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Denver Dialogues: Encouraging Conversation Among Academics and Policymakers

By Deborah Avant for Denver Dialogues

"In Our Hands". By Charamelody.

“In Our Hands”. By Charamelody.

Denver Dialogues is a new series on Political Violence @ a Glance that takes a different cut on enhancing the policy relevance of international relations research. Rather than condemning security studies as Tom Ricks does as boring, patting particular scholars on the back for interesting contributions as per Steve Saideman, or arguing along with Frank Gavin and Steve Van Evera for one or another type of research, we aim to encourage conversation between different disciplines and perspectives in academia, prompt different ways of thinking about policy problems, and inspire dialogue between relevant academic and policy communities.

We maintain that disciplines and theories are hugely helpful for designing and evaluating particular research strategies. The key is not to break them as Frank Gavin suggests, but to have them interact. If different approaches come to the same conclusion, the finding is stronger; if different approaches lead to different findings, more research is called for. This is increasingly seen as the gold standard in security research: a pragmatic appreciation of the insights from different approaches and recognition that there is no singular method for answering a question. Indeed, the International Studies Association has just launched a new journal – the Journal of Global Security Studies, JoGSS (disclosure: I head the editorial team) – designed specifically to encourage conversation among diverse perspectives about what security is and how it is best explained and studied.

The work represented on Political Violence @ a Glance has excelled at engaging different parts of the academic community and broadening the focus to include not only violence but also its alternatives. Indeed, Erica Chenoweth won a “Duckie” award for her post on the conflicts we may have missed in 2014 because they were not violent. Political Violence @ a Glance contributors also draw from a range of theoretical and methodological inclinations – from more realist-leaning analyses, like this one by Tanisha Fazal on the exaggerated end of war, to David Cunningham’s more institutionalist claims about the impact of war-crimes trials in civil war. Christian Davenport’s quantitatively-based claims about Rwanda and Vera Mironova’s interview-based case studies of Syria and Yemen illustrate the range in style and method that contributors capture. Barbara Walter often pulls from a variety of rationalist approaches, as in her recent post on violent extremism. And then there are appeals to cross-pollinate academic subfields and break down barriers within academic communities, like those from Christian Davenport and Scott Gates on the relationship between inter and intra state conflict.

The Denver Dialogues series not only embraces the approach taken by Political Violence @ a Glance but seeks to more pointedly encourage the academic-to-policy conversation. A word about policy makers. We do not only see them as those people serving in US or other governments. Ambassador Christopher Hill’s recently released memoir (fyi, he’s my boss) is peppered with references to the wide variety of authorities he interacted with (ranging from Mother Teresa in Albania to private security contractors in Iraq) to carry out US diplomacy. In addition to official policymakers, these other “governors” also affect policy. They include people like Pope Francis, who was so consequential in the recent opening between the US and Cuba, but also gatekeeper organizations like Amnesty International, which Charli Carpenter shows often control the human security agenda. And let’s not forget the mix of United Nations and humanitarian organizations that shape what Severine Autesserre calls “Peaceland.” Virginia Haufler, John Ruggie, and others have demonstrated that even private companies can play a ‘public’ role – and one that often influences human rights as well as the course of conflict. I could go on. The Carnegie-funded project that supports this series focuses on how non-violent strategies by non-state actors affect the course of violence and conflict.

Our bet is that more conversation between those making policy related to violence and those researching violence from various perspectives will result in both more effective policy and better research. Our series will encourage and reflect on these exchanges. So stay tuned to our Tuesday Denver Dialogue series – and join in if you have something to contribute to our discussion!

Law and Power in the Agency Relationship or Why Boehner’s Blessing Bibi Is Bad for Bargaining

By Allison Beth Hodgkins

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By Masa Israel Journey.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By Masa Israel Journey.

There is much to be said about the possible repercussions of Speaker of the House John Boehner’s decision to invite to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chime in on President Barack Obama’s Iran policy.

However, since most of what could or should be said has already been done so – here, here, here, here, here and here I will limit myself to how the invitation and the response to the speech will make it more difficult for US Secretary of John Kerry to squeeze the Iranians into an acceptable deal.

The rationalization explanation provided by most supporting the speech is concerns over the parameters of the putative deal between the United States, the EU, Russia, China, and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. Will the deal really curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions or just defer them for a decade? Will the Iranians simply pocket the eased sanctions, rebuild their economy and wait for the chance to resume their race to the nuclear weapons club?

