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Shit Happens: When Equilibrium Theories Meet Non-Equilibrium Outcomes

By Cullen Hendrix for Denver Dialogues.


Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Photo via Brookings Institution.

Note: This post was filed last Thursday, before the attempted coup in Turkey unfolded. The event referred to in the introduction is not/was not at all related to the coup.

Recently, I was asked by a group of policymakers to envision a scenario in which something bad would happen. This bad thing is (thankfully) rare in terms of historical precedent but always extremely consequential – hence the interest in foreseeing it. The specifics of outcome are unimportant. What is important is how the process of envisioning this outcome – and other rare but consequential outcomes – challenges  our essentially equilibrium-based theories of political behavior and human interactions.

Social scientists tend to theorize in probabilistic terms. We know the world is an inherently strange and contingent place, but within all that strangeness and contingency exists a set of general tendencies, i.e., responses by actors to particular circumstances and actions of others that are more or less likely to occur. As we see it, our job is to uncover and explain these tendencies, washing away the nuance of the specific instance in favor of mining large numbers of observations in order to uncover the general relationship. These tendencies inform our thinking about the world and allow us to make statements like “regimes facing large youth bulges are more repressive” or “regimes facing dissidents using guerrilla tactics are much more likely to engage in mass killings of civilians.”

Within conflict studies, this approach is often wedded to the rationalist paradigm. In order to understand why things happen, we must identify the relevant actors, identify their interests, and then figure out how the way their interactions are structured. Then, we assume actors pursue strategies that maximize the likelihood that their preferred outcome will come to pass.

This way of thinking about the world has proven pretty useful. But it has its limits. In particular, it confronts a huge weakness when trying to inform thinking about rare, hard-to-foresee events. Erik Gartzke’s “War Is in the Error Term” lays out this problem as it pertains to interstate war. Interstate war is incredibly rare. The Correlates of War project identifies roughly 95 traditional interstate wars – like the Spanish-American War or Falkland Islands War – in the entire international system between 1816 and 2007. Most of those were relatively minor: only 29 of them resulted in more than 20,000 combatant deaths. Most IR scholars would be hard-pressed to name more than 50 of them. And while I’m not going to crunch the numbers, I’d be happy to bet that more has been written about two of them – World Wars I and II – than the rest combined. By an order of magnitude. Or two.

In “War Is in the Error Term,” Gartzke is reflecting on the rationalist tradition in conflict studies, which holds that because war is costly, it is ex-post inefficient. There is always some bargain that the parties would have preferred to war: a leader takes a golden parachute into exile, countries X and Y agree to a different demarcation of their border, etc. Hence, to explain war one must uncover why the parties failed to achieve the bargain. That is, war is not an equilibrium outcome – something has to go wrong for us to observe actual conflict.

Because Erik is a clear writer, I quote rather than paraphrase:

We cannot predict in individual cases whether states will go to war, because war is typically the consequence of variables that are unobservable ex ante, both to us as researchers and to the participants. Thinking probabilistically continues to offer the opportunity to assess international conflict empirically. However, the realization that uncertainty is necessary theoretically to motivate war is much different from recognizing that the empirical world contains a stochastic element. Accepting uncertainty as a necessary condition of war implies that all other variables—however detailed the explanation—serve to eliminate gradations of irrelevant alternatives. We can progressively refine our ability to distinguish states that may use force from those that are likely to remain at peace, but anticipating wars from a pool of states that appear willing to fight will remain problematic.

When outcomes are mutually undesirable, and all parties know those outcomes are mutually undesirable, we generally expect they will not occur. And most of the time, they don’t. But it’s the instances in which they do occur over which we obsess, and it is precisely these instances in which our rationalist, probabilistic theories tend to break down.

Shit happens. An unsuccessful would-be assassin gets a shot at redemption when his target’s driver randomly turns onto the street where the assassin is standing. A discarded cigar wrapper helps turn the tide of the US Civil War. One sounds like a moron standing up in a room of highly educated, extremely well-informed people and saying “For outcome X to occur, something weird has to happen” – but that may well be the right answer.

Before 2008, economic analysts could have given you a million reasons why the financial crisis would not have occurred; no one apart from a few double bass-drumming weirdos stood to benefit. But after the fact, even as fundamental a believer in rationalism as former Fed chair Alan Greenspan was forced to concede, “I have come to see that an important part of the answers to those questions is a very old idea: ‘animal spirits,’ the term Keynes famously coined in 1936 to refer to ‘a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction.’” “Animal spirits” is not a term traditionally associated with sober, rational analysis. By it, Greenspan and Keynes before him refer to irrational exuberance and discounting of the potential pitfalls of risky behavior.

In the quoted piece, Greenspan then goes on to suggest these animal spirits can be measured and incorporated into economic forecasting. But this misses the point. Even if Greenspan’s thoughts inform future forecasts, there will be some black swan event that catches us by surprise. Ex-post, we will all scratch our heads and wonder why we did not see it coming, and change our theoretical and predictive models to incorporate the insights from the latest crisis. And then the next crisis will occur, and the process will repeat ad infinitum.

