Archive | International Relations

What Should We Expect From International Human Rights Institutions?

As I announced yesterday, I plan to do a series of blog posts on what we know about how to improve the human rights of people abroad and how this knowledge can help us do a better job in the future. I will focus a lot on international human rights institutions, which are treaties, like the Convention Against Torture, in which states enter into legal obligations to protect a particular set of rights as well as the associated institutions that help enforce those obligations. These institutions vary from powerful international courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights, to relatively toothless UN monitoring bodies.

Whenever I teach about international human rights institutions my first task is to lower expectations. International human rights treaties inevitably contain language that expresses lofty ideals and grand ambitions. The point is not just that these goals are unlikely to ever be fully attained but also that treaties are a very limited policy tool.  If we wished to give policy advice to governments interested in improving their human rights record, we should tell them to democratize, to develop economically, to create a strong independent legal system, and to stop having civil wars.  Signing treaties does not enter the top ten of most important things countries could do. Indeed, countries like the United States have a relatively good human rights record without ratifying many human rights treaties.

So, why do we care about international human rights treaties and associated institutions? To start with, it turns out that we have very limited foreign policy tools to help countries become economically developed stable constitutional democracies that do not have civil wars. Even very expensive and intrusive tools, such as military interventions, more often than not fail to achieve those goals. Violating human rights is often central to a government’s strategy for staying in power or it may be central to the domestic power of an agency over which the civilian government has imperfect control (police, military, paramilitaries, etcetera). This is not behavior that is easy to change.

Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

The Danger of Human Rights Proliferation

Over at Foreign Affairs, Jacob Mchangama and Guglielmo Verdirame argue that international human rights institutions have proliferated to the extent that they have become counter-productive:

If human rights were a currency, its value would be in free fall, thanks to a gross inflation in the number of human rights treaties and nonbinding international instruments adopted by international organizations over the last several decades. These days, this currency is sometimes more likely to buy cover for dictatorships than protection for citizens.

The authors hit on something important although I am not terribly impressed with many of the examples. Yes, we all know that the UN Human Rights Council and its predecessor are and always have been political institutions where countries vote partially based on geopolitical interests rather than sincere interest in improving the human rights of others. Yet, it is not clear that this provides real cover for dictators (although here is a theory how that may work) and there is at least some evidence that even highly political exercises of shaming may exert a sanctioning effect.

They mention that the European Court of Human Rights has gotten into trouble with the United Kingdom. This is accurate but it was over the Court’s interpretation of voting rights and torture; not new fancy rights that are outside of the traditional core of human rights.

Moreover, I think they exaggerate the difference with the past:

Respect for human rights around the world would likely be stronger if human rights law had stuck to a narrower and more clearly defined group of rights.

Go read the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It includes a right to “rest and leisure,” a right to “enjoy the arts,” and so on. There has never been a consensus over what should or should not be included in human rights. Rights are almost never clearly defined and are always open to interpretation by political and legal actors.

What is true, of course,  is that many of these rights and others are now embedded in treaties and conventions whose effects are unclear. I don’t think we fully understand if and how this proliferation affects the protection of rights that many people think should have priority. Emilie Hafner-Burton’s new book Making Human Rights a Reality investigates this issue and similarly argues that stakeholders that are willing to put resources into the struggle to improve human rights should set priorities.

I am planning to do a series of posts over the next few weeks based on this book and some other recently published scholarly work that sets out what we know about the effect of international human rights institutions and what lessons we should draw from this knowledge about reforming these institutions. That these institutions are in need of reform is something I think most of us can agree on. The answer to just refocus on “ institutions and treaties that embody the ideals that inspired the human rights movement in the first place” is too simplistic and overly glorifies the past.

Continue Reading

The Sham of All Fears

Continuing our new series of collaborations with political science journals, we are pleased to present the following guest post from Georgetown University political scientist Keir A. Lieber and Dartmouth College political scientist  Daryl G. Press to discuss their article “Why States Won’t Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists” that appears in the current issue of International Security.  In conjunction with this post, MIT Press will make the article freely available to all for the next 30 days; you can download it here.