These are valid questions and any sensible observer of this process is withholding judgment until they are answered.  I will grant Boehner and Bibi one thing – there is a lot at stake for Israel, for American allies in the region, for the stability of the region and the world here. But, let me remind you, we don’t yet have deal. We are still in the midst of negotiating one. In fact, Kerry is on his way to Switzerland to meet the Iranian Foreign Minister as Bibi gets ready to speak.

And if there is one thing certain about this whole sordid sideshow, it’s that it has unquestionably weakened the Secretary’s hand at the negotiating table.

One of the first lessons eager young candidates for a Masters in Law and Diplomacy get at the Fletcher School is about the inherent dilemmas of agency in the process of international negotiations.[1] 99.9% of international negotiations in the world are conducted by agents; diplomats, special envoys, ad-hoc “friends groups,” free-lancing former presidents, national security advisors and, yes, secretaries of state. These individuals or teams of individuals are selected for their skills and experience at the table, reputation and prestige and charged with the responsibility of crafting a deal commensurate with the principal’s stated interests.

However, while it is the agents who make the deals it is the principals who are bound by them. This is why agents are so carefully vetted and managed. It is also why agency can be both a double edged sword at the table.

The first thing a shrewd agent will endeavor to ascertain is the extent of their counterpart’s influence with the principal. Are they a close advisor; a trusted emissary or a minor player? Anyone who has ever negotiated for a better room at a hotel knows you don’t yield until you get the manager on duty. But what if the general manager comes in and takes issue with your deal and tries to add additional charges? Aren’t you likely to become aggravated, heap on additional demands and write a formal complaint?

One of the many reasons that scholars like Fischer and Sheehan argue that Kissinger was so successful in hammering out the ceasefire agreements between Egypt and Israel in 1975 was the perception of his influence with President Nixon. If Kissinger said that a concession would be bolstered with a certain presidential guarantee, everyone believed him. He could credibly extract better terms from the recalcitrant parties because they knew he had influence.

It was also clear at that time that the United States spoke with one voice. Congress had plenty of issues with Nixon, but those battles stopped at the water’s edge. Thus, the parties knew the negotiating dollar stopped and started with Mr. Kissinger.

As an agent of the United States, Kerry’s leverage at the table is only as good as the clout the Iranian’s perceive he has with his principal. If Kerry is perceived as having limited influence over his principal, or perceived as being several links removed from the clasp in the agency chain, his power at the table is dramatically reduced. More candidly, depending on the attendance and the number of standing ovations awarded the Israeli Prime Minister in Tuesday’s speech, the more likely the Iranians are going to balk at further concessions. Why should they put their cards on the table when it is so patently clear that any deal reached with Kerry will have to be renegotiated with a Congress that has all but put up a billboard pledging to reject any deal short of unconditional surrender?

If there is one thing that Boehner, Netanyahu, Obama and Kerry can all agree on it’s that the Iranians aren’t stupid. They can count the number of Democrats skipping the speech and add up the numbers necessary for 2/3rds override.

I can see Kerry squirming in his chair when asked to explain precisely what guarantees the Iranians can expect for making the concessions necessary to forge a mutually credible deal. What ever you think of Bibi or the merits of engaging with the Iranians over their nuclear program, the speech is the rhetorical equivalent of a negotiating power bunker buster.

[1] These lessons are so time honored they pre-date hyperlinks! See Mnookin, R. H., & Susskind, L. E. (Eds.). (1999). Negotiating on behalf of others: Advice to lawyers, business executives, sports agents, diplomats, politicians, and everybody else (Vol. 1). Sage Publications. Salacuse, J. W. (1999). Law and power in agency relationships. Negotiating on Behalf of Others, 157-175.

Correction (3/2/15, 2:30 PM EST): An earlier version of this post stated that Kissinger negotiated a ceasefire following the 1967 War.

Friday Puzzler: Why Spend on Civil Resistance Abroad?

Guest post by Scott Wisor

Venezuelans protest in Caracas in February of last year. By flickr user andresAzp.

Venezuelans protest in Caracas in February of last year. By flickr user andresAzp.

A recent post by Erica Chenoweth explores why it is that governments like China, and other authoritarian countries, attempt to restrict access to websites that share information on strategies of non-violent resistance. Many authoritarian governments appear to genuinely believe that outsider interference will result in civilian uprising and civil disobedience. Chenoweth argues that this line of thinking is mistaken, given empirical evidence that external backing for civil resistance movements is not a predictor of the success of those movements.