I am a firm believer in rationalist explanations for most phenomenon, and ceteris paribus statements are likely to remain the rationalist social scientists’ stock-in-trade for the foreseeable future. Competing theories of conflict, economic crises, and other rare-but-consequential events have their problems as well – to wit, the “ancient hatreds” explanation for ethnic and religious conflict massively over-predicts violence, and false positives may be as big a problem as false negatives. Moreover, that we must continuously refine our predictions about the future in light of new information is a positive thing: it suggests we are learning more about the world around us. But we need to be circumspect about how well equilibrium theories can be expected to perform when predicting non-equilibrium outcomes.

Weekly Links

By Patrick Pierson.

Johann Jakob Frey (Swiss, 1813 - 1865 ), Sun Breaking through Clouds above the Roman Campagna, 1844 or after, oil on paper mounted on a second sheet and then on canvas, Joseph F. McCrindle Collection 2009.70.122

Johann Jakob Frey, “Sun Breaking through Clouds above the Roman Campagna,” 1844 or after. Photo via National Gallery of Art.

With the Rio Olympics set to start in less than three weeks, the long list of concerns surrounding the games continues to grow. And while the CDC says the global risk presented by the Zika virus is low, athletes continue to withdraw from the event while citing Zika as the primary concern. Also in health, a new UN report “sounds the alarm” on increased rates of HIV globally. This comes as the 21st International AIDS Conference opens on Monday in Durban.

The US military is eyeing a potential increase in troop engagement in Yemen to confront threats by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This comes as the governor of Aden, Yemen’s main southern city, survived a car bomb attack this week that is believed to be linked to AQAP. As peace talks continue to stall, some suggest it’s time for the US to distance itself from the Saudi campaign in the country.

In Egypt, a surging population mixed with insufficient resources creates a dangerous recipe for unrest. Also in Egypt, the government is distributing pre-written sermons to be delivered by Muslim clerics. While Africa possesses “demography for dividends,” these trends also present some serious challenges. Despite longstanding disagreements over the Western Sahara issue, Morocco is seeking to rejoin the African Union while also allowing UN peacekeepers to return to Western Sahara this week. This comes as African heads of state meet to discuss a Continental Free Trade Area that would constitute the largest free-trade area in the world.

The Security Consequences of the Global Refugee Crisis

By Daniel Krcmaric.


Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo via Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Anyone remember the global refugee crisis? You can be forgiven for letting it slip your mind. The media has certainly focused less attention on the refugee crisis recently, preferring instead to focus on Brexit (probably understandable) and Taylor Swift’s love life (less understandable). Though the refugee crisis has mostly fallen out of the headlines, the underlying reality tragically remains the same: violence and political instability have forced 60 million people to flee their homes. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), this is the largest number of refugees and internally displaced persons since World War II.

Discussions of the crisis often make the implicit, and sometimes explicit, suggestion that taking in refugees is risky for the host state’s security.  What does the political science say?

The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, an influential study found that hosting refugees increases the likelihood that a state will experience its own civil conflict. Relatedly, other studies have found a link between hosting refugees and the incidence of both domestic and transnational terrorist attacks. Hence, there is some cause for concern. On the other hand, these studies acknowledge that, despite their alarming statistical results, the vast majority of refugees are nonviolent. Moreover, the political context of a refugee flow matters for the spread of conflict (see also here). Refugees that are former rebels fleeing across a border to avoid defeat in civil war are especially prone to violence. By contrast, typical civilians fleeing the general chaos of civil war are less likely to be involved in violence. Since the current refugee crisis is mostly victimized civilians seeking to escape the horrible conditions of their own countries—the Assad regime’s brutal repression in Syria, ISIS’s atrocities in Syria and Iraq, the collateral damage from NATO and Russian airstrikes, etc.—there are good reasons to hope that today’s refugee crisis may not have such pernicious effects.

Given that there are at least some potential security risks associated with hosting refugees, it is hardly surprising that there have been heated debates about who should host refugees. At least in theory, all 144 states that signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention have a legal obligation to protect refugees. Politics, however, gets in the way. Specifically, identity politics can play a role in two distinct ways.

The first follows a “they’re not like us” logic and focuses on the potential for conflict between refugees and their ethnically/religiously/socially/economically different host communities. Indeed, the fact that many refugees today are fleeing conflicts from the Muslim and Arab world have heightened “us versus them” distinctions in the West. In the United States, for example, the majority of state governors stated they would not allow Syrian refugees in their states for security reasons. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley even implied that bringing Syrian refugees to his state could expose it to a Paris-style terrorist attack. Some countries in Europe have experienced similar nativist movements that portray refugees as invaders. In response, others have pointed out the numbers show such fears are overblown. In 2015, The Economist reported that out of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the US since 9/11, only two have been arrested for terrorist-related activities (and this was for plotting to aid Al-Qaeda in Iraq, not to attack the US directly).

The second way identity can play a role in the spread of conflict occurs when refugees have a transnational kin group in the host country. As some of my research published in Security Studies suggests, refugee flows are relatively more likely to cause conflict in the host state when they alter the ethnic or religious balance of power between local groups. This has important implications for the Syrian crisis because colonizers paid little attention to the distribution of groups on the ground when drawing borders in the Middle East. Consequently, many ethnoreligious groups straddle national borders, making it possible for refugees to disturb local power balances. Hence, the bigger security challenge may be civil war contagion within Syria’s region rather than terrorism in the West.

