Archive | International Relations

We Want a Syria Solution That’s Feasible and Legitimate. Here’s Why It’s Hard to Have Both.

This is a guest post by David Held, Professor of Politics and International Relations at Durham University, and Kyle McNally, a Researcher and PhD Candidate at Durham University.


There has been a great deal said, and written, about Syria in the last month.  A general consensus recognizes that there are no good options but that something must be done.  But the problem goes even deeper than this.  In many cases, the feasibility of a solution is inversely related to its legitimacy.  That is to say, for many options, the more likely the potential solution is to be implemented, the less legitimate it is, in global terms.

Take, for instance, the example of US military strikes. This is certainly feasible.  But were Obama to launch missiles into Syria, he would face widespread condemnation from the world community; such an action, it has been argued, would be a violation of international law and would undermine the credibility of the United Nations system.  In short, it lacks legitimacy.  By contrast, consider a military strike by an alliance such as NATO.  This would have more legitimacy, but it is not feasible given the opposition to military strikes among key NATO members.

There are options that would have more legitimacy: such as the creation of a safe zone for humanitarian aid delivery, peacekeeping forces on the ground, a political or diplomatic resolution to the crisis, and a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration campaign to transition the country back into stability.  These would necessarily have to be a project initiated and implemented by the United Nations, so right away it’s clear these are not very feasible.

The challenge, therefore, is to find an option that does not compromise legitimacy for feasibility.  Perhaps by clever diplomacy or perhaps by a ‘rhetorical’ stumble, one such option may have presented itself last week, when the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, capitalized on what appeared to be a flippant remark made by John Kerry only hours earlier.  Kerry, with a tone of sarcasm, said that the Assad regime could avoid military strikes if they surrendered their stockpile of chemical weapons.

The US State Department quickly tried to back off this position and explained it as a ‘rhetorical argument’; however, the wheels of diplomacy were already in motion.  Russia quickly presented this to the Syrian government, who have since accepted the deal in principle.  With US-Russia agreement on the basic terms of the deal, the world now waits to see if Assad will cooperate and abide by the requirements they have set out.

Questions linger as to how this deal will be brokered into implementation—principally, questions over the use of force if Assad does not comply, and what role the UN Security Council will play in the end. As of now, this approach enjoys the legitimacy of the international community, strengthens international law, and at least for time being might even be feasible.

Beyond this, the civil war will continue to rage and the options here look even more dire. The truism that there is only a solution through politics remains.  Perhaps with the doors open to Moscow and Tehran, there is scope for more political manoeuvring, manoeuvring that might lead to a transformation of the Syrian regime and the ultimate removal of Assad. But this would still leave a war torn country bitterly divided with factions and jihadists still at war with each other, and armed greater than ever before.  Introducing democracy in such a context, while desirable in principle, is improbable and can even be dangerous; without the grassroots development of a culture of citizenship, democracy can simply magnify identity politics.

If a deal on Syria was to occur, and peace achieved, the conditions might be created for freedom to begin to flourish.  Infrastructures of freedom, embedding freedom of the press, association and expression, could begin to be built.  Civil society associations might be entrenched and activists encouraged to create links across sectarian divides on the many common issues all such people share: the need for security, subsistence, schooling, jobs and so on.  With such institutions in place a culture of politics might begin to flourish which separates ethnic and religious identities from constitutional structures and autonomous political processes. The separation of both rulers and ruled from the state – a critical condition of modern political structures which imposes the rule of law on all – could begin to be set in place. But we are a long way from here.

If the latest Russian-American deal on Assad’s chemical weapons sticks, diplomatic circles across the world may well celebrate this as a great victory.  Putin’s Russia will be emboldened in the international system and politicians will deliver polite speeches trying to take credit for the success.  Meanwhile, the killing fields remain undisturbed and in desperate search of an alternative politics – one that is both feasible and legitimate.

