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Bread, Circuses, and Other Political Lessons We Should (Not) Have Learned From the Romans

Guest post by Joseph Weinberg

Demonstrators throw stones at the police during a protest over rising food prices in Algeria in 2011. By Magharebia.

Demonstrators throw stones at a policeman during a protest over rising food prices in Algeria in 2011. By Magharebia.

In a recently published article, Ryan Baker and I made an argument about the role of food prices in determining the likelihood of political violence. Like others, we were inspired by the food riots that accompanied the global food crisis of 2007-8 and the reverberations through the Arab Spring of 2011. However, we hoped to extend the argument beyond these periods of international crisis to the daily politics of food and security. We maintain that since food prices are highly visible and easily interpreted signs of economic well-being, they are more likely to provoke public outcry than when changes occur elsewhere in the economy. To the extent that governments can insulate their citizens from the dramatic fluctuations in price, they are less prone to the type of violence that was seen during the recent food crisis.

Nearly 40 countries have experienced some form of a “food riot” in the past decade, and the prediction for future riots are dire to say the least. Environmental degradation, population growth, and the associated food shortages will lead to no less than the end of the world as we know it as soon as 2040 according to a recent study by the Global Sustainability Institute.

In this scenario, it seems there is little that can be done to stave off total social collapse. In the same vein, one could argue that the international price spikes that generated riots in 2008 and 2011 were equally unavoidable.

To some extent, a government overthrown by a violent and hungry mob is just as much a victim as their citizens. The international market distortions caused by developed world agricultural and petroleum policies are partially to blame for international food insecurity. However, in many ways, these governments have helped to hasten their own demise by explicitly intervening in food markets.

In order to protect citizens from the volatility of food prices, most countries have instituted some type of safety net to dampen the effect of any future price spikes. Many of these policies are responsible and forward thinking, but many of them are just another way politicians make promises they can’t possibly keep.

It is a bold (or delusional) politician who promises that he or she can control international commodity prices. However, the extent to which such promises may come back to haunt the government depends on the audacity of the claim.

The more a government promises its citizens, the greater the chance it will eventually have to break that promise. If a government claims to its citizens that it will guarantee food as a civil right (as written in Kenya’s constitution) or guarantee food at a certain price (as with Egypt’s bread voucher system—one of many in the region) than it has bound itself inexorably to such a provision. If prices remain low, it is because of the government and they will reap the rewards. But if prices go up, it must also be because of the government, and they must suffer the consequences.

Grain subsidies provided by the Indian government have long kept prices down for many key staple foods, and but have proved wasteful and deleterious to the well-being of the nation’s agriculture industry. Egypt has depleted its foreign reserves to provide virtually free bread (less than one US cent per loaf) through a system of subsidized bakeries. Hugo Chavez’s promise of “just pricing” of foodstuffs led to a series of economic disasters that would have been almost humorous had the outcomes not been so detrimental to the country and its people.

Venezuela is only now finding out what Egypt and India have recently learned, which is that as bad as these policies have been, they are even more difficult to reform. Recent unrest in India, Egypt and Venezuela is less obviously tied to food prices than the violence of 2008 or 2011, but still demonstrates the political implications of a government’s inability to provide for its citizens.

The next international economic crisis may generate another wave of food riots, but in the meantime, we can expect them anywhere that governments have overextended themselves to keep unrealistic promises. The costs of cheap food are paid through distorted agriculture markets (India), debt burdens (Egypt), or inflation (Venezuela). Eventually, these programs must be eliminated and even (comparatively) affordable food can appear outrageously priced when this happens.

Juvenal was lamenting the state of Roman politics when he suggested that political leaders could silence dissent and placate the citizenry by keeping them fed and entertained. Nevertheless, many leaders seem to have misinterpreted this lamentation as advice. Any short term political gains afforded by such provisions are difficult to maintain and even more difficult to remove. The economic burdens that accompany the promise of a “free lunch” may ultimately be their undoing.

Joseph Weinberg is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, International Development & International Affairs at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Nonviolence Means Less Abuse

By Oliver Kaplan for Denver Dialogues

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Defense.gov_News_Photo_040903-M-1947M-030.jpg

U.S. Marines inventory weapons stockpiled by the Muqtada Militia in An Najaf, Iraq, on September 3, 2004. By the U.S. Department of Defense.

Did you hear about the scandal involving nonviolent accompaniers who sexually abused refugee children in a camp in the Central African Republic? I didn’t either. It’s probably because it didn’t happen—because that kind of thing almost never happens at the hands of nonviolent activists. Unfortunately, it does happen when violent force is introduced into conflict settings. When weapons and armed actors are involved, there is a greater susceptibility to harmful abuse compared with nonviolent action during armed conflict. What’s more, the blowback from arming and armed actions gone wrong also tends to be far worse than from nonviolent action. Here are some reasons why:

