From 1995-2005 Sir Mike Aaronson was Director General (chief executive) of Save the Children UK, and from 1988-1995 was the charity’s Overseas Director. He first joined Save the Children in 1969, spending two years as a relief worker in Nigeria after reading philosophy and psychology at St John’s College, Oxford. Between 1972 and 1988 he held various posts in the UK Diplomatic Service, serving in London, Paris, Lagos, and Rangoon.
From 2007-2012 he was a Civil Service Commissioner, appointed by the Crown to maintain the principle of fair and open recruitment to the UK Civil Service. From 2006-2016 he was Chairman of Frimley Park Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and from 2006-2018 a non-executive director of Oxford Policy Management Limited, a development consultancy firm based in Oxford. Since June 2016 he has been Chair of the Strategic Advisory Group for the Global Challenges Research Fund, a £1.5bn fund for research into pressing global development challenges.
Sir Mike is a founder member, and from 2001-2008 was Chair of the Board, of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based private foundation working to improve the international response to conflict, in particular through independent mediation. He has been an occasional Senior Adviser to NATO, working on the political/military aspects of NATO transformation, and an occasional lecturer at the UK Defence Academy on civil/military collaboration in conflict situations. From 2001-2007 he was a Governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in London, a non-departmental public body working to strengthen democracy in Africa, the Middle East, and the countries of the former Soviet Union; he was Vice Chair from 2005-2007. From 2004-2012 he was a Visiting Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, where he is now an Honorary Fellow.
In September 2008 he was appointed an Honorary Visiting Professor and in May 2011 became a Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey, where he is also Executive Director of cii - the Centre for International Intervention. Since September 2015 he has reverted to being an Honorary Visiting Professor.
In January 2000 he was made a CBE and in June 2006 he was made a Knight Bachelor for services to children. In July 2011 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Surrey.
Areas of specialism
Sir Mike's research interests are the motivations and consequences of international intervention: why outside states intervene in the way that they do in situations of humanitarian and political crisis, and what the consequences of their actions are. The research centre that he started, cii - The Centre for International Intervention - is developing a cross-disciplinary approach to these matters, involving colleagues from, for example, international relations, law, economics, sociology, anthropology, refugee studies and forced migration, security studies, and development studies. Sir Mike is also interested in improving the interface between academics and practitioners and enhancing their joint impact on public policy concerning international intervention.
In July 2012 Sir Mike co-organised an international, multi-disciplinary, workshop funded by the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) at Surrey, with the title of "Hitting the Target?" This explored ways in which new technologies are reshaping international intervention and the wider impact of technology on society and behaviour. Full details of the workshop can be found on the IAS website.
Following this workshop and in collaboration with the Royal United Services Institute - RUSI - a collection of short papers was published as RUSI Whitehall Report 2-13, available here. The report was launched at an event at RUSI on 26 March 2013; details available here and on the cii website here Sir Mike subsequently co-edited a collection of papers in book form taking a multi-disciplinary approach to the topic of precision strike warfare: "Precision-Strike Technology and International Intervention. Strategic, ethico-legal and decisional implications.
Sir Mike helped introduce two modules for MA students at Surrey on: “The Politics of International Intervention”. These examined why and how states intervene in the affairs of other states, the international instruments they create to facilitate and regulate this, the consequences of their intervention on international society, and how society might approach intervention differently in future. Although responsibility for these modules has passed to his colleagues he is still an occasional participant in lectures and seminar discussions.
- Holland J, Aaronson M. (2014) 'Dominance through Coercion: Strategic Rhetorical Balancing and the Tactics of Justification in Afghanistan and Libya'. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 8 (1), pp. 1-20.
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/804672/
This article analyses British and American justifications for military intervention in the decade following 9/11. Taking Afghanistan in 2001 and Libya in 2011 as the main case studies, the article explores the ways in which political elites attempt to achieve policy dominance through rhetorical coercion, whereby potential opponents are left unable to formulate a socially sustainable rebuttal. Specifically, in these case studies, the article explores the use of strategic rhetorical balancing, whereby secondary rationales for intervention are emphasized as part of a tactic of justification designed to secure doubters' acquiescence by narrowing the discursive space in which an alternative counter-narrative could be successfully and sustainably formulated.
- Aaronson M. (2013) 'Interventions: A Life in War and Peace'. The RUSI Journal, 158 (1), pp. 80-81.
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/770347/
- Aaronson M. (2008) 'An Outsider’s View on the Civil-Military Nexus in Afghanistan'. RUSI JOURNAL - Occasional Paper, , pp. 10-19.
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/319247/
NATO has taken on a massively complex task in Afghanistan, of which winning the war against the Taliban is only one element. Recognition of this has led to a push for an ‘integrated’ approach involving relief, reconstruction, and development, as well as military activity. This is not as easy as it sounds. Development can only take place where the rule of law is respected and people have confidence in the ability of government to protect their interests. Neither applies in current day Afghanistan; the Government is weak, especially outside Kabul, and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has been left filling the vacuum. In turn, this leads to unrealistic expectations of non-NATO civilian actors, which they cannot meet. More could be done if people talked to each other better, understood the limitations and constraints of each others’ approaches, committed the right level of resources and the right calibre of people, and combined to help drive improved performance from the Afghan government and its agencies.
