global politics, relationally

10 Apr 2018
by R. William Ayres

Syria and Deterrence: A Depressing Primer

So here we are again. The Syrian regime has once again used chemical weapons against civilians, and the US is again faced with the decision of what to do about it. Same old, same old.

First, to give the current administration its due: complaints about the deal reached during the Obama administration to supposedly rid Syria of its chemical weapons are legit. That deal obviously didn’t work, and I suspect that most of those involved in negotiating it at the time knew it wouldn’t. Without verifiability and serious Russian backing, there was no way Syria would disarm. There was obviously no penalty for Assad to cheat, and so he cheated.

That said, whining about the past isn’t a foreign policy. Trump owns this problem now, just as he owned it a year ago. Last year, faced with the same situation, he lambasted Obama’s foreign policy and then proceeded to lob a few missiles at Syria. He declared victory and called it a day.

And here we are again.

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8 Nov 2017
by Brandon Valeriano

Coding Cyber Security Incident Data

By Brandon Valeriano and Ryan Maness

Cyber Security Data

It is exciting to report that the field of cyber security has finally moved towards accepting that data on cyber incidents can be collected and analyzed. The Department of Homeland Security now has an incident reporting feature and ongoing efforts to collect data. Without this step, we are operating in known environment wearing a blindfold.

There is no need to restrict ourselves from understanding the basic contours of the cyber security field through the analysis of empirical events. To not take this step is a self-defeating strategy that betrays our standard operating procedures in other military and political domains. The first step is to always understand the behavior of the key threat actors in a domain, yet in the cyber security field we seem to think that the adversary is inherently unknowable and without a past, this is an unhelpful conjecture.

The plethora of new sources of information is heartening but also reinforces a key point we made in our book Cyber War versus Cyber Realities, we have observed restraint in cyber interactions. Escalation is rare, and most disputes piggyback on previously known foreign policy conflicts and crises that are well established, often connected to territorial disputes.

In this post we will cover what is needed in any dataset of cyber interactions, explain the process of the expansion of our data, other recent efforts to code cyber events, and review the need for empirical work in the cyber security field.

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13 Sep 2017
by Laura Sjoberg

Ok, So You Want to Talk War

This is a guest post by Shine Choi, who teaches politics and IR at Massey University 

When I read media headlines strewn with North Korea, my stomach contracts, the shoulder muscles tense up and I squint in fear of what I am about to read. The narrative arch is a variation of ‘Crash! Boom! Splat!’ and my skin for such things seem to only grow thinner. I am not only bracing myself with the questions of, ‘Oh god, what has North Korea/Trump gone off and done now?’ (and for me it is not the U.S. but Trump for some reason), but am also trying to protect myself from the assault of what experts say as we get engulfed in the excitement that mass media invariably produce. In short, I am as afraid of what the head-butting political machineries produce as how the cottage industry of expert commentaries fuel the mediatised politics of head butting.  My strategy has mostly been to listen to my body and refuse to follow media texts that make me ill. So no, I do not have hyperlinks that curate the twists and turns of the latest North Korean crisis.

Also feeding my lazy attitude towards Observing My Topic Via Media has been the false sense of comfort from knowing that every cycle of the Korean crisis has blown over in the post, post-Korean War era, and that there are good reasons for why.  As the story often goes, the status quo that is the Korean division works for the Big Powers.  The Koreans themselves, by the time of first nuclear crisis in 1992-1993, have figured out how to make the division work and be part of the international community where both Koreas are recognised as sovereign state (though each still refuses to recognise the other Korea as sovereign and claim each other’s citizens for itself).

Conflict also sells. On the southern side, the cyclical scares on the peninsula have fed not only the academic cottage industry of North Korea/the Korean conflict experts but also film directors that became auteurs on the back on their conflict films; film stars, artists and museums whose works have international legs because the Korean conflict is a thing; and so on. On the northern side, the global iconic status that keeps North Korea in the headlines owes its infamy to its isolation that comes from and keeps the Korean conflict going. And perhaps the ultimate line of argument that tranquilises our nerves is that the North Korean political elites are not suicidal. With the changing international order that China’s Reform and Opening Up has brought about, gradual tactical moves surely are surely more appealing than war.

