The awfulness of 2020 has become one of the year’s most unforgettable cultural memes. But in the current cascade of 2020-bashing let’s not forget what went right this year – and what didn’t go wrong.
It yields perspective to recall that the year began with what appeared to be a national security crisis with Iran. The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and accidental downing of a civilian airliner set off protests in Iran, sent oil markets plunging, and threatened to destabilize the Middle East. Analysts feared a major regional war among nuclear powers before the year was out. Based on this unpromising start, it is remarkable that in fact 2020 saw the US involved in none of the world’s major armed conflicts, that war did not break out or significantly worsen in the Middle East, and those conflicts underway – in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ethiopia and South Sudan – have thus far been kept largely to a dull roar. Moreover, despite increasing polarization, the US remained resilient against civil war.
Yes, the Trump administration badly mishandled a major health crisis, sunk the economy into a sub-oceanic trench, and rendered American passports largely useless. Even with a modest contagion index and hearteningly high recovery rate, the death toll from COVID-19 now outmatches that of all American wars, with more Americans dying per day of the disease than died on 9/11. And that’s just America: the cost in human life and medical resources worldwide is staggering, and the mental health cost incalculable.
And as misbegotten as the US government response has been, the passivity of Trump’s response to the pandemic meant America avoided a much worse outcome. For all its flaws, for all the signs it was leading the country toward dictatorship, note the Trump administration did not use that classic authoritarian tool, capitalizing on the pandemic to engage in a massive centralization of executive authority and political crackdown – as might have been predicted by an administration prone toward authoritarianism and political opportunism.
Perhaps this was due to the power of the political resistance: the turnout in the streets at the travel ban and the detention camps, the trolling of Trump’s re-election campaign by youth on Tik-tok, the persistent pushback by the courts. Perhaps it was because the boredom of the lockdowns suddenly allowed an overworked, politically distracted generation both time and inclination to take to the streets en masse, risking their lives to protest racial injustice. In so many ways, Americans demonstrated that Trump could steal democracy only at great cost, and forestalled some of the worst of which a man in his position could be capable. And ultimately, Americans removed Trump by a large margin – repudiating bigotry, corruption and creeping authoritarianism, affirming the constitution and principles on which the republic was founded, and modestly rehabilitating the country in the global gaze.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Americans learned they could quickly and willingly adapt their lifestyle to a national security crisis. For years climate activists have been begging nations to do just that, swimming against a social tide that made it seem inconceivable, even reckless, to quickly and completely stop flying, driving, polluting, consuming and straining economies to their limits. While it remains to be seen how to make this sustainable (and such strategies are contested and the impacts excruciating uneven) Americans like the rest of the world learned they were capable of sacrificing pleasantries in the service of a wider good. Nations have always been able to do this in time of war, but this was the first effort in history to adapt economic and social life so swiftly to a non-military existential crisis. While the extent to which the US has succeeded should not be exaggerated, the extent to which it has managed lends hope to its ability to do the same for other crises.
These aren’t small achievements. They are foundations on which to build. For all the 2020-bashing, it may be that we look back on this year not as a blemish, but as a historic turning point, the year when the human race began to take stock. If 2020 shocked us out of our complacency, gave us time to pause and notice what’s important, and expanded our sense of political possibility at a moment of global uncertainty, this is something to celebrate rather than scorn.
This is a guest post from Sassan Gholiagha, Anna Holzscheiter, and Andrea Liese. They are currently working together on a project on norm collisions in global politics funded by the German Research Foundation. Sassan is a postdoctoral researcher at the WZB Berlin. He has worked on norms, the Responsibility to Protect, and drones. Anna holds the chair for political science with a focus on international politics at the TU Dresden and heads the research group on Governance of Global Health at the WZB. Her areas of interest are children rights, discourse analysis, and global health. Andrea holds the chair for International Organizations and Policies at the University of Potsdam. Her areas of interest are international organizations, international norms, and international human rights policy.
Politics, as famously defined by David Easton, is the “authoritative allocation of values”, such as welfare, security, and liberty. Politicians thus have to weigh these values against each other in cases in which they collide. Four months into the current pandemic, we are able to observe a growing awareness for norm collisions between the right to life and well-being associated with COVID-19 on the one hand and a broad array of other norms. In this post, we will discuss the politics surrounding COVID-19 as being, fundamentally, about difficult decisions on hierarchies between norms in cases where they collide.
