Jay Ulfelder

The Trouble with Combining, or Why I’m Not Touting the Global Peace Index

 The Institute for Economics and Peace is making a big splash today with the release of the 2012 edition of its annual Global Peace Index (GPI)—“the world’s leading measure of global peacefulness,” according to its web site. The launch event for the 2012 edition included several people whose work I respect and admire, and the Institute identifies some of the heaviest hitters in the global fight for peace and human rights—Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama, for crying out loud—as “endorsers” of the GPI.

I really want to like this index. I’m a numbers guy, and I’ve spent most of my career analyzing data on political violence and change. But, the closer I look, the less I see.

The basic problem is one that confounds our best efforts to develop summary measures of complex concepts in many fields. Complexity implies multi-dimensionality; the complex whole is composed of many different parts. As a result, no single indicator will capture all of the elements we believe to be relevant.

To try to overcome this problem, we can mathematically combine measures of those separate elements in a single scale—an index. Unfortunately, with truly complex phenomena, those parts do not always move in lock step with each other. As a result, we often wind up with a summary measure that obscures as much as it clarifies because it blinds us to those tensions. In some cases, we can see changes in the index, but we can’t tell what’s driving them. In other cases, the index doesn’t budge, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there haven’t been significant changes that just happened to cancel each other out. In both of these scenarios, we’ve got a number, but we’re not really sure what it means.

We can see this dilemma clearly when we look closely at the GPI. According to the Institute’s documentation (PDF), the Global Peace Index represents a weighted combination of 23 indicators in three concept areas: 1) ongoing domestic and international conflict; 2) societal safety and security; and 3) militarization. The index includes so many things, we are told, because it aims to get simultaneously at two distinct ideas: not just “negative peace,” meaning the absence of violence, but also “positive peace,” meaning the presence of structures and institutions that create and sustain the absence of violence.

Some of the indicators are inherently quantitative, like counts of deaths from civil conflict and number of jailed population per 100,000 people. Others, such as “perceptions of criminality” and “military capability/sophistication,” are qualitative concepts that are scored by Economist Intelligence Unit staffers. All 23 are converted into comparable five-point scales and then aggregated according to an algorithm that involves weights assigned by an expert panel at the level of the individual indicator and at the level of two sub-component indices having to do with internal (60%) and external (40%) peace. Here’s a complete list of the 23 components:

  • Number of external and internal conflicts fought in the past five years
  • Estimated number of deaths from organized conflict (internal)
  • Estimated number of deaths from organized conflict (external)
  • Level of organized conflict (internal)
  • Relations with neighboring countries
  • Perceptions of criminality in society
  • Number of refugees and displaced people as a percentage of the population
  • Political instability
  • Level of respect for human rights (Political Terror Scale)
  • Potential for terrorist acts
  • Number of homicides per 100,000 people
  • Level of violent crime
  • Likelihood of violent demonstrations
  • Number of jailed population per 100,000 people
  • Number of internal security officers and police per 100,000 people
  • Military expenditures as a percent of GDP
  • Number of armed services personnel per 100,000 people
  • Volume of transfers (imports) of major conventional weapons per 100,000 people
  • Volume of transfers (exports) of major conventional weapons per 100,000 people
  • Budget support for UN peacekeeping missions: percentage of outstanding payments versus annual assessment to the budget of the current peacekeeping missions
  • Aggregate number of heavy weapons per 100,000 people
  • Ease of access to small arms and light weapons
  • Military capability/sophistication

That’s a long list with a lot of very different elements that don’t always move in unison. More problematic in light of the GPI’s additive approach to combining them, those elements don’t always point in the same direction.

Take military expenditures and deaths from external conflicts. International relations scholars would tell you that countries can sometimes avoid wars by preparing for them; rival states are less likely to pick fights with armies they can’t easily beat. Most people would probably think of the avoidance of war as a peaceful outcome, but the GPI casts the preparations that sometimes help to produce that outcome as a diminution of peace. In an ideal world, disarmament and peace would always go together; in the real world, they don’t, but the index’s attempt to combine measures of negative and positive peace muddles that complexity.

The same goes for internal affairs. Imagine that a country is suffering a high homicide rate because of rampant criminal violence (Mexico? Venezuela?). As the GPI implies, that’s not a particularly peaceful situation. Now imagine that that country’s government invests heavily in policing to fight that crime, and that the expanded police presence leads to a decline in the homicide rate and to higher incarceration rates as criminals are arrested and imprisoned. According to the GPI, the gains in peacefulness realized by stopping the wave of murders would be (at least partially) offset by the increases in the size of the police force and the prison population. A change most citizens would regard as an unmitigated good gets washed out by the supposition that the means used to reach that end are detrimental to positive peace.

