Author Archive | Erik Voeten

How Much Does History Help Us Predict the Success of a Syrian Intervention?

The empirical studies that Erica Chenoweth has highlighted in the past few days give ample reason for pause about the likelihood that a U.S. led military intervention will reduce civilian killings or end the war in Syria. That said, I am somewhat skeptical that we can generalize from these studies to the case of Syria.

All of these studies investigate whether the likelihood of some outcome (high civilian killings, ending a civil war, etcetera) becomes more likely when an intervention has taken place than when it has not. The answer for the most part is that on average few good things happen post military intervention. There is the obvious problem that one can only uncover correlations this way. For instance, it may be that interventions only take place in the worst conflicts.

There is an even more basic problem. As Jon Western points out, there is tremendous variation in the scope, size, and purpose of interventions. Conflict situations similarly differ enormously. The correlations are thus average associations between a very heterogeneous “treatment” (interventions) among very heterogeneous units of analysis (cases of civil war/conflict). Think of it as trying to estimate what effect medicine has on your health when we group together patients with different diseases and thus different medicines. We may find a positive effect of “medicine” but we don’t know if this was because all medicines on average improve health or if there are some that work exceptionally well while others leave patients worse off.

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Why are Chemical Weapons a Red Line?

The victims of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria have suffered immeasurably. Yet, many more have been killed and maimed by conventional weapons. Why are we so much more outraged when people are killed by chemical weapons than when they are killed in a more conventional way? Why should Assad be able to kill hundreds of thousands with conventional weapons without a U.S. military intervention but a much more modest attack using chemical weapons crosses the proverbial red line?

The answer, at the surface, is that there is a taboo on chemical weapons usage and that it is in the U.S. interest to enforce this taboo. If Syria uses chemical weapons and remains unpunished this may set a dangerous precedent. Moreover, once the U.S. has made a commitment, its own credibility would be undermined if it takes no enforcement action.

Yet, what is the rational basis for such a strong norm against chemical weapons? Some writers such as John Mueller (in Foreign Affairs), Nick Gillespie (Reason), and John Glaser have called for erasing the red line. They argue that it is not at all clear that chemical weapons when used, such as in World War I, were more hurtful to civilians or military personnel than conventional weapons. Indeed, chemical weapons could potentially make for more humane warfare given their potential to incapacitate armies without killing them.

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Sex and Networking at Academic Conferences

Large academic conferences are prone to create awkward social situations, especially for those who are not (yet) well integrated into a field. Imagine walking around the Chicago Palmer House lobby among 7,000 political scientists who have gathered for the American Political Science Association annual meetings. You know that many in attendance exercise gate keeping powers over jobs you would like, awards you want to win, or journals you would like to publish in. Yet, you only know these people by name and they have no clue who you are. You could wait around in the lobby for an opportunity to grab the person with the familiar name tag. You might be a bit more strategic and selectively come up to VIPs of your choice after panels. Or, you could send out e-mails in advance in the hope of setting up brief meetings over coffee. Regardless of what option you pick, it will be awkward unless you are a natural at this (which most people are not). It can be doubly stressful for young women given that most “VIPs” are older males.

USC professor Brian Rathburn tried to provide some helpful advice for young academics navigating the scene but packaged this in “the worst metaphor ever,” as Dan Drezner put it. He then pulled the post (a cached copy is here, his explanation is here). I don’t have too much to add that hasn’t already been said by Dan Nexon,  Laura Sjoberg, Steve Saideman, and Dan Drezner. But I do want to reiterate one point that Dan Drezner makes:

 You don’t have to network at all.  It likely helps your professional development a little bit on the margins, but not nearly as much as you would think.  The opportunity costs are small compared to researching and publishing good work.  Pour your manic energy into the latter far more than the former, and don’t fret that you’re missing all the cool parties if you don’t feel like schmoozing.

I think this is both right and potentially useful for mental sanity. Small talk at conferences is not going to get your article accepted in that prestigious journal nor will it land you a job at that university you always wanted to be at. It is important to get to know the people in your field but that is a gradual process much of which takes place after people start inviting you because they like your work. Stay focused on meeting people with whom you share intellectual interests and don’t be too worried if some other grad student manages to line up coffees with all the “big people.” If you have to spend time in lobbies at all, consider playing bingo rather then seeking opportunities to have small talk with “VIPs.”

ps1. I admit it was cheap to put sex in the title. But some of the links really do talk about sex and sexual harassment at conferences.

ps2. I actually did first meet Brian Rathburn at a conference years ago after he e-mailed me. We had a nice chat and I have nothing per se against this strategy. Indeed I often and gladly meet people I don’t know for brief chats at conferences, although I have never set up such networking chats myself. Very often these chats are enjoyable and intellectually engaging. I just don’t think they are very important in the scheme of things. Note that you can make a bad impression as well in such settings, especially if you have nothing of interest to say. So: do it if you are comfortable but don’t fret about it if you would rather not.

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Around the PoliSci Blogosphere

Thanks, as always, to Bennett Butler for his help in compiling this list.

