only became active in July of this year, and thanks, in part to both France and the UK, it is subjected to a very restrictive jurisdictional regime. But that is a story for another day.

Besides the apparent flaws of the “judicial” and “legislative” branches of this new organization, few will disagree that –albeit condition to its very establishment- the most consequential “birth defect” of the United Nations organization was indeed the constitution of its “executive” branch, the Security Council, and specifically its power to veto.

In its original stipulation, the Council did not include in fact any members of African, Arab, or Latin American nations, for example. Of course, 142 of the countries that today make up the 193 strong United Nations did not exist in 1945. Indeed, the original Charter was negotiated and signed only by 51 States.

Over the course of the years, geographical and regional representation, contributions to the UN budget (relative to the means of each nations), and contributions to broader UN activities, including peacekeeping missions, have become sine qua non conditions for election to the powerful body. However, the fact remains that 188 Nations around the world compete for 10 “seats at the table”, whereas 5 nations maintain a lifetime appointment, as well as the prerogative to block any decision or action, although, importantly, they cannot prevent discussions from taking place.

If one looks at the state of the world today, in every place on earth where international peace is breached or threatened, the Security Council is present. In particular, each of the 5 permanent members are active around the world either directly involved in military operations of different nature, or lending military or other material support to any such operations. And indeed, in many cases, their presence is benign, even vital; working under UN or NATO flags, P5-led and Security Council authorized peacekeeping or stability missions save countless lives in the most disparate of situations.

Since 1948, the United Nations alone have deployed almost 90,000 peacekeepers around the world in 71 missions, 14 of which are still active to this day, costing approximately 6.7 billion just this fiscal year alone.

And albeit P5 are the least likely to contribute troops to peacekeeping missions (the highest troops contributing countries being Ethiopia, India, and Pakistan), they contribute the vats majority of non-personnel military assets, military expertise, including at the tactical and strategic level, intelligence, and –of course- finances.

Indeed, the top financial contributors to UN peacekeeping are the United States (28.47%); China (10.25%); Japan (9.68%); Germany (6.39%); France (6.28%); United Kingdom (5.77%); Russian Federation (3.99%); Italy (3.75%). Similarly, the top contributing countries to the UN overall budget are, in order: the USA (22 %); Japan (9.58%); China (7.93 %); Germany (6.93 %); France (4.86 %); the UK (4.46 %); Brazil (3.82 %); Italy (3.75%), and Russia (3.09%).

So the argument that the lion’s share of maintaining international peace and security and keeping the United Nations running would ultimately fall on the permanent 5 was not after all so far fetched. (Even though already at this point it is apparent that, by no means, the P5 are the “sole” guarantors of international peace and security, with Germany, Japan, Brazil, Italy, and other countries like South Africa, Turkey, Egypt, and Nigeria also playing an important geo-strategic role of their own).

But what about the hesitations expressed by smaller powers at the San Francisco conference?

A recent UN and World Bank joint report called “Pathways for Peace” reveals that for the first time since the end of WWII, in 2010, the number of major violent conflicts has tripled, and fighting in a growing number of lower intensity conflicts has escalated; the same report reveals that in 2016 alone, for the first time in over thirty years, the number of countries experiencing violent conflict has grown, and albeit much of this violence remains entrenched in low-income countries, some of today’s deadliest conflicts are occurring in countries at higher income levels and with stronger institutions. Also, more and more conflicts today are internationalized, as countries, most likely P5, intervene in support of a party or parties in another country’s conflict.

Smaller powers fears expressed at the San Francisco conference that when one of the “Big Five” menaced the peace, the Security Council would be powerless to act, while in the event of a clash between two powers not permanent members of the Security Council, the “Big Five” could act arbitrarily, were then also not unfounded.

In too many cases, of which Russia’s 12 vetoes on Syria is the most shameful, Security Council power politics, when not the reckless behavior of veto yielding permanent members, are ultimately what is threatening international peace and security, and preventing lives from being saved. There have been 220 vetoes since 1946, of which 107 by Russia (90 of which racked up between 1945 and 1955), 79 by the US (42 times of which to block any action against Israel), 29 by the UK, 16 by France, and 11 by China.

This abuse of veto powers, which emboldens rogue actors to act with impunity, has doubtlessly contributed to fomenting violence around the world, and has cost countless lives, producing a “veto fatigue” over the years, and deep-rooted awareness that if the UN is to stay relevant and capable to confront new threats, the Security Council has to be reformed.