What’s the take-away? Policymakers should pay careful attention to the ethnic and religious balance of power in potential refugee-receiving states. Presently, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have played the greatest role in hosting Syrian refugees. A country like Lebanon—with its delicate distribution of political power between religious groups—is not an ideal country to host a large influx of refugees. Though policymakers rarely have the ability to channel refugees to specific countries, identifying high-risk and low-risk destinations can help with the allocation of scarce resources during refugee crises. Western democracies could also ease the burden on Syria’s neighbors by taking in a larger number of refugees, although that seems unlikely in the current political climate. Instead, the West will likely try to strike a balance between the somewhat conflicting goals of assisting refugees and securing their own borders.

Understanding and Preventing Mass Atrocities by Non-States

Guest post by Cyanne E. Loyle. 


US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photo by Ted Eytan.

On June 3, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum convened a scholar-policy symposium to discuss the current state of research concerning mass atrocities perpetrated by non-state actors and the policy efforts to prevent these atrocities. The recent surge in violence by groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram, along with the deliberate targeting of civilians by these groups, has intensified the need to understand when and why non-state groups choose to deliberately and systematically target civilians for extermination. To date, most of our research into genocide and mass atrocities has focused on those actions perpetrated by states and state affiliates. Current events have pushed us to examine similar actions across different sets of actors.

Yet, what are the differences between states and non-states when it comes to committing large-scale, systematic violence? Are the motivations and strategies of these actors different or would we expect large, state-like groups such as ISIS to be following similar logics? The June workshop launched a new research initiative at the Simon-Skjodt center which seeks to address these questions.

What we know (and don’t know) about non-state actor mass atrocity

To begin with, we already have a breadth of research which helps us understand when mass atrocities by states are more likely. Work by Harff, Valentino, and Straus, for example, as well as the efforts of the Political Instability Task Force, call attention to the structural conditions which make genocide and mass atrocity more likely and forecast the countries and conditions which should be targeted for prevention. It is possible that many of these factors translate to our understanding of non-state actor atrocity behavior.

A number of comprehensive datasets collecting information on non-state actors, their organizational structure, and their behavior during civil wars could also be brought to bear on these questions. For example, D. Cunningham, Gleditsch, and Salehyan’s Non-State Actors in Civil Wars dataset, Stewart’s Insurgent Social Service Provision dataset, K. Cunningham’s forthcoming Organizational Behavior in Self-determination Disputes dataset and, Asal, Brown, and Dalton’s dataset of ethnopolitical organizations in the Middle East would all be useful in understanding the range of different characteristics of non-state actors and how these characteristics potentially impact behaviors. Furthermore, work on rebel group behavior during civil war, specifically, could be used to understand the different structural and strategic conditions which influence non-state actor behavior.

Yet, relying on this existing work raises many interesting and important questions about its applicability to the question of mass atrocity. Which non-state actor groups are willing and able to commit mass atrocities? Do we limit our ability to address these questions by focusing solely on rebel organizations? Is mass killing different from other forms of civilian targeting, such as sexual and gender-based violence, or can these behaviors be understood as a unified strategy or potentially a sequence of atrocity events?

How to prevent non-state-led mass atrocities?

Many of the policy tools available to the US government and international organizations have been designed to change the behavior of states. The question is whether or not similar tools could be used to prevent non-state-led mass atrocities. Are the same tools of economic sanctions, trade restrictions, restrictions of movement, etc. effective in combating the actions of non-state groups?

While it seems likely that non-state groups may be immune to many of the traditional prevention tools of the international community, there are some reasons to believe that the US government and others still have the ability to change behavior. For example, many non-state groups rely on the political and/or material support of states, which could be targeted with existing policy tools. Plus, a non-state group’s financial and military means to commit atrocities may be more vulnerable to coercive policy tools than a state’s. The efficacy of these strategies has yet to be determined.

Moving forward

Moving forward, the Simon-Skjodt Center will be looking for opportunities to advance research on this topic. If you have any thoughts or suggestions for additional research or would like to get directly involved in this new project, please contact Daniel Solomon.

What are your thoughts on these questions and this research? Please join the discussion in the comments below.

Cyanne E. Loyle is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and the Leonard and Sophie Davis Fellow for the Prevention of Genocide at the Simon-Skjodt Center, US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Legacy of Violence and Peru’s Politics: Activism Against Authoritarianism

By Devin Finn for Denver Dialogues.


Recently elected Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Photo by PCM PERU.

Electoral politics sometimes reflects the legacies of violent contestation a country has experienced, exposing the contours of past injustices and providing some hope that they are being resolved. In Peru’s recent presidential election, a conservative technocrat prevailed over the dynastic candidate Keiko Fujimori – the 41-year-old daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori – by a notably slim margin: about 41,000 votes. Voters rejected the abuse of power that Fujimorismo signifies in modern Peru, demonstrating that memory of the civil war’s (1980-1992) violence and the authoritarianism that defined the 1990s could influence their political decisions.

When Leftist politician Verónika Mendoza, who had herself been eliminated from the presidential race in April’s first-round vote, announced a week before the election that she would support the business-friendly Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, people followed her lead. Mendoza encouraged her supporters to reject Fujimorismo, framing its legacy as: theft of state funds that could have paid for schools and hospitals; links to drug trafficking; bribery of journalists and media outlets during the 1990s; and extrajudicial use of violence. But Mendoza’s late-in-the-game embrace of Kuczynski mattered for reasons other than leftists’ strategy to defeat Fujimori. Her leadership of the new Broad Front party signifies a widening participation in politics, an acknowledgment that the diversifying and growing Left has constructive ideas for social reforms. In addition, this electoral campaign brought different forms of everyday mobilization to the fore – creative activism that promised to hold perpetrators of violence and rights violations accountable, and fulfill the promises of citizenship owed to victims of wartime crimes and the indigenous communities that continue to be left behind twenty years after the conflict’s end.

Just when papering over the crimes and impunity that the Fujimori family’s continued political relevance represents was on the verge of becoming possible with a Keiko victory, voters rejected a return to authoritarianism. Journalist Gustavo Gorriti called the election “a plebiscite between democracy and dictatorship that should be fought…to the final vote.”

Three notable trends emerged as the campaign unfolded and election results were released. First, expressive activism in the streets and online helped to lay bare modern Fujimorismo, not only reminding voters of its authoritarian record, but arguing that a return to it would damage Peru’s fragile democracy. Synthesizing the movement with hashtags – “NO to Narco-state,” “NO to Keiko,” and “Fujimori Never Again” – activists emphasized that with Fujimori in power the country would return to high-level graft, weakened institutions, and illegal enrichment of elites. Activists and politicians, including Mendoza, also encouraged people – particularly those who did not support either Fujimori or Kuczynski in the first round – not to spoil their votes in protest of the candidates in the second round. A blank or defaced ballot amounts to a lost opportunity; in fact, it would favor Fujimori’s candidacy. This emphasis on proactive and strategic voting worked: absenteeism rates and spoiled ballots reached comparatively low levels.

Through coordinated communications and demonstrations, activists and political organizations were able to frame Fujimorismo as a political phenomenon defined by the cynical and anti-institutional approach to governance embodied by former president Alberto Fujimori – and as a threat to democratic stability. Fujimorismo is not new to Peruvians, who have been voting for and against members of the family for almost two decades, and polls consistently showed Keiko likely to win. In the last weeks of the campaign, however, news emerged that the DEA was investigating Fujimori’s campaign manager Joaquin Ramirez for money laundering and ties to narcotrafficking, revelations that seized voters. At a time when crime and corruption constitute Peruvians’ two most pressing concerns, the visibility of Fujimorismo allowed opponents to cast Popular Force as a party of illegality and impunity.

Second, this focused and intensifying activism has meant that the political presence of the dead – including those who had been tortured, disappeared, and massacred during the war – is rising in Peru’s politics. Many ordinary citizens would prefer to forget the civil war and the scars it left behind. The trial and conviction in 2009 of Alberto Fujimori for human rights violations demonstrated Peru’s domestic capacity to hold political leaders accountable, but state reparations to victims of the war’s violence have stalled for years. While the marginalization of indigenous Peruvians remains a political fact, a product of everyday racism and institutionalized neglect, the social and ethnic fault lines that the war articulated may have begun to find expression in electoral mobilization. Pre-election protests expressed the demands for rights and desires for voice of those who suffered during the war. These groups include women, victims of state and rebel violence, and the disappeared. Social movements defended the rights of victims, including women who were forcibly sterilized by the Fujimori government and family members of wartime victims whose bodies have not been located, identified, and their cases investigated.

And in the weeks following the announcement of Kuczynski’s victory, victims’ rights groups received encouraging news. A long-awaited law passed by Congress in June 2016 and signed by President Humala instituted a national search policy, which mandates that the government prioritize its efforts to locate victims of enforced disappearance during the war. The Ministry of Justice and the Public Ministry must now take the lead on implementing the search policy and create a national registry of disappeared persons.

What happens to the people who fought, survived, fled, and witnessed violence? How does the occurrence of violence affect people’s political choices and roles in post-war political society? These questions have still not emerged as central to Peru’s political discourse, but this campaign pointed to shifting emphases and coherent, coordinated messages among defenders of democracy and accountability.

Third, on the whole, this election season has been a victory for the traditionally beleaguered Left, which gained 20 seats in the unicameral legislature. As a proportion of the chamber’s 130 seats, this appears to be a relatively scant showing by Mendoza’s Broad Front, particularly compared with the 73 seats – an absolute majority – achieved by Popular Force in Congress. But historically, Left parties have fragmented, divided, and managed little sustained support. The strides made by Broad Front remind some of the hopeful gains made by the Left in 1985, when leftist parties won 63 seats in the then-bicameral parliament. While the politics of opposition – voting against a political force instead of for a movement in construction – has long defined Peru’s polarized environment, in this case, voters did both, helping to build a more robust and vocal opposition while closing off Fujimori’s path to power.

But in such a close contest, the results are mixed. In Ayacucho, the department that experienced the greatest wartime violence and repression, a majority cast their votes for Fujimori. Overall, the department split, with some provinces electing Kuczynski by a margin of 5-15 percentage points, and others electing Fujimori by the same or a slightly greater margin.

Given Kuczynski’s narrow victory, uncertain mandate, and a Fujimorista-dominated Congress, the election raises questions. Will the political efforts that militants facilitated against Fujimorismo be sufficiently strong to generate active support for the Left? Or will “anti-politics” be limited to the historic victory of keeping Keiko out in 2016? The election calls to mind the historical tension between radical and reformist politics which divided the “legal Left” from its violent practitioners, primarily the Peruvian Communist Party-Shining Path. While the shadow of violence continues to color political contestation, at the same time it offers opportunities for resolving some of the tensions that the election exposed. Will Left politics continue to take place mainly in the streets? Will those who endured political violence thirty years ago find themselves part of a movement in which they participate actively and their voices are heard?

