Author Archive | Erik Voeten

U.S. Gun Laws and Violence in Mexico


Yesterday’s terrible events at the Navy Yard will undoubtedly light up debates again about a possible ban on assault weapons. This issue is relevant not just in the U.S. but also south of the border where U.S. gun laws are believed to be partially responsible for increases in homicides. Some argue that this is just a convenient scapegoat but there is some solid social science evidence that the 2004 expiration of the U.S. Federal Assault Weapons Ban did have an effect on homicides in Mexico.

One paper I blogged about before, by  Arindrajit Dube (UMass)Oeindrila Dube (NYU) and Omar Garcia Ponce (NYU), is now the lead article (ungated for now, I believe) in the  American Political Science Review, the premier academic journal in political science. The graph above displays some of the evidence: homicides increased more in areas close to U.S. states that did not have a pre-existing ban than in California, which upheld its prior ban on assault weapons. The abstract is below:

To what extent, and under what conditions, does access to arms fuel violent crime? To answer this question, we exploit a unique natural experiment: the 2004 expiration of the U.S. Federal Assault Weapons Ban exerted a spillover on gun supply in Mexican municipios near Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, but not near California, which retained a pre-existing state-level ban. We find first that Mexican municipios located closer to the non-California border states experienced differential increases in homicides, gun-related homicides, and crime gun seizures after 2004. Second, the magnitude of this effect is contingent on political factors related to Mexico’s democratic transition. Killings increased disproportionately in municipios where local elections had become more competitive prior to 2004, with the largest differentials emerging in high narco-trafficking areas. Our findings suggest that competition undermined informal agreements between drug cartels and entrenched local governments, highlighting the role of political conditions in mediating the gun-crime relationship.

One may doubt that the plausible externalities of U.S. gun laws will be taken seriously in policy debates. That is probably so but this is a major issue among immigrants from Central America (not just Mexico). Hispanics are overwhelmingly supportive of stronger gun laws and we keep hearing that they are an important demographic.

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Ranking Universities Based on Policy Relevance

Peter Campbell and Michael Desch have developed new rankings of scholars and universities. The authors take specific issue with NRC rankings. Here is their description at Foreign Affairs (ungated for 4 weeks):

With the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, we have ranked the top fifty political science departments based on 37 different measures of scholarly excellence and broader policy relevance of their international relations faculty. We have done the same thing for the 442 individual scholars in that group. The full results are available here:

Have fun with the data and report back with interesting findings.

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Academics, Policy Makers, Blogs, and the Trouble with Op-Eds

The most prolific way academics seek the attention of the public and policy makers is by writing op-eds in national newspapers. Does this type of writing give policy makers or the public what they need from academics? I am not so sure and an interesting article about the relationship between academics and policy makers in the Chronicle of Higher Education supports this view (at least in my mind).

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Is UN Approval on Syria Imperative?

Yale law professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro argue that it is in a New York Times op-ed:

 If the United States begins an attack without Security Council authorization, it will flout the most fundamental international rule of all — the prohibition on the use of military force, for anything but self-defense, in the absence of Security Council approval. This rule may be even more important to the world’s security — and America’s — than the ban on the use of chemical weapons.

They are correct, of course, that evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons against its own citizens does not give the United States the legal right to engage in military action. I am a little less persuaded that bypassing the UN is as costly as they claim it is. Hathaway and Shapiro argue that the UN system deserves a lot of credit for preserving a norm that force is not a legitimate response to violations of legal rights:

For all its obvious failings, the United Nations system has made for a more peaceful world than the one that preceded it. No leader may claim the right to collect debts or gain thrones by going to war. States may fracture into smaller pieces, but they don’t get conquered. Gunboat diplomacy is also out of the question.

