The State of War in Syria

I’m just now seeing Bridget Conley’s recent post on the state of war in Syria, which appeared on the World Peace Foundation’s Reinventing Peace blog several days ago. I agree wholly with her diagnosis:

Critics of either U.S. or Russian policy would prefer the rhetorical simplicity of merely pointing out flaws in the other’s position. What is really the problem is that both want war.

Russia now embraces war as a means to ensure that its client, the Assad regime, remains in power. But the U.S. also embraces war as a means to try to achieve regime change and, presumably, other regional and global ends as well. If the Obama administration were primarily concerned with fostering peace or stability and minimizing civilian casualties, it probably should have taken a softer line on President Assad’s status much earlier in this conflict. Instead, it has continued to insist that the conflict cannot end without his departure from power, and it has deepened its support for militias seeking to attain that goal by force.

As Bridget argues, “The most likely outcome of all these pro-war positions is continued conflict.” That’s