It’s Duckies time!

This is a guest post from Kindred Winecoff, current Chair of the Online Media Caucus for ISA.

The Online Achievement in International Studies Reception and Awarding of the Duckies will take place on Wednesday, March 25th at 7:30pm. As always we’ll feature three speakers in the Ignite series and enjoy honoring our winners together.  The ISA Online Media Caucus (OMC) appreciates the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation, the Mortara Center for International Studies of Georgetown University, and the Canadian Defence and Security Network of Carleton University.

Now is the time to submit your nominations for the 2020 Duckies. Please send these nominations to onlinemediacaucus@gmail.com by February 15, 2020. Self-nominations are encouraged! Note that the OMC decided last year to change the award categories, in order to reflect the evolution of the online media environment. We now award Duckies in the following categories:

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Opening the Envelope of Oman’s Succession

The following is a guest post by Andrew Leber, a PhD candidate in Government at Harvard University.

The death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and the succession of Haitham bin Tariq as the country’s new ruler, was yet one more high-profile news item this year amid the back-and-forth attacks and tragic consequences of events further up the Gulf.

Yet for the world of political science, this transition calls to mind important questions for comparativists about authoritarian successions in particular and authoritarian institutions more general.

Thinking about Authoritarian Succession
When are authoritarian successions relatively uneventful? What kinds of policy change can they induce – or preclude? What can outgoing rulers do to shape the course of transition processes, and when do they choose to do so?

Let’s take just the first of these questions. Orderly successions are a clear problem for autocratic regimes. Autocrats face what John Herz identified as the “crown-prince problem” back in 1952:

  • Choose a successor, live in fear that they lead a coup against you (see Sultan Qaboos c. 1970)
  • Delay too, risk elite in-fighting during the transition (see Death of Stalin)

Herz also suggests “institutional frameworks” for the transfer of authority, and political scientists have had some success in showing that presence of written or unwritten rules of succession among political parties and extended royal families can help predict the manner and success of authoritarian transitions.We know less about why these institutions sometimes work and sometimes fail, however—-or why they are sometimes honored and sometimes not.

Saudi Arabia’s Allegiance Council (made up of senior royals) was once held as preserving “democracy at the top” in governing the Saudi succession. Yet the late King Abdullah repeatedly bypassed the Council rearrange the line of succession – a practice that continued under King Salman. 

By contrast, Sultan Qaboos dominated the Omani government and the succession process, with choice of successor left to the ruling family (if they could choose a successor within three days) or Qaboos’s personal preference – written on a letter and hidden within a sealed envelope.

Much could have already gone wrong, as commentators have wondered over the years whether the regime could survive a transition from Sultan Qaboos’ personalized rule.

The royal family might have drawn the decision process out beyond the supposed three-day limit – rumors of a coming succession have swirled for weeks. Sidelined royal family members with close ties to the military might have tried to alter the succession through force of arms. The letter could have been tampered with, or disregarded altogether.

Yet the smooth transition (so far) suggests that the Omani monarchy has survived this initial political test. In a brisk and orderly process, Sultan Qaboos’s choice was announced before the family by the military and documented via photographs shared on social and broadcast media.

Why did the succession rules work in Oman?
Assuming that the public story at all reflects what unfolded behind the scenes (a strong assumption given how little we know about the politics of Oman), we are still left with several potential explanations for why the written rules worked in this case.

Maybe careful design can imbue written words with political power even in autocracies (Frantz and Stein, also the entire literature on authoritarian constitutionalism) – institutions of succession can bind successors at the point of transition. The letter designates a successor, the successor becomes a focal point for coalition bandwagoning among other royals and elite allies eager to secure the status quo, and any disappointed members of the family view an extra-constitutional challenge as too risky.

  • Open-the-envelope works as a succession strategy.

Or perhaps (Abramson and Rivera) Sultan Qaboos’ lengthy tenure in office ultimately set the stage for a peaceful transfer of power. Even if unobservable to outsiders, ruling elites might have interacted with a Qaboos-endorsed successor long enough to trust that he will uphold the political status quo..

  • Open-the-envelope works if the rival contenders trust each other and the successor to uphold the status quo through long experience (most of the leading contenders had served in various branches of the government for decades, albeit largely behind the scenes).

Or international factors may have come into play, ruling elites concerned that a leadership vacuum in turbulent times could invite foreign intrigue or social unrest – threatening their collective access to power and privilege. War or even the threat of war therein (Piplani and Talmadge) might make the risks of seizing power by force even greater than normal.

  • Open-the-envelope works if external threats suggest the cost of disagreement might be immediately catastrophic (though this might equally explain why a palace coup could be presented as a fait accompli to a skittish elite and public).

