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Weekly links

By Sarah Bakhtiari

Alexander Dux, "See America," 1936. Via the Library of Congress.

Alexander Dux, “See America,” 1936. Via the Library of Congress.

Fighting authoritarianism without violence: annually, the North Korea Strategy Center smuggles thousands of USB drives filled with foreign movies, music, and books into North Korea to undermine the information stranglehold of the North Korean regime—oh yeah, and to overthrow it. On the topic of authoritarian states, Eritrea does really well at achieving development indicators, but that doesn’t mean its citizens want to stay. Many who leave have gone on to drown in the Mediterranean.

Questing for a new research topic? Gender in International Relations is trending in the right direction, no longer exiled to the periphery of the field.

Speaking of bringing outcasts into the academic fold: here is a new blog on the impact of religious actors and interests on world politics.

Writing for Buzzfeed, Gregory Johnsen profiles the “untouchable” John Brennan. According to Johnsen, his rise within the CIA closely mirrors the creation of the national security state.

Meenakshi Gigi Durham explores the limits of transnational feminist solidarity as reflected in several films about gender relations in India, to include India’s Daughter—a film about Jyoti Singh Pandey, a medical student fatally raped and assaulted by six men in 2012—which the Indian government banned.

Getting the (academic) word out: are blog posts and online, peer-reviewed, short-form journals, like Research and Politics, the way to make academic research more relevant—and by that, I mean, more widely read (than this article suggests)?

Nevertheless, some advise scholars to adopt a strategy of “one for me, one for the system.”

Replication is critical to progress in science, but Michael Clemens argues that it isn’t defined well enough to know when it’s actually taking place.

The new way of war? Non-linear warfare employs three instruments: kinetic force, intelligence, and information. Look to Russia to find both success (Crimea) and failure (Novorossiya) in non-linearity.

Is the United States likely to fall into the Thucydidean trap with China? David Welch says no; a push, pull, or stumble is much more likely.

Der Spiegal has an article detailing the organizational structure of ISIS based on documents smuggled out of Syria. If they’re real, then ex-Baathists have always been at the heart of the organization. Speaking of terrorist groups, Mark Stout reminds us that the life of international terrorists is pretty tough.

Understanding the ‘Pink Tide’ in Latin America through a Gramscian lens reveals a regional war of position, in which competing social forces exploit the new spaces created by regional institutions.

Probabilities for Turkey to succumb to the logic of nuclear armament are low, despite the significant geopolitical indicators that point them down that very road.

What can the lessons of nuclear history can offer policymakers as they chart a course toward “global zero” or nuke-enabled deterrence?

It’s the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and in Foreign Affairs Thomas de Waal looks at the complicated politics of the word “genocide”. Then in Foreign Policy, Nick Danforth is not a fan of Samantha Power’s interpretation of the Genocide. He argues that the Genocide was not clear-cut, and imagining that all future atrocities will be inhibits or ability to respond effectively.

Peru’s informal black-market gold industry has reportedly surpassed cocaine as the country’s biggest illegal export, supported by more than four hundred thousand informal gold miners. Artisanal gold mining produces just ten percent of the world’s gold annually, but comprises ninety percent of the gold industry’s jobs.

Space control. Sounds exotic, but it’s not…as John Sheldon explains, space control has been a part of U.S. national policy for more than fifty years.

Although the roles women play in political violence are often marginalized by misattributing their motives, women are active in about 60 percent of non-state armed groups that rely on voluntary recruitment.

How did American Muslims become Public Enemy #1 for conservatives?

After the infamous Iraq nuclear weapons assessment, the Intelligence Community appeared to redeem itself with the Iranian National Intelligence Estimate. But is the intelligence being used to push a policy agenda?

Persistent Protesters, from Selma to Hong Kong

Guest post by James Franklin

Protesters take part in the Umbrella Revolution. By Leung Ching Yau Alex.

Protesters take part in the Umbrella Revolution. By Leung Ching Yau Alex.

President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, and a wide range of political leaders recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the infamous Bloody Sunday attack against protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Lewis was one of many protesters severely beaten by Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse and Alabama State Troopers. This is perhaps the best known case in which harsh repression of protesters, far from stopping the protest campaign, backfired. Television networks showed footage of the peaceful protesters being beaten. Civil rights leaders called for another march on Tuesday, and hundreds converged on Selma, making the second march substantially larger than the first. The following Monday, President Johnson called on Congress to pass a sweeping voting rights bill, and soon after this a federal judge gave civil rights activists the green light for a march from Selma to Montgomery. David Garrow reports that “never before, in nine years time, had the movement received the breadth of national support , and the strength of federal endorsement, that this week had witnessed.” [1] While protesters in Selma persisted, there are a great many protests that are stopped by repression, such as the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, or that fizzle out over time due to exhaustion.

A contemporary movement facing the challenge of persistence in the face of repression leaped into the public eye with the occupation of central Hong Kong on September 28, 2014. This occupation began in part as a response to the arrest of student leaders as they attempted to occupy Civic Square, and police use of tear gas as the occupation began only brought more to the streets. As the occupation continued and the number of participants swelled, it was labelled the “Umbrella Revolution” for the widespread use of umbrellas to protect against pepper spray (as well as the natural elements). Calling this movement a revolution is premature, but the protesters’ main demand–the right to have an open election for Hong Kong’s chief executive—would be revolutionary, and the occupation of central Hong Kong for over two months by tens of thousands of protesters has been called the greatest challenge to the Chinese government since Tiananmen Square in 1989. While the last participants in the occupation were removed by authorities in early December, they left posters reading “we’ll be back.” Indeed, smaller demonstrations have occurred since then. There are now reports that protesters are returning to the occupation camp to put pressure on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to oppose the Chinese government’s plan to control the nomination process for Hong Kong’s chief executive.

