Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: Snapshot of Middle-Eastern Turmoil

Obama Military Spending

The NYT released an article today, highlighting the rare opportunities for diplomacy between the U.S. (presumably representing the interests of the international community) and various Middle-Eastern nations. First I will recap some highlights of the article, then I will give my input on the situations in Syria, Iran, and Egypt:

Only two weeks after Washington and the nation were debating a unilateral military strike on Syria that was also intended as a forceful warning to Iran about its nuclear program, President Obama finds himself at the opening stages of two unexpected diplomatic initiatives with America’s biggest adversaries in the Middle East, each fraught with opportunity and danger.

For Mr. Obama, it is a shift of fortunes that one senior American diplomat described this week as “head spinning.”

In their more honest moments, White House officials concede they got here the messiest way possible — with a mix of luck in the case of Syria, years of sanctions on Iran and then some unpredicted chess moves executed by three players Mr. Obama deeply distrusts: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Iran’s erratic mullahs. But, the officials say, these are the long-delayed fruits of the administration’s selective use of coercion in a part of the world where that is understood.

“The common thread is that you don’t achieve diplomatic progress in the Middle East without significant pressure,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said Thursday. “In Syria, it was the serious threat of a military strike; in Iran it was a sanctions regime built up over five years.”

Skeptics — and there are plenty in the National Security Council, the Pentagon, America’s intelligence agencies and Congress — are not so optimistic. They think Mr. Obama runs the risk of being dragged into long negotiations and constant games of hide-and-seek that, ultimately, will result in little change in the status quo. They argue that the president’s hesitance to pull the trigger on Tomahawk strikes on Syria nearly two weeks ago, and the public and Congressional rebellion at the idea of even limited military strikes, were unmistakable signals to the Syrian and Iranian elites that if diplomacy fails, the chances of military action ordered by the American president are slight.

All these possibilities could evaporate quickly; just ask the State Department diplomats who in the last years of the Bush administration thought they were on the way to keeping North Korea from adding to its nuclear arsenal, or the Clinton administration officials who thought they were on the verge of a Middle East peace deal.

Iranians are desperate for relief from sanctions that have cut their oil revenue by more than half, crashed their currency and made international banking all but impossible, but they may not understand the price of relief. “I suspect they are heading for sticker shock,” one official deeply involved in developing the American negotiating strategy said recently.

I am by no means a war-hawk; as a political / development economist, I understand that no MDG has ever been sustained in a conflict region. Peace and political stability are necessary preconditions for sustainable human development, which is the ultimate goal of development practitioners / human rights advocates around the world (it is also at the core of the UNDP’s strategic plan  for 2014-2017, which is where I was introduced to the term). Sustainable development requires development not be achieved at the expense of the environment / future generations. The human-rights-based-approach to development requires that development not be achieved by exploiting the worlds most impoverished / violating their human rights. Put together, these two concepts form the concept of sustainable human development; this is the only truly sustainable form of development as it reduces the probability that conflicts–which tend to have human rights violations at their core–will undo otherwise environmentally sustainable development gains.

But I am also a realist. I understand that sometimes revolutions are needed in order to overcome structural impediments to sustainable human development, such as an autocratic regime. Such regimes are not accountable to their people, and while there may be “benevolent dictators”, there is nothing sustainable about someones rights being granted by an individuals benevolence (he may change his mind, or be succeeded by a less progressive ruler). In this vein, effective democracy is the only means to sustainable human development. It is not some “western value” that drives my passion for democratic governance, it is my belief in the power of people, self-determination, and “development as freedom” which fuels this passion.

In the real world, concepts such as human rights and effective democracy are kept at bay by vested interest who would lose power if civil societies as a whole were empowered. These vested interests rely on collective action problems (I gain a lot as-is, by changing each person only gains a little) to maintain the status-quo. When collective action problems are overcome (a process which has been aided by innovations in social media / ICTs), vested interests often turn to military power to maintain their positions. I find this to be unconscionable, and therefore give some of my time to doing what little I can to try to shape the world as I believe it should be.

Diplomacy is a powerful preventative tool. However, I am less sold on diplomacy’s “soft-power” when the gloves come off and all-out war begins. Diplomacy is always more effective in democracies (where governments are accountable to the will of the people) than in autocracies (where the survival of the regime is the governments number one priority).