Nuclear terrorism is often described as the single biggest threat to U.S. national security.  Analysts and policymakers worry that a hostile state could surreptitiously transfer a nuclear weapon or fissile material to a like-minded terror group, thus orchestrating a devastating attack on the United States or its allies while remaining anonymous and avoiding retaliation.  This fear served as a key justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it helps drive current arguments in favor of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

We assessed the risk of nuclear attack-by-proxy by exploring the likelihood that a state could sponsor nuclear terrorism and remain anonymous.  The question of attribution is crucial because a leader could only rationalize such an attack – and the decision to entrust terrorists with a vitally important mission – if doing so allowed the sponsor to plausibly avoid retaliation.  If a leader did not care about retaliation, he would likely just conduct a nuclear strike directly – using missiles or special forces for targets beyond missile range.  Giving nuclear weapons to terrorist only makes sense if there is a high likelihood of remaining anonymous after the attack.

We undertook two approaches to assess the likelihood of attributing a nuclear terror attack.  First, because there is no data on the aftermath of nuclear terrorist attacks, we use the ample data on conventional terrorism to explore post-attack attribution rates – focusing on high-casualty terror attacks.  The data, as shown in Figures 1 and 2, reveal a strong positive relationship between the number of fatalities caused in a terror attack and the likelihood of attribution.  Roughly three-quarters of the attacks that kill 100 people or more are traced back to the perpetrators.  Moreover, attribution rates are far higher for attacks on the territory of the United States or a major U.S. ally – 97% (36 of 37) for incidents that killed 10 or more people.



Second, we explore the challenge of tracing culpability from the guilty terror group back to its state sponsor.  Leaders considering giving nukes to terrorists would have a strong incentive to select a group with whom they have a long, trusting relationship – in this case, members of the terror group would need to keep the source of the nuclear weapon a secret indefinitely – and one with a track record of successful operations and professionalism.  But those two constraints greatly facilitate the task of tracing an attack from a guilty group to its sponsor.  As Table 1 shows, there are few established terrorist groups who have state sponsors; each of them has few sponsors (typically one); and only one country that sponsors terrorism has nuclear weapons or enough fissile material to manufacture a weapon.


Our overarching conclusion is that neither a terror group, nor a state sponsor, would remain anonymous after a nuclear terror attack.  Attributing nuclear terror incidents would be far easier than is typically suggested; passing weapons to terrorists, therefore, does not offer countries an escape from the constraints of deterrence.  If leaders understand these facts, they will be as reluctant to give weapons to terrorists as they are to use them directly; both actions would invite devastating retaliation.

Continue Reading

The Political Science of PRISM and International Privacy

The Financial Times has an editorial warning gravely that the European Union may overreact to the PRISM revelations.

If recent leaks about US internet surveillance spur Europe’s political leaders to press ahead with a proposed privacy directive, so much the better. That looks like one potential outcome from disclosures about the National Security Agency’s Prism program, with German chancellor Angela Merkel this week joining the chorus in favour of moving ahead with a privacy overhaul that was first put forward at the start of last year. There is a danger, however, that ill-considered responses to the Prism leaks will also risk Balkanising the internet and hampering companies that have been at the forefront of digital innovation. Protecting citizens’ privacy is an important job for governments – but so is using the new tools of online surveillance to make those citizens secure. These two goals should not be confused, and knee-jerk responses to populist outrage could do more harm than good.

I suspect that what is driving this is the realization that international business (i.e. the FT’s readership base) is likely to get hit as the regulatory politics of privacy and espionage start to get messy. Abraham Newman at Georgetown and I recently wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs’ website describing the complex forms of coordination that have sprung up between the EU and US over information sharing, and describing the likely consequences of the current scandals for this security cooperation. The article draws on a book we’ve been writing over the last couple of years on the transatlantic politics of data sharing, which has suddenly become a rather livelier issue than it was when we first started writing about it. This forthcoming article in World Politics on the ‘new interdependence’ will give political scientists some idea of the kinds of argument we are using, although it doesn’t address the empirics (it’s framed around a review of other people’s work).

