Archive | International Relations

“Credibility” is not everything but it’s not nothing either

In the deluge of blogospheric commentary on the administration’s massive Syria problem, you see a lot of extreme positions on the question of whether it is important to use force to uphold Obama’s or the US’s “credibility.”  Advocates of intervention (who are relatively few) often argue that this is a critical consideration (eg, Walter Russell Mead, or John Kerry).  Opponents argue that maintaining credibility is in general a crazy reason to use military force (eg, Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf, Jim Manzi, Stephen Walt, among many others).  Maybe it’s boring to say, but both extreme positions are wrong.  Credibility, or following through on previous diplomatic commitments, should clearly not be the only consideration but neither should it be completely disregarded.

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Why is Syria So Important to Russia and Putin?

Russia Syrian Game

The following is a guest post from UCLA political scientist Daniel Treisman.


As the White House rounds up support for a military strike against Syria, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his disapproval. What lies behind the Russian position? Why is Putin so seemingly attached to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad?

It is tempting to attribute Moscow’s resistance to US intervention to some kind of psychological hangup—say, wounded pride at Russia’s fallen status or an atavistic Cold War mentality. To former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, quoted by Peter Baker in the New York Times, Putin is “about lost power, lost empire, lost glory.” President Obama recently took to analyzing Putin’s “slouch.”

Yet, in fact, there’s a logic behind Putin’s position on Syria that is really not that hard to understand. It has more to do with realpolitik than psychology.

Some have pointed to Russia’s economic interests in Syria, but these are actually quite modest. Trade between the two countries is inconsequential. In 2011, Russian exports to Syria came to $1.93 billion, about 0.4 percent of the total. Imports from Syria were just $306 million. As of 2009, Russia had an estimated $19.4 billion of investments in the country, although that might have risen since then.

Syria matters slightly more for Russia’s weapons producers, who have excellent channels of communication with the Kremlin. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s estimates, Russian arms exports to Syria in the five years from 2008 to 2012 totaled about $1.1 billion (at 1990 prices) out of a worldwide total of $35.2 billion. Contracts for future supplies come to several billion dollars. Russian companies would also like to develop Syria’s oil fields. Still, all considered, Moscow’s economic stake in the country is relatively small.

Nor does Putin’s position have much to do with the naval station at Tartus that Syria has provided Russia for the past 40 years. Of course, Moscow would like to keep this last remaining naval foothold in the Mediterranean, and it has planned for some years to refurbish the port. But at present facilities there are very limited. The station can accommodate no more than four medium sized ships at once.

Putin’s real motivation in opposing US involvement in Syria’s civil war is simple: he strongly objects to US policies of regime change, especially when backed up by military force. There are two main reasons. First, he is intensely aware that many in Washington would like to see his regime changed. Although overthrowing Putin is not an objective of US policy, he resists any extension of the practice.

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“Why States No Longer Declare War”

Yesterday in this space Eric Grynaviski argued that “we [the United States] need declarations of war.” Given that Grynaviski is also suggesting that innocents inside of Syria be able to “exercise a veto over U.S. policy (if feasible),” I think it’s safe to say that his views are far from the mainstream of U.S. thinking. This is fine—it’s good for scholars to think outside the box—but I think it means that his view of “need” is pretty theoretical.

In any case, I thought it would be helpful to point to this paper (link to preprint here) from Tanisha Fazal, “Why States No Longer Declare War.” Fazal argues that “one set of norms—the rise of international humanitarian law—generates unintended consequences that include disincentives to comply with the long-held norm of declaring war.”

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Expert Commentary on US-Russian Relations


As the US heads towards action in Syria that will clearly not be authorized by the UN Security Council, we are reminded once again of the importance of the US relationship with Russia. With this in mind, I wanted to alert readers to a new webpage that has been put up by the Carnegie Organization of New York as part of their Perspectives on Peace and Security, called Rebuilding the U.S.-Russia Relationship. Here you can find short statements on the US-Russian relationship from a wide range of Russia experts.