Why did protesters in Selma, and so far in Hong Kong, persist in the face of repression, whereas repression stamped out the democracy movement in Tienanmen square? Certainly, the magnitude of repression in Tienanmen in 1989 was far greater than that visited upon Selma or Hong Kong, but if we want to identify the effect of repression on protest more broadly, prior social scientific research does not offer a clear answer. It has been hypothesized that repression tends to decrease protest, that it tends to increase protest, that median levels of repression tend to lead to the greatest (or lowest) levels of protest, and that repression decreases protest in the short-run but increases it in the long-run.

A problem with many previous studies is that they look at repression and protest over an entire country, so that the characteristics of individual protests cannot be considered. In a recent article, I examine over 1,000 contentious challenges (encompassing protests and violent attacks) in seven Latin American countries, observing how the government responded and whether the challengers organized a subsequent contentious challenge with similar demands within the following twelve months. If so, I considered the challengers to be persistent.[2] By focusing on persistence in this manner, I am able to consider the characteristics of individual protests.

Testing the above hypothesized effects of repression on protest, I found no consistent, reliable effects whatsoever. The persistence of protesters in my study has more to do with their organization, setting, and demands than with the actions of the government. Protests that have an organized group involved and that have more participants are more likely to persist, regardless of how authorities respond. Furthermore, protests that take place in authoritarian regimes and that seek regime change (including democratization) are more persistent.

This is a curious finding, since such protests should be especially likely to be met by governmental repression. I explain this finding with what I call the “filter theory” of the effect of repression on protest. I propose that the repression used by an authoritarian regime is likely to filter out opposition sympathizers who are not willing to face the very real risks involved in open resistance. This may delay resistance for a long time, but protest will often emerge eventually, and here it is likely to involve people who are fully aware of the risks of repression yet are committed enough to participate anyway. Thus, these participants are more persistent in the face of repression because they expect it.

Does my research offer any predictions for Hong Kong? While it is risky to make predictions about particular cases [3], Hong Kong does exhibit high levels of organization, as the protests involved organized groups including Occupy Central With Love and Peace, led by a law professor, a student movement called Scholarism, led by the 18-year-old Joshua Wong, and the Hong Kong Federation of Students. The occupation movement also showed strength in numbers, topping 100,000 participants. The movement also proposes democratic reforms to an authoritarian regime. Furthermore, the willingness to spend two months camped out in the elements, facing tear gas and fears of far worse, shows the commitment of participants. Joshua Wong, interviewed in a recent article, refers to his three arrests but adds “for a movement to be successful, someone needs to pay the price.” With a movement like this, my research suggests that it is likely to be persistent and that repression by Hong Kong authorities is unlikely to change that.

James Franklin is a Professor of Politics and Government at Ohio Wesleyan University.


[1] David J. Garrow. 1986. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Quill. Page 409. This section on Selma generally is based on Garrow’s book.

[2] Franklin, James. 2015. “Persistent Challengers: Repression, Concessions, Challenger Strength, and Commitment in Latin America.Mobilization: An International Quarterly 20(1): 61-80.

[3] The research finds factors that appear to make persistence more or less likely across a large sample of protests, and may not predict a particular case. Furthermore, findings that apply to Latin America may not apply outside the region. However, the results seem to be consistent with general principles that would not be unique to one region.

What Are the Prospects of Preventive Diplomacy? Conflict Intensity Might Give Us a Hint.

Guest post by Constantin Ruhe

A Free Syrian Army tank crew in February 2012. By Freedom House.

A Free Syrian Army tank crew in February 2012. By Freedom House.

During the Syrian conflict, violence escalated dramatically in late 2011 and early 2012. Ideally, we would like to prevent such escalation. The UN aims to contain conflicts at an early stage through preventive diplomacy such as mediated talks. Yet, this ideal is often difficult to achieve. Governments may be reluctant to accept rebel movements as legitimate negotiation partners and they often do not want to set a precedent which encourages other factions to rebel. In Syria, not surprisingly, early diplomatic attempts failed.

If talks are difficult to achieve, under which conditions do they most likely occur? The prominent concept of “ripeness” states that a mediated solution becomes more likely if conflicts enter a mutually hurting stalemate. But when is a conflict “ripe” for talks? The military strength of a rebel group might predict when a military stalemate is likely to emerge. Nevertheless, in early conflict situations, unless a rebel group demonstrates its strength on the battlefield, we often do not know whether it is capable of challenging the incumbent regime, and neither does the regime (or maybe even the rebels themselves).

Yet, if success on the battlefield demonstrates military capabilities, then this may help us determine when mediation is more likely to occur. Recent conflict research has created a quickly growing pool of conflict event databases which allow us to examine such arguments more closely. These data document individual events in conflicts such as conflict management initiatives or fighting between armed groups. For these events, the datasets provide information on such things as time, geographic location or even casualties.

Recent research draws on these data and suggests that two factors – military success by rebels and fighting near population centers – correlate with a high probability of an early initial mediation attempt. In a new paper published in the Journal of Peace Research, I examine the link between conflict intensity and the timing of mediation more closely. The results indicate that in the early stages of conflicts, increased intensity correlates with higher probabilities of mediated talks only when the fighting occurs close to the national capital. On the other hand, intensifying fighting far from the capital predicts a decreasing likelihood of mediation. If the fighting occurs right in the capital, intensity is not correlated with the probability of mediated talks.

Of course, correlation is not causation. Governments and rebels most likely do not constantly gauge the fighting’s average distance to a nation’s capital when they decide whether or not to accept mediation. Nevertheless, we know from previous research that the location of a conflict can be a proxy for the military strength of rebel movements. If we interpret the finding through this lens, then the results give way for a more intuitive interpretation: Given that rebels possess military capabilities which match those of the government, increased intensity underlines the threat posed by the rebels. In these situations, governments might be more inclined towards early negotiations. In contrast, in a conflict with a weak rebel movement, increased intensity might indicate that a regime is determined to crack down on a rebel movement and will most likely not accept negotiations any time soon. Vice versa, if rebels are able to attack the capital’s center, the rebels appear capable to quickly overthrow the regime and are probably not willing to negotiate. In the two latter situations, a carrots and sticks approach may sway the escalating side to agree to negotiation. However, if a regime is willing to accept international isolation and escalate violence as brutally, as the Assad regime did in 2011 and 2012 in Syria, then this signals a very low inclination to negotiate.