Continue Reading

Why Do Policy Makers Hate International Relations Scholarship?

Paul Avey and Michael Desch have a forthcoming article in International Studies Quarterly, that supplements the ranking work that Erik summarizes below. The conclusions bear out the claims of Joe Nye and others that there is an increasing gap between academic international relations and the kind of work that US senior policy makers care about. Some 45% of the senior policy makers who answered Avey and Desch’s survey have training in international relations or political science. It doesn’t seem to have taken.

Aside from Economics, the scholarly disciplines that policymakers found of greatest use were Area Studies and History. … compared to the other disciplines, Political Science did rather poorly (see figure 1). This lower ranking may reflect the fact that in recent years the discipline has become dominated by more complex methodologies such as formal modeling and statistics. Policymakers tend to eschew, in the words of one respondent, “all formulaic academic, as opposed to historically based temperamental, realist projects,” preferring, in the words of another, “historical analysis, case studies, theoretical writings that illustrate theory with case studies and concrete examples.” … the higher the rank of the government official, the less likely he or she was to think that formal models were useful for policymaking.

There are a number of possible responses that international relations scholars could make to this (e.g. to argue that political science is in the business of finding out about the world, not helping policy makers, or to argue that it’s not US policy makers who international relations scholars should be trying to help). Or scholars could argue (as many have) that we should reform political science to move away from quantitative techniques and formal modeling towards more policy relevant work.

However, I can’t help wondering whether Avey and Desch’s piece misses out on some of the interesting things that have been happening over the last couple of years. They mention the Monkey Cage (among other blogs) as an interesting model of communication, but also caution that the Internet is full of unreliable information. But what we have seen over the last couple of years is an explosion of interest in political science results (some of them based on sophisticated quantitative or formal analysis; some derived from sophisticated qualitative research) that are cleanly presented and obviously relevant. Most of this interest has been in work in the field of Americanist political science – but this field is even more notoriously disliked by political types than international relations. Nonetheless, thanks to the efforts of Ezra Klein and others, it’s built up a real audience. We furthermore have reason to understand that some of our work at the Monkey Cage has had significant take up among policy makers.

This suggests not only that Avey and Desch’s cautious optimism about the prospects for short, punchy timely work could be strengthened, but that methodological sophistication is not a natural enemy of public interest. The problem lies less in methodological approach than in choice of topic (much international relations work is tediously self referential), disciplinary self-understanding (many international relations scholars don’t value public outreach, and don’t have disciplinary incentives to value it) and lack of venue. The last of these at least, we and other bloggers are working on (and will be able to work on better in The Monkey Cage when it starts to reach the larger audience of Washington Post readers). The decision of both Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy to create big active websites soliciting timely content has built another venue that academics can use to connect to a policy audience. I can’t help wonder whether a survey of policy makers say, in five years time, would respond quite differently to a survey, thanks not only to generational shift among policy makers, but structural changes in political science. The incentives are shifting in interesting ways.

Update: Avey and Desch apparently have a guest-post on their findings in the Monkey Cage pipeline (we’re an autonomous collective – what can I say … )

Continue Reading

The Confusing State of US-Russian Relations

I was honored to be invited last week by the New American Foundation president Anne-Marie Slaughter to submit a contribution to her new Weekly Wonk Newsletter.  Here’s the first couple paragraphs of what I wrote:

It is hard to imagine a more interesting—and confusing—time to take stock of modern U.S.-Russian relations. My Twitter feed is currently ablaze with reports of the possibility that the #US will adopt the #Russia plan for solving the current #Syria crisis. At the same time, Vladimir Putin has just critiqued President Obama on the op-ed page of  The New York Times.  These seemingly unexpected and contradictory developments reflect the fact that there are two fundamental realities shaping the bilateral relationship today today: Russian domestic politics and the fact that both nations continue to have a series of shared and conflicting international interests.