Now, put both of those problems and several others like them into a single box and shake vigorously. Instead of an elegant simplification, we end up with a complex tangle, simply represented. We see echoes of this problem in summary measures of democracy, like the 21-point Polity scale, which aggregates across several dimensions in ways that sometimes obscure differences of great importance and interest.

For an index to improve on its parts, it should capture something important that we miss when look at the components individually. In my opinion, one of the best examples of this is the Heat Index, which combines air temperature and relative humidity into a single number that we really care about: how hot it actually feels to us humans. The Heat Index is really useful because it gets at something we miss if we look at air temperature alone. The whole illuminates something that the single components can’t show.

Unfortunately, this is hard to do. In many situations, the individual components will offer sharper and more transparent measures of specific dimensions, and we’ll see more when we juxtapose instead of combining them. When we want to explore how these components relate to each other, we can start with two- or three-dimensional scatter plots, which quickly reveal interesting cases of reinforcing or competing tendencies. For more complex problems, multivariate models that relate the components to some observable ground truth (e.g., the absence of deaths from violent conflict) will often work better than indices that use expert judgment to assign weights and directionality.

In the case of the Global Peace Index, I think the starting point for a more useful set of measures would be to construct separate indices for positive vs. negative peace. From my reading of their project, this distinction is more relevant to their objectives than the internal vs. external peace distinction for which they currently report sub-indices, and these are the dimensions along which changes are most likely to be offsetting. This could be done separately for internal and external peace, producing four indices along which levels and movement could be compared and contrasted. Two-dimensional scatter plots could be used to compare countries overall (with positive and negative peace as the axes) or separately for domestic or international peace. To compare a few countries on all dimensions or to illustrate changes within countries over time, radar charts would be useful.

As I hope that last bit of constructive criticism makes clear, I don’t mean to knock the creators of the Global Peace Index for their thoughtful attempt to grapple with a very hard problem. I’d like to see them succeed; I just don’t think they have…yet. More generally, I think the ways in which their current effort falls short illustrate some common dilemmas of measurement that most social scientists face at one time or another.

This is a cross-post from my solo blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.

There Are Two Kinds of Countries in the World: ____ and _____

This is a cross-post from my solo blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.


A few days ago, Sean Langberg blogged about a subject that’s long been a pet peeve of mine: how we classify countries when we try to talk about the international system, and the labels we apply to the resulting groups. I thought I’d take the cue to air my grievances on the topic and make a couple of simple suggestions.


Taxonomies require organizing principles, and the kernel of the classification system Americans usually use in international politics comes from modernization theory. Modernization theory’s core idea is the teleological one that economic growth, urbanization, industrialization, and political democracy are the natural, desirable, and mutually reinforcing ends of social change, or “development” for short. Viewed through this lens, some wealthy, democratic countries appear to have arrived already, while the rest are playing catch-up. In other words, the former have “developed,” while the latter are still “developing.”


This conventional approach is plainly displayed in the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) semi-annual World Economic Outlook reports, which sort countries into two bins: “advanced” and “emerging and developing.” The former includes the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and a smattering of richer Asian countries, while the latter is, simply, everyone else. What, exactly, distinguishes these two groups is left unspecified–according to the April 2012 report, “This classification is not based on strict criteria, economic or otherwise, and it has evolved over time”–but the basic divide is the familiar one between the “West” and “the rest.” The First World vs. Third World tags have largely faded from use since the Second World disappeared in the early 1990s, but the underlying concept is the same.