Admittedly, event data is not perfect. Nevertheless, this research suggests that events on the battlefield might help to assess the prospects of preventive diplomacy at a given point in time.

Constantin Ruhe is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Decision Sciences, University of Konstanz.

Why Groups Use Terrorism: A Reassessment of the Conventional Wisdom

Guest post by Max Abrahms

Fleeing ISIS, Syrian Kurds walk into Turkey. By the European Commission DG ECHO.

Fleeing ISIS, Syrian Kurds walk into Turkey. By the European Commission DG ECHO.

Over the past decade, political scientists have learned a great deal about terrorism. For a while, the conventional wisdom held that groups commit terrorism because it’s strategically effective. For this reason, the dominant paradigm is sometimes referred to as the Strategic Model of Terrorism. Its logic seemed self-evident: To avert additional pain to their civilians, governments were presumed to adopt a more dovish stance by granting the perpetrators their political demands. Prominent scholars from Robert Pape to David Lake to Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter promoted this viewpoint until it became the conventional wisdom.

There was only one problem with this emerging scholarly orthodoxy. It wasn’t supported by the evidence. Increasingly, empirical evidence has revealed that terrorism is a remarkably ineffective tactic for groups to induce government concessions. In 2006, I published the first study to examine a sample of terrorist groups in terms of their political effectiveness. What I found is that groups are far more likely to attain their demands when their violence is directed not against civilian targets, but military ones. Since then, other researchers with different samples have confirmed that hardly any of the thousands of terrorist groups since the dawn of modern terrorism around 1970 have achieved their political demands by attacking civilians. The historical record is not entirely barren of such cases, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

Subsequent statistical studies have found that terrorism is not simply correlated with political failure; the attacks on civilians actually lower the odds of government concessions. This is because terrorism tends to shift electorates to the political right, strengthening hardliners most opposed to appeasement. But don’t take my word for it; just look at how target countries have responded to Islamic State and associated Islamist attacks.

  • Last year, Islamic State said the purpose of beheading the American journalist James Foley was to persuade the United States into calling off military operations in Iraq. But the terrorist act had the opposite political effect. In the immediate aftermath of the beheading, President Obama declared that the U.S. would consequently ramp up its air campaign in Iraq and extend it into Syria for the first time.
  • The Paris attacks had a similar effect on France. The French were the opposite of intimidated. Instead, they were defiant. Attendance at the post-attack Paris march was essentially unprecedented. Crowds that size hadn’t been seen since the end of World War Two. Simultaneously, sales of the Charlie Hebdo magazine soared from about 60,000 to millions worldwide. The Islamophobic far-right Front National picked up numerous supporters. Of course, France also dramatically increased its participation in the anti-ISIS military coalition, reflected best in its deployment of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the Gulf. And while Islamic State detests the Assad regime, the French public suddenly warmed to him.
  • Canada, too, did the political opposite of what the Strategic Model would predict. After a couple terrorist attacks on Canadian soil, the public gave its spy agency unprecedented powers to disrupt terrorism at home, while suddenly favoring an expanded role in the coalition against Islamic State. Indeed, Canada is now arguably even more hawkishly anti-terrorism than its southern neighbor.
  • Jordan was a real question mark. The Jordanian public had been highly ambivalent about fighting Islamic State before its citizen was torched to death in a cage. Would Jordan withdraw from the counterterrorism coalition like the anomalous case of Spain after the 2004 Madrid attacks? Just the opposite — in response to the torching, Jordan began bombing the lights out of Islamic State, even ordering additional fighter planes to help get the job done.
  • The beheading of 21 Coptics in Libya had the same counterproductive effect on Egypt. Although not formally a member of the anti-ISIS coalition, Cairo quickly volunteered to lead a pan-Arab military force against Islamic State.
  • Even Japan became more bellicose after its citizens were slaughtered. Since 1947, Article 9 of the Constitution has banned Japan from possessing war-making capabilities. But thanks to the terrorist attacks, the Japanese rallied around the flag, pushing for the repeal of Article 9 to better respond to threats like Islamic State.

All of this raises what I’ve coined as The Puzzle of Terrorism: If attacking civilians only encourages governments to dig in their political heels, why do groups do it? In a new study in International Organization, Phil Potter and I propose an original theory that can accurately account for variation in militant group violence against civilians. It turns out that certain kinds of groups are significantly more likely to attack civilians than others – those suffering from leadership deficits in which lower level members are calling the shots. Leadership deficits promote terrorism by empowering lower level members of the organization, who have stronger incentives to harm civilians.

For many reasons, there’s an inverse relationship between the position of members within the organizational hierarchy and their incentives for harming civilians. For starters, lower level members may try to rise up within the group by committing atrocities against civilians. Such organizational ladder-climbing is well documented in gangs, but is also quite common in militant groups – just ask Jihadi John. Furthermore, lower level members have less access to organizational resources than the leadership, incentivizing them to strike softer targets. And leaders tend to have more experience in asymmetric conflict, so they are more apt than their subordinates to understand the political risks of indiscriminate violence in the first place.

In accordance with this new theory for terrorism, our study reveals that decapitation strikes with drones make militant groups more likely to attack civilians by weakening the leadership. Decentralized groups are also prone to civilian targeting because the leadership must delegate tactical decision-making to lower level members. Similarly, we demonstrate that as operatives travel further away from the leadership, they gain a measure of autonomy and are thus more inclined to attack the population. Unlike the Strategic Model, our organizational theory does not rest on the dubious assumption that terrorism helps induce government concessions. But more importantly, it can help to predict which groups will attack civilians, when, and why.

Max Abrahms is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University.

Social Movements Across Borders: Caravana 43’s Visit to the United States

By Cassy Dorff for Denver Dialogues

Family members of missing Ayotzinapa students speak in Denver on April 12th. By Cassy Dorff.