Syria: As you could probably tell, I am not sold on the “solution” to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. I think this is a stalling tactic, which will further entrench Assad’s grip on power and further marginalize the legitimate Syrian opposition. I hope I am proven wrong, but I am not optimistic.

The Syrians now face a series of deadlines. The first comes this weekend, when they must issue a declaration of their chemical stocks that “passes the laugh test,” as Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s former top adviser on unconventional weapons, put it earlier in the week.

It is also concerning that, so soon after a deal was reached and before any part of the deal has been carried out, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is already calling for Western Nations to “force” the Syrian opposition into peace talks with Assad. Mr. Lavrov does not seem to understand that democratic governments cannot “force” people to do things; furthermore, Western powers do not have that sort of leverage as they have till this point been largely absent in aiding the Syrian opposition. It is not surprising Mr. Lavrov had this misunderstanding, in Russia the government can indeed force people to do things.

Even more concerning is President Putin’s recent assertion that the UN chemical weapons report, which did not explicitly accuse Assad but does does implicitly suggest his regime was responsible for the August 21st chemical weapons attacks, is “biased”. He later goes on to say the Assad regime has evidence suggesting the rebels are responsible. So Putin would have us believe the UN is biased, but Assad is not? Sorry, but I’m not buying that and neither should you.

The French seem to finally be willing to arm the legitimate syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army:

“On delivering weapons we have always said that we want to control these supplies so that they do indeed go to the Free Syrian Army … because they represent the Syrian National Coalition that we recognise as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and today they are caught between a hammer and an anvil,” Hollande said.

“The hammer is the air strikes and actions of the Syrian regime and the anvil is radical Islam,” he said.

If the U.S. also agrees to arm the FSA, and can garner international support to strike Assad in response to confirmed chemical weapons usage, the Syrian-stalemate can be overcome and the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people realized.

Egypt: With Chemical weapons use in Syria dominating news, unrest in Egypt has taken a back-seat on the international communities agenda. However, fighting between Islamic Militants and the Egyptian Army continues. It is the job of the Egyptian military to rid Egypt of these extremists and ensure stability. It is not the Egyptians army’s job to condemn all Muslim’s as terrorists (as it has in the aftermath of the Morsi ouster). The Egyptian military wishes to remain unaccountable to the Egyptian people–it is not committed to effective democratic rule–as expressed in a draft of the new Egyptian Constitutional Declaration.

(Original article):

The Islamist assembly pointedly excluded prominent feminist, activist and secularist voices. It’s unclear to whom the current committee — appointed by an interim president, backed by the army, packed with the heads of official institutions — is accountable beside the state itself. Organizations such as the Journalists’ Syndicate have already complained that their recommendations on press law and freedoms of speech have been overlooked.

And this assembly, just like the previous one, is rushing its work, and conducting it with little transparency. In fact, the Islamist assembly may have been better at sharing information about its progress: It maintained a Web site tracking the latest discussions and amendments. We learn of the workings of the current assembly only through sporadic interviews its members give to the press.

This issue could be addressed in the coming weeks. And there are many ways in which the current constitution could improve upon the last. Hoda Elsadda, a founding member of a prominent feminist research center who heads the freedoms and liberties subcommittee, says she want to include an article prohibiting discrimination and human rights violation by the security services. Several members of the assembly have voiced their opposition to military trials of civilians. The rights of religious minorities, women and children — given short shrift in the last document — will probably receive greater emphasis now.

But In a country  ruled by the military, and amid a declared war on terrorism, it seems very unlikely that the constitution’s biggest shortcomings will be addressed. The draft as it stands now subjects fundamental freedoms to vague qualifications that render them meaningless: These freedoms must be exercised “according to the law” or as long as they don’t hinder “national security.” The document places the army above oversight and accountability.

And it sets many Egyptians — not just supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood — on the sidelines of what should be a national conversation and a fresh start.

To be fair, Morsi’s constitutional drafting process was not exactly inclusive either. But Morsi’s regime was willing to work within the democratic process, while General Sisi is not. The democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people will likely come second to ensuring the military’s grip on power.

Iran: Iranian President Rouhani, a relative moderate, has been much more diplomatic towards the West than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian economy has been crippled by 5 years of economic sanctions, and in order to have those sanctions lifted, Iranian leaders appear willing to negotiate an agreement on ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program (which it denies having):

American officials say they understand that Iran will need some kind of enrichment ability to assure its own people that it has retained its “nuclear rights,” as its negotiators say. The question is how much. Unless a good deal of the current infrastructure is dismantled, Iran will be able to maintain a threshold nuclear capability — that is, it will be just a few weeks, and a few screwdriver turns, from building a weapon. It is unclear whether Mr. Obama can live with that; the Israelis say they cannot.