What’s so distasteful about the conventional approach are its connotations of hierarchy and even moral superiority. A couple dozen countries, mostly “white” and European, are described as having reached the desired end state, while the rest of the world struggles and strains to catch up. The rich and powerful have matured; a few fortunate others are just now emerging from backwardness; and the rest remain retarded in their development.
There are other ways to do this. Back when Marxism was still alive and kicking, some social scientists used it to divide the world into a “center” and a “periphery” defined by the economic exploitation and political subjugation of the latter by the former. Dubbed dependency theory, this scheme died a bitter death for empirical, political, and sociological reasons. Empirically, dependency theory couldn’t really explain how some once-peripheral countries eventually got much richer in spite of their supposed subjugation. Politically, the import-substitution policies dependency theorists prescribed were a bust. Sociologically, dependency theory got tagged (with justification) as part of a wider leftist political project, so it was further deflated by the ideological and practical collapse of Communism in the late 1980s. All of that said, dependency theory did present a reasoned alternative to the neoliberal scheme it opposed, and, in so doing, it spotlighted some important realities of the international system.
Some have tried to classify countries along religious or cultural lines, but I think these attempts have generally been less successful. The most prominent expression of this approach in the U.S. comes from Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” writings, in which he argued that the fundamental sources of conflict between states in the post-Cold War world would be cultural rather than ideological or economic. This thesis seems to find some echoes in the Global War on Terror, but critics have rightfully taken Huntington to task for reducing the fantastic diversity and rapidly-evolving cultural constellations of so many countries to a single, simple identity defined primarily by their dominant religions.
More generally, I wonder if the distinction between sacred and secular generally means that states aren’t the relevant units for global taxonomies based on religion. Perhaps clans, families, or souls would be more fitting. Ongoing attempts by some Muslims to establish a caliphate imply that it is at least theoretically possible to sort international political units into insider and outsider groups based on religious practice, but the fact that these groupings generally contain one or zero countries should tell us something about their disutility as global classification schemes.
For comparing countries, wealth seems like a perfectly good yardstick, in no small part because national wealth is so tightly linked to the forms of power that drive contemporary international relations. But then why not talk about money instead of this fuzzier idea of development? This is what the World Bank does nowadays, and its low-income, middle-income, and high-income designations–based strictly on gross national income (GNI) per capita–would seem to offer more analytical leverage than the IMF’s “developed” vs. “emerging” distinction without all the ugly baggage. The Economist takes this approach, too, and seems no worse for it.
For people concerned about the broader package of liberal constructs–the values and institutional forms that most authors probably have in mind when they refer to the “West”–why not make those criteria explicit and be more transparent about how they are measured? Observers who are primarily interested in domestic politics might consider the organization of a country’s political economy to compare it with others. This could be done by considering procedures to select national leaders on the one hand and prevailing sources of wealth generation on the other. Meanwhile, people who are more interested in the organization of the international system could look explicitly at formal and informal entanglements among states to identify relevant communities in a way that escapes the tired and broken bifurcations of East vs. West and North vs. South.
Whatever your preferred solution, I beg you, please, stop, stop, STOP referring to countries as “developed” and “developing.” And if you find that you must, at least put those awful labels in quotes.

In Defense of Particularism in American Foreign policy

[This is a cross-posting from Dart-Throwing Chimp.]

I’ve just finished reading John Lewis Gaddis’s terrific biography of George Frost Kennan, a towering figure in American foreign policy after World War II whom Henry Kissinger described as “one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging and exasperating American public servants.” Apart from recommending to the book, which I do without hesitation to anyone with an interest in world affairs, I wanted to talk about how Gaddis’ distillation of Kennan’s ideas helped me clarify some of my own thinking on the conduct of foreign policy.

Nowadays, discussions of grand strategy in U.S. foreign policy are usually framed as a battle between realism, which emphasizes power and encourages statesmen to focus shrewdly on their national self-interest, and liberal institutionalism, which emphasizes cooperation and encourages statesmen to build institutions that facilitate it. Kennan–who was not trained as an academic and apparently didn’t care much for formal theories of international relations–saw the same terrain from a different perspective, and I think his map may be the more useful one.

For Kennan, the crucial divide lay between universalists and particularists. Gaddis spells out this theme most clearly in his discussion of Kennan’s thinking about how the United States ought to respond to the successes of Communist revolutionaries in China in 1947. Mao’s gains posed an early test of the recently pronounced Truman doctrine, which had seemed to pledge the United States to do all it could to prevent Communist advances anywhere in the world. While Kennan was dismayed by that doctrine’s absolutist language, it overlapped with the containment strategy he had begun to advocate as a response to the global ambitions and aggressive nature he saw in the Soviet Union.

Even so, and despite loud calls in the U.S. to do whatever was necessary to defend Chiang’s regime, Kennan convinced Truman to provide only a bare minimum of support to the Nationalists. According to Gaddis (p. 299), Kennan had thought that

Americans had clung too long to the idea of remaking China, an end far beyond their means. The [State Department’s] Policy Planning Staff [which Kennan headed] should determine what parts of East Asia are ‘absolutely vital to our security,’ and the United States should then ensure that these remain ‘in hands which we can control or rely on.’

