Professor Janina Dill


The first Dame Louise Richardson Professor in Global Security discusses the state of the world and how good government matters more than ever.

Published: 4 October 2023

Author: Richard Lofthouse


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Professor Dill (Merton, 2007) warns me that her office is a ‘work in progress’, but it is immaculate. She has just moved many books out of her old office in Nuffield College, which she says was a bit more ‘sagging shelves’, and thus traditional. Now she is in an ultra-modern space and has a view of Freud’s Café, pointing north from the still-extraordinary Blavatnik School of Government building.

From October 1, 2023 she serves as the inaugural holder of the Dame Louise Richardson Professorship in Global Security, named after the former Vice-Chancellor of the University.

A German originally from Hanover, Professor Dill has had a very high-flying academic trajectory. Her BA was at Dresden’s Technical University. Then to Cambridge for an MPhil, then Oxford for her DPhil, then various Post-Doctoral posts at Wolfson, Merton and Somerville Colleges, a two year stint at London School of Economics followed by a Professorship at Nuffield and now to the Blavatnik School. ‘This is my fifth Oxford college!’ She laughs. It might not be a record, but it might be a contender in such a compressed timeline.

Security studies, she reminds me, is a pluralist discipline that benefits from legal, philosophical, governance and historical inputs. Ultimately, she says, it is a sub-field of political science but her own focus has mixed the empirical (she was on the ground in Afghanistan in 2015) and the theoretical, resulting in ‘a morally and legally inflected understanding of security.’

She reminds me that the ‘just war theorists’ are world leading at Oxford and that this area of debate is currently running hot, mentioning Jeff McMahan, Cécile Fabre and Henry Shue.

For the record, Professor Dill considers that Ukraine’s defence of its territory is most certainly a ‘just war’ but she does not think the West’s intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan was fully ‘just’ by the standard of prevailing rules and norms, then or now.

Janina also says that her own approach has brought some of the discussion back to ‘normative issues and moral values.’ That is to say, she explains, that you can sometimes get ostensibly non-normative discussions of nuclear deterrence that deploy game theory or formal models, and then at the very end there is room for a quick discussion of the rights and wrongs of it, whereas Professor Dill’s approach has been to place the normative back at the heart of these discussions.

One of the more surprising results is her recent, collaborative research of Ukrainian attitudes to the war with Russia. This involved establishing the views of 1,200 Ukrainians towards the conflict, fully in the expectation that they would offer a nuanced, ‘cost-benefit’ approach that would weigh the cost of the war against the importance of achieving its objectives and indeed its justness as a defensive position against Russian invasion.

Yet the researchers found that Ukrainians took a ‘categorical stance’, meaning that they were willing to fight at any cost to defend their country.

‘I’m a moral realist… yet what Ukrainians think about the war matters morally.’ She notes that commentators regularly argue that Ukraine should sacrifice some territory or negotiate with Russia to save lives. Whether such a strategy can succeed depends partly on how Ukrainians think about the moral value of their autonomy and territorial integrity.

She adds that in any conflict situation you might be able to reason that there is a ‘right’ answer out there as to the moral and legal basis for fighting a cause and prosecuting a war, in particular it is fairly black and white if you are defending your own nation from an invasion because self-defence is allowed (‘the majority of wars historically have not really been about self-defence,’ she adds, citing territorial disputes as a larger, muddier theme of conflict).

She uses the word ‘evil’ advisedly and to remind me that from a moral stance if anyone, individual or country, is faced with evil – or an existential threat such as the fact that Russia denies Ukraine’s right to exist as a country, which might be a species of evil, one possible position is to resist it at any cost.

‘It’s quite rare’ she says, to encounter the outright rejection of cost-benefit calculations, but she did so in the survey of Ukrainian opinion, which she recently published in the American Journal of Political Science with with Marnie Howlett and Carl Müller-Crepon, At Any Cost: ‘How Ukrainians Think about Self-defense Against Russia, in the American Journal of Political Science’.

She adds that the other characteristic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has caught out many in her sector is simply the return of territorial conquest as a war aim, ‘which returns us to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,’ she says.

‘Until recently the phenomenon that you’d just annex  a neighbouring country was thought of as obsolete…’

‘Another area where we have seen rapid change is the return of the ethics of nuclear deterrence as a major topic of discussion among academics. Many debates have lain dormant since the 1980s.’

Looking ahead to her new role, she is already co-convening five universities to collaboratively research the cumulative civilian harm in protracted conflicts, the two case studies expected to be Gaza and Iraq.

‘We can see many situations where, say, a military force could cite a legal defence for launching several attacks on a particular asset, say a power grid, where each attack causes little or “proportionate” civilian collateral damage.’

‘But later on, the cumulative effect of these attacks leads to enough impairment of that power grid that it causes a large rise in excess mortality including infant mortality.’

‘It is a case of the whole [cumulative damage to civilians] being greater than the sum of its parts.’

The research will begin at the end of the year and take three years to complete, and involves Essex, Oxford, Georgetown, Duke and the Israeli Democracy Institute.

We then turn to what Professor Dill elegantly describes as the ‘emergent effects of a war outside its immediate theatre,’ which could mean how Germany is wrestling with difficult debates around immigration, made worse by several recent conflicts including the present Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Much the same can be said in the UK and more widely in Europe.

‘The extraordinary thing about Oxford’s School of Government,’ she says, ‘is how it really focuses on teaching government to future leaders and for that reason I am excited to start this position.’

‘Governments are producers of global insecurity, but they can also hold the key to making the world more secure. What government you live under has a defining impact on how secure you are and what freedoms you have. In this sense the art of good government is crucial to global security.’

Professor Janina Dill’s new role, from October 1, 2023, is Dame Louise Richardson Professorship in Global Security. She will be a Fellow of Trinity College.

She was formerly Professor in US Foreign Policy, Professorial Fellow, Nuffield College and Co-Director, Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC).