Actorless Threats

This is a guest post from Morgan D. Bazilian, Director of the Payne Institute, Colorado School of Mines; Andreas Goldthau, Franz Haniel Professor at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, and Research Group Leader at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies; and Kirsten Westphal, a Senior Analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. They tweet at @mbazilian, @goldthau and @kirstenwestpha1.

The age of actorless threats has arrived. Democracies need to re-imagine and re-tool their responses.

This is an age of the “actorless threats”. As Bazilian and Hendrix argued in a recent essay, “Mitigating or adapting to slow-onset, actorless threats like climate change…requires a reimagining of our national security priorities and architecture.” Climate change gives rise to cascading risks of habitat destruction, infectious disease outbreaks or biodiversity loss. These threats have already started to cause loss of life at significant scales. They have added friction to various aspects of geopolitics and the relationship between states and people. And they have put existing systems to their breaking point.

Such threats are not bound to a certain territory, but rather transcend borders and boundaries. They tend to threaten entire societal systems, with important second order effects for political or economic stability. They can be diffuse and long-term in impact. These traits vary between these threats, but these common archetypes often mean that cooperation is the only way to address them successfully. Actorless threats also do not lend themselves easily to specific current government departments or agencies, but rather require cooperation across government. And they are almost certain to become more prominent going forward, rather than less, exacerbating secondary effects.

The idea of non-traditional security threats is not new. Some of the defining terms include their transnational character. They are also typically conducted by non-state actors, rooted in social or cultural issues, and not bound to a specific territory. Non-traditional security threats do not only come with significant costs, which the Stern Report highlighted for the case of climate change already fifteen years ago. Because the global economy is deeply interconnected they also trigger cascading effects into other sectors and states. A well-known example here is a bursting real estate bubble spiraling into an international banking crisis.

Actorless threats display similar features, they are also man-made. Yet, their causality chain is even less traceable, immediate and direct. There also is a lag in time and space with regard to cause and effect. Think about climate change and pandemics. They come with tipping points which elude direct influence and are not gradually controllable. The melting of the permafrost, the slowing down of the jet stream, the spreading of zoonoses and virus mutations are not only transcending borders and boundaries. They transcend habitats, communities and generations. For example, the melting of the permafrost has given rise to the risk of anthrax transmission.

Non-traditional threats have questioned the territory as a principle of political order. New actorless threats go to the heart of our way of life and its underlying paradigms of growth and prosperity. They shake-up the fundaments of modern economies and societies. They relentlessly reveal that mankind has been living beyond planetary boundaries.

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Are Women Leaders Better at Fighting COVID?

This is a guest post from Courtney Burns and Leah Windsor. Burns is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bucknell University. She may be reached at cnb006@bucknell.edu.

Windsor is a Research Assistant Professor in the Institute for Intelligent Systems and a Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Political Science at The University of Memphis. She may be reached at Leah.Windsor@memphis.edu and on Twitter @leahcwindsor.

Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, worldwide media heralded the leadership of women leaders like Jacinda Ardern and Erna Solberg for their ability to contain the spread of the virus, and the lethality within their countries’ borders. The common belief was that having a woman in charge was the key to reducing mortality from Covid-19.

This perception squares with pervasive gendered stereotypes about women being better caretakers and more compassionate – qualities that should be more important during a time when the world is sick, and quickly getting sicker. Yet this is not entirely the case.

We find that a country’s culture influences how many people within its borders die from Covid-19.

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A Marx Allergy

If you are allergic to, let’s say peanuts, you would always carefully check the packaging of the food you buy: does the factory use them? Can there be traces in the sauce? After an unpleasant experience that might have involved a trip to the hospital or an EpiPen, you would want to avoid a repeat performance.

This is almost the exact attitude of the Russian intellectual elite towards even a whiff of critical theory. Imagine growing up with endless rows of Lenin’s works in the book cabinets of your history teacher and being forced through Marxist and Leninist dialectics at university, not to mention scientific atheism or the mantra “religion is the opium of the people”. After Glasnost’ and the abolition of article 6 from the Soviet Constitution on the “guiding and leading” role of the Communist Party, the intellectual pendulum swung right, and it swung hard. All the “bourgeois” and forbidden intellectual currents came back, including some unsavoury kinds: the likes of Dugin brandish their Evola and Guénon, not to mention a Haushofer or Mackinder. 

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When Data Closes Doors: Lessons for Sharing Unpopular Findings

Photo courtesy of the Negative Psychologist.