  • Armed actors of various stripes are more prone to abusing each other and civilians. The unfortunate combination of coercive force, poor accountability, and poor incentive structures create moral hazards and can lead to prisoner abuse scandals (think Abu Ghraib), rape within the ranks of militaries, and targeting of civilians (e.g., the body count-driven false positives scandal in Colombia). Armed actors are also prone to attracting “opportunists” to their ranks as armed coercion can be employed for profiteering. Opportunists are less ideologically-committed, show less restraint, and are more prone to pillage and plunder. Not limited to rebels and paramilitaries, these kinds of individuals are also found among peacekeepers and militaries as well. Among nonviolent movements, there are generally deeper ideological commitments (to nonviolence) and limited means for using coercion to generate revenue.
  • When accidents occur they are far worse when military force and lethal arms are involved. In a tragic episode in 2012, a US Army Sergeant snapped and went on a rampage through an Afghan village and gunned down 16 civilians. “Friendly fire” is another tragic example: as recent as last week, US helicopters accidentally fired on Afghan troops. In 2011, US airstrikes across the Afghanistan border killed Pakistani troops, causing a major international incident and diplomatic crisis. If nonviolent activists short-circuit or make mistakes they have far less potential to cause harm or create international incidents. “Friendly fire” simply doesn’t exist in nonviolent movements.
  • Arms and force create the potential for blowback. First, violence can damage public support and diplomatic relationships. Killings of Iraqi civilians by Blackwater private security contractors in 2007 clearly lost the population’s hearts and minds. Intentional force can also work at cross-purposes, as retired general Michael Flynn recently pointed to the counterproductive effects of drones, as harm begets grievances and worsens cycles of violence. Second, the potential for arms leakage also feeds the war-cycle. In recent news, peacekeepers’ arms have leaked to rebel groups in Sudan and ISIS is now using American tanks and arms captured from Iraqi troops (the US-armed Mujahedeen in Afghanistan also morphed into the Taliban). A related problem is the leakage of funds to armed actors as militaries pay-off local strongmen to traverse dangerous roads and attempt aid projects in war zones (as NATO has been accused of doing in Afghanistan, while development NGOs tend to have lighter footprints). Arming may sound like a good solution, but even with trained and disciplined units, there is limited control over what happens to arms after they are delivered, and mishaps and harm can have wide political reverberations. By contrast, when nonviolent activists misplace their notebooks, smartphones, and bullhorns, the consequences may not even be noticeable.[1]

This isn’t to say that members of local or international nonviolent organizations are perfect. Among some of the nonviolent actors I have interacted with I have seen some of the same foibles found among members of militaries and armed groups: alcoholism, womanizing, corruption, contests for power and control, etc. So, don’t think that politics and errant behavior doesn’t exist within nonviolent movements—nonviolence should not be whitewashed. Although reporting on abuse of power among classic nonviolent movements is sparse (with the sexual violence during the Tahrir square protests in Egypt a notable exception), there are examples from the slightly different contexts of development NGOs (and here) and religious institutions, such as churches and mosques. However, with nonviolent movements’ decentralization of power, more conciliatory norms of behavior, and more limited (if any) means of coercion, these are likely more often personal failings than institutional failings and their effects are far narrower and less harmful as a result. So, while nonviolent contestation may not be immune to all types of abuse, it is more likely to arrest war-cycles than feed into them.

This discussion raises some difficult questions about when armed force is necessary and constructive. Certainly there are instances where police, military, and even irregular militias are indispensible for providing security. However, the possibilities for abuse and blowback highlight that promoting nonviolent action and actors is an important part of a more cautious approach to confront armed conflict, with a growing number of successful examples. It also raises questions about the militarized approach of providing arms to proxies in conflict zones—even supposed “moderates” like the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi military, or the Free Syrian Army—since it is difficult to foresee how those actors will evolve or what will happen with their arms. We therefore need a better understanding of when nonviolent action to promote peace will be a sufficient and superior alternative. Similarly, we must also consider when the introduction of disciplined military force is not only feasible but also a constructive last resort.

[1] A noteworthy recent exception might be instances where nonviolent protests have resulted in unanticipated mass repression or military confrontation, such as the cases of the Euro-Maidan protestors in Ukraine or the early nonviolent protestors in Syria.

Joe Public v. Sue Scholar: Support for the Use of Force

Guest post by Michael C. Horowitz and Idean Salehyan

Protesters hold signs at an anti-war rally in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2008. By

Protesters hold signs at an anti-war rally in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2008. By Jeremy Franklin.

In a democracy, public opinion matters. This is especially true for important, complex issues such as the decision to use military force overseas, a decision that puts lives at risk. Yet most members of the general public do not pay close attention to crises in far-off places, unless they hit the front page of the news. In contrast, foreign policy experts and scholars of International Relations (IR) supposedly think about such matters on an almost daily basis. To better understand similarities and differences between public opinion and those of international relations scholars, the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) program at the College of William and Mary has been polling such experts on pressing, timely issues including the Iran nuclear deal, the rise of Islamic State militants, and the Ukrainian civil war, among other topics. The results strongly suggest that international relations scholars are far less supportive of using force to solve US foreign policy challenges than is the general public. While some of this variation is undoubtedly due to the more liberal character of IR scholars, knowledge derived from IR theories may also help explain the gap. However, it is important to distinguish between largely abstract IR theories, and wisdom regarding US foreign policy choices, which tend to be specific and contextual.

The folks at William and Mary teamed up with researchers at the University of Wisconsin to ask an identical set of questions to scholars and the general public on the following issues: using military force if Iran was close to producing a nuclear weapon; to help the Ukrainian and Estonian governments resist Russian aggression; to combat Islamic State fighters; to protect Taiwan from a Chinese invasion; to enforce an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal; and to end genocide in Sudan and Myanmar. The data show that there is a strikingly large gap between US public opinion and scholarly opinion on whether the United States should use military force to respond to a host of crises abroad. On seven out of eight questions, scholars were far more ‘dovish’ than the public. In short, scholars are less likely than the public to see the use of force as a necessary or useful foreign policy tool. The single exception was that scholars are more likely than the public support defending Estonia—a NATO ally—from a Russian attack.