Devin Finn is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver.

America’s New Civil War?

By Navin Bapat.


Protests in St. Paul, Minnesota, in response to the Philando Castile shooting. Photo by Fibonacci Blue.

Is the United States waging a war against its African American population? Most would likely dismiss such a suggestion. However, imagine what we would think about another state whose institutions are dominated by a majority with a history of slavery and overt discrimination against a minority group. In present day, the minority group is overrepresented in the state’s prison system, has nearly twice the unemployment rate of the majority, and has considerably less wealth. Since the start of 2013, the state’s security forces killed over 1,000 members of the minority group. These observations would lead most of us to strongly consider the possibility that this state is in some form of armed conflict, perhaps state failure or civil war. However, many do not consider police treatment of African Americans to be ‘war.’ But we should not ignore large-scale police violence against any minority community if we are studying conflict scientifically. So let us examine the evidence.

A civil war is typically defined as a political conflict involving at least one non-state actor that creates at least 1,000 fatalities in a one-year period. These conflicts are fought over control of the center, to alter a policy, or for separatism. We can examine each of these components to see if the US case qualifies. First, is the conflict political? If politics is defined as the social use of power, certainly. Few may see it that way, but the fact is that police systematically search, arrest, and punish African Americans more than whites. In 97% of the police killings in 2015, no charges were brought against the offending officer. This indicates that the justice system is more likely to privilege the word of police officers over empirical evidence. If the judicial system seeks to protect itself in this way, and continues to incarcerate African Americans at higher rates than whites, it is easy to draw the conclusion that the system aims to maintain the majority’s social, economic, and political domination, or at least it would in any other context. Further, few politicians even notice the disparity in policing until high-profile cases occur, and after these cases, nothing gets done to make any meaningful changes to the status quo. Clearly, there appears to be two sets of laws, and politicians appear disinclined to alter the status quo given their desire to be perceived as tough on crime.

However, the characterization of this conflict as a civil war falls short on two dimensions. First, based on recent data on the use of force by law enforcement, it took three years for various police to kill over 1,000 African Americans. Although that isn’t terribly comforting, it falls below the threshold, which requires 1,000 deaths in a twelve month period. Second, it is difficult to identify an organized non-state group within the African American community that serves as the ‘rebels.’ We might naively consider the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but this organization is mainly pursuing the incorporation of blacks into the polity. Some politicians are now eager to blame Black Lives Matter for the violence, though there is almost no credible evidence that this group advocates for or uses violence. In short, there are few clear, organized actors that can be counted as the ‘rebels,’ so again the definition of a civil war against African Americans falls short.

But this should give no-one comfort. If police violence produces twenty-five civilian deaths per year, we might better characterize this case as an instance of One-Sided Violence. The definition of One-Sided Violence is: “the use of violence by the government of a state or by an organized group against civilians, which results in at least 25 deaths. Extrajudicial killings in custody are excluded.” Notable perpetrators include Guatemala, Serbia, Croatia, Russia, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, Burma, Ethiopia, and Bahrain, among others. Have American police killed 25 African Americans over the last two years? Yes. 299 in 2013, 301 in 2014, and 346 in 2015. Is the violence perpetrated by the state? Since these are police killings, yes. As uncomfortable as this may make us, the US is in the company of other perpetrators of state terrorism, which certainly isn’t something to be proud of.

I don’t doubt that many will still be skeptical of characterizing the situation faced by African Americans in this way. It is possible that the rules that define an episode of state terror can be interpreted differently. That is what the scientific debate should be about. However, there is one aspect of this that should not be in debate. The fact that it is even possible to raise the discussion of whether or not the US is engaged in a campaign of one-sided violence against African Americans means that police violence against this community is both shameful and deplorable beyond any words I can express. Many prefer to see the US as the shining city on the hill, a model of exemplary democracy and protection of human rights, and the champion of liberal international order and the democratic peace. However, if we examine the evidence, police treatment of African Americans puts the US in terrible company. The individual cases of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile are all horrific individually. What is also horrific is that these killings are normal in terms of American policing. Perhaps we should look in the mirror before giving ourselves too many pats on the back.

Weekly Links

By Patrick Pierson.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 - 1890 ), Farmhouse in Provence, 1888, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection 1970.17.34

Vincent van Gogh, “Farmhouse in Provence,” 1888. Photo via National Gallery of Art.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration placed sanctions on Kim Jong-un and a handful of other North Korean officials. In response, North Korea called the move a “declaration of war.” This comes as the United States and South Korea released a joint statement declaring the deployment of a new anti-missile system designed to thwart any potential North Korean offensive.

