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International Security: Through the lens of global media



8 April 2013

James Der Derian
Professor James Der Derian: "If you really want to have an impact in international politics today you have to be media fluent, which means not just consuming but producing information through multiple media."

The Centre for International Security Studies has welcomed its new Director, Professor James Der Derian, who began his tenure at the University of Sydney this semester.

Recently joining us from Brown University, Professor Der Derian also takes up the appointment of Michael Hintze Chair of International Security Studies.

He considers the University of Sydney as being uniquely placed to witness and participate in a significant global power shift in international politics.

"I wanted to see firsthand what it means when power reconfigures on an East/West, North/South axis, as part of the so-called 'Asian pivot'" says Professor Der Derian.

With a shift in economic power towards the East, a redeployment of US forces from the Atlantic and Middle East to the Pacific region, and the rise of new city-states and regional powers, Australia enjoys a geographical as well as intellectual advantage for observing and influencing new trends in international security.

"Universities are the last of the quasi-autonomous institutions," says Professor Der Derian. He believes this is why universities have a special responsibility to educate and inform the public on international affairs that are often distorted by partisan views or overhyped for commercial purposes.

Many of the areas that Professor Der Derian specialises in, such as military transformation,diplomatic practices, and global media, combine traditional and non-traditional approaches. He prefers - indeed insists - on the need to get his message out through multiple media, particularly given our information-saturated environment.

"If you really want to have an impact in international politics today you have to be media fluent, which means not just consuming but producing information through multiple media."

And Professor Der Derian has been actively producing media through early development of MP3 file sharing, online discussion boards, and videoconferencing (now known as podcasts, blogs, and Skyping). He has also produced award-winning documentaries on topics that include the virtualisation of global politics, the revolution in military affairs, the impact of 9/11, and the role of culture in the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Creating teams of students, graphic designers, and programmers, he produced cutting-edge websites (infopeace.org and globalsecuritymatrix.org) to challenge conventional thinking about security issues. And he began producing documentary films to raise dissenting views about 9/11 and the war in Iraq.

"People kept using this line (about Iraq): 'If we only knew then what we know now'. Well, people did know then but they weren't heard, the story didn't get out, and it subsequently didn't have any policy impact," he explains. "So our team, the InfoTechWarPeace Project, made a documentary, After 9/11, to show what was known but not heard and hopefully prevent another unnecessary war like Iraq from happening."

Der Derian's third feature-length documentary, Human Terrain: War Becomes Academic (co-directed with David and Michael Udris), was originally intended as a film to show "how the military was trying to transform itself in the face of losing an insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan". But after a member of his research project was killed by an IED in Afghanistan, the film morphed into a story about what happens when academics join the effort to map the 'human terrain' as part of a new counter-insurgency strategy.

Taking a highly complex and controversial topic and making it accessible for a wide audience, the film attracted international acclaim, receiving the Audience Award at the Festival dei Popoli in Florence and getting accepted into almost every major European and Canadian film festival.

Having proved that the medium is ever more a part of the message, Professor Der Derian plans to expand his approach to disseminating knowledge and influencing policy now that he is based at the University of Sydney.

"I see an opportunity here for a convergence of security, media, and film studies, one that will allow us to take the good ideas that percolate in major institutions like the University of Sydney and help them reach a wider audience - not just the Australian or the Pacific, but a truly global audience."

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Contact: Kate Mayor

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