This is a guest post by Carrie A. Lee, an Assistant Professor at the US Air War College. The opinions and recommendations offered in this piece are those of the author do not represent the official policy or positions of the U.S. Government, U.S. Air Force, or Air War College.
On the first evening of June 2020, President Donald Trump used National Guard military police units to fire tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful demonstrators in front of St. John’s Episcopal church in Washington, DC. The move, which was largely perceived to be an intentional and excessive show of force to clear the way for a photo-op, sparked outcry amongst observers from across the political spectrum, including those of us who study civil-military relations and remain concerned about the increasing use of the military for partisan political purposes.
In case you missed it, quite the IR controversy has broken out. In August 2019, Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit (hereafter H&RM) published “Is securitization theory racist? Civilizationism, methodological whiteness, and antiblack thought in the Copenhagen School” in Security Dialogue (SD) OnlineFirst. The authors conclude, after a tendentious (my assessment) reading of Security: A New Framework for Analysis(1998) and Regions and Powers (2003) that securitization theory is fundamentally racist and, deemed unsalvageable, should be ejected from security studies—and this would include the word securitization.
This is a guest post from Collin Meisel and Jonathan D. Moyer.
Collin Meisel (Twitter: @collinmeisel) is a Research Associate at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. At Pardee, Collin works with the Diplometrics team to analyze international relations and build long-term bilateral forecasts for topics such as trade, migration, and international governmental organization membership.
Jonathan D. Moyer (Twitter: @moyerjonathan) is Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and Director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures. For the last 15 years, Jonathan has used long-term, integrated policy analysis and forecasting methods to inform the strategic planning efforts of governments, international organizations, and corporations around the world, including sponsors such as USAID, the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and the UN Development Programme.
As COVID-19 disrupts life the world
over, many of the pandemic’s long-term consequences remain uncertain. However,
using multiple long-term forecast scenarios, one geopolitical consequence is
beginning to come into focus: COVID-19 is accelerating the transition in power between
the U.S. and China. Despite assertions
from political scientist Barry Posen that COVID-19 “is weakening all of the
great and middle powers more or less equally,” economic and mortality
projections suggest that China will see material gains relative to the U.S. that
could translate into broader geopolitical gains.
Quantified in terms of the distribution
of relative material capabilities, China’s forecasted gains are roughly the
magnitude of the current relative global capabilities of Turkey.
do we mean?
Power is a relative concept, always
requiring a comparison of capabilities across at least two actors. For example,
domestic product (GDP) of 254 billion dollars (constant 2010 USD) was more
than ten times the GDP of Afghanistan (21 billion) in 2018. At the same time,
however, Pakistan’s GDP paled in comparison to India, which had a GDP of 2.8
trillion. As such, Pakistan might have held significant economic sway over its
northwestern neighbor while failing to hold a candle to its neighbor to the
southeast. Depending on what you are comparing it to, 254 billion dollars affords
you either a lot or very little in terms of relative material capabilities.
The relative material capabilities that
matter in the international system are multidimensional and stretch across
economic, security, and diplomatic variables. Together, they can be used as a proxy
measure for national power. Power itself is difficult to measure—the fact that
a country wields more capabilities does not necessarily translate into
favorable outcomes all the time; however, it often translates
into favorable outcomes more times than not relative to less powerful opponents.
do models suggest the effect of COVID-19 is on the distribution of material
Using the International Futures
(IFs) integrated assessment model—which has been employed widely to assess
issues of geopolitics,
and the economy—we
constructed scenarios that draw upon the research of others to assess the impact
of COVID-19 on the distribution of power in the international system. Our
analysis compared six simulations of global development using assumptions based
on recent International
Monetary Fund (IMF) growth forecasts—allowing for baseline and faster or
slower economic recovery—and various mortality projections, where the latter
were determined by an extrapolation of current disease case counts.
