Protecting Civilians Through Responsible Scholarly Engagement (Vacation Planning Edition)

Recently I highlighted Korbel’s new Responsible Engagement Institute, an important innovation in our profession. I shouted this out in the context of my own concerns with survey experiments that (perhaps irresponsibly) inflate the appearance of American support for targeting civilians abroad. However make no mistake: just as humane treatment involves more than providing toothbrushes and soap, protecting civilians involves much more than forebearance from reigning fire upon their cities.

War-affected civilians are entitled to many things besides not to be attacked directly: shelter, food and medicine, which they are being denied in Syria; food which they are being denied in Yemen; freedom from gender-based-violence and secondary victimization which they are denied in South Sudan. But perhaps something we don’t emphasize enough in the “civilian protection community” is the right to flee the violence and seek safety outside one’s national borders. This right is enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Additional Protocol, to which the US is a party.

If there is a single place where US academics are stepping up to embody responsible engagement with political power this summer, it is in a small and under-appreciated pocket of intellectualism on the US Southern Border: Las Cruces, New Mexico. The Department of Government at New Mexico State University has catalyzed local activism. It was Neal Rosendorf, an Associate Professor of international relations, who teamed up with veteran journalist Robert Moore to help break the story about the inhumane treatment of child detainees in a way that finally galvanized the national media when his remark that the facility was like “a human dog pound” was picked up in mid-June by the Daily Kos.

Rosendorf’s heartbreakingly yet surprisingly balanced account in the National Interest this week, Suffer the Little Children: The View from El Paso, combines historical analysis, visual analysis, and first-hand ethnographic field accounts, facts-based analysis of contemporary commentary, with the searing sensibility of one who finds oneself both in the field as a conflict scholar and at home simultaneously, as one’s neighborhood is turned into ground zero of a battle over the protection of civilians.

On the day I visited the Tornillo camp the temperatures were so sky-high that no amount of water consumed would adequately ameliorate the physical effects. Nonetheless, a group of boys energetically played football in a dusty field near their khaki-colored tent barracks, seemingly oblivious to the scorching heat. The scene was poignantly reminiscent of World War II photographs of British prisoners of war disporting themselves in the Stalag. Many industrial-size air-conditioning units and huge portable generators rest in the open air on wooden pallets, waiting to be deployed. They serve as silent confirmation of recent news reports that the facility, which was ostensibly slated to be closed down by July 14, is not soon going away. On the day I visited the Tornillo camp the temperatures were so sky-high that no amount of water consumed would adequately ameliorate the physical effects. Nonetheless, a group of boys energetically played football in a dusty field near their khaki-colored tent barracks, seemingly oblivious to the scorching heat. The scene was poignantly reminiscent of World War II photographs of British prisoners of war disporting themselves in the Stalag. Many industrial-size air-conditioning units and huge portable generators rest in the open air on wooden pallets, waiting to be deployed. They serve as silent confirmation of recent news reports that the facility, which was ostensibly slated to be closed down by July 14, is not soon going away.

Las Cruces is personal to me too. It is the place where completed my BA after finding my way from home-school into community college, and then my Masters degree while raising a feisty two-year-old, before heading north for doctoral work at University of Oregon. Even then, though my interests were more farflung than my professors’ – I wrote my Masters’ thesis on outer space policy – I was trained to be conscious of the fact that we were studying IR theory on an international border where questions of sovereignty, rights, anarchy and disorder, and the politics of Inside/Out were very much stitched into the seams of the everyday, as well as academic life.

And Rosenberg is right that this these roots run deep, like a rotten tooth. The last time I passed through New Mexico, on a nostalgia tour with my partner and then 13y/o son, work and politics was the last thing on my mind. But Garrett, Liam and I couldn’t help but make a detour from our camping and UFO-museum visits when we read a news story of a scabies outbreak at an Obama-area facility near Artesia.

Children weren’t being separated from parents, but even then they were being warehoused in inhumane conditions. We spent three hours on what was both research and engagement: playing dumb and asking the local authorities to explain themselves, in particular precisely why we could not visit the refugees to bring them some diapers. We made little difference that day – other than to teach one bureaucrat about the Refugee Convention, and to teach Liam to speak up in the face of injustice. But as Ghandi said, “Anything you do will feel insignificant. But it is very important that you do it anyway.”

My old professors at NMSU are specialists in this practice now. While Rosendorf courts CNN and sneaks around taking clandestine pictures of prisoners on his IPhone, my former Comparative Politcs professor, Neil Harvey engages in service-learning projects with his students. Even the emeritus professors, ethnicity and migration specialist Yosef Lapid and constitutional law scholar Nancy Baker, are active in refugee relief. These professors are personally engaged – as sleuths, activists but also as scholars communicating human rights research, facts and principles to the national media – documenting their own observations on the national stage.

