In an attempt to distract myself from the thought that today my small university town will be overrun by 900 frat boys who went to Northern Italy on a skiing vacation despite the Dutch government’s warning, let’s discuss something that might have gone under the radar – future changes to the Russian Constitution.
Amid a global pandemic what could be better than voting in a Referendum? Only voting for a President, amirite? But let’s start from the beginning. Mid-January Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly announced that the Russian Constitution might need some freshening up. Needless to say, the announcement came as unexpected as Putin’s previous hints that he will leave his post after his current term.
Earlier this week, Mustafa Kassem, an American held in Egypt, died. The Trump Administration did little to help him. That wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that the international religious freedom movement (IRF), a community that has gained close access to this Administration, seemed to have done little as well. The reason behind this should make this movement think seriously about its approach to the human rights.
Let me tell you two stories.
In October 2016, Andrew Brunson–a US pastor who had worked for a long time in Turkey–was arrested for alleged connections to the coup attempt against Turkish President Erdogan. His cause became a priority for the international religious freedom movement, who repeatedly pressed the Trump Administration to act. And it did. US Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom (IRF) Sam Brownback pressed Turkey for Brunson’s release. Vice President Pence spoke out. The United States imposed sanctions against Turkey and raised tariffs. Eventually, Turkey gave in and released Brunson.
Warning! According to the law that the Russian parliament passed yesterday, this post might need to be prefaced with a disclaimer that the following text has been compiled by a foreign agent. An individual can be labeled as a “foreign agent” in Russia if they (1) distribute information, and (2) receive funds from sources outside Russia. I am ticking both boxes here, even as an academic working at a university, and the law intentionally left the “information spreading” extremely broad: you can literally post something on social media. It would be up for the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to decide who receives a “foreign agent” label. A specific procedure is yet to be established, but if an individual is deemed a foreign agent, they will have to create their own legally registered organization within a month in order to interact as a foreign agent with the Russian government.
This iteration of the law comes as a sequel to the ‘amendments to the law on non-commercial organizations’ of 2012 that obliged Russian organizations to register as ‘foreign agents’ in case they were involved in ‘political activity’ (even through funding) and received funding from abroad. It has affected by now a large number of my colleagues, including the Sova Center for the Monitoring of Xenophobia that was forced to pay a large fine. As one of the defenders of the law stated on prime-time television and in line with the usual liberal anti-American narrative and a conspiracy theme:
The purpose of the law is to reduce the influence of foreign countries on the policy. Thus, our law is much softer than the one in the US […]. And at the same time if you engage in politics, that means fighting for power, you must inform the Russian citizens. Those who oppose this law, do this for two reasons: the first – or they want to seize power in Russia in the interests of foreign states and against the interests of Russia, and the second – they get Western money and want to steal it.
Duma Member Sergey Markov
The law on foreign agents was passed in the same session with more restrictive legislation on public rallies undoubtedly taking the cue from Vladimir Putin who remarked during his Direct Line in December 2011 that he was sure that some of the people went to the protest ‘in a foreign country’s interest and for a foreign country’s money’. The notorious usage of the singular as opposed to the plural was telling – the country in question was not named, but it was clear for the audience that he was talking about the only country that could afford financing a protest in Russia, the USA.
Pervyi Kanal, Russian state TV, responded to the Direct Line with lightning speed and three days later on Sunday prime time news there was a segment on ‘the history and spread of coloured revolutions’, where it was stated that there is a special American think tank that is active in countries where the US ‘is interested in changing the regime’. One of the Pervyi Kanal’s experts emphasized that ‘there are many symbols and concepts, but the aim and the sponsor is the same – the USA’ (Pervyi Kanal, 18 December 2011). Thus, the Soviet frame about American dollars buying instability and wars was time and again re-articulated both by state officials and TV personalities.