Unrest in Zimbabwe reached a new high this week when a work boycott brought the capital to a screeching halt. The government is hoping for financial support from the International Monetary Fund to ease its monetary woes. ZANU-PF Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, when asked about the post-Mugabe succession plan, declared that the party “will not be dictated to” when it comes to who runs the country. Chinamasa also found himself trapped in a London cab for more than an hour this week when Zimbabwean protesters, angry over the economic woes of the country, blocked the taxi from leaving a conference venue.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made headlines this week when he became the first Israeli leader to visit Africa in three decades. The trip was not without incident, however, especially when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni repeatedly referred to Israel as Palestine during a key speech. While in Ethiopia, Netanyahu promised a prompt repatriation of Ethiopian Jews waiting to reconnect with their families in Israel. Some suggest the trip represents Israel’s efforts to win over much needed UN votes from African countries.

In South America, Bolivian President Evo Morales suggested a return to the “ancestral calendar” which is currently in the year 5,524. In neighboring Brazil, authorities have joined forces with US officials in the search for a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who was released to Uruguay but now appears to have gone missing.

The Importance of Civilian Agency in Conflict Settings

Guest post by Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv.


A Norwegian Special Operations soldier in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo via Metziker.

On June 6, 2016, the Norwegian National Commission (Afghanistanutvalget) to evaluate Norway’s efforts in Afghanistan presented its report to the Norwegian public and political elite. The conclusions of the report are sobering. Given the ambitious goals articulated in the 2001 Bonn agreement to re-build Afghanistan into a functioning, democratic state, combined with the enormous levels of investment in human and monetary resources, the results in Afghanistan have been modest at best. Norway succeeded handily at proving it was a solid and reliable NATO ally, but along with the rest of the international coalition, had far less to brag about regarding international terrorism, let alone “rebuilding” a state that Afghans can begin to trust and work with.

Why? What happened? Implicit within the Norwegian report, in my view, is a critique regarding insufficient civilian situational awareness, or to put it more plainly – knowing enough about the roles, interests, values, and survival techniques of average Afghan civilians, who were crucial to any success or failure.

My research suggests civilian situational awareness plays a key role in understanding the “effects on the ground,” going beyond an “enemy-centric” focus and including liaison with key actors in government and non-governmental organizations, sufficient culture and gender awareness, as well as a broad overview of political conditions and movements.

Military operations do not occur in a vacuum. While some local leaders and communities in a conflict zone may welcome the intervention, others do not. Impacts of military activity on civilian lives can cause harm even when not immediately perceptible. This in turn can have negative effects on any potential value of the military intervention. Even what is perceived as less intrusive operations such as training and mentoring “local forces” (which ones?), never mind occasional military support in local operations, can have negative impacts on local civilian environments which will have broader political implications. The October 2015 attack on the Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) hospital in Kunduz province in Afghanistan by a US gunship in support of an Afghan National Army (ANA) operation is a tragic case in point. Civilian installations such as hospitals have been increasingly targeted, further eroding civilian trust that some spaces are “off limits” or that militaries have any adequate understanding of, or concern for, the civilian space. This in turn erodes civilian trust in the nascent political institutions and national leaders that these operations are supposed to strengthen. The civilian response also has international implications, with a civilian hardening against international troops and the politics they represent. Even when military operations include efforts that are meant to explicitly build trust between civilians and military forces, my own research as well as others have demonstrated that these efforts often fell short of the mark due to insufficient knowledge and superficial measures.

As critical as the report was regarding the Norwegian and international engagement in Afghanistan, it likely will have little effect on the Norwegian or allied propensity to deploy militaries to future operations, even though those deployments may not be so “boots heavy” as before. Indeed, prior to the launch of the Norwegian report, the Norwegian government already decided to deploy Special Forces troops to Jordan to provide training, mentoring, and “operational support” (read: fighting) to Syrian “local groups” fighting against Daesh. The Norwegian Commission also re-emphasized the importance of peace negotiations whereby a political solution could be found; NATO, as well as Norway and other NATO members, had long maintained that “there is no military solution.” However, the urge to deploy militaries – albeit on a significantly smaller scale – to contribute to, if not solve, a conflict remains a prominent proposed solution.

This is most certainly the case as the focus turns to countering violent extremism and hybrid warfare, where conventional/nonconventional, regular/irregular, multi-dimensional warfare comes into play. An increasing focus is placed on the role of civilian actors but military actors are present in varying, but always noticeable, degrees. CVE and hybrid warfare acknowledge an increasing role for civilian efforts in conflict prevention despite a high likelihood of some form of military presence, meaning that military actors need to once again be very aware of the civil-military interface and how their presence affects conflict, and how civilian actors affect the military mission. A less-than-sufficient civil-military awareness was already identified as a problem in the past interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The complexity of civilian dynamics were not well understood, not only regarding cultural and gender norms, but also with regard to local politics and loyalties of local populations.

Over two decades of experience with complex operations since the end of the Cold War have demonstrated that civilians matter in war, not only to be protected from violence, but as actors in the political processes of peacebuilding. It is nevertheless difficult to identify the ways in which this importance is reflected in military planning and operations. The civil-military interface has often been relegated to a minor support function in militaries, with too little influence in planning.

This goes beyond the core focus of intelligence where ongoing and potential threats are identified, but also embodies an understanding of the total civilian environment, employing “do no harm” where militaries learn to restrict rather than enhance activities as a part of planning. This does not mean a continuation of simplistic (and largely ineffective) approaches of “winning hearts and minds” and buying trust of local populations through short-term aid projects. Rather, given the evidence of the importance and relevance of civilian activity and agency in conflict, it means understanding the civilian environment in more complex, political terms.

