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Using IR Theory for Policy Prediction

By Deborah Avant for Denver Dialogues


A press conference before a meeting on Syria at Palais des Nations in Geneva, September 13, 2013. Photo via UN Geneva.

Cullen Hendrix wrote a post a few weeks ago (“Shit Happens”) on the difficulty of predicting “rare” events. It is a smart reflection on how he reacted when asked by policy makers to anticipate what might lead to some “bad thing.” Although there is no light between Hendrix and I when selecting cocktails, I realized I approach such questions from policy makers in a somewhat different manner.

First, though many social scientists do adopt probabilistic assumptions and identify general tendencies that make something more or less likely to occur, one can find many different takes on which general tendencies are relevant. Hendrix outlines a reasonable take on a rationalist argument: “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.”

But general tendencies need not be rationalist. Different theoretical lenses focus on different actors and chart different logics that can drive quite distinct general tendencies. Take Dan Drezner’s analysis of what effect a zombie infestation would have on global politics (surely the ultimate rare event). Drezner draws different predictions from various prominent IR theory approaches: Realists may expect no “real” change (as zombies would seek power just as humans do). Liberals could anticipate a counter-zombie regime (zombie infestations being a significant externality and all). Constructivists might presume humans to draw together around existing norms and perhaps even socialize re-animated corpses to abide by said norms, thereby changing the game altogether (though they would also need to counter zombie efforts to socialize humans). Drezner also entertains contending explanations from domestic politics, bureaucratic politics, and psychology, but you get the drift.

Each of these predictions is backed by research with significant empirical support. Any one event (or event trajectory) may contain facets consistent with each approach. Rather than choosing one (or racing them against one another), we could explain the various logics and evaluate what evidence might help policy makers make inferences about the future. For instance, evidence of zombie-human alliances could indicate the potential usefulness of balancing theories; evidence that some zombies restrain themselves from human brain consumption could validate the potential for socialization. Drezner missed interesting new work on networks (apologies for the shameless self-promotion), spaces, transnational coalitions, and collective mobilization, but the point is the same. To leverage academic work for a policy question about the future, I would begin by imagining the future through these different lenses and look for evidence that supports or challenges each.

Second, events at the macro level are often the product of micro level dynamics. The level from which one decides to evaluate a question – and how to understand the potential interactions between levels – suggests another way to disaggregate prediction. Thinking about “war” is interesting here. We often think of war at the macro level – as an overarching effort led by leaders of one collective group against another. Because it is expensive to both collectives, many assume that it is undesirable and therefore likely to be avoided. An explosion of writing on civil war, though, has demonstrated that what we count as war is often the accumulation of “micro-dynamics” – or more locally understood violence. Attributing violence to the two sides’ failure to agree misses the way in which opportunistic political leaders may use violence to further individual rather than collective ends. It also misses how local dynamics – police or other local officials taking sides, score settling, and other opportunistic action by individuals – can fuel violence that is understood as part of the macro struggle even though it is not driven by the leadership at all. These micro processes of violence are not weird or unobservable, but they may fall outside what many political scientists observe. So what is unexpected from one level of analysis may be more expected from another.

Ultimately, though, we are often surprised (particularly these days when shit is happening everywhere) so I concur with Hendrix that we should be circumspect about our abilities. Beyond that, judgment about what is likely to happen – and thus which policy to pursue – is often, as Drezner puts it, “more art than science.” Pragmatists from William James and Charles Pierce to Hans Joas argue that the ability to weigh evidence – making use of both symbolic and intuitive reasoning – is key to good political judgement. Rather than giving policy makers our best answer, then, we could also show them our work and thus help them integrate theoretical logic with their own knowledge and intuition.

Weekly Links

By Patrick Pierson.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French, 1780 - 1867 ), Pope Pius VII in the Sistine Chapel, 1814, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection 1952.2.23

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, “Pope Pius VII in the Sistine Chapel,” 1814. Photo via National Gallery of Art.

The economic and political turmoil in Venezuela continues. Venezuelans are flocking to neighboring Colombia in search of basic grocery items. The number of US asylum applications filed by Venezuelans is up 168% compared to the same time period last year. Recently, a number of animals have been stolen from a Caracas zoo and butchered for their meat. The economic crunch has also resulted in a coffin crisis, with poorer citizens now resorting to cardboard coffins. Further south in Bolivia, President Evo Morales launched a new ‘anti-imperialism’ military academy to counter US influence in the region.