So what explains the difference between scholarly opinion and public opinion and why does it matter? One possibility is political ideology. It is well known that academia, on average, contains far more liberals than conservatives. Less than 15% of the scholars in our sample self-identified as “conservative” or “very conservative” on social and economic issues. This does not appear to explain all of the gap between the public and scholars, however. Even when we directly compare conservatives in the public with conservative IR scholars (though it is a small community), academics are far less likely to support the use of military force abroad (the only exception being the decision to aid a US treaty ally, Estonia, in the event of an invasion). In addition, liberals are more likely to approve of the use of force to defend human rights and prevent genocide in Sudan and Myanmar. Yet, on these humanitarian intervention questions, liberals in the public are far more supportive of military engagement than liberals in academia. Therefore, the gap between scholars and the public cannot simply be boiled down to their political leanings.

Another possibility is that international relations scholars are following what they believe are the foreign policy implications of predominant international relations theories, including realism and liberalism. That is, they are using their established models of the world to inform their views about current events. Realists tend to believe that countries will and should use military force to protect vital national security interests and are less likely to believe in the utility of international organizations and institutions. IR Liberals, on the other hand, view multilateral institutions such as the United Nations more favorably and advocate cooperative solutions to foreign policy crises. For realists, questions such as genocide in Burma or the rise of the Islamic State may not suggest critical US national security interests are at stake. They might argue that responding with force to ‘minor’ conflicts around the world detracts from more significant, major power confrontations, and that the US should not deplete it’s military resources in such missions. IR Liberals, on the other hand, may be less sanguine about the use of US military force without the explicit backing of the United Nations or a multinational coalition, although the poll did not track such opinions.

Examining more closely the only case where IR scholars favored the use of military force more than the general public– supporting Estonia in the event of a Russian military invasion–provides some additional context. In the Estonia case, while only 43% of the public supported military action, 53% of scholars did so. When asked a similar question about defending Ukraine from a Russian invasion, 43% of the public supports the use of force—the same as Estonia—but only 26% of scholars feel the same way. What kinds of scholars switched opinions between these cases? Self-described realists in IR were the biggest switchers, with only 24% supporting the use of force in Ukraine while 65% would support it in Estonia. But liberals also switched views, with 32% and 56% supporting force in Ukraine and Estonia, respectively. Across political ideologies, liberals and conservatives both exhibited quite large, double-digit, increases in support for Estonia over Ukraine. This suggests to us that scholars see preserving alliances and multilateral institutions such as NATO and the European Union to be an important foreign policy objective, and one that is consistent with major research programs.

We also found that about 15% of the general public supported US military force no matter what the question. Not a single IR scholar did so. One possibility is that there is a segment of the general public that has faith that the United States only uses armed force when it is justified and that the US Armed Forces are capable of solving nearly any challenge, so their support is a proxy for trust in the United States military rather than in-depth knowledge of these cases. Given that many of these questions are about countries that hardly make the news, and for which general knowledge may be low, this seems a plausible, though unproven explanation. IR scholars might be tempted to conclude that with greater knowledge of world events, they have more accurate and nuanced views about the appropriateness of force.

Before scholars start feeling too self-congratulatory, however, it is also worth thinking about some of the differences between the academic study of international relations and the real-world conduct of foreign policy. Much international relations scholarship focuses on broad, sweeping explanations for national behavior, such as material power, economics, and domestic political institutions. These abstract theories help to shed light on general trends in history, but scholars have been notoriously bad at predicting important world events such as the fall of communism or the Arab Spring. Indeed, in a previous TRIP poll, hardly anyone predicted Russian military action in Ukraine. Yet, policymakers considering what the United States should do in the context of, say, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, have to weigh the costs and benefits of various policy responses with what little information is available to them at the time. In other words, academic models of the world present general patterns and tendencies across a large number of cases. While they can provide critical baseline information about what to expect, on average, they are sometimes ill equipped to answer questions about the here and now. Therefore, while historical examples and statistical models provide critical knowledge to understand general tendencies, scholars may not have the “right” answer to a particular crisis.

In our view, both public opinion and scholarly opinion matter and should factor into the debate about the use of force abroad. In a democracy such as ours, leaders must pay attention to the values, attitudes, and preferences of their constituents. However, while scholars often get a bad rap when it comes to their ability to contribute to policy debates, they spend a good deal of time teaching and researching about international politics, meaning they also have the ability to generate important insights to share about the conduct of foreign policy. Therefore, both sets of views can contribute to meaningful discussions about world events.

Michael C. Horowitz, @mchorowitz (Twitter), is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Idean Salehyan, @IdeanSalehyan (Twitter), is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Weekly Links

By Sarah Bakhtiari

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/4546092598/in/album-72157626120220831/

Your Victory Garden Counts More than Ever! 1941-1945. Via the U.S. National Archives.

Nigeria’s security forces contend not only with the Boko Haram insurgency, but also with rural violence between Fulani herdsmen and farming communities.

How does the United Nations rate on its progress toward developing a peacebuilding capacity? The 2015 Review of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture suggests that, among other things, the UN must better align peacebuilding efforts to all phases of the conflict cycle, not just post-conflict environments.

Property taxes? The subject usually elicits a yawn, snooze, or snore. Yet property taxes offer a major opportunity for revenue generation in developing states as a major urban reform effort—one that needs to be capitalized upon more extensively and systematically.

In a recent PRIO policy paper, Nils Petter Gleditsch and Ida Rudolfsen indicate that the share of conflicts in Muslim countries has increased markedly since the end of the Cold War, and that the majority of civil war battle-related deaths occur in Muslim countries.

Do material improvements make people happier?  Using multi-country randomized control experiments, economists demonstrate that substantially improved housing does indeed make impoverished populations more satisfied with their quality of life, although these effects tend to dissipate over time.

Does a distinct national identity have a role to play in combatting extremism?  The United States and Britain appear to employ this approach in their counter-extremism strategies—but states with less coherent identities might be challenged to use this approach.