Family members of missing Ayotzinapa students speak in Denver on April 12th. By Cassy Dorff.

To get to Vermont from Denver all you need is a good car and a lot of patience. It is about a 2,000-mile drive. Not too bad. To head 2,000 miles south and travel from Denver to Ayotzinapa, Mexico you would need a good car, patience, and some extra luck in navigating a violent drug war. Make no mistake: in Mexico, the people and the land are beautiful; the food is incredible; the culture is heart-warming, vibrant, and inviting. But the Mexican Criminal Conflict is real and a small group of survivors are here to tell you about it.

In September 2014, local police stopped students of Ayotzinapa’s Normalista teachers’ college in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. The police shot at the students, killing six and injuring 25. Survivors reported that those who were unable to escape were forcibly loaded into trucks and taken away. That night, 43 students disappeared and today the whereabouts of these students is unknown. The motives behind these crimes remain uncertain. The government’s official story is that the mayor of Iguala and his wife ordered the attacks against the students but after several official and unofficial investigations the families of the missing students are still searching for the truth. This violent tragedy has now become a symbol of the greater criminal conflict in Mexico where roughly 100,000 people have been murdered and another 25,000 have disappeared in the last 8 years. The families of these missing young men now comprise Caravana 43, a social movement organized as a call for justice and accountability from the Mexican state.

I attended the Caravan’s event in Denver on April 12th. In all likelihood, the Caravan is coming (or has already visited) a town near you.[1] At the event, the families told their stories of loss and of government corruption, incompetence, and crime.[2] The complete list of Caravana 43’s key goals and “talking points” are easily accessible from their website. A deeper presentation of events surrounding the missing students can be found by watching a quick VICE documentary.[3] In this post, I am not going to explain, in detail, the timeline of events that inspired Caravana 43 into existence. (A timeline can be found here). Instead, I want to focus on why Caravana is here, in the United States, and how support from both individuals and organizations in the U.S. has the potential to influence the success of the movement.

Students attend Caravana 43's event in Denver on April 12th. By Cassy Dorff.

Students attend Caravana 43’s event in Denver on April 12th. By Cassy Dorff.

Recently, at a workshop hosted by the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver, folks discussed how social movements and civil resistance campaigns are influenced by support from other non-state actors.[4] As it turns out, we know little about what kinds of support influence the success, duration, or evolution of civilian movements. This is partly because it is difficult to observe how a movement obtains and sustains support from different actors both nationally and transnationally. By traversing the United States, Caravana 43 is directly reaching out to establish awareness and supportive transnational connections. As such, researchers are in a unique position to observe and learn how transnational recognition and external support—both through material and immaterial means—alters the future of this movement.[5] To try to better understand how these connections are established and how support from people in the United States will aid the movement, I interviewed a local organizer in Colorado—Ismael Netzahuatl—who helped bring the Caravan to the area.

[Please note: The interview was conducted in Spanish, over email. All opinions of the interviewee are his own. My questions are written first, followed by Netzahuatl’s response in italics.]

There are several key goals of the movement. I would like to discuss concrete ways in which the group seeks external support from both people in the United States and the U.S. government. First, can you introduce yourself?

Hello my name is Ismael Netzahuatl, I am a member of Colorado sin Fronteras Unidos por Mexico and I am the creator of I joined Colorado sin Fronteras Unidos por Mexico to speak out against the Mexican consulate. We are all very tired of poor governance in Mexico, where a handful of families subject more than half of the population to poverty. This is what unites us and led us to organize. We held various fundraisers in order to raise money to achieve our main goal: bring la Caravana 43 to Colorado.

The Caravan lists pressuring the U.S. congress to change arms policy as a primary goal. For those in the U.S., can you elaborate on why the issue is key to the movement and how it came to be one of Caravana 43’s goals?

The American government economically aids Mexico in their fight against narco-traffickers through the Merida Initiative. The Mexican government uses this money to buy weapons to arm different political entities (municipal, state, and federal officials and—at worst—paramilitaries). Police and Mexican officials are so corrupt that they are often protecting drug-traffickers with these weapons. So when someone (such as a journalist, teacher, student, or common citizen) points out this unbridled corruption and then that same person is disappeared, murdered, or tortured, Caravana 43 denounces these injustices and aims to keep track. The Caravana wants to end this policy because this policy is responsible for the disappearance of their children!

There is a call for donations at the events and online. How successful has Caravan 43 been in gathering donations, and is there a goal amount Caravana 43 hopes to raise? Do the organizers feel that donations are critical to sustaining the movement? Besides individual donations, has the movement been able to secure donations/financial support from other organizations or movements?

We do not know what the fundraising goal of Caravana 43 is, but we do know that the organizers believe it is essential to encourage fundraising because the Caravan members are people who have left jobs at farms, small businesses, or their families in order to speak here in the United States. To help support this movement, various support organizations were created in each U.S. state hosting the Caravan. These organizations help provide and pay for accommodations, meals, transportation, and other logistical costs. Many organizations across the country have reached out to help the Caravan, though I do not have a list of these organizations.

At this point in the caravan’s tour has the group had any support or response from U.S. policy makers (at any level of government)?

Caravana 43 members have not received any political support (perhaps they do not know the best way to reach them or they decided not to approach them). The Caravana 43 members have only received community support.

How did this the tie between Colorado sin Fronteras Unidos por Mexico and Caravana 43 form?

We simply reached out to them and asked if we could bring them to the Colorado area!

What else would you like to share with our readers (which tend to include practitioners and researchers)?

I would ask the citizens of this country to be vigilant, to ask their government how their tax dollars are spent. Drug trafficking only ends when this country stops consuming. Furthermore, the “fight against drugs” has never seen positive results and instead has left a trail of pain, death, and suffering among the poorest people in Mexico, which are the majority! Politicians and policymakers have a duty to respond to the questions and demands of citizens!

[End interview].