In the past weeks, I’ve heard so many people exclaim “Where is America?” America is there on the border – at Anunciation House, at the Border Network for Human Rights, at Refugee And Immigrant Center for Education and legal Services (RAICES) – and all around the nation, protesting, paying bail, hosting asylum seekers in spare bedrooms, calling Senators, and – even (bravely) at the Lincoln Memorial on Independence Day – resisting in other numerous small ways.

But media coverage of the El Paso/Juarez centers is flagging (few national outlets covered the half a million or so Americans who turned out last weekend to protest) so those voices need to get louder. One thing political science professors can tell us right now is how.

This is a call for guest posts by social movement analysts, collective action folks, conflict scholars, refugee relief and asylum law specialists, conlict mediators able to tamp down tensions between Trumpers and “ClosetheCampers;” plus those like Ari Kohen specializing in how to get more folks to act like heroes when it counts – to help us answer the question of how we can do better as a nation than those our fathers and grandfathers fought and died to defeat.

Meanwhile, I will be taking my summer “vacation” this year once again on the Southern border. This time there will be no UFO museums or Anasazi ruins. This time I won’t tour a limestone cave, I’ll tour a migrant shelter. I’ll seek out anyone who will talk to me about what they are doing and how others can help and if they’re not doing anything, then try to understand why. If I camp, it will not be on White Sands under the wide stars, but outside a CPB facility in El Paso, with a protest sign and a generator. I’ll need it, because I’ll be taking my camera phone and Twitter feed with me. Join me there if you can.

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Seeing Israel and Palestine Up Close

I just came back from eight days in Israel and Palestine, as I participated in a program, Academic Exchange, that has already taken something like 600 scholars (mostly IR but also other political scientists, lawyers [including my brother-in-law], and some economists) to learn more about the place, the conflict and the politics. The experience was pretty intense, so I blogged my daily experiences at saideman.blogspot.com starting with this one (go to my blog for pics since blogspot is cludgy for pics but wordpress–the system here–is far worse). I am blogging here to write about the larger issues–what was the purpose of this trip, what are the take home lessons, and what can we make of this very problematic place.

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Will Republican voters punish Trump for a trade war with China? It depends.

This is a guest post from Shana Gadarian and Dan McDowell, both Associate Professors at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

Earlier this month, after Chinese authorities reportedly backtracked on a set of economic reform promises as part of ongoing trade discussions, President Trump announced that existing tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods would increase from 10% to 25%. China responded with new tariff hikes of its own on American products.

The costs of the escalating trade war are most acute in rural areas where Trump has enjoyed strong political support. While it is possible that economic pain from the dispute will erode the president’s popularity among his base, our research suggests that Republican support for the trade war depends less on how much pain the US endures and more on how much it hurts China. 

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On Responsible Scholarly Engagement

Rob Farley has posted a Lawyers, Guns and Money podcast discussing my new research with Alex Montgomery on why reports of Americans’ willingness to target civilians have been greatly exaggerated.

One theme we discussed that bears emphasizing are questions of why we do the survey research we do, and how we decide what findings to publicize, where, how and for whom. Do we truly need poll data on the precise conditions under which Americans would tolerate war crimes? Is this truly a public good? Who does this serve? Who does it enable? When the results come out (if they include clues as to what policymakers must do to drum up support for war crimes), who is served or enabled by allowing journalists to run with findings, legitimized by major univeristies, that Americans would support terror bombing of foreign innocents? Who bears the risk of harm if such findings are misinterpreted – those in power or without it? Would it not be better to study the conditions under which Americans can be best inoculated from willingness to go along with terrible war crimes than to provide a recipe book for the powerful on how to chip that resistance away?

These kinds of questions form the motivation for a terrific new program at Sie Center at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. According to their announcement at Political Violence at a Glance:

We plan to move beyond the mechanics of engagement to address the following types of questions: How and when should knowledge be shared with policy actors of different types, if at all? What are the promises and pitfalls of such policy engagement—for the academic, but also the policy community and other affected populations? What are the different ethical dilemmas that arise from engaging with government, versus civil society, versus private sector actors? How can scholars communicate findings most effectively (and what does that mean)? How might these findings be used by policy makers? Who has ownership over final research products? How do differing institutional pressures shape the types of engagement and the challenges that might arise? And many more.

We plan to start tackling these types of questions through activities that build both a knowledge base and network that can assist policy-interested academics when engaging with both governmental and nongovernmental policy actors. A key component of the program will be an “Issues in Responsible Engagement Institute” to help early career scholars navigate the challenges of engaging with different sets of policy actors at all stages of the research and dissemination process. Recognizing that PhD students and early career academics receive little formal mentorship on professional ethics and have few places to turn for advice, this multi-day institute will serve as a complement to existing Bridging the Gap training programs and provide a forum to discuss issues around responsible policy engagement as well as a support network for participants. Just last week the Sié Center faculty were fortunate enough to work alongside a group of invited scholars and practitioners with experience in this field to start planning the curriculum for the workshop. Stay tuned for more on the application process next year.