Earlier this week, armed men burst into an upscale Puerto Vallarta restaurant and abducted the son of notorious Mexican drug lord El Chapo. This comes amid a rise in cartel violence over the past few months. On Thursday, Mexico’s human rights commission released a report detailing gross human rights violations by federal police officers during a raid on a ranch last year.

In the US, Twitter announced an uptick in its suspension of accounts for ‘promotion of terrorism.’ The Obama administration announced the transfer of 15 detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Also this week, the US Justice Department revealed plans to phase out the use of private prisons.

In Uganda, nine AU peacekeepers were jailed for operating a fuel racket in Somalia. Rwandan police engaged in a three-hour shoot-out with a terrorism suspect in Kigali this week. This article argues that the private sector should be doing more to counter threats from terrorism. Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan announced this week a plan to deploy Canadian troops to a UN mission in Africa.

US Security Assistance and Terrorism: An Inconvenient Truth?

Guest post by Ed Coughlan.


US President Barack Obama speaks with National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice aboard Air Force One. Photo via The White House.

According to the Security Assistance Monitor (SAM) dataset, US assistance to foreign military, police, and other security forces has jumped from $5 billion in 2000 to $15 billion in 2015. It is often argued that it is in the US government’s interest to support its allies around the world given the global nature of today’s threats: terrorist groups such as ISIS are just as likely to strike in Europe as in the Middle East.


Indeed, President Obama made this very argument in April 2013 in Presidential Policy Directive 23 (PPD-23). In this document, he pledged that the US government would “help allies and partner nations build their own security capacity” in order to “address security challenges in their countries and regions, whether it is fighting alongside our forces, countering terrorist and international criminal networks…or building institutions capable of maintaining security, law, [sic] and order, and applying justice.”

This is a plausible argument. In the aftermath of World War II, for example, the United States provided $13 billion – $120 billion in today’s dollars – to Western Europe under the Marshall Plan between 1948 and 1951. This plan is often credited with helping the war-weary countries of Europe regain their footing, resist the spread of communism, and reinvent themselves in less than a generation as one of the world’s leading economic and political blocs.

However, it’s far from clear that the recent surge in assistance to foreign military, police, and other security forces since 9/11 has had a similarly benign effect on the security of US allies. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. As a spate of recent academic studies have shown, US military assistance is positively related to a host of adverse consequences, from civil conflicts and coups d’état to acts of terrorism against America citizens. Unfortunately, these studies have garnered very little attention outside the halls of academia to date.

In one study, for example, scholars found a positive relationship between US military assistance and the intensification of violence in Colombia. More specifically, they found that such assistance contributed to government-sponsored violence in those areas of the country in which the national army maintained a military base. In concrete terms, they found that over the years 1988 to 2005, military aid translated into an increase of 110% in government attacks and 138% in paramilitary attacks in base areas. In a second study, scholars found that American military training of foreign officers almost doubled the chance of a military-backed coup attempt.

Similarly, a third study found a positive relationship between US military assistance, local levels of repression, and anti-American terrorism. The authors found that a country with substantial human rights violations is roughly 10 times more likely to generate anti-American terrorism than a country that does not repress its citizens. However, the association between repression and terrorism breaks down for high levels of military assistance.

Another study reported that strengthening military capacity tends to provoke, rather than subdue, terrorist attacks because terrorism remains one of the few options left to dissidents fighting against technologically-sophisticated militaries. This suggests that the US government’s efforts, as set out in PPD-23, to “help allies and partner nations build their own security capacity” may be encouraging the very thing they are designed to prevent – namely, terrorism.

In sum, contrary to rhetorical claims about the effectiveness of US military aid in reducing terrorist attacks, a growing body of evidence finds that such assistance has a detrimental impact on the security of both America and its allies. Given the threefold increase in US assistance to foreign military, police, and other security forces since 9/11 – as illustrated above – this should cause no small concern to foreign-policy makers going forward. In light of these findings, the US government should rethink its current approach to foreign assistance and target those sectors of the state – such as education and health – which studies show are conducive to the diminution, rather than the intensification, of terrorism.

Ed Coughlan holds a PhD in Political Science from Trinity College, Dublin and is Research Associate at the Open Society Foundation.