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Does Peacekeeping Reduce Violence Against Civilians?

Most of the recent news regarding UN peacekeepers has been bad, ranging from their responsibility for a cholera epidemic in Haiti to their failures to reduce violence against civilians in The Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Political Science by Lisa Hultman, Jacob Kathman, and Megan Shannon shows evidence that increased numbers of military and policy forces in a peacekeeping mission are correlated with fewer civilian killings in Africa.  Below is the abstract:

Does United Nations peacekeeping protect civilians in civil war? Civilian protection is a primary purpose of UN peacekeeping, yet there is little systematic evidence for whether peacekeeping prevents civilian deaths. We propose that UN peacekeeping can protect civilians if missions are adequately composed of military troops and police in large numbers. Using unique monthly data on the number and type of UN personnel contributed to peacekeeping operations, along with monthly data on civilian deaths from 1991 to 2008 in armed conflicts in Africa, we find that as the UN commits more military and police forces to a peacekeeping mission, fewer civilians are targeted with violence. The effect is substantial—the analyses show that, on average, deploying several thousand troops and several hundred police dramatically reduces civilian killings. We conclude that although the UN is often criticized for its failures, UN peacekeeping is an effective mechanism of civilian protection.

There is of course always the possibility that this correlation does not represent a true causal effect. I agree with the authors that there is no evidence that the UN increases troop levels when violence is low but the opposite may be equally problematic: the UN may increase troop levels after episodes of unusually high violence that would have subsided with or without an increased UN presence. Nonetheless, this issue can be dealt with (for the most part) by modeling the dynamics correctly. The authors perform a large number of tests and the finding appears to be robust.  In all, then, this is some much needed good news for UN peacekeeping and more importantly for civilians in conflicts such as the Congo, where the UN has recently increased its military presence including a much more forceful mandate.

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Political Science and The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing is a truly incredible movie that I strongly recommend to everyone. The movie portrays several Indonesian mass murderers who have tortured, executed, pillaged, and raped at large scales and now wish to re-enact their past behavior in a movie. Reviews are here, here, and here. I concur with Roger Ebert Steven Boone who calls it the “the smiliest atrocity documentary” he has ever seen and notes that:

There’s never been a shortage of dark, grim documentaries that catalog life’s cruelty, horrors and banality of evil. Thanks to the documentary genre, I have watched hundreds of hours of war crimes, genocides and miscarriages of justice carried out by unremarkable men with dimly lit souls. “The Act of Killing” bids to outdo them all.

The movie engages questions that have long occupied political scientists: why do people participate in systematic mass killings? And how can/should they be held accountable for it? I suspect it will become a staple in the classroom. Sometimes film is an incredibly effective medium to communicate ideas and stimulate the brain.

There are several ways the movie speaks to the political science literature. For example, the perpetrators are imminently aware of what Kathryn Sikkink has labeled the “justice cascade:” the idea that throughout the world perpetrators of war crimes and other human rights atrocities are increasingly being held accountable for their acts through trials. They know about Pinochet, the ICC, and so on.

Yet, they seem completely unfazed by this trend, presumably because many people affiliated with the paramilitary organization on whose behalf they acted are still in power. One of them even professed his eagerness to be sent to The Hague so he could become “famous” (of course the ICC has no jurisdiction over crimes committed in the 1960s). Still, at least based on the evidence portrayed here the deterrent effect of the cascade is not obviously present. The Indonesian vice-president is filmed giving a public speech to a paramilitary organization with 3 million members in which he argues that they will sometimes need to use their fists. The answer to the question why the children of murdered “Communists” are not seeking justice at a larger scale is invariably that they would be crushed.

The movie is quite consistent with the literature on mass killings: individuals do not usually participate in mass killings because they are intrinsically evil or because they are blinded by hatred of a group of others (in this case Communists).  Instead, these killings are usually part of some organized efforts by elites to strategically eliminate opponents. A good place to start may be Benjamin Valentino’s Final Solutions, which offers a comprehensive analysis of mass killing and genocide in the 20th century.

On the other hand, I was also struck by the organization of the mass killings through a loosely organized paramilitary organization. These were really gangsters who shifted back and forth between “regular economic crime” and politically motivated crimes. The link with the military government was there but it would be an exaggeration to say that the government had clear control over the proceedings (the precise links here are not investigated as thoroughly as I would have liked in the movie). The role of a (past and current) newspaper publisher is especially disheartening. This industrial organization of violence (as Robert Bates would call it) seems important and I am not sure if it is well covered in the literature. (Correct me if I am wrong though as I am not a specialist in this area.)

Anyway: don’t be deterred by the dark subject of this documentary and go see it.

ps. Several people have pointed out to me that the maker of the documentary, Joshua Oppenheimer, is the son of retired University of Maryland political science professor Joe Oppenheimer.

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Cucumber Time

In Dutch the word “komkommertijd” (“cucumber time”) is used to describe the period when newspapers put stories about goats on the Congressional cemetery on the front page because politicians are on vacation. In the UK they call this “silly season” whereas in the U.S. (according to the almighty Wikipedia) “slow news season” is the accurate but dreadfully boring description of the phenomenon.