This looks like just the type of initiative our discipline needs, particularly with so many scholars conducting research that not only measures but interfaces with citizen attitudes just as our democracy is most fragile. I wish this had been around early in my career, and I commend the organizers.

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Why Do Opinion Leaders Misjudge Public Attitudes?

Last week, Dina Smeltz, Jordan Tama, and I had a piece in the Monkey Cage on the results of our 2018 survey of 588 foreign policy opinion leaders. We found that these opinion leaders misestimated public attitudes on (1) US engagement in the world, (2) support for trade, (3) support for military intervention, and (4) support for immigration.

I did a thread on the results, which I’ll summarize below, but I wanted to follow up with some thoughts based on a thoughtful critique from Ken Schultz that focused on our finding that elites thought the public less supportive of military intervention than our public survey results suggested.

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So Call Me Maybe

A recent IR Twitter flare-up occurred on a seemingly innocuous topic illustrated by the flow-chart above: what should I call my professor? A PSA from Prof. Megan L. Cook recommended students to address their professors as Professors or Dr., avoiding references to their marital status or first names. Prof. Raul Pacheco-Vega tweeted the following:

I also delete every email that first-persons me on a first email. Them’s the rules. You can decide how you want to be addressed, but I’m the one who decides how *I* want to be addressed.

Dr. Jenny Thatcher and several others disagreed, pointing out that taking offence at an “improper” address is elitist, disrupts collegiality and can potentially push out first-gen scholars or people from backgrounds that do not share the same culture of academic etiquette. For that intervention, Dr. Thatcher endured insults, digs at dyslexia, and threats of getting reported to the police by random Tweeps.

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The ULTIMATE Academic Job Market Guide

The following is a guest post by K. Anne Watson, a PhD candidate in Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs.

The academic job market is incredibly stressful. This is at least partly because so much of the process tends to be opaque. (The rest, of course, is because you will be asked to handle all of it while juggling your day-to-day life and feeling a vague—or not-so-vague—sense of existential dread settling in around you.)

Leading up to my first applications, I asked question after question of my committee members, other graduate students, and Google. I really struggled to get a complete picture of the market. With that year behind me, I decided to gather together the resources and advice that most helped me prepare for the market and some of the experiences my peers and I had on the market, in the hope that graduate students coming after me will be able to find the answers to their most pressing questions in one place.

The guide is posted on my website. It’s broken into five sections: general information and advice, application materials, phone and video interviews, flyout interviews, and practice interview questions. I hope that you’ll check it out and that you find something inside that eases your job market concerns.

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Are Generic Drugs Safe? Big Claims in a New Book

I was in the car when the Dallas radio station KERA came on with an interview with the journalist Katherine Eban, author of the new book Bottle of Lies, in which she claims that the generic pharmaceutical industry faces widespread problems of quality.

A high percentage of generic drugs come from India and most of the chemical ingredients or raw materials come from China. Generic drugs constitute according to Eban about 90% of the drugs that Americans consume, and about 40% of those generic drugs come from India.

For me, this was particularly concerning since Indian drug makers provide more than 80% of the AIDS treatment drugs that keep millions alive around the world. If these drugs are not safe, then surely this should be showing up in increased mortality of people with HIV on generic antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. If true, the claims of the author could be really worrisome.

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US should support environmental peacebuilding and humanitarian efforts for Palestinians

This is a guest post from Erika Weinthal, a Professor at Duke University and Jeannie Sowers, an Associate Professor at the University of New Hampshire

What is often referred to as environmental peacebuilding – the process of governing and leveraging the use of the environment and natural resources for building a sustainable peace through improving livelihoods, strengthening the economy, rebuilding trust, and fostering cooperation – has been a core component of US-supported projects in Israel and Palestine.

As part of the US government strategy to promote a two-state solution in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo Peace Process, all US administrations until the most recent have provided economic and security assistance to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Palestinian civil society.  This assistance was always dwarfed by the military and economic assistance provided by the US to Israel, but nevertheless was an important component in supporting Palestinian civil society and human welfare.

US-supported projects included scientific exchanges through USAID’s Middle East Regional Cooperation program and support for regional NGOs like EcoPeace Middle East, which sought to build a peace park in the Jordan River basin and create dialogue among local mayors on both sides of the Jordan River. Most importantly, the US was the single largest donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which runs schools, health clinics, social services, and infrastructure projects for 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. 

The last two years of the Trump administration have, however, cemented the loss of US credibility in mediating the conflict between Israel and Palestine. There are no shortages of key moments, but the most notable include the administration’s decision to move the embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017, the elimination of all funding to UNRWA in late 2018, the cessation of development assistance to the Palestinian people in early 2019, and the US Ambassador to Israel taking a hammer to break ground in a tunnel in occupied East Jerusalem in June 2019.  