Could Colombia’s Peace Process Still Be Derailed?

By Aila M. Matanock and Natalia Garbiras Díaz.


US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Colombian officials in Havana, Cuba, to discuss peace negotiations with the FARC, March 21, 2016. Photo via U.S. Department of State.

Colombia has almost succeeded in ending a fifty-year civil conflict with leftist guerrillas. The government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are finalizing a peace agreement, so far agreeing on important sets of proposals, including some that may be viewed as concessions to the guerrillas. And while excitement and anticipation are certainly due in light of the progress made to date, there is still cause for concern as the peace process enters its final stages.

Our recent work suggests that opponents to the peace process may be able to tap into Colombian attitudes regarding the FARC – and potential concessions to the group – to convince citizens to vote “NO” in a critical upcoming plebiscite.

Of concern are proposals which, for example, include political and electoral participation provisions such as the possibility that the FARC will become a political movement or party and that a number of seats in the Senate will be reserved for the FARC (while this proposal has been widely discussed in the country, it has not been officially included in the draft on political participation agreed in Havana). Our prior work suggests that such provisions may be conducive to peace by helping combatant leaders share power in a way that can be enforced by observers and donors—and, indeed, the UN will verify Colombia’s peace agreement—but they also may be unpopular with the population, potentially derailing a peace agreement. Not only would allowing the guerrilla groups to become political parties potentially alter aspects of the political and electoral system (although that could be popular as it potentially makes them more representative), voters may also be hesitant to confer legitimacy on a party formed by former rebels.

These concerns are made central in this peace agreement by the approval mechanism and the politics around it. A recent milestone in the process was the announcement of detailed steps for the end of the conflict, including an agreed upon mechanism for approving the final settlement – a plebiscite put before Colombian voters. For the settlement to take effect, it must be approved by a majority of those voting, and at least 13% of the electoral census must turn out to vote. Such a vote seems to be an unusual move: plebiscites or referenda on particular components of peace agreements are sometimes seen in separatist conflicts but otherwise seem uncommon – and perhaps with good reason (for a cautionary tale, see Seligson’s work on Guatemala).

It is clear that the plebiscite will face opposition. While last month the Constitutional Court cleared the way by declaring it constitutional, this month former President Alvaro Uribe officially declared he and his party will campaign for “NO” in the coming plebiscite. And it might work. Polls this summer haven shown both “YES” and “NO” leading, with close margins, but many remain indecisive or plan to abstain from voting (9.1 percent and 24.6 percent, respectively, according to the latest public opinion numbers). Dynamics that we detected suggest that the opposition may be able to swing these votes. Colombians are very supportive of the ongoing peace process (approval was 5.0 on a 1-7 scale), but – returning to our main point – they are less supportive of particular provisions that may be construed as concessions (support for the FARC forming a political party was 18.7 percent), and they deeply distrust the FARC (trust was 1.4 on a 1-7 scale) (based on the authors’ analysis of data from LAPOP 2015).

To more rigorously assess these attitudes, our recent paper examines whether FARC endorsement of a particular policy proposal affects support for that part of the peace process. In an endorsement experiment in the 2015 AmericasBarometer survey in Colombia, which surveyed 1,390 individuals living in the municipalities most affected by conflict, we asked respondents to report their support for a proposal to provide more representation in the Lower House to the areas of the country most affected by conflict (an item included in the draft of the proposed peace agreement negotiated by the parties). We found that when the proposal is associated with the FARC, and potentially seen as a concession for the group, support is dramatically lower than when it was simply seen as part of the peace process. An endorsement by the FARC results in an acute drop in the percentage of respondents supporting the proposal from 44.4 percent down to 31 percent. These results are even more surprising given that all respondents were sampled from the regions that would directly benefit from it. This suggests that strong negative attitudes toward the FARC, as well as distaste for potential provisions seen as concessions, could counter strong support in Colombia for the overall peace process.