Norm Collisions and Norm Hierarchies
What happens to previous norm balances in a
case of emergency or a case, where the right to life is prioritized over other
values? During the past weeks, states have interfered with freedom of religion
and prohibited churches, synagogues, and mosques to conduct their services in
order to protect public and individual health. To slow down the spread of the
virus, schools have been closed in 191 countries around the world, with nearly 1.6 billion of pupils out of school. For a lucky portion of pupils in
more developed countries this new norm prioritization means ‘just’
long-distance learning by digital classroom. For millions of others, it simply means
no education at all, as they lack a quiet place to study or lack digital
infrastructure and equipment. Their right to education is without doubt
During my ten days this past summer on the El Paso border, some of the most interesting conversations I had were with the gate guards at a notorious detention facility, Paso del Norte.
These conversations reminded me of something I read as a teenager in a famous science fiction novel. In Orson Scott Card’s famous book Ender Game, in which squads of young boys are trained for battle in zero gravity arenas, protagonist Ender Wiggin realizes that fighting in a new situation (zero gravity) using conventional spatial perspectives could only confuse and disorient. Instead, Ender’s “army” takes advantage of others’ disorientation to achieve a tactical advantage. He has his men shift their perspective to think of “down” as wherever the enemy gate is. They launch from their own gate into the zero gravity arena feet forward instead of face forward, offering smaller targets. But more importantly, this shift helps them adopt a mental perspective of always owning the high ground.
Citizens aiming to combat Trump concentration camp policy need a similar
shift in perspective to augment the many ways we already resist. First, much
like a zero-gravity situation, the Trump administration has deliberately sought
to disorient any resistance and knock the American public off balance,
wondering how to resist. By creating and then constantly changing the rules and
regulations, Trump makes it difficult for immigration attorneys to help their
clients. By establishing and then abruptly closing facilities, Trump makes it
difficult to track where detainees are. By unrolling a slew of
human-rights-violating policies in drips and drabs, rather than all at once,
they keep the opposition off balance.
Because Americans who believe in the rule of law are defending our Constitution in zero gravity, our standard rules of engagement are no longer enough. A combination of adversarial protests and court proceedings are important, and we all must keep calling our congress-people daily. But these strategies also maintain a safe distance from the guards – the actual foot-soldiers in Trumps concentration-camp-industrial complex. The ones whose resignation or refusal to carry out orders may be the one thing that could truly gum up the gears of Trump’s concentration-camp-industrial complex. Americans need to think about expanding our repertoire of direct actions.
In my travels at the border this summer I found lots of efforts are taking place. But one thing I don’t see citizens doing enough is actually approaching these detention facilities and politely asking the guards to explain and justify themselves. In my new article in The American Prospect, I talk more about what happened when I did just this.
I discovered their definition of a “refugee” is a bit different from what’s codified in the Refugee Convention. “These people’s countries are not at war, so they’re not refugees,” one guard told me. “Maybe they’re fleeing ‘violence’ but there is violence everywhere. You could get murdered in your own community.” Most of all I learned what mattered to these guards: To be seen as upholding an oath to protect the nation, to be able to convince themselves and hopefully all Americans that they were on the right side of history.
Americans can engage these guards and remind them of the Nuremberg principles. We can remind them they are vulnerable to prosecution if they follow orders, but have power—and moral courage—when they resist. Activists can laud heroes like former CPB agent-turned-activist Jenn Budd, who resigned her post due to the cruelty she witnessed and has been speaking out ever since. Citizens can consider the other kinds of assistance that would make it easier for people working in these places to speak out—or turn in their badges— rather than remain loyal to a regime bent on violating the human rights of civilians fleeing conflicts in their home countries.
The simple surprising truth is that these enemies of the people have their gates down. It’s disarming to them when people show up to talk respectfully, rather than protest. What you hear is that they want to be seen as law-abiding citizens, and that gives ordinary citizens room to maneuver.
“We’re just enforcing the law,” they might say.
“Are you familiar with the Refugee Convention
that the United States signed?” I asked. “Are you familiar with Article VI of
the U.S. Constitution, that you swore to uphold, which says treaties are the
supreme law of the land?”
“That’s for Congress to decide. Our job is to follow orders,” one of them
“My brother is a US Marine serving in a combat zone in Africa. He would
resign or go to prison before obeying an unlawful order to violate a civilian’s
human rights. I know you’re as brave as he is. I think you just didn’t know the
law before. Am I right?”