The NYT article talked about “sticker shock”, the price Iran will have to pay in order to keep its nuclear rights and have sanctions against it removed. In a previous post, I laid out conditions I thought Iran should have to agree to in order to have sanctions removed:

The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?

The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes.

I still believe these conditions should be part of any talk to ending sanctions against Iran.

Iraq: Sectarian violence has gripped Iraq since the U.S. pulled out, and is in some ways worse than before the Sadam Hussien ouster. Iraq is a case-n-point of the limits of armed intervention in other countries.

Diplomacy is a powerful tool, but it has it’s limits. Both diplomacy and military action, as well as economic leverage and intelligence sharing, combine to form the D.I.M.E foreign policy paradigm I believe the U.S. should pursue.

5 years of sanctions were needed to bring Iran to the bargaining table, and the threat of force was needed to get Assad to admit he had chemical weapons / agree to dismantle his arsenal. Only time will tell how / if these complex issues can be resolved thought diplomacy. One thing is certain; we cannot trust dictators or take them at their word, their commitments must be verifiable. In order to hold a dictator accountable for his concessions, international investigators must be given unfettered access to any point of interest. This requires relinquishing some “national sovereignty”, something no country–democratic or otherwise–likes to do.

The U.S. failed to drive a hard enough bargain (in my mind) on chemical weapons with the Syrian regime. At least as a starting point, Western powers should make their demands clear and strong heading into negotiations with otherwise unaccountable regimes.

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Conflict Watch: The End of Team America World Police (Part 1)

The United States has by far the largest military in the world. Tomorrow I will get into the numbers, so for now you’ll have to take this information on good faith. The American military has been a global force for good since WWI (and probably before that). The U.S. intervened on the side of democracy in both WWI and WWII, and was central in efforts to promote global coordination, cooperation, and mutually beneficial trade throughout the 20th century (The League of Nations, U.N, N.A.T.O. G.A.T.T. W.T.O, I.M.F, W.B, the list goes on and on).  The Marshall Plan, the large post WWII European reconstruction aid package, and the ensuing ideological standoff with the Soviet Union, further cemented America’s position as global defender of “Western values”.

The United States has carved out this position, as a global protector of modernization, democracy, and capitalism, for many reasons. The most pronounced reason relates to American values, at its base a humanitarian plea. However, there are also economic and national security reasons for promoting these values around the world. The rapid expansion of capitalism after The Cold War has led to unprecedented growth in the global economy. This growth is mutually beneficial; as poorer countries develop new markets for American exports open up.

This growth must be protected; there are still those who oppose the forces of modernization, either because it will take power away from the current elite, or because it is at odds with traditional / religious values, or perhaps because of a contentious colonial history. There is no shortage of reasons why other people do not like us (and if one does not exist you can count on someone to fabricate a reason). In order to protect ourselves, and in hopes of creating new trade partners and lifting the world’s most impoverished from the shackles of extreme poverty, the U.S. has invested trillions of dollars into this global vision (prompting Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the two comedic geniuses behind South Park, to create a satirical movie “Team America: World Police”, to highlight America’s prominence in foreign conflicts) . I have argued that resources should be shifted from a bloated D.o.D. to the D.o.S., and still hold strongly to this belief, but this is an ideological argument about the same agreed upon principle; As technology advances, and globalization progresses, the world will only become smaller and more interconnected. As a result, foreign policy (both America’s and other nation’s) will become even more important.

There has to be a rethinking of how the U.S. intervenes. Gone are the days of the classic “world war”; today’s most prominent conflict is the Protracted Social Conflict (PSC). U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, while “successful” in terms of ousting oppressive leaders, have been very costly. The U.S. can no longer afford to play the role of “Team America: World Police”. Arab Spring interventions have highlighted a shift from overt military action to covert operations. It is now common knowledge that nation rebuilding must be a part of military intervention, in order to ensure the power vacuum created is not filled by someone who is even less aligned with “Western interests”. The cost of ensuring global security and protecting the international trade system must be more evenly shared by the developed world.

