Author Archives: R. William Ayres

What Happens When the Hegemon Abdicates?

There’s a lot of speculation about what the incoming Trump administration will or won’t do in the realm of international relations and foreign policy. My friend Steve Saideman had an interesting piece on his blog recently suggesting – as most experts in the field are at this point – that if trajectories are left unaltered, things won’t go well.

Part of the discussion of any new Presidency is, of course, an analysis of the broader situation it finds itself in. While the newspapers are focused on the micro, we should remind ourselves as IR scholars that our work ranges from micro to macro levels, and that we should probably step back to look at the bigger picture. Structural realists have argued that individual leaders don’t matter very much; this is a good opportunity to test that hypothesis. So what kind of world is President Trump faced with?
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Terrorism, Daesh, and the Importance of Stories

pluralismI wrote yesterday about the lack of an “endgame narrative” in current discussions in the West about how to deal with terrorism. There’s lots of “get tough” talk involving expanded bombings, torture, and other such measures which, as Barbara Walter points out, only play into the hands of the groups that commit terrorism.

In the wake of events like yesterday’s attack in Brussels, people naturally ask, “Why are they doing this to us? Why do they keep killing innocent people?” The answer is narrative. The terrorists (in this case, Daesh or the “Islamic State”) have a story. Right now in the West, we don’t have a counter-story – at least, not one that makes any sense. In that sense, the terrorists are way ahead of us. Continue reading

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No Endgame in Sight

endgameAs we sift through the information about the latest terrorist attacks in Brussels, the immediate responses are fairly predictable. Leaders in Europe will condemn the attack, as will most mainstream Muslim leaders around the world. Far-right parties in Europe will say, “I told you so”. Donald Trump will renew his call for a ban on Muslims coming into the US and for torturing terror suspects. None of this is new or particularly interesting.

There will also be predictable calls for stepped-up security, debates over appropriate levels of surveillance, and the usual tactical discussions that take place in the wake of these events. Government intelligence agencies will review what happened to see where (or if) they failed to “connect the dots”, and everyone will vow to do better next time. There will be some renewed attention to Syria and discussion about whether that war, the Daesh phenomenon, or the refugee flows coming into Europe have contributed to the latest string of terrorist attacks.

What I don’t see from anybody, right or left, Democrat or Republican, European or American, is an endgame. No one has to my knowledge yet articulated a strategy on how to achieve a future in which these kinds of attacks no longer happen. Continue reading

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US Defense Spending: There Used to Be a Debate

Yesterday I posted a brief discussion about conservatives (or the lack thereof) in academia, in response to a Facebook conversation I had gotten into with some friends. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, just some noodling with ideas on an old question (and an opportunity to plug the much better work of some friends of mine).

That blog post led to another FB exchange, which I reproduce here:

[Name Removed] As usual I enjoy reading your blog and admire your knowledge and reasoning skills. But I would contend that there is something inherently ideological in, for example, designing military hardware, bombs, or the circuitry that can operate a drone or deliver an intercontinental missile with a warhead attached, as opposed to designing an artificial limb or artificial womb for premature babies or a convection oven. Funding decisions get made and engineers decide to put themselves in the way of specific types of funding that come from a particular ideological position about the value of, for example, random strangers’ lives in comparison to personal or national objectives. We don’t tend to see these things as ideological because we have so deeply absorbed a belief system that says, of course the state can only enforce its will through violence. Physicists can imagine a death ray, engineers build it, business people figure out how to make a profit from it; but it takes the liberal arts to say, “Gee, is building a death ray a good idea?”

[Me] You make an excellent point. It takes a humanities perspective to see the fundamental ideological assumptions that underlie many of our systems, structures, and activities. At this point, there is little disagreement between “liberals” and “conservatives” about the military or militarization, which is a sad indication of how far our ideological goalposts have moved. Of course, that may be partly due to living next to a really big Air Force base…

There’s a broader political observation here that has gone almost totally unremarked upon. I don’t think this is just the result of living next to a massive AF base, in an area whose regional economy is substantially tied to defense spending. I think this is a national phenomenon.
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Russia and Syria: Let’s You and Them Fight

My friend and fellow blogger Brandon Valeriano is a much better security studies scholar than I am. He’s written a great piece today about Russia’s involvement in Syria, and in particular how unimpressive that involvement is so far relative to the breathless hyperbole appearing in the American press.

Some of this, of course, is press coverage in the context of an American presidential race. Republican candidates, none of whom have any credentials on foreign policy, are swift to criticize the Obama administration for making the US “look weak” and for “capitulating” to Russia. The narrative of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war plays into that fable well, and helps win votes from tribal Republicans. It has no bearing on reality, but neither does most of the rest of the campaign. For those of us interested in the world as it is, we can safely ignore the three-ring circus and look instead to what we already know about international conflict and what that might tell us about the US-Russia strategic balance. Continue reading

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The Offense-Defense Balance Applies to Interpersonal Conflict, Too

Regular readers of my personal blog know that I am not a fan of firearms as a self-defense solution. While there are clearly cases in which firearms have produced good self-defense outcomes, on balance I think that they cause more problems (and cost more lives) than they save.