This month, the Spanish government implemented a new law nicknamed the Gag Law, which aims to curb unscheduled protest activities with steep financial penalties in the name of security.  Does the new law—along with additional initiatives aiming to restrict media—violate European Union human rights standards, and should the EU play a role in sanctioning actions like these?

The June drought in North Korea, although billed by the regime as the worst in a century, is unlikely to have a humanitarian impact similar to the 1990s crisis (when allegedly close to one million people perished). Why? North Koreans no longer depend on the government to the degree that they did several decades ago, thanks to informal markets.

Wendy Wong writes that the loss of a revolutionary tone in human rights politics doesn’t reflect softer demands, but rather the broad acceptance of human rights norms.  Meanwhile, John Knox tells us why environmental protection is an essential condition for human rights.

Is there a policy-relevant “movement” afoot within academia?  James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson make the claim, offering three reasons why we should be optimistic about academic efforts to bridge the gap with policy.

ISIS, Ideology, and the Illicit Drug Economy

Guest post by Eric W. Schoon

Afghans in Farah Province destroy a poppy field. Poppies are used in the production of opium. By ResoluteSupportMedia.

Afghans in Farah Province destroy a poppy field. Poppies are used in the production of opium. By ResoluteSupportMedia.

Reports have emerged alleging that the Islamic State is funding their efforts through the taxation and sale of illicit narcotics. A Newsweek report from October 2014 cites Spanish Intelligence sources saying that Islamic State affiliates in Europe are utilizing drug trafficking networks to transport combatants, arms, and illicit narcotics to support their operations. The Russian Federal Drug Control Service has also reported that the Islamic State is drawing significant revenue from the taxation of drugs transported from Afghanistan across the territory it controls. However, as Graeme Wood writes in the Atlantic, selling drugs and alcohol can be considered apostasy according to the ultra-conservative Salafi doctrines adhered to by the Islamic State. The punishment for apostasy is death. While in some cases the observed links between the Islamic State and the illicit drug economy are less direct (e.g., the sale of illicit narcotics by other groups that have pledged support to the Islamic State), evidence of involvement in the illicit drug economy complicates our understanding of the Islamic State and how they are funding their operations.

While the full extent of the Islamic State’s involvement with drugs is unclear, understanding how terrorist organizations fund their operations is a key element in developing an effective response to the threat they pose. Recent research examining when and why violent groups become involved in the illicit drug economy offers insights into the apparent contradictions between ideology and practice exhibited by the Islamic State. One possible explanation centers on how local economies affect the legitimacy of occupying groups. In her 2010 book, Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs, Vanda Felbab-Brown presents a case study of the Taliban in Afghanistan. She details the Taliban’s shift away from efforts to eradicate poppy cultivation from the areas they controlled to the de facto legalization of opium cultivation and production. According to Felbab-Brown, when they initially gained control of large portions of territory, the Taliban eradicated vineyards to prevent the production of wine, cracked down on hashish users, and implemented harsh punishments for those who violated these prohibitions. The production of poppies for opium, however, proved so critical to the local economy—providing much greater revenue for farmers than legal crops, supporting ancillary economies such as rest stops and fueling stations for opium transporters, and motivating infrastructure improvements—that the Taliban made an exception in their strict prohibitions against drugs and alcohol. As Felbab-Brown writes, “In the limited interviews conducted in Afghanistan during the 1990s, farmers emphasized the Taliban’s sponsorship of the illicit economy as a crucial source of the group’s legitimacy” (p. 128). By providing security for poppy growers and facilitating the development of the drug economy, the Taliban gained greater support as a result of the improved living standards for the population they controlled.

While the Islamic State and the Taliban are different in many ways, both employ strategies that require territorial control. The Islamic State has made efforts to provide social services, yet social services cannot replace local economies and it is not unreasonable to think that new economies cannot be built in a matter of months. In particular, as the Islamic State has gained control of long-established routes for transporting opium from Afghanistan, preventing the transportation of these drugs would likely have damaging effects on local businesses that rely on this trade. In this case, taxing smugglers rather than prosecuting them or prohibiting their activities would afford the group tremendous resources while potentially bolstering their legitimacy among local populations.

The diffuse nature of the Islamic State’s support networks may also help us make sense of their alleged connections to the drug trade. In research that was recently published, my colleagues and I examine the conditions associated with drug trafficking across 395 terrorist organizations. Controlling for a range of organizational, ideological, and environmental factors, our analyses show that network connectivity to other terrorist groups is the most significant predictor of terrorist groups’ involvement in the illicit drug economy. We argue that this is likely due to the diffusion of knowledge across networks and/or the presence of preexisting connections that can be used to reduce the material and nonmaterial costs associated with launching a new form of operations. Extending this line of argument, as more actors and groups pledge their support to the Islamic State, involvement in the illicit drug economy may effectively be incorporated into the broader organization.

In both of these potential explanations for the Islamic State’s involvement in the illicit narcotics economy, the assumption is that the Islamic State has not directly sought involvement in the drug trade. Instead, their involvement is framed as a byproduct of their rapid territorial and organizational expansion. Moreover, both scenarios suggest that narcotics are not a central source of revenue for the group. However, it is important that we not discount the possibility that, along with oil and other resources, the sale and taxation of narcotics is an easily leveraged revenue source that the Islamic State has willingly pursued to support their military and state building efforts. As Graeme Wood discusses, the fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) advanced by the Islamic State does allow for certain prohibitions to be lifted during times of war in an effort to expedite the conflict and reduce suffering. Yet, it is important to consider multiple angles in assessing the role this resource plays in their operations. This is particularly true given that each scenario would require distinct intervention strategies (for more on the dynamics of intervention, see Felbab-Brown and Breiger and colleagues).