But as a student of International Relations, I also know how politics of security work – through paradoxes, illusions, unknownables. It only takes human error to bring crumbling down the matrix of how wars are fought these days (virtually, through illusions and exercises), and those who bear the brunt of the not-so-virtual falling bricks would be those who wanted absolutely nothing to do with the game of security in the first place, i.e. the ordinary people in Korea who the media and experts lament as being naïve, apathetic, passive.  My sense is that apathy and naivete are active and complex forms of dealing with volatile realities. The strategy of wishing war away, which would not only be horrific but truly inconvenient, might be a strategy of making volatile realities liveable.  The human mind is a wonderful, wonderful thing; we live our truths until we can no longer even when these truths are not what we really want.

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3 Aug 2017
by Laura Sjoberg
1 Comment

A Feminist Foreign Policy? Sweden Steps in Where the US Steps Out

This is a post by Denise Horn, who is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Simmons College in Boston, MA. She is a Feminist International Relations scholar currently focusing on women and democracy in Indonesia, as well as US foreign policy that impacts women’s democratic participation globally. 

On July 12 2017, Sweden’s development agency, SIDA, announced that it would no longer offer funding to family planning organizations that abide by the US’ latest iteration of the Mexico City Policy, announced by the Trump administration in January. Sweden’s latest policy move suggests it has become more confident in the strength of its feminist foreign policy approach.

The US has historically shaped the international discourse around family planning (originally an effort to control global resources), and has used family planning funding as a carrot as well as a stick. That Sweden feels it is in a position to make credible promises to support family planning and reproductive health programs (FP/RH)—and that organizations would make the decision to take Swedish, rather than US funding—says a great deal about Swedish influence where women and women’s health are concerned.

The latest incarnation of the Mexico City Policy (now referred to as the “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance” policy by the US State Department) relates to funding for all agencies and I/NGOs that receive US health funding, not just family planning organizations. It forbids funding for organizations that offer or counsel on abortion, or seek to influence their own government’s policies on abortion (US funding for abortion is already prohibited by the Helms Amendment). Further, the new policy essentially forbids these organizations from receiving funding from other sources that do not have such restrictions, such as SIDA.

For the past fifty years, the US been the largest provider of aid for FP/RH. Much of the aid is distributed through USAID as well as programs in  the State Department and US funding to the UN Population Fund. For FY2017, total funding for FP/RH was $608 million. The allotted funding for UNFPA has been suspended under the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, and is to be transferred to the Global Health Programs account at USAID, to support family planning, maternal, and reproductive health.

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3 Aug 2017
by R. William Ayres

Can We Ignore North Korea?

A good friend of mine posted this question to FB today. Since a decent answer requires more than should be put into a FB comment section, I’m writing out my thoughts here.

OK, honest question for the many people in my feed who are smarter about international stuff than I am. 
Hypothetically, what if the US were to just ignore North Korea? No threatening, no assisting, no engaging, nothing? Just maintain our relationship with South Korea and nothing else?
Would that still create an unacceptable risk for South Korea? Would it destabilize our relationship with China?
There are obvious humanitarian reasons not to follow this course, so I’m not advocating anything — I just want to better understand how the cogs fit together. Smart people, please educate me.

Like all questions of foreign policy, answering this one depends very much on what your goals are. The Trump administration hasn’t been very clear in articulating its goals towards North Korea, but my sense is that they haven’t shifted very much from where past administrations have been. Those goals reasonably include, or could include, the following:

1) Avoid war in the Korean peninsula (which would be horrendously catastrophic for everybody, and would result in millions of deaths).

2) Prevent North Korea from attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon.

3) Prevent North Korea from developing a deployable nuclear weapon. Barring this, prevent it from developing such a weapon that can be delivered to the United States.