New threats to international peace and security are in fact posed on a daily basis by the emergence of new weapons, the technology of which is so rapidly changing that legislators and regulators cannot keep the pace; by the proliferation of small and traditional weapons (which today still cause the vast majority of battle related deaths) as well as non-traditional weapons, such as nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, and cyber weapons, which compressively and in light of their virtually boundless reach, pose a much greater threat to the world stability; challenges are also posed by the changing character of war, which no longer sees States exclusively fight States, but has witnessed the emergence of non-state armed groups, such as Boko Haram, Hamas, Isis and Al Qaeda, capable of mounting State-like protracted military campaigns, and threaten their enemies from anywhere on Earth.

The international community is not blind to this understanding for a need of reform. There have in fact been several proposals to reform the Security Council.

Some countries like India, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt, have argued the Security Council permanent membership should be expanded to be more regionally representative, with the most important geo-strategic players in each region to be elevated to the ranks of veto-yielding permanent members. Of course, given the trouble already caused by existing vetoes, very little appetite exists (beyond these few States) for an expansion of such a privilege.

A High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change that was created in 2003 by then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to analyze threats and challenges to international peace and security, and to recommend action based on this analysis, brought about a series of reforms to the overall United Nations structure, including an expanded and strengthened role for Human Rights through the creation of a UN Human Rights Council, the incorporation of Human Rights components tasked with monitoring and reporting on the risk of atrocities embedded within peacekeeping missions, and a more forceful and vigorous debate on human rights issues as threats to the international peace and security of all nations, including via briefings by the International Criminal Court Prosecutor, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Secretary General Special Representatives before the Security Council.

The initiative also resulted in two proposals for UN Security Council reform. Plan A, proposed to expand permanent membership of the Council to include 6 more members WITHOUT veto powers, and add 3 more non permanent members, all seats to be distributed according to regional representation; Plan B, proposed to only expand non permanent members, one seat for a 2 years term, and 8 seats for a 4 years, renewable term, without veto power. Any such reform proposal has to pass a 2/3 majority of the United Nations General Assembly, and have to have the consent of each of the permanent 5. Based on these requirements, many fear UN Security Council reform might be doomed.

It is for this reason that, in recent times, the United Nations General Assembly and other bodies within the United Nations have taken on a more proactive role to do the best they can to supply leadership and innovative solutions to enforce and maintain international peace and security where the Security Council locks into a stalemate.

Take Syria, for example: outrage over the impunity with which war crimes and other assaults upon civilian security and human dignity are being perpetrated, paired with growing frustration over Russia’s role in preventing any accountability action whatsoever, led the General Assembly, on 21 December 2016, to resurface a 1956 resolution first used at the time of the Suez Canal crisis, called Uniting for Peace, and adopt on its basis another resolution 71/248, establishing the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011.

Similarly, just a few days ago, on September 26, the United Nations Human Rights Council reacted to the scathing report of the United Nations Monitoring and Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar finding that there are reasons to believe the military might have orchestrated a campaign amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity against Myanmar civilians in Northern Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States, as well as possibly perpetrated a Genocide against the Rohingya minority. Acting to prevent a China veto if the matter went to the Security Council, the Human Rights Council took it upon itself to establish a similar International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) for Myanmar. And these are only two of a constellation of “rebellious acts” that other bodies of the United Nations are undertaking to signal to the Security Council that they are fed up.

Of course, these mechanisms have their limits: no one but the Security Council can, in fact, compel States action, and most of the new mechanisms and initiatives emanating form other “rebellious” UN bodies rely on voluntarily contributions by like-minded members.

But the fact that they do exist and are up and running, as well as the innovative modality through which are being set up, in my opinion, speaks to two important facts.

The first is that norms are changing, and crude power politics has become increasingly unacceptable to the vast majority of States that compose the democratic or elected bodies of the United Nations.

It takes visionary leadership however, and out of the box thinking, both to envision new solutions, and to find ways in which these new solutions can be channeled through existing structure to provide the immediate and urgent relief which is a duty of the United Nations, but that powerful states often forsake for the benefit of their broader geo-strategic interests.

The second fact that I think many of us struggle to acknowledge these days is that, the power of ideas continue to matter, and so does the courage of leadership in carrying them forward; against all odds, and against the opinion of those who might tell you such ideas are naïve, or unrealistic.

Each of these “rebellious acts” are in fact being spearheaded by individual leaders and civil servants that acknowledge and understand the current system can no longer continue. These leaders and civil servants are acting as what in normative constructivist theory we call “Norm Entrepreneurs”: leaders committed to higher values, interested in changing social norms, than when successful in their endeavors, produce norm bandwagons and norm cascades that lead to substantial changes in the normative course of history.

Norm entrepreneurs are not a manifestation of contemporary dynamics, however. Roosevelt and Churchill were the ultimate norm entrepreneurs. In fact, albeit in short supply nowadays, norm entrepreneurs, even beyond Churchill and Rosevelt, have delivered humanity throughout the whole course of history creative ways out of otherwise impossible situations. And this is why we need more of them today than ever.