In particular, we examined the effect of
between 93,000 and 334,000 COVID-19-related deaths for the U.S. in 2020 and
between 20,000 and 80,000 deaths in China. Our baseline scenario, which assumes
40,000 COVID-related deaths in China, is a ten-fold increase from the current
official count. For the U.S., we assume 175,000 COVID-19 deaths through the end
of 2020 as a baseline projection. This is just under double the current
official case count and roughly in line with current projections from
the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which projects between
115,000 and 207,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. by August 4, 2020.
The IFs tool’s real GDP growth projections,
shown in the figure above, illustrate that the U.S. (in blue) is expected to take
an outsized hit relative to China (in red). In absolute terms, this results in Chinese
GDP at market exchange rates surpassing the U.S. between one to two years
earlier than previously projected (2025 or 2026 vs. 2027).
Qualitatively, expert opinion regarding
the long-term relative effect of COVID-19 on Chinese economic dominance is mixed.
Still, short-term indicators for certain elements of China’s economy, such as manufacturing,
have begun to show signs of economic recovery while the rest of the world lags
behind. For example, China’s
Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) score—a metric designed to assess the
health of a country’s manufacturing sector, where a score above 50 indicates
expansion while a score below 50 indicates contraction—moved into expansionary
territory in both March (52) and April (50.8) after a severe contractionary dip
(35.7) in February. Meanwhile, the U.S.
PMI score has remained in contractionary territory since March, standing at
49.1 and 41.5 the past two months.
Similar to recent analysis from RAND and prognostications from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, our forecasts also suggest that the U.S. military will see increased budgetary constraints compared with a pre-COVID-19 world. While we forecast that China will see a reduction in military spending relative to pre-COVID projections (a likely prognosis for its Southeast Asian neighbors as well) that are between $13B and $49B each year through 2030 in our worst case scenario, it is less than the worst-case reduction that we forecast for the U.S. (between $58B and $94B each year). For our forecast to play out differently, U.S. military spending as a percent of GDP (hovering just above 3 percent in recent years and higher than China’s projected military spending as a share of GDP across this time horizon) would need to increase significantly.
While the COVID-19 forecasts display differential
impacts on Chinese and U.S. development across other areas as well, these
effects are relatively smaller than those of COVID-19 on the distribution of
economic production and military spending.
happens when these factors are considered together?
It’s worth taking a moment to unpack
this conclusion. The global sum of GDP, military spending, and other gross
measures of material capabilities will continue to grow in the coming decades. Because
relative power is a measure of a country’s share of the global total, our
forecast translates to an absolute gain
in material capabilities for China relative to the U.S. that is even larger than the sum of material
capabilities possessed by Turkey today.
Quantifying some of the core components of
GPI (which comprises 11 subcomponents in total), China’s absolute gains relative
to the U.S. in 2030 in our baseline scenario are equal to an additional: $904B
in GDP; $168B in trade; and $38B in military spending. Such is the cost of
COVID-19 to U.S. power.
For China’s gains in relative power to
be erased in our baseline scenario (displayed above in thick red and blue
lines), its annual growth would need to undershoot currently forecasted values
by roughly 2 percentage points each year for the next decade. In fact, given
that these forecasts do not account for the current shock to the global oil
market—a shock that is likely to harm the net oil-producing U.S. more than the
net oil-consuming China—the hit to Chinese economic growth would likely need to
be even greater for China to not gain power relative to the U.S. post-COVID-19.
The reality is that economic growth is
the primary driver within these scenarios. Thus, even if we were to assume much
higher case count within China—in an earlier analysis we assumed two percent of
each country’s population becomes infected with COVID-19—China would likely see
only somewhat smaller gains (~0.7 percent) in global power relative to the U.S.
does this matter?
Countries with the preponderance of
global material capabilities have been wont to shape the
international order in their image. This was true of the United Kingdom’s
imperialist approach to interstate relations as well as the American-led order
that followed (former Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously reflected that
he was Present at the Creation).