Or perhaps, per Gerschewski, we can take seriously questions of legitimacy and legitimation in authoritarian regimes. The members of the ruling family know that they will never be as popular  with the public as Sultan Qaboos was, and their best route to “legitimacy”  is to abide by the terms of the Qaboos’ last letter (as successor or supporter). The family’s decision to honor Qaboos’ wish for a small, military funeral (perhaps not the first choice of the public) similarly suggests that Qaboos’ wishes are serving as a safe roadmap for the transition.

  • Open-the-envelope works when a prior, popular ruler can confer legitimacy on a successor and those who abide by the terms of succession (this could perhaps explain why the family reportedly skipped straight to opening the letter).

Of course, it is hard to distinguish between these scenarios (all four could be happening at once!) without a lot more data – hard to come by in autocratic regimes in general, and especially the longstanding yet opaque monarchies of the Arabian peninsula (with the partial exception of Kuwait).

How to Study Succession
Data isn’t the only problem, though – part of the challenge lies in asking the right questions about the right outcomes of interest. It has taken political scientists quite a while to get back to asking the kind of questions that animated a debate on the policy effects of Soviet leadership transitions (between Valerie Bunce and Philip Roeder in the APSR, 1986).

Insights from more transparent cases can shed some light on what to look for when politics are shrouded in the black boxes of authoritarian rule.

Efforts to prolong the Franquist regime after the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco quickly led to a full-fledged transition to democracy – revisiting the plan for continued dictatorship, and examining what went wrong, might yield some answers.

Likewise, the informal institution of Presidents selecting their successors in authoritarian Mexico (the “dedazo,” or “tap of the finger”) has outlived the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s hegemonic hold on power (at least within the Party) – figuring out the staying power of this practice might yield some answers.

In contemporary Russia, the recent resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev suggests that President Vladimir Putin might be strategizing how best to hand off a modicum of formal power to a successor while retaining considerable influence behind the scenes. Yet some Russia analysts already saw the potential for a “Medvedev succession” back in 2008, when Medvedev briefly held the Russian presidency, raising questions as to whether this represented a failed attempt at Putin stepping back.

For the Middle East (or West Asia) and North Africa, scholars are unlikely to find archival data on the order of the Iraqi Ba‘ath Party records housed at the Hoover Institution (though note the extensive ethical arguments over the status of these documents, captured by U.S. forces in Iraq and unilaterally relocated to the United States).

Still, contested (and more visible) successions are not unknown in the region – even among the Gulf monarchies – and scholars equipped with the right questions might obtain new insights by triangulating between:

In all, political science is far from a complete understanding of authoritarian successions, but we certainly have the building blocks to further theorize the determinants of success in these transitions and their impact (great or nil) on domestic and foreign policies alike.

In the case of Oman, the significance of this smooth transition goes far beyond domestic politics, defying concerns that Sultan Qaboos’s passing might immediately rob the Middle East and North Africa of a key source of moderation and mediation in international relations. Still, the years ahead will tell how much of the Sultanate’s diplomatic heft will outlast the passing of the man who served as head of state, Minister of Defense, and Minister of Foreign Affairs for a half-century.

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An American died in an Egyptian jail. Why didn’t this well-connected human rights community speak out?

Earlier this week, Mustafa Kassem, an American held in Egypt, died. The Trump Administration did little to help him. That wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that the international religious freedom movement (IRF), a community that has gained close access to this Administration, seemed to have done little as well. The reason behind this should make this movement think seriously about its approach to the human rights.

Let me tell you two stories.

In October 2016, Andrew Brunson–a US pastor who had worked for a long time in Turkey–was arrested for alleged connections to the coup attempt against Turkish President Erdogan. His cause became a priority for the international religious freedom movement, who repeatedly pressed the Trump Administration to act. And it did. US Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom (IRF) Sam Brownback pressed Turkey for Brunson’s release. Vice President Pence spoke out. The United States imposed sanctions against Turkey and raised tariffs. Eventually, Turkey gave in and released Brunson.

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Twilight of Hope

Last year I attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (CoP) for the first time. It was an experience in dichotomies. The events on the periphery (side events) were energetic and forward-oriented. Al Gore did his thing updated with a little Greta Thunberg-esque ferocity, and presentations at country pavilions highlighted a ranging of exciting developments from new advances in wind turbine design to a novel way to visualize national and city level carbon emissions. The events involving the member parties to the UNFCCC were closed to observers (this was not always the case) but were, as we now know, largely a failure. The indications of the pending collapse of the talks were not difficult to discern. At a plenary updating participants and observers on the progress of various negotiations, the president of the CoP called for the participants to be ambitious at least half a dozen times—a clear indication that the negotiations between the UNFCCC parties were anything but. The reports from the various working groups almost uniformly reported limited progress and what we now know was a fruitless search for ‘landing pads’. The negotiations were mired in differences, petty and otherwise. 