Kennan framed this recommendation within the need to choose between universal and particularist approaches in foreign policy. Universalism sought to apply the same principles everywhere. It favored procedures embodied in the United Nations and in other international organizations. It smoothed over the national peculiarities and conflicting ideologies that confused and irritated so many Americans. Its appeal lay in its promise to ‘relieve us of the necessity of dealing with the world as it is.’ Particularism, in contrast, questioned ‘legalistic concepts.’ It assumed appetites for power that only ‘counter-force’ could control. It valued alliances, but only if based on communities of interest, not on the ‘abstract formalism’ of obligations that might preclude pursuing national defense and global stability. Universalism entangled interests in cumbersome parliamentarism. Particularism encouraged purposefulness, coordination, and economy of effort–qualities the nation would need ‘if we are to be sure of accomplishing our purposes.’

Kennan’s recommendation on China seemed to contradict his own grand strategy, but this contradiction reflected his deeper beliefs about the importance of particularism. He understood that a Communist victory in China would be a setback for the U.S., but he didn’t think it would be a disaster, and he believed that even massive American assistance was unlikely to stop the Communists from winning.

In this history, I hear echoes of contemporary debates over the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine and whether or not the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria to stop the mass atrocities occurring there. As in the arguments over China policy in the 1940s, universalists often make the case for intervention in Syria on both moral and strategic grounds. Mass atrocities are morally abhorrent, of course, but acting to stop or prevent them is also an essential function of America’s role as the producer and defender of a liberal global order, a universalist might argue, just as stopping Communism in its tracks was during the Cold War. In a recent call for more forceful U.S. action against Syria, Anne Marie Slaughter, a successor of Kennan’s as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, made just such a case. She wrote:

If you believe, as I do, that R2P is a foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long term, that each time it is invoked successfully to authorize the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, and ethnic cleansing as much as the protection of civilians from such atrocities once they are occurring, it becomes a stronger deterrent against the commission of those acts in the first place…If the U.S. says it stands behind R2P but then does nothing in a case where it applies, not only will dictators around the world draw their own conclusions, but belief in the U.S. commitment to other international norms and obligations also weakens, just at a time when the U.S. grand strategy is to expand and strengthen an effective international order. The credibility of the U.S. commitment to its own proclaimed values will also take yet another critical hit with every young person in the Middle East fighting for liberty, democracy, and justice.

After reading about his approach to China, it’s easy to imagine Kennan responding to this universalist argument by asking: “Yes, but how likely are we to succeed, and at what cost?”

To universalists, that kind of equivocation may seem immoral. Kennan, whom Gaddis portrays as a religious person and a philosopher, was not insensitive to these concerns. His rejection of universalism was not meant as a rejection of moral thinking. Instead, Kennan’s commitment to particularism was informed by his judgment that stark views about right and wrong were poor guides to foreign policy-making.

Could governments behave as individuals should? His preliminary conclusion, sketched out in his diary, was that politics, whether within or among nations, would always be a struggle for power. It could never in itself be a moral act…Foreign policy was not, therefore, a contest of good versus evil. To condemn negotiations as appeasement, Kennan told a Princeton University audience early in October [1953], was to end a Hollywood movie with the villain shot. To entrust diplomacy to lawyers was to relegate power, ‘like sex, to a realm in which we see it only occasionally, and then in highly sublimated and presentable form.’ Both approaches ignored the fact that most international conflicts were ‘jams that people have gotten themselves into.’ Trying to resolve them through rigid standards risked making things worse.” (p. 492)

As a frequent critic of the U.S. government’s attempts to provoke and promote democratic revolutions elsewhere–here and here are some blogged examples–I was particularly interested in how Kennan’s commitment to particularism was evidenced in his frustration with policies aimed at supporting the “liberation” Communist-ruled countries during the Cold War. In Kennan’s view,

“[A policy seeking ‘liberation’ in Communist-ruled countries] is not consistent with our international obligations. It is not consistent with a common membership with other countries in the United Nations. It is not consistent with the maintenance of formal diplomatic relations with another country. It is replete with possibilities for misunderstanding and bitterness. To the extent that it might be successful, it would involve us in heavy responsibilities. Finally the prospects for success would be very small indeed; since the problem of civil disobedience is not a great problem to the modern police dictatorship.” (p. 479)

Those concerns may sound cold, but Kennan was not indifferent to the liberationists’ cause. In fact, his views on the subject were also informed by a conviction that democracy would prevail in the end without active American support. According to Gaddis (p. 495), Kennan believed that

Democracy had the advantage over Communism in this respect, because it did not rely on violence to reshape society. Its outlook was ‘more closely attuned to the real nature of man…[so] we can afford to be patient and even occasionally to suffer reverses, placing our confidence in the longer and deeper workings of history.’

