Tag Archives: conflict

Violence and the State: Protecting and Threatening

Iraq_Military_pic_1One of the fundamental questions in conflict today is simply, “How do we develop a state that is strong enough to deter rebels and attackers while assuring the citizens that its power will not be used for ill?” This problem has reared its head in Iraq, Ukraine and now…the U.S.

The fundamental problem in Iraq is not the government did not have enough coercive power but that the governors were using that power against the Sunnis. The Iraqi government could have assured the Sunni population that force would only be used against those that opposed the government. Instead, promises were broken and the focus was on exerting dominance, which the reduced both the capacity and legitimacy of the army. The Sunnis who had joined with the U.S. in 2007 have now opted with the Islamic State.

The balance of power has shifted in Ukraine conveniently after the Presidential election as the government has begun to do a better job of assuring the people of Ukraine that they will only harm those who are fighting the government. The use of violence is not as selective as it could be but to many people the government has begun to seem like a better option.

The Israel-Gaza is an extremely complicated conflict but one clear aspect is the difficulty of balancing deterrence and assurance. Hamas as shown little interest in promising Israel anything and Israel insists its only trying to deter attacks. Whether or not you believe this to be true one of the factors of deterrence is that status quo must seem attractive. There must be something to go back to. After all deterrence is both a threat and a promise…”If you do nothing bad, nothing bad will happen to you.” Or, “if you stop we can go back to the status quo”…but what if I don’t like that status quo?


Democracy is often touted as a solution to this problem however even democracies struggle with this balance. The situation in Ferguson illustrates this very well where protests and riots have broken out over the killing of a young African-American male. Police need to have the capability to use force but that force needs to be backed with legitimacy. Furthermore the pattern in the U.S. suggests that the wrong kind of discrimination was at work in Ferguson. Rather than being discriminate in their use of force the police seems to be targeting people on the base of race as in New York.

This is why due process is so vital to a legitimate state. Due process is not just about justice…but also about being careful that the targets of state power are deserving. Like Democracy, due process is not perfect…some innocents are convicted and some guilty go free. But it is much better than when the use of violence is applied wholesale and unfairly by the state.


Putin’s Long Game

crimea-mapThe onset of sanctions between the West and Russia are like the opening moves of chess–and like any chess game the victor will be decided later in the game.  To predict who will be in checkmate we must examine the wants and desires of the players on either side of the board.  Simply put, what does Putin want 10 moves from Crimea?


Putin faces losing Ukraine to the European Union which threatened his long-term dream of the Eurasian Union.  Set to launch in 2015 the Eurasian Union was never hollow talk, it was meant to be a genuine alternative to the West for countries bordering Russia.   So far only Belarus and Kazakhstan have signed on for the Eurasian Union and this isn’t a strong base on which to build.  Belarus is largely subsidized by Russia and oil rich Kazakhstan needs larger markets to grow–enter Russia’s Gazprom.   However Ukraine is the second largest economy is the post-Soviet region. More than just an economic power house it is also the birth of the Russian state–in medieval “Kevian Rus” and is still apart of the “Russian world.”

Putin’s opening moves in Ukraine have exposed the ambiguity of his Eurasian Union and threatened it’s future before it began.  The Eurasian Union was meant  to be an equal partnership between member states where they could pursue political and economic goals and also act as a buffer against Western style liberalism.  However, Putin’s blitz in Ukraine has opened Russia to a premature check.  Putin has justified his Crimean gambit with a vast but vague “responsibility to protect” doctrine.  No one knows if this doctrine will be backed by military force or whom he he intends to protect: ethnic Russians, Russian speakers, anyone that Russian feels needs protecting?  This aggression calls into question the equality of the Eurasian partnership and has understandably spooked Russia’s neighbors.

Domestically Putin is playing a dangerous game.  Set to leave in 2018 he is attempting to ride on the military paradigm.  By stirring a strong sense of nationalism and “anti-westernism” Putin can ride on the approval of the Russian people. Leaders tend to gain favor in war time but this can fade as it did with George W. Bush after Iraq.

The West also has much lose.  If the Eurasian Union were to be a success…some thing that would require the joining of Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan to name a few, it would be a powerful buffer against Western ideals.  Spreading democracy, anti-corruption and advocating for LGTBQ rights would become much more difficult if these countries are backed by a larger oppressive union.