Eric W. Schoon is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Arizona.

Strong Medicine or Weak Placebo?: The Debate over Putin’s Foreign Policies

Guest post by Brandon Valeriano and Ryan C. Maness

Vladimir Putin climbs a rock wall during a visit to the Tver region of Russia. By Playing Futures.

Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin climbs a rock wall during a visit to the Tver region of Russia in 2011. By Playing Futures.

Paper Tiger Putin Folds

Back in March 2015, Ryan Maness and I wrote “Russia – perhaps more restrained than you may think?” in the Monkey Cage/Washington Post. That piece received a good bit of attention and generated debate over how to understand Russia’s current foreign policy strategy.

The piece was based on our book, Russia’s Coercive Diplomacy, which focuses on the salience of issues as the driver of Russian foreign policy, a factor often missed in the discourse. Our contention was that Putin is a paper tiger: Russia, contrary to popular belief, was restrained but that its strategic mistakes had put Russia in a weaker position and that Putin’s strength was overblown.

We have argued that Russia was able to roar in localized regional conflicts but limited internationally. These insights still hold. They have generated quite a bit of debate, and here we review that debate.

The Debate

Leonid Bershidsky has an interesting summary of the entire debate, noting that Aleksashenko’s response to ‘Paper Tiger Putin’ essentially suggests that if the West thinks Putin is weak, they should prove it on the battlefield. Baev supports our points by noting that Russia and Putin really is weak economically and thus constrained, yet he also wants an international response to Putin’s moves. Our response to all of this just basically reiterates that we are making these points based on an evaluation of foreign policy outcomes and evidence, not opinion. The point that Russia is weak internationally stands, pushing for more aggression in order to prove a point and knock Russia back down is the wrong strategy given an objective view of the total picture.

Bershidsky’s point is that Putin wins if we give him so much attention. Vox recently published “Putin is Weak” by Amanda Taub arguing that his fear of internal opposition has led to his external adventures because he is terrified of losing power. Things are just not right in Russia, with civilians unable to afford basic pain medication due to the falling price of the ruble internationally as well as Russia being unable to sustain its own military buildup, bailing on the latest fighter jet. Fears that Greece might turn to Russia for help with its problems are dubious at this point.

Recovery for the Paper Tiger?

Mariya Snegovaya makes the point that Russia will not recover until the price of oil recovers. A very apt observation, but the problem is that while it seems likely that the price will recover to some basic level, it is by no means assured. Oil prices are unlikely to reach the heights they reached recently. The deal with Iran and the West on its nuclear production will dampen fears of war in the Middle East. The Islamic State has stagnated in Iraq and settled into a constant back and forth of taking and giving up territory because a strong territorial state is not really a part of their ambitions. Syria has also settled into a quagmire, as has Ukraine, Iran now can sell oil again and will flood the market a bit to recover cash reserves. There is little evidence to suggest that the price of oil will go up, and the ruble with it.

Ukraine is essential to Russia’s energy earnings, with many gas pipelines traversing through the troubled country, and this is a big reason why Putin is willing to fight for its allegiance (in addition to the historical ties). Yet how sustainable is this conflict for him as the very EU customers that he is trying to keep are hammering him with economic sanctions and looking elsewhere for their energy supplies? Furthermore, things might get worse between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This would be bad for Putin as the U.S. would openly back the Azerbaijanis as it would want to protect sizable energy investments, while Russia would want to tip the balance in favor of its fellow Orthodox Armenians.

What Now?

The strategic picture is bleak. While Putin will likely hold on to power, maybe even for two full presidential (6 year) terms, his domestic support is conditional on his strength externally. These external adventures are weak and hollow. Lucky for him, so are the West’s resistance to confronting him and reliance on sanctions that likely won’t change his behavior. Establishing a buffer zone between Ukraine and Russia, or going deeper situating Ukraine as a buffer between the West and Russia is a non-starter and dubious from a social science perspective.

All this makes Vox’s recent piece on the possible World War III with Russia laughable (a topic we dealt with academically back in 2012 with a “Risk Barometer for War”). A cornered tiger might lash out, but at this point Putin is a maimed and tamed tiger with few capabilities and little incentive to escalate his conflicts. Adding that the potential for increased uncertainty through asymmetric warfare with cyber conflict or information wars just perpetuates the myth that these tactics are ultimately effective, a point we call into question with our research on Russia and in cyber conflict. Russia cannot sustain further conflict until the price of oil recovers and the ruble rebounds. Given the problems of China’s own economy, it seems unlikely that any of the BRICs will roar anytime soon but a recent economic foundation developed between China and Russia will help stabilize both economies.

Wrapping It Up

Everyone who participates in these sorts of debates or writes public articles do so from a perspective and with a goal in mind. Our goal was to promote our social science based research but from a larger perspective and to call into question the dynamics of escalation that are typically advocated in international politics.

Take all these pieces with a grain of salt. As much as we strive for policy relevance in our work as scholars, there is little control we have once our work reaches the public sphere. I wish I could say that the debate has enriched us all and led to the proliferation of viable research, but it likely has not. Reactions to all these pieces very much depend on who you are, what your beliefs are, and where you are situated. As academics we would like to encourage more research that engages facts and has a consideration for research methods and empirical accuracy, but this is not really a bar that public outlets seek to reach.

With that I will leave you with a song by the band Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin because someone must still love Boris Yeltsin and miss him. At least when he failed strategically, everyone knew it and did not freak out.

Brandon Valeriano is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow in Politics and Global Security. Ryan C. Maness is a Visiting Fellow of Security and Resilience Studies at Northeastern University’s Department of Political Science.