Figure from Matanock and Garbiras Díaz 2016 showing respondent support for special transitory peace districts for municipalities most affected by the civil conflict (randomly assigned endorsement by the FARC or not)


Ultimately, Colombia is a democracy and, as such, President Santos has been emphatic that Colombians will have the last word on the approval of the final peace agreement. Now that the Constitutional Court has ruled in favor of the plebiscite, it is set to move forward to the campaign period. Our results suggest that the opposition may be able to emphasize aspects of the peace agreement, including the potential electoral inclusion of the FARC, political changes, and anything that may be seen as concessions, to turn some of the many uncommitted Colombians away from the peace process and towards a “NO” vote. Critically, however, the design of the plebiscite may prove a smarter strategic decision by the government to get approval. Requiring only a single vote on the peace process from just 13 percent of the electoral census in Colombia may help finalize the agreement (to learn more on the next steps of the plebiscite, go here and here).

In general, though, involving voters in the final stage of a peace process negotiated by leaders can be risky. The impulse in future peace processes, especially in democracies, may be to include a mechanism for voter legitimization. The Colombian case, however, suggests that rebel groups and the concessions provided for them – inherent parts of settlements – may be unpopular. In such instances, the inclusion of political and electoral provisions, in combination with plebiscites or referenda, may actually serve to derail the very peace processes they seek to substantiate.

What’s Going On in Zambia?

By Dawn Brancati.


Zambian President (then Minister of Home Affairs) Edgar Lungu at the 64th Executive Committee Meeting of the UNHCR. Photo via Photo Unit of UNHCR.

By less than 3 percent of the vote, President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front defeated Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development in his re-election bid for the presidency. According to the results announced on Monday, Lungu won a very slight majority of the votes, obviating the need for a run-off election. Immediately after the outcome of the election was announced, the opposition rejected the results, claiming that the elections were fraudulent. Protests and riots soon followed in the country’s South.

Zambia has held multiparty elections since 1991 and has enjoyed numerous peaceful transitions of power since democracy’s inception. So the question beckons – why are these elections different?

While unusual for Zambia, the current instability in the country follows a rather predictable pattern. Democracy protests, and others forms of collective action, often arise around elections in weakly democratic states when there is an economic crisis. Crises tend to increase support for the opposition while also reducing the amount of patronage governments have at their disposal to curry favor with the public. Opposition forces, meanwhile, are more likely to organize protests when vote totals suggest that they would have significant support if they did, and that the opposition would have won the elections had the elections been more free and fair. A small margin of victory for the incumbent does both.

Given the current unrest, it is not surprising to see many of these conditions at work in present-day Zambia. First, Zambia’s economy has declined sharply in the last few years. Copper prices have fallen, triggering high inflation and unemployment, a reduction in economic growth, and the devaluation of the country’s currency, the kwacha. Agricultural production has also dropped, while electricity shortages have arisen as a result of droughts. Hichilema, a wealthy businessman, campaigned on his ability to fix the economy, accusing the government of damaging the country’s economy through runaway corruption and wasteful spending.

Second, the opposition has accused the government of stealing the elections by registering ineligible voters, interfering with the opposition’s campaign, distorting the media’s coverage of the election, and manipulating the vote tally. Some of the UPND’s claims have been backed up by independent election observers, including the Christian Churches Monitoring Group and the European Union. Their reports may help precipitate further protests by giving authenticity to the opposition’s claims.

Hichilema has not yet called for protests. He has, however, promised to challenge the results in the country’s constitutional court. According to recent scholarship, courts – even when they exhibit a pro-incumbent bias – can dissuade the opposition from organizing protests in close elections. Unfortunately, most post-election protests, when they do occur, are met with government force. In light of these challenges, let’s hope Zambia’s democracy is able to overcome the current unrest and maintain its track record of peaceful transitions of power.

Tortoise Politics in the Time of the Hare: Long-Run Solutions to Social Conflict in Latin America

By Steven T. Zech for Denver Dialogues.

Pombas Urbanas

A street performance of “Era Uma Vez Um Rei” by the Brazilian theatre group Pombas Urbanas in the Villa El Salvador district outside Lima, Peru, on June 25, 2016. Photo by Steven T. Zech.

All too often, “post-conflict” societies continue to confront challenges related to violence, human rights abuses, and pervasive insecurity even after overt conflict has subsided. And while the end of a conflict can appear immediate – such as the signing of a peace accord or the laying down of arms – efforts to limit violence during and after social conflict necessitate an array of both short-term and long-term interventions. Though pragmatism often demands the use of force to respond to the most pressing challenges, policymakers might benefit from a broader repertoire of nonviolent strategies with longer time horizons. Cultural solutions to social and political conflict can compliment efforts to achieve more peaceful and sustainable change. Ultimately, meaningful change often happens slowly.