“Well, I’ll admit I don’t have Article 6 of the Constitution memorized…”
“Well, I know you’ll check it out once I’m gone.”
This strategy of engaging gate guards, like Ender’s change of tactics in zero gravity, can use a change in perspective to create a tactical advantage. It seizes the moral high ground by turning their role as law enforcers back on them, reminding them they are also bound by law. Showing up for interpersonal dialogue rather than in a mass with cameras shrinks one’s targets space – like entering an arena feet-forward – making it harder for them to fire or arrest and easier for them to disarm. One guard said to me, “It’s pretty innocuous when you come in here with no camera and can just have a conversation as two human beings without yelling and screaming.”
Above all, interpersonal dialogue with perpetrators works. It reminds them that America is a nation of immigrants who by and large wish to welcome refugees, whose grandfathers bled to defeat the Nazis. That even individual foot-soldiers have legal and moral responsibility. And that so long as there are concentration camps on our land, we will keep asking questions and insisting the law be followed. We’ll keep walking through the gate.
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.
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?
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.
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 mediareported 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
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
The Media Does Like
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.
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:
Demonstrates the kind of analysis Paul Musgrave mentions IR scholars could and should be engaging in vis-a-vis pop-culture artifacts.
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.
Reminds us that American concern for the protection of civilians is a fragile thing, and not a historical inevitability.
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
It Matters. It is now well known by social
scientists that pop culture influences attitudes about real-world events. Audiences
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
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.
This is a guest post by Betcy Jose and Alessa Sänger. Jose is currently a Fellow in the Cluster of Excellence: Formation of Normative Orders at Goethe University. Sänger is pursuing a Master Degree in Curatorial Studies at Goethe Universität and Städelschule and is a collection assistant in the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main.
In a speech at UNESCO just days after a horrific terrorist attack in Paris for which DAESH claimed responsibility, French President Hollande declared, “the right to asylum applies to people… but asylum also applies to works, world heritage.” In that same speech, Hollande vowed to advance a legal framework in the Parliament that would aid in the safekeeping of threatened cultural heritage. DAESH has notoriously destroyed priceless cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq or sold it on the black market to fund its activities, much to the horror and despair of the global community.
Article 53 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions (API) states that it is a crime to “to commit any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.” Various segments of the global community have condemned DAESH’s actions and called for efforts to stop it or temporarily safeguard these objects until they can be safely returned. France’s pledge to offer safe haven to these valuable treasures was in response to these efforts and warmly welcomed by many activists who had long pressed for more attention to this vital issue with limited success.
about this speech is why France chose to make such a strong and public
statement on this war crime and not another one that’s also been long neglected:
the destruction of the environment during the Syrian war.
Rice earned her PhD in political science from University of Denver and served in the diplomatic corps and national security establishment under Presidents Carter, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. – notably, as National Security Advisor during George W. Bush’s first term and Secretary of State during his second. A press release from APSA published on PSNow states that “Dr. Rice’s career exemplifies the contributions that political scientists can make to public as well as academic life.”
The choice of Rice for this award is controversial because of her association with the Bush Administration’s human rights violations in the early war on terror. Continue reading
This is a guest post by Betcy Jose and Peace Media. Betcy Jose is Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Denver. She tweets @betcyj. Peace A. Medie is a Research Fellow in the Legon Centre for International Affairs and Diplomacy at the University of Ghana. She tweets @PeaceMedie. Their work on civilian self-protection can be found here and here.
On July 25, 2018, DAESH launched a surprising and brutal 12 hour offensive in Sweida, Syria, killing more than 200 people through a series of suicide attacks and door-to-door raids. The attack was notable not only because this predominantly Druze area had largely been spared much of the Syrian war’s violence, but also because it signaled that DAESH still had some fight left in it despite the relentless effort by the United States and others to decimate its ranks.
Initial reports largely focused their analyses on whether the Sweida attack indicated a resurgence of DAESH and what impact it would have on the region’s geopolitics and the Syrian war. Receiving less attention was how the residents of Sweida valiantly tried to protect themselves during this onslaught. As the attack unfolded, some of the local youth and militia took up arms to defend their villages. Local writer Osama Abu Dikar recounted, “In the beginning, the attack took us by surprise, but the heroic youth of Sweida rallied quickly in the centre of town and the villages that Daesh had attacked. These local fighters with basic capabilities fought real battles against [DAESH].”