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Americans Oppose Killing Civilians. Reports Saying Otherwise Are Wrong.

Awhile back, when cross-posted here and at Lawyers, Guns and Money to harp on the Game of Thrones denouement, LGM Commenter “Dogboy” clicked a link in that post to this article by Stanford researcher Scott Sagan (with Benjamin Valentino), purporting to show (via survey experiment) that Americans would be fine carpet-bombing civilians in Iran. Dogboy’s rightful reaction: “WTF, WHY DID I CLICK THE LINK?” To which I was happily able to reply, “Don’t worry, I’ve studied this data and the authors are wrong. Stay tuned for my follow-up essay in the next few days.” 

It has taken many days to issue my follow-up, partly because, while I was busy completing replications on the Iran study and preparing a rebuttal for publication, Sagan and his team published another similar study on North Korea just before Trump headed over there.

This time, their survey respondents were not asked to saturation bomb an Iranian city (a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions), but to violate the UN Charter through a preventive strike on North Korea, with nuclear or conventional weapons depending on your treatment group, weighing the strategic gains against various game-theoretic likelihoods of various levels of civilian casualties in both North and South Korea, ranging from 15,000 to 1.5 million. 

Naturally, of course, the media reported on this study, published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and titled “What Do Americans Really Think About Conflict With Nuclear North Korea? The Answer is Both Reassuring and Disturbing” by focusing on the DISTURBING: the quote from the article most frequently mentioned in the media is this one:

“As we have previously found, the U.S. public exhibits only limited aversion to nuclear weapons use and a shocking willingness to support the killing of enemy civilians.” 

Well, having just replicated the original Iran study,* and also looked closely at this new North Korea one, I can tell Dogboy and everyone else that we can (mostly) relax. Here’s why: what Sagan’s team calls “disturbing” is not really that disturbing, and even if it is, the “Reassuring” way outranks the “Disturbing” in statistical terms. Below are three reasons why you shouldn’t worry too much about the blood-thirstiness of your fellow Americans.

“A Large Hawkish Minority Lurks.” Basically, Sagan’s team found Trump supporters are happy to bomb foreigners. Why the authors want to focus on (or have the media focus on) the minority of voters who would support war crimes over the large majority of Americans that don’t is unclear. But what they find “disturbing” is these voters also appear “appear insensitive to informational cues that most security experts would expect to reduce such levels of support.”

Voters may ‘appear’ that way, however, because Sagan and his team did not include ‘informational cues’ on knowledge or exposure to the Geneva Conventions in their experiment – something lots of ‘security experts’ including my co-author and I found matters tremendously in such matters. Indeed, when we replicated the original Iran Study we found that providing these cues reverses the result on saturation bombing:

What this means is that in real life, where international and domestic human rights groups (plus generals) would invoke the Geneva Conventions or UN Charter, support for these acts would be much lower than a carefully controlled survey experiment might suggest.

“A Shocking Willingness to Support Killing Civilians.” No. Absolutely not. What they found is that a large majority of Americans (77%) opposed killing civilians, whether or not this was done through conventional bombing or nuclear weapons. Again, this is “reassuring” not “disturbing” and it is also entirely consistent with the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit killing civilians no matter what weapons you use.

This new North Korea finding is actually consistent with what Alex Montgomery and I found on our replication of the original Iran study, as reported in this companion piece in Foreign Policy on audience reactions to the firebombing of King’s Landing: the vast majority of Americans believe it’s wrong to target civilians under any circumstances.

“A Strong Retributive Streak?” Sagan and his team also write that, even though “the majority of Americans do not want President Trump to return to threats to attack North Korea,” there is a “strong retributive streak in US public opinion.” 

This is a stretch. On the original Iran study, the authors developed this claim, because they found that among those willing to bomb the city, some Americans used a sort of “they deserve what they get” or “bomb them all” kind of explanation. On our replication, we found that only a minority of Americans really preferred to target civilians once you control for framing effects embedded in the original prompt, and of those that only a tiny minority (12%) evinced this sort of mentality when we studied the open-ended comments explaining the answers. This dropped to 6% if we gave an open-ended version of the question itself, rather than forcing respondents to choose between terrible options:

Now that’s an augmented replication of the original Iran study. In the new North Korea study, Sagan and his team argue death penalty support predicts retributive attitudes toward civilians and maybe so (we haven’t explored that), but this is hardly a “disturbing” finding about Americans, since death penalty support is at historic lows.

The Media Does Like “Disturbing” Things.

Whether these findings are legitimately disturbing or not, the media sure latched on to the claim that they were, and circulated the erroneous conclusion that this means Americans are happy to kill civilians – just as they did when the original (and flawed) Iran study came out.