Culture plays an important role in enabling or constraining violence during and after social conflict. Like Max Weber and Clifford Geertz, I view culture as the evolving and shared “webs of significance” that people use to bring meaning to and interpret social life. During conflict, collective actors can influence how societies view and employ violence through culture. For example, the Shining Path used theatrical performance in prisons, universities, and community meetings to share its political program and recruit participants in Peru in the 1980s and 1990s. The Shining Path’s performances helped to convince some communities that violence was a desirable and legitimate means to achieve political and social change. Alternatively, artists, musicians, and theatre groups near Lima used various media to offer competing political visions. For example, director César Escuza and the Vichama theatre group empowered local activist allies to resist terrorist violence and to denounce the state’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency. The group encouraged dialogue in a time of fear and its members helped to create a space where communities could articulate demands and propose alternatives to violent change.

Recently, I had the opportunity to witness some of these long-term interventions in action while conducting field research in Peru. I attended a conference hosted by Vichama where community theatre groups from Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, and Canada met to perform and conduct workshops on how to engage with pressing themes related to social conflict. I spoke with Rafael Virhuez, a former Vichama participant who founded the Casa Infantil Juvenil de Arte y Cultura (CIJAC), an arts and culture workshop that worked closely with gang leaders to perform theatre in Lima’s Villa El Salvador district. Rafael coordinated with a broader activist network that includes the Church, the Glass of Milk organization, and communal kitchens to establish a Committee for Nonviolence. The work of CIJAC and others focuses on youth in order to create a new generation of community members that reject violence and work towards social and political change through alternative means.

I also spoke with Graciela Díaz, a former Vichama participant who lives in the community where CIJAC operates. For Graciela, contemporary social violence is simply a new phase of an ongoing conflict in Peru. She explained, “Crime and drugs, violence against children, these are the heirs of our violent past.” To combat these challenges, she described how cultural projects create new types of people, “This is a generational project. In the work of CIJAC, the oldest participants are now in their late twenties and you can see the transformation.” Anecdotal evidence from participants and community members speaks to the efficacy of cultural solutions to community violence. As actor Paulo Carvalho from the São Paulo based Brazilian theatre group Pombas Urbanas explained, “As associations we create a link with communities, schools, police, and politicians. Little by little, we convince people that we are better together and open them up to new ideas.” But, change takes time. Efforts to more systematically evaluate the effects of cultural programs like CIJAC on violence are underway and Rafael Virhuez referenced recent survey data demonstrating that most residents view CIJAC as essential to community security.

In another Brazilian case, the Cabelo Seco community (in Marabá, Amazônia) has used theatre, dance, and music to affect positive social change through the Rios de Encontro project. Dan Baron, a playwright, director, and theorist with a distinguished career in cultural and arts education, serves as one of the program coordinators. He explained that one of his primary motivations has been to find ways of using not just theatre, but all the forms of creative intervention, to transform violent structures into conditions for peace. His efforts have taken him to numerous conflict zones during his career, including racial conflict in post-industrial Manchester, the IRA and Loyalist conflict in Northern Ireland, post-Apartheid South Africa, and now communities in the Brazilian Amazon with a history of violence involving the military police. In all the cases, theatre served to transform situations of violence into moments of dialogue.

Elsewhere in Latin America, we also see that education and dialogue are two factors that can influence cultures of violence in conflict and lead to positive social change in the long run. The Nuestra Gente cultural association in Medellín, Colombia, has experience working in challenging social conditions related to drug violence and emphasizes the importance of the pedagogy in theatre. The group aims to leave the audience asking new questions and to cause them to reflect upon and become protagonists in their own histories. Chusa Pérez de Vallejo helped found Los Últimos and performs social theatre in Argentina and Spain. She believes that theatre helps people to see, to understand, and to respond to challenging conditions. Theatre can give hope, inspire struggle, and resolve big problems.

Although it is challenging to establish or assess the direct causal influence of theatre in dampening violence and affecting positive and sustainable social change, every case I have seen has substantial anecdotal evidence to suggest it does. Cases like CIJAC in Peru and Rios de Encontro in Brazil demonstrate that cultural solutions to community violence can improve conditions and reduce violence over time. Meaningful and sustainable change happens at the cultural level. When social movements coalesce to eliminate racism and sexism, to end torture, or to stop gun violence, true and lasting change will occur when new ideas are introduced and take hold. Vichama’s director and most of the conference participants would see their efforts as a two-step process in affecting political and social change. As Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire noted, “Education doesn’t change the world. Education changes people. People change the world.”