But at least some of these authoritarian governments are right when they assert that the United States and other western governments are actively taking steps to enact regime change. Whether providing support for violent methods, as in Syria, or non-violent methods, as in the recent debacle to fund anti-regime hip-hop in Cuba, the US government does have active policies that seek to change authoritarian regimes abroad. While authoritarian governments may be mistaken in thinking that outsiders can easily export civil resistance movements abroad or in thinking that domestic opposition they face is merely a front for foreign interests, they are correct in attributing to foreign governments support for non-violent (and sometimes violent) resistance. For example, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro may be wrong when he claims current political resistance in Venezeula is simply a US backed attempt at a coup, but he is not wrong to suggest that such efforts have historical precedent and US policy actively supports regime change in Venezuela.

So why should the US and other governments be in this business of promoting civil resistance abroad in the first place? US law forbids US politicians from accepting donations from abroad, presumably on the grounds that such financial influence would be a form of wrongful interference in domestic political matters, a way to curry undue favor in international affairs, or a violation of national sovereignty. But these reasons for restricting foreign influence in US domestic politics are presumably just as strong for other governments, which also seek to restrict foreign meddling in domestic political affairs.

Furthermore, if foreign backing for civil resistance movements is not a predictor of success, and there is a real risk that such support may undermine support for the resistors, weaken the legitimacy of campaigns for political change, and distort the aims and goals of civil resistance campaigns, why should external governments provide this support in the first place?

What am I missing? What justifies public spending in support of non-violent resistance abroad?

Scott Wisor is Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham.

Weekly Links

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

Giovanni Bellini, “San Zaccaria Altarpiece,” 1505. Via Steven Zucker.

Giovanni Bellini, “San Zaccaria Altarpiece,” 1505. Via Steven Zucker.

Christopher de Bellaigue argues that those calling for a Muslim Enlightenment are missing Islam’s long entanglement with modernity. The primary cause of these calls have been ISIS, who Graeme Wood argues are driven largely by an apocalyptic ideology. There have been a number of responses to Wood, but Robert Farley’s stands out. However, despite ISIS’ brutality, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has still killed tens of thousands more people. Finally, Robyn Cresswell casts a look back at the imagined possibilities of Syria’s nascent revolution.

Henry Farrell has a unique article on the Silk Road and state-building, and why libertarian fantasies of autonomous markets fall apart.

What’s the link between information/communication technology and violence? Well there’s a positive correlation between the two, but causality is hard to pin down. One way to reduce violence is to pay off combatants, but that’s often a tricky endeavor.

Russian casualties in Ukraine are unlikely to force Putin to change course. On a similar topic, Thomas Wright examines how the United States can restrain Russia without an escalation to a war no one wants.

The Guardian alleges the Chicago Police Department has been operating a “black site” for years, where it detains prisoners without public records.

Al Jazeera released thousands of spy cables leaked from various intelligence agencies this week. One of them indicates that Sudan attempted to assassinate the AU Chairwoman in 2012. Sudan is also accusing a UN peacekeeper of rape, likely to cover up its recent mass rape in Darfur. In the DRC, hopes were high for UN peacekeepers following the introduction of the Force Intervention Bridgade, but following a number of high-profile departures and setbacks, optimism is fading. One of the reasons for the setbacks is increasingly uncooperative DRC army, which Christoph Vogel analyzes in some depth.

A critique of the ‘rising powers’ literature, which a particular focus on China.

An American Army Lieutenant has been found guilty of second-degree murder after ordering his troops to kill unarmed Afgahns in Kandahar, and his troops aren’t speaking out in his favor. Unlike soldiers operating in the field, drone operators and intelligence analysts aren’t in any physical danger, but the stress and boredom that come with the job can take their toll.

Mark Kersten argues that “Yes the ICC is in crisis. It always has been.”

Andrew Wojtanik has an article in National Interest on the dynamics surrounding regional cooperation on fighting Boko Haram in the run-up to Nigeria’s elections.

Why is DAESH (Islamic State) Executing via Decapitation?

By Will H. Moore

ISIS' flag. Via wikimedia.

ISIS’ flag. Via wikimedia.

If it bleeds, it leads.Armstrong Williams.