When sharing unpopular findings, what obligations (if any) do scholars have when policymakers do not care to hear the message?

This is a guest post by Tricia Olsen, associate professor of business ethics and legal studies at the Daniels College of Business and Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. It is part of an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas that arise when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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Remembrances from Sean Kay’s Students

This is the fifth in our series of remembrances on the life of Sean Kay. This post is from 15 of his former students. May way we all have the good fortune to shape the lives of students in the way Sean did. We will all miss you brother.

Kemi George ‘01

The loss of Dr. Kay has broken my heart, as it has so many other people. I only wish I could put into words how much this loss hurts and how much Doc (sorry Sean, but you’ll always be “Doc” to me), but I fear I can only manage a pale approximation. As all of his students know, he exemplified everything you could want in a professor. I remember so clearly his energy and commitment to all of us in his classes, and the way he could make his courses come alive. Even now, almost two decades later, I remember going on two field trips for Model UN, with Doc as our combination coach and chaperone. On the bus from Ohio to New York, he would talk about music (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was a favorite topic, especially given our state of residence at the time), alternated with stories of slapstick humor about his time doing research on NATO. He somehow had the time and energy to make a personal connection with all of us in ways that, now that I myself am a professor, I am genuinely amazed by.

As a mentor and friend, he was irreplaceable. I know that he was a constant source of encouragement for me, and for others in the class of ’01 and ’02, and I honestly would not be where I am today without Doc’s continual support over the decades. My heart goes out to his family and friends. I wish I could see him again.

Carrie Wilkie ‘01

I took my first course with Sean Kay the semester after I changed my major to Politics & Government, which also happened to be his first semester teaching at OWU. I had struggled a bit to find my “home” in my studies after thinking I had it all figured out, as most of us think we do at eighteen. I was fairly confident in my choice with P&G, but that first course with Sean solidified my decision. It could be the fresh new approach he brought to his classes, or the approachability he brought to campus, but something about Sean’s nature simply clicked.

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Sean Kay Memorial

This is a guest post from Randall Schweller, Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University and author of Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple. This is the fourth post in our remembrance series on Sean Kay.

Sean and I shared two passions: international relations and the Grateful Dead. From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, I was the “Jerry Garcia” in a Grateful Dead cover band called Timberwolf that played in the tri-state area. Our keyboardist, Rob Barroco, later joined the Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends. Sean knew the Grateful Dead and hooked me back up with Rob Barroco in 2012, thirty years after I’d last seen him.

As a musician, Sean studied the guitar style of Bob Weir, the Grateful Dead’s rhythm guitarist. When I met Sean, he immediately proposed that we get together and jam, but for years we didn’t have a good reason to do so. 

Finally, when Sean told me that he was giving a talk at the Mershon Center on his book, Rocking the Free World, we both thought—okay, this is the perfect time to finally get together and rehearse a mini-set for a “captive” audience. He came down from Delaware to my house in Columbus, and we hastily threw together some songs. Our lack of practice shows in the performance, but I’ve never once had regrets. As Jerry Garcia preached, music, like life itself, must take risks and be in the moment, otherwise it’s lifeless and boring.    

Arguably the best bridge ever written—certainly in the repertoire of Grateful Dead songs—appears in “Black Peter,” a song about a boy on his deathbed:

See here how everything

Lead up to this day

And it’s just like any other day

That’s ever been

Sun going up and then

The sun going down

Shine through my window

And my friends they come around

Come around, come around

Our lives are composed of cumulative experiences that lead to the present moment. The day of our death is merely one more day in an eternally recurring series of days—every day mostly just like the one before and after it.  As the speaker in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes tells us:

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course….What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Viewed in these stark terms, the world appears monstrous, our lives meaningless, reality an appalling afront to the vanity of human existence. How could the birds continue to sing at Auschwitz when the world seemed too horrible and sad for such simple moments of beauty? This is how I felt when I heard the news of Sean’s death. How could the birds sing and the sun shine when such a gentle, kind, beautiful soul was gone? How could the world continue to go on as if nothing had changed?

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Remembering Sean Kay

This is a guest post from Sahar Khan, an editor at Inkstick and adjunct fellow of Defense and Foreign Policy at the Cato Institute. She tweets at @khansahar1.  This is the third post in our remembrance series honoring the life of Sean Kay.

My cousin is a sophomore at Ohio Wesleyan University, and on November 13, 2020 she texted me, “I’m so sorry about Sean Kay.” Sorry? For what? Then she told me that he had passed away and forwarded me the email that the president of Ohio Wesleyan University had sent to the community that morning. I was in utter disbelief and couldn’t think of what to do except forward that email to Ahsan. As Ahsan and I spoke that day, shrouded in a cloud of disbelief, I kept thinking: how do you thank a professor like Dr. Kay?

I arrived at Ohio Wesleyan in the fall of 2002, ready to embrace my newfound independence and American life. I had envisioned my college life to be what I saw in Hollywood movies: full of friends, parties, easy classes, and cool places to hang out in. But reality was quite different and I felt kind of lost — and invisible. I had wanted to do pre-law and psychology but wasn’t sure anymore. I loved politics but didn’t really think of it as a practical field.

So, I ended up in Dr. Kay’s “Global Issues” class my second semester because I needed another class, and I figured reading political stuff would be fun. But that class — and Dr. Kay — changed my life. He made politics come alive. His lectures were like long conversations that were rich, passionate, insightful, and thought-provoking. I changed my major to International Studies that very semester, and took all of his classes like so many IS majors.

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Tribute to Sean Kay

Sean Kay, a much beloved international relations professor at Ohio Wesleyan, died suddenly of a heart attack in November. Though I blogged about Sean in December, we will be publishing a series of memorials to Sean from former students and colleagues over the remainder of this week.

The post below is a guest post from Ahsan Butt, an Associate Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center.

Even two months after his death, Sean Kay’s passing still feels shocking. Sean was a vivacious, larger than life presence, and only 53 when he died. Just a couple of months before he passed, he wrote to Sahar and me, and mentioned, among other things, a stress-related medical scare earlier this year. But he indicated nothing especially serious or life-threatening. When Sahar emailed me that awful November morning, time froze. I could only greet the news with the word “What” said in different inflections, at different volumes, with different punctuation marks.

Sean was an absolute gem of a human being. I knew few people like him, in our profession or outside. Being an IR scholar was, in many ways, the least interesting thing about him. He was a dedicated family man, one who took the institutions of neighborhood, community, and town very seriously. He was an avid producer and consumer of music, playing regular shows in Delaware bars, collecting mountains of records – most reliably American or British rock bands whose heyday was the 60s or 70s – and writing a well-received book on the influence of rock on politics.

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The Importance of Being (Pragmatically) Earnest

Photo courtesy of the Guardian UK.

When engaging with policy audiences and organizations, how can one be truthful when telling the whole truth may be counterproductive?

This post is part of an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas that arise when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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Qualitative Research Does Not Exist

This is a guest post by Simon Frankel Pratt. He is a lecturer in the School of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

In the social sciences, research and data are often divided into the categories ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’. This is incoherent and should stop. There’s nothing informative in this distinction in terms of the logic of enquiry, the mode of inference, or the way data are used to support claims about the world. There is nothing methodological about it. But it won’t stop because if it did, our discipline would further marginalise non-positivist research.

complained about this on Twitter, and I will expand on these complaints here. I’ll start with the philosophy of social science problems. But then, I’ll talk about power and hegemony.

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Gone Missing from Grand Strategy: Climate Change

This is a guest post from Jeff Colgan, Richard Holbrooke Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Climate Solutions Lab at Brown University. He is author of Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War, and tweets @JeffDColgan

A slew of new books on grand strategy and international order signal the renaissance these topics are enjoying among scholars. Alas, most of the current thinking does not pay nearly enough attention to climate change—the world’s most important global challenge. Specifically, we are not thinking hard enough about the tradeoffs states face while pursuing the three goals of peace, prosperity, and climate sustainability. 

Is Climate Really a Security Danger?

Treating a climate strategy as an optional feature of international order—a nice-to-have bonus—is no basis for any wise foreign policy analysis or advice about today’s global order. As Josh Busby points out, climate change is entirely different in kind from previous environmental concerns like saving the whales. He adds elsewhere that we need to get “beyond internal conflict” – i.e., thinking about climate change as a driver of civil wars – to thinking big about how climate change will increasingly reshape national and global security.

He is not alone. Erin Sikorsky argues for incorporating climate into threat analysis. Chuks Okereke has written about climate justice for years. Bruce Jentleson argues that climate change poses a first-order threat to the survival, health, and prosperity of the whole human species. Massively dangerous on its own, it also contributes to various additional threats, like future pandemics, loss of biodiversity, and (as Cullen Hendrix and Steph Haggard point out) food insecurity.