There are a number of misunderstandings in the general coverage of this dispute – I’ll write about them as opportunity arises, drawing ideas (if not always empirical evidence) from the joint research that Abe and I have been doing. One such is reflected in Ed Luce and Tyler Cowen’s hope that the Europeans can be relied on to press for privacy protection in e.g. transatlantic trade negotiations. Luce and Cowen may turn out to be right – but only post-hoc. Europe has been having its own internal fight between officials and politicians who privilege security, and officials and politicians who privilege privacy, and until the last few weeks, the security-focused officials were winning. Instead of privacy-focused officials using transatlantic negotiations to reform American politics, security focused officials were using transatlantic negotiations to reform European politics. The EU, which had vigorously fought US proposals on terrorist financing tracking (the US so-called TFTP program) and airline passenger information in the 2000s, had agreed in principle to build its own TFTP, and was likely to introduce airline passenger data screening too along US lines. The transatlantic agreements that had resolved these disputes was leveraged by security-focused officials to bring through domestic changes within Europe.

This has changed thanks to PRISM and revelations (which weren’t really revelations – but that’s another story) that the US was tapping European Union communications in the Council of Ministers. Senior officials, including German officials, still privately think that this is a fuss over nothing. But they are finding themselves constrained by domestic politics to take action that seems to restore privacy protections. Nowhere is this clearer than in Germany. We know, from the Wikileaks cables about the previous TFTP dispute that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was never on the side of the privacy advocates in the confrontation with the US.

Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust (CDU) told Ambassador today (2/12) that he had met with Chancellor Merkel last night and she was “very, very angry – angrier than he had ever seen her” with the outcome of the vote. Beust said that the Chancellor had personally lobbied German MEPs from the CDU/CSU parties to support the agreement, but that most of these MEPs ended up voting against the agreement anyway. Merkel expressed concerns to Beust that Washington will view the EP veto as a sign that Europe does not take the terrorist threat seriously. Merkel also worried about the ramifications (presumably within Europe and for transatlantic relations) that might follow were a terrorist attack to occur that could have been prevented had SWIFT data been exchanged.

This helps explain the anodyne response of the German government to the crisis. Merkel and her allies quietly agree with the US, and desperately want the controversy to go away. But the scandal is allowing the main opposition parties, the SPD and Greens, to put Merkel on the defensive. This pushes her in turn to take a more active position than she would like with respect to US spying, while also pushing for a stronger EU privacy framework more generally. This last can be expected to have knock-on repercussions for relations with the US – but that is a topic for another post.

Journalists, bloggers and indeed most international relations scholars like to think of disputes like this as face-offs between different states, with fundamentally different ways of doing things. But in fact, the more interesting politics often goes on in the dubious interzone between transnational and domestic politics. The US push for security over privacy has had many supporters within Europe, who have used the transatlantic relationship to bring through laws and policy changes that weaken the previously existing privacy regime. These security focused officials were becoming increasingly dominant in Europe as well as the US. Now they are at least temporarily beleaguered, which may, somewhat unexpectedly, lead to a new eruption of privacy disputes between Europe and the US.

Continue Reading

Military Primacy Doesn’t Pay (Nearly As Much As You Think)

Continuing our new series of collaborations with political science journals, we are pleased to present the following guest post from Tufts University political scientists (and blogger for Foreign Policy magazine) Daniel Drezner to discuss his article “Military Primacy Doesn’t Pay (Nearly As Much As You Think)” that appears in the current issue of International Security.  In conjunction with this post, MIT Press will make the article freely available to all for the next 30 days; you can download it here.


For the past generation, U.S. military hegemony has been a concrete fact of life in world politics.  The coming austerity to the defense budget has triggered anxiety from some quarters of the U.S. national security community.  Advocates for a large military argue that the world is safer and more prosperous today precisely because of the United States’ outsized security capacities and deep engagement with the rest of the world.  Critics, however, have long questioned whether military preeminence yields the benefits claimed by proponents.  Given the unchallenged military supremacy of the United States, some argue that is natural to target cuts in defense spending after a decade of dramatic budgetary increases.  While these debates over the economic merits and demerits of military predominance are common in policy circles, there is less discussion about their theoretical and empirical foundations.  What can international relations scholarship say about the relative economic benefits of military primacy?