It is accurate that, as Martha Finnemore put it, the purpose of military interventions has changed over the course of history. It is much less clear how much of this is due to the UN system. Hathaway and Shapiro counter some of the obvious criticisms to that claim:

Others say it is legalistic, even naïve, to rely on the United Nations Charter, which has been breached countless times. What is one more, especially when the alternative is the slaughter of innocents? But all of these breaches add up — and each one makes it harder to hold others to the rules. If we follow Kosovo and Iraq with Syria, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to stop others from a similar use of force down the line.

You could add to this list of breaches any Soviet or U.S. intervention during the Cold War with the exception of the Korean war, which was authorized when the Soviet Union was temporarily absent from the Council in protest to the exclusion of the People’s Republic of China from the Security Council (Taiwan held the China seat at that time). As I have argued elsewhere (ungated, gated), the Security Council only started playing something that looked like its envisioned role after the relatively successful collaboration in the first Persian Gulf War. There is no evidence, for instance, that the U.S. even thought about seeking UN authorization for its intervention in Panama in 1989. The UN General Assembly voted that this intervention constituted a “flagrant violation of international law” but there is no indication that this mattered. President Ronald Reagan famously quipped about a similar UN vote on the U.S. intervention in Grenada that it “didn’t upset my breakfast at all.”

The point is not that it was right for the U.S. to circumvent the UN or to engage in the interventions that it did but that the UN cannot plausibly take credit for changing norms of intervention during the first 45 years of its existence. The UN was thoroughly dysfunctional in the area of conflict management. The end of the Cold War and the Gulf War experience made the UN more active. States saw domestic or international political benefits from asking for Security Council approval. Yet, there is no record of the UN actively restricting states from using force, let alone the United States. The U.S. either forged UN approval by threatening to go it alone or it went ahead without approval. It is not clear how avoiding the UN on Syria adds much information that should lead to substantial changes in beliefs about who will follow what rules.

I really wished there were a functional set of legal norms and institutions that could regulate the use of force. There are some norms that are obeyed and enforced quite well, such as the norm of territorial integrity. But the Charter system is dysfunctional as a legal system. Aside from the obvious problems with having five permanent veto powers that can block any collective action, the self-defense exception is prone to opportunism. Ever wonder, for instance, how the U.S. justifies its drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere? Well, we have declared a war on terror, which make these strikes acts of self-defense. One can agree or disagree with the validity of this argument but ultimately it matters little because there is no international legal institution with the jurisdiction to evaluate the merit of the claim (let alone enforce a negative finding).

The conventional wisdom is that UN authorizations are desirable but not imperative to U.S. foreign policy makers. This conclusion strikes me as correct. If you can get multilateral approval it is easier to get allies to support your actions and your domestic public may view an action as less costly and more likely to serve a good purpose. Multilateral interventions may also be more likely to succeed. It is worth compromising to get UN approval. In reality, however, the international legal system that regulates uses of force is not sufficiently functional to make UN approval imperative.

ps. Just to be clear: the point of this post is not to say that we should bomb Syria. It is an argument about the consequences of avoiding the UN if the U.S. decided to go this route.

ps2. Dan Drezner makes a similar argument here.

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Political Scientists Today

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Evaluating the “Wrong Hands” Rationale for Striking Assad

We are delighted to welcome a guest post from Omar Bashir (@omarbsr), a PhD candidate in Politics at Princeton University who specializes in international relations.  His research interests include accountability in defense and intelligence organizations, crisis negotiation, and the relationship between foreign aid and power. Omar studied previously at MIT and Oxford, and has been published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution and on the Foreign Affairs website. See here his previous guest post on drones.


Though its statements have rightly been dominated by the rhetoric of moral opprobrium, the Obama administration has at several points relied on a secondary rationale for strikes against the Syrian regime.  This rationale has little to do, directly, with the commonly assumed ends of saving Syrian civilians, upholding a norm, or redeeming American credibility.  It is the traditional interest-based rationale that foreign policy realists have been asking for, and it deserves scrutiny.