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Duck Podcast: Philip Cunliffe

In the latest edition of the Duck podcast I talk with Philip Cunliffe, Senior Lecturer at the University of Kent, about his new book The New Twenty Years Crisis. We agree to disagree on almost every point of discussion, but in the finest tradition of intellectual engagement…

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Want to Improve Equity and Inclusion in Political Science? Address White Supremacy

This is a guest post from Anna Meier, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Note that this post was written before APSA released an expanded statement on the white supremacist insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Last week, the American Political Science Association released a milquetoast statement on the January 6 white supremacist attack at the U.S. Capitol that got buried in the onslaught of news coverage. It resurfaced on Twitter over the weekend to outrage, with many political scientists noting that the statement omitted any acknowledgment of racism or white supremacy but did mention that “both sides” needed to “do better.”

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Uncomfortable Conversations at a Distance: Lessons from Teaching the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Daniel J. Levine is Aaron Aronov Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Alabama, where he divides his time between the Departments of Political Science and Religious Studies.  Information on his research can be found here

Last fall, I taught – as I have done every year since coming to the University of Alabama (UA) – an upper-division lecture-seminar on the Israel-Palestine Conflict.  The topic is never an easy one, with both the transition to remote teaching, and the acutely partisan political climate of the US elections, adding to the difficulty.  In this post, I describe these challenges, and a set of assignments which I developed in order to address some of them.  I then briefly assess their successes and limitations.  Comments and suggestions regarding the latter would be most appreciated!

Outlining the Challenges

The Israel-Palestine conflict poses particular teaching challenges even in the best of times.   First, the territories and peoples most directly implicated in it are mediated through tangled webs of overlappingutopianand mutually-exclusive mythic imaginaries.  So viewed, Palestinians and Israelis lose much of their humanity and autonomy; they become players in set-piece dramas of the students’ own, often unconscious, imaginings.   

A second challenge relates to student expectations.  UA undergraduates receive a version of political science that emphasizes practicaldispassionate problem-solving.  For many reasons – not least because that traditionis itself implicated in the conflict in a variety of ways – this course is ‘pitched’ somewhat differently.  

The subsequent discussion – following readings that connected the emergence of Zionism to that of 19thCentury anti-Semitism – may illustrate how these problems surface in class.  “If Zionism is a response to anti-Semitism,” one student asked, “then where is the boundary between legitimate criticisms of Israel, and those which are anti-Semitic?”  

A vigorous discussion ensued.  Several students held that the question of anti-Semitism was an invented controversy, a ‘false flag.’  To what end, I asked, and by whom?  

To distract Americans from more difficult historical reckonings of their own, said some.  To cultivate sympathy for Israel, said others.  A smaller number argued for the existence of a well-coordinated, highly influential group of ethnic-religious elites, with hidden ties to media and finance.  One student went so far as to state that I – the university’s only professor of Jewish studies – was myself part of that elite; further, that the design of the course reflected my support for its agenda.

However fraught, this discussion reveals a number of certain shared understandings. First, it acknowledges – if only in the breech – anti-Semitism’s historical-conceptual trajectory.  Second, that the memory of thattrajectory shapecontemporary political normsdiscoursesand policies.  Third, the linkages between critical reflection on that trajectory and claims of bad faith.

The Problem of Political Judgement

Consider the student who is deeply dissatisfied with the terms of contemporary political discourse.  Said student suspects that certain historical facts have been tendentiously assembled, but feels uncertainty – or fear – in raising the matter.  Their fear curdles into resentment.  

In what forums will they seek out to work out those intuitions?  Should one be surprised if some of them are drawn into conversations that are marginal, and anonymous – all the more so in a period of enforced isolation?  Should one then be surprised if some number of them show up for class with lightly-reworked conspiracy theories?  There are, after all, any number of well-conceived scholarly and journalistic discussionsalong the lines summarized above.  That said, the line separating ‘good’ arguments from ‘bad’ ones is no more self-evident here than in my student’s original question.    

This is because such lines cannot be drawn merely with reference to the facts upon which they are predicated.  Some critical or reflexive faculty must be brought to bear on them – political or ethical judgement.  But judgement is both contingent and fallible.  Its exercise has, moreover, become increasingly fraught. The student who asked me ‘where the line was’ intuitively understood this; they sought to substitute my judgement for their own.  

Hannah Arendt has noted that judgement relies on a shared consensus: first, as to what facts are, and second, to those public-discursive frameworks by which they acquire meaning: debates, elections, trials, literary-historical canons, etc.  Each of these has come under increasing pressure.  In the present context, consider recent attempts to formulate or institutionalize detailed definitions of anti-Semitism.  When married to enforcement of Title VI anti-discrimination legislation, these definitions seem intended to police the scope of  ‘acceptable’ scholarly and political discourse in the era of BDS, rather than to focus or direct intellectual argument.    