Why pass this new foreign agent law now, one might ask? After all, who doesn’t like that goofball Donald and who is afraid of that barely competent State Department that can’t even fact check a TIME magazine cover? According to a Russian MP, it’s because of Maria Butina’s case:
Very recently, Maria Butina returned to Russia. She was sentenced to a year and a half under a similar law that’s in place within the United States of America because she failed to register as an individual ‘foreign agent.’ […] We’re talking about protection from direct foreign influence on the media market […]. Unfortunately, political forces in our country use tactics like these quite often in order to bring often unreliable and compromised facts forward for discussion.
Duma’s Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy (United Russia party)
For starters, of course the American law is not that similar. Individual foreign agents in the US are supposed to be taking action in the interest of a foreign government or lobbying politicians. You know, like the convicted Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort. But lobbying effort is completely absent from the Russian law. While Butina was portrayed as another victim of “deep state” elite battles that ravage the American establishment, with the impeachment hearings kicking into high gear, who knows who will be the next President in the US and what kind of cookies the next State Department is going to distribute in Russia? In the meantime, “sovereign internet” is coming along and the laws are ready.
The other day, Emily McFarlan Miller–a journalist with Religion News Service–noted a sense of deja vu. The AP had an article on a delegation of US evangelicals who travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s Crown Prince (and effective ruler). The deja vu was because there was a similar delegation–with some of the same individuals–last year, which she wrote about at the time. These repeated visits, and the visitors’ response to the conservative Islamic Kingdom, are surprising, and may represent a shift in how evangelical elites view Saudi Arabia.
The 2018 visit took place shortly after the (technically) alleged (but, come on) assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, and was led by a US man who’d previously praised MbS as a sincere reformer. Noteworthy individuals on the trip included former Congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Johnnie Moore, one of Trump’s top evangelical advisers and a recent appointee to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. After returning, he praised MbS’ reforms and “support for moderate Muslim rule.”
This is a guest post by Linda Monsees who works as a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Goethe University Frankfurt and is the author of Crypto-Politics.
After wars on drugs, Christmas and everything in between, it seems that we people tend to call everything a war – everything despite a real war. But really, we are now in a ‘war on truth’? Politicians, companies, and countries start disinformation campaigns and lots of stories are shared that do not qualify as journalism. And this spread of fake news got us in a ‘war’? I get it, we are still in the process of overcoming the shocks of certain elections that did not end the way many of us would have liked. Combine this shock with a natural technology-angst and this thing called fake news becomes a real threat.
But isn’t the task of a social scientist to take some distance, anaylse, explain and – dare I say? – even give guidance? So what about the ancient wisdom of ‘Don’t Panic’? I get the feeling that much of the academic debate reproduces assumptions about the impact on fake news rather than investigating them. A closer look at empirical research shows that the impact of fake news isn’t that big – fake news do not really seem to change people’s voting behaviour. And well, do I need to tell you that spreading false information for political or economic gains isn’t such a new phenomenon either? If you think about it, fake news are a form of propaganda. Of course, networked technology makes it possible that these news items spread faster than ever before. I am not denying that fake news are a thing, the public discourse might just overrate its impact. So, fake news are widely shared and it certainly shapes current political debates – but maybe not in the way most people think?
Research on fake news has shown that people really do not seem to care too much about the veracity of the stories that they share. In the UK, more than a third of people sharing news admit sharing inaccurate or false news, an insight corobroated by other sociological research. While it surely is a problem when people (and I include myself here) cannot distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news, people seem also be fine with sharing non-true stories. Acknowledging these insights then also means that ‘media literacy’ is not really a solution to the problem. danah boyd actually made this argument in a much nicer way, so check out her article over here. Focusing on media literacy does not acknowledge the underlying political and social problems that might be the source for the spread of fake news. Media literacy is considered to be the right tool to educate people about which kind of news they need to read. But this focus on education makes the problem of fake news one of young and uneducated people. According to this view, media literacy will help people who cannot distinguish between fake and non-fake news to become more educated. Fake news is thus only a problem of ‘them’ – the young and uneducated. The underlying political economy, the importance of clickbait and legitimate political protest are covered up by such a focus on media literacy.
Fake news, post-truth, disinformation will probably just become part of our political vocabulary. This reflects changes in technology and the media culture and even though we feel uncomfortable about this we should maybe listen more to people who have actually done empirical research on this rather than repeating panicked judgements.
