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ISA Preparations: Ultimate Edition

Save room on your schedules for some Ultimate:

I am hoping that there will be enough space and too few drunken folks on the playing field at Woldenberg Park at 10am on Saturday of ISA week.  It is just up the river (if you look at a map, it looks is up and to the right of the Hilton along the waterfront).  Bring a dark shirt and a light shirt.  Cleats are optional. I will bring the cones and the disks.

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Only Two Days Left to Vote

Get your ballots in soon. We are in the home stretch for the voting for the 2015 OAIS Blogging Awards (The Duckies). Voting closes on Friday, Jan. 30 at 5:00pm EST. All ballots must be submitted by then. We’ve had a record number of votes and all four categories are very tight. Once all the votes are in, we will tally them and announce the finalists for each category. At that point, a panel of judges will select the winners from among the finalists. For more information on the list of nominees and all the details and rules on voting, check out our earlier post. Continue reading

An Ebola Marshall Plan?: How to Stop Ebola and Salvage the Health System in Sierra Leone

This is a guest post by Dehunge Shiaka, a gender expert in Sierra Leone. This is post #3 of a series he has written on the impacts of Ebola in Sierra Leone (post 1, post 2).

How can we ensure that when Ebola ends, Sierra Leone’s medical infrastructure and economy doesn’t disintegrate with it? Yesterday Oxfam called for an Ebola Marshall Plan to help countries like Sierra Leone, which have been seriously impacted by the deadly virus. This would involve economic interventions in health, education, and sanitation- amongst other areas. But given the slow and late response to the Ebola crisis- is this realistic? Continue reading

Ethnic Security Dilemma Regrets

One of the regrets of my career is that I was developing the ethnic security dilemma concept the same time as Barry Posen, who published his in Survival in 1993.  As I prepared for my comprehensive exams in 1991 in IR and Comparative Politics, I focused on ethnic politics for the latter exam.  I wrote papers that developed the IR concept for ethnic politics, got nice comments from my profs, but moved on to the dissertation. I should have tried to publish the piece–I would have scooped Posen.

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Winter is Coming to #ISA2015

More information about the genesis of this panel here. Paper abstracts here. Continue reading

Constructivism and the tension within

My first post of the new year (hey, it is still January!) is a bit IR theory geek-ish, so apologies to readers who do not follow those arcane discussions. About two weeks ago I participated in a workshop on constructivism at USC. Not surprisingly given the caliber of the people around the table, the conversation was a rich and enlightening one. A number of things jumped out at me, but the one I want to write on here addresses a tension (of many?) I think lies at the heart of the constructivist research agenda. Specifically, I think the intellectual and professional agendas of constructivism are at cross-purposes.


In brief, the intellectual agenda of constructivism emphasizes the intersubjective nature of social reality, and is populated with things like identity, norms, roles, and the like. The intersubjective nature of social reality means that while there is no objective social reality existing apart from social interaction and observation, neither is reality only in our heads. There are shared understandings and conceptions of the world that span individuals that scholars can observe and theorize about. But because these structures are intersubjective, they can change (although Ted Hopf argues not very easily) and are recreated every day. The complexity of these theoretical foundations and social nature of the things constructivists study suggests a plurality of methods and theoretical agendas is in order. There is, or should be, an awareness that what constructivism is as a theoretical space within IR is also intersubjectively constructed, and that scholars should be careful when defining what/who is or is not counted as part of the club.


Yet the profession practice of IR pushes in a very different direction. Success is had through clearly defining the boundaries of constructivism (to invoke Foucault, disciplining constructivism) and determining those scholars who are ‘good’ constructivists, rewarding them, building networks around or with them, and propagating their students out into the IR system. These dynamics also serve social psychological purposes, as scholars who identify as constructivists have symbolic leaders to which they can rally, and in so doing generate intellectual clarity (through simplification) and emotional gratification. Obviously, this disciplining activity has the effect of marginalizing many voices—a point feminists and post-structural scholars have long made about IR more generally. But it also creates constructivism as an objective thing in the scholarly universe rather than a field defined by intersubjective construction. This move does terrible violence to the intellectual program of constructivism, and is at the heart of the tension between the intellectual and professional agendas.