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Audit Culture in UK Higher Education

In 2016 I took a job at university in the UK. As an American, British academic culture was new to me, especially its ‘audit culture’. The key elements of audit culture are mechanisms for the evaluation and measurement of teaching and research. The vast majority of UK higher education is delivered by public institutions, regulated and funded in large part by the government. The UK government justifies its use of oversight mechanisms on democratic grounds. They argue that since higher education is funded primarily, though not exclusively, by the central government, academic staff should be held accountable to the public through the evaluation of the relative ‘excellence’ of a university’s research and teaching. However, as I will explain, government-mandated reviews are only the tip of the iceberg. The practice of oversight is woven into the day-to-day administration of teaching and research.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a national review of research quality and productivity that takes place approximately every five years (the upcoming REF is in 2021, the previous one was held in 2014). The process is taken very seriously by university administrators because it informs the allocation of around £2 billion per year of public funding for universities’ research. At my university we have already begun preparing for the next cycle with what is known as the “rolling REF”, an ongoing internal assessment exercise where we all read and assess one another’s published work. What this means, in effect, is that it feels like there is no end to the REF review process. As one colleague put it, “after the REF is before for the REF.” 

The rules of the REF are baroque and shift with each subsequent cycle. Under the current rules, as a scholar on a research and teaching contract your aim should be to produce four, four-star research outputs every five years. This is because, at least for the 2021 cycle, no one researcher can submit more than four items, but universities have to submit at least something from all eligible staff it employs (just determining eligibility requires a flow chart–see p. 36). There is also an “impact case study” element to the REF used to assess the role research plays outside academia. To give you an idea of the scale of the REF audit, here are the stats from 2014:

https://www.ref.ac.uk/media/1021/guide-to-ref-2021-for-research-users.pdf

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The sneaky rise of “common wisdom” in Middle East studies

We’ve all spent the weekend processing the killing of Iranian official Qassim Suleimani by a US airstrike. While this is obviously very important, we should think about a secondary implication of this act–how this undermined the apparent Middle East analyst consensus that America was pulling back from tensions with Iran, and how this consensus even emerged in the first place.

A few months ago I noticed something interesting. Saudi Arabia, after adopting a hostile foreign policy on Qatar and Yemen–motivated by its fears of Iran–seemed to be getting nervous. They’d issue warning signs about the impact of a war, and their UAE allies actually seemed to be trying to calm things down. I noted this on Twitter (I’m not going to look up my tweets, but you can find them), and thought I was onto something.

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The biggest losers from the Suleimani strike may be America’s Gulf allies

Depending on your Twitter addiction, you either went to sleep or woke up with the news that America had assassinated Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force. Suleimani was one of the most powerful men in Iran, and the driver of its activities in the Middle East, so this is a big deal. People are debating whether this was just and necessary, and what happens next. But I wanted to raise a different point: what this means for America’s Persian Gulf allies.

Many would suspect these states–particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–to be the biggest winners in this strike. Both states have a history of antagonism with Iran. Both were also the victim of strikes against their oil industry likely orchestrated by Iran (likely by Suleimani himself). And both have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen against Iran. So removing him from the region would be a good thing for them.

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The Russian Enigma

On an ice-cold winter evening I arrived in Moscow to untangle the riddle that is Russia. After reading two op-eds by Anne Applebaum and Bill Browder I knew what this country was about but I just wanted to see it for myself. The eyes of the border control guards reflected the thousand years of Russia’s repressive regime. I was half-expecting the KGB to arrest me there and then because four years ago I posted on Facebook that I didn’t like Vlad, but they let me through. My Moscow adventure had begun. 

The shadow of Stalin still looms large over this sprawling city. As soon as you approach the Kremlin you can see his doppelgängers entertaining tourists that shows the profound admiration Russians have for this tyrant. The beautiful Christmas lights mask the darkness that lurks in the hearts of the people that have no hope for the future or French cheese. While checking into my Ritz-Carlton room I couldn’t help but wonder, is the master of the Kremlin checking in on me too?

I didn’t find a Pizza Hut on the Red Square and realized that capitalism has failed here. Russian economy has not really become free after all. Gorbachev brought opportunity to this country, but instead they settled for Lenin’s mausoleum where you can still smell the rotting corpse of Bolshevism. After a decadent dinner in Doktor Zhivago restaurant, I could see that Russians are still trapped in the past, longing to resurrect their Soviet legacy, unable to open themselves up to new experiences (they do accept Apple Pay though). 