These wartime civilian-driven protection efforts are examples of civilian self-protection (CSP). CSP is not unique to Sweida. As long as war has raged, civilians have sought to protect themselves. Often this is because their own governments or humanitarian actors cannot or will not protect them. For example, in the case of Sweida, no government troops were around to protect the locals; hence the need for them to take up arms in self-defense. And far too many times, the very actors charged with protecting civilians are the ones who perpetrate harms against them. Continue reading
After the recent strikes in Syria, Germany’s Angela Merkel stated the intervention was, “necessary and appropriate, to ensure the effectiveness of the international ban of chemical weapons use and to warn the Syrian regime of further violations.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remarked, “A lack of accountability emboldens those who would use such weapons by providing them with the reassurance of impunity.” However, some members of the international community felt differently about the strikes. Russia sponsored a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution condemning the strikes as a violation of the non-intervention norm which was rejected.
Did the missile strikes violate the non-intervention norm? Article 2(4) of the UN Charter essentially permits two exceptions to the non-intervention norm, considered norms in their own right: violations occurring with UNSC approval and for self-defense. None of the participating states made a self-defense argument. Neither did the intervention receive UNSC authorization. Thus, one could conclude that the intervention was inconsistent with the non-intervention norm and its exceptions. So what then are we to make of statements like Merkel’s or the rejection of the above UNSC resolution?
Norms scholars would tell us that acceptance of norm violations or silence to them suggests weakening norms. And if the violation engenders approval, it may also set the stage for new norm emergence. Support for the strikes suggests shifts in intersubjective agreement, shared and accepted understandings of the appropriate ways actors ought to behave. The endorsements above suggest some in the international community may be willing to loosen their commitment to the UNSC normative exception under specific circumstances. And in doing so, they may weaken it and the non-intervention norm, enabling new avenues for permissibly violating state sovereignty. Continue reading
This is a guest post by Ari Kohen, Associate Professor of Political Philosophy at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of Untangling Heroism. Follow him on Twitter here.
As someone who researches heroism, I can say without a second’s hesitation that President Trump absolutely would not have rushed into an active shooter situation in a high school and neither would 99% of the people to whom he made the comment on Monday. No chance.
I’m not saying this because I think Trump is a coward and I’m not saying it to get in another dig at him. I’m saying this because the vast, vast, vast majority of people won’t run toward gunfire; they’ll run away. And that number of people who’ll run toward gunfire goes down the more people are around.
Most people aren’t heroes. Most people would like to think that they would be heroic if the situation calls for it, as Trump did when he spoke to a group of governors at the beginning of this week. But wishing it doesn’t make it so. Training makes it so. And Trump doesn’t have any of the training that would make heroism more likely.
Even people with training didn’t rush in. That’s the lesson we ought to be learning from the Parkland mass shooting. Armed sheriff’s deputies who were there to protect the kids in that school didn’t rush in. Not because they’re bad or weak but because heroism is risky and situations requiring heroes are very scary.
We’ve spent the past week and a half (at least) with some percentage of our country pretending that heroism takes nothing more than a gun and psyching yourself up to go take out the bad guy. That’s why it seems acceptable to arm teachers and take potshots at the sheriff’s deputies for their inaction.
Saying “I’m sure I’d be a hero” isn’t one of the things that makes you more likely to be a hero. 99% of people think they’ll do the heroic thing. But most don’t. Part of it is the Bystander Effect part is the obvious risk; and part of it is the split-second nature of the choice.
One of the major reasons that some people do the dangerous, heroic thing is that they have specialized training. Trump doesn’t have it. Another reason is that they have a profound sense of empathy that includes people who might be considered unlike them. Trump doesn’t have that Another predictor is having heroic role models. Trump has been asked about this. He doesn’t have it. Another predictor is having a heroic imagination, which some people refer to as experience-taking. You might read a novel, for example, and put yourself in the hero’s place, thinking about exactly what you’d do in that situation. From what we know about Trump, he doesn’t have that.
Heroes have to make a split-second choice and basically every one of them reports not even thinking about making a decision, just acting. The reason is they’re primed to act because of the factors mentioned just above. If you’re spending time thinking about what to do, it’s too late.