What to do about this conflict? Maybe nothing can be done to resolve it. The networked professional keys to success are unlikely to change and in an ‘new normal’ of incredibly tight job markets and scarce resources, the professional imperatives exert powerful influence. And yet, constructivism is not constructivism if it loses sight of its intersubjective and socially constructed core. So perhaps the best constructivists can hope for is to remain aware of these conflicting imperatives and stake out a tenuous via media or middle ground, an unstable and ever shifting equilibrium between what it means to be a constructivist as a scholar and what it means to do constructivist scholarship.



WHO is responsible for the failure on Ebola?

Nathan Paxton has a provocative post on The Monkey Cage where he suggests, among other things that the World Health Organization (WHO) is not to blame for the Ebola crisis. Rather, he lays the blame squarely on donor countries.

He rightly notes that the WHO’s budget and staff was cut after the financial crisis, but I think he lets WHO off too lightly. With many ideas circulating about the future of the WHO in advance of the upcoming WHO Executive Board meeting beginning January 26th, understanding the various factors that contributed to the failed response to Ebola is all the more critical.  Continue reading

SOTU: Cyber What?

In last night’s State of the Union Address, President Obama briefly reiterated the point that Congress has an obligation to pass some sort of legislation that would enable cybersecurity to protect “our networks”, our intellectual property and “our kids.” The proposal appears to be a reiteration that companies share more information with the government in real time about hacks they are suffering. Yet, there is something a bit odd about the President Obama’s cybersecurity call to arms: the Sony hack.

The public attention given over to the Sony hack, from the embarrassing emails about movie stars, to the almost immediate claims from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that the attack came from North Korea, to the handwringing over what kind of “proportional” response to launch against the Kim regime, we have watched the cybersecurity soap opera unfold. In what appears as the finale, we now have reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) watched the attack unfold, and that it was really the NSA’s evidence and not that of the FBI that supported President Obama’s certainty that North Korea, and not some disgruntled Sony employee, was behind the attack. Where does this leave us with the SOTU?

First, if we believe that the NSA watched the Sony attack unfold—and did not warn Sony—then no amount of information sharing from Sony would have mattered.   Sony was de facto sharing information with the government whether they permitted it or not. This raises concerns about the extent to which monitoring foreign attacks violates the privacy rights of individuals and corporations.   Was the NSA watching traffic, or was it inside Sony networks too?

Second, the NSA did not stop the attack from happening. Rather, it and the Obama administration let the political drama unfold, and took the opportunity to issue a “proportionate” response through targeted sanctions against some of the ruling North Korean elite. The sanctions are merely additions to already sanctioned agencies and individuals, and so functionally, they are little more than show.   The only sense that I can make of this is that the administration desired to signal publicly to the Kim regime and all other potential cyber attackers that the US will respond to attacks in some manner. This supports Erik Gartzke’s argument that states do not require 100% certainty about who launched an attack to retaliate. If states punish the “right” actor, then all the better, if they do not, then they still send a deterrent signal to those watching. However, if this is so, it is immediately apparent that Sony was scarified to the cyber-foreign-policy gods, and there was a different cost-benefit calculation going on in the White House.

Finally, let’s get back to the Sony hack and the SOTU address. If the US was taking the Sony hack as an opportunity in deterrence, then this means that it allowed Sony to suffer a series of attacks and did nothing to protect them. If this is the case, then the notion that we need more information sharing with the government may be false.   What the government wants is really more permission, more consent, from the companies it is already watching. Protecting the citizens and corporations of the US requires a delicate balance between privacy and security. However, attempting to corrupt ways of maintaining security, such as outlawing encryption only makes citizens and corporations more unsafe and insecure. If the US government really wants to protect the “kids” from cyber criminals, then they should equip those kids with the strongest encryption there is, and teach good cyber practices.

Counting on the Media: A Reply to Mack and Pinker

It’s always nice to read good news. And it’s nice to read evidence-based arguments in the popular press. Over the holiday, Andrew Mack and Steven Pinker offered a little of each over the holidays in their article “The World Is Not Falling Apart.” Therein, they marshal of human security indicators upon indicators – number of rapes reported, number of civilians killed, number of wars breaking out, number of homicides –  to argue that at the global level the trendlines are mostly pointing downward. In championing “an evidence-based mindset on the state of the world,” the authors place the blame for our current misconceptions on “a misleading formula of journalistic narration”:

“Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalistic bait… News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen… The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities?”