On my way to the Bolshoi theatre I got lost and a young lady directed me in English. Her surprisingly not blue eyes and not blond hair, as well as passable language skills will stay in my memory forever as a glimmer of hope that still flickers in this country of slaves. Pogrom, kompromat, troika, kalinka, babushka, gulag, vodka. If you know these words, you will see right through the mysterious Russian soul as did I, after a day and a half stay in a five star hotel in Moscow city center.

On my ride back to the airport, I realized that the East will never understand the West. Our values of the Enlightenment, human rights, liberty and democracy are lost on these people who don’t speak much English. They will never comprehend what it’s like to live in a free country and speak a language that doesn’t have 6 cases and 7 declensions.

Russia is no longer an enigma for me. I riddled me this. 

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Russians Love Their Children Too

Sting said it best

What kind of questions do you usually expect from a Town Hall meeting in the US? Healthcare? Climate change? Pensions? Schools? Roads? You would be surprised, but these are also the kind of questions journalists asked President Putin last Thursday at his annual presser (his 15th one, no less). Apart from the recurrent theme of the Great Patriotic War, it was your run of the mill, banal Q & A session; just instead of concerned citizens you have a room full of 1895 journalists from Russia and abroad with varying level of sanity and servility. 

The range was big to say the least: from icon-waving crackpots and terrified young reporters reading out encomiums about Putin’s involvement into youth programs to BBC correspondents asking about his daughters’ business ventures or about Boris Johnson’s comparing Putin to Dobbie the Elf from Harry Potter. The ones playing annual Putin bingo probably got everything down during the over 4-hour exercise in democracy and transparency: a bunch of mostly correct statistics, a traditional jab at the US, a signature lidded cup with (allegedly) tea, record numbers in agriculture, a snarky exchange with a Ukrainian journalist, as well as a couple of lessons in history.

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The Same but Different: US vs UK Higher Education

Four years ago I accepted a job at a university in the UK. When I took the job I didn’t think a whole lot about how working in the UK might differ from my previous academic posts in the US. I’m an American, and though I have British friends who work at UK universities–one of whom warned me “not to be fooled by the fact that we speak the same language”–I was woefully underprepared for just how distinct the two higher education systems are. Brits and Americans do speak the same language, but there are significant differences in their use of terminology. It’s not just that we use different words to mean the same thing, it’s that we use the same words to mean different things. For instance:

Are you alright? 

Let’s start with the simple stuff. If a Brit greets you and asks, “You a’right?” it is the equivalent of an American saying, “Hey, how are you?” However, I spent my first couple weeks in the UK wondering if there was something wrong with how I looked. I would immediately check to see if I was bleeding or if I had spilled coffee on my shirt.

Dissertation vs Thesis

In the US the dissertation is what you write to earn your PhD. In the UK it’s what an undergraduate or master’s level student writes as a capstone assignment. I learned this fact only after a couple of rather confusing conversations with my advisees. To sum it up: A dissertation is a thesis and a thesis is a dissertation.

Course 

In the US what would be called a “course” is called a “module” in the UK. So, for instance, where students select their classes from a course catalogue in the US, they browse a module catalogue in the UK. However, this use of terminology becomes extra confusing because in the UK they use the word course to describe what in the US would be a degree program. In other words, a module is to a course in the UK as a course is to a program in the US.

Lecturer 

When I was hired on in the UK, I was hired as a lecturer. I knew it was a “permanent” position. Yet the fact that in the US a lecturer is usually a contingent or adjunct employee caused confusion for my friends back home. In the UK a lecturer is the first rank on the academic promotion scale. In some ways it is equivalent to being hired as an assistant professor in the US, except that in the UK there is no up-or-out tenure system. Once you pass a cursory probation period you are hired on an open-ended contract. Though rare, technically, you could spend your entire career as a lecturer.

Reader

In the US the term reader is generally used to describe someone who enjoys reading. In the UK it is also a rank on the academic promotion scale. The rank of reader does not have a US equivalent in the sense that there are three rungs on the US promotion ladder, whereas there are four rungs in the UK. The promotion ladder in the UK is lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor. A senior lecturer is generally considered to be equivalent to an associate professor. A reader is equivalent to the junior ranks of what would be a full professor.

Professor

Adding to the confusion is that in the UK there are differences in title attached to the differences in rank. In the US all tenure-track and tenured faculty are addressed as “professor.” In the UK, until you reach the rank of professor you are addressed as “doctor” rather than “professor.” My students call me Dr. Harrington, or at least that’s how I ask them to address me. I still get plenty of emails that start out with “Hi” or, more unfortunately, “Miss Harrington.”