This article evaluates whether the economic benefits of military preeminence and deep engagement are as great as advertised.  This evaluation proceeds by analyzing the most plausible arguments put forward for how military primacy can yield economic returns – and then assessing what the scholarly literature and evidence can conclude about those causal mechanisms.  There are three plausible pathways:  The “geoeconomic favoritism” argument posits that private capital will gravitate towards the military superpower because it provides the greatest security and safety to investors.  The “geopolitical favoritism” argument is sovereign states, in return for living under the security umbrella of the military superpower, voluntarily transfer resources to help subsidize the costs of hegemony.  Finally, the “public goods” logic argues that a unipolar distribution of military power is most likely to lead the provision of global public goods that accelerate global economic growth and reduce security tensions.  These public goods benefit the hegemon as much if not more so than other actors.

After reviewing the evidence, each of these arguments is less empirically persuasive than is commonly articulated in policy circles.  There is little evidence that primacy yields appreciable geoeconomic gains.  The private sector responds positively to a country’s military capability, but only up to a point; military primacy is hardly a prerequisite for attracting trade and investment.  The evidence for geopolitical favoritism is also modest.  Geopolitical favoritism does occur, but only during periods of bipolarity.  Economic exchange is actually less correlated with security ties under conditions of unipolarity.  The evidence for public goods benefits is strongest; military primacy does appear to be an important adjunct to the creation of an open global economy and a reduction in militarized disputes and security rivalries.  Military supremacy is only one component of unipolarity, however.  A decline in the hegemon’s economic power undercuts many of unipolarity’s posited benefits.  It is only full-spectrum unipolarity that yields appreciable economic gains.  At a minimum, therefore, this article suggests that the economic benefits from military predominance alone have been exaggerated in policy and scholarly circles.  The principal benefits that come with military primacy appear to flow only when coupled with economic primacy.

There are clear implications for U.S. foreign policy and fiscal policy.  When applying the lessons from this analysis to U.S. grand strategy, the prescription seems clear; an overreliance on military preponderance is badly misguided.  Again, it is not that military power is useless, it is that the law of diminishing marginal returns has kicked in.  The United States would profit more from investing in nonmilitary power resources than in more military assets.  An excessive reliance on military might, to the exclusion of other dimensions of power, well yield negative returns.  Without a revived economy – and the global recognition of a renaissance in American economic power – the United States runs the risk of strategic insolvency.  The United States needs to focus primarily on policies that will rejuvenate economic growth, accelerate job creation, and promote greater innovation and productivity.  If the U.S. economy is perceived to be rebounding, then the biggest economic benefits that have been hypothesized to flow from military predominance will be preserved.  As policymakers must choose between maintaining a large military and taking steps towards fiscal solvency, the results in this paper point strongly towards deeper cuts in defense expenditures.

Continue Reading

What Can Research on Coups Tell Us About Egypt?

This is a guest post by University of Kentucky political scientists Clayton Thyne.


Political scientists and other scholars have amassed a substantial body of work about coups.  Below I discuss what this work has found and how it is linked to the events in Egypt.  The important lesson that emerges is that the coup in Egypt likely to be bad for Egypt’s fledgling democracy, but a strong response by international actors could help keep Egypt on a democratic trajectory in the long run.

What happened in Egypt was certainly a coup.  Jonathan Powell best explains why the military take-over was definitely a coup by summarizing definitions used by fifteen previous scholars who have previously defined “coups,” and Jay Ulfelder comes to a similar conclusion.  Both Jon and Jay are right—the coup was overt, perpetrated by people from the state apparatus, and it was illegal.  Of this we should have little debate.

Furthermore, systematic data on coups show that what happened in Egypt is relatively uncommon.  Below I plot total and successful coups over time using the data that Powell and I compiled.  The number of coups has fallen significantly over time, although they are certainly not non-existent.  There have been 40 coup attempts since 2000 (17 successful) and 5 coup attempts in 2012 (3 successful).