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.
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.
Yesterday, Michelle Kosinki of CNN reported via Twitter that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was holding a special briefing for “faith-based media” only. She later relayed that the State Department was refusing to release the list of invited media or a transcript of the event. And we’ve now learned that the topic of the briefing was the state of religious freedom around the world. This creates a dangerous precedent and raises some serious issues about the manner in which conservatives define religious freedom. It also highlights why progressives need to engage with, rather than write off, religious freedom.
As anyone who’s read my posts here, on Medium or on Huffington Post back in the day, knows, international religious freedom (IRF) is an issue I follow closely. I ran the Pew Research Center’s work on religious freedom, and also wrote reports on this topic for Georgetown’s Berkley Center and the Center for American Progress. Unlike many who work on this issue, I come at it from a liberal perspective. I’ve tried to convince fellow liberals that this cause can be nonpartisan while also nudging international religious freedom advocates to live up to their claims of an ecumenical and bipartisan movement.
Pope Francis recently visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE). His trip is historic, not just because it’s the first by the head of the Roman Catholic Church. He will also lead an outdoor mass, the first to be held, according to the new coverage, in the Arabian Peninsula. Additionally, the Pope signed an accord of “human fraternity” with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, the top center of religious learning for Sunni Muslims. This all sounds good, but I have mixed feelings.
The UAE has been putting a lot of effort into promoting interfaith dialogue and a “moderate Islam.” One example is this Foreign Policyarticle by the UAE’s ambassador to the US, presenting a “vision for a moderate Muslim world.” There is undoubtedly a strategic element to this, but I don’t doubt the UAE’s sincerity. I’m sure they really do want peaceful relations with the Christians nations they interact with, and are very concerned about the spread of extremism among their population.
This is a guest post from Elsy Gonzalez, a PhD candidate from the University of Chicago in the Department of Political Science.
Wednesday, January 23, President Trump recognized
Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. Through
this statement, Trump ultimately rejected Nicolas Maduro’s government and
hedged his bet on regime change in this South American country. While this
behavior is hardly surprising given the recent animosity between Washington and
Caracas, many other countries in the region and around the world flocked to
support Guaidó as president shortly thereafter. Those that recognized are as
interesting as those that have not, and their timing speaks volumes.
the background? On May 20, 2018, Venezuela held presidential elections in which
Maduro declared himself victorious for a new six-year term amidst a flurry of
international condemnation, for what has been deemed a fraudulent election. The
following day, the countries that make up the Lima Group declared they did
not recognize the legitimacy of the electoral process for not abiding by the
international standards of a democratic, free, fair, and transparent election.
Following months of uncertainty and domestic turmoil, incumbent Nicolas Maduro
assumed power for his new term on January 10. Meanwhile, Juan Guiadó also
assumed power as head of the National Assembly, and the group later declared him
interim president in lieu of Maduro.
There was some interesting/concerning information hidden at the end of the New York Times coverage of Secretary of State Pompeo’s Cairo speech. After criticizing Obama’s foreign policy and calling for action on Iran, Pompeo mentioned the progress Egyptian President al-Sisi had apparently made on religious freedom, specifically protecting Christians.
Some may dismiss this as cynicism or a sign of role Pompeo’s faith plays in his policies, but I think it’s more than that. It represents the worrying state of the international religious freedom (IRF) campaign, a robust, if low-key, international human rights campaign that used to pride itself on its nonpartisan nature. While progressives assume this campaign is a conservative cause and conservatives aren’t interested in hearing critiques, both should care deeply about what’s happened to it.
The NY Knicks will be travelling to London in a few weeks for a game against the Washington Wizards. But center Enes Kanter has announced he won’t be joining them. Kanter, who is Turkish and a frequent critic of Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he is worried about his safety if he leaves the United States. This may seem surprising, but it shouldn’t; Erdogan has launched a campaign of repression against his critics, both in Turkey and around the world. Kanter has every reason to be concerned.