Roger MacGinty recently visited the US, and shared the following on his blog:

I have been in the US for a few days. When there, I was exposed to quite a few hours of Fox News, CNN and other news channels… Usually the sound was turned down, but it was very clear what the top story was: IS. The news channels seem obsessed with it… If an IS strategy is to gain media coverage in the homeland of their enemy then they have won that part of their war – for free.

This is interesting because MacGinty lives and works in the UK, where the government can, and does, censor news coverage, and thus US news coverage of Islamic State (IS, aka DAESH, ISIS, and ISIL) stood out in stark relief to what he sees back home.

Terror attacks create “eyeballs on the set,” which is the currency of news.[1] And groups with little visibility know this. To get the attention of a powerful actor, like the US, a group needs to mobilize the public and persuade that public that it is powerful and scary. If that happens, democratically accountable politicians have an incentive to rush in and gesticulate about their commitment to keeping the public safe. The challenge of the little known group is: how does it project that image? Hiring a PR firm, the tactic pursued by corporations and celebrities, is not viable.

MacGinty, a peace research scholar, knows this, and that is why seeing American cable news coverage in airports, bars, and restaurants stood out to him. “WTF?!?” he was essentially asking himself. “Don’t these Bozos know that they are playing directly into IS’s hands? Can IS shout “Dance!” and then sit back and enjoy the show?”

MacGinty’s post reminded me of when I had a similar reaction to US television news coverage of a terror event. The year was 1985, and Hezbollah had hijacked TWA Flight 847. The image below is one of the best “made for TV” moments in the history of terror attacks: it is a screen shot from footage ABC news shot as a Hezbollah operative told the world of their demands (he also allowed the pilot, John Testrake, to speak). Still photos, like this one, were reproduced around the world in newspapers and magazines.

Via ABC News.

Via ABC News.

We didn’t say “WTF?!?” back in 1985, but the acronym effectively captures my reaction. “Why would any American news organization play into the hands of this goon squad? Don’t they know that if they ignored the hijackers that the tactic literally couldn’t work?!?” UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in particular was critical of the American press for their coverage, but the American networks defended their decision and the American public’s “right to know” (e.g., see coverage here; for exemplars of American print coverage of the event, see these examples from Time and People).

Readers who have not considered these issues will find valuable Paul Wilkinson‘s discussion of this issue in the “The Media and Terrorism” chapter of his book. I strongly recommend it.

Political conflict is a strategic interaction[2], and political actors will pursue opportunities to advance their agendas. DAESH is cutting off peoples’ heads, recording it, and posting the content online because you are watching.


You can find a previous version of this post at Will Opines.

[1] Lest anyone think that this is limited to television news, or contemporary America, the other day at lunch a colleague told us of his experience as a rookie reporter for a Chicago newspaper in the 1960s. It was his first night on the City Desk and a report of a murder came over the wire. He tore the paper from the machine and excitedly asked his editor for permission to cover the story. “What’s the address?” the editor wanted to know, apparently not looking up from what he was reading. When my colleague told him the address, he responded: “That’s the black side of town. Nobody cares.” #BlackLivesMatter

[2] See research articles about strategic dissident – state interactions here and here.

PVG at the Duckies

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

An enormous rubber duck in Hong Kong. By Chris Zielecki.

An enormous rubber duck in Hong Kong. By Chris Zielecki.

It was a good night at the Duckies last Thursday for PVGlance. Erica Chenoweth won the Best Blog Post Award, Allison Beth Hodgkins won for Best New Blogger, and PVGlance was the runner-up for Best Group Blog (it went to The Monkey Cage this year) in 2014. We also had nominees in Oliver Kaplan and Vera Mironova.

Other winners were Dart-Throwing Chimp (Best Individual Blog) and Dan Nexon (Achievement in Blogging).

At the awards reception, which is hosted annually by Sage and the Duck of Minerva at the ISA Annual Convention, one of our permanent contributors Christian Davenport had a terrific spoken blog on Better Blogging in 2015.

It was a great night for PVGlance. Thanks, readers and contributors, for making this blog what it is!

Weekly Links

By Sarah Bakhtiari

Simon Vouet, “St. Cecilia,” 1626. Via Ed Uthman.

Simon Vouet, “St. Cecilia,” 1626. Via Ed Uthman.

Europe experienced its share of turmoil this week, with an attack in Copenhagen by a lone-wolf terrorist apparently motivated by Islamic fundamentalism. The attack, partially directed at a Jewish synagogue, prompted Israeli PM Netanyahu to invite the Jewish diaspora home to the safety of Israel.