Militias in Syria & Iraq: A Blessing in Disguise?

By Barbara F. Walter

A rebel sits in the back of a pickup truck in northern Syria. By Freedom House.

A rebel sits in the back of a pickup truck in northern Syria. By Freedom House.

Pro-government militias are proliferating in the civil wars in Syria and Iraq and this means that the wars are likely to be longer, bloodier and messier (see here, here and here). Today, the number of Shia militias in Iraq continues to grow, while hundreds of pro-Assad militias already exist in Syria. This explosion of armed factions has made even optimists in Washington DC gloomy about the Obama administration’s desire for a negotiated solution to these wars. The more factionalized a civil war, the less likely it is to end in a negotiated settlement.

But there may be some good news. In a rigorous study of 53 multi-party civil wars (including a detailed case study of Afghanistan) Fotini Christia at MIT found that competing rebels don’t want to fight to the death. In fact, armed factions generally want to side and settle with the likely winner of any war, but they only want to do this if they can have a credible guarantee that the winner will not strip them of power once they gain victory. Negotiated settlements in highly factionalized civil wars, therefore, are possible.

Here’s the tricky part. Successful negotiated settlements to civil wars have almost always required detailed political and security guarantees to convince warring parties to stop fighting. In the past, security guarantees have generally come from third party peacekeepers such as NATO (e.g., Bosnia) or the UN (e.g., Mozambique). The key was to reassure fighting factions that they wouldn’t be exploited by a peace agreement and that their rivals would honor promises to share power over time. The problem is that no third party – including the U.S. – is currently willing to commit the soldiers necessary to guarantee a peace agreement in the Middle East. The political will is simply not there.

This is where militias come in. Multiple militias that break down along sectarian and geographic lines could supply the security guarantees for their constituents without the need of a third party. Having your own militia (or the ability to quickly re-constitute one) could reassure competing groups in Syria and Iraq that they would be protected should any political agreement break down or be ignored. Semi-autonomous militias have the added benefit of checking the concentration of power and giving competing groups the ability to keep each other in line. The result is that everyone behaves better and no one is able to exploit the other.

This does not mean that a political settlement should include all the many militias and armed factions that currently exist. Or that allowing the larger factions to retain some of their arms and soldiers in some capacity is not without risks. It just means that allowing the larger factions to retain a degree of autonomy over their own security once a settlement is signed, could be the key to its successful implementation.

So, while multiple militias complicate the negotiating process in the short-term, they could also make long-term enforcement easier, and therefore more likely. The more self-enforcing a political settlement is by the factions themselves, the more attractive it will be to them, and the more likely it is to hold.

Does Democracy Constrain Rulers or Pacify Dissidents?

By Cullen Hendrix for Denver Dialogues

https://www.flickr.com/photos/smileham/6674613161/in/photolist-baP8Xg-4ETELz-ANAEf-6vbtj8-qzFrHz-dr2tf5-77jNyu-9VT6VQ-6vHHN-fKRMCW-5CeF99-eVk7ks-8SxTyh-aCsCfD-cahHKJ-aE29uh-9kDqxw-9nwm9P-4pHQjr-8fJpF2-7Z89Ha-iJLRvn-cagg8q-c593zC-9yjbpr-qD9BEp-dDNWKm-kfYnhL-4n6dJK-8QucwV-5CLynT-bvgpAy-eacLPD-oak3SD-2iuwwS-4H3YkC-6iNkHJ-5DFXsK-4jBS7Q-4r8LJv-hwSqa-9GX7eG-4PMWVQ-4ZGAtV-3zzF8y-b1ZBJP-6TYT6V-awfL2U-aMeSLR-atJr61

Writings on the wall in Brighton, England. By Steven Mileham.

After two decades of slow but consistent progress toward more democratic governance, Africa is in the midst of an authoritarian retrenchment, with democratic backsliding in some of its most stable democracies (South Africa) and more repressive regimes (Eritrea, the Gambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo). President Obama’s planned visit to Ethiopia—home to one of the region’s most repressive regimes—will push the relationship between democracy and human rights in Africa further into the spotlight.

The trend is worrisome for many reasons, not the least of which is the expectation that as civil liberties and democratic institutions erode, the human rights situation will erode along with it. The conventional wisdom is democracies perform better in respecting the human rights—particularly the rights of free association and freedom from abuse, torture, and extra-judicial killing—than non-democracies. However, research by Christian Davenport and David Armstrong, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, George Downs, Alastair Smith and Feyral Cherif, suggests that democracy does tame state coercive behavior, but only at a relatively high threshold. A lot of “democraticness”, to use Davenport’s term, is needed. Comparatively small democratic openings in otherwise authoritarian states, such as the 2011 constitutional referendum and subsequent parliamentary elections in Morocco, do not lessen repression. Indeed, such partial liberalizations may result in more contentious politics and greater use of force by the government.

But does democracy truly pacify, and if so, how? The association between democracy and less repression might be due to three different mechanisms:

  1. Increasing the political costs of using force. If repressive actions are deemed inappropriate, leaders can be removed from office via the ballot box. Of course, systematic human rights violations have been central to the electoral platforms of many elected leaders: Álvaro Uribe, the former president of Colombia, was elected (and re-elected) largely on the strength of a hardline, anti-guerrilla platform that resulted in some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America in the past two decades.
  2. Norms of acceptable behavior. In democracies, society generally accepts the values of docility, tolerance of others, open discussion and peaceful assembly. The acceptance of these norms means elected leaders in these societies are likely to share them as well. Some, like Italian political theorist Giovanni Sartori, believe these norms must predate, rather than follow from, democracy.[1]
  3. Pacification of the opposition. Seeing more avenues for nonviolent contestation, including participating in elections and supporting political parties, dissidents may be less likely to express their grievances using the types of tactics—such as insurgency, terrorism, and other means of violent contestation—that are typically met with force. That is, democracies are less repressive because they face less violent, threatening challenges to their authority.