At first, this decision may seem a bit dramatic, like something out of a spy novel. A basketball star travels to a foreign country and is kidnapped or killed by his repressive home government? Some may believe the Turkish government’s rebuttal that Kanter is really having visa issues (which Kanter denies). Others, may see this as primarily a political statement, as the New York Timesseemed to suggest:
It was a dramatic escalation of his longstanding criticism of Erdogan and a reflection of the way Kanter has been determined to use his fame as an athlete for political activism he considers crucial and dire.
But anyone who’s been following Turkish politics over the past few years should believe a threat to Kanter’s safety is credible.
Somewhat cranky and slightly under the weather Putin graced the foreign journalists with his presence for almost 4 hours. Starting right off the bat with some optimistic economic indicators (that he used to be able to juggle without any papers), the conference progressed with its predictable pace and predictable plot points: a bunch of questions on economy, token booed Ukrainian question, some dad jokes and good tsar, bad boyars excuses. There was no panache, pizazz or punch. Putin is tired (at some point he was off by 20 million when talking about the Russian population) and his whataboutist rhetoric expected. His cough has got better since last year though.
At the beginning, Channel One gleefully pointed out that all accredited journalists are welcome at the press-conference (not really) and there are absolutely no restrictions. Press Secretary Peskov started with the Kremlin press pool soft ball questions (as though they don’t get enough access to the body of the sovereign on a regular basis). Crimea came up almost right away and kept coming up throughout the press conference. Putin got himself some rally-around-the flag theory ready and angrily pointed out that the only reason there was a “provocation” in the Kerch Strait is because presidential elections are coming up and President Poroshenko was looking to boost his failing rating. Moreover, Russia will increase its military presence in the Azov Sea the way it sees fit, especially given that some governmental officials in Ukraine are threatening to blow up the pained Crimea bridge. Putin forcefully denied that an “annexation” of the peninsula took place (despite having used that word himself several days prior). It was the citizens who came and voted to re-unite with Russia and now they are being punished for their vote by Western sanctions.
On Sunday, the US Border Patrol fired tear gas into Mexico at migrants, including children, attempting to enter the US near the San Ysidro border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. The use of a chemical weaponbanned in war against families rightly provoked widespread condemnation (Border Patrol agents also used pepper spray against migrants in 2013, fired tear gas and pepper spray into Mexico in 2007, and have killed rock throwers at the border in the past). Migrants attempting to enter the US are frustrated by the Trump administration’s restriction of the process of seeking asylum, a legal right under US and international law, a situation that won’t be solved by processing asylum seekers on Mexican soil.
Most of those who attempted to scale the border fence were reportedly from Honduras, the country with the world’s second-highest homicide rate. Young people there are caught between murderous gangs, violent and corrupt police, and paramilitary ‘social cleansing’ squads who target young men, while gender-based violence rates are also high. There are similar, if slightly less violent, dynamics in El Salvador and Guatemala, and increasing state repression in Nicaragua. Despite changes in US immigration policy and enforcement under the Trump administration, the US remains for many Central Americans a place of hope for a better, more secure life.
In this environment, deterrence efforts will have limited effectiveness. Continue reading
Like everyone else, I’m still trying to catch up after the Thanksgiving holiday. So I have a quick, kind of speculative post this week.
It looks like the distressing saga of Matthew Hedges has finally been resolved. As I wrote about before, Hedges is a grad student in the UK who traveled to the UAE to conduct field work. After interviewing several subjects about UAE security policies, he was arrested and charged with espionage. He was recently been sentenced to life in prison, although the UAE just pardoned him.
There is a lot to figure out with this case–what it means for scholars working on the Persian Gulf, whether universities should still have relationships with the UAE, and (most crucially) how to secure Hedges’ release. But one angle I’ve been thinking about, and which I don’t think has been explained properly, is why did the UAE do this? Why did they detain a UK citizen, risking international criticism and condemnation?