4) Bring about regime change in North Korea, with a possible eye towards reunifying the peninsula.

#4 is, for all intents and purposes, out of bounds. The Kim regime in Pyongyang desires its survival in power above all else, and it has had a credible conventional deterrent against Seoul and South Korea for decades. We may say we don’t like their government very much, but no US administration has openly flirted with actively trying to change it – as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced just yesterday.

#3 is also essentially off the table. We have tried under the past three presidential administrations (both Democrat and Republican) to use various carrots and sticks to get the North Koreans to forgo their quest for nukes. None of this has worked, largely because there are no sanctions or offers of aid big enough to eclipse the value the Kim regime sees in having a working nuclear deterrent to the United States. Anything more aggressive than what we have tried threatens to run afoul of #1, which nobody wants. So while nobody in the US government can admit it out loud, we’re essentially stuck with a nuclear-armed North Korea with a limited strike capability against the United States.

That leaves us with Goals 1 and 2. These are indeed achievable using the same tool we’ve been using in Korea and elsewhere for the past three generations: deterrence. A basic deterrence posture does, in a sense, look a little like what my friend suggested: “ignoring” North Korea. They have weapons, we have weapons, we each make it clear to the other under what circumstances we will use them, and then we settle down and watch nothing happen. The Kim regime wants to deter an attack on its regime; we want to deter an attack on South Korea, Japan, and ourselves (the Chinese can take care of themselves). With both sides possessing a devastating strike capability, neither is likely to attack the other.

Of course, completely ignoring North Korea by  having essentially no relationship isn’t really an option. There is always a need for contact to avoid misunderstandings, to facilitate basic interactions, to jointly govern the DMZ, and so on. Most of the time this kind of contact takes place well below the public’s radar screen. Banning Americans from traveling to NK will probably help keep it there.

The longer-term danger which we, Seoul, and Beijing all recognize is: what happens if the North Korean system collapses economically? An internal crisis would likely spark a mass exodus of refugees, some of whom would be shot while fleeing but many of whom would wash up on South Korean and Chinese shores. A serious crisis could also lead to internal unrest, especially if the North Korean military begins to doubt the wisdom of backing Kim’s rule or, worse, factionalizes. There is no viable political infrastructure or civil society in North Korea, so any crisis could lead to chaos for a long time before order is restored. And given the level of weaponry in the hands of the North Korean military, that chaos could lead to a lot of damage, both inside the country and in its neighbors.

Unfortunately, neither engagement nor disengagement can have much effect on the North’s internal dynamics. If we see a food crisis coming, we can flood the country with food aid, which staves off the crisis at the expense of propping up the Kim regime. We should certainly maintain enough engagement to be able to see what’s happening – any warning at all that a crisis is brewing is better than none.

In the absence of a serious internal crisis, North Korea is a significant priority for US foreign policy but probably not a very active one. Beyond deterrence and some level of engagement (in which we may want to follow the lead of our South Korean allies, since they bear the immediate consequences), there’s really not a lot to be done. Even the Trump administration seems to have figured out that, while it’s easy to criticize your predecessors for “not doing enough” on North Korea, the reality is that we don’t have any other options and we do what we do because there is nothing else to be done.

Interestingly, China more or less shares our goals with regard to North Korea. They don’t want war, they don’t want an attack on the US (which would cause a war), and they would probably prefer that North Korea not have nukes. To the extent that we want to find areas to cooperate with China, North Korea is a promising field. But we should not suffer from the illusion that China can force the Kim regime to do things that we can’t. If China squeezes North Korea by cutting off trade, that could well precipitate the kind of internal crisis that no one wants. In essence, the Kim regime has at least two forms of deterrence: it can cause unacceptable damage with its military, and it can also cause unacceptable damage by its own untimely death. It’s a modern state version of a dead man’s switch.