I know that there are plenty of folks out there who, for dogmatic reasons, will disagree with me. Some of them, if they were to read the preceding paragraph, would decide on the basis of those two sentences alone that I am not only wrong, but a communist/atheist/socialist/libtard out to take all guns away from everyone so that Obama can destroy America and rule over the new fascist dystopia he so desperately wants. Needless to say, I do not write for these people.

For those of you who might be interested in understanding why I regard guns as dangerous and destabilizing, I offer the following. This is not an exercise in “scenario gotcha” – there is always a different hypothetical that begins “What if I’m attacked in this situation…?” There are an infinite number of hypothetical scenarios, and I will freely concede that there is no one answer to all of them. What follows is a discussion for why guns, on balance, are more problematic than helpful.

I have long maintained that the study of interpersonal conflict and the study of international conflict (my primary field of expertise) have a lot in common. What I have been trying to say about the effect of guns on interpersonal violence has been long understood by those who study international conflict.

Many years ago, the imminent scholar Robert Jervis penned a seminal piece in the study of war (if you want to read the whole thing, you can download a copy here). Titled “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma”, Jervis explored the logic of when conflicts will escalate and when countries will cooperate in a world where there is no central government and every country is (in theory) afraid for its security against every other.

In exploring this question, Jervis introduces a really critical concept: the “offense-defense balance”. Jervis explains the idea this way:

When we say that the offense has the advantage, we simply mean that it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than it is to defend one’s own. When the defense has the advantage, it is easier to protect and to hold than it is to move forward, destroy, and take.

This is a function of technology and tactics. In World War I the combination of fortifications, automatic machine guns, and trench warfare made taking territory almost impossible and defending it much easier. Vast numbers of lives were lost trying to take a few hundred yards of land in Belgium and France. The war made no sense, and was possible only because the military and political leaders of the day misunderstood the true offense-defense balance until it was too late.

Fast-forward to the start of WWII, and the tables had turned. The maturation of aircraft, the development of the tank, and the new doctrine of Blitzkrieg made maneuver the order of the day. It was much easier, and cheaper, for Germany to take territory than it was for France to defend it. That advantage made it much more likely that Germany would launch the war it wanted anyway.

The important thing about the offense-defense balance is that it has a strong effect on whether countries (or people) are likely to initiate violence or not. In Jervis’ words, “whether it is better to attack or to defend influences short-run stability.” When the offense has the advantage, war is more likely because in a crisis countries will fear that the other guy will launch a surprise attack and thereby win. There have been enough examples since 1945 (the 1967 Arab-Israeli war comes to mind) to keep this logic alive. Simply put, in a world in which the dominant technologies & doctrines are offense-oriented violence between states is much more likely. In a world in which defense is dominant, violence is less likely.

Some might want to argue that “countries aren’t people” and therefore this logic doesn’t apply to the conflict between mugger and victim, or between two men in a bar, or in any other conflict between two individuals. It is true that the analogy doesn’t work whenever there are immediate mechanisms that can enforce security – a police presence nearby, for example. But most self-defense scenarios take place away from the protections of the government – that is, under conditions of temporary anarchy. No government, no central protecting force – you’re on your own, much like countries in the world.

So what do guns do in an environment of immediate interpersonal insecurity? Guns are an inherently offense-dominant technology – that make it easier by orders of magnitude to hurt or kill the other person than it is for that person to defend themselves against an attack. There are in fact few ready defenses against a gunshot (kevlar body armor comes to mind, but it is expensive, not widely available, and impractical to wear in most situations).

In this sense, guns are to interpersonal violence what nuclear weapons are to countries – the weapon against which there is no effective defense. Guns are actually worse in one sense: a country cannot defend itself against a nuclear strike (“Star Wars” fantasies aside), but nuclear-armed states have a reasonable hope of being able to fire back after absorbing that first hit, thereby destroying the other side too. This creates mutual deterrence (MAD, or “Mutually Assured Destruction”, as it became known in the Cold War), which creates its own kind of stability through a “balance of terror”.

Guns are worse, because they lack this tendency to create mutual deterrence. If I shoot you first, and if my aim is good, it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to fire back. I am not therefore deterred by the thought that my opening fire will get me shot in turn. If we are both armed (or if I think you might be), I have every incentive to fire first so that you cannot shoot back. My own self-preservation depends on how fast I can get off the first shot.

Jervis himself, in his 1978 article, foresaw this. Long before Michael Brown, #blacklivesmatter, or the “war on cops”, he wrote this:

In another arena, the same dilemma applies to the policeman in a dark alley confronting a suspected criminal who appears to be holding a weapon. Though racism may indeed be present, the security dilemma can account for many of the tragic shootings of innocent people in ghettos.