It would be natural to start by analyzing French foreign policy, as they have been most directly involved in the current Northern Africa conflicts. However, I would like to first focus on Germany. Germany has come a long way from being defeated in two world wars and being divided by the Berlin wall. Due to economic responsibility and stability, Germany has become a world power (it is the most powerful country in the EU in economic terms). Germany has, ironically, benefited from having limited military power after WWII (imagine how different the U.S. economic picture would be with a more reasonable defense budget):

“After World War II, West German politicians rejected military force for any goal other than self-defense, and a strong pacifist streak developed in the public. The end of the cold war brought the beginning of a long period of halting change. Allies, particularly in the United States, have repeatedly called for Germany to take more responsibility and a larger share of the burden…’I don’t think it’s healthy for the future of Europe to give Germany this refuge where Germany handles the economy and doesn’t have to deal with the dirty stuff,’ Mr. Böhnke [head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations]”.

’A country of our size,’ Mr. Köhler [former German president] said, ‘with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests, for example, when it comes to trade routes, for example, when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes.’”

It is time for Germany to step up to the plate and share the responsibilities of being a world power. France already has a large military, and sees a dynamic and pragmatic military as an essential component of global security:

“France has maintained its ability to send troops and equipment quickly to large parts of the globe, and it should soon overtake an austerity-minded Britain as the world’s fourth largest military spender, after the United States, China and Russia…The French are willing to intervene militarily, but on the basis of new conditions, which differ, French officials argue, from the old colonial habits and traditions known as ‘Françafrique.’”

“’We think it is absolutely necessary for other European countries to do what we do,’ Mr. Levitte said. ‘Otherwise there will be a kind of strategic irrelevance of Europe as a whole.’ It should be obvious, he said, that the United States has other priorities and is concentrating on Asia, and need not act everywhere. ‘So if we are both independent and true allies of the United States we should be in a position to act when need be.’”

French officials have also called for African troops (and Algerian troops specifically) to take a larger role in regional security affairs:

France’s foreign minister told African leaders that ‘our African friends need to take the lead’ in a multilateral military intervention in Mali…’We must, as quickly as possible, furnish the logistical and financial means required by the Malian Army and Ecowas,’ he [Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius] said.”

Military intervention is costly, both in terms of human lives and monetary cost. Global security has an element of “the tragedy of the commons” to it; everyone benefits from security, so there are bound to be “free rider” issues when it comes to paying for global security operations. It has become obvious that America cannot afford to play world police anymore; we cannot support the military bill and still provide the services needed to grow America domestically without amassing large amounts of debt (which has also been called a national security threat; damned if you do intervene, damned if you don’t). It is time for the rest of the world to share in the cost of our collective freedom and prosperity.

Come back tomorrow for part 2 of “The End of Team America World Police”, when I will focus on military and humanitarian expenditures by country to further highlight the need for a more evenly shared approach to foreign intervention and global security.


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Conflict Watch: Protracted Social Conflict and Preventative Peacebuilding

I usually focus on a specific conflict on Tuesdays, but today I would like to do something a little bit different. I want to focus on the possible benefits of scaling up preventative peacebuilding operations around the world, specifically by USAID and the U.S. D.o.D. by focusing on D.I.M.E (diplomatic, intelligence, military, economic) intervention.

This post highlights a recent project of mine, similar to my post on Flexible Credit Lines (FCL). I will pull out some choice quotes from a recent paper of mine, and then provide a link for the full thing for anybody interested. It is a bit long, but the introduction summarizes the whole argument very nicely

“War is expensive, both in terms of economic and humanitarian costs. There was a time in history when war was a profitable venture. War was an opportunity to mobilize a nation’s factors of production, and through greater productivity and taxation a war could help jump-start a stagnant economy (think of post-depression WWII production in the U.S.). While these wars tended to be very violent, they were at least “tractable”; fighting remained mostly on agreed upon battlefields, and the war was eventually ended by a binding treaty which all sides respected.

Post WWII, and more specifically post-Cold War, globalization has meant that interstate war is no longer justifiable on economic grounds. There is too much value in an open global economy for war to possibly be more valuable than peacefully trading with other countries. This shift did not occur by sheer luck or technological advance, although surely those factors played a role. It was political will that led to the globalization movement. Starting with the Marshall Plan after WWII, countries became too invested in one another as economic and political partners to pursue warfare between states. This has led to a drastic decline in interstate wars since WWII.”