The best we can hope for, therefore, is a North Korea that is stable (if poor and a human rights disaster) and contained. There is actually a fifth goal, which we and China also share: preventing North Korea from sharing its nuclear or missile technology with other actors elsewhere in the world. That’s an area where we can fruitfully cooperate. Export proliferation is also not a big priority for the Kim government, which cares for its own survival and not at all for anyone else in the world.

So the answer to the question of whether we can ignore North Korea is “yes, sort of”. Energetic and engaged diplomacy is unlikely to change the Kim regime’s behavior. Starving it (beyond the current levels of sanctions) could trigger a disaster. And so we sit, and wait, and hope to contain the damage when change eventually comes.

25 Jul 2017
by Laura Sjoberg

In the Face of Diversifying Threats: Reorienting Indo-Israel Partnerhsip to Cyber and Maritime Security

This is a guest post by Karan Tripathy, Faculty of Law, Symbiosis International University 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three day visit to Israel not only marks 25 years of diplomatic relationship with the West Asian superpower but an explicit expression of strengthening security relationship. India started looking at Israel strategically during the early 90s after the economic policy of the country acquired a liberalized and globalised approach. After almost a decade of nascent diplomatic relationship, the Israeli support during the Kargil War strengthened the perception of Tel Aviv as a reliable security partner.

The beginning of the 21st century marked a significant development in the bilateral relationship with the visit of Ariel Sharon to India in 2003, first ever by an Israeli Prime Minister. Post 2003 and with the change of regime in New Delhi, India did not express much vigour in developing the relationship, restricting Tel Aviv to few weapon deals and creating a regional balance by recognizing Security Council’s stand on Palestine and warming up to Iran. Though Iran still remains an elephant in the room in Indo-Israel talks, Modi’s landmark visit and MEA’s statement on the same suggest that India is willing to and is not hesitant to openly declare its relationship with Israel and develop the same to sectors beyond conventional defence.

Indo-Israel relationship in the past 25 years has been mostly restricted to buying of weapons from Tel Aviv. After Prime Minister Modi acquired office in 2014, the focus was centered on incorporating updated technology with the cut edge security equipments. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation entered into joint ventures with Israel’s M/s Elisra to develop integrated systems with laser technology, data processing and recording systems. Under the same drive of security modernization, Israel helped India in replacing legacy radar technology of the 80s with Medium Power radars. In addition to this, DRDO continued to have regular bilateral meetings as well as Joint Working Group Cooperation with Israel. The stronger relationship was ascertained by President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Israel in October 2015 which was followed by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit in January 2016.

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23 Jul 2017
by Laura Sjoberg

The Dangers of Reclaiming Violence?

This post is a response to Helen Kinsella’s article and summary in The International Origins of Political and Social Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. 

Both in her contribution to The International Origins collection and in her blog post, Helen Kinsella makes a powerful case that the development of the prohibitions against superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering marked a sea-change for the laws of war, where the partisans of national wars of liberation were able to push back against imperialism and make claims as to the justice of their quests against colonialism and imperialism. Kinsella makes the case in rich, detailed analysis paired with original detail and argumentation in a way that makes it not only important but also nearly irreproachably argued. Kinsella strikes a careful but difficult balance of looking for justice in claims to war legitimation without looking to give credence to the legitimacy of any war. Kinsella celebrates the positive distributive aspects of the development of this principle without ignoring either the shortcomings of the individual principle or the shortcomings of the laws of war more generally.

Still, as I read the post especially, I feel again as I have before that threshold arguments for the acceptability of violence leave something to be desired, both theoretically and in practice. I am not arguing against threshold arguments for pacifist reasons – I don’t believe that non-violence is necessarily possible, let alone the answer to the problems that plague war ethics debates. At the same time, I have always been concerned that normative and practical measures that normatively condemn some violence while not condemning all violence implicitly and practically valorize the violence that remains not condemned.

It is this position (among others) that Kinsella is taking issue with when she suggests that the laws of war do not only reify and facilitate acts of war, but also transgress against them, particularly in the situation of this principle. While, in many ways, Kinsella’s argument is well-taken (and I too see no absolutes, especially in the reification/transgression debate in theorizing about the laws of war), I see two fairly well-rehearsed problems, and then potentially a new one.