First, the recent direction of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin in terms of the domestic political sphere is anathema to most of the values that the United States professes to support in its friends and allies: a free press, fair and competitive elections, civil rights for minorities, an independent judiciary, and so on. It seems that hardly more than a few weeks can go by without something happening in Russia that reminds American policymakers of how different the two regimes can be. The recent flight from the country of the distinguished economist Sergei Guriev and the trialconviction, and releaseof recent Moscow mayoral candidate and opposition leader Alexander Navalny are but two examples, as are recent laws against “homosexual propaganda.” This is not to say that the United States does not cooperate with foreign regimes that have less than stellar democratic records. At the same time, though, the post-Cold War history of U.S.-Russian relations has been filled repeatedly with the promise of Russia becoming “more democratic” and of potential “resets.” To the extent that this promise isn’t fulfilled, the relationship (rightly or wrongly) suffers.

Then there is Vladimir Putin’s standing in his own country. Putin has enjoyed periods of time, especially in the first decade of his presidency, when he was a genuinely popular leader. He gave Russians a flourishing economy, rising oil prices that helped the country escape from Western loans and IMF bailouts, and much needed stability after the Yeltsin years. Today, however, Putin is less popular.  Economic growth has slowed, and the Kremlin has done little to diversify their economy beyond extractive industries. The perception of corruption among the ruling elite is widespread.  The growing middle class in Russia has become disillusioned with the impunity of its self-enriching leaders, and the newest generation lacks the memory of why Putin was embraced in the first place.

All of these factors have added up to a situation where Putin II needs to reach farther to affirm his legitimacy than Putin I ever did. And one way Putin has been doing this, borrowing from a familiar theme in Russian political rhetoric that reached its height during the Cold War years, is by casting himself as a defender of Russian values against Western—particularly American—encroachment. It’s a rational strategy, but Putin also seems to take a certain glee in needling his U.S. “partners,” as evidenced most recently by his reactions to the Edward Snowden affair and his NY Times op-ed.  Scapegoating the West is an easy way out in difficult times, as evidenced by Putin’s rush to denounce protesters who took to the streets of Moscow following claims of fraud in the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections as being instruments of “foreign agents”. And as long as Putin and his surrounding ruling elite are running the show in Russia, U.S.-Russian relations are going to face an uphill struggle.

The rest of the piece can be found on the Weekly Wonk’s website here, or, if you prefer, at Time Magazine here.  And for those of you who want even more on US-Russia relations, I also appeared on the Weekly Wonk’s new podcast to discuss the topic; I come in around the 13th minute.

Continue Reading

All this has happened before … and it will happen again: Syria, US “outside options,” and the Security Council

The path to where the U.S., Russia, and Syria are now—with an initial US/Russia agreement on a plan for disarmament of Assad’s chemical arsenal, to be put before the UNSC — has been idiosyncratic to the point of good comedy.  But where they have ended up should be starting to look familiar, and arguably tells us something about the structure of post-Cold War international politics.

Way back in 2001 the Monkey Cage’s very own Erik Voeten published an article (gated) in the American Political Science Review called “Outside Options and the Logic of Security Council Action.”  He noted the large increase in multilateral cooperation through the UNSC after the end of the Cold War.  For example, between 1990 and 1998 the UNSC approved 31 peacekeeping operations (PKOs) and passed 145 resolutions under Chapter VII (which can authorize use of force).  By contrast, from 1945 to 1989 there had been only 15 PKOs and 22 resolutions under Chapter VII.  One major, relevant change was that the veto has been exercised much less often.

During the Cold War, veto threats by either side came along with the implicit understanding that acting unilaterally could lead to a dangerous escalation between the US and the USSR.  With the collapse of the USSR, all kinds of US threats to intervene—often against regimes it doesn’t like for one reason or another—have become more credible.  However, the US, the rest of the Permanent Five on the UNSC, and a lot of other countries all would, in general, prefer that US or US-led military interventions be approved and sanctioned by the UNSC.  The other veto players, and especially Russia, want to be able to constrain and influence US use of force.  US administrations, on the other side, want formal authorization because they correctly see this as reducing the costs of intervention and also as a way to increase domestic support from an intervention-averse US public.