Staff 

In the UK the term staff refers to all academic and administrative employees. In the US “staff” usually refers to administrative support and “faculty” denotes the academic personnel. Moreover, rather than working directly for academic faculty who have taken on administrative positions, as they usually do in the US, administrative staff have a career track and promotion hierarchy that sits parallel to the academic track. This then touches on another, broader point about the extent of UK bureaucracy, but that’s a story for another time.

Marking

Marking is what in the US is called grading. This is not a particular source of confusion as marking and grading are more or less synonymous terms in the US as well, but I am including it here because the culture of marking is quite different than it is in the US. It is a much more involved process which includes the practice of moderation in which a colleague reviews a sample of the marked essays and comments on the consistency of the grades and the quality of the feedback.

Scheme 

What in the US would be called a program or plan Brits call a “scheme.” There’s a scheme for almost everything in the UK. There’s a pension scheme, a postgraduate funding scheme, a publication scheme. To an American it manages to make even the most banal plan sound like an underhanded plot. Take for instance the Beacon Scholarship, which my university’s website describes as “a lucrative scheme..open to all undergraduate courses,” or my university’s bicycle scheme. I pictured a bicycle theft ring, but it turned out to be a completely above-board program to purchase a bicycle on a tax-free installment plan.

This catalog is far from exhaustive, and it only scratches the surface of what are much deeper structural and cultural differences. I’m sure that there are many more terms that one could add, but for now, as they say in the UK, I wish you all “Happy Christmas.”

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Chain-ganging in reverse? Gulf states and US hostility towards Iran

I had a piece in the Washington Post’s “Monkeycage” over the weekend, which you can read here. I noted that many worry Saudi Arabia and the UAE will pull America into war with Iran. But it actually looks like they’re the ones restraining us. The piece was inspired by the famous “chain-ganging” dynamic in IR scholarship, but there was little discussion of that as it was geared towards a broader audience, so I wanted to expand here.

I suspect most readers of this site had to read Christensen and Snyder’s “Chain gangs and passed bucks” at some point. In case you didn’t, the argument is basically that in multipolar systems, alliances tend towards chain-ganging (being dragged into wary by allies) or buck-passing (wars breaking out because no one wants to stand up to an aggressor). The former happens in the case of offensive-dominant systems, the latter in defensive dominant ones.

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This op-ed shows what’s wrong with US foreign policy

Today, Ryan Crocker–career foreign service officer and former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan–wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing its criticism of the Afghanistan war he oversaw. He pointed to progress made in Afghanistan, which is fair (and doesn’t necessarily contradict anything in the Post’s reporting), but generally did little to directly undermine worries about the war. Beyond that, as I noted in a frustrated Twitter thread earlier today, he showed off a lot of what’s wrong with US foreign policy.

I spent 11 years in Washington, DC, doing the usual young professional DC thing. I worked for a defense contractor. I joined networking groups. I attended events at think tanks. During this time I saw a lot of speeches either promising a new direction in US foreign policy or defending its current direction. Both tended to be vague and defensive even as they refused to directly engage with the very real problems in our policies. I had a flashback to that as I read Crocker’s op-ed.

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Lessons from Radicalization Narratives on Social Media

This is a guest post from Dr. Sybille Reinke de Buitrago, who is a Researcher and Project Manager of “VIDEOSTAR – Video-based Strategies Against Radicalization” at PolAk Nds, the Academy of Police Science and Criminology, Germany. Her research focuses on processes of identity, perception, emotions and discourse in security policy and international relations.

With the multitude of ‘stuff’ anyone can say online, why does it matter what someone says? It depends. When it comes to extremists posting content, we should be concerned, because spreading hatred online can incite actual violence. Radicalization narratives online then do matter. In the face of enormous challenges regarding digital communication, societal cohesion and political stability, we need to understand such narratives, and we need effective ways of countering them. 

Radicalization is a multidimensional process involving actors, ideas, political aims, means, and an audience. For extremists, social media has become a key tool to convey their ideas and ideologies, but also to recruit followers and to mobilize. Of course, offline contact remains important, but initial contact often comes online, and can be deepened there. Extremists want to create interest and attention; they offer strategic narratives that exploit tensions in society. Picking at those issues that are problematic, they target people who feel disillusioned or alienated from society. They also aim at emotions. They heavily color their claims and demands emotionally, utilizing emotional and identity needs we all have. The emotional framing does not only create interest, it also matters because the emotionalization of Self and Other – of ingroup and outgroup – is a tool to create dichotomy and antagonism between groups. 

How do extremists talk in social media?