I was invited to participate in this exercise, and am providing my answers below; the full set of responses can be found here.

Q: Why does the US-Russian relationship matter at this time?

A: At the most basic level, these are still the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, and overtly hostile relations between them are therefore not particularly good for anyone.  In a more pragmatic sense, there are many ways that Russia can help (or hinder) U.S. foreign policy interests, and vice versa.  Both countries are interested in how events unfold in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the trajectory of international terrorism, and the long-term rise of China.  And of course both countries continue to be interested in developments in Europe, even if not quite to the same extent as during the Cold War.  In many (but of course not all) of these cases, cooperation between the United States and Russia can help both countries achieve important goals.  Finally, the United States has long been seen as a friend of the Russian people by certain segments of the Russian population, especially those with more liberal political outlooks; some of these people may be the leaders of Russia in the future.  What the United States does today vis-à-vis Russia and the way it treats its own citizens may affect how those citizens feel about the United Statesin the future.

Q: What can and should both countries do to “fix” the relationship?

A: Clearly, dialogue between the two countries is important if relations are going to improve.  But it may be time to think about the difference between getting things fixed in the short term and in the long term. Clearly, both sides face temptations to use their relationship to play to their own domestic audiences, and President Putin has undoubtedly made antagonizing the West a part of his strategy for maintaining support at home. In the short term, in the aftermath of the public decision to cancel the summit, the United States may find it can best advance its foreign goals by quietly re-establishing contact with the Russians at lower levels. (And to be clear, I think tying the future of U.S.-Russian relations to the fate of Edward Snowden would be a mistake.) But in the longer term, the United States may want to consider ways to convince Putin that there are consequences to “playing the American card” so often for domestic consumption, especially in terms of using it to demonize his opponents at home as somehow un-Russian. Taking a firmer stance with the regime now might end up paying dividends down the road, although this will of course be tricky in practice.

The full set of responses can be found here.


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Threading needles in Syria

Erica, Erik, and several scholars over at the Duck have done a great job of rounding up and discussing political science research on intervention that might be relevant to the likely US attack on military installations in Syria.  I think I agree with Erik, however, that the cases typically studied (frequently peacekeeping operations) probably don’t have a lot to tell us about this one.

As explained by administration officials—in  remarkable detail— they are thinking about this as a punitive action to impose costs on Assad for violating an international norm that they believe is important to uphold.  Degrading Assad’s military capability is also mentioned, but seems to be secondary or rather the means by which costs are to be imposed, rather than the core objective.  So the most relevant comparison cases would be punitive strikes designed to “reestablish deterrence,” such as, in part, recent Israeli interventions in Gaza and southern Lebanon; the US strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998 in reply to embassy bombings; the US air attacks on various targets in Iraq in 1998; perhaps Reagan’s bombardment of Syrian positions in Lebanon in 1983 after withdrawing the Marines from Beirut; and, going farther back, the US’s graduated bombing campaigns of North Vietnam, which were carefully designed to try to send the sort of signals that the Obama administration now wants to send to Assad, but which didn’t work so well.

See Wallace Thies’ book for an analysis of this last case.  He found, if I recall, that the North Vietnamese didn’t really get the careful, contingent messages the Johnson administration was trying to send.  I’d add that they did correctly get that bombing was not very costly for the US and thus didn’t convey a willingness to actually invade the North.  That would be all the more so in the case of Obama and Syria, since his officials have been very clear that they do not intend an intervention in the sense of using force to give a decisive advantage to one side (as in Kosovo or Bosnia).  I can’t think of a case where the idea was to use force to thread such tiny needles.

Needle 1:  The attack can’t be so large that it kills so many civilians that the reaction is, You killed almost as many as the gas attack did!  (And you can bet that the Assad regime will do what it can to make it so attacks do kill, or appear to kill, a lot of civilians.)  Further, at least according to Max Fisher’s reporting, the administration doesn’t even want to cause the Assad regime to collapse completely, because they imagine that the best endpoint is not rebel victory but some kind of negotiated power-sharing deal.  (At least that’s how I interpret Fisher’s explanation of what they are thinking).