NATO will continue to play a primary role in deploying militaries into various conflict contexts, not only with a focus on Eastern Europe, but also to “project stability beyond its borders” particularly with regard to terrorism. Leaders will consider the alliance needs at the Warsaw Summit in July, based on regional threats from Eastern Europe/Russia and the Middle East. All indications thus far suggest that despite the impacts of civilian actors in conflict, understanding the role of civilians in war and in military planning, either for their protection or their political engagement and activity, is not agenda-setting material. Insofar as militaries are often the first actors deployed to a crisis, and those actors have significant power given their access to use of violence, it is important that systems exist within the military frameworks that ensure a well developed awareness about the impacts of military activity and presence in civilian environments. This means that a civilian situational awareness, well beyond an enemy-centric focus and the narrow mandate of “training and mentoring local forces” -as if that happens in a vacuum – is crucial to all operations on the ground.

Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv is Professor of Political Science in International Relations at University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway. She was one of the ten members of the Royal Norwegian Commission that investigated Norway’s efforts in Afghanistan. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

The Sequence of Land Reform and Political Reform

Guest post by Ilia Murtazashvili and Jennifer Murtazashvili.


Afghan President Ashraf Ghani meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry following the London Conference on Afghanistan, December 4, 2014. Photo via U.S. Department of State.

In Afghanistan, citizens are increasingly frustrated by land grabbing, such as when local business interests collude with warlords and government officials across the country to acquire land. In recent days, the Washington Post reported that perceptions of collusion among government officials and local warlords and businessmen has become such a problem that it has undermined confidence in the government. Some journalists have observed that threats from land conflict pose a greater threat to stability in Afghanistan than the Taliban. Recognizing these problems, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani—with support from international patrons—has promised a solution in the form of legal titling and land reform.

The case for land reform as a way to improve political order is by no means a new one. Barrington Moore and Samuel Huntington viewed landholding inequality as a primary driver of civil conflict. Recent scholarship has also illustrated the ways that insurgency is more likely under conditions of landholding inequality. To remedy this inequality, some have found that land reform—usually the redistribution of land—can serve as an effective counterinsurgency policy. Similarly, Hernando de Soto has argued that legal titling—the formal registration of land ownership through a formal, judicial process—can serve as an effective counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategy. Based on the familiar opportunity costs explanation for political violence, de Soto claims that legal titling is the key to unleashing the productive energies of capitalism and an economic answer to political violence.

In a recent paper that appeared in Conflict, Security, and Development, we argue that land reforms such as land redistribution or legal titling are unlikely to improve political order in fragile states. Land reform makes less sense in contexts where land grabbing is largely driven by the government. A report issued in 2014 by the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the Afghan Parliament) revealed that vast amounts of land grabbing, particularly in urban areas, has taken place since 2001 and has been facilitated by government officials at the local level. Some families who have long been settled frequently find themselves evicted by the very government that they are told will now protect their interests.

In such contexts, we contend that land reform should be sequenced after the government has been able to build a judiciary that can impartially resolve disputes and security forces that can fairly enforce decisions once they are on the books. When extremely weak states embark on such reforms before addressing these other issues, they risk falling into the trap seen in Afghanistan—the government promises land reform, but when such reforms commence, the state becomes an important driver of land tenure insecurity.

Our work also helps to understand why legal titling has not worked in Afghanistan. Like most fragile states, legal titling has been a component of state-building efforts in Afghanistan. Yet such efforts to register land through a formal, legal process appear premature. Those implementing legal titling programs have admitted that their programs have largely failed as a result of the lack of political will on the part of government officials, antiquated legal frameworks, and the absence of state administrative capacity.

An alternative to legal titling in persistently weak states is anarchy of land governance. In the absence of a competent state, customary authority in Afghanistan has made a comeback. Survey data show that the vast majority of Afghans actually own land, but few have state-backed legal titles. Instead, most possess customary titles and turn to customary venues to resolve disputes when they arise. These data show citizen satisfaction with customary forms of dispute resolution far surpass those of the state.

Yet there may be an even better option than anarchy or legal titling. Many of the land registration projects to date have actively limited a role for the state, focusing instead on recording who owns land at the community level. These projects do not rely on anarchy because they are development projects. Nor are they legal titling, because the state does not register ownership through a legal process. Rather, they simply record land at the community level through a customary process of identifying land ownership. In our review of land recording projects in Afghanistan, we find that community based reforms that eschew a role for the state are more likely to improve household land tenure security than legal titling.

In theory, embarking on land reform can increase political order in a state such as Afghanistan. However, for such reforms to work, the state must have the capacity to record ownership and to neutrally adjudicate and enforce decisions made by impartial courts. Until there is substantial progress made in establishing political capacity, political constraints, and locally inclusive political institutions, land reforms put the proverbial cart before the ox.

Ilia Murtazashvili is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. His research considers land governance in developed and developing contexts. Jennifer Murtazashvili is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She employs a wide range of field methods – including ethnographic work, surveys, and experiments – in conflict zones to understand the relationship between informal order and state building.

Brexit, the Rise of Populist Nationalism, and the Future of Europe

By Martin Rhodes for Denver Dialogues.


Boris Johnson at the Conservative Party Conference, 2011. Photo via BackBoris2012 Campaign Team.