The US Congress recently introduced bills that would call on the Trump Administration to press China over its treatment of the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. This would seem to be a good fit, as Trump has been critical of China throughout his time in office. And religious freedom–under which this would initiative would fall–seems to be the one area of human rights his Administration cares about. But any US pressure on China will be undermined by the similarity between some of China’s Uighur policies and the Trump Administration’s Muslim travel ban. This relates to a broader point I’ve been trying to raise (unsuccessfully) with international religious freedom advocates who praise Trump: he may implement a few policies in line with your initiatives, but the overall tenor of this Administration will undermine the cause.
The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that has been horribly repressed by the Chinese government. China had initially placed strict controls on Xinjiang–the region in which most Uighurs live–for alleged counterterrorism reasons. This expanded into broader restrictions on Uighur’s way of life, targeting their faith. China has tried to force Uighurs to act contrary to their faith, even requiring Uighur shopowners to sell alcohol. This recently escalated into the detention of Uighurs in concentration camps in which they will be “re-educated.”
Details continue to trickle out about the horrific assassination of Saudi dissident and writer Jamal Khashoggi. This has captured the attention of foreign policy experts, who have questioned the alliance’s importance and suggested ways to punish Saudi Arabia. Concern about this incidents has spread beyond experts, however. My students and I have frequently debated what will happen to the US-Saudi alliance. And I recently appeared on WCAX in Burlington to discuss what comes next. To both audiences–and in contrast to some commentators–I gave the unsatisfying answer of “not much.” Time after time on the issues I follow dramatic transformations seem about to occur, only to fade as the world moves on. As a result, I’m increasingly convinced that inertia drives international relations.
I feel like I should say something about the disappearance—and likely assassination—of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. This tragedy was enabled by America’s permissive stance towards Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US support for other horrific Saudi policies (like its bombing of Yemen). I’ve expressed concern on Twitter and in personal conversations, and have been writing about Yemen for years.
But to be honest, I don’t think I have anything new to say at this point. Most Duck readers will already know, and be upset, about this situation. Instead, I want to raise another concerning human rights abuse by one of our Persian Gulf allies: the detention of UK graduate student Matthew Hedges by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
A few months ago, reports spread of a UK man detained in the UAE on espionage charges; he was rumored to be an academic doing research in the country. These reports were later confirmed as the UAE announced it had charged Hedges with espionage for trying to obtain classified information and gain access to confidential archives. Hedges is a PhD student at the University of Durham, and was studying the UAE’s post-Arab Spring foreign policy. He has been held in rough conditions and there are concerns about his physical and mental health. Continue reading
In under two weeks, Brazil will have the second round of its presidential election. Former military officer and fan of fascists Jair Bolsonaro looks set after a strong first-round showing to defeat Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad. If he wins, Bolsonaro will have strong party backing in Congress, though he does not care much for the legislature—in 1999, Bolsonaro said Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship “should have killed 30,000 people more, starting with Congress and [then-President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso.” Bolsonaro’s running mate is retired General Hamilton Mourão, his planning adviser and likely Minister of Transport is General Oswaldo Ferreira, an anti-environmentalist who looks for inspiration to infrastructure projects enacted by Brazil’s military government, and Bolsonaro has promised to stack his cabinet with generals. Current and retired military officers have been prominent backers of Bolsonaro, and Bolsonaro announced that he would not accept any result other than victory, menacingly saying “I cannot speak for military” but that there “could be a reaction by the Armed Forces” if he lost and deemed it due to PT fraud (never mind that the PT is not currently in power).
As Michael Albertus highlighted, the military is returning to Brazilian politics in a big way. While the military in Argentina was punished for its dictatorial Dirty War, elites with ties to dictatorship never faced sanctions or fully left the political scene in countries like Brazil and Chile. In Brazil, civilian leaders managed to weaken the military during the transition to democracy, but it retained a broad scope of activities, including internal security and development, especially in combating the drug trade, a mission with which current President Michel Temer tasked the military earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro spent his time as a representative in Congress “interested in helping the military above all else,” and his message that he will restore law and order both resonates with a Brazilian public fed up with high rates of violent crime and with a military keen to reassert itself. Continue reading
The disappearance and suspected murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi this month has led to calls for the US to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. President Trump has ignored these calls, saying “it would not be acceptable to me” to cease arms sales to Saudi Arabia because doing so would hurt the US economy. Arms sales have been a remarkably consistent news topic, from discussions about US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, to the recent grounding of the F-35 fleet, to disputes with Turkey about its arms purchases. This is, on the one hand, unsurprising: the United States sold $55.6 billion in weapons in the 2018 fiscal year, a 33 percent jump from the previous year. Yet the way the Trump administration talks about arms sales in terms of their sheer market and economic value reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the political stakes of arms sales.