Much to my surprise, the likely origins of the term “komkommertijd” are English (although another plausible theory is that it has Yiddish origins). An English dictionary already included the term in 1699:

Cucumber-time, Taylers Holiday, when they have leave to Play, and Cucumbers are in season.

When the cucumbers were in season the gentry left town for the countryside and business was slow for tailors. Peculiarly, translations of the term appear in many languagesSauregurkenzeit (German), agurktid (Norwegian),  uborkaszezon , Okurková sezóna (Czech), Sezon ogórkowy (Polish), and Onat Ha’melafefonim (Hebrew). I can’t speak for all the languages, but in German it has the same meaning as in Dutch.

I think “cucumber time” should make a comeback in the English language. It’s a beautiful term that can be used to describe slow business days of any kind. Its origins are wonderfully obscure but there is a legacy that protects the term from being overly frivolous. Let’s relegate “slow news season” to the dustbin of history and restore “cucumber time” to its rightful place.

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Around the PoliSci Blogosphere

Thanks, as always, to Bennett Butler for his help in compiling this list.

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A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher

This is from a retired high school teacher of AP U.S. Government and Politics classes:

If you, as a higher education professional, are concerned about the quality of students arriving at your institution, you have a responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people, and how they are undermining those institutions in which you labor to make a difference in the minds and the lives of the young people you teach as well as in the fields in which you do your research.

The argument is that No Child Left Behind and other laws have created testing requirements in high schools that leave little room for students to develop critical thinking and writing. I have never gone to an American high school and I must admit I know frighteningly little about what goes on there. At Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service we select students based on their ability to write and think critically. Faculty actually read the essays of applicants. I have no complaints about the level of our freshmen but I know this is a very selective example.

So what should/can higher education professionals do?

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Making Human Rights a Reality

Continuing my series on human rights, I want to highlight an important recently published book by Emilie Hafner-Burton[1] that deserves a much wider audience than it has received so far. Making Human Rights a Reality brilliantly conveys to an educated lay public what social scientists have learned about human rights abuse and how (not) to stop it . Moreover, it contains a number of sophisticated but controversial proposals to make the international human rights regime work better.

Emilie Hafner-Burton is a professor at the University of California at San Diego. She is one of the most prominent scholars in the field of human rights with an extensive academic publication record. She also won the International Studies Association’s 2012 Karl Deutsch award,which is handed out to a scholar under the age of 40 who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to the study of international relations and peace research.

The first part of the book examines the causes of human rights abuse. The chapters evaluate what political scientists have learned about the structural factors that provide incentives for abuse but it also examines lessons from psychology, anthropology, and criminology to understand why individuals and networks of individuals persist in abusing others. There are at least two general lessons that emerge from this. The first is that abuses persists when individuals rightly or wrongly believe that they will gain something from this behavior; not because abusers are psychologically or biologically abnormal. The second lesson is that the reasons these beliefs persist are quite varied across societies. In some places they stem from civil wars, in others from illiberal dictatorship and in yet others from legacies of violence or distrust that are difficult to break. A universal human rights system may be insufficiently tailored to adequately break the specific incentives that keep abuse alive in particular contexts.

The second part provides an overview of existing human rights institutions and of scholarly research into the effectiveness of these institutions. As I wrote last week, global human rights treaties at best have a modest effect in a smallish subset of states that does not include the world’s worst human rights abusers. Hafner-Burton rightly lauds the existing system for its achievements, including developing normative standards. Yet, she also argues, with Jacob Mchangama and Guglielmo Verdirame, that human rights treaties have proliferated too much and that this threatens the legitimacy of the human rights system as a whole (see my views on this here). Consequentially, activists and states that care about human rights improvement should not invest in more global human rights treaties that define new rights.

Instead, Hafner-Burton favors a more decentralized solution with a central role for “stewards:” states that have for one reason or another decided that improving the human rights of others should be a central component of their foreign policies. She argues that these steward states waste precious resources by investing in ineffective strategies and institutions. She advocates several avenues for improving the efficiency of human rights policies. States should better localize which agencies within a state are primarily responsible for abuses or what the causes of abuse in a specific context are. Moreover, triage should lead states to invest more heavily in areas of human rights promotion where the evidence suggests that it is most likely to work. In essence, human rights policy should undergo a similar revolution to the one attempted in development and foreign aid where attention for project evaluation and tailored investments has been a staple of the policy debate for over a decade.

This argument is controversial in part because it moves the human rights system away from the cherished principle of universality and highlights a not so cherished principle among human rights advocates: state power. I can’t possibly do justice to all the nuances here and I hope to take on some of the recommendations more critically as my series continues. For now, let me simply recommend that you go read the book (chapter one is freely available from Princeton University Press).


[1] Emilie is a friend. In the recent past people have gotten upset when I insert disclosures in a post so I am using a footnote this time. Not sure what the developing norms are on this. Anyway, her credentials speak for themselves.

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