Would Someone Explain This?

Would Someone Please Explain This to Me?

By Erica Chenoweth

When this blog was just a couple of months old, we experimented with a series called “Would Someone Please Explain This to Me?”  In this series, we simply ask our readers to submit puzzles, head-scratchers, and other questions to our humble blogging group for response. Given that it is summertime (and many of us need some blogging inspirations anyway), we thought it was time to resurrect the series.

So, here goes. Post your questions in the comments section, and we’ll write posts responding to them as we can!


  • New Wars VS Old Wars. A-symmetrical warfare is the theme of today with conflicts like Iraq, Syria, Israel/Palestine but how different is this really? Yes the actors appear different is size and scope and perhaps strategies like COIN have emerged but don’t all wars give way to new tactics towards victory? Simply put, ” Is A-symmetrical warfare a largely academic term or does it have more real world implications?”

    • Thanks for the question. I am quite skeptical of the new vs. old notion of most things. We have seen debates about new vs. old civil wars, new vs. old terrorism, and new vs. old political violence generally. If one begins with an assumption that human beings are basically the same over time (I think I believe this), it is hard to make a credible claim about new vs. old anything. If we assume that people are better (Stephen Pinker) or worse (Check any shock news broadcast), we might be able to develop claims about new vs. old. I think there is adaptation in war and violence, new tactics develop (drones) but strategies are basically the same (offense/defense).

  • Why is Islamic State (ISIS) the first Islamist rebel group to claim to resurrect the caliphate? It seems like someone else would have tried this strategy some time in the past century, even with the risks associated.

  • Is there any measurable way to tell whether police become more or less focused on crime prevention and public safety in nations that are not fully democratic?

  • Why has Latin America been so free of nukes or at least a nuclear weapons program? Is it because technical requirements for nuclear weapons development are much higher then civilian nuclear ventures or is it something else at play?

    • Hi Nawal,

      One reason (but not the only) is US hegemony. In a classic security dilemma, states need to build up their military to avoid other states taking advantage of them in an international system without a higher authority. In the Western Hemisphere, the US has served as a security guaranteer (for better or/and worse) and thus reduced the need for states like Argentina to feel real existential threats to their external survival. Of course, this does not bring up internal threats, and the less helpful ways the US has been involved. Regardless, internal threats are never dealt with using nuclear threats.

      • Joseph,

        Doesn’t that raise the question of why no Latin American state, not even Cuba, has sought a nuclear deterrent against the US? (Of course, Cuba had a special experience in 1962.)

        I have occasionally wondered whether Walt would have taken a different stance on balancing and bandwagoning if he had focused on Latin America instead of the Middle East.

        • I didn’t tackle this question in the answer I posted today because I’m not very familiar with Walt’s work. But I would guess that no Latin American country has sought a nuclear deterrent against the US is because the regional states with the greatest means and motive to build nuclear weapons — the right-wing dictatorships of Argentina and Brazil during the 1970s and 80s — were US allies. Indeed, the Argentine junta famously dramatically overestimated just how important they were to the US in the lead up to the Falklands War.

          Latin American countries with more anti-American governments have never been in a position to build the bomb, even if they had wanted to. And even in an alternative universe where Cold War-era Cuba is firmly anti-American but doesn’t enjoy Soviet military support and has the resources to develop a nuclear weapon, it wouldn’t have the conventional military strength to deter a preemptive US attack on its nuclear infrastructure. The US did not destroy North Korea’s nuclear sites because of the DPRK can threaten a destructive war, and gives every indication of not wanting to strike Iran if it can avoid it, for the same reasons. Cuba can’t threaten to hurt the US, so if it was seriously pursuing a bomb America could forcibly prevent it from doing so.

  • What can academic research tell a practitioner like me about where political settlements / elite pacts are effective against combatting communal violence?

  • Similarly to zekefalcon, I am interested in what is widely known as new wars (although I agree that the terminology does not seem to make too much sense all in all). But maybe here are three questions that have been stuck in my mind recently:

    – Do you agree that the recent decline in inter-state warfare (and as some claim all kinds of warfare) (aka Pinker/Goldstein…) is a result of the transformation of war (as argue Shaw, Kaldor, etc.)? (and not a result of democratic peace, nuclear weapons, unipolarity, etc. –> theories that view war as a constant).

    – If so, is the main culprit that opened up these new spaces of violence really found in the economic sphere (aka economic globalization –> weakening of the state) as Kaldor, etc. claim? Could one not make an equal claim that this is the result of technological, political, judicial, moral, religious, changes?

    – Either way, is this a “classical European question” that no one in US IR really cares about?

  • “This is what Barham Salih, the former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told me years ago: ‘Compare us to other liberation movements around the world. We are very mature. We don’t engage in terror. We don’t condone extremist nationalist notions that can only burden our people. Please compare what we have achieved in the Kurdistan national-authority areas to the Palestinian national authority. … We have spent the last 10 years building a secular, democratic society, a civil society.’ What, he asked, have the Palestinians built?”

    Is this a fair comparison?

  • As the overall intensity of the conflict in eastern Ukraine has increased, so too it seems has the use of artillery (actually nearly all types of indirect fire weaponry) by all sides. This despite the large numbers of civilians within the contested areas. Focusing on the Ukrainian army perspective, why have they followed suit? To most of the general public observing these events from outside this seems worrying at beast and outright criminal at worst. Simply a reality of warfare now exposed in the 21st century to much greater visibility? Military necessity? Lack of professionalism/training? Out of date (cold war era) doctrine and equipment?

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