When the president is pushed to explain what good a strike would do, his answer has been, at least superficially, about defending international norms: “we cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks.”  Later in the same interview, Obama says that “we want the Assad regime to understand  that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people… you are not only breaking international norms…but you’re also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected, and that needs to stop.”

What does the president mean?  He could be asserting a national interest in the general defense of norms against the proliferation of or use of chemical weapons; in an age of heightened threat from non-state groups, states have a new reason to uphold these norms that did not exist in the aftermath of the First World War when international agreements on this issue were strengthened.  As Erik Voeten notes, chemical weapons are weapons of the weak, weapons that could grant modern terrorist groups a worrying increase in destructive and even coercive power.

But since the president keeps bringing the discussion back to the “folks” operating in and around Syria specifically, the threat in his mind seems to be not so much about the collapse of anti-weapon norms that may someday have consequences for states, but rather about the immediate danger of Syria’s chemical weapons finding their way into hostile hands in 2013.  After all, the president’s draft authorization is phrased in terms of preventing proliferation of, specifically, Syrian weapons. Proliferation in the draft is defined as including “transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors.”

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Gender Bias in Political Science

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

By many measures, women in political science do not achieve the same success as men. Their ranks among full professors are lower; their teaching evaluations by students are more critical; they hold less prestigious committee appointments; and, according to a new study, their work is cited less frequently.

Why? And what can be done to change this? Those questions absorbed two panels here at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting on Thursday. The problems are not new, and most likely not limited to political science. But the researchers who presented their findings hope that hard data and some serious self-reflection will spark change within the discipline.

Inside Higher Ed also has very good coverage of the same panels. Both articles contain links to the various papers on which the discussion was based, including this article forthcoming in International Organization (Cambridge has generously ungated it) by Daniel Maliniak, Ryan Powers, and Barbara Walter on the gender citation gap. 

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Research and Politics: A New Open Access Political Science Journal

ResearchandPolitics4I am delighted to announce the launch of a new journal, Research and Politics, of which I am one of the general editors together with Catherine de Vries and Bernard Steunenberg. Sage will publish the new journal.R&P is going to be quite different from most existing academic publications. The journal provides a venue for scholars to communicate rapidly and succinctly important new insights to the broadest possible audience while maintaining the highest standards of quality control. We will do so by publishing short (up to 4,000 word) articles that are published on-line on an open access basis. Quality control is assured through peer review and a large team of associate editors which consists of esteemed political scientists across the subfields. We strive for speedy publication through a quick review process and continuous publication (i.e. no need to wait for the next issue), although we will uphold limits to how many articles we publish.

We expect to attract a wide range of articles. We will surely publish articles that look very much like regular research articles, only shorter. But we also expect and hope to attract articles that are less easily placed in regular peer-reviewed journals. Indeed, we suspect that some articles that would contain valuable knowledge are currently not being written because they do not fit neatly in the straight jacket of what most journals expect or can deliver.

For example, the time lags in the regular publishing process may be a real obstacle for those who wish to publish predictions or cutting edge analyses of current events or policy debates. Open access should be crucial to these types of analyses, as one would wish to reach the broadest audience possible. A strict replication policy, peer review, and the active involvement of academic specialists differentiates this journal from public affairs journals. By adopting the norms and standards of academia and thus appealing to the incentives of academics, we hope to get more academics involved in public debates without sacrificing rigor.

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Political Scientists on Syria

  • Ian Hurd has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today on the various legal aspects of a possible Syrian intervention (I assume that the NYT editorial staff made up the inflammatory title). Charli Carpenter has a slightly different, and in my view more persuasive, take.

  • Jonathan Mercer has an insightful piece in Foreign Affairs on the folly of going to war for the sake of reputation.

  • Stephen Walt argues in the NYT Room for Debate that whether Syria used chemical weapons should not affect U.S. policy.

  • Peter Feaver offers an explanation for why Assad would launch a chemical attack.

I am sure there is more. Please add in comments.

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