Is anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe? Many Jewish leaders think so, but it’s difficult to quantify. The randomized response technique may provide some better estimates on the prevalence of anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, the Greeks are facing European ultimatums to maintain fiscal austerity, despite the self-proclaimed “humanitarian crisis” it’s caused. Could GDP-linked bonds be a part of the solution to Greece’s woes, or will continued austerity compel Greece to tough it out, despite the humanitarian costs?

Despite brokering a deal in Minsk just last week, heads of state from France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine attempted to salvage the cease-fire agreement as separatists took over the city of Debaltseve, a strategic railroad hub. Surprised? The complicated political geography of the southeast region of Ukraine and Crimea belie Putin’s claims to a unitary community, suggesting that we shouldn’t be.

The New York Times Magazine has a long, fascinating article on the investigation into Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

Are we at war with ISIS? The U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of State don’t think so. The UN Security Council, on the other hand, passed a resolution that intensified sanctions and implored regional states to seize oil tankers that keep funds flowing to ISIS. ISIS may be expected to lose ground in Iraq ultimately, but the group’s impact on ethno-sectarian politics in the Middle East is there to stay. And it’s no wonder, given their problematic pseudo-state, non-unitary structure. But what caused ISIS’ rise in the first place? That’s a tricky question to answer.

From Chicago to Guantanamo Bay, the history of state-sponsored American torture runs deep, writes Spencer Ackerman in the Guardian.

In North Africa, ISIS widened its campaign to Libya, raising Italian fears of terrorist infiltration via smuggled migrant rescue operations off the coast. Elsewhere in North Africa, Egyptian President el Sisi defended the state’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and his battle against Islamic extremism, which he warns will affect Europe if not eradicated.

This week the White House hosted a summit on countering violent extremism around the world. President Obama outlined four focal points of potential governmental effort to do so: vigilance against terrorism, exposing faulty ideologies, addressing economic and political grievances, and cultural and religious respect. Devising the concrete steps to do so will fall to the UN General Assembly this September.

Boko Haram mystifies many observers and in an effort to rectify this Ryan Cummings dispels some common myths about the group. One tricky issue is Boko Haram’s relationship with ethnic politics in northeastern Nigeria, which are important, if not the most important factor in determining group membership.

Bargaining Theory and Domestic Violence

By Barbara F. Walter

A portrait of an abused woman. By San Francisco Camerawork.

A portrait of an abused woman. By San Francisco Camerawork.

Domestic violence produces significantly higher costs to society than murders and civil wars, at least in low and middle income countries. That’s the powerful finding revealed by James Fearon and Anke Hoeffler’s new study. The reason? There’s much more violence directed at women and children behind closed doors than any other form of violence.

This depressing fact got me thinking. Can bargaining theory tell us anything about why this type of violence continues and why the incidence is so high? Perhaps. Bargaining theory tells us that there should be a compromise settlement between two parties that would leave them both better off than fighting. This is especially true when the costs and risks of violence are high. If this is true, why aren’t more agreements reached between partners in violent relationships?

A settlement between such partners would likely include some trade-off between peace on the one hand, and control over household decisions (i.e., power) on the other. One partner (usually the woman) would trade control for peace.

According to the theory, bargaining can fail for at least two reasons: (1) one or both sides has private information about their strength or resolve and incentives to withhold or misrepresent this information, or (2) the two sides cannot enforce any agreement over time.

Information problems could help explain why violence breaks out in the first place. Let’s assume that a couple disagrees over the distribution of power and control in the household. One side wants significant control over all decisions in the household and the other is unwilling to give it. If both sides knew exactly what the other side was willing to do to gain his or her desired share of control, violence could be avoided. The side willing to fight hardest for household control would gain a share commensurate with that effort.

The problem, at least in the early stages of conflict, is that neither side knows just how hard the other is willing to fight for control. One side (usually the man) has private information about whether he will actually use violence (i.e., whether he is a “brutal” or “non-brutal” type). The other side (usually the woman) has private information about whether she will tolerate abuse, and how much she is willing to tolerate before she leaves the home (i.e., is she “proactive” or “not”). Revealing this information in the absence of violence is difficult. Those seeking control have incentives to claim that they will “turn violent” – even if they know they will not – in order to gain a greater share of power. Similarly, those seeking peace have an incentive to claim that they will “immediately leave” should abuse occur, even if they know they will stay.