The issues surrounding the F-35 are instructive. From potentially decapitating pilots to recognized hardware issues, the F-35 has become a favorite (if too easy) punching bag in the defense community. Despite issues with the F-35’s capabilities, the plane is still a sought-after weapon – and not just because states have already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into developing and producing it.
The recent fighting between the US and Turkey over Turkey’s F-35 procurement illustrates the political stakes of such deals. Turkish companies produce components for the F-35, and Turkey is supposed to receive at least 20 of the planes. But in December 2017 Turkey purchased the Russian-produced S-400 missile defense system and, in response, the US Senate wanted to prohibit Turkey from acquiring the F-35. There is some concern that the S-400 will be able to collect intelligence about the F-35’s capabilities – and send this information back to Russia.
Yet much of the debate concerns the broader political problems of Turkey buying the S-400. States treat arms transfers as signals of foreign policy alignment: Turkey’s deal with Russia drove home its deteriorating relationship with the US and European States.
This political salience is reflected in statements by US and other policy-makers about the arms sale. US Assistant Secretary of State Weiss Mitchell said, “We can’t be any clearer in saying, both privately and publicly: a decision on S-400s will qualitatively change the US-Turkish relationship in a way that would be very difficult to repair.” Similarly, US Senator James Lankford said, “Turkey has gone a long way from being a NATO ally and an important partner in working against terrorism, to the situation today.” US allies are taking Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 as a symbol of rift between Turkey and the West, with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute calling it “meltdown in relations between Turkey and the US.” Israel has repeatedly expressed its concern about Turkey to the United States, arguing that allowing Turkey to get the F-35 would reward its bad behavior, and that Turkey should no longer be considered a “real” NATO member.
The political effects of the plane on the U.S.–Turkey relationship are independent of its military capabilities and will not change even though the entire F-35 fleet was grounded yesterday. The F-35 is, if nothing else, a status symbol that reflects the strength of political ties between states that have it.
As a signal of alignment, arms sales have wide-ranging consequences. Turkey’s simultaneous pursuit of the F-35 and the S-400 has emboldened other US friends to do the same. What was once unthinkable – US-friendly states actively courting Russian weapon systems – is becoming increasingly common. India, which was recently designated a Major Defense Partner by the United States, also signed a deal to get the S-400 and Saudi Arabia, a US ally, has hinted its interest in getting the S-400 as well.
Arms deals are much more than the transfer of military capability. Nor can they be thought of purely in economic terms. But – in responding to calls to suspend arms transfers to Saudi Arabia for its air campaigns in Yemen or, this week, for its supposed murder of Jamal Khashoggi – Trump has chosen to emphasize the economic consequences of halting arms transfers: “We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country,” he said. “Part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems and everybody’s wanting them. And frankly I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
Even if Saudi Arabia proved the crucial market to keeping US production lines open, Trump is overlooking the foreign policy signal that the arms sales send. By continuing to supply Saudi Arabia with arms, the US is tacitly endorsing Saudi actions. Congress should, at the very least, suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The State Department approved $1 billion worth of sales to the kingdom in March – delaying the transfer of TOW anti-tank missiles would be one clear way to signal US displeasure with Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, why should Saudi Arabia cooperate with investigations into the disappearance of Khashoggi, or modify its policy in Yemen? In the realm of international politics, talk is cheap; actions matter. Cutting off arms sales or switching suppliers is one way states can signal their dissatisfaction with partners, as Turkey so clearly did by purchasing the S-400. The political stakes of arms sales are high – and it is crucial that policymakers consider that political significance in their arms sales decision calculus along with economic and military considerations.