A main take away from attending these events and from the interview with Ismael is just how important organizers feel international attention, and specifically recognition by Americans, is to the success of the movement. There is a clear logic here: the U.S. is powerful and directly influences the Mexican government. If people living in the U.S. can come to care deeply about the human rights abuses on going across Mexico, then they will pressure their government to pressure the Mexican government to be accountable for their failures. More attention from the United States also brings greater organizational attention and resources for addressing human rights abuses, monitoring elections, and establishing justice. At the very least, members of Caravana 43 want to be heard and to end the cyclical violence that has damaged Mexico over the last decade; as one father of a missing student said, “if we are quiet we will live the same thing again and again.”

[1] The Caravan is now touring Europe and Canada.

[2] There will soon be video footage of these testimonies here. Translation pending. Check back soon for English subtitles!

[3] While there are many films on the subject, the Caravan screened this film during their recent visit in Denver. I would also recommend listening to Radio Ambulante’s podcast about Ayotzinapa (or reading the English translation provided on the website).

[4] One of the workshop attendees, Maria J. Stephan, has co-authored a USIP report on the topic.

[5] Speaking of research on Mexico, I should mention that there are several bright-minded folks doing interesting and timely work on the Mexican conflict. Check out Sandra Ley Gutiérrez, Janice Gallagher, or Alice Driver to learn more.

Why Was There No “Battle for Baghdad”?

Guest post by Charles Butcher

Iraqi soldiers march in Baghdad. By DVIDSHUB.

Iraqi soldiers march in Baghdad. By DVIDSHUB.

In June 2014, the “Islamic State” captured a string of cites in northern Iraq and appeared to be threatening Baghdad. Although fighting did not reach Baghdad, other civil wars have transitioned into a ‘battle for the capital’, such as those in Afghanistan, Liberia, and Somalia. Understanding why this happens is important. Capital cities are often a county’s most populous and productive city, mediation efforts are less common and less effective when fighting approaches the capital, and this situation probably attracts foreign intervention.

I’ve recently published a study examining this question, using data on the proximity of fighting to capital cities in civil wars from 1975-2011. The study showed that ‘multipolar’ civil wars are fought nearest to the capital, while ‘bipolar’ conflicts are fought substantially further away and ‘unipolar’ conflicts are fought largely in the periphery. Multipolar wars exist where the government and two or more rebel groups are evenly matched (Afghanistan in the early 1990s is an example). Bipolar wars exist where the government and one rebel group are evenly matched (such as in Rwanda in 1994) and unipolar wars exist where the government is much stronger than the rebels (such as the numerous ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar). The study also showed that internally divided rebel groups are more likely to fight in capital cities.

Initially, these results might seem surprising. Don’t’ all governments ‘fight to the death’ and only the strongest (and presumably the most internally coherent) rebels reach the capital, regardless of how many actors there are? If we think about fighting in the capital as a bargaining failure, these patterns make more sense.

Wars start because actors disagree about who will win, according to bargaining theorists. Fighting reveals information about the likely winner of a military conflict. The more fighting, the more that actors learn about each other and the more their predictions about the outcome of the war should converge. As these predictions converge, fighting becomes less valuable and wars are more likely to end.

Civil wars are most commonly conceptualized as unfolding over time, but they also unfold over space. Most civil wars start in the periphery and there are strong incentives to capture/hold the capital. I argue in the article that fighting takes on information-rich conventional forms (i.e set piece battles) as opposed to information-poor guerrilla warfare as battles come closer to the capital. As such, more information should be revealed as fighting gets closer to the capital, and wars should end before a climactic ‘battle for the capital’ occurs.

They sometimes do not because the richness of information revealed by fighting is moderated by the number of conflict actors and the balance of power between them. Most fighting in civil wars is dyadic (i.e, between two actors). Actors learn from dyadic fighting about each other and the likely outcome of the war simultaneously in bipolar wars. Usually belligerents know enough about each other to avoid a battle for the capital in this scenario. Dyadic fighting reveals less information in multipolar wars because actors learn about each other, but not the intentions and capabilities of third and fourth rebel groups who are strong enough to turn the tide of the war. Thus, they learn a lot about each other, but less about the likely outcome of the war. The lingering uncertainty may cause governments and rebels to gamble on a ‘battle for the capital’.

Internally divided rebels fight in the capital because they face commitment problems. When rebels think that they are going to win, the faction that stands to gain the presidency sometimes cannot credibly commit to its allies that it will not exploit this increased power. This may cause successful rebel groups to split as they reach the capital (think Somalia in 1991). If the government knows of internal rebel divisions it may attempt to hold the capital, hoping that these commitment problems are activated (as was possibly the case in Bangui in 2013).

The study suggests that the ‘battle for Baghdad’ did not materialize because IS learned, on approach, that attacking the capital would be extremely costly, and they would probably lose. Uncertainty was low in this case. Other sources of uncertainty may also be important, especially the intentions of foreign states (the U.S and Iran were key players in June 2014). Practically, knowing the balance of power between conflict actors can provide leverage on how more ‘symmetric’ civil wars (which have become much more common since the end of the Cold War) may play out – at least as far as the possibility of fighting descending on capital cities is concerned.

Dr Butcher is a Lecturer at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and Coordinator of the Masters Program at the University of Otago. 

The United States: Laggard on Women’s Representation, Promoter of Women’s Representation

By Sarah Bush

Women attend a shura on voting and running for office in Helmand, Afghanistan. By Helmand PRT Lashkar Gah.

Women attend a shura on voting and running for office in Helmand, Afghanistan. By Helmand PRT Lashkar Gah.

In my very first post on Political Violence at a Glance, I discussed some of the ways that the United States and other international actors have pressured Afghanistan to ensure that women are adequately represented in its parliament. But what that post didn’t address was why the United States is in the business of trying to advance women’s political participation in the developing world in the first place.

I was reminded of that question recently when I was reading about the decision in Germany to institute a quota for the number of seats on corporate boards that must be reserved for women. It is difficult to imagine the United States adopting a similar policy. In fact, the United States is hardly a trailblazer today when it comes to women in leadership positions in political and civic life. For example, the United States is just the 72nd best country in the world in terms of the proportion of women in the lower or single house of parliament. Ironically, Afghanistan is 39th.