An analysis of current radicalization narratives in YouTube focusing on Germany and Europe (Project VIDEOSTAR – Video-based Strategies against Radicalization) sheds some light on this question. The insights point to how extremists attempt to create division, antagonism, and feelings of threat. Islamist narratives tend to portray Europe and the West at large as negative and threatening places for Muslims. They frame the West as bad place to live in for ‘true’ Muslims and as threat to the Muslim community as a whole. The claim is that Muslims cannot be ‘true’ Muslims in the West. 

Islamist narratives heavily criticize Western media, and they portray state institutions as working to weaken a Muslim way of life. Narratives purposefully exploit discrimination experiences of Muslims, aiming to polarize and create antagonism. Such narratives reject any Western identity, and offer and appeal instead to a separate Muslim identity. Even topics of daily concern of young people are exploited, such as difficulties in school or with parents. For complex problems and for any issue of contention in society, Islamists offer as solution a simplified version of what they call the ‘true’ way of life for any Muslim. Linked is the call on all Muslims to defend their Muslim ‘rights’, community, and religion – according to the particular Islamist group’s narrative. 

Right-wing extremist/populist narratives, on the other side, focus on the claimed threat coming from refugees and migrants, and migration overall. Narratives portray refugees and migrants as threat to Europe, its culture, democracy and the Western way of life. An ‘Islamization’ of Europe is said to occur, with the Orient endangering the Occident. The framing is that this ‘Islamization’ threatens the European home and their populations, as well as liberal societies and values. ‘Native’ populations in Europe will supposedly soon feel as strangers in their own land. Narratives claim, for example, that in the case of Germany the German state is already catering to the needs of Muslims and other migrants more than to those of the native population. 

Another key theme of right-wing extremists/populists is the claimed threat for European women coming from Muslim men. By exaggerating instances of sexual violence by Muslim men in number and intensity, they aim to create fear and outrage, as well as mobilization for their ideas. Narratives also strongly criticize media and the state. All critical voices are subsumed under the so-called mainstream media that collude with state institutions. The state is blamed for the ‘chaos’ during the refugee crisis, for ‘out of control’-migration, and for not protecting Europeans. For example, due to its migration policy the German government is held responsible for the claimed new threat to German women. Narratives then call on German women to defend themselves. Not only migrants but also the state ‘become’ the enemy.

Thus, both Islamist and right-wing extremist/populist narratives heavily rely on the creation and use of dichotomies, and on manipulation to create fear. The focus on dichotomies is problematic. The absolute rejection of an identity that is more diverse or open, and the appeal to a more closed and homogeneous identity serve polarization and division. Whereas Islamist narratives call upon all Muslims to join an expanding Muslim community apart from mainstream society, right-wing narratives offer both nostalgic and modern versions of a homogeneous home closed to other influences. When narratives utilize dichotomies to spread fear and hatred, they can foster actual violence – as observable in recent events across Europe.

How can we counter extremist narratives?

We are still learning about how we may effectively counter extremist narratives. Furthermore, the actual effectiveness of counternarratives is hard to measure. The insights above, however, point to some ways forward. There is clearly a need to deconstruct extremists’ interpretations. We need to deconstruct their claims, conclusions, and calls for action. Since extremists try to sow division in societies, policymakers and society must answer with a transparent and sober discussion of existing problems, and authentic solutions. False truth claims must be uncovered, interpretations of an issue from apparently logical responses disentangled, and the misuse of emotional and identity appeals illustrated.

Policymakers and society should engage in making extremists’ narratives and their strategies and objectives transparent. We also need counternarratives that reach various audiences, thus counternarratives in multiple approaches, formats, and aesthetics, even if there are always potential side effects of further marginalization. The use of humor is contested, but humor can be useful in illustrating contradictions in extremist narratives and behavior, and thereby weakening credibility. Effective counternarratives need speakers that transport authenticity, legitimacy and charisma. They should be an expert on the topic in question, or they may be someone popular in music or sports who can garner attention. 

Furthermore, it is significant that counternarratives address audiences on an emotional level. Whereas extremists try to build fear, counternarratives can work with positive emotions and offer an empowering reading of existing challenges. Research also shows that positive messages that are for rather than against something get a better reception among young people. We then need counternarratives within a liberal, democratic frame that speak to young people and that strengthen their sense of capacity and passion about issues.

Strengthening social media competence is a related area for action, as it would strengthen resilience against manipulation attempts. Social media users should be aware of how algorithms work, of the impact of their viewing behavior, and what an echo chamber is. User should be able to reflect when a discussion becomes limited and extreme, and how content is made to evoke emotions. Efforts to foster reflection and debate are also significant for pluralism and diversity. When discussing issues on social media, users should also check with how their friends in the offline space see those issues. Greater social media competence is not only significant vis-à-vis online extremism, but also for how we can address the challenges of social media and the transformations in public and political communication. 