Weekly Links

By Patrick Pierson.

Richard Caton Woodville (American, 1825 - 1855 ), Waiting for the Stage, 1851, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund, William A. Clark Fund, and through the gifts of Mr. and Mrs. Lansdell K. Christie and Orme Wilson; Frame: Museum Purchase through the gifts of William Wilson Corcoran) 2014.79.36

Richard Caton Woodville, “Waiting for the Stage,” 1851. Photo via National Gallery of Art.

This video documents the horrors of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes continue to inflict heavy costs on both civilians and non-military installations. The fight has become increasingly problematic for Saudi Arabia with renewed factionalism amongst constituencies in the country. And while another US-Saudi Arabia arms deal looks likely, US Senator Rand Paul is trying to block the sale from going through.

In Europe, violence against unaccompanied child refugees is escalating. Germany’s interior minister has proposed stricter security measures in the face of recent attacks, including a proposed burka ban. In a similar move, the mayor of Cannes, France, instituted a ban on burkinis at the city’s beaches. Also in refugee-related news, this story chronicles the interesting experience of a Kurdish immigrant in Japan. In Minnesota, two former refugees won primary elections this week.

US-backed militias in Libya have largely taken control of Islamic State’s headquarters in the coastal town of Sirte. This comes as the Pentagon confirms US ground troops in the country. As recent UN efforts demonstrate, the political economy of conflict presents an additional challenge for the country. The current UN envoy to Libya suggests support for the UN-backed government in Tripoli is ‘crumbling.’

This week, athletes from South Sudan’s first official Olympic team joined competitions in Rio. Back home, the humanitarian crisis continues, with neighboring Uganda facing an increasingly tough to manage flow of refugees. And while the UN has approved the deployment of additional troops to South Sudan, the government opposes the measure – Information Minister Michael Makuei accused the US-backed proposal of aiming to turn, “..South Sudan into a protectorate.”

Terrorism’s Media-Politics Complex

Guest post by Brian Forst


Edvard Munch, “The Scream,” 1893. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The massacre of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice was tragic enough. No less tragic was the speed and manner with which political and mass media opportunists exploited the act, feeding the frenzy that makes mass murder and terrorism so attractive to alienated young men in the first place. This exploitation of terrorism by political and popular media agents, and the manner in which they feed each other, represents a growing, persistent, and pervasive power that serves the interests of terrorists by creating a public fear that is becoming unmanageable. It threatens the principles of enlightened democracy that our founders explicitly intended.

The Nice attack was immediately and repeatedly described in popular news accounts as an act of terrorism, even before knowing whether the act was committed to further a political or ideological cause – the feature that most fundamentally distinguishes terrorism from crime.

This was unambiguously a mass killing, much like those in Blacksburg, Virginia, and Columbine, Colorado, neither of which were called acts of terrorism. It remains to be determined precisely to what extent the attack was motivated by a political rather than personal agenda, but what is clear is that this important question was settled by the media virtually immediately. It is wrong, both in and out of the courtroom, to presume the guilt of a suspect, however strong the evidence, but it is perfectly acceptable today to presume terrorism if the name of the killer is Mohamed.

Terrorism has reached a palpably disruptive level. It has imposed heavy burdens on law enforcement and immigration officials internationally. It has produced epic levels of social turmoil in much of the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and now Europe. It has seized the American public’s attention like no other threat to public health. It has given us a nominee for president from one of the two major political parties in the United States arguing in presidential debates for torture and the killing of families of terrorists.