Fostering Student Solidarities

In the face of these challenges, I have historically relied on approaches that foster trust, openness, and mutual respect in the classroom.  Such trust emerges gradually, and by degree. To feel safe, students must be able to ‘take the measure’ of one another in ways that do not carry over Zoom.  What I needed was some alternative way to foster horizontal solidarities between and among a group of students could not meet in person.

To that end, I developed three inter-connected group assignments for the opening weeks of the course.  Students were placed randomly into groups.  Each was given two short preparatory assignments, and a longer project.  A brief summary of these follows (full details here):

First, each group received a list of web-based informational resources related to the conflict: websites, blogs, and reference materials maintained by leading think tanks, policy shops, NGOs, ministries, etc.  Students were asked to survey the range and depth of the information on offer, and to assess its credibility along different lines.  A second assignment asked them to track how these sites and resources were used, and by whom.    

The third assignment turned them from critics into curators. Each group was asked to arrive at a relevant topic of shared interest, and then to develop their own web-based finding aids.  These would be posted on a shared WordPress site.  Time was set aside in class for groups to meet in breakout rooms. Each group received its own ‘Blackboard’ workspace, with dedicated email, online storage, and a virtual meeting platform.   

Yes, But Did It Work?  

The best of these produced innovative takes on topics as diverse as arms sales, the UNRWA, satellite surveillance, and Israeli collective memory.  Less successful were those that reproduced the reified categories and ‘imagined dramas’ discussed above.  That said, pointing out that reproduction became a way to demonstrate and challenge the hold they exercise over students’ imaginations. My hope is to refine this challenge in future.

Hoping to foster the kind of small-group solidarity that would carry over into general discussion, groups were sized at 4-5.  As hoped, some bonded strongly, collaborating on subsequent projects together and participating interactively in open discussion.  Others suffered from ‘free ridership,’ or failed to arrive at consensus.  Thoughts on how to incentivize the former and address the latter would be welcome.       

It was also evident that this assignment only scratched the surface of the questions from which it arose.  How do we equip students to identify and critique the effects of knowledge networks – a space bounded by partisan politics, the sociology of knowledge, critical media studies, and ‘groupthink’?   Given the flood of information to which students are subjected, how useful is fine-grained analysis as a mode of cultivating judgement?  What becomes of a civic ideal predicated on unhurried, dispassionate reflection and unfettered argument, when the conditions of possibility for such practices, and public faith in them, were either never present or no longer exist?  

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Trump’s Budweiser Putsch

US President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives to a “Make America Great Again” campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 1, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Emily Holland, an Assistant Professor in the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College & Hadas Aron, a Faculty Fellow at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU.

This week’s violent takeover of the Capitol Building has fueled the ongoing debate on the future of American democracy. For several years analysts have argued that the United States is undergoing the same process of de-democratization as countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. However, the comparison to European populist de-democratization is misleading. The difference between Trump and European counterparts is that the latter do not rely on post-election violence to hold onto power, instead they rig the system long before the election. This week’s events demonstrate what is at stake for American democracy. Unlike  in European countries, the elimination of checks and balances is not the main concern. The real danger for the United States is out of control anti-system political violence that brings to a boiling point polarization and racial tensions.

Democratic breakdown or decline in places like Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Israel, and Poland, has inspired theories on how democracies die, comparing the United States to failing democracies around the world. But in these countries, populist insurrection is far more subtle [and effective] than the attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill. Populist leaders have successfully transformed political institutions, concentrated political power, broke down opposition, and dismantled democracy, with little overt violence and often without large-scale election fraud. Trump also attempted these strategies, but mostly failed because of the dispersed power structure of the United States, and his own incompetence.

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The significance of Iran ramping up its uranium enrichment to 20%

On Monday, Iran began enriching uranium to the 20% threshold for the first time since before its 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran appears to be trying to maximize its leverage with the incoming Biden administration in the hope that the US will agree to re-enter, rather than attempt to re-negotiate, the JCPOA. The President-elect has indicated in interviews that upon taking office in two weeks he intends to open negotiations about restoring the deal that the Trump administration walked away from in 2018.