“Most new wars, however, fall into Edward Azar’s theory of Protracted Social Conflict (PSC). According to Azar,”deprivation of human needs is the underlying source of PSC“. The sources, and therefore solutions to PSC often lay within a state, rather than across state borders, although this is not always the case, particularly in the context of regional insecurity. PSC also shifted some of the focus away from overtly violent conflicts, towards identifying potential future conflict zones based on underlying humanitarian grievances.”

“Not only different interests, but also differing views on trust, courtesy, and respect make international negotiations very delicate processes. “Multilateral negotiation is more difficult than domestic policy making because the relevant actors come from very different backgrounds, and they represent nations that have occasionally worked out very different procedures for handling similar problems”[1]. Different approaches to negotiation are more likely to work in different scenarios.

Traditionally, low context societies have engaged in “bargaining”, a negotiation process in which the other side is considered an adversary and, through cost-benefit analysis, the negotiator is expected to come up with the best terms for his constituents as quickly as possible. Trust is built after the fact by successful implementation of negotiated agreements.

High context societies, on the other hand, respond much better to “problem-solving” approaches to negotiation. This approach involves creating a relationship before meaningful negotiation can take place. Trust is a precondition for a durable agreement, not an end result of one. Problem solving “…is accomplished by and through intergroup contact involving a mutual search of issues, alternatives are developed  from both groups’ points of view, and evaluation of solutions is completed by the combined groups.” Essentially, problem-solving focuses on making mutually beneficial arrangements which are revealed through open dialogue.”

“Consider negotiation from an inter-temporal point of view. Period T is the period when a PSC boils over into an armed conflict. Generally, “bargaining” would begin during T (track I negotiations), while “problem-solving” would have already been in effect, through Track II and III negotiations, in Period T-1. Before bargaining even has a chance to succeed, trust must be built; therefore a negotiated resolution through bargaining will occur, at soonest, in period T+1.

Preventative peacebuilding, through problem-solving, which has been building relationships since T-1, allows meaningful negotiations to take place during period T (and hopefully have already created enough of a relationship between parties to avoid armed conflict altogether). Between T and T+1, bargainers from low-context societies become agitated with the lack of progress being made, while the high context side believes the low context side is being “disrespectful”. Likely, no trust will be built, or the trust will be very tentative.  Low context negotiators should place more emphasis and resources in preventative problem-solving, as it is much easier to build trust between opposing sides before violent conflict begins. By having the requisite relationships in places, much death and human suffering can be avoided.

The aim of peacebuilding is to foster social, economic, and political institutions and attitudes that will prevent these conflicts from turning violent. In effect, peacebuilding is the front line of preventive action.”

“The U.S. has a long history of nation building as a means of promoting national security and economic interests. Starting with the Marshal Plan after WWII, the connection between having strong geo-political and trade partners in all regions of the world has dominated American foreign policy.

This problem is clear when comparing the budgets of the U.S. Department of Defense and USAID. “The differences in approach and culture between the U.S. Departments of State and Defense are stark despite the fact that these organizations are members of the same team and share related national objectives.”  Defense has a budget much larger than the department of state. In 2012, USAIDs budget for was $51.6 billion, which was dwarfed by Defense’s $553 billion dollar budget.  Now admittedly Defense and State are not substitutes for one another, but complements; they are each more effective in different stages of conflict. Their budgets should not be equalized by any means, but when the D.o.D. has a budget ten times larger than USAID, and all the theoretical and empirical evidence points to the benefits of preventative peacebuilding when dealing with PSC, clearly some redistribution is in order.”

“The most significant aspect of scaling up will be paying for more diplomats and greater poverty reduction based aid. By having more diplomatic relationships in potential conflict areas, preemptive peacebuilding can save immeasurable money and lives compared to traditional military intervention and post-conflict reconstruction. The peace that comes from preemptive peacebuilding should be a more durable “positive peace”. By engaging in problem-solving, the root causes of PSC will be revealed, and the necessary trust needed for any negotiation to work will be forged simultaneously. It is also much more easy to justify the huge military budget of the U.S. if the military has a more pronounced and effective peacetime mandate.”

There you have it folks, my most recent work PSC and Preventative Peacebuilding. I did the best job I could of summarizing the main points of a larger work. For those of you who are interested, download the link at the end of this post for the whole paper.

POSC 5560 Final Paper