Still, it is worth asking precisely what we mean by terrorism. Does the attack in Nice – and other mass killings that have been called acts of terrorism – really qualify as a terrorist event if the evidence reveals that the attacker used a terrorist connection as a thinly veiled excuse for a sociopathic act, without a serious commitment to any political or extremist agenda? This question is of little interest to much of the mass media, and even less interesting to opportunists who aim to build political capital by exploiting public fear. Terrorism gets the attention of the popular press and politicians, at least in the United States, well out of proportion to the harm it imposes in lives and property lost in the attacks. Media coverage of terrorism, and promises of ever more toughness against terrorism by politicians, is now so pervasive that one can no longer ignore the prospect that it aims primarily to attract eyeballs, sell product, and advance careers rather than to enhance the security of the US through an informed public. The coverage, and the tendency to over-react to the threat, also serve the strategic aims of terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

In his final week as president, Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his most memorable speech to the American public, in which he warned of the dangers of a growing military-industrial complex:

Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration…(The) conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government…we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society…Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Clear parallels exist between the military-industrial complex of the Cold War Era and the media-political complex of today’s Era of Terrorism. Both arose in times of “imbalance and frustration,” in response to what were described as existential threats to national security by alien forces with pernicious motives. Both were widely accepted by an American public gripped in fear. Both developed and persisted without much serious scrutiny of the incentives and motives of those who benefited most from the threats. Both complexes have reified the problem they aimed to solve. And as with the military-industrial complex, the components of the media-political complex complement one another. The popular media’s inflation of terrorism unsettles the public needlessly and expands opportunities for political pandering. If we truly care about national security, we will pay closer attention to ways in which the media-political complex serves the interests of terrorists. A comprehensive research agenda that combines content analysis to measure media and political stimuli with outcomes that reflect the seriousness and frequency of terrorist activities temporally and spatially could go a long way to sharpen our understanding of these effects.

President Eisenhower’s valedictory could use an up-dating. His calling attention to the military-industrial complex created a healthy awareness of a problem that was more serious than most people realized during the Cold War. It would be no less useful to call attention to a parallel and equally serious problem in today’s era of terrorism: the disruptive effects of media sensationalism and political pandering on public fear levels and national security policy. It may not be too late to temper the politics of fear with public policy enlightened by research on these vital issues.

Brian Forst is Professor of Justice, Law and Criminology at the American University’s School of Public Affairs. He wishes to thank Laura Dugan and Joseph Young for their helpful suggestions on drafts of this essay.

Mapping Territorial Control in Civil Wars

By James Igoe WalshMichael Findley, Daniel Strandow, and Jean-Claude Thill


Kurdish fighter. Photo via Kurdishstruggle.

How does control of territory influence the course of civil conflicts? Consider the Islamic State, which burst onto the international scene in 2014 with its rapid and unexpected capture of huge swathes of Iraqi territory, including the city of Mosul. Control over territory in Iraq and Syria allowed the group to generate income from oil production, the smuggling of petroleum and antiquities, and the imposition of fines and taxes on the local population. ISIS used this territory to expand its military operations in Syria and to attract foreign fighters with the message that it was succeeding in creating a real Caliphate. Subsequent loss of some of this territory has led ISIS to cut soldiers’ salaries, caused a decline in the influx of foreign fighters, and pushed the group to embark on a campaign of international terrorism.

This fits with the conclusions of many studies that territorial control influences a range of conflict behaviors. Kalyvas (2006) finds that the degree to which rebel and government forces control territory influences both sides’ willingness to victimize civilians and to engage in terrorism. Humphreys and Weinstein (2006) suggest that competition for territory creates less discipline among armed groups’ fighters. Fearon and Laitin (2003) argue that civil wars are more likely to begin in countries with non-contiguous and mountainous terrain, where rebels can more easily establish a long-term presence. Mampilly (2011) analyzes how rebels that control territory must also develop strategies to extract revenue from and to govern the local population, while Stewart (2016) finds that territorial control is a pre-condition for the provision of inclusive social services by rebel groups.

Yet actually measuring territorial control in a systematic fashion across conflicts faces important challenges. Some are conceptual: is territorial control a binary concept, or can armed groups exercise degrees of control? While Kalyvas’ groundbreaking work argued that control ranges along a continuum, many representations (such as the New York Times’ maps of Syria) depict areas as either controlled, or not, by a single armed group. Other challenges are inferential: what sort of events lead to changes in territorial control? In most attempts to map control, violent events such as battles play a key role in defining contested and controlled areas. But which events are relevant, and how they translate to control, is often not made clear (see, for example, this map of Afghanistan created by the Institute for the Study of War). A third set of challenges are computational: if an armed group controls a particular point on a map, how far out does control radiate from this location? How do social and geographic factors such as terrain, population density, and road networks influence the radius of control? The Carter Center’s impressive Syria Conflict Map project relies on a range of data sources documenting where and when violent events take place to identify points controlled by parties to the conflict, but does not seek to determine the reach over which these parties can exercise effective control.