Domestic violence, therefore, could be a way for “brutal” men to provide hard evidence that they will inflict pain and therefore deserve more control as a result. It is also a way for them to determine if they are facing a “proactive” partner – one who will leave at the first sign of abuse, or a “passive” one who is willing to stay.

This information problem, however, should disappear as soon as the private information about type has been revealed. Once it is clear that one side is “abusive” and the other “passive,” a deal should be made that allows both parties to avoid additional violence. Why isn’t a control-for-peace agreement reached at this point?

The answer could have something to do with commitment/enforcement problems.

One of the main problems with domestic violence is that it is difficult for the victim to enforce the peace over time. Even if she relinquishes all power and control in the household, there is little she can do to prevent additional violence. There are likely three reasons for this. First, unless she physically strong and equally willing to use violence, she cannot credibly threaten to punish her abuser should he revert back to violence. Second, threatening to leave the relationship is unlikely to deter future violence because the victim has already revealed that she is unwilling to depart. Finally, no credible third party exists to help enforce the peace for the weaker side, especially in low and middle income countries. The police and judicial system could serve this role by arresting and punishing the abuser, but arrest and prosecution often does not occur, making this punishment less than effective as well. The result? Abusers are likely to figure out that continued abuse will go unpunished even if they already gained compliance from their partner. There is little need to change their behavior as long as they face little risk and cost for aggression.

So what might bargaining theory tell us about domestic violence? It tells us that domestic violence may be so prevalent due to enforcement issues. As long as a huge asymmetry of physical and economic power continues to exist between men and women in most of the world, and as long as police forces are unwilling or unable to intervene, domestic violence will continue.

Bargaining theory, however, also offers insights about how to reduce domestic violence. First, make it financially easy for women to leave these conflict situations. Domestic violence would significantly decline if women walked away from these relationships at the first sign of abuse. A safe haven plus job training and other assistance would offer women an alternative to staying in a position of weakness. Second, invest in effective policing. For women who are unwilling or unable to remove themselves from violence, active police intervention would help. Domestic violence occurs for lots of different reasons, some of which have deep psychological roots. But it continues because the perpetrator knows the risks and costs are low. If countries could make it easier for the victim to leave and promise to arrest and prosecute perpetrators, the costs and risks of domestic violence would increase, and its incidence would decline.

Weekly Links

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

Thomas Doughty, “Shipwreck,” 1834. Via Mary Harrsch.

Thomas Doughty, “Shipwreck,” 1834. Via Mary Harrsch.

ISIS has clandestinely expanded its court system in Lebanon, which begs the question: is the Islamic State really a state? Relatedly, how does ISIS view sovereignty? Reporting from areas ISIS has recently lost, Mike Giglio investigates the mass graves the group has left behind. Finally, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross takes a close look at how many fighters ISIS likely has, concluding the true number is much higher than the average estimate.

Does aid fuel violence? If so, in what situations?

Obama’s comparison of the Crusades to violent Islamic fundamentalism prompted some criticism. Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, writes that if one delves into the histories of America and Christianity, it is more than fair to draw the connection.

Technology that uses satellite imagery for humanitarian purposes has created new possibilities and challenges for human rights advocates. One recent case in which satellite imagery was used is Nigeria, which has had a tough week. Violence in the country’s northeast has spiked ahead of postponed elections, and Boko Haram is expanding across the border into Niger.

Jason Stearns has an article offering a brief history of the DRC’s recent struggles in World Politics Review.

Fighting has also intensified in Eastern Ukraine, and the situation on the ground for civilians is increasingly grim. The escalation has accelerated calls for the US to arm Ukraine, but Daniel Larison argues in The American Conservative that the argument for arms transfers lacks substance.

Huge street protests are taking place in Burma over a new education law. Also in Burma, a similarly controversial law gives many Rohingya the ability to vote, if not citizenship.

Sudan’s opposition is largely boycotting upcoming elections, but this strategy seems sure to backfire. In the country’s Nuba Mountains, much of the population has abandoned their homes due to constant aerial bombardment. In addition to its many internal conflicts, Sudan is also a major player in Africa’s arms industry.

In Yemen, a 13-year-old who had spoken to the Guardian previously about his fear of drones was himself killed in a U.S. drone attack.

Following East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, the UN helped build a Timorese intelligence agency, but weren’t able to build in any oversight mechanisms. Things went downhill from there, but Scott Gilmore should be credited with admitting his mistake.