The outcome of the ‘Brexit’ vote is a disaster for Britain as well as for the European Union (EU). Unless something unexpected happens, Britain will leave the EU after two years. Its economy will suffer and its politics will polarize still further. The EU, already flailing in its attempts to deal with multiple challenges, will have to cope with complicated British exit negotiations and the fillip the Brexit vote will give to far-right nationalist parties across Europe. Nationalism has been the scourge of European history (see Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century) and one should not underestimate its potency  in European politics today.

The political and economic costs for the UK are likely to be severe. The legal and economic complications of extracting the UK legal system from decades of EU Single Market law (the basis for EU commerce) and striking new trade agreements, and the potential loss of EU professionals and businesses located in the UK, will undermine an already weak economy, sending it into renewed recession. The political system will splinter as stark divisions in both the Conservative and Labour parties – which mirror those in the electorate – provoke internecine fighting and disruptive realignments.

The consequences for Europe may be no less consequential. Nationalist anti-European parties have made a great deal of headway in many European countries – notably in France, Scandinavia, Italy, and more recently Germany – and Brexit is likely to enhance their own demands for EU exit referendums. It may also strengthen the hand of illiberal parties in power in Hungary and Poland. That will make the domestic politics of EU member states increasingly fractious and susceptible to democratic breakdown and violence. The decline in the quality of political discourse and open anti-immigrant xenophobia in the Brexit campaign, followed by an uptick in racist abuse against foreigners, is likely to be repeated elsewhere. Referendums – and their gross simplification of complex issues – are godsends for nationalists fueling the fires of popular discontent.

Those voting for Brexit are motivated by many reasons, among them concerns that echo across the European continent and beyond (including to the US): fantasies about the national past; discomfort with multiculturalism and changing social norms regarding, notably, gender equality and LGBT rights; and inchoate (and mistaken) beliefs that a return to ‘nation’ will produce better outcomes than economic integration. The post-referendum discourse of one of its major victors, UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, reveals much about the ideological yearnings of the Brexit vote. This was a victory, he crowed, for “the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people,” and for “belief in nation.” The sub-text is clear: real, ordinary, and decent people don’t have to put up with other kinds of people – foreigners, multiculturalists, internationalists – who believe in free and open societies more than they believe in “blood and soil.”

At its core, and in a way that cuts across socio-economic cleavages, the Brexit vote reveals the resurgence of a particular kind of English, rather than British, nationalism – though one with equivalents elsewhere – that dreams of the ‘Downton Abbey’ age of traditional values and hierarchies, small towns, cricket on the village green, and a homogeneous (white) population. One should not underestimate the role of racism in the appeal of UKIP and right-wing Conservatives and their nationalist message – one long trumpeted by Britain’s isolationist and xenophobic tabloid press. That nativist appeal has of course been linked with other more genuine and immediate concerns in the vote, including the consequences for prosperity of the financial crisis and the subsequent recession. And such nativist sentiments have always existed: many of the majority of older Britons who voted for Brexit have still to come to terms with the successive waves of UK immigration that have occurred since the 1950s. And the quaint mythology of ‘plucky little island Britain’ in World War II still resonates strongly with that group. But it takes politicians, such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the UK (much like Donald Trump in the US), to give them respectability and political traction.

The EU faces many challenges, as does the US, from adjustment to a changing world economy, large-scale immigration, and the security threats from a disintegrating Middle East and a newly belligerent Russia. There is a common view that in dealing with those issues the EU project is badly flawed, only makes things worse, and is ultimately responsible for nationalist resurgence. EU institutions, it is claimed, have ignored the needs and wishes of ‘ordinary’ people and are now reaping the whirlwind. That of course is a gross simplification of the kind that nationalists love to indulge in. But the fact that it is also paralleled in much ‘essentialist’ discourse from academics is shameful. For some time now, reasoned, cautious, and objective analysis of the EU has been subverted by simplistic political sloganeering; many academic articles now resemble blogposts with footnotes. The academic promotion of economic nationalism, attacks on the purported rise of ‘German hegemony,’ the use of labels such as ‘ordo-liberalism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ to characterize (or rather caricature) complex realities, and widespread claims that the EU’s problems are endemic and incurable, are all fodder for nationalists across the continent.

In the end, the Brexit vote against the EU is really one against multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and internationalism, which although often distinct motives for voting by individuals, have been bundled together in a noxious anti-liberal package by Brexit campaigners and British tabloid newspapers like The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Daily Express. That is why extensive arguments regarding the political and economic costs of leaving the EU by the Remain movement, the business sector, a large majority of economists, and the authoritative voice of the Bank of England, as well as EU leaders and international organizations, made little headway. As Conservative politician and Leave campaigner Michael Gove stated – echoing a strain of anti-intellectualism and mob mentality that runs through the history of nationalist movements – “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”

The Brexit campaign was not really about the economic losses or gains from EU membership. Nor was it about the nature of European democracy. In most respects it was not about the EU at all. The Leave vote was primarily motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment, whipped up by unashamed nativists, nationalists, and bare-faced careerists, appealing to some of the least enlightened elements of the English character. As history tells us, once those forces are unleashed by unscrupulous politicians, they are very hard to contain.

Martin Rhodes is a Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and Co-Director of the Colorado European Union Center of Excellence.

Note: For more on this topic, please see this short video from the BBC.


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