I would modify this to suggest that the security dilemma rationalizes racism, and that the two feed off each other, but you get the point. This logic is in fact exactly the defense that police have been using in court to get away with shooting unarmed people.

If police have difficulty resolving this dilemma, how well will untrained or lightly-trained civilians do? The fact of the matter is that the only way you can use a gun to defend yourself, if push comes to shove, is to shoot the other guy first. Those that argue that arming everyone reduces the likelihood of violence ignore the unstable offense-dominance of guns. Guns can only be a deterrent if people are assured of their ability to shoot back – that is, if they can absorb the first strike.

Add to this the challenge of carrying guns in the modern environment. In most places guns must be concealed (in a purse, holster, etc.), increasing the time it takes to bring them to bear. Openly carried guns can make the carrier a target, further increasing the likelihood of violence. None of this pushes things towards more peaceful personal interactions, whether the problem is predators (in Jervis’ parlance, the aggressor-defender model) or people simply being afraid of each other (the security dilemma).

The offense-defense balance problem is real. Every age has its dominant technologies, and these technologies make violence more or less likely. Small, cheap, easily accessible guns are unarguably offense-dominant, and as such they make violence more likely and more problematic between people even if those people merely seek to protect themselves. So let’s stop referring to guns as tools of self-defense and call them what they really are: first-strike weapons.

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The Realists are Right – in American Politics? Power Matters

When I was in graduate school, one thing we learned to do was critique. In fact, we spent so much time learning the art of criticism, particularly against whatever the “reigning paradigm” was, that we sometimes referred to it as “piranha school”.

At the time, the dominant paradigm in the study of international politics was Realism. Yes, there were nuances and debates among Realists (more, I think, than we really appreciated at the time). But on the whole, Hans Morgenthau was the Godfather and Ken Waltz the reigning king, with up-and-coming princes like Steve Walt, John Mearsheimer, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita carrying the banners of the empire. Since we all grew up in the era of Star Wars (both Lucas’ and Reagan’s), we knew an Evil Empire when we saw one. Continue reading

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Iran, Nukes, and Old-School Arms Control: Lessons from the Past

Now that the “P5+1” (but mostly, in our media, the United States) and Iran have signed a framework agreement for limiting Iran’s nuclear development, the debate has intensified over whether this represents a “good deal” or not. Some, notably Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and some members of the US Senate, had already thrown down their marker even before the framework deal was reached: they clearly regard any agreement as a bad one. That debate isn’t going to go away, although I suspect that the Obama Administration will use the power of Executive Agreements to limit the immediate say which Congress has on the matter.

We’ve been down this road before. It’s worth remembering that once upon a time, the United States had a great deal of experience and expertise in arms control negotiations. Shelves of books were written on the subject, and arms control was one of the great issues of the day. In this latest debate over Iran, at least in public, we seem to have forgotten everything we once knew. Continue reading

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Solving the World’s Problems: Hegemony, the UN, and Why the World Isn’t Getting More Peaceful

One of the great gifts of teaching is that occasionally, you learn something. The opportunity to discuss things with students sometimes takes you down a path you didn’t expect and hadn’t seen before. The following emerged from a discussion with my Diplomacy & Negotiation class this week, and it’s a point wholly unexpected (to me, at least).

We were discussing third-party intervention into conflict: why countries intervene, how they justify intervention, when and under what circumstances interventions might be expected to be successful. In the course of the discussion, one student pointed out that there is a difference between intervening in internal conflicts (civil wars and the like) and intervening in a conflict between states. I started to talk about the relative decline of the latter and the increase in the former – an observation that is now largely background noise to those of us who study conflict – when it struck me that I hadn’t thought very much about why this was the case. And because we had earlier in the class been talking about the US as the system hegemon, an answer appeared largely unbidden: the post-WWII world was developed with almost exactly this outcome in mind. The rules of the current world system are designed to solve a particular problem; unfortunately, they are terrible for solving other kinds of problems.

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Return to the Dark Side, Part 4: Preparing for the Administrative Interview

UnknownA long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I started a series of blog posts on moving from a faculty position to the administrative realm (you can find them by typing “Dark Side” into the search box on this blog). Like George Lucas, I wrote a trilogy and then stepped away for a while. Unlike Lucas, I hope that now that I’m picking up the thread again this next set will be at least as good as the first ones. I promise, at least, no Jar-Jar Binks.

When last we left off, I had written about things faculty can do to set themselves up for administrative positions in the future – a sort of “how to build your resume” exercise. Now that administrative interview season is upon us, I want to turn my attention to more immediate concerns. Assuming that you have already ventured onto the path, applied for an administrative job, and been granted an interview, now what?

The key point here is both obvious and easy to miss: Administrative interviews are fundamentally different from faculty interviews. The sooner you convince yourself of this – really believe it – the better off you will be.

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