This is a shame because what Americans think about what other Americans think can actually influence what Americans think – and that can influence what policymakers do. If the media’s misappropriation of this survey finding, due to a carelessly worded title in a research paper, leads Americans to think many of their countrymen are fine disregarding the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions, that really is terrifying. Because research shows those rules are sometimes the thin red line encouraging restraint in war.

*Our paper is not yet published, but if you want to read more about the replication I’ve developed with Alexander Montgomery, read this description of our methods at Open Global Rights. If you want to learn more about how Sagan’s team conducted the original Iran study go here. If you want to ponder what’s at stake when pollsters invite Americans to express preferences for war crimes, read this DISTURBING new article by my brilliant PhD student Alexandria Nylen.

Cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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A Case for Nationalism

Sorry, clickbait! But admit, it, after an apology of race science in Quillette or “The Case for Colonialism” in TWQ you probably rage-clicked on the thumbnail to let me have it. Periodic IR Twitter flares over teaching “Stoddard light” (i.e., Huntington) also show that not all scholars are aware of racialized origins of world order, existing color lines in global capitalism, or even “race relations” pedigree of IR as a discipline. This post is about a case for teaching about nationalism because it seems like different versions of racist primordial rhetoric just won’t die.


As a blog post by John Jackson made it clear, race science is a vampire science that comes back every so often [Twilight joke edited]. I see from time to time some type of “IQ difference” and “levels of criminality” arguments coming up among students because these arguments are essentially polished up turds from the 19th century anthroposociology and Social Darwinism that keep stinking up even supposedly an academic debate through mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric around the world. If a “Leader of the Free World” can say that “Mexicans are rapists” and “they bring drugs and crime” on prime-time television while the news dutifully resort to both-sidism and place chyrons with direct quotes, is our last hope education?

I have taught a course on theories of nationalism for several years now and we always start with the primordial stuff: blood, speech, custom, region, and religion. At this point, I invite students to create a ‘fake nation” in groups. This usually yields a very fun and diverse set of nations from island matriarchate with coconut cult to unicorn-blooded mermaid atheists. This exercise, of course, does not reverse or heal all the prejudice that might have collected in the backs of the minds of students (I have another 13 sessions for that) but at least it gives them an opportunity to reflect on the artificial nature of nation-building projects.


Another important session is on the role of collective memory and politics of commemoration. Especially on the undergraduate level where high school memories are not that far off, it’s important to reflect what was chosen to remember and what was chosen to forget in history books, why certain public holidays make the cut, and how national projects begin in the everyday, often unnoticed practices of creating a “culture”. But, as Huntington’s resilience on the syllabi shows, “culture” still serves as an ontological category that elevates constructed differences to political ones. So, after 14 sessions of talking imagined communities, “scientific” racism, and ontological security among others, I rarely get the boiler plate “Western civilization” in the exam answers, but how do I know the vaccination against racism has been successful?

As Paul Musgrave noted, right-wing media tells me that I can turn my students into socialists, but my experience tells me that I can’t even make them do the reading. So, what can we as political scientists do to inoculate against racism and xenophobia? What should we encourage the students to read? Because I don’t want to see the vampire science rise again.


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White saviors abroad – social doctors at home? Blunt and subtle colonialism in US Global Health education

This is a guest post from Tine Hanrieder who heads the research group Global Humanitarian Medicine at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. She is the author of International Organization in Time: Fragmentation and Reform.

American medicine is globalizing. Medical students request more “things global” on their curriculum, and universities rush to offer global health tracks to a global generation of students. While the types of programs vary enormously between specializations and campuses, most feature short-term experiential learning trips as a core element. These experiences – herein called Global Health Electives (GHEs), but also known as clinical tourism –, enjoy enormous popularity. It is estimated that around a third of all US, Canadian, and German, and even 40% of all British medical doctors have participated in a GHE. In the US, this is an increase from a mere 6% in 1984.

This scramble for the Global South has been amply criticized as a new form of colonialism and an epitome of the white savior complex. GHE participants have been blamed for practicing beyond competence, for disrespecting the patients and faculty in the host country, for producing extra costs for the host institutions, and for reproducing an ideology of normative whiteness while engaging in “service learning” abroad. In response, the search for more equitable, sustainable, or at least not harmful international learning partnerships is high on the agenda of organizations such as the Consortium of Universities for Global Health.

In the shadow of these debates, however, a counter-narrative is emerging, which seeks to shed a different, and more optimistic, light on the impact of GHEs. A growing body of research centers on the lessons that US students and residents learn from their overseas experience. Educators in fields ranging from nursing to orthopedics and family medicine now publish evaluations that aim to show how US medics’ skills and careers are transformed through GHEs.

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What Daenerys’ Error Teaches Us About American Tolerance for War Crimes

Alex Montgomery I have a new post up at Foreign Policy arguing that “The Bells” – and audience reactions to it – tell us something about American attitudes toward just war theory. A relevant topic with rising tensions w/ Iran, a debate over whether to pardon war criminals, and the stated willingness of our own rulers to violate war law.