It’s easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback, as Trump is doing. But most people won’t do it because most aren’t wired like him. Most people will recognize that the sheriff’s deputies had an opportunity to be heroic and failed, and they’ll acknowledge it could happen to any of us.
What we need to do is get over pretending we’re all one bad guy with a gun away from being heroes. We’re not. We need, instead, to work on minimizing the chances that we’ll need to be heroes at all while maximizing the chances that more of us will be heroes if the need arises. That means enacting policies that actually make us all safer, not nonsense like arming teachers or making sure everyone is carrying concealed weapons at all times. It means commonsense gun regulations and it means not gutting programs that help people who need help in our society.
And it means talking to experts on heroism about giving you some hero training which is good for people even if heroism is never needed from them. Check out The Hero Construction Company if you want someone to come to your school, business, or organization to train you to be a hero. It’s worldwide. Can’t afford that? Just bring in someone to teach you CPR. That’s a great first step.
This is a guest post by Sahar Khan, a visiting research fellow in the Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Department. Sahar holds a PhD in political science from the University of California, Irvine. Follow her at @khansahar1.
The Third World Quarterly (TWQ), a reputable academic journal in international studies, is currently under fire by academics including Ducks. In its latest issue, it published an article titled “The Case for Colonialism” by Dr. Bruce Gilley of Portland State University. In this article, Gilley calls for a return of colonialism, citing the benefits of a “colonial governance” agenda over the “good governance” agenda, which would involve overtaking state bureaucracies, recolonizing some areas, and creating new colonies “from scratch.” He argues that this new colonialism will be: 1) beneficial because it will be chosen by “the colonized,” and hence, will be legitimate; 2) attractive to Western conservatives because they are financially low-risk, and to liberals, because they will be just; and 3) effective because they will be designed like charter cities, which have proven to be efficient and effective at governance.
At first glance, the article seems like a bad joke. Can someone, a scholar no less, actually make a case for colonialism? And advocate for its return? Also, considering that the TWQ is jointly involved in creating an award named after Edward Said, the founder of postcolonial studies, it is especially surprising that the journal would publish a poor quality article on the subject of colonialism. The response has been swift. Though there are some apologists, social media has exploded with criticism against the author and the journal, even sparking a petition calling for the article’s retraction. Within a day, the petition gathered over 1500 signatures, with more signing on.
The problem is not that the article is offensive (which it is). The problem is that it is empirically and historically inaccurate, misuses existing postcolonial scholarship, and largely ignores interdisciplinary approaches to the study of colonial legacies. There are at least five blatant examples of this. Continue reading
The violence has led an estimated 391,000 Rohingya refugees to flee across the border into Bangladesh. There is also evidence that the Tatmadaw, the Armed Forces of Myanmar, have been laying mines along the border with Bangladesh to deliberately target Rohingya refugees crossing the border. And the government has suggested that any civilians seeking to return from Bangladesh will need to show “proof of nationality.”
Over the past week, and following a significant upsurge in reporting on the crisis, the UN system has begun to respond. Continue reading
In an op-ed published in the NY Times over the weekend, Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro argue that the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928… worked. While they concede that the Pact did not succeed in its aim to end all war, the Pact was “highly effective in ending the main reason countries had gone to war: conquest.” But was it? According to International Relations Twitter, not really:
If Harvey’s unprecedented battering of Houston can even partly be linked to climate change, you might wonder if the President’s visit to Texas this week made him rethink his current foreign (and domestic) policies. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and his apparent misunderstanding of its content stand in stark contrast to his predecessor’s sustained diplomatic effort to create the agreement, join it, and ensure that the US would get global leadership credit for its diplomatic efforts to “save the planet.” How is possible for one President to oppose the agreement and for another to support it if both – presumably – acted in “the national interest?”
An objective, rationally determined national interest would have to be independent of the individual holding the presidency. Any person with the relevant information would end up making the same determination concerning the policy choice that is most beneficial for the survival and success of the US, weighing the costs and benefits of the available options. If that is the nature of the national interest – objective, rational, calculable – either Trump or Obama must be wrong. Alternatively, we might have to rethink the notion of the national interest. From a social constructivist position, the national interest is not objective, but ‘intersubjective’: the constantly changing result of social interactions and contestation among different political actors, who can assign different meanings to the same set of facts.