What The Iranian Nuclear Negotiations Tells Us About Soft Diplomatic Deadlines

Guest post by Matthew Cebul

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Vienna. By the U.S. Embassy Vienna.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Vienna. By the U.S. Embassy in Vienna.

The Iranian nuclear negotiations and the U.S. sanctions regime are a perennial hot topic, with debates on the subject embroiling policy experts and armchair observers alike. Most recently, President Obama’s extension of negotiations through June 30th has triggered renewed congressional pressure for sanctions legislation (though the clamor has subsided until March), a controversial congressional appearance by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a fresh round of press on the merits and drawbacks of sanctions. Negotiation supporters argue that there is still time to strike a deal that would avert a nuclearized Iran; opponents claim that Obama is being played, and is sacrificing core American interests in the process.

Underlying these arguments is a theoretical question about the value of firm temporal deadlines to effective coercive diplomacy. Thus far, Obama and the P5+1 have taken a flexible approach to negotiations, pushing back the target date twice since signing the interim agreement in January 2014 (a four month extension in July, and an additional seven month extension last November). Thus, the Obama administration has treated deadlines as mile-markers for progress as opposed to firm end-points for negotiations. This reliance on soft bargaining deadlines deserves scrutiny: how do soft deadlines affect the conduct of negotiations, and when are they likely to be useful?

To start, the traditional rationale for firm diplomatic deadlines finds its roots in Thomas Schelling’s foundational work on compellence.[1] Schelling argues that compellence consists of a demand, a threat of action if that demand is not met, and a designated time by which the opponent must comply to avoid punishment. While we intuitively focus on the first two elements, for Schelling the third is also vital; as he writes, “If the action carries no deadline it is only a posture, or a ceremony with no consequences … Compellence, to be effective, can’t wait forever.”[2] Without a time constraint, the threat is ambiguous and the defender feels no urgency to comply with the demand. Thus, the traditional account of compellence suggests that soft deadlines are ineffective tools of coercive diplomacy.

Indeed, the Obama administration has encountered this exact problem in the Iranian negotiations. By repeatedly extending the negotiations and promising to veto new sanctions, Obama has inadvertently signaled a lack of resolve to Iran; Supreme Leader Khamenei is likely to infer from these moves that Obama would rather accept an unfavorable deal than fail to reach an agreement. Thus, Obama’s soft deadlines are too flexible to encourage the Iranians to make the unpleasant compromises necessary for a viable accord; despite Congress’ saber-rattling, Iran’s best bet has been to hold out in the hopes that Obama will eventually reduce his demands. Notably, this is true regardless of Iran’s underlying motivations for nuclear development; even if Iran ultimately intends to cooperate, there is no reason for it to make concessions now if it can get a better deal by waiting.

Yet despite these concerns, there are at least three possible justifications to avoid firm deadlines in favor of a more flexible approach. First, the obvious: if the threat of punishment is in fact a bluff, setting a firm deadline risks the defender calling the bluff, clearly observing the challenger’s lack of resolve, and then refusing any concessions on the issue. In this case, extending the negotiations and hoping that the defender decides to compromise may be the only chance that the challenger has to win concessions, however lopsided the eventual deal may be.

We find this dynamic at work in the Iranian case, resulting from the difficulties of international sanctions coordination. While many members of Congress have demonstrated a near-rabid desire for sanctions (for example, Senator Tom Cotton), unilateral sanctions have been largely ineffectual; what matters is the continued commitment of the EU to the crippling multilateral sanctions regime.[3] However, their dedication to the cause is less than forthcoming. The U.S.’s partners have fallen in line behind Obama, with the British, French, and German foreign secretaries co-authoring an op-ed against new sanctions and Prime Minister David Cameron personally phoning U.S. Senators to that effect. These countries are likely averse to additional sanctions because they too would prefer an unfavorable deal to no deal; as the op-ed cited above reveals, “new sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far.” If Obama believes that he cannot hold the international sanctions regime together, then setting a firm deadline for sanctions is a bad call.

A related problem is that a firm deadline could provide Iran with a diplomatic “out”: Iranians could complain that they were willing to continue negotiations but the U.S. left them at the table, thus placing the blame squarely on Obama’s shoulders. This blame may work to de-legitimize the sanctions regime, or at least provide reluctant partners with an easy excuse to bail out. Obama’s desire to “exhaust all diplomatic options” likely stems from his recognition that a failure to do so could break the sanctions regime; again, the need for multilateral cooperation complicates the credibility of the threat, making firm deadlines a risky proposition.