This seemingly sensible argument does contain one fundamental paradox, however: some of the data-sets on which Mack and Pinker rely are themselves based on news reports. Continue reading

Vote Now for the 2015 (The Duckies) IR Blogging Awards

It’s time to vote! We are asking readers to vote for the finalists in each category. ONce we have finalists for each category, a panel of judges that includes previous years’ winners and permanent contributors at Duck of Minerva will select this year’s award winners in each category. The winners will be announced at the OAIS Blogging Awards and Reception at the ISA annual convention in New Orleans on Thursday, February 20, 2015.

Here’s what you need to do. Send us an email at duckofminerva2015 at and we will send you a ballot. Simply fill out the ballot and submit it. Voting ends on Friday, January 30. Complete rules can be found here.

Here is the list of nominees for this year’s OAIS Blogging Awards. Continue reading

Domestic Politics, Climate Change, and International Ambition

Last fall, I wrote about how the U.S. government was insisting that any climate mitigation commitments agreed to in the 2015 Paris climate negotiations be non-binding political pledges. I argued that was appropriate because the high bar for treaty ratification in the U.S. Senate made legally binding commitments unlikely.

This kind of soft “pledge and review” approach to climate change first emerged at the 2009 Copenhagen negotiations, often derided by observers as an unsuccessful meeting. Quite the contrary, as I argued in a 2010 piece for the Council on Foreign Relations, Copenhagen actually set the stage for main emitters finally to make more credible commitments to take action. This is the tenor of a number of recent articles and interviews with David Victor, Andrew Revkin, Eric Voeten, among others. One thing that all these authors underscore is the importance of domestic politics going forward.  Recent experiences in Australia, South Korea, and Brazil, as well as the United States, all demonstrate the fragility of domestic climate policies. Continue reading

Friday Nerd Blogging: Belated But Delightful Take on Harry Potter and Feminism

Actually, the title for this post should refer to Hermione Granger since she is the one doing the smashing of patriarchy in this amusing and insightful take on feminism in the world of Harry Potter.  The language is not safe for work.

Online Media Caucus Update for ISA 2015

The effort to develop a caucus at the ISA dedicating to Online Media continues.  The proposed caucus will be considered at the Governing Council meeting on Tuesday of the ISA this year.  I have not received any signs that this will not go through.  Consequently, we are having our first business meeting on Saturday, February 21st, 12:30pm in the Hilton’s Elmwood room.  The meeting will sketch out the plans for the next year and seek advice/feedback on future activities.

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Last Call for Blogging Awards Nominations!

This is the last call for nominations for the best IR-related blogging of 2014. The “Duckies” will be awarded at ISA-New Orleans on Thursday, Feb. 20 at the third annual Duck of Minerva and Sage Blogging Awards and Reception. We need your help and nominations for the best blogging of 2014 in these categories:
1. Best Blog (Group) in IR
2. Best Blog (Individual) in IR
3. Best Blog Post in IR
4. Best New Blogger (Individual) in IR — this can be anyone new blogging in an individual or group blog.

We’ve got a great list so far, but we’re looking for more. Please send us your nominations via email by January 15, 2015. Thank you!

Autonomous or "Semi" Autonomous Weapons? A Distinction without Difference

Over the New Year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at an event on the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI) hosted by the Future of Life Institute. The purpose of the event was to think through the various aspects of the future of AI, from its economic impacts, to its technological abilities, to its legal implications. I was asked to present on autonomous weapons systems and what those systems portend for the future. The thinking was that an autonomous weapon is, after all, one run on some AI software platform, and if autonomous weapons systems continue to proceed on their current trajectory, we will see more complex software architectures and stronger AIs.   Thus the capabilities created in AI will directly affect the capabilities of autonomous weapons and vice versa. While I was there to inform this impressive gathering about autonomous warfare, these bright minds left me with more questions about the future of AI and weapons.