Integrating the rational-choice approach and social constructivist accounts of the national interest with a little bit of cognitive theory, I argue that two Presidents of the United States can take opposing policy positions on a specific issue, and both act in the national interest. When it comes to foreign policy, the US President holds the prerogative over the interpretation of the national interest. As the vocal responses to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement have demonstrated, his definition of the national interest can be out of sync with the majority of the American voters, major states and cities and a large portion of the business community and academic observes (“a major unforced error”). As Jarrod Hayes writes, these sub-national actors challenge Trump’s foreign policy on climate change and potentially undermine the authority (and credibility, influence and effectiveness) of the US government in international affairs. Yet, they cannot change the President’s mind or foreign policy. Hence, when it comes to the national interest, much depends on what individual presidents believe, and who or what influences those beliefs (see Elizabeth Saunder’s post on Trump’s decision-making process and Steve Saideman’s comments on the Great Men theory IR scholarship). In essence, the national interest comes down to one person’s brain functions. Continue reading
This is a guest post (begun as a set of hasty scribbles on Facebook in the wake of Charlottesville) by Sean Parson, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Politics and International Affairs and the MA program in Sustainable Communities at Northern Arizona University. He is the author of Cooking up a Revolution: Food Not Bombs, Anarchist Homeless Activism and the Politics of Space (forthcoming).
So the modern racial system is a result of early colonial American history. In the mid to late 1600s (see Abolition of White Democracy or The Invention of the White Race) early southern colonies, in the middle of riots and work slow downs and a growing coalition between indentured servants and slaves “freed” white people from bondage and defined that black=slave, white= free labor. This approach spread throughout all the slave colonies because, well it worked, at quelling revolt and led to an interesting fact: poor, newly defined, whites began policing the race line.
That equation of black=slave and white = free was the guiding logic of the US democracy (nation wide due to laws about slave catching even in the north, see 12 Years a Slave) and the American political conceptions of citizenship were defined in this equation.* Every new group that entered the US were put into this spectrum: were they white or non-white? And every new “ethnicity” was original positioned as “not white,” because whiteness meant benefits and you do not just give away benefits to new immigrants if you are in power.
So the Irish came and were originally “non-white” after a few decades of intentionally devised actions to make them more white via being the most racist immigrants around, they were given access to the space of whiteness (see How the Irish Became White). This became the model of expanding whiteness from then on and the German, the Italian, the Greek, the Northern Europeans, and lastly the Jews (in the 1960s) were granted legal and social status of whiteness (see both Working Towards Whiteness and Black Face, White Noise. With that they gain, what is called “the wages of whiteness” which are small (but meaningful) social, economic, and political benefits that subsidize the working class or middle class wages (see Wages of Whiteness).
From 1776 to 1964, these wages were directly paid for via the state. So the New Deal, for instance, exempted from Social Security jobs that were primarily non-white and funded jobs that were white. This meant that only white folks, for the most part, got the first generation (and second) of social security benefits. Similarly the US government would redline neighborhoods and that allowed them to not provide the support for home ownership to non-white people (until 1964) and even the first round of the GI bill there were ways to remove the benefits for black soldiers (See When Affirmative Action Was White). In effect this led to a cascading wave of problems. I can look at many but here is just one -“the racial wealth gap” – which is slowly decreasing but at this rate they expect it would take over 300 years for that to balance out.
So now back to contemporary race. What is race? Race is a political filtering of people within certain categories for social, political, and economic reasons. What does that mean for the “white race”? Continue reading
This is a guest post by Betcy Jose, Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Colorado-Denver and Lucy McGuffey, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Colorado-Denver.
In season 3 of House of Cards, the US Ambassador to the UN introduces a “Uniting for Peace” resolution in the General Assembly to deploy peacekeepers to the Jordan Valley, bypassing a Russian Security Council veto on a similar measure. The Russian Ambassador’s response? “Going around the Security Council is a radical move.”
Could the UN consider such a “radical” move to overcome Security Council paralysis when it comes to the Syrian conflict? After all, the Security Council has failed to pass resolutions condemning the use of banned chemical weapons there, let alone authorizing a peacekeeping mission. Its inability to respond to the numerous atrocities has resurrected doubts about its effectiveness and reignited debates about Council reform. Furthermore, growing frustration with it may have contributed to the US unilaterally launching missile strikes, potentially undermining norms ensuring global stability and peace. Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, told the Council before the strikes, “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.” Yet unilateral action has its own drawbacks. A Uniting for Peace process could provide a third way. Continue reading