The underlying reason for the outcry went unspoken: The deliberate targeting of civilians from the air, using incendiary weapons that are impossible to escape, is rightly recognized by Americans as a terrible crime—something good actors just don’t do. Our research confirms the evidence from reactions to the show’s finale. Americans would have wanted Daenerys to use air power but only against military targets such as the Iron Fleet. They would have wanted her to limit its use inside the city walls to avoid collateral damage. They would have wanted her to target the Red Keep, if needed, but not the streets of Flea Bottom. They would have chosen to let boots on the ground do the work of breaching the Red Keep and capturing Cersei Lannister and expected the Unsullied, Dothraki, and Northmen to fight soldiers rather than massacre civilians. All of these arguments show a clear and consistent understanding of, and sensitivity to, the international laws of war.

If public opinion can indeed constrain the executive – and there is evidence it can – this matters for foreign policy.

The article, I hope, does three other unstated things:

  1. Demonstrates the kind of analysis Paul Musgrave mentions IR scholars could and should be engaging in vis-a-vis pop-culture artifacts.
  2. Develops a testable hypothesis: that audience reception of pop culture artifacts could be as reliable a source of information on public opinion as fictionalized survey experiments, if only we start paying closer attention.
  3. Reminds us that American concern for the protection of civilians is a fragile thing, and not a historical inevitability.

Read the whole thing here.

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Will the Dominos Fall in Westeros: When Secession Spreads (or Not)

Folks have been picking on the last Game of Thrones episode for a variety of unrealistic or unearned developments. Here’s my take on the secessionist element. Folks have been picking on the last Game of Thrones episode for a variety of unrealistic or unearned developments.  Here’s my take on the secessionist element.

From https://www.quora.com/Why-is-it-called-the-7-kingdoms-when-there-are-9-of-them
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What Game of Thrones Got Wrong About Firebombing

Much ink has been spilled since last Sunday about the massacre at King’s Landing. Why did Dany carpet-bomb a civilian population after a city had surrendered? Was this a sign of her growing madness? Or a rational strategy to cement the legitimacy of her claim? Why didn’t the showrunners build it up better? Did they compromise Dany’s story arc as a civilian-protection advocate or were her actions always foreshadowed by her worst “fire and blood” tantrums?

In the handwringing over what Daenerys did, scant analysis has focused on how she did it. This is important since audiences draw inferences from popular culture about causal effects in real world foreign policy scenarios – such as a looming conflict with Iran. Since dragons represent air power, we should understand the historical analogy for the firebombing of King’s Landing not as the sack of medieval cities in a feudal era, but rather the saturation bombings of World War II, where undefended cities were systematically incinerated from the air.

Viewed this way, “The Bells” badly missed the mark in accurately portraying the humanitarian, operational and strategic costs of such campaigns, which the US has used before and Republican politicians have threatened to use again. In so doing, the showrunners missed an opportunity to educate its audience on the true horror of firebombing, and the way in which political actors use it at their own peril.

Fire Is Not a Precision Weapon. When Drogon begins his assault on King’s Landing, he begins with military targets – the Greyjoy naval fleet. Conceivably, fire on the ocean could be contained from spread to the civilian population on land. But once the burning of the city perimeter from the interior begins, it already beggars belief that the city’s inhabitants could be protected from the fire’s spread. This is because fire is notoriously uncontrollable – one in a category of weapons banned under international law in the real world, when civilian populations are nearby, due to its ability to spread once deployed. In short, contrary to its portrayal in the episode, Dany’s use of dragonfire already threatened the civilian population even before she targeted them directly.

When Drogon began targeting the city inhabitants directly, the showrunners portrayed the fires burning where they were ignited: in city streets, largely contained by the surrounding structures. But in reality, fire engulfs structures. Cities burn in sheets, not rivers. Fire eats air, creating windstorms, which feed and speed the fire. The Tokyo firebombing created walls of fire, ripping through closely packed, mostly wooden homes. In Dresden, a city where many of the buildings were reinforced with concrete, the Allied firestorm still destroyed over half the structures in the city with hurricane-speed winds.

Rather than seeing civilians running away down streets and hiding around protected corners, audiences should have seen them facing ever-growing, shifting, enveloping tsunamis of fire once the first few streets were lit. Rather than Cersei watching ribbons of flame from the distance, she should have seen whole neighborhoods swallowed up progressively. The ignition of wildfire would have only exacerbated this trend.