Voeten’s article observes that this configuration of preferences, capabilities, and the institution of the UNSC sets up a typical bargaining situation:  The US and the rest of the P5 both have reasons to want an intervention, should it happen, to go through the Security Council, but they always have conflicting preferences over the terms.  In many cases, of course, Russia would strongly prefer no intervention at all, but at least a deal in the UNSC preserves the apparent authority of the institution, where Russia still has the symbolically important veto.  According to Dmitri Trenin, this is an important consideration for Putin in the current crisis.

Multilateral cooperation through the UNSC thus often take the form of the US, sometimes with allies, threatening to intervene without UNSC authorization.  This is the “outside option,” and it stands behind negotiations over whether there are terms for a UN resolution that both the US and the “constrainers” would both prefer to its exercise.  Usually this leads to intervention or multilateral action with UNSC authorization, as in Bosnia or Haiti.  But sometimes not, as in Kosovo or Iraq.  So the way this episode with Syria is playing out has basically happened before, and there are good reasons to expect that it will happen again, sooner or later.

Continue Reading

That Op-Ed by Putin: Where Is He Right, and Where Is He Wrong?

Here’s my quick and dirty run-down of Putin’s op-ed published in today’s New York Times. In some places, I assess whether his statements are accurate in terms of what political science research has said. In other places, I just look at it from a logic perspective. His statements are in quotes, and my responses are below.


A Plea for Caution from Russia, by V. Putin (published in the print edition of the NYT on September 12, 2013, page A31).

“Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies. Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again. The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.”

MEH. This is an oversimplification of the League’s collapse and the UN’s role in world politics. Arguably its collapse began when countries initiated wars of aggression—particularly the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, during which the Italians used mustard gas on civilians. Haile Selassie, then Emperor of Abyssinia, came before the League to issue an emotional appeal for action to roll back Italian aggression, but none was forthcoming. This effectively killed the foundational doctrine of the League—collective security—where aggression was supposedly outlawed and theoretically deterred through universal military response to the aggressor. Ironically, then, the UN is in a bit of a paradox. The UN is concerned with two levels of peace—inter-state peace, which Putin references above, and intra-state peace, which he summarily ignores. Yes, it’s illegal for countries to go to war with one another when the UNSC flatly rejects it. On the other hand, it’s also illegal for leaders to commit indiscriminate murder against their own people (hence the R2P doctrine). This means that the UN is in a bind. Its presence as a force to check aggression against ones own people is thwarted by Russia’s insistence on placing the legality of UNSC’s veto player doctrine above the legality of punishing leaders who commit crimes against humanity.


“The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders.”

PROBABLY TRUE. Research is all over the map on the question of how limited military actions affect humanitarian conditions and escalation of conflicts. However, I am more persuaded by prior studies that show that on average, military interventions actually exacerbate killings (at least in the short term), lengthen “spells” of repression, and often lengthen civil wars themselves. Extremely robust multilateral interventions—involving boots on the ground and multidimensional efforts to reform political, economic, and social conditions—can halt these killings. But that’s not what the Obama administration is considering, nor is it plausible in this case given Russia and China’s objections.


“A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”

PROBABLY. Previous research shows that weaker states often use asymmetric capabilities to attack their more powerful rivals, and this often occurs in direct retaliation for military actions. Weaker powers know that they cannot confront stronger powers using conventional military force. However, weaker powers also know that sponsoring terror attacks is relatively cheap and low-risk (since they can always deny it), that stronger powers cannot prevent every terror attack, and that stronger powers tend to overreact to terror attacks, which can ultimately weaken them. Think about the series of events surrounding the Lockerbie bombing—Libya’s retaliation for Reagan’s strikes on Benghazi and Tripoli (which was, by the way, retaliation for a Libyan-sponsored terror attack on American officers in a German nightclub).