The Egyptian coup might seem unusual because it was preceded by a popular protest, but in fact these protests regularly precede coups, as Jeremy Pressman rightly noted.  Work by me and Aaron Belkin and Evan Schofer shows that popular protests are one of the most consistent predictors of coups.

What does the coup mean for the future of democracy in Egypt?  Powell and I show that coups can increase the likelihood of democratization when they overthrow authoritarian regimes, something that seems to be especially true in the post-Cold War era, when elections come sooner after coups according to the findings of Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans.  But when there is a coup against a democratically elected government, like Morsi’s in Egypt, the scholarly literature is less optimistic: coups that take place against democracies are bad for democracy.

So, what happens now?  Most of what I have seen focuses on the internal political dynamics in Egypt (see, for example, analyses from Doug Mataconis).  Internal dynamics will undoubtedly be important, but we shouldn’t lose focus on the international community.  Although there isn’t a large literature on how the response of the international community matters—though see this forthcoming paper from Megan Shannon and co-authors —support from international actors appear to increase the tenure of leaders who come to power via coups.  Using data from Archigos, Powell and myself, and Shannon et al., I examined 205 leaders who came to power from a coup between 1951 and 2004.  When these leaders drew positive support from other states and/or from international organizations (IOs) in the six months following the coup, they stayed in power longer than when they drew mainly negative support.  Leaders who came to power via a coup that was supported by the international community lasted over 2 years longer than those who came to power and were condemned by the international community.  Leaders who enjoyed state support after seizing power lasted over 3 years longer on average than those who faced a hostile response.



Thus, it may matter a great deal how the international community responds to events in Egypt.  The African Union has already followed its rules by suspending Egypt, but there haven’t seen a similarly decisive response from many others.  As should be expected from Daniel Morey and co-authors’ study of international responses to the Arab Spring uprisings, the Obama administration is all over the place (or see Joel Pollak’s rather scathing critique).  Without strong international pressure in support of democracy, the military in Egypt essentially has a blank check to do whatever they want with the state.  We’re quickly seeing this play out with the crackdown of supporters of the previous government and the waning hope of seeing someone like ElBaradei gain a strong position of power.  A spade is not a shovel, and condemning a coup is not the same stating that “the future path of Egypt can only be determined by the Egyptian people.”  Coups are bad for democracy, international responses to coups matter, and Egypt’s path towards (or away from) democracy will likely hinge upon strong international pressure to return to elections and respect the electoral outcome as soon as possible.

Continue Reading

Nixon, Kissinger, and the Influence of the “Israel Lobby”

Now, Nixon and Kissinger were crazy, and often overestimated the political forces set against them, in particular because of Nixon’s anti-Semitism. Although in this case they may have been right to be concerned about pro-Israeli sentiment, and Nixon’s ‘personal’ relationship with Israel was always more complicated than simple accusations of anti-Semitism really allow. But, I think these archival documents pretty clearly provide direct evidence that Nixon and Kissinger were influenced by at least their perception of the Lobby’s influence. And, at least for Nixon and Kissinger, I am unaware (after reading quite a bit about the administration) of another lobby exercising the same inordinate influence.

That is my colleague Eric Grynaviski over at the Duck of Minerva.  The full post is here.

Continue Reading

Butch Cassidy and the Snowden Kid: Evo Morales’s Plane and the Latin American Left

EVO MORALES AT VIENNA AIRPORTWe welcome back Texas A&M political scientist Diego von Vacano  with the following guest post:


In one of the most unusual incidents involving international outlaws and Bolivia since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, suspicion that Edward Snowden was on Evo Morales’s presidential plane led to a major diplomatic row. Putting aside the legitimacy of Snowden’s revelations and the United States’ case against him, the plane’s diversion will have major repercussions in Latin America. They are comparable to the collateral damage and the friendly fire that are visible at the end of George Hill’s superb 1969 movie about American cowboys in South America.