Thus, in countering extremists’ messages and objectives, we can and should work with positive messages in order to foster engagement and participation in the solving of problems. Such efforts, when including all of society, can go some way against extremism. Efforts should also include active engagement of and discussions with young people themselves about what is important for them; this may be done in schools, for example. Mixed approaches of online and offline efforts that include all areas of society would seem to best foster tolerance and cohesion. 

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Is Domestic Violence a Security Issue?

This post is cross-posted at Climate Security in Oceania.

For my course on climate security in Oceania, we read a post on the New Security Beat from Volker Boege from the Toda Institute. The piece is based on a wider report on climate and conflict in Oceania. He writes:

In overcrowded squatter settlements in the few urban centers in the Pacific Islands, domestic violence is increasing. These settlements are also often the sites of violent, sometimes deadly, conflicts between communities from different islands, many of whose members left their home islands because of the effects of climate change.

In the class, we had a vigorous conversation about whether domestic violence constitutes a security threat. Because violent conflict is relatively rare in the region in the contemporary era (the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are exceptions), efforts to think through the connections have led to a more expansive emphasis on other links between climate and security. Here, Boege writes in the wider report:

In Oceania today violent conflict is mostly inter-group in the local context, usually at a relatively low level of intensity, or it is everyday dispersed violence, such as domestic violence against women and children. This everyday violence and these local low-intensity violent conflicts can often be linked to the social effects of climate change, in particular to climate migration.

The conversation about the boundaries of the field of security studies led me to have some further thoughts that I wanted to explore here.

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Exploring Obstacles to Social Cohesion in the Aftermath of Violent Conflict: A Scholar-Practitioner Symposium

This is a guest post by Kara Hooser and Austin Knuppe, Conflict to Peace Lab, Mershon Center for International Security Studies, The Ohio State University

Rebuilding social cohesion—restoring bonds of social trust that bind people together in communities and enable them to peacefully coexist—commonly serves as a central goal for peacebuilders engaging in communities fractured by political violence. Despite a growing consensus about the necessity of promoting social cohesion in the aftermath of widespread violence, questions remain about how scholars, practitioners, and donors can collaborate to implement effective peacebuilding practices.

To address these challenges, we brought together sixteen scholars and practitioners for the inaugural peacebuilding symposium of the Conflict 2 Peace Lab at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State University.  Drawing on lessons learned from similar “bridging the gap” initiatives, we designed a workshop to facilitate exchange and find spaces for building community and mutual learning. Our time together focused on three themes: concepts and theories of social cohesion, effective peacebuilding practices, and monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

Finding Common Cause: Peacebuilding in Research and Practice

Over two days of structured discussion and information conversations, several commonalities emerged.

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Agent. Foreign Agent

Warning! According to the law that the Russian parliament passed yesterday, this post might need to be prefaced with a disclaimer that the following text has been compiled by a foreign agent. An individual can be labeled as a “foreign agent” in Russia if they (1) distribute information, and (2) receive funds from sources outside Russia. I am ticking both boxes here, even as an academic working at a university, and the law intentionally left the “information spreading” extremely broad: you can literally post something on social media. It would be up for the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to decide who receives a “foreign agent” label. A specific procedure is yet to be established, but if an individual is deemed a foreign agent, they will have to create their own legally registered organization within a month in order to interact as a foreign agent with the Russian government. 

This iteration of the law comes as a sequel to the ‘amendments to the law on non-commercial organizations’ of 2012 that obliged Russian organizations to register as ‘foreign agents’ in case they were involved in ‘political activity’ (even through funding) and received funding from abroad. It has affected by now a large number of my colleagues, including the Sova Center for the Monitoring of Xenophobia that was forced to pay a large fine. As one of the defenders of the law stated on prime-time television and in line with the usual liberal anti-American narrative and a conspiracy theme: 

The purpose of the law is to reduce the influence of foreign countries on the policy. Thus, our law is much softer than the one in the US […]. And at the same time if you engage in politics, that means fighting for power, you must inform the Russian citizens. Those who oppose this law, do this for two reasons: the first – or they want to seize power in Russia in the interests of foreign states and against the interests of Russia, and the second – they get Western money and want to steal it.

Duma Member Sergey Markov

The law on foreign agents was passed in the same session with more restrictive legislation on public rallies undoubtedly taking the cue from Vladimir Putin who remarked during his Direct Line in December 2011 that he was sure that some of the people went to the protest ‘in a foreign country’s interest and for a foreign country’s money’. The notorious usage of the singular as opposed to the plural was telling – the country in question was not named, but it was clear for the audience that he was talking about the only country that could afford financing a protest in Russia, the USA. 