“It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.”

QUITE LIKELY. My thought here isn’t based on research as much as my sense that a strike on Syria would preclude any chance for us to work with the Iranians or the Russians on anything in the near future. Part of the reason Putin has been so unrelenting on Syria is his displeasure with UNSC Resolution 1973. With its aftermath, the Russians felt they were felt tricked into withholding their veto and the result was a back-door regime change campaign in Libya. The Iranians have been launching one hell of a PR campaign lately, but a strike in Syria would probably heighten their security concerns rather than diminishing them. Moreover, Assad has repeatedly invoked threats to the Israeli-Palestinians peace process as something of a deterrent against a US strike, implying that if the US does strike, his regional allies will retaliate against Israel. If this happened, it could certainly be quite the distraction from the peace process.


“It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

GIVE ME A BREAK. First of all, it depends on which laws you’re talking about (see my discussion above). Assad has broken a considerable number of international laws—as has Russia—over the course of this crisis. And second, the international order is based on the balance of power in the system, which seems to be quite stable at the moment. Although the United States has not been taking a forward military posture in the Middle East lately, objectively its hard power assets remain considerable. If there is one stable rule in international politics, it’s the one Thucydides wrote about in 431 BC: Great powers do what they will while the weak suffer what they must. If anyone knows that, it’s Putin.


“Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria.

IT DEPENDS. There are plenty of people there still fighting for democracy—some still using nonviolent means, believe it or not!—while armed rebel groups there are doing what armed rebel groups do pretty much everywhere else. Most civil wars of this nature don’t wind up as democracies regardless of who wins, but that’s besides the point. The most pressing concern is to stop the killing. Actually no one has a very good sense of who the “good guys” are in Syria these days. Putin certainly doesn’t know who the good guys are, given that he has supported the first side to commit indiscriminate murder from the very beginning.


“But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations.”

YES, BUT SO WHAT? The Obama administration’s strike on the Syrian government’s assets would allegedly be so limited that it would not affect the balance of power on the ground. And even if the strike did give the Qaeda fighters better chance against the Assad government, it would give similar advantages to secular rebels groups.


“This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.”

UM…How about all of those foreign weapons supplied to the regime? When states fund incumbent regimes, the likelihood that the rebels receive state support goes up dramatically. C’mon, Putin. Don’t you remember the Cold War? It’s true, though, that external support generally increases incentives for rebel groups to emerge, while increasing the likelihood that they abuse civilians.


“Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

YEP. It’s a problem. There are no easy, short-term solutions, though, and Putin is being disingenuous here when he implies that a U.S. strike (or lack thereof) will alter this situation.


“From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.”

BLAH BLAH BLAH. Russia’s attempt to push for “peaceful dialogue” occurred while Russia was sending arms to Assad and blocking the all of the UN’s attempts to resolve the conflict. Syria is on trial now for its own violation of international law. Again, see above.


“We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” 

THAT IS TRUE. In the absence of a UNSC resolution, a U.S. military strike would be illegal.


“No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.”

FEW ARE BUYING THIS. In fact, there is every indication that the UN—the law-enforcing body Putin so clearly respects—will point the finger at Assad’s government in the report it will release on Monday.


“Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.”

I DOUBT IT, on two fronts. First, Putin seems to be conflating militants here. There are Al Qaeda types in Syria, who seem to be preoccupied with Assad at the moment. Then there are Al Qaeda types in Lebanon, who recently fired rockets into Israel. Second, if such an attack is in the works, I highly doubt that Israel is “ignoring” it.