But, as many have pointed out, the attack can’t be too small, or it looks pathetic and pointless, and you have Assad still there thumbing his nose at you.   This needle eye is so small that it may not exist.

Needle 2:  The strike has to serve its purpose for enforcing an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, but at the same time not really take sides in the civil war, or commit us more seriously to military action on behalf of the rebels.

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Militaries: An industry in decline


Apropos of nothing in particular that’s in the news (except maybe this), here is a graph of how two measures of military effort have evolved from 1945 to 2007, by region.  (I’m working on a project that has gotten me mired in available data on military spending and force sizes, and I just thought this was interesting.)

The black line is the average across countries of military spending as a percentage of GDP, using the Correlates of War (COW) estimate of total spending divided by World Bank GDP figures (which only start in 1960).  The red line is the average across countries of armed forces per 1,000 population, again using COW estimates.

You see really striking long-run declines in the West, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and Asia.  In these areas it almost looks as if demobilization from World War II has taken place gradually and over 60+ years.  In Latin America and North Africa/Middle East,  you see pretty striking declines since the end of the Cold War, and perhaps some decline in subSaharan Africa since around 2000.

Why the long-run declines?  Many factors, surely, but on the international side it’s plausible to credit the disappearance of intense conflict among the militarily strongest states, which completely dominated international politics before 1946.  US-Soviet conflict was pretty intense into the mid-1960s, but since then the major powers have been less and less concerned about being invaded by each other.  I’d credit the nuclear revolution above all else, although there’s a lot of debate on this question and even without nukes there are probably other things that have been pushing in the same direction.  Such as, perhaps, democracy …

On the domestic side of things, there is pretty good evidence that the spread of democracy has been a significant factor.  Not worth getting into the details here, but if you look at the data country by country you find that on average, when countries transition to democracy their military spending and army sizes go down, quite substantially.*  In fact they tend to go down when they transition from very autocratic to only somewhat autocratic (that is, to “anocracies”, or semi-democracies using the Polity data).  The effect of a democratic transition on arms levels in the state in which the transition occurs looks to be larger than the effect of transitions in neighbors on a state’s own military spending, although this is hard to be sure about statistically due to endogeneity issues.  I would guess that most of the democracy effect is a domestic matter—for instance, autocracies want bigger militaries to help put down domestic opposition or to pay off cronies, or democracies want smaller militaries to lower coup threats—but some of it might also be an international effect.  That is, if democracies want smaller militaries then this could reduce the demand for big armies in their neighbors.

The graph also shows some interesting variation across regions.  E. Europe/FSU and N. Africa/Middle East stand out for high levels of military spending during the Cold War, though both now appear to be converging towards the rest of the world (except maybe for army sizes in the Middle East).

Update:  Mark in comments asked what the data for the US looks like, so at risk of the Wrath of Gelman I’ve added these to the graph for the West.  We spend and hire considerably more than other countries, both in absolute terms (which is well known, I think), and relative to GDP and population (maybe less so).  Note also the upward movement following 9/11, especially in military burden.

Cleaner pdf version here:  milburbyregion


*This is based on models with country and year fixed effects, so it’s probably not just that there is a coincidental global trend up in democracy and down in arms spending.  Benjamin Goldsmith reported the same pattern concerning democracy and the military spending in his 2003 JCR article “Bearing the Defense Burden,” (gated), looking at data from 1869-1989 (though he didn’t include time fixed effects in his model).