- Aaronson M. (2007) 'A holistic approach to the war on terror?'. Opinion, , pp. 1-13.
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/713935/
- Aaronson M, Aslam W, Dyson T, Rauxloh R. (2012) '"Hitting the Target?" How New Capabilities Are Shaping Contemporary International Intervention'. Guildford, Surrey : Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Surrey University of Surrey, UK: Hitting the Target? International Workshop
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/770369/
This international, multidisciplinary, workshop was hosted by cii – the Centre for International Intervention - at the University of Surrey and was sponsored by the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University. The workshop’s objective was to explore how new selective precision strike capabilities available to military and intelligence forces are shaping approaches to international intervention. It aimed to be a forum for dialogue between different academic disciplines, as well as between academia and policy-makers/practitioners. Hence papers were encouraged that addressed the subject from behavioural, ethical, legal and politico/military perspectives – or a combination of these perspectives. A further aim was to explore these issues from the viewpoint of those on the receiving end of international intervention as well as those who carry it out. As the workshop took shape, it became apparent that the principal focus would be on the increasing offensive use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones”, a topic of increasing public debate as well as policy relevance. The full programme is available at http://www.ias.surrey.ac.uk/workshops/intervention/programme.php A report was published as a result of this workshop and it is available at: http://www.rusi.org/publications/whitehallreports/ref:O51509D843E399/
- Aaronson M. (2011) 'Libya: Did We Have a Choice?'. Political Studies Association London, UK: 61st Annual International Conference of the Political Studies Association. Transforming Politics: New Synergies.
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/713936/
In this lecture I want to explore how it was that the UK became committed so quickly to military intervention in Libya following the outbreak of protests against the Gaddafi regime - and specifically to the removal of Gaddafi himself - given that as a nation we are still embroiled in Afghanistan and licking our wounds over Iraq. I will attempt some possible explanations, and suggest areas for further research at the interface between UK foreign and domestic policy. I make clear at the outset that I am no expert on Libya; I speak rather as someone who has witnessed a great deal of international intervention in a variety of forms over many years, and who believes that we need a much greater focus on ourselves as interveners if we are to understand intervention properly and do it better in future.
- Aaronson M, Aslam W, Dyson T, Rauxloh R. (2014) Precision-Strike Technology and International Intervention. Strategic, ethico-legal and decisional implications.. Abingdon : Routledge, Taylor & Francis
This book explores whether the new capabilities made possible by precision-strike technologies are reshaping approaches to international intervention. Since the end of the Cold War, US technological superiority has led to a more proactive and, some would argue, high risk approach to international military intervention. New technologies including the capacity to mount precision military strikes from high-level bombing campaigns and, more recently, the selective targeting of individuals from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have facilitated air campaigns, supported by Special Forces, without the commitment of large numbers of troops on the ground. Such campaigns include, for example, NATO’s high-level aerial bombardment of Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo in 1999 and of Gaddafi’s in Libya in 2011, and the US operation involving Special Forces against Osama Bin Laden. The development of UAVs and electronic data intercept technologies has further expanded the potential scope of interventions, for example against Islamic militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This volume examines three key and interrelated dimensions of these new precision-strike capabilities: (1) the strategic and foreign policy drivers and consequences; (2) the legal and moral implications of the new capabilities; and (3), the implications for decision-making at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. This book will be of much interest to students of war and technology, air power, international intervention, security studies and IR.
- Aaronson M, Dyson T. (2014) 'Introduction: Precision Strike Warfare and International Intervention: Strategic, Ethico-Legal and Decisional Implications'. in Aaronson M, Aslam W, Dyson T, Rauxloh R (eds.) Precision-Strike Technology and International Intervention. Strategic, Ethico-Legal and Decisional Implications Abingdon : Routledge, Taylor & Francis , pp. 3-13.
Since the end of the Cold War US technological superiority has led to a more proactive and, some would argue, aggressive, approach to international military intervention. New technologies, including the capacity to mount precision military strikes from high-level bombing campaigns – and more recently the selective targeting of individuals from armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – have facilitated air campaigns, supported by Special Operations Forces, without the commitment of large numbers of troops on the ground. Such campaigns include NATO’s high-level aerial bombardment of Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo in 1999 and of Gaddafi’s in Libya in 2011. The development of armed UAVs and electronic data intercept technologies has further expanded the potential scope of interventions against Islamic militants in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. In addition, the US has undertaken targeted manned operations involving Special Operations Forces against selected target such as Osama Bin Laden. The aim of this book is to explore whether – and if so how – new capabilities made possible by precision-strike technologies are reshaping approaches to international intervention. It will examine three key and interrelated dimensions of precision-strike capabilities: the strategic and foreign policy drivers and consequences; the ethical and legal implications of new capabilities and finally, the implications for decision-making at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.