First, autonomous weapons are those that are capable of targeting and firing without intervention by a human operator. Presently there are no autonomous weapons systems fielded. However, there are a fair amount of semi-autonomous weapons systems currently deployed, and this workshop on AI got me to thinking more about the line between “full” and “semi.” The reality, at least the way that I see it, is that we have been using the terms “fully autonomous” and “semi-autonomous” to describe the extent to which the different operational functions on a weapons system are all operating “autonomously” or if only some of them are. Allow me to explain.

We have roughly four functions on a weapons system: trigger, targeting, navigation, and mobility. We might think of these functions like a menu that we can order from. Semi-autonomous weapons have at least one, if not three, of these functions. For instance, we might say that the Samsung SGR-1 has an “autonomous” targeting function (through heat and motion detectors), but is incapable of navigation, mobility or triggering, as it is a sentry-bot mounted on a defensive perimeter.   Likewise, we would say that precision guided munitions are also semi-autonomous, for they have autonomous mobility, triggering, and in some cases navigation, while the targeting is done through a preselected set of coordinates or through “painting” a target through laser guidance.

Where we seem to get into deeper waters, though, are in the cases of “fire and forget” weapons, like the Israeli Harpy, the Raytheon Maverick heavy tank missile, or the Israeli Elbit Opher. While these systems are capable of autonomous navigation, mobility, trigger and to some extent targeting, they are still considered “semi-autonomous” because the target (i.e. a hostile radar emitter or the infra-red image of a particular tank) was at some point pre-selected by a human. The software that guides these systems is relatively “stupid” from an AI perspective, as it is merely using sensor input and doing a representation and search on the targets it identifies.   Indeed, even Lockheed Martin’s L-RASM (long-range anti-ship missile), appears to be in this ballpark, though it is more sophisticated because it can select its own target amongst a group of potentially valid targets (ships). The question has been raised whether this particular weapon slides from semi-autonomous to fully autonomous, for it is unclear how (or by whom) the decision is made.

The rub in the debate over autonomous weapons systems, and from what I gather, some of the fear in the AI community, is the targeting software. How sophisticated that software needs to be to target accurately, and, what is more, to target objects that are not immediately apparent as military in nature.   Hostile radar emitters present little moral qualms, and when the image recognition software used to select a target is relying on infra-red images of tank tracks or ship’s hulls, then the presumption is that these are “OK” targets from the beginning. I have two worries here. First, is that from the “stupid” autonomous weapons side of things, military objects are not always permissible targets. Only by an object’s nature, purpose, location, use, and effective contribution can one begin to consider it a permissible target. If the target passes this hurdle, one must still determine whether attacking it provides a direct military advantage. Nothing in the current systems seems to take this requirement into account, and as I have argued elsewhere, future autonomous weapons systems would need to do so.

Second, from the perspective of the near term “not-so-stupid” weapons, at what point would targeting human combatants come into the picture? We have AI presently capable of facial recognition with almost near accuracy (just upload an image to Facebook to find out). But more than this, current leading AI companies are showing that artificial intelligence is capable of learning at an impressively rapid rate. If this is so, then it is not far off to think that militaries will want some variant of this capacity on their weapons.

What then might the next generation of “semi” autonomous weapons look like, and how might those weapons change the focus of the debate? If I were a betting person, I’d say they will be capable of learning while deployed, use a combination of facial recognition and image recognition software, as well as infra-red and various radar sensors, and they will have autonomous navigation and mobility. They will not be confined to the air domain, but will populate maritime environments and potentially ground environments as well. The question then becomes one not solely of the targeting software, as it would be dynamic and intelligent, but on the triggering algorithm. When could the autonomous weapon fire? If targeting and firing were time dependent, without the ability to “check-in” with a human, or let’s say, that there were just too many of these systems deployed that “checking-in” were operationally infeasible due to band-width, security, and sheer man-power overload, how accurate would the systems have to be to be permitted to fire? 80%? 50%? 99%? How would one verify that the actions taken by the system were in fact in accordance with its “programming,” assuming of course that the learning system doesn’t learn that its programming is hamstringing it to carry out its mission objectives better?