Despite the United States’ relatively mediocre standing cross-nationally in terms of women’s representation, promoting women’s political participation in the developing world has become a major component of its efforts to aid democracy in other countries. Whereas the U.S. government dedicated few resources to women’s representation as a component of democracy assistance when it began funding it in the 1980s, my analysis in a new book suggests that it is now a major component of the American democracy assistance portfolio. Given the United States’ mediocre scores when it comes to women’s political participation, why is it encouraging other countries to do better?

There are several factors at work, including changing norms and women’s activism. Beyond those dynamics, however, is a broader, and important, evolution in the way that the United States aids democracy in the developing world. In a nutshell, promoting democracy today is a technical endeavor in which donors often gravitate towards activities that avoid directly challenging political elites in the states that are the targets of aid. Attempting to enhance women’s representation is one example of such an activity; supporting local governance is another. Democracy assistance wasn’t always this way, I’ve argued – when it began in the 1980s, it was a more overtly political endeavor, with many programs supporting the activities of dissidents, political parties, and trade unions. The field’s evolution has to do with changes in the U.S. government, changes in the countries that are the targets of democracy promotion, and the professionalization of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that design and implement democracy assistance. As I explain elsewhere, “Although donor and target countries put important constraints on the work that these NGOs engage in, the NGOs – which I collectively refer to as ‘the democracy establishment’ – also make a significant impact on how democracy is promoted overseas.”

Support for women’s political participation helps organizations in the democracy establishment survive and thrive, even in non-democratic countries that put restrictions on more directly confrontational activities. The director of an NGO in Jordan – a country where the U.S. government has been strongly committed to advancing women’s participation – helped illustrate this dynamic in an interview with me. He told me that he did not hold Jordanian citizenship and so he was worried about the possibility of being kicked out of the country if he were to aggravate the government there. He said, “I know that I don’t want to talk about political rights here in Jordan because of my delicate personal situation, even though I’d like to. So all I can do is women’s issues, rather than more political issues.”

Is the rise of support for women’s political participation a good thing for democracy? According to some points of view, the answer is no: promoting women’s political participation can help autocracies mimic the appearance of liberal democracy for international audiences in order to secure aid and other international benefits that will help them survive. All the same, having more women in parliament could be good for gender equality and it may plant the seeds of democratization in such countries down the line – and in countries that are firmly autocratic, a more confrontational approach to democracy assistance might not be possible anyway. Perhaps eventually U.S. support for women’s political participation overseas will end up having a boomerang effect and translate to new action at home.

Is Boko Haram a Roving Bandit?

Guest post by Kyle Beardsley and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch

A stylized portrait of Boko Haram. By AK Rockefeller.

A stylized portrait of Boko Haram. By AK Rockefeller.

In recent months, Boko Haram has devastated a number of communities across a vast swath of Northern Nigeria, and even reaching into Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Although Boko Haram has some territorial control in the border regions near Lake Chad, its attacks do not occur in a consistent geographic area, but rather devastate communities with considerable distance between them. This mobile pattern contrasts with other, more geographically-fixed rebel groups, such as the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) fighting for the self-determination of the Ijaw people and control of the rich resources in the Niger Delta in Southern Nigeria.

We examine in two recent articles forthcoming in International Studies Quarterly (with Nigel Lo) and International Studies Review how the participants in armed conflict shape geo-spatial patterns and the implications for conflict management and peacekeeping. In considering these questions, it is helpful to draw an analogy between Boko Haram and Mancur Olson’s roving bandits. As a thought experiment, Olson considers roving and stationary bandits operating under anarchy. Roving bandits rely on brute force to move from place to place, extract rents, and move onto another location after they drain the available resources in one place. Stationary bandits, in contrast, extract resources by taxing local production and hence develop an encompassing interest in the welfare of the local economy. The stationary bandit will be wary of extracting all the currently available resources, as this will leave them with fewer resources to extract in the future. As such, stationary bandits extract resources not just through naked coercion, but also through some form of implicit social contract. They provide public goods—such as security—and, in return, receive rents from the local population. This provides an incentive for the stationary bandit to invest in the conquered area rather than completely exploit it. In this sense, stationary bandits set up hierarchical relationships that resemble a proto-state. Armed actors able to establish consistent hierarchy can come to rule with consent, or legitimate authority, rather than through more costly brute force against continued resistance. In the intrastate conflict context, rebel groups that stay localized—and, by implication, fight in more consistent locations—can better compete with the state as the side with legitimate authority and win local support.

If stationary bandits have an advantage of being able to establish authority and some degree of consent from the local community, then what does this suggest about Boko Haram as a mobile group? What has prevented Boko Haram from establishing stronger hierarchies within Northern Nigerian and surrounding communities, and driven the group to ravage communities and depend on power through coercion and fear?

In our recent study, we explore why the conflict zones in some intrastate armed conflicts tend to exhibit substantial year-by-year variation, while the conflict zones in others tend to concentrate in consistent areas. Moreover, in another study, we assess the ability for peacekeeping forces to contain the geographic spread of armed conflict. We posit that rebel groups frequently face the dilemma of whether they should stay mobile and vary the geographic location of their activities, or seek to operate in a consistent theater. Consistency provides an opportunity to consolidate authority among local communities and become stationary bandits, but mobility might be the only way to survive against government forces. Central governments face a dilemma of their own. Strategies that focus on containing groups effectively allow rebel groups to establish strong local roots. In contrast, uprooting rebels and giving chase is difficult and often counterproductive.

We argue that armed actors can choose over a menu of options in terms of specific attack targets and locations. Rebel groups that lack both sufficient strength and strong local ties must vary their battle locations to remain viable. We empirically explore the movement of conflict zones using the Georeferenced Event Dataset (GED), which has defined conflict zones as polygons that encompass the battles in each year. We then specifically measure mobility as the proportion of overlap in the zones from the previous year to the current year. For example, the figure shows the armed conflicts involving the SPLM/A, which is associated with low mobility, in 2002 and the LRA, which has very high mobility, in 2001.