Because most of what we know about the link between repression and democracy is based on annual, “big-picture data” on human rights conditions, such as the Cingranelli and Richards Human Rights Data or the Political Terror Scale, we don’t know which, if any, of these causal mechanisms are operative. The domestic democratic peace may simply be due to changes in the nature of dissident demands and tactics, rather than any constraints on government behavior, for instance.

In a recent working paper, Idean Salehyan and I get some leverage on these causal mechanisms by measuring both repression and opposition tactics at the event level, i.e., the level of a particular protest, strike, or anti-government attack. We base our analysis on the Social Conflict Analysis Database, which catalogues over 12,000 protests, strikes, riots, anti-government attacks, communal conflicts, and intra-government violence across Africa, 1990-2013. These data allow us to account for both dissident demands—do they seek political reform or economic benefits, and do they petition the state or private firms—and tactics. In particular we note whether the event was violent or not. Nonviolent events include peaceful demonstrations, whether organized or unorganized, as well as strikes, both limited to a particular sector and general workplace stoppages. Violent events included riots, pro-government violence and anti-, extra- and intra-government violence. Additionally, we catalogued whether the event was repressed with lethal force, resulting in the deaths of protesters or dissidents. Lethal force represents an interesting test of the domestic democratic peace because killing represents the most irrevocable, ultimate form of state repression.

What we found was interesting. Just looking at the raw data, democracies appear less prone to use lethal force, implementing it roughly 24% less frequently.[2] Once we accounted for the effects of tactics, demands, and other regime characteristics, however, democracies—even according to the high threshold identified by Davenport and Armstrong and Bueno de Mesquita et al[3]—were no less likely to use lethal force against dissidents. That is, faced with the same type of challenge—a violent riot targeting the government or a strike against a privately owned mine—democratic governments were not less likely to kill dissidents than non-democratic governments. Thus, if cross-national, annual human rights data reveals a correlation between democracy and improved human rights, this can be taken as evidence for the third mechanism: democracy reduces state repression by pacifying the opposition, rather than constraining the government.

This preliminary finding comes with a few caveats. For one, it may be the case that Africa is unique in this respect. The international democratic peace—the finding that democracies do not war with other democracies—appears to be inverted for Africa, with democracies more likely to war with one another. Perhaps democratic institutions engender different incentives for African rulers than they do in other regions. For another, it is definitely the case that democracies are less likely to use non-lethal repression—such as arrests, tear gas, water cannons and nightsticks—against dissidents when accounting for the same event-level attributes. For a third, many types of repression—such as after-the-fact arrests, stealth torture, and the like—are not addressed. Our data only allow us to assess street-level, real-time dynamics of repression and dissent.

Still, these findings provide some basis for discerning the causal pathways by which democracy lessens lethal repression by the state: by pacifying the tactics of the opposition, rather than constraining the government’s response thereto. Put differently: if democracies are less lethally repressive in Africa, it’s because they face fewer armed mobs than their authoritarian counterparts, not because they use less repression against those armed mobs that arise.

[1] Writing in the Journal of Democracy in 1995, Sartori says, “The notion of preconditions of democracy generally refers to economic preconditions. I will come to these shortly, but here I mean historical antecedents. There are two: one is secularization, and the other is what I call the “taming” of politics. Secularization occurs when the realm of God and the realm of Caesar—the sphere of religion and the sphere of politics—are separated. As a result, politics is no longer reinforced by religion: it loses both its religion-derived rigidity (dogmatism) and its religious-like intensity. Out of this situation arise the conditions for the taming of politics. By this I mean that politics no longer kills, is no longer a warlike affair, and that peacelike politics affirms itself as the standard modus operandi of a polity.”

[2] Welch’s t-test of a significant difference between lethal repression in non-democracies (M = 0.085, SD = 0.004) and democracies (M = 0.065, SD = 0.005); t(4,467) = 3.16, p = 0.002.

[3] Revised combined Polity score ≥ 6.

In Israel, Intense Combat Experience Decreases Support for Negotiations and Human Rights Organizations

Guest post by Devorah Manekin, Guy Grossman, and Dan Miodownik

Israeli soldiers in training.  By the Israel Defense Forces.

Israeli soldiers in training. By the Israel Defense Forces.

A wave of research has emerged in recent years exploring public attitudes towards human rights issues, from opinions on particular rights violations to attitudes towards human rights organizations.

One perspective remains conspicuously absent, however: that of the members of state armed forces. Contemporary conflict is typically waged among civilians, in dense urban quarters or remote rural areas. Soldiers who participate in conflict are therefore at a heightened risk of witnessing or being implicated in human rights violations. How does the experience of combat affect soldier attitudes towards civilians, human rights groups and conflict resolution?

These questions are important, as former soldiers are often an influential group, whether due to their sheer number or to their greater political credibility on matters related to security.

Policymakers tend to view former combatants as a potentially destabilizing force, with access to skills, arms and networks that make them more likely to engage in violence. This perception has led to the proliferation of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs, viewed by the UN as a vital step in the initial stabilization of war-torn societies. Yet evidence for this perception remains elusive. Assessing the effect of combat on attitudes presents a thorny methodological problem, as men who become combatants may differ systematically in their attitudes from those who do not. If such pre-existing differences exist, it becomes difficult to isolate the effects of combat on political attitudes.