What might a Chinese world order look
like? The WHO’s cold
shoulder to Taiwan and its 24 million citizens during the worst pandemic in
a century provides one relevant anecdote that can help to answer this question.
The Chinese Communist Party’s imprisonment
of over one million Uighurs provides another. On a more positive note,
President Xi Jinping’s recent promise to treat any Chinese-produced COVID-19
vaccine as a “global
public good” presents an air of magnanimity that has recently been
conspicuously absent from the foreign policy of the world’s current hegemon,
Meanwhile, we are already transitioning
to an international system that is characterized by increasingly entrenched
bipolarity. From the perspective of balance-of-power
theorists, this could turn out to be a positive development. Regardless,
China will get its way more moving forward, particularly within its own back
yard. This reality has been a long time coming. From the perspective of future
historians, however, it is likely that “COVID-19 will come to be seen as a
chapter break,” as Robert
Kaplan recently observed.
Does this mean that the Chinese Century will inevitably dawn much sooner and much more abruptly than expected?
Not necessarily. There are many factors that should be considered when broadly assessing the rise of one country relative to another. The U.S. will retain significant advantages in many aspects of international relations that remain difficult to quantify or include in an index of this type (remaining the reserve currency of choice, for example). Additionally, measures like these do not capture network effects, especially the strength of alliance systems. Finally, the relative distribution of material capabilities does not include the quality of their use: governments can squander opportunities or leverage them. Where broad measures of material capabilities are concerned, however, the picture is clear: COVID-19 is closing the gap in relative capabilities for the U.S. and China and accelerating the U.S.-China transition.
This is a guest post by Elizabeth Radziszewski, Assistant Professor at Rider University and author of forthcoming book Private Militaries and Security Industry in Civil Wars: Competition and Market Accountability (Oxford University Press) and Jonathan M. DiCicco, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Middle Tennessee State University and a Senior Fellow with the TransResearch Consortium.
While the world has
been coping with the disastrous COVID-19 pandemic, India and Pakistan have
experienced the worst cross-border fighting in two years. Unfortunately, this
fight is not against the virus. Instead, it is a continuation of the two enemies’
rivalry over Kashmir, a disputed territory each claims as its own.
This is a guest post from Paul Johnson, who is an operations research analyst with the US Army. His personal research ranges on topics from political violence and militias to security force loyalty and design. The views expressed here do not represent the perspective of the US Army or Department of Defense.
Given this forum’s focus as an outlet helping bridge the
gap, this post discusses ways that academics working on national
security-related topics can make themselves and their work more accessible to
potential end-users, as seen and experienced from the author’s perspective as a
A Wide Variety of
Previous articles on this topic (e.g., see here
and here) have pointed out a
variety of contributions that scholars can make to applied work, including:
which provides an idea of how to view an emerging event or string of events,
helping users “see the forest for the trees.”
From an analytical perspective, being able to point to a solid body of
social-science literature backing up a framework — especially a literature with
fairly settled empirical findings — increases the credibility of that
framework for application to real-world problems.
which may be quantitative or qualitative.
Publically accessible social science datasets often find their way into analytical
usage in national-security settings as the best available data on a topic of
interest. Similarly, the perspective of area
specialists, also known as subject matter experts (or “smees”), on a given
country or set of countries can provide highly valued information.
which can be as simple as a most-likely-outcome statement. Bonus points for willingness to take a stab
at a probability point-estimate for that statement, and more points for being
explicit about uncertainty.
about what to do in a given real-world situation. Since most empirical scholars focus on
establishing ceteris-paribus relationships across a large number of cases, practicing
applying that work to a specific case usually requires a bit of a mindset shift,
but adopting that mindset is necessary for any applied work.
methodology, which finds its way into applied work through a variety of
means. Some of these means include PhD students being hired into federal
government, ongoing professionalization for current civil-servant analysts, and
academics working as government contractors or other forms of participation on
a per-project basis.