Figure: GED polygons for the LRA in 2001 and the SPML/A in 2002. Current-year polygons are in blue, previous-year polygons are in yellow, and the areas of overlap are in green.

Figure: GED polygons for the LRA in 2001 and the SPML/A in 2002. Current-year polygons are
in blue, previous-year polygons are in yellow, and the areas of overlap are in green.

The results from our study corroborate the claim that rebel groups tend to keep operations localized if they can. But fighting over many locations becomes likely when they lack the ability to attain harbor from local communities or the resources to compete militarily with state forces.

Boko Haram fits this pattern well. Its aims do not focus on the establishment of some ethnic homeland. Indeed, its recent alliance with the Islamic State is indicative of goals related to the spread of an extremist ideology and the global recruitment of resources and recruits. And even if Boko Haram preferred to keep operations local, it does not have strong alliances with local community groups that would be willing to conceal the activities of Boko Haram and confer informational advantages against government counterinsurgency efforts. Although the Nigerian armed forces have appeared inept in the struggle against Boko Haram, its sizeable military should perform better against a group that stands and fights in consistent locations rather than spreading its forces so thin across space.

As a result of the severity of Boko Haram’s tactics and ability to terrorize and kill throughout so a large area, there have been recent movements for greater international involvement. Chad and Niger have begun cooperating with Nigeria to target Boko Haram’s activities along the porous borders, and the UN Security Council has recently issued a press statement condemning recent attacks by the rebel group. ECOWAS has also considered joint military action and has called for the African Union to refer the matter to the UN Security Council.

If the UN Security Council were to authorize a peacekeeping force for Nigeria, might this help contain Boko Haram, and reduce the geographic spread of its violence? Our article in International Studies Review explores the ability for peacekeeping operations to contain the mobility of conflict. We argue that peacekeeping missions tend to have defensive rather than offensive mandates. Indeed, the mandate that authorized the creation of an Intervention Brigade as part of the MONUSCO mission in the DRC (UNSCR 2098) explicitly calls for this type of brigade to be considered as exceptional and not a precedent for other missions. Defensive-oriented peacekeeping missions can contain the mobility of armed actors by using monitoring to decrease the informational advantages of mobile groups, impeding the actual movement of armed groups that are hesitant to violently move peacekeepers from their paths, and reducing the willingness of states to uproot insurgents from local communities while under observation. We find that, on average, armed conflict zones tend to exhibit geographic consistency when peacekeeping missions, especially large ones, are present.

So, does it follow that a robust peacekeeping operation in Nigeria would help contain Boko Haram? Not necessarily, for two reasons. First, in some additional analyses, we find that peacekeepers do not do as well in containing conflicts that involve groups, like Boko Haram, which are not fighting for an ethnic homeland. Peacekeeping missions do much better in containing conflict when the armed actors can use the cover of the peacekeeping missions to blend in with a cooperative local population. Second, although peacekeeping missions are associated with some, albeit limited, conflict containment for groups that are not fighting for an ethnic homeland, it is not clear that containment would be desirable for groups like Boko Haram. Some of the containment effect of peacekeeping might be working through restraining government efforts to root out and pursue armed groups. While it is easy to see this as fulfilling the objectives of peacekeeping missions in countries where the government is clearly the more culpable party in doling out the bloodshed, this case is more difficult to make with regard to Boko Haram. If Boko Haram were to be able to consolidate its activities locally, non-combatants in those areas may be even more deeply brutalized.

Peacekeepers are lousy counterinsurgents and more likely to provide cover to Boko Haram rather than enforce measures against their brutal tactics. But less obviously, international and domestic efforts to bolster the Nigerian government’s fighting capacity and to diminish that of Boko Haram—for example through cutting off the resources—could be successful in the long run but may unintentionally contribute to the mobility of the group in the short run. However, mobility reflects the weakening of the group and its need to flee rather than fight. The new Nigerian government must not only pursue the group by military means but also improve and consolidate its own hierarchy with the affected communities, so as to deny safe harbor and relief to Boko Haram.

Kyle Beardsley is an Associate Professor at Duke. Kristian Skrede Gleditsch is a Professor at University of Essex.

Support for War or Polls on Steroids? On Americans’ Enthusiasm for Military Operations Against Iran

Guest post by Aaron Hoffman

The Azadi Tower in Tehran, Iran. By Christiaan Triebert.

The Azadi Tower in Tehran, Iran. By Christiaan Triebert.

Are Americans ready to use force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? A day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Fox news released a poll showing 65% of respondents backed the use force in support of this goal. Paul Waldman, though, a senior writer for The American Prospect, rejected the idea that the public was souring on US diplomatic efforts. As he saw it, Fox “juiced” the results by asking people about their support for the use force if that was the only way to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Waldman is right that people who are out of options are more enthusiastic about the courses of action that remain open to them. The surprise is that removing the phrase that upset him might not make people less eager for war with Iran. The reason is that people take it for granted that military force is a tactic of last resort, used when diplomatic solutions to foreign policy problems are either unavailable or ineffective. Reminding people that diplomatic alternatives to war are unappealing has the same effect on people’s enthusiasm for war as telling them nothing at all about diplomacy.

In the article, “Norms, Diplomatic Alternatives, and the Social Psychology of War Support, which the folks at The Journal of Conflict Resolution and Sage Publishers kindly ungated (see here for the abstract and here for the full text), my research associates Christopher R. Agnew, Laura E. Vanderdrift, Robert Kulzick, and I used a series of experiments to demonstrate how unstated assumptions about force being a tactic of last resort influence war support. After reading a short foreign policy scenario, study participants were asked about their willingness to support a US military operation in light of what they read. We told people in the baseline conditions nothing about diplomatic alternatives, not even that they were available. Participants in the other conditions were told that the available diplomatic strategies were either likely or unlikely to resolve the issue in the scenario.