In a study published in International Organization, we investigate the effects of combat on attitudes towards conflict, conflict resolution and human rights organizations among veterans of the Israeli military. The attitudes of ex-combatants matter for Israeli politics, as mandatory conscription laws mean that former combatants form a substantial sector of the public.

We conducted an original online survey of 2,334 combat and non-combat Israeli veterans who served between 1999 and 2012. We overcome the methodological issues associated with comparing combatant and non-combatant attitudes by using statistical techniques that employ an additional variable, in this case, the medical eligibility of individuals for combat service. Since medical eligibility predicts combat service but not political attitudes, we are able to isolate the effects of combat from that of other factors shaping soldiers’ decision to enter combat units in the first place.

We asked respondents for their attitudes on a variety of issues related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For example, we asked whether, in the context of a negotiated peace agreement, they would consider territorial withdrawal, division of Jerusalem, or reparations to Palestinian refugees. We also asked whether respondents believed Palestinians were partners for peace, what was their preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whether they supported Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Finally, we asked whether Israeli human rights monitoring groups, such as B’tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which report regularly on violations of Palestinian rights in the Occupied Territories, should be legally restricted (as proposed recently in the Israeli parliament), or allowed to operate freely.

Our time frame included two very different types of combat exposure: the Second Intifada, and the years following the Israeli military’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005. During the Second Intifada, Israeli troops spent nearly all of their deployment in the West Bank and Gaza, and were exposed to high levels of violence as perpetrators, victims and witnesses. Combatants in subsequent years, by contrast, had far less prolonged and direct military engagement with Palestinians. According to data from Israeli rights group B’tselem, Israeli casualties between 2006 and 2012 dropped by 90% from the previous period. Although numbers of Palestinian fatalities remained high, many were killed by Israeli air and artillery strikes rather than by ground troops operating in close quarters. The 1999-2012 timeframe thus allowed us to assess whether combat intensity shapes combatant attitudes.

We found that ex-combatants who served in the Second Intifada are, on average, substantially and significantly less supportive of peaceful conflict resolution than non-combatants from the same period. They are significantly less likely to support territorial withdrawal as part of a peace agreement, to believe that Palestinians are partners for peace, and to support conciliatory solutions to the conflict. They are also significantly more likely to support Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and rank themselves as more hawkish on a right-left scale. Finally, they appear more supportive of restricting NGO activity, though that effect does not quite reach statistical significance.

In contrast, ex-combatants who served after 2005 do not for the most part differ from non-combatants in their attitudes. In other words, it was participation in intense, face-to-face military activities against Palestinians that led to increased skepticism of human rights-related themes.

We also found that ex-combatants from the Second Intifada were substantially and significantly more likely to vote for harder-line political parties. This effect is quite large, translating into a shift of nearly an entire party to the right on a left-right political scale of parties. It is also remarkably durable, persisting nearly a decade after release from service. We estimate that eight cohorts of combatants that served during all or part of the Second Intifada translate into five to six parliamentary seats, a number that can exercise considerable influence in Israel’s polarized political arena.

Why does intense combat exposure cause such a substantial hardening of political attitudes? We find suggestive evidence that former combatants are far more prejudiced against Palestinians than former non-combatants, and are also more likely to feel that ending the military occupation of the West Bank would pose an existential threat to Israel’s security. This is consistent with research in social psychology that links both prejudice and threat to exclusionary attitudes and support for aggressive behavior, providing some insight into why intense combat reduces, on average, support for negotiated solutions and compromise.

Our study has implications for both Israeli-Palestinian relations and for conflict resolution more generally. In the Israeli context, it suggests that mandatory conscription has had far-reaching political effects that are not yet well documented or understood. Individuals who are socialized into violent conflict at formative periods of their lives can be deeply affected by that experience in many ways, including in their political attitudes and behavior. Given the size and impact of the Israeli ex-combatant population, peace-building efforts should take its experiences into account.

More generally, our findings underscore the importance of combatant reintegration programs in reducing inter-group hostility, fostering respect for human rights, and creating the foundation for a viable, durable peace.

Devorah Manekin is an Assistant Professor at the School for Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University. Guy Grossman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Dan Miodownik is a Senior Lecturer of Political Science and International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This piece was originally posted at Open Democracy.

Weekly Links

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

Manohar or Basawan, “Mother and Child With a White Cat,” 1598. Via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Manohar or Basawan, “Mother and Child With a White Cat,” 1598. Via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The New York Times has a multimedia article detailing the extent of lawlessness on the High Seas, which has tragic human consequences.

In the Monkey Cage, Laura Seay interviews Alex de Waal on the best and worse ways to alleviate suffering in foreign conflict zones. In the same vein, how neoconservatives have linked to the Iran Deal to suffering in Syria and how human rights advocacy can be a slippery slope to militarized agendas.

Jason Cone’s, Doctors Without Borders’ Executive Director in the US, writes on just how bad the humanitarian situation is in the West Bank and Gaza.

Agadez, Niger was previously one of the poorest cities on the planet. But huge numbers of Africans trying to pass Europe now use Agadez as a stepping stone to Libya, and the city’s experiencing an economic boom.

Those fighting the War on Terror have had to contend with religion, but have often failed to understand it in a productive way (and that’s partially the fault of political scientists), argues Elizabeth Shakman Hurd.

The Rwandan government seems to understand the value of a free press, but cannot escape its authoritarian tendencies to allow it. Christian Caryl writes on how a journalist tasked with opening Rwanda’s press by the government was forced to flee the country.

In light of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s escape from prison, frequent PVG guest contributor Brian J. Phillips takes at look at the evidence of the effectiveness of decapitating terrorist and criminal groups. Relatedly, why El Chapo’s escape is unlikely to affect cartel dynamics.

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