For this reason alone, it seems incomprehensible that Dany would unleash this holocaust in an area where her own troops were present – or that her soldiers would have any chance at a protected route of retreat. Historically, the strategic bombing of civilians from the air is not a method used in areas where ground troops are already engaging the enemy on foot – for good reason. Dany’s willingness to sacrifice her own remaining men to an indiscriminate firestorm – not her willingness to punish civilians, an act often undertaken during the siege of medieval cities – is actually the best indicator that she was acting irrationally. That the showrunners allowed us to believe that a large portion of her military survived the siege only underscores the cinematic sleight of hand at play.

Fire Kills Loudly and Slowly. Through a number of cinematic choices, the creators of “The Bells” also led audiences to think that death by firebombing is quicker, less painful, less terrifying and less certain than it actually would be.

In real life, a city under incendiary siege is a noisy place. Survivors of the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo refer back above all to the screaming. Of course, there were panicked shouts and screams of fear in King’s Landing last week, but we did not hear the shrieks of the dying, as the showrunners chose to include in previous episodes.

Think of the screams of Mirri Maz Dur in Season One, or the cries of Shireen Barratheon in Season Five: the sounds of only one person at a time dying slowly by fire. When the Sept fell in Season Six, only a handful of political elites and surrounding civilians died in the resulting blaze, but their shrieks could be heard by King Tommen from his window at the Red Keep. Multiply that by tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians burning slowly to death in ongoing waves – what Cersei should have been listening to from the same window – and suddenly the episode we saw becomes eerily, unjustifiably quiet.

Visually, instead of choosing to portray fire’s lethal heat effects, and the full fury of their humanitarian consequences, the showrunners instead gave us primarily fast-killing blast effects. We see civilians overrun by bursts of flame and incinerated quickly and soundlessly – disappearing from sight into the flame, instead of convulsing before our eyes. We see civilians panicking and running from the fire, but we do not see mothers running away while listening as the babies on their backs actually catch fire and begin burning alive. We do not see people pile up in desperation at the end of city blocks as the flames overtake them.

To be fair, audiences were permitted to see the aftermath of death by fire: charred bodies appropriately reminiscent of images from the aftermath of Dresden, Tokyo and the countless other Asian and European cities targeted from the air in that period. But we are allow to imagine the inhabitants of King’s Landing died quickly, their corpses blackening in the aftermath. Just as we do not hear them, we do not see civilians slowly burning.

We also do not see civilians suffocate. In real firebombing campaigns of the 1940s, many civilians took shelter in cellars or other structures. But the heat of an inferno sucks away oxygen, dooming even those who escape the flames. In World War II, families were found huddled in blast shelters after suffocating together – a lingering death which can take up to three minutes.

Instead of capturing this reality, “The Bells” portrays interiors as vulnerable primarily to demolition and explosive violence. Civilians are seen sheltering inside buildings from the flames and melee. Cersei and Jaime find temporary respite in the catacombs. When Arya encourages a group to flee instead of sheltering in place, they are quickly killed, suggesting they would have been safer inside. In reality, they would likely have traded one death for another. The Lannister twins would likely have asphyxiated long before being buried alive. 

As Tyrion says, “I do not want to hear the sound of children screaming as they burn alive.” Perhaps, the showrunners decided, audiences would also not wish to hear that sound. It is, as Qyburn reminds us, “not pleasant.” Yet by sanitizing the sound of the siege, by sanitizing the sight of it, by limiting its complexity, the showrunners dulled audiences’ senses to the reality of firebombing. By making the intolerable slightly more tolerable, they deadened our understanding of what massacre by air truly entails.

Firebombing Civilians is Strategically Ineffective. Though Dany may yet atone for her sins, by all appearances thus far the following episode depicts a successful claim to the throne, her army victorious, the remaining inhabitants (and her own people) cowed. Yet in the real world, there is no instance where a firebombing campaign yielded the result sought by its perpetrator – and often, it has yielded retaliation in kind. 

Strategic bombing proponents in World War II believed terrorizing civilians from the air would induce surrender. But even the most oft-cited argument – that the atomic bomb forced a Japanese surrender – is historically disputed. The Hiroshima bombing took place on August 6th, 1945, but for three days the Japanese continued to refuse surrender and did not even meet to discuss the bombing. What convinced Japan to surrender was a different event occurring days later: Stalin entered the war, invading Japan from the north. Burning civilians with nuclear fire was little more effective than using regular incendiary bombs.

Which is to say, ineffective: there is no case in history where conventional firebombing produced the desired effect. When Nazi Germany tried it against Britain between 1941-1940, hoping to shock British civilians into demanding surrender, the Blitz only galvanized Brits and made them blood-hungry. Yet the British firebombing of German cities was equally counter-productive: German industrial production went up the more ordnance Britain dropped, and the age range for men and boys enlisting in the Wehrmacht expanded. Firebombing civilians has domestic blowback effects as well. In Vietnam, the use of napalm and carpet-bombing galvanized the peace movement at home and delegitimized the war. Recent use in Syria has led to renewed international efforts to more comprehensively outlaw incendiary weapons.