“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”’

IT DEPENDS. Pew polls suggest that people still have fairly favorable views of the American government, although some see it as something of a bully (this is especially true in the Muslim world). On the other hand, Putin doesn’t really seem to care much about how “millions around the world” view it either. Global popularity may help a country get what it wants, but it is not a vital interest.


“But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.”

KINDA. Although major military adventures weren’t too successful in the end, some have argued that special operations missions and targeted killings of Al Qaeda affiliates have been quite effective, actually.


“No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.”

MUCH OF THIS IS TRUE. No military strikes, regardless of how “surgical”, can avoid collateral damage. It’s important to keep in mind that even when we’re talking about “humanitarian interventions,” we are talking about killing other people. Unfortunately systematic research on precisely how many people die in such strikes is hard to come by. Why? Because governments don’t keep track of how many civilians die in such strikes.


“The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.”

AND WE’RE BACK TO IRAN. It’s difficult to fully understand what’s going on in Iranian leaders’ minds at the moment. But working together on nonproliferation—including the Iranian issue—will be difficult if Putin withdraws his cooperation from U.S. efforts. I do think that the claim that inaction in Syria will embolden Iran is overstated, though. The U.S. has been much more considered and consistent as to its interests regarding the Iranian nuclear program than Obama has been vis-à-vis Syria.


“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”

A WELCOME IDEA INDEED…if Putin is sincere, that is.


“A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action. I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations. If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”

TOTALLY. To me this is the most promising aspect of the current negotiations. If the US and Russia can work together on this problem and find a way to get to common ground, it may build trust and provide opportunities to do more together—both on Syria and elsewhere.


“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too.”

WHY EXTERMELY DANGEROUS? Studies show that nationalism (and other forms of identity) are only really dangerous when leaders take advantage of these symbols to pursue policies that are dispossessive and dehumanizing, and predatory. I don’t know of any studies that argue that self-congratulatory nationalism alone leads to violence.


“We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”


Continue Reading

5 Articles on Military Interventions

So maybe we are going to intervene in Syria, and maybe not.  Either way, these articles are right on point.

Thanks to Cambridge University Press for ungating these articles for the next two months.


Continue Reading

Threats and Credibility: How Obama’s Decision to Seek Congressional Authorization for Syria May Have Been a Game Changer

The following is a guest post from University of Wisconsin-Madison Ph.D candidate in political science Roseanne McManus.


In August 2012 and March 2013, President Obama referred to the use of chemical weapons by Syria as a “red line” and a “game changer.”  The evidence appears to indicate that Syria disregarded these warnings, using chemical weapons on a small scale in March 2013 and on a larger scale in August 2013.  However, now Syria has expressed at least initial willingness to give up its chemical weapons.  My research on the conditions for effectiveness of statements of resolve sheds light on the reasons for this change.  Specifically, it suggests that Obama’s threats have recently become more effective because seeking approval from Congress has resulted in a greater observable ability to follow through on them.

A fair amount of political science research has already been devoted to the question of how tough statements can effectively convey resolve to adversaries, despite the incentives for leaders to exaggerate their resolve.  The most prevalent current theories suggest that it is the costs of backing down from resolved statements that prevent leaders from making statements too casually and thus render statements more credible.  These costs might include damage to a leader’s or nation’s international reputation or a decline in the leader’s domestic support.

Clearly, these types of costs exist in the Syria case.  Obama was hammered in the media and by other politicians for his weak response to Syria’s first use of chemical weapons.  Many of Obama’s critics explicitly mentioned the loss of US credibility as a cost of Obama’s inaction.  The fact that backing down from his statements would be domestically and internationally costly for Obama should have been obvious to Syria from the outset.  Yet, Syria did not heed Obama’s warnings.  This suggests that we need to bring other factors into our analysis.