With the support of the Minerva Research Initiative, our Resources and Conflict project developed a new method for measuring territorial control and applied it to civil conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa after the end of the Cold War. The starting point is clashes between government and rebel forces, identified from events in the Uppsala Conflict Data Program’s Georeferenced Event Dataset. For each such event, we determine who initiated the attack and who controlled the location at the end of the battle. We use this data to measure control of the location on a five-point scale: government complete control, government incomplete control, contested area, rebel incomplete control, and rebel complete control. We then incorporate information about road networks, terrain features, and assumptions about quickly armed travel. This is fed into geographic information system algorithms to produce maps identifying the location and degree of territorial control exercised by armed groups. For details, see our recent paper (gated, ungated).

Picture1To see how this approach addresses some of the challenges to conflict mapping identified above, consider this depiction of territorial control in the Liberian civil war in 2003. The map depicts varying levels of control exerted by the government and two rebel groups, LURD and MODEL. We see that the government actually exercises complete control over only a few small areas, while MODEL controls the port city of Buchanan. Note as well the importance of the road network, which influences the range over which actors exercise control.

Our method is particularly well-suited to capturing changes in territorial control over time. This animation of the conflict between the government of Angola and UNITA rebels from 1989 to 2001 illustrates its ability to capture the dynamics of conflict (note that the year 1997 is missing, as the Uppsala Conflict Data Program did not classify this conflict as a civil war in that year). The degree of each side’s control of territory waxes and wanes over time. Notice, for example, that the rebels establish control over the town of Luena in the early 1990s, and that much of the conflict takes place in the center and northwest of the country.

In ongoing work, we build on this approach to develop more sophisticated geographic representations of territorial control. A striking feature of this representation of conflicts is that most of the territory is classified as what we term “uncontested sovereignty,” meaning areas where there is no evidence of contestation between rebel and government forces. Such combat is the starting point for our measures of territorial control, meaning we have little sense of how much of a presence the government actually has in such areas. Future work will use additional conflict events, such as protests, to develop more fine-grained measures of government presence in such areas.

We are currently developing a system that would semi-automatically code events from news media texts and transform this data into maps in near real-time. This system will be entirely open source, meaning that one could take the methodology, software, and algorithms generated by our project and, at relatively low cost, systematically map territorial control in conflicts zones of their choosing. This would allow media organizations, researchers, and non-governmental organizations to develop their own maps of conflict dynamics in civil wars, especially those that attract less attention.

James Igoe Walsh is Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Michael Findley is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. Daniel Strandow holds a PhD from the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University. Jean-Claude Thill is the Knight Foundation Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  

Weekly Links

By Patrick Pierson.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, "Young Girl at a Window," c. 1883-1884,

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, “Young Girl at a Window,” c. 1883-1884. Photo via National Gallery of Art.

Bosnia moved closer towards EU membership and a much needed IMF loan arrangement this week. Meanwhile, Turkey threatened to back out of its migrant deal with the European Union if visa-free travel is not granted to Turkish citizens. Greek officials note that the plan has been working but caution the need for a Plan B should the deal fall through. Elsewhere, there appears to be a warming of relations between the EU and Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan as the former seeks to stymie the flow of migrants from Africa. This comes as al-Bashir received the Champion of African Pride award at a forum in Addis Ababa.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs resulted in 465 deaths in July alone. The president has demonstrated a more diplomatic tone in search of an elusive peace with insurgencies in the country’s restive south. Lawmakers in Myanmar want to step up efforts to combat the country’s drug problem; meanwhile, religious violence remains a serious issue for the government.

A recently agreed upon funding model for the African Union Peace Fund could have implications for how African Union/United Nations partnerships develop in the future. An AU soldier in Somalia has been given a prison sentence for selling military supplies on the black market in Mogadishu. Interesting developments within the AU are sure to surface in coming months as Morocco aims to join the institution. A petition for the removal of age limits on the Ugandan presidency could pave the way for current president Yoweri Museveni to stay in power after his current term expires in 2021. An important election takes place this week in Zambia. UN efforts to control a yellow fever outbreak in Angola recently saw one million vaccines disappear. Chinese officials have pledged nearly $50 million to help construct a new parliament building in Zimbabwe.


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