This is a guest post from Emily Meierding, who is an Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Her book, The Oil Wars Myth: Petroleum and the Causes of International Conflict, has just been published by Cornell University Press. The views expressed here do not represent the perspective of the US Navy or Department of Defense.
The global oil market has entered uncharted territory. On
Monday, the price of WTI crude, the US oil benchmark, went negative for the
first time in history, closing at -$37 per barrel.
What happened? And what does it mean for international petroleum politics?
Two factors drove the oil price collapse: market
fundamentals and the quirks of oil futures trading.
Market fundamentals—oil supply and demand—were the proximate
cause of the price collapse. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this
year, global oil demand has dropped by twenty to thirty percent. In the United
States, consumption of petroleum productions has fallen thirty-one
percent since January.
The following is a guest post by Andrew Leber,
a PhD candidate in Government at Harvard University.
The death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and
the succession of Haitham bin Tariq as the country’s new ruler, was yet one
more high-profile news item this year amid the back-and-forth attacks and
tragic consequences of events further up the Gulf.
Yet for the world of political science, this transition calls to mind important questions for comparativists about authoritarian successions in particular and authoritarian institutions more general.
Depending on your Twitter addiction, you either went to sleep or woke up with the news that America had assassinated Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force. Suleimani was one of the most powerful men in Iran, and the driver of its activities in the Middle East, so this is a big deal. People are debating whether this was just and necessary, and what happens next. But I wanted to raise a different point: what this means for America’s Persian Gulf allies.
Many would suspect these states–particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–to be the biggest winners in this strike. Both states have a history of antagonism with Iran. Both were also the victim of strikes against their oil industry likely orchestrated by Iran (likely by Suleimani himself). And both have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen against Iran. So removing him from the region would be a good thing for them.
I had a piece in the Washington Post’s “Monkeycage” over the weekend, which you can read here. I noted that many worry Saudi Arabia and the UAE will pull America into war with Iran. But it actually looks like they’re the ones restraining us. The piece was inspired by the famous “chain-ganging” dynamic in IR scholarship, but there was little discussion of that as it was geared towards a broader audience, so I wanted to expand here.
I suspect most readers of this site had to read Christensen and Snyder’s “Chain gangs and passed bucks” at some point. In case you didn’t, the argument is basically that in multipolar systems, alliances tend towards chain-ganging (being dragged into wary by allies) or buck-passing (wars breaking out because no one wants to stand up to an aggressor). The former happens in the case of offensive-dominant systems, the latter in defensive dominant ones.
Rebuilding social cohesion—restoring bonds of social trust that bind people
together in communities and enable them to peacefully coexist—commonly serves
as a central goal for peacebuilders engaging in communities fractured by
political violence. Despite a growing consensus
about the necessity of promoting social cohesion in the aftermath of widespread
violence, questions remain about how scholars, practitioners, and donors can
collaborate to implement effective peacebuilding practices.
To address these challenges, we brought
together sixteen scholars and practitioners for the inaugural peacebuilding
symposium of the Conflict 2 Peace Lab at the
Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State
University. Drawing on lessons learned from similar
the gap” initiatives, we designed a workshop to
facilitate exchange and find spaces for building community and mutual learning.
Our time together focused on three themes: concepts and theories of social
cohesion, effective peacebuilding practices, and monitoring, evaluation, and
Finding Common Cause: Peacebuilding in Research and Practice
Over two days of structured discussion and
information conversations, several commonalities emerged.
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.
So by this point we all know the big news on Syria. Overnight, Trump announced that–after consulting with Turkish President Erdogan–the US would be pulling troops out of north Syria, giving Turkey freedom to operate. This would likely involve military actions against Kurdish forces there, which Turkey fears are coordinating with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. This is concerning for two reasons. First, the United States had worked with these Kurdish forces to fight ISIS, so we’re basically abandoning them. Second, this will basically leave ISIS detention camps unguarded, possibly letting this terrorist organization regroup.