My research, available here, shows that factors related to the costs of backing down are rather poor predictors of whether statements of resolve will be effective at influencing the outcome of international disputes.  Much better predictors are factors related to whether a leader has the observable ability to follow through on statements.  While many theories tend to take a leader’s ability to follow through on statements for granted, I argue that there can be substantial risks and obstacles to following through, such as domestic actors who can block or forestall action (known in political science as veto players) or the danger of domestic backlash if a conflict goes poorly.  Therefore, statements of resolve will only be effective if adversaries can observe that a leader has the ability to overcome these risks and obstacles.  My statistical analysis shows that US presidential statements of resolve have a greater influence on dispute outcomes when the president has a greater ability to follow through on his statements due to a secure political position and/or hawkish domestic veto players.

Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

Why a Strategy of Deterring Weak Leaders from Using Chemical Weapons Means the US Should Attack Syria Even if it Strengthens Assad


The following is a guest post from my NYU colleague political scientist Peter Rosendorff.


The Senate is struggling to draft a resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria, and has announced a delay in the vote originally scheduled for Wednesday in order to permit the revived diplomatic process to potentially succeed. Presidents Putin and Obama are suddenly on the same page with respect to the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons, and Syria may be going along with the initiative for now, probably to delay and dissemble.

The US Congress, following President Obama’s lead, is likely to eventually authorize the use of force, most likely in a contingent fashion whereby force will be authorized in the instance that the Russian initiative fails.

The US has to do something it doesn’t want to do: to deter future abusers of chemical weapons in other weak and fragile states, the US will probably authorize an attack on Syria. But an attack, paradoxically, will have the unintended and unavoidable consequence of strengthening Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power. However, it turns out to be the case that in order for deterrence to work, the US must sometimes strengthen strong dictators to deter the weak.

The authorization for the attack will require it be calibrated so as to damage the capacity for future chemical weapons deployment by the Assad regime, but not to alter the balance of power in the Syrian civil war. US policy has been to draw Iran and Hezbollah into a long, resource dissipating civil war, reducing their capacity to target the US and its assets abroad.  Any punitive action must also avoid strengthening the rebel opposition for fear of generating a “failed-state” scenario and engineering a safe haven for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Some have called this the “goldilocks” strategy – hit Assad not too hard and not too soft. Just right. (By the way, this is Russia’s primary concern as well – to ensure that a failed-state Syria does not end up emboldening Russia’s opponents in Central Asia, especially if Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile was to fall into rebel hands).

But any attack on Assad that leaves him in power actually strengthens his grip. He has thumbed his nose at the international community by violating a strong norm against the use of chemical weapons, especially against unarmed civilians.  By crossing Obama’s red line, he shows his opposition that he can withstand the wrath of the West, and the US in particular. And hence he can withstand the puny (by comparison) attacks by the rebel forces.  He signals his intent not to leave, not to negotiate and not to concede.

This would lead a calculating US to consider no attack at all.  No attack leads to the continued stalemate that is the Syrian civil war, and a continuation of current foreign policy. No attack upholds the current status quo with respect to the crisis, which arguably is the US’s preferred (all realities considered) approach (at an incredible toll in lives lost).

But the US will authorize an attack. And they must do so because they are engaged in another game of geopolitics with all the potential chemical weapons users and rogue states with domestic political crises readying to boil over – Iran and North Korea, among others.  The US commitment to enforce the international norm against chemical weapons must be followed through to deter these rogue states.

Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

Try bargaining before fighting

This, or something like it, is a very good idea, wholly independent of whether you can get Russian agreement and participation.  Much better to make a reasonable demand of Assad—such as verifiably destroy your chemical weapons, and/or sign the CWC —and then strike if he doesn’t comply than to just jump to a punitive spanking.  If he says Ok and complies, then Obama will have achieved the goal of stopping further use of chemical weapons in Syria and also of upholding and furthering a global norm against their use.  If Assad says No or says Yes and then goes ahead and carries out more gas attacks, then it is much easier to make the case and probably get more domestic and international support for a punitive strike.