The results we got from these simples messages were striking. People who were told nothing about diplomatic alternatives supported the use of force at the same rate as those who were told the available diplomatic alternatives were likely to fail. This is surprising. People who are told nothing about diplomatic options should draw no conclusions about them — the use of force might be under consideration even when diplomacy works. Logically, the utility of force and the utility of diplomacy are independent of one another.

That people who were told nothing about diplomacy supported the use of force at levels similar to those who were told diplomatic alternatives were unlikely to work tells us they believe leaders only consider using force when diplomacy is ineffective. In contrast, people who were told that diplomacy would work were less likely to support the use of force than the other participants. This result is not surprising, but it confirms that the positive and negative information we presented our subjects about diplomacy influenced their thinking.

The lesson is that unstated assumptions about the availability of viable alternatives to the use of force inflate the public’s willingness to support war fighting. Policymakers and scholars that track public attitudes about the use of force should be aware that polling question that make no mention of diplomatic alternatives probably exaggerate the amount of support that exists for war at least until quality diplomatic alternatives are exhausted. The corollary for pollsters is this: there is no need to add language about diplomacy’s inability to solve foreign policy problems to increase support for military operations. Standard questions about the use of force juice support for war all by themselves.

Aaron Hoffman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University.

Where is the Muslim Gandhi?

By Cullen Hendrix for Denver Dialogues

Mahatma Gandhi.  By Luiz Fernando Reis.

Mahatma Gandhi. By Luiz Fernando Reis.

Recently, the Korbel School’s Center for Middle East Studies hosted a dialogue on what was billed as “one of the most vexing questions of our time”: where is the Muslim Gandhi? That is, where is the leader who will use nonviolent strategies to deliver Muslim populations from authoritarian rule? Especially in the Arabian Peninsula, majority-Muslim populations continue to be ruled by autocratic governments. The Arab Spring wave of protests across the MENA region renewed interest in the power of nonviolence in the region, but five years since its inception, radical change has proven elusive.

The typical reasons proffered for the absence of a Muslim Gandhi range from the purported militarized bent of Islam to the paucity of liberal-minded educational institutions and influence of Western political thought in the Muslim world. Even accepting these points – and, to be clear, I am not – there should be plenty of qualified candidates: sharp minds with impeccable humanitarian bona fides and a commitment to pursuing regime change or self-determination via nonviolent means. The “Muslim world” is 1.57 billion people strong: if it can be home to the world’s tallest man and host the world’s longest charitable telethon, it contains multitudes. Indeed, there’s already been a pretty decent contender for the title: committed pacifist and anti-British activist Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an ally of Gandhi’s whose role in history has been largely overshadowed by his more famous compatriot. The problem is not a lack of potential candidates.

The problem is that these candidates are drowning in oil. The Middle East is the world’s most oil-rich region. It is also the least democratic. This is not a coincidence. Natural resource wealth – particularly oil – helps autocratic regimes resist pressures to democratize.[1] As Michael Ross and others have pointed out, resource wealth endows governments with ample resources to employ against dissidents, violent and nonviolent alike, and insulate themselves from political change.

By providing social services, resource-rich regimes can address some of the basic needs of the population without involving them in the policymaking process. These public services range from broad consumer subsidies for food and fuel (many oil- exporting countries subsidize fuel to the tune of 70 percent or more) to education, health care, and one-time direct transfers. After Arab Spring protests broke out in Tunisia and Algeria in January 2011, the Kuwaiti government announced that all Kuwaiti citizens would receive grants of 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars (about $3,500 in current dollars) and free food staples for 13 months. These policies, though ostensibly enacted to commemorate Kuwait’s 50th anniversary of independence and the 20th anniversary of the expulsion of Iraqi forces, also addressed one of the key issues motivating Arab Spring protests in the region.

Despite investments in broad social services and systems of patronage, oil-rich regimes still may face domestic pressures for democracy. If carrots are not enough, sticks—harsh repression—can be employed. Major oil-exporting countries accounted for 4 of the top 10 military spenders in percentage of GDP terms, including the top three: Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates – and oil-rich states tend to lavish spending on their police forces as well.

The results of the Arab Spring were telling in this regard: Resource-poor countries, such as Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, experienced regime change (Egypt and Tunisia) or responded with virtually immediate pledges of economic and political reforms (Morocco). In contrast, resource-rich regimes proved much more difficult to oust from power. Only one resource-rich regime, Libya, fell as a result of the Arab Spring, and Libyan forces would likely have crushed the Benghazi-based opposition in the absence of NATO-led multilateral intervention.

Finally, oil-rich economies are not as easy to freeze out of markets for their goods and international capital, making them less susceptible to nonviolent movements. Gandhi – and later, Nelson Mandela – were successful in bringing their respective targets to their knees by using work stoppages and stay-aways (Gandhi) and international condemnation and product boycotts (Mandela) in order to cow the British and apartheid South African governments. South Africa’s regime crumbled not because of armed attacks, but because it couldn’t finance a nuclear program, domestic industrialization, and repression of its majority population, after having been frozen out of capital markets and witnessed its exports dry up.

In both instances, civil society used nonviolent but highly coercive economic levers to bring the regime to the negotiating table. In oil-rich economies, the people do not have similar sources of influence: labor unions and domestic product boycotts will not undermine the government’s sources of revenue, which are primarily external; as the Iranian case has demonstrated, oil is notoriously difficult to freeze out of international markets, and attempted boycotts actually tend to raise prices. When governments are beholden to their local economies and populations for revenue, they tend to act in their interests. When oil exports disrupt this fiscal contract, it removes one of the best sources of leverage a nonviolent popular movement can hope to have.

The Muslim world is large, diverse, and home to many who are ideologically committed to peace and nonviolence. Where is the Muslim Gandhi? Perhaps he or she is drowning in oil. It remains to be seen whether the recent slump in oil prices may open up the political space for him or her to breathe.

[1] Ross 2001, Smith 2004, Ulfelder 2007, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith 2010, Al-Ubaydli 2012, Hendrix and Nolan 2014.


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