Like Churchill, who famously remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” Kennan saw many faults in Western society in the 20th century, but he saw the available alternatives as even worse. Nevertheless, he firmly believed that any gains realized by pushing for liberation were not worth the entanglements, lost opportunities, and even wars that might result, especially when war could be nuclear.

Kennan saw himself as more of a “prophet” (his word) than a theorist or practitioner, and his views on “liberation” illustrate how he often thought about international relations on time scales that most people either don’t consider or consider a luxury. His containment policy was founded on the prescient expectation that the Soviet Union’s internal flaws would eventually lead to its own disintegration, but he did not expect to live long enough to see that happen.

When contemplating the plight of actual people suffering under actual dictatorships, the idea that democracy will eventually prevail can seem a little too convenient, like it’s just a way to absolve us of any responsibility for the injustices of the here and now. Is it really more convenient, though, than the belief that righteousness is always right? Where Kennan’s view is materially convenient, implying that we can achieve the desired result through inaction, the liberationist’s view is morally convenient, presuming that well-intentioned actions will always bring good results.

And there’s the matter of the historical record. Long-term trends clearly support Kennan’s expectation that democracy would keep expanding, albeit fitfully and with many reversals. More important, these advances have usually come either without direct U.S. support, or in places where U.S. involvement was incidental to the eventual outcome. The events that precipitated the collapse of the USSR and the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe mostly caught the U.S. by surprise, and the U.S. response to them was generally modest and ambivalent.

Likewise with the Arab Spring. The wave of uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011 started in Tunisia, where the U.S. had done virtually nothing to promote democracy. It soon spread to Egypt and Bahrain, where U.S. support for military “deep states” vastly outweighed its material and verbal commitments to opposition groups, and to Libya, where the U.S. had actually warmed to the dictator in recent years in response to his decision to give up weapons of mass destruction. In other words, theses revolutions were hardly American-made; if anything, they occurred in spite of American indifference and support for the status quo. In this sense, the Arab Spring supports Kennan’s expectation that American intervention is hardly a prerequisite for democratic revolution, and that democracy will advance on its own through the “longer and deeper workings of history.”

If universal principles aren’t the way to go, how, then, should foreign policy be conducted? For most of his adult life, Kennan owned and worked a small farm in southern Pennsylvania, and he often did the yardwork at his home in Princeton, too. It’s not surprising, then, that he may have best expressed his commitment to particularism and penchant for thinking on long time scales in a horticultural metaphor that envisioned a patient, process-oriented approach as the best way to strike a balance between moral ambitions and animal interests. This metaphor was offered up during a series of four lectures Kennan delivered at Princeton in 1954–lectures that became the book Realities of American Foreign Policy, and I think Gaddis’ summation of those lectures (pp. 494-495) it makes a proper coda to this post.

Americans could no longer afford economic advances that depleted natural resources and devastated natural beauty, Kennan insisted. Nor could they tolerate dependency, for critical raw materials, on unreliable foreign governments. Nor could they tear their democracy apart internally because threats to democracy existed externally. Nor could they entrust defenses against such dangers to the first use of nuclear weapons, for what would be left after a nuclear war had taken place? These were all single policies, pursued without regard to how each related to the others, or to the larger ends the state was supposed to serve. They neglected ‘the essential unity’ of national problems, thus demonstrating the ‘danger implicit in any attempt to compartmentalize our thinking about foreign policy.’

That lack of coordination ill-suited the separate ‘planes of international reality’ upon which the United States had to compete. The first was a ‘sane and rational one, in which we felt comfortable, in which we were surrounded by people to whom we were accustomed and on whose reactions we could at least depend.’ The second was ‘a nightmarish one, where we were like a hunted beast, oblivious of everything but survival; straining every nerve and muscle in the effort to remain alive.’ Within the first arena, traditional conceptions of morality applied; ‘We could still be guided…by the American dream.’ Within the second, ‘there was only the law of the jungle; and we had to do violence to our own traditional principles–or many of us felt we did–to fit ourselves for the relentless struggle.’ The great question, then, was whether the two could ever be brought into a coherent relationship with one another.

They could, Kennan suggested, through a kind of geopolitical horticulture. ‘We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs.’ International life was an organic process, not a static system. Americans had inherited it, not designed it. Their preferred standards of behavior, therefore, could hardly govern it. But it should be possible ‘to take these forces for what they are and to induce them to work with us and for us by influencing the environmental stimuli to which they are subjected.’ That would have to be done ‘gently and patiently, with understanding and sympathy, not trying to force growth by mechanical means, not tearing the plants up by the roots when they fail to behave as we wish them to. The forces of nature will generally be on the side of him who understands them best and respects them most scrupulously.’  