Administration officials are reportedly worried about whether this could work because it would be hard to verify compliance:

“If Assad said he was turning this stuff over, how would we know if he has really complied?” asked the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.

You wouldn’t know if he had turned it all over, but you would be able tell if he or his minions carried out more major gas attacks.  It would be great if you could get an outcome where he actually doesn’t have any chemical weapons, but that’s not even what the punitive strikes already envisioned were supposed to bring about.  The point was to lower the likelihood that they would continue to be used (and/or deter others …).  So verifying compliance on that crucial question shouldn’t be any more of an issue than it already was.

The use of military force is costly and risky for both sides, usually, and this means that there should be deals both sides would prefer to rolling the iron dice (I wrote about this here, gated though).  In some cases, one or both sides has no interest in trying to find such a deal because it anticipates that the adversary would subsequently be in a position to renege on the deal without significant consequence.  For example, the George W. Bush administration didn’t want to try to cut a deal with Saddam Hussein because they didn’t think Saddam could be trusted not to use an end of the sanctions regime, etc, to re-arm and get a nuclear weapons program going again.  Roosevelt and Churchill made unconditional surrender their war aim because they didn’t think any deal with Hitler would be stable in the long run. When these are the concerns, you get wars of regime change.  Here, by contrast, making the deal doesn’t increase Assad’s capability to break it and get away with it in the future.  So it’s a different sort of situation and one where a bargain should be feasible.  But a bargain requires a proposal.

[By the way:  In the International Relations literature, Andrew Coe has an interesting account of the 2003 Iraq war that stresses how commitment problems made bargaining beside the point for the Bush administration.   Alex Weisiger’s new book Logics of War:  Explanations for Limited and Unlimited Conflicts argues that big, destructive wars are usually wars of regime change driven by commitment problems like those just mentioned.  The situation is different here both because it’s not clear that the administration would want the Assad regime to disappear if the only route was total collapse, and because what they want him to do (stop using chemical weapons) doesn’t involve the sort of commitment problem that drives wars of regime change.]

Continue Reading

SWIFT, the NSA and Glenn Greenwald

The most recent Greenwald document release – of a Powerpoint suggesting strongly that the NSA has a backdoor into the SWIFT financial messaging system – may have some interesting political consequences. Abe Newman at Georgetown and I are in the throes of writing a book about the internationalization of homeland security. Roughly, our story is that domestic officials in both the EU and US, who prefer to prioritize homeland security over privacy and civil rights, have been able to use cross national networks and forums to push their agenda, weakening the previously existing privacy regime in the European Union. And SWIFT is a big part of this story. The US began secretly requiring SWIFT (which is based in Belgium) to share its data after September 11. When EU decision makers became aware of this (thanks to a New York Times story which the Bush administration tried to get spiked), there was political uproar, resulting in the negotiation of a framework under which the US agreed to impose limits and safeguards in return for continued access. If you don’t mind wading through some political science jargon, you can get the basic story from the relevant bits of this paper.

This is interesting for two reasons. First – the EU thought the US had signed onto a binding deal on access to SWIFT data. If, as appears likely at this point, the US was letting the EU see what it did when it came in through the front door, while retaining a backdoor key for the odd bit of opportunistic burglary, it will at the least be highly embarrassing. Second – there are people in the EU who never liked this deal in the first place, and have been looking for reasons to get rid of it. The allegations of the last couple of months have helped their case considerably – this, if it bears out, will do more than that. If the US has demonstrably lied to the EU about the circumstances under which it has been getting access to SWIFT, it will be hard for the EU to continue with the arrangement (and, possibly, a similar arrangement about sharing airline passenger data) without badly losing face. Even though the people who dominate the agenda (officials in the Council and European Commission) probably don’t want to abandon the agreement, even after this, they’ll have a bloody hard time explaining why they want to keep it. The EU-US homeland security relationship, which had been looking pretty cosy a few months ago, is now likely to be anything but.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Continue Reading