First, collateral damage: in its tunnel-vision pursuit of Snowden, it appears that the United States put pressure on European allies to stop Morales’s plane. We may never know the full truth about who was behind the decision to land near Vienna, but the effects are clear. Assuming that it was pressure by the US, the fixation on Snowden as a target has led to unintended consequences of the utmost gravity. Fundamentally, within Bolivian domestic politics, the incident practically guarantees that Morales will be re-elected once again, despite longstanding claims by the opposition that at third term is unconstitutional. The popularity of Morales has soared across the Bolivian nation as a result of what his Vice President Alvaro García Linera has called an “imperialist kidnapping” of the President. Morales was first elected democratically in 2005 with 54% of the vote. A new Constitution was approved in 2009, allowing for only one re-election of the President. However, new elections were called that same year, with Morales receiving 64% of the vote. A Constitutional Court ruling in April 2013 declared that Morales could run again for re-election in 2014, stating that a new constitution meant that the electoral clock was reset because Bolivia was now a “plurinational state,” and not merely a “republic.” Samuel Doria Medina, Manfred Reyes, Rubén Costas, and other opposition politicians have decried the ruling as illegitimate and undemocratic since the court is pro-Morales. But with the plane diversion incident, it is likely that Morales’s popularity among regular people and his political supporters will increase drastically. In its dogged pursuit of Snowden, the US has unintentionally consolidated the political power and charismatic monopoly of Morales. As a consequence, it has severely undermined the opposition, which in theory is always necessary for a robust democracy.

Second, friendly fire: France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy are now the objects of South American vitriol. Moreover, even South American countries that have relatively friendly relations with the US have been filled with ire. Despite rumors that the only evidence linking the diversion to European governments has been traced back to Morales’s own government (implying that it was self-sabotage), recent responses by the governments of France and Spain (pointing to ‘’regrets’’ and “surprise” respectively) appear to substantiate the claim that someone other than Morales decided to land near Vienna. South American countries with moderate governments, such as Brazil and Peru, have already sided with Morales’s account of the story. Nations with center-left regimes such as Uruguay and Argentina came out with repimands of the European states. And left-wing states, such as Ecuador and Venezuela, were among the most vociferous. Yesterday in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, an emergency meeting of UNASUR—the union of South American nations—took place in which Presidents Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, José Mujica of Uruguay, and Desi Bouterse of Suriname showed up in solidarity with Morales. Envoys from Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Colombia also participated. The rebukes against the “neocolonial” actions of the four European states culminated in a sharply-worded six-point “Cochabamba Declaration.”  It characterizes the flight diversion as a violation of the “law of peoples” and of international law; demands explicit explanations and public apologies by the four European governments; it supports Bolivia’s imminent appeal at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; and it announces the formation of a Commission led by all relevant foreign ministers to follow up on these demands.

Friends of the US both within Bolivia and across Latin America will now have a much harder time justifying their critiques of the Latin American Left and exhortations for closer relations with the neighbor to the North. At the same time, the four European states, friendly with the US, will now have more rocky relations with some South American states. Snowden may be very valuable to the US, but it seems the US Department of State did not consider the damage that his pursuit could cause to relations with Latin American leaders, states, and peoples.

We can foresee a sharp rise in further anti-Americanism and a spike in leftist rhetoric and policies in South America as a result of the grounding of Morales’s plane near Vienna. Whether the incident was fabricated or not is in a sense irrelevant: the US response was simply to say that the US government has spoken to a “broad range” of world governments concerning Snowden’s destination. If it turns out that it was indeed US State Deparment pressure on France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal that led to the grounding of Morales’s plane, we should not be surprised to see a long-term leftist backlash in South America. In Bolivia, this may take the form of the US embassy being closed and of Morales’s party, the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) remaining in power for the foreseeable future, led by Morales, Linera, or (more likely) Senate president Gabriela Montaño. More broadly, even center-right countries like Chile and Colombia will likely shift leftwards. The flight’s detour has become a major windfall for the Latin Left.

[Photo credit: National Turk]

Continue Reading

Quote of Day: Putin on his “American Partners”

“If he wants to go somewhere and they accept him, please, be my guest…If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must cease his work aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners, as strange as it may sound from my lips.” Vladimir Putin on Edward Snowden, in today’s NY Times.