Libya’s Chicken-and-Egg Problem

On October 23, Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) declared the country liberated and the transition to a post-Gaddafi state officially underway. Over the following week, we’ve seen the first of what I expect will be many stories about tensions and conflict among the groups over whom the TNC is claiming authority. Here’s the opening to one such story, from today’s Washington Post:

Libya has emerged from its civil war with more than 300 militias and no political consensus on forming a national army, raising concerns that irregular, gun-toting groups could become entrenched and pose a long-term challenge to the government, officials here said. On Monday, Libyan leaders began to establish a new interim government with the authority to create the armed forces, choosing the technocratic Abdurrahim el-Keib as prime minister. But the militiamen who won the eight-month war have made it clear that they will not submit meekly to the new civilian authorities.

In the Guardian, we hear from a reporter who tagged along with rebel militias to Abu Salim, a neighborhood in Tripoli, about the mistrust among those militias:

The plan was simple, Essam said. Gaddafi had distributed a lot of guns to the people of this neighbourhood. The rebels would go from house to house, search for weapons and detain wanted fugitives. Three units were to conduct this operation, one from Misrata, one from Essam’s Freemen of Libya unit, and the local rebel military council of Abu Salim. The Misratans, experienced and well-equipped, had a reputation as ruthless fighters who didn’t trust anyone else. Essam’s unit respected them but didn’t really like them, and both the Misratans and the Freemen mistrusted the local rebels of Abu Salim. “They became rebels after Tripoli was liberated,” said one of Essam’s men, smirking.

In some cases, the mistrust has erupted into open fighting. Here’s a snippet from today’s Telegraph:

Two people died from bullet wounds and at least seven fighters were injured during a battle that started when militia from the town of Zintan were stopped by guards from the Tripoli Brigade from entering the city’s Central Hospital to kill a patient.

These stories illustrate the massive governance problem Libya now confronts. Libya is a collapsed state. It has no functioning central authority. The NTC has proclaimed itself to be the country’s national government, and the international community has endorsed that claim, but that claim is only now starting to get tested. The conventional view is that internal authority and external endorsement are intertwined, but that’s an international legal fiction, not real politics. As places like Afghanistan and Somalia remind us, international endorsement does not magically cause domestic factions to fall in line behind the anointed party.
There’s a chicken-and-egg quality to the state-building problem. To establish itself as a functioning national government, Libya’s TNC needs to build up trust in its authority. To build that trust, the TNC needs to get the country’s disparate militias to start obeying its writ and, in so doing, to demonstrate that it deserves their trust. Those militias are going to be reluctant to follow the TNC’s writ, however, as long as they are worried that the TNC or other rival factions might take advantage of them if they do. So which comes first: obedience, or trust?
I know very little about Libyan politics and society, and I certainly don’t know how this situation will evolve. As a scholar with experience studying state collapse, though, I have to say that I’m pessimistic. In some collapsed states, one faction holds a preponderance of coercive power, and that imbalance can encourage other factions to start falling in line behind it. When coercive power is distributed broadly and more evenly, however, it’s more difficult to get that kind of bandwagoning started. I would be surprised to see another organization make a competing claim to national authority; foreign powers’ endorsement of, and investment in, the TNC should succeed in discouraging that. I would not be surprised to see emerging local governments and the militias that back or control them adopt a “wait and see” attitude, occasionally clashing with the TNC or each other when they step on each others’ political or economic toes. Hopefully, Libya’s factions will manage to negotiate their way out of this dilemma soon, but that outcome would be an exceptional one.
(This post went up earlier this morning on my own blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.)

“Magic Democracy Words” Don’t Tie Their Speaker’s Hands

 In an August 30 piece for BBC News, Shashank Joshi, a graduate student at Harvard University and associate fellow at a major U.K. think tank, argued that strong statements from American officials about Syrian president Assad’s loss of legitimacy would help advance the Syrian revolution by committing the U.S. to stronger courses of action. Joshi writes (emphasis added):

The Syrian revolution of 2011 could also have been one more of those many abortive uprisings whose blood flecks the history of the modern Middle East, yet could not change its course. Things are no longer so clear. The outside world is slowly getting its act together. The US finally issued its “magic democracy words” (a term coined by US Middle East scholar Marc Lynch) and called for President Assad to go. No-one expects that the words will wound themselves, but they tie American hands and thereby force the machinery of US foreign policy to churn out fresh ways of hounding Damascus.