Confronted with an emerging class of politicians that argue for a parochial view of national interest that “rejects globalism in favor of patriotism” as the answer to today’s challenges, we urgently need a class of enlightened and value-driven leaders, of Roosevelt and Churchills, that can counter this thrust toward power politics and the rejection of multilateralism that ensues, in that they are the root, in fact, of today’s unsolved challenges.

If we are to seriously resolve the issues that afflict the international community and affect our international peace and prosperity, we need a class of leaders that not only acknowledges what’s broken with our system, but also can envision creative solutions, and lead the international community through a new process of norm formation and institution entrepreneurship.

We need a class of leaders that acknowledges that change is a process that does not happen in a vacuum; and so as we continue to strive for institutional reform, which ultimately is the only way to overcome the current impasse, we ought to continue to think creatively of how we can bring about incremental change, how we can leverage existing mechanisms to promote and strengthen those norms and values that, over time, will make non-reform an anachronistic and no-longer acceptable outcome.

So, if I did a good job today, you will hopefully walk out of this lecture not only with a more informed view about the United Nations, its flaws, and its aspirations, but also with a more refined understanding of the appeal to humanity of higher values; you will hopefully walk out of today’s lecture with a renewed faith in the promise of multilateralism; and experience a sense of urgency to listen to your call of duty, inspired by the higher values of which public service can benefit, but especially convinced that, through ethical and innovative leadership, you too can become tomorrow’s norm entrepreneurs. Thank you.


Lt Gen Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart VC

Born to Belgian and Irish parents, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart lost an eye fighting in Somaliland; was shot in the face, skull, stomach, ankle, leg, hip and ear; and bit off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. His hand was later removed and he threw out his irritating glass eye replacement from a taxi window.

Following a plane crash off the Italian coast (one of two who survived) Carton de Wiart was kept as a prisoner of war, making five escape attempts tunnelling out with his one arm. Such feats earned him the nickname the “unkillable soldier”.

Carton de Wiart – mentioned in dispatches six times – was seen pulling the pins of hand grenades with his teeth and hurling them with his good arm, winning the Victoria Cross for his leadership and conspicuous gallantry.

In his biography, the general wrote, “frankly, I had enjoyed the war”. He attended the Cairo Conference in 1943 whilst en route to Peking to act as Churchill’s personal representative. “With his black eyepatch and empty sleeve, Carton de Wiart looked like an elegant pirate, and became a figure of legend.”

​Lt Gen Carton de Wiart epitomised the values and ethos all leaders should aspire to have; his determination and selflessness galvanising his troops. For these qualities, he is our Alum of the Month.


Catherine Hughes CMG

Born Catherine Pestell in 1933, Hughes studied history at St Hilda’s College later becoming President of the Stubbs Society. Upon passing the Civil Service exams with flying colours, she joined the Foreign Office in 1955 – then a highly male-dominated environment. She was appointed Third Secretary in The Hague during the first year of the European Communities before her promotion to Bangkok as Second Secretary. Here, she had a ringside seat on the accelerating war in Indo-China.

She returned to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office as First Secretary and principal desk officer for Vietnam. In this role, Hughes strongly opposed British involvement in America’s escalating war. Her toughest assignment came when she was asked in 1975 to take the tough role of negotiator in East Berlin missions during the Cold War détente. In 1978 she was promoted to Political Counsellor having earned recognition as a leading expert on the Four Power Status of this divided city.

In that strange world where hardship sat alongside political paranoia she remained “cantankerous”. And she had a slightly subversive attitude to authority, once saying “I like that tiny seed of cantankerousness which doesn’t lie down and accept things.”

She retired in 1989 from her final Ambassadorial-level job – as assistant Under-Secretary for the Public Departments – on her appointment as Principal of Somerville College, Oxford. She married her neuropathologist husband Dr Trevor Hughes in 1991, then the acting Warden of Green College, Oxford. Indeed, as the statutes of the College did not permit the Principal to marry, Miss Pestell resigned, married and was re-elected as Principal; however there was a two-week period when the College had no head. 

​Somerville’s Governing Body, during her time at the College, decided to admit men as Fellows and students. The decision was very vigorously opposed yet as Principal, she oversaw the admission of the first male Fellows and students in 1993-4.

​With the same characteristic resilience, for many years she faced the onset of cancer, enjoying global cruises when she was well enough to travel. She described as ‘liberating excellence’ the purpose of her very generous gifts to support Somervillians in History, English and Modern Languages.

​The Society is proud to have been associated with such a distinguished individual.

Extracts from the Civil Service website and obituary by St Hilda’s.