In the long game larger military action is unlikely.  By the numbers, Russia spends about 9% of the larger NATO budget on military and much of that goes to kickbacks.  The U.S. alone spends more than any other country on the planet, but Ukraine does expose some of the weaknesses of the western front, namely the lack of other options. Sanctions could work to place Putin in check but but they will take time to come into effect and in the meantime smaller Russian gas dependent countries like Bulgaria and Slovenia will suffer.




The Future of Conflict Part I: Background

Over the past twenty years the world has become more peaceful.  Yes, despite Syria, the DRC the violence in Kenya and many others our world been increasingly more peaceful.

The next few posts will look at where and how the next conflicts will take place and the issues that spark them namely: population, resources, inequality and climate change.

The coming wars will have similar aspects to the ones we’ve seen in that past such as:

  • Challenges to the social order whether in the name of Democracy or for economic reform.
  • Many will take on larger dimensions as international powers seeks to protect their investments
  • Most will be multi-dimensional and not always political

While each conflict is different, these will share three basic factors:

  • They will challenge who has power and why
  • Their escalation will depend on whether the community can manage conflict
  • Ordinary citizens, especially women, will suffer

No End In Sight: Syria

SyriaThe one consistent thing about the Syrian civil war is that there never seems to be an attractive way to end it.  If Assad “wins” his rule will be weakened and he will likely be a proxy of Iran and will rule over a large Sunni population that hates him and is better armed than before.  That’s an untenable position to be in at best.  If the opposition forces win then the Sunni majority will likely exact revenge on the Alawites and any supporters they had in the country.  Furthermore, these factions will most likely turn on each other once the single threat of Assad is removed.

Recently Secretary of State Kerry stated that he hopes that a diplomatic solution based on power sharing can be reached. Power sharing between the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority is not likely to succeed for two reasons. First, the power sharing agreement would be overtime and that would be very difficult to enforce.  Could Assad be trusted to not jail to attack the opposition once they demobilized? Could the Sunni leaders commit not to consolidate power once Assad opens the government to reform? Second, the battlefield as it stands now will not allow either side to come to an agreement. They both still think they can win and to make matters worse they have funders that are willing to support them.  Until the power relations outside Syria can come to an agreement and cease funneling money and guns across the border this war will continue. But as that seems unlikely, perhaps a some tactics of governance can point towards a solution.

Decentralization may point to a path around this however–some studies have shown that civil war combatants are more likely to sign a treaty if they are given some level of territorial autonomy.  This would allow combatants to maintain political control over their own territory as well as control the security aspects.  This path to decentralization and regional autonomy may result in a defensible peace.

However there exist problems in this strategy as well as Rothchild and Roeder point out.  While decentralization may help to end ethnic conflict, it can also hinder the democratic process over time.  There’s no guarantee that the Sunni camps would remain at peace while keeping Assad in power.

There are no good options in Syria just bad, worse and impossible. That said a plan that could incentivize actors to move towards peace at least in the short-term might be the best I’ve heard so far.

Ukraine and Putin: Redrawing the Map


A piece in the Telegraph stated that it may be better for Ukraine to agree to a partition on diplomatic terms rather than face a Russian lead military occupation.  While I disagree with this stance the article does make  the crititical argument that post-soviet Ukraine politics have been marked by the failure of East and West Ukraine to unite the country in  a meaningful way.

Russia’s show of force however has a larger implication–one that speaks to the central issue which is not what pieces of land belong to Ukraine or Russia but that borders shouldn’t be changed by a show of force.  Crimea’s current status is the result of a Russian invasion a quarter of millennium ago and a arbitrary reassignment of the region from the Russia SSR to the Ukraine SSR in 1954.

Unless these borders  are re-drawn via mutual consent of the parties involved as was the case with Czechoslovakia, the larger parties should stay out.

There is the possibility that this is something that Putin has in mind, but this is unlikely.  Putin is the anti-Yelstin and the anti-Gorbachev and amicable divorces rarely being with a show of force.

State Building and Neotrusteeship: South Sudan

imagesChris Blattman recently asked if the West should have governed South Sudan in light of the ongoing civil war. While my simple response is ‘no’  the controversy has many angles as  Fearson and Laitin stated:

In sharp contrast to classical imperialists, neotrustess want to withdraw as fast as possible. References to “exit strategy” have led the policy discourse and debate surrounding international and U.S. operations in the Balkans, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and now Iraq.”