A lot has been said on Twitter and elsewhere. This will hurt US credibility. We shouldn’t have open-ended commitments in the Middle East, but this isn’t the way to stop them. This is no way to treat our allies. I encourage you to read others’ takes, and I’m not going to pretend these insights are original to me (but you could read my thread if you want).
But I did start thinking about what Turkey is hoping to accomplish. They’re framing this as a security issue; they want to uproot forces supporting insurgents in their territory. That is understandable, even if we don’t like abandoning Syria’s Kurds. But there are indications this is part of a broader push to increase Turkey’s regional influence.
This is a guest post from James Guild who is a PhD candidate in political economy at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. His research interest is economic growth and infrastructure development in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and his work has appeared in The Diplomat, Jakarta Post and New Mandala. Follow him on Twitter @jamesjguild
The dominance of rational-positivist approaches to modern social science, particularly in the United States, has tended to privilege research designs featuring deductive hypotheses that can be rigorously tested, typically with large-n datasets. This means the role of culture, society and history is often situated lower on the methodological hierarchy. I think many would agree that culture and socially constructed meaning are important variables in understanding political and economic outcomes; but there is little consensus on how to define or measure them, which makes them tricky analytical concepts.
This is a guest post from William G. Nomikos,
Assistant Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis.
Follow him on Twitter @wnomikos.
Recent relations between North Korea and the United States suggest a puzzle for International Relations. The Trump administration has relied on what it has called a “maximum pressure” campaign—a set of sections and threats of military escalation—to prevent North Korean nuclear missile tests and to roll back North Korean nuclear proliferation.
According to the prominent theory of International Relations known as “audience costs,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should take maximum pressure threats seriously. President Donald Trump is facing a challenging re-election campaign and voters should punish him if he makes a threat but subsequently backs down. Yet North Korea has shown very little signs of taking these threats seriously. If anything, North Korea has advanced its nuclear weapons program.
What explains this divergence between a well-established theory, a robust set of empirical evidence and North Korea-U.S. relations? Do audiences care about reputation in foreign policy? Probably not. In my recently published research with Nicholas Sambanis, we find that domestic audiences care more about a leader’s perceived competence than their ability to manage the nation’s reputation. In this study, we identify a new mechanism by which audiences evaluate leaders in foreign policy crises and find that existing research overestimates “audience costs.”
Remember this summer, when we were about to go to war with Iran? Iran seized an oil tanker passing through the Persian Gulf. Iran also shot down a US drone. The United States responded by shooting down an Iranian drone flying near a US ship, and nearly launching an air strike against Iran. The United States also expanded sanctions on Iran.
With Trump’s behavior becoming…unpredictable, and hawkish advisers like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo seemingly ascendant in the Administration, some sort of military clash appeared likely. But at some point this likely event kind of…faded away. It’s hard to point to a specific moment–someone backing down, tensions defusing dramatically. The issue just slipped away.
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.
Here’s my argument: Late 80s/early 90s Soviet Union. The United Kingdom in 2016. The United States 2016 to now. Three contemporary examples of international suicide that conventional IR neither predicted nor can account.
Ok, so perhaps suicide is too hyperbolic a concept and we should go with appetite for self-destruction . Certainly in the case of the Soviet Union any agential claim regarding the state is overdrawn. But either way I think there is a point here. All three states, and particularly the last two, undertook an internally driven diminution of international standing and capacity—dare I say, power.
It seems like good times have come around again for realists. After decades in the theoretical and empirical doldrums (getting end of Cold War wrong, opposition to war in Iraq, terrorism and COIN) realism is back. The most recent U.S. National Defense Strategy renews a focus on great power competition, specifically with China and Russia. The Pentagon has offloaded MRAPs and is stocking up on boost phase interceptors, hypersonics, and other weapons platforms not all that useful against insurgents but great for peer competitors. Oh, happy days for the balance of power!