Pervyi Kanal, Russian state TV,  responded to the Direct Line with lightning speed and three days later on Sunday prime time news there was a segment on ‘the history and spread of coloured revolutions’, where it was stated that there is a special American think tank that is active in countries where the US ‘is interested in changing the regime’. One of the Pervyi Kanal’s experts emphasized that ‘there are many symbols and concepts, but the aim and the sponsor is the same – the USA’ (Pervyi Kanal, 18 December 2011). Thus, the Soviet frame about American dollars buying instability and wars was time and again re-articulated both by state officials and TV personalities.

Why pass this new foreign agent law now, one might ask? After all, who doesn’t like that goofball Donald and who is afraid of that barely competent State Department that can’t even fact check a TIME magazine cover? According to a Russian MP, it’s because of Maria Butina’s case:

Very recently, Maria Butina returned to Russia. She was sentenced to a year and a half under a similar law that’s in place within the United States of America because she failed to register as an individual ‘foreign agent.’ […] We’re talking about protection from direct foreign influence on the media market […]. Unfortunately, political forces in our country use tactics like these quite often in order to bring often unreliable and compromised facts forward for discussion.

Duma’s Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy (United Russia party)

For starters, of course the American law is not that similar. Individual foreign agents in the US are supposed to be taking action in the interest of a foreign government or lobbying politicians. You know, like the convicted Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort. But lobbying effort is completely absent from the Russian law. While Butina was portrayed as another victim of “deep state” elite battles that ravage the American establishment, with the impeachment hearings kicking into high gear, who knows who will be the next President in the US and what kind of cookies the next State Department is going to distribute in Russia? In the meantime, “sovereign internet” is coming along and the laws are ready. 

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Policy Engagement* (*But Were Too Afraid to Ask)

Earlier this year, our team at the Sié Center at the University of Denver announced our program on the three R’s of Academic-Policy Engagement (or R3, if you prefer): Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility. Generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, our program is intended to both study and help train early-career scholars around the ethical issues that arise when academics—who face ever-increasing pressures to demonstrate the broader social impacts of their research—attempt to interface with policy audiences. Broadly speaking, our scholarly community is doing a good job of training scholars to engage: initiatives like the Bridging the Gap Project (BtG) have been massively successful in demystifying the mechanics of engagement: how to write for policy audiences, give good interviews, etc. BtG now has over 100 alums who are doing an excellent job of making IR scholarship legible for policy and general audiences.

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IR, it’s time to talk about what the “multiple comparisons issue” really is

As a reviewer and recipient of reviews, I’ve noted a recent trend among IR papers. A study uses cross-national data with regression analysis, and runs multiple models with different variables or sub-sets of the data. Sometimes the results are consistent, sometimes they aren’t. But often a reviewer will object to the study’s validity, pointing to the “multiple comparisons” issue. Multiple comparisons can be a real problem in quantitative IR studies, but I worry we’re mis-diagnosing it.

What do I mean? Imagine we’re writing a paper on interstate conflict. We could measure conflict onset, duration or intensity. We could measure intensity by an ordinal scale, the number of deaths, or other more complicated measures. We could include all dyads, politically-relevant dyads, dyads since 1945, 1989, etc. Ideally these choices would be based on our theory, but our theories are often not specific enough to specify such choices.

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Duck podcast episode 2: Dan Nexon

The second episode of the podcast is now live. Dan and I discuss his recent-is tenure as lead editor at ISQ, insights on the journal article model for career advancement, prophesies for the future of journals in IR, and advice for young(ish?) scholars. The podcast should be available through Apple and Google podcast syndicators, and the RSS feed is https://feed.podbean.com/duckofminerva/feed.xml. As always, feedback is welcome in the comments or on twitter @jarrodnhayes

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A bigger question in the alt-ac debate

I had a kind of unique path to my current tenure-track job, straddling the policy-academia divide. So I’ve followed current discussions on “alt-ac” careers with interest, but found something lacking in them. Nathan Paxton’s recent interview with APSA crystallized that; the bigger question is not how to support alt-ac PhDs but how to counsel people before getting PhDs in the first place.

As I’ve discussed, I sort of followed the “alt-ac” approach in the first part of my career. For those who haven’t seen it, “alt-ac” means “alternative academic,” referring to PhDs who pursue jobs outside of higher education. I worked in DC before grad school, and continued working in “policy” jobs during grad school even as I tried to prepare for an academic career. And I worked in research jobs for several years before becoming a professor.

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