Not sure whether I was more taken aback by Putin’s claim that he wanted to prevent someone from inflicting damage on his “American partners” (see, for example, Ryan Fogle, Bashar al-Assad, or Robert Kraft), or that he seemed to have a sense of humor about it!

More seriously, I wonder if Putin has found himself in a bit of a bind.  Snowden has become quite popular in Russia – not the least because he probably was a great tool for the regime to bolster its claim of the US as a threat to Russian national security, Putin’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding – but I wonder if Putin is beginning to have second thoughts about having someone around long term who has made his name arguing that regimes shouldn’t monitor the online behavior of their citizens (and the NY Times article also reports that Snowden has withdrawn his application for asylum in Russia).  Perhaps this bit of tongue-in-cheek is really aimed at domestic audiences – “look, we’re all in on the joke to be pretending the help the Americans here, but not really….” as a bit of slight of hand while they simultaneously eschew responsibility for Snowden long-term.

Continue Reading

The Political Economy of Edward Snowden

It seems like Edward Snowden has offered his citizenship to at least 21 countries via auction from Moscow’s airport transit area. It is not yet clear if anyone will bid but it is interesting nonetheless to analyze what mr. Snowden is trying to sell and why anyone would buy.

Snowden essentially has two assets: sensitive information and the ability to give a leader a temporary boast in popularity. From his willingness to freely share sensitive information it would appear that  Snowden is betting on the latter (although he may be holding back more information). Unfortunately for the U.S. he has already spent considerable time with representatives from two governments that the U.S. would least like this information to be shared with.

Any leader bidding for Snowden’s citizenship faces a time inconsistency problem: how can Snowden be assured that a leader doesn’t just use him for immediate popularity gains (perhaps to help win an election?) and then throws him under the bus? From this perspective, a European country would be ideal (Switzerland comes to mind). This is not because European leaders are more trustworthy but because most countries there have legal systems that heavily constrain extradiction. Snowden could even fight it all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights if it came to that.

It would make little sense for the U.S. to keep pressuring such a country to give up Snowden after he was granted asylum knowing that the legal branch credibly constrains the executive. This could make the political cost for European countries lower. On the other hand, there is plenty of time to make credible threats now and Switzerland doesn’t really need another U.S. investigation into one of its banks. Perhaps Norway is the best candidate? They have enough oil (and few other exports) to withstand U.S. pressure, although the U.S. has a unique ability to hurt most countries in multiple ways.

I have little doubt that mr. Snowden’s revelations this week were aimed at creating a domestic fury in European countries that could conjure up sufficient support for asylum. I have more doubts that it will work. To start with, most asylum laws do not allow applications from abroad so leaders have a simple legal argument to hide behind. Moreover, in the midst of an economic crisis it is less clear that standing up to the U.S. in a way that could mean foregoing economic gains yields many political benefits.

The main credibility problems for Latin American countries is that the ideological composition of governments may change and thereby the incentives to extradite. Some Russian officials (and Ron Paul) suggested that Snowden might also face extra-legal risks there, alluding to a history of U.S. assassinations (let’s hope for mr. Snowden that Donald Trump does not win the next elections). Snowden may also be concerned about his long-term security in Russia.  It would seem that mr. Snowden is the kind of individual who might soon find himself in trouble with the Russian government. Compared to that government turnovers have the virtue of being at least somewhat predictable. Yet, granting asylum is also controversial within Ecuador and Venezuela and it is not clear that the political benefits are that straightforward.

Another option is, of course, that mr. Snowden strikes some kind of bargain with the U.S. government.Or he might end up living in the transit zone for another 17 years, as an Iranian refugee apparently did in France. If an offer from Venezuela or so materialized, I would take it if I were Snowden. Perhaps the most likely outcome, though, is that he will remain in Russia. I don’t think this will harm U.S. Russia relations all that much in the long run. You can cancel a trade deal with Ecuador over an affair like this but not with Russia (which has now entered the WTO). It would merely be a continuation (although somewhat intensified) of existing spats over human rights. Perhaps one of the former Soviet republics will take him of Russia’s hands.

More thoughts?

Continue Reading