Tag Archives: War

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?

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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.

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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)

  OR 

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.

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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.

Casus Belli, Syria & Chemical Weapons

url  Our international system rests on two pillars: states are sovereign, and they shall not, for the most part, attack each other.  Both of these are reflected in the U.N. charter which recognizes two exceptions: an attack in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolution or in defense of one’s self or collective.  The U.S. is now faced with either abiding by these laws or abandoning them for a possible unlawful intervention in Syria.  For all its disregard for law, including the recent use of chemical weapons, the Syrian regime has not given up its own sovereignty.   As a matter of international law the conflict continues to be an internal despite the violent spill over into Turkey and Lebanon.

The first exception to the rule covers any intervention supported by the Security Council.  The U.S. had such a mandate in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and the most recent Gulf War.  Due to a likely veto from Russia and China that deals with any Syrian intervention there is little possibility for U.N. sanction.

The second exception applies to defense of self or the collective.  Under this ruling Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Iraq or Lebanon could respond as could their allies in NATO.  Legally this is a very grey area. Despite the occasional skirmish on Turkish or Israeli borders this may not have created a justification for war.

Some may argue that states have a right to self-defense in the form of a preemptive attack.  However, this theory has a troubled past not the least of which is due to the U.S. justification of the Iraq war, not to mention it relies heavily on proof of imminent threat and intent. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of intent from the Assad regime and these are historically hard to prove.

The U.S. will likely compile an argument based on the chemical weapons usage and horrors taken place within Syria, of which there are many, and argue the adverse impacts on the region.  As in the case of Kosovo, this argument produces a war that is unlawful, but justifiable nonetheless.  This argument is made even more murky by the fact that Syria has never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and thus may not be held to a law they never signed.

The Obama administration must also wrestle with U.S. law as well as international.  The Constitution divides power between the Executive and the Congress which has the ability to declare war, raise taxes to support war and set the rules for war.  The Justice Department decided in 2011 that the President could launch attacks into Libya as long as “such use of force was in national interest” and the duration “would not trigger Congressional approval.” The argument that Syria now threatens regional stability is certainly plausible but may not be enough to sway Congress.

When we feel passionate about a conflict it is easy to dismiss these laws as unnecessary constraints on American power.  However, international law has a value more than its codification of normative values.  The slope between war and peace can be very slippery and the treaties, laws and institutions act as road signs and brakes on that slope allowing us weigh the enormous costs of war.  By following international law we could slow the slide to war and build a legal, moral and truly international force.