The first well-rehearsed problem is the fact the spirit of the law and the letter of the law are not mutually-binding: while the law against superfluous violence may have originated and been intended as a principle that protected the just in wars of liberation from the unjust who perpetrated horrors on them, the idea of what constitutes “enough” violence (and therefore what is superfluous) could imaginably be deployed in favor of the imperial against the recently decolonized, e.g., when used to support the reasoning for particular counterterrorism strategies, where the word ‘enough’ does not seem to have a consistent signification.

The second well-rehearsed problem is that we do not have a great tool with which to approach the cost-benefit analysis of the reification in the laws of war other authors note and Kinsella acknowledges against the anti-imperial, anti-colonial implications of this particular principle. Is more reified than transgressed? Does the transgressive potential of the principle have the chance to make real change in the future, either on drones or in some other way? Should the judgment, as such, be made in whole or on the parts, consequentially or deontologically? If there is not a judgment to be had, how is this contextualization to be read or signified?

My third problem is currently underdeveloped, but somewhat related. I agree with Kinsella’s argument that this principle is, at least in some ways, a ‘win’ for the ‘good guys’ – but, as briefly hinted at above, think that the normative categories of unjustified/unjustifiable violence and justified/justifiable violence are themselves permissive. While it seems like a semantic distinction, I think that there is something important to calling, and understanding, even justified/justifiable violence wrong. Its not that the violence in these categories is morally clean or good or even acceptable because it meets the criteria laid out in the laws of war. Instead (I contend), it remains morally wrong – simply less wrong than the violence or injustice that inspired it. In a world where the laws of war make the justified/unjustified distinction instead of something more morally (or even legally) nuanced, the prohibition against superfluous violence and unnecessary suffering constitutes progress balancing the scales that equate power and justice in the international arena. At the same time, this principle suggests yet another reason why that dichotomy is a bad idea: in my view, it is important to recognize the relative justice of the violence of the oppressed against the oppressor, while maintaining a clear understanding of its absolute injustice.

19 Jul 2017
by Laura Sjoberg


This is a guest post by Helen M. Kinsella, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, as a part of our series on the International Origins of Social and Political Thought. A reply will be posted soon! 

“Does it not seem excessive to authorize the use of infernal machines which seem to fall from the sky? I know well that when one is obliged to wage war one must wage it as energetically as possible, but this does not mean all means are permissible.” (Representative from Portugal, 1899 Hague Convention)

“A historically meaningful imperialism is not only essentially military and maritime panoply, not only economic and financial prosperity, but also the ability to determine in and of itself the content of political and legal concepts.” (Carl Schmitt,  The Nomos of the Earth, 19)

In my essay, I broadly set forth three things: 1) that the laws of war can be usefully analyzed as an archive of the relations of history and theory, with especial regard to what Ann Stoler calls the “rubrics of rule” generated in and by imperial contexts; 2) that paying attention to attempts to define and regulate particular categories and concepts of law illuminates not only the indeterminacy and ambiguity of the law, but also brings to the fore the shifting  notions of power and authority to define the law itself and; 3) that this exercise offers us resources otherwise overlooked or ignored by which to both apprehend and judge our present moment.

The motivation for the essay was my dissatisfaction with the treatment of the laws of war and drone warfare which, to my mind, too quickly accepted that the law of war only reified violence insofar as it  “privileges, channels, structures,

legitimates, and facilitates acts of war.”   Yet, this stance, albeit one with which I am also highly sympathetic, paradoxically reifies the law as always already determined or preordained in form and outcome.  But, as  Nietzsche reminds us only “something which has no history” can be so cleanly and ably defined, while  the very citability or iterability  of the law suggests it can never be regulated or systematized in advance.  Therefore, the very mutability and repeated deployment of the law offers precisely the possibility that the laws of war may indeed be used in unexpected and unpredictable ways and not always in the service of a violent imperialism.