- Aaronson M. (2013) 'Interventionism in US foreign policy from Bush to Obama'. in Bentley ME, Holland J (eds.) Obama's Foreign Policy: Ending the War on Terror Abingdon : Routledge, Taylor & Francis Article number 10
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/794885/
This chapter considers the evolution of US policy and practice towards foreign military intervention under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and in terms of strategic intent finds no evidence of substantive change. Although the language of the ‘Global War on Terror’ has been replaced by one of a ‘transnational global conflict’ the underlying policy drivers remain the same: America’s security and related interests continue to shape its foreign policy and provide the justification for an exceptionalist interpretation of international law, to the disappointment of those who hoped Obama's election would usher in a new era of strengthened global norms. However, a change in US official thinking is evident in a greater appreciation of the limitations of certain forms of intervention, and in the emergence of alternative policy instruments to deliver US strategic objectives.
- Aaronson M. (2013) 'The Nigerian Civil War and ‘Humanitarian Intervention’'. in Everill B, Kaplan J (eds.) The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan Article number 8 , pp. 176-196.
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/794884/
The 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War (also known as the "Biafran War") was notorious for the prolonged suffering of the civilian population in the secessionist enclave of “Biafra” and the failure of repeated international attempts to bring about an early end to the conflict. At the time the term "humanitarian intervention" was used to denote the international emergency relief operation, rather than a military intervention – which is how the term has subsequently come to be used. Ironically this humanitarian relief operation may have contributed to the prolongation of the war, and thereby added to the human suffering. In this chapter, based partly on my experience working on the ground in this conflict, I argue that other forms of intervention, which could just as reasonably be described as "humanitarian", were neglected by the principal international actors engaged with the conflict. I compare this state of affairs with subsequent approaches to intervention in Africa and elsewhere and conclude by suggesting that the lessons from "Biafra" could be used to inform a more enlightened approach to "humanitarian intervention" in present-day crises.
- Aaronson M. (2009) 'International NGOs and International Development Assistance: What They Can and Cannot Contribute to Combating Terrorism'. in Tsang S (ed.) Combating Transnational Terrorism. Searching for a new paradigm Santa Barbara, California : Praeger, ABC-CLIO
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/235559/
In this chapter I argue that much recent thinking about the links between ‘development’ and combating terrorism has been misguided and that the response to both poverty and terrorism has suffered as a result. At the conceptual level there is a potential clash between altruism and self-interest; whereas the purpose of development work is to secure human rights and justice for all people for altruistic reasons, counter-terrorism is usually framed in terms of self-defense and self-interest. There is also a moral deficit: Western governments pay more attention to the development needs of states seen as posing a global security threat than to those where human suffering is greatest, and the absence of a consistent foreign policy approach to issues of poverty and conflict undermines the authority of the West’s interventions. At the practical level, the role of ‘development’ in combating terrorism is almost certainly overplayed. Poor people do not necessarily become terrorists, although poverty and – especially – injustice provide the narrative that leaders of terrorist organizations use to justify their activity. Successful action to combat terrorism requires us to acknowledge people’s grievances and legitimate aspirations to a better life, and give some hope that these can be met, as well as to insist robustly on the rule of law. This should include a determined effort to engage armed groups in political processes rather than allow them to fall back on extremist tactics. Instead, the current policy preference is for the diversion of aid funds into military budgets, in the misguided belief that this will help win the ‘war on terror’; this option also reflects the difficulties faced by donor governments struggling to reconcile their nominally altruistic development goals with their more self-interested security concerns. For all these reasons international NGOs and other independent development actors have of necessity to keep their distance from official action by governments to combat terrorism and even official development agencies struggle to define their role as part of a ‘comprehensive approach’. I argue that governments can help to close this gap by adopting a broader concept of self-interest, based on the recognition that security is an entitlement of rich and poor people alike. Terrorist activity damages the poor as much as the rich (if not more so) but perceived injustice and the unaddressed grievances of the poor and marginalized – exacerbated by th
- Aaronson M, Johnson A. (2013) Hitting the Target? How New Capabilities are Shaping International Intervention. in (ed.) Whitehall Report 2-13 Whitehall, London, UK : The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/770348/
This raises a number of important questions about the thresholds for military intervention, the way it is carried out, and its consequences; in particular, whether ethical, legal, and policy frameworks have kept up with the pace of technological change, and how this affects the behaviour of those responsible for policy and for its implementation on the ground. Although intervention is a political act, and many of the activities that constitute contemporary military intervention are not new, some argue that unmanned capabilities will lead to a shift in the ease and conduct of warfare. ‘Hitting the Target?’, produced with the Centre for International Intervention at the University of Surrey, considers the issues of media and public perception, including new data on British attitudes towards drone strikes; the technological, ethical and legal issues of unmanned capability; and a detailed assessment of targeted killing as a strategy.
- Aaronson M, Johnson A. (2013) Conclusion. in (ed.) Hitting the Target? How New Capabilities are Shaping International Intervention Whitehall, London, UK : The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies Article number Whitehall Report 2-13 , pp. 113-120.
Repository URL: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/770368/