Finally, a relatively unexplored problem: firm deadlines may lead the defender to believe that the challenger is not truly interested in cooperation. To see this, we return to Schelling. In addition to the credibility of threats, Schelling also notes the importance of assurances against future punishment to bargaining success; the defender has no reason to cooperate if she believes that the challenger will punish her regardless of her behavior.[4] This results in a credibility dilemma: the more credible the threat, the less credible the reassurance. Yet while Schelling and others have recognized the dilemma, scholars have paid less attention to how the choice between firm and soft deadlines affects the credibility of assurances. The crux of the matter is that negotiations are built on trust; to accept a bargain, the defender must have faith that the challenger will keep her word. This trust is difficult to come by, particularly in negotiations between bitter rivals that harbor serious misgivings about one another. In these circumstances, building trust takes time and repeated attempts to signal a desire to move towards a cooperative relationship. However, firm deadlines eliminate that time and preclude the development of trust. Thus, when confronted with a strict deadline, a defender may infer that the challenger is unwilling to truly commit to repairing relations, and therefore that future animosity and punishment is likely regardless of the defender’s behavior on this particular issue. Given that inference, refusing to compromise may be the defender’s best bet, as making concessions now would weaken the defender in future confrontations.

It is through this lens that we should interpret the Obama administration’s use of soft deadlines in the Iranian negotiations. Obama’s approach to the negotiations has consistently sought to foster trust between Iran and the Obama administration. Extending negotiations bought time for further interactions between the parties, whose respective heads of state had not spoken in three decades prior to President Rouhani’s famous phone call, and demonstrated Obama’s commitment to repairing relations following the prior administration’s overt desire for regime change in Iran. Indeed, Obama’s personal willingness to stay the course even in the face of domestic pressure has likely contributed greatly to the progress made thus far. Similarly, when the administration claims that a sanctions deadline would empower Iranian hardliners, it is worried that congressional hawkishness signals that the U.S. will remain hostile towards Iran regardless of the deal, discrediting Rouhani and undermining the nascent trust that he and Obama have worked to develop.

In sum, while the traditional coercive diplomacy equation calls for a demand + threat + time constraint, firm deadlines have significant downsides: they risk a complete loss if the threat of punishment is not credible, and they may also sow suspicion when trust is most needed. In contrast, while soft deadlines may fail to force the desired concessions, they may nonetheless be essential starting points for negotiations between states that share a troubled history, who are unlikely to trust one another enough to arrive at a deal without a confidence-building period. Thus, the type of deadline is an important component of bargaining strategy: one must be firm enough to elicit concessions, but flexible enough to convince the opponent that one is genuinely interested in cooperation.

What does this analysis suggest about Obama’s future steps in the Iranian negotiations? As I am not privy to Khamenei’s strategy sessions, I will avoid speculation about how effective Obama’s trust building approach has been thus far. However, I am confident that this extension of negotiations will be the last. As Congress’ patience for negotiations has all but evaporated, Obama simply cannot stall for more time—absent a deal, his sanctions veto will be overruled by a bipartisan majority. Moreover, Obama has offered ample concessions, and has even hinted at preliminary sanctions reductions without congressional approval; there is little else he can do to either build trust or sweeten the deal. Indeed, Secretary Kerry’s recent remarks describing an additional extension as “impossible” show that the administration is shifting gears, moving from soft deadlines towards a firm one to clearly convey the urgent need for Iranian concessions. So it’s now or never: a lack of breakthrough Iranian compromise by the P5+1’s unofficial March 31st deadline will signal Obama and Rouhani’s failure to overcome decades of animosity between the U.S. and Iran. Yet diplomatic failure would not imply that Obama was wrong to originally pursue a flexible approach to the negotiations. Obama was right to do everything in his power to bring the Iranian horse to water; but at the end of the day, he cannot force it to drink.

[1] Schelling, Thomas. 1966. Arms and Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[2] Schelling, Arms and Influence, pg. 72.

[3] For a thorough account of how sanctions have impacted the Iranian economy, see Katzman, Kenneth. January 2015. “Iran Sanctions.” Congressional Research Service. Available here.

[4] Schelling, Arms and Influence, pg. 74-75.

Matthew Cebul is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale.


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