This isn’t the only place I’ve seen it said that sharp pronouncements from American officials about a foreign leader’s right to rule or the need for regime change “tie American hands.” This might sound nit-picky, but that phrasing’s not quite right, and it makes a difference for how effective we might expect those “magic words” to be.

The language about hand-tying comes from game theory. In multiplayer games, each player’s course of action often depends, in part, on its expectations about what other players will choose to do. This interactive aspect of the game means that one player can influence the others’ choices by committing him or herself to following or eschewing a specific course of action. For that commitment to be credible, it has to be visible (or audible) to the other players. More important here, it also has to be something its maker can’t undo, or, if he or she can undo it, something that would obviously be costlier to undo than to follow.

A classic example of hand-tying comes from the game of chicken. Imagine a contest with two cars hurtling toward each other. If the cars smash into each other, both drivers lose badly. If both cars swerve, neither driver wins, and they both look a little cowardly. The only way to win the game is to hold the course longer than the other guy. To scare your rival into swerving first, you might commit yourself to holding course by, say, visibly locking the steering wheel into a fixed position. (To see these ideas in action, watch Kevin Bacon on a tractor. Technically, that’s foot-tying, but you get the point.)

Credible commitments differ from weaker forms of signaling. Signals don’t foreclose any courses of action; instead, they affect other players’ beliefs about what course of action the signal’s issuer will choose. Game theory tells us that signals should have a weaker effect on other players’ actions than credible commitments do. They don’t lop any branches off the game tree; they just modify receivers’ beliefs about which branch of the tree they are probably heading down.

“Magic democracy words” are not credible commitments; they are weak signals. They are audible, but they neither lock in nor foreclose any specific policy options. After saying that a ruler like Assad must go, the U.S. government might do more to make that happen, but it can also do nothing, and it can even work to support that ruler’s continuation in office. Whichever path it chooses, it can also change course at any time. Doing so might somehow diminish America’s reputation, but the costs of a diminished reputation must be balanced against all kinds of other interests, many of which will probably weigh more heavily than ephemeral concerns about consistency and likeability. International relations is replete with flip-flops, hypocrisy, and duplicity, so it’s hard to imagine many situations in which reputational concerns would compel a government to pursue a course of action that was otherwise judged to be counter to its national interest.

To my mind, magic democracy words are more like trash-talking than hand-tying. They might get players and fans a little hot under the collar, but they don’t really tell us much about the action to come. Smart players and coaches will ignore the jawboning and will look for their signals in the play that follows instead.

* * *

This post appeared earlier this week on my own blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp. Joshi left a comment there that deserves to be carried over here. He wrote:

I’ve had a good discussion with Jay on Twitter about this. But to the commenter above, just wanted to add that this (allies) was my intended focus. The next passage in the article (after the one excerpted here) was: “They also send a powerful signal – not to Mr Assad, but to US allies and partners who now know that there may be a cost to hedging their bets. For example, their firms may be caught up in sanctions, as has occurred in the course of US policy towards Iran.” I grant that I shouldn’t have said “powerful”. But, technically, this is a case of commitment or tying hands, and not signaling. Even creating weak costs for inaction still qualifies as tying hands, e.g. http://jcr.sagepub.com/content/41/1/68.abstract.

On Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the Construction of a Liberal International Order

Debate over NATO’s military intervention in the Libyan civil war has reinvigorated discussion among observers of international relations on the merits (or demerits) of the United Nations’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. You can find links to important entries in the current debate at the end of this post, but I’m going to react here to one part of it. In a rejoinder to her critics, including IR student and Slouching Towards Columbia blogger Dan Trombly, Princeton University’s Anne-Marie Slaughter casts R2P as an instrument for positive change in the international system, a wrench that ratchets the world closer to the liberal ideal of government for the people on which, she claims, the contemporary notion of sovereignty is based. For The Atlantic, she writes:

It is international law itself — or rather the governments that bring it into being — that is in the process of redefining the international definition of sovereignty (e.g. the conditions on which you can be a player in the international system) to include a responsibility to protect (R2P) their citizens. Trombly argues that this conception of sovereignty “essentially strips its value,” because the whole point of a sovereign is to protect individuals from each other, in return for which it can and must demand absolute obedience. In the R2P world, by contrast, the sovereign “protects and serves.” Strips its value? Really? I may be an international lawyer, but I’m also a daughter of Charlottesville, Virginia, home to Monticello and Mr. Jefferson’s university. Last I checked, “protects and serves” was his definition of domestic sovereignty. The Declaration of Independence, after all, argues that all men have inalienable rights and that governments exist “to secure these rights … deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” “Protects and serves” is how all liberal democratic governments define their relations with their citizens; and I would wager the majority of the world’s autocracies at this point as well.