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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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Reactions to Obama’s Decision to Cancel Summit with Putin in September

Earlier today the White House announced that President Obama would cancel his planned September summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Here are some thoughts on this decision from my colleagues at PONARS Eurasia:

Kimberly Marten, Barnard College, Columbia University:

Obama did exactly the right thing: a symbolic personal rebuff for a symbolic personal rebuff. Obama had made it clear that the Snowden case was his line in the sand, and Putin crossed that line unnecessarily. Putin could have chosen instead to give the Snowden request the 3-month administrative consideration period that the Kremlin originally mentioned when he originally made his asylum application, rather than granting Snowden the yearlong temporary asylum straight off. It looks like the meeting in Washington tomorrow between Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel and their Russian counterparts is still on, and that is the truly substantive part of the diplomatic interaction anyway. Assuming that the Russian side doesn’t cancel their participation in that meeting, then there has been no real change in the quality of the relationship.

Andrey Makarychev, Public Service Academy (Nizhny Novgorod, Russia) and Free University of Berlin:
The cancellation of the Russia – US summit is a strong indication of the growing international isolation of the Kremlin. It is quite predictable that the G20 summit in St.Petersburg may turn into an event devoid of substance and therefore a diplomatic / PR failure for Moscow. Also expectable is that Putin won’t be able to win the already launched information war against the Sochi Olympics. The key question is how soon Putin will understand that he overrated his resources.

Cory Welt, George Washington University:
The decision to cancel the bilateral summit was unfortunate but expected. It does leave one wondering about the decision to schedule the summit in the first place. The official explanation for the cancellation focused less on Russia’s decision to grant Snowden asylum than the fact that there has not been “enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda” to justify a summit. That is obviously true – but it was also true when the administration announced the summit to begin with. In the end, we’re back to the point we should have been – lower-profile efforts to move forward on a multi-pronged agenda without the high expectations that a summit would bring.


Pavel Baev, International Peace Research Institute (PRIO), Norway:

I think the ‘Snowden affair’ has provided a useful pretext for canceling a really useless summit. The Obama administration has taken the worst possible course in the awkward situation, making it impossible for Russia to extradite Edward Snowden or even to send him to a “safe haven”, and implicitly adding credibility to his revelations. What is, however, a far greater blunder is the belief that Putin might be convinced to proceed with deep reduction of strategic and nuclear arsenals, so that the policy of “reset” would produce historic legacy of Obama’s presidency.

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The Imperfect but Real Effects of International Institutions on LGBT Rights in Europe

So far I have made two points in my mini-series on human rights: that international human rights institutions at best have modest effects in countries where the opportunity structure permits international influence and that I am not persuaded by the argument that human rights institutions would work better if they focused only on the “ideals that inspired the human rights movement in the first place.”

It makes sense to follow up with some evidence that an international human rights institution did successfully influence non-traditional rights, albeit in a limited way. The case that I will discuss is the impact European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rulings have had on LGBT rights in Europe. It is based on a paper (forthcoming in International Organization) that I wrote with Duke law professor Larry Helfer. With Europe we mean all 47 Council of Europe member states, which includes Russia, Turkey, Albania, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Serbia and many other countries where public acceptance of homosexuality is among the lowest in the world.

The document that the ECtHR is supposed to interpret, the European Convention on Human Rights, makes no mention of homosexuality or sexual orientation. Thus, states have not explicitly delegated the Court the authority to uphold LGBT rights. Yet, we find that ECtHR rulings that find a certain practice, such as criminalizing homosexuality, a violation of the Convention have a substantial effect on policy change. However, this effect is only manifest in countries where public support for homosexuality is low and where a government is in power that does not draw its primary support from rural, religious, or nationalist bases (see graph below).

In countries with high levels of public acceptance and an urban and non-religious government, policy change happens without international legal action. Rural, religious, and nationalist governments tend to resist liberalization regardless. Yet low public support but a government that is not necessarily ideologically opposed to liberalization creates an opportunity for an international intervention to make a difference. We estimate that a substantial number of countries, especially in Eastern and Southern Europe, have more liberal LGBT rights laws than we would have expected in the absence of international court action.

Let me back up a bit and explain how we got there and what all of this means in the context of the current backlash against LGBT rights in some of these countries, most notably Russia.
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