Iran’s announcement that it is resuming uranium enrichment to 20%, the threshold for highly enriched uranium (HEU), is the first step in implementing a recent law passed by the hawkish Iranian parliament over the objections of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government. The decision to stockpile uranium enriched to 20% presents a symbolic as well as practical challenge. A stockpile of HEU significantly reduces the timeline for a breakout capability. Once you have enriched uranium to 20%, you have done 90% of the work required to create weapons grade material.

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On Inconvenient Findings

This post was written by Marie Berry and Milli Lake, co-founders and principal investigators of the Women’s Rights After War Project. Dr. Berry is Associate Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and a member of Bridging the Gap’s current International Policy Summer Institute cohort. Dr. Lake is Associate Professor in the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics and a co-founder of the Advancing Research on Conflict Consortium.

What happens when research findings challenge the work that policy makers are invested in promoting?

In recent years, a strong, ongoing initiative to “Bridge the Gap” between academic research and policy makers has gained salience in academic circles. For several years now, and with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and other funders, scholars of international affairs have doubled down on efforts to write for public audiences, engage with various actors in policy processes, and even work to revise tenure and promotion standards to increase the value of policy-relevant work. Through the Women’s Rights After War project and other work, we have been eager participants in these efforts. We view engaged scholarship as part of our commitment to democratizing knowledge more generally.

But what happens when the results of research challenge the status quo policymakers are invested in defending? When research findings fail to reinforce policy priorities—whether they are political, economic, social, or otherwise—such efforts to “bridge the gap” stumble. This tension was recently brought dramatically to our attention when a policy brief we prepared was deemed unsuitable for publication by the organization that commissioned it, because our findings were neither positive nor politically convenient. Our experience, and those of others, raises questions about what happens when researchers generate findings that prove inconvenient to particular policy communities and knowledge gatekeepers. For us, this experience also raised questions about whether pressure to make research findings legible and accessible to policy audiences can inadvertently marginalize research that poses the most obvious challenges to status quo paradigms. 

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Why We Should Stop Picking on 2020



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.

But this moment of worldwide hibernation also gave the Earth a moment to breathe. American high-schoolers were finally able to get enough sleep, reducing rates of teen depression. The world’s peoples conducted a global social experiment in pandemic control that has better prepared it for the next onslaught. Developing nations became poster children for good governance. Faith in the miracle of science and the power of vaccination experienced a renaissance. Americans have rediscovered the outdoors, the power of unstructured learning, the mental health benefits of hobbies and value of simple connections and staycations. They have turned out in huge numbers to local food banks and blood donation centers, filling in where the state has failed and revitalizing neighborhoods and communities. The story of the year is as much one of resilience as of catastrophe.

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.   

(cross-posted at Medium)

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My Yes and No Committees Approved the Writing of This Post

This post is written by Bridging the Gap Fellow Dr. Danielle Gilbert, Assistant Professor of Military & Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Department of the Air Force, or the Department of Defense. The author would like to thank the brilliant women of her yes and no committees for their time, feedback, permission, and encouragement to write this—you know who you are. 

Six women approved the writing of this post: my “yes committee,” my “no committee,” and the editor—who happens to be a mentor as well. It’s fitting that these women would find themselves involved in this paragraph, because they have a say on nearly everything I write or do in my professional life. Outside of my classroom, I seldom make professional decisions without them. They are absolutely crucial to my success. I need them, and you need your own committees, too. 

What are yes and no committees? While a “no committee” is the group of friends and mentors you turn to when you need help declining requests and opportunities, the “yes committee” is the designated hype squad that nudges you beyond your comfort zone. In short, the “no committee” reminds you that your time is valuable; the “yes committee” reminds you that your ideas are valuable.

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The lazy Orientalism of Wonder Woman 1984

WARNING: Minor Spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984 ahead

Like many Americans, I ended my Christmas day by paying $15 to subscribe to HBO Max and watch Wonder Woman 1984. The much anticipated sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman promised to make the horrors of 2020 fade for awhile. And it did, but only by replacing them with frustration and confusion. It…wasn’t a great film. You can read why, or just watch it yourself. But what really stuck out to me was the particular sort of Orientalism it contained, a lazy Orientalism oblivious to its political implications but still problematic.

Wonder Woman 1984 tells the story of Wonder Woman fighting against a super villain (sorry for the spoilers). But what caught the attention of this Middle East scholar was a sequence in which the villain meets with a deposed (I think) Egyptian King who wishes to return to power and kick the “heathens” out of his land. The villain helps him, but the guy already sold his oil to the Saudis (I guess he pumped it all out?) Then the villain raises a wall, cutting off the poorest people of Egypt from their water sources.

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