In my essay, I turned to one of the fundamental dictates of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war; namely, the prohibition against superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering to explore what might the law have to offer regarding our current predicament. Accepted as both customary and positive law, this prohibition is codified in the 1977 Protocol Additional I to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and girds the regulation and moderation of war and limits the use of certain means and methods of warfare.   One way of understanding it is as a prohibition on the use of force in a way “that is more than enough.” Yet, as many have discussed, the exact or precise meanings of superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering—much less what is more than enough— are “the most unclear and controversial rules of warfare.”

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22 Jun 2017
by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson
1 Comment

On not overcoming divides

This post by PTJ is part of the RI feature series on The International Origins of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. It is a response to Beate Jahn’s post “Modern social and political thought has its origins in imperialism — and perpetuates it.” Page number references are to Jahn’s published piece in the edited volume.

Beate Jahn’s paper makes a clear and provocative claim: the division between History and the social science disciplines participates in and perpetuates imperialism. It does so because it masks and obscures fundamental connections between entities in favor of a focus on, from the History side, an analysis of entities in constitutive isolation from one another, and from the social science side, an analysis of patterns of what remain accidental or inessential second-order interactions between those pre-constituted entities. This in turn allows “political actors to endorse the universal principle of freedom even while they engaged in imperialist power politics” (p. 28), attributing empirically-measurable inequalities (between people, between polities, between ethnic groups) to internal characteristics of entities and thus absolving themselves of any implication in the ongoing (re)production of those inequalities. We scholars of international affairs thus inhabit a cage with disciplinary bars that prevent us from seeing the whole and correct picture.

While broadly sympathetic to the project of embedding our conceptual inheritances in the broader political and social environment from which they grew, I am not convinced that examining what a conceptual architecture was used for, or which situations it was developed in response to, tells us much about what the architecture can be used for in the future. Continue Reading →

20 Jun 2017
by Laura Sjoberg

Modern social and political thought has its origins in imperialism – and perpetuates it

This is a guest post by Beate Jahn, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. It is part of the RI feature series on The International Origins of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. It describes her piece in that collection. 

We know that history and international relations are intimately related in reality. Why, then, are they pursued in different disciplines in academia? And why do attempts to bridge this gap tend to fail?

The gap between history and theory is detrimental for both disciplines. Historians borrow theoretical concepts from the social sciences, including IR. But they rarely engage in theoretical debates and thus leave these concepts unexamined. IR scholars, meanwhile, use historical data as building blocks or evidence for theories but overlook their contested nature. Their theories thus resemble castles built on sand.

Attempts to overcome this divide – including in International Origins of Social and Political Theory – take two forms. One is to build on common interests and methods – such as bringing military historians and IR security scholars together or to adopt process tracing. It turns out, however, that historians use such methods in order to explain particular cases while IR scholars use them to test generalizable theories. This suggests that the separation between history and theory occurs at a much more fundamental level.

The second approach to bridging this gap lies in reconceptualizing history and theory themselves. History is then not understood as providing ‘facts’ but contested narratives, and theory not as a rigid system of causal laws but as open contemplation and speculation. Yet, such conceptions do not overcome the history-theory divide. Our vision of the social world has not radically changed since the time of Marx, Freud, Weber or Durkheim. It appears, then, as if disciplinary fragmentation is itself very much a historical phenomenon that cannot be resolved through theoretical exercises.

The theoretical roots of this separation between history and international relations lie in the modern episteme. This modern structure of thought defines particular phenomena in terms of their internal nature. Each individual thing – plants, animals, human beings, nations, genders – develops in accordance with its own organic nature, following its own laws, in its own time. This way of thinking led to the development of the modern discipline of history in the 19th century. According to Herder, for example, each nation followed its own developmental path. Yet, nations so conceived were not any longer subject to the same pressures, the same laws, a common time. And so each phenomenon required its own historical analysis leading to the fragmentation of the discipline of history into national, social, military, diplomatic, economic, legal, art and a myriad of other histories.

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