To my mind, though, R2P’s power as an instrument of positive change in the international system is greatly weakened by its dependence on a process of selective enforcement in which the judges are effectively immune from the coercions they impose upon others. Strong supporters of R2P often justify selective enforcement in terms of opportunity, saying it’s reasonable to apply limited resources to cases where they might be expected to make the biggest difference, and to choose the instruments of intervention based on their expected costs as well as their benefits.

I agree, but that’s not the kind of selectivity that bothers me. On both moral and consequential grounds, the virtual immunity of the powerful is the larger problem. As Slaughter notes, R2P is rooted in liberal thought. The moral equivalence of individuals, and thus the right to equal protection under the law, is the core idea of liberalism. As long as application of R2P depends on political bargaining among powerful actors who are not subjected to the same coercion, I think the doctrine does as much harm to the normative foundations of a liberal international order as it does good. Targets and observers of R2P-based sanctions will see the national interests of the powerful, not the health of the international order or well-being of its constituents, as the engines of those interventions. (See this analysis, for example.) The ensuing cynicism does not reinforce liberal internationalism, it undercuts it.

To think about how a liberal international order might really develop, we can look at how liberal orders have arisen within states. Here, I think Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast’s recent book Violence and Social Orders is especially useful. In that book, the authors (NWW) argue that contemporary states are founded on two types of order–natural states and open access orders–that represent different solutions to the common problem of controlling violence. “The natural state reduces the problem of endemic violence through the formation of a dominant coalition whose members possess special privileges,” they write (p. 18). By contrast, open access orders control violence through powerful, consolidated military and police organizations that are subservient to a political system, control of which “is open to entry by any group and contested through prescribed, and typically formal, constitutional means” (p.22).

Based on those two descriptions, it’s clear the international system we have today is more like a natural state than an open access order. The UN Security Council represents the dominant coalition, and the veto power of its members conveys the special privilege of virtual exemption from R2P.

For liberal internationalists, then, the crucial question is how to secure a transition from the one type of order to the other. On that, NWW write (p. 26):

The transition…has two stages. First, a natural state must develop institutional arrangements that enable elites to create the possibility of impersonal intra-elite arrangements. Second, the transition proper begins when the dominant coalition finds it in the interest of elites to expand impersonal exchange within the elite and institutionalize open elite access to organizations, effectively creating open access for elites. We call the conditions that may evolve in a natural state that enable impersonal relationships among elites the doorstep conditions. The doorstep conditions represent institutional and organizational support for increased impersonal exchange, as well as institutions consistent with the logic of the natural state that can be used in the transition to support open access orders.

According to NWW, the three doorstep conditions are: 1) rule of law for elites; 2) perpetually lived forms of public and private elite organizations, including the state itself; and 3) consolidated political control of the military.

As I see it, R2P advances none of these doorstep conditions. It does not create any new or expand any existing “perpetually lived” organizations, depending instead on existing (exclusive) organizations for decisions about enforcement. It does not consolidate political control of a non-existent international military force. Last and maybe most important, it tries to advance rule of international law, but it does so by appeal to an organization whose decision-making procedures are premised on elite bargaining and exceptionalism.

In short, I think R2P is a well-intentioned but deeply flawed attempt to advance the liberal cause in the international system. Because it fails to advance any of the doorstep conditions identified by North, Wallis, and Weingast, I think it ends up reflecting rather than transforming the conflicted nature of the contemporary international order. Transformation will only happen when the most powerful states agree to subject themselves to equal scrutiny and sanction, and I see few signs of that happening any time soon.

Now, the background reading:

  • You can find excellent background information on R2P on the web site of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP).
  • Slaughter kicked off the recent debate I describe with this entry in her new blog for The Atlantic.
  • That post prompted ripostes from Dan Trombly (here, here, and here) and Joshua Foust (here).
  • For The Dish, Zach Beauchamp weighed in on Slaughter’s side (here).
  • Most recently, Slaughter responded with the post from which the quote above was taken (here).
  • Also worth reading is this article by Cristina Badescu and Thomas Weiss from the November 2010 issue of International Studies Perspectives, in which they discuss how fights over the application of R2P can help advance the norm by clarifying its scope and process.

This post originally appeared on my blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.

© 2017 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