It is true that the foreign governing body does have an interest in leaving, however it still applies the same logic as old world colonialism just with a shorter time line.  Whatever or whomever is put in charge of South Sudan will have a fixed timeline and an exit strategy in mind (hopefully). How long would this timeline be? How long would it take to build institutions that would reflect and balance structural inequality, if that is even possible?

More than likely the elites in South Sudan would play along and bid their time until the governing body left and then they could settle their grievances. Unlike learning a skill, state craft is not something you can simply master and be left to your own devices.  It must happen organically and institutions must be able to counter the power inequality within a society, something neotrusteeship may not be able to provide.

The exit strategy would most likely center around elections.  These would likely favor those that played the game well under neotrusteeship, and possibly those that could eventually pay back Western tax dollars.  Failure to achieve fair and open elections could lead to armed conflict by groups who feel disenfranchised, leading us back to square one.

This system also assumes the Western-run neotrusteeship is benevolent.  This again speaks to the logic of colonization where the where the Western states viewed themselves as the ” civilizer.” The idea that the Western states have no interest outside of altruism is a myth that needs to be put to rest.

colonialism, German colony, Africa, caricature about the colonization of Africa "Sunday Dispatch", London, circa 1900, historic,

Neotrusteeship can be used to prevent mass atrocities or to uproot safe havens for terror networks and to foster a less violent environment from which institutions may grow but it itself cannot grow the institutions.

I do however see the need for foreign assistance in building stronger institutions in younger states.  In regards to long-term state building I agree with Jeremy Weinstein’s idea that we should focus on identity and understanding:

Internal processes of change that give rise to successful state-building, the conditions under which these internal mechanisms are likely to work, and the lessons international actors can draw from autonomous recovery for efforts to bring conflict to an end. Although it may be difficult to accept, one of the key lessons is that sometimes it makes sense not to intervene, or to intervene actively on behalf of one side.”

Walking Dead and International Relations Part 2: Human Edition

Rick-Grimes-Michonne-The-Governor-the-walking-dead-33819289-648-365  Continuing with the analysis of The Walking Dead and its implications for International Relations we will take a closer look at the non-Zombie communities and the choices they make that are similar to the classic Prisoners Dilemma.

The central idea to a prisoner’s dilemma is that two actors face a situation where cooperation is mutually beneficial but both sides are tempted to cheat for maximum gain, thus taking advantage of the other player.  Arguably, the best outcome is when I cheat but my partner tries to cooperate, the worst is the reverse.  The second best is when we both cooperate and of course there is the possibility that both sides try to cheat. Another school of thought is that in any Prisoner’s Dilemma or negotiation the chance for mutual gain is present hence the mutual cooperation is the best possible outcome. The logic being that once Player 1 has exploited Player 2, the relationship is ripe for conflict, leading neither party to cooperate in future talks. However this only works if neither party prefers conflict and focuses more on what is right rather than what works.  In standard math terms…..

Exploitation>(I cheat & You don’t)>Cooperation (We both cooperate)>Conflict(Neither of us cooperate)> Loss( I cooperate & you don’t)


Cooperation (We both cooperate)>Exploitation>(I cheat & You don’t)>Conflict(Neither of us cooperate)> Loss( I cooperate & you don’t)

The Walking Dead has two groups one led by Rick, a former sheriff whose people find shelter in a prison and another led by the Governor. The negotiation revolves around a land bargain that would led to peace between the groups as long as Rick hands over Michonne who the Governor hates…but is also one of Rick’s best people. Ideally, peace is worth more than Michonne so Rick should cooperate, but the Governor prefers conflict and so he is a spoiler.

Luckily Rick has a change of heart at the last second…but he has an agent problem in Merle.  Merle decides to take matters into his own hands and attack the Governor’s people.


In the absence of law and order the world of The Walking Dead is similar to that of world of international relations. Without a hierarchy to enforce behavior or agreements, the temptation to cheat, and fear that the other might cheat is very high.  As this show reminds us with the Governor, not everyone is playing the same game. Furthermore, those negotiating the agreements may not always be able to control their team, or militia as Rick couldn’t control Merle. Another reason why civil wars are often harder to end than inter-state ones is because one side may in fact prefer war, and because the elites at the table may be unable to control those they are supposed to command.