These pressing questions notwithstanding, would we still consider a system such as this “semi-autonomous?” In other words, the systems we have now are permitted to engage targets – that is target and trigger – autonomously based on some preselected criteria. Would these systems that utilize a “training data set” to learn from likewise be considered “semi-autonomous” because a human preselected the training data? Common sense would say “no,” but so far militaries may say “yes.”   The US Department of Defense, for example, states that a “semi-autonomous” weapon system is one that “once activated, is intended only to engage individual targets or specific target groups that have been selected by a human operator” (DoD, 2012). Yet, at what point would we say that “targets” are not selected by a human operator? Who is the operator? The software programmer with the training data set can be an “operator,” and the lowly Airman likewise can be an “operator” if she is the one ordered to push a button, so too can the Commander who orders her to push it (though, the current DoD Directive makes a distinction between “commander” and “operator” which problematizes the notion of command responsibility even further). The only policy we have on autonomy does not define, much to my dismay, “operator.” This leaves us in the uncomfortable position that distinction between autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons is one without difference, and taken to the extreme would mean that militaries would now only need to claim their weapons system is “semi-autonomous,” much to the chagrin of common sense.

Common Xenophobic Dynamic: Overestimating the Other

I saw this on twitter this evening

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ISA Blogging Update: Committee Reports Recommendations

Last winter, the ISA executive committee proposed new rules for editors of ISA journals that would restrict their blogging.  This led to a pretty hostile reaction.  At the ISA meeting, the proposal was sent to committee.  The committee has circulated its report and recommendations.

What do they recommend?  Basically, the recommendations: Continue reading

North Korea and Hollywood: the Perfect Holiday Storm


A perfect storm is defined as an event in which a rare combination of circumstances results in an event of unusual scale and magnitude. 9-11 is a classic, and tragic, perfect storm. This December the world has witnessed another perfect storm involving the confluence of culture and foreign policy: the bizarre North Korean hacking of Sony and the scare that arrived just in time for the holidays for millions of Americans.

Not since the Danish publication of a cartoon that Muslims viewed as an insult to Islam has a confluence of this kind had such serious consequences. The Sony executives, who made the spoof film involving a comedic sendup of North Korean repression that ended in an assassination of its sitting leader Kim Jong-un, cannot be faulted for making the film that North Korea took such exception to. But by filming a scene in which the dictator’s head explodes, they crossed a line and all but invited hacker retaliation.

Sony’s internet defenses were surprisingly low, given a previous and rather damaging cyber penetration of its networks. But Sony’s greatest error was actually to take the threat of terrorism from the North Korean hackers on U.S. movie theaters showing the film seriously. Instead of standing up for freedom of expression (and protecting its investment), along with the major movie theater chains it caved. Continue reading

Is There a Santa Claus?

[NOTE: To spice up the discussion started by Tenacity’s guest post, we bring you this throw-back post. One of Patrick Thadeus Jackson’s greatest hits (of which there were many) originally posted on December 25, 2007.]

Ever since the invention of the InterNet, not a December goes by without some version of this making the rounds of listservs and e-mail chains and the like. I must have received it a dozen times from various sources. It’s cute and funny and all, but I must say that I’ve never been entirely happy with its conclusions. So in the spirit of the season, I present the first known social constructionist investigation in the the existence of Santa Claus. I mean, why should the natural sciences get to have all the fun — and why should they get to corner the market on looking into such matters?

The first thing to point out is that a social constructionist would not necessarily consider the existence of Santa Claus to be the same thing as the existence of a man in a red suit who flies around the world in one evening in a sleigh pulled by eight or nine flying reindeer and delivers toys to all of the good children of the world. Continue reading

Best IR Blogging of 2014? Send us your nominations.

Just a reminder that we accepting nominations for the best IR-related blogging of 2014. The “Duckies” will be awarded at ISA-New Orleans on Thursday, Feb. 20 at the third annual Duck of Minerva and Sage Blogging Awards and Reception. We need your help and nominations for the best blogging of 2014 in these categories:
1. Best Blog (Group) in IR
2. Best Blog (Individual) in IR
3. Best Blog Post in IR
4. Best New Blogger (Individual) in IR — this can be anyone new blogging in an individual or group blog.

Please send us your nominations via email by January 10, 2015. Thank you!

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