If the Game of Thrones finale is at all true to life, history will punish Dany for her crimes. Yet just as the show produced a devastatingly sanitized depiction of incendiary warfare, it is equally plausible that tonight’s finale will portray saturation bombing as an effective way to bolster a ruler’s legitimate claim to the throne. This would be a dangerously unrealistic portrayal of the political consequences of indiscriminate air power.

Why It Matters. It is now well known by social scientists that pop culture influences attitudes about real-world events. Audiences easily learn false lessons about history and causation through narrative storytelling loosely based on historical analogy. Depictions of political violence can sensitize or desensitize. They can influence political beliefs and public opinion. The messages audiences take from a show like Game of Thrones have political consequences.

While fans were obsessing over whether Dany had gone mad or whether Arya’s horse symbolized death or peace, the Trump Administration quietly began inching closer toward war with Iran. US public opinion polls have already been fielded testing American support for a saturation bombing strike on an Iranian civilian city in the event that the US finds itself in an intractable ground war unable to induce a surrender.

Pop culture can convey cautionary tales, and Game of Thrones has often done so. But the most popular show in history, known for its soberingly grisly portrayals of political violence, just whitewashed the implications of firebombing a civilian population. In so doing, it missed its chance to show American how terrible such an act would be for civilians on the other side and – if the enemy retaliated in kind – here at home.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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Appetite for Self Destruction, or three suicides and a funeral*

Here’s my argument: Late 80s/early 90s Soviet Union. The United Kingdom in 2016. The United States 2016 to now. Three contemporary examples of international suicide that conventional IR neither predicted nor can account.

Ok, so perhaps suicide is too hyperbolic a concept and we should go with appetite for self-destruction . Certainly in the case of the Soviet Union any agential claim regarding the state is overdrawn. But either way I think there is a point here. All three states, and particularly the last two, undertook an internally driven diminution of international standing and capacity—dare I say, power.

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Plato and teaching Foreign Policy

I assigned Plato’s Theaetetus this semester in my foreign policy class. It was the very first thing we read in a course that included more standard text’s like Walter Russel Mead’s Special Providence, Tom Schelling’s Arms and Influence, and selections from Andrew Bacevich’s edited volume of primary sources, Ideas and American Foreign Policy. On first glance, reading a work of political philosophy—and one which is widely considered one of the more difficult texts in the Western canon—might seem like a poor fit. But, my experiment paid off and I may continue assigning the Theaetetus or similar texts in my courses on foreign policy in the future. Its theme is epistemology, knowledge, and specifically it challenges the idea that humans can actually know anything. I have plans to write something up for a journal, but in this piece, I want to explore how it might be used in the classroom should anyone feel ambitious enough to replicate.

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A Holiday “With Tears in Your Eyes”

One thing that Trump hasn’t done today yet (which he should have if he wants to stay in Putin’s good graces) was to congratulate Russians with Victory day. It’s an incredibly important holiday in contemporary Russia and its commemoration dynamic can help understand a large chunk of Russian foreign policy.

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Need some evidence of America’s waning influence?

One of the (many) concerns about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is the impact it will have on US influence around the world. Will Trump’s rhetoric and actions restore US dominance in the international system, or will they aggravate the world, leading them to look elsewhere for leadership? We can find some answers in the reports that Trump is considering branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Most debating US influence under Trump think it’s waning. Dan Drezner has pointed to public opinion polling suggesting a turn away from the United States. The UN Secretary General agrees. And others have suggested America start learning lessons in hegemonic decline from Great Britain.

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Ukraine’s New PreZE!dent

“Servant of the People” The history of the Next President

Cue in the Twitter hot-takes in which Ukrainians elected themselves “a TV show star” with “no political experience”. Relax, not all TV stars are racist ignoramuses who want wall and try to spoon state flags. Despite winning the elections with a whopping 73% (and beating his own onscreen presidential score in his hit TV show), this one is different.

If you grew up in post-Soviet Russia you already know Ukraine’s incoming president – Volodymir Zelensky. He was a regular on the Soviet Union’s stand-up comedy show KVN (Club of Funny and Quick-witted), which propelled him to Russian-speaking international fame back in the 90s. His skit of a “person born in dance” made him one of the most recognizable KVN members, most of whom still represent the backbone of the Russian-speaking comedy industry in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. New generations might be more familiar with his later work in “Servant of the People” (also the name of his newly formed party) – a TV show about a history teacher who accidentally won the presidential elections in Ukraine, – as well as a host of other comedy shows and movies. The incumbent Poroshenko called Zelensky “a bright candy wrapper” (and that’s something coming from a chocolate candy king of the Post-Soviet space) that conceals a bunch of external interests and “fifth column”, even going as far as plastering Ukraine with election posters that showed Poroshenko against Putin, alluding to the fact that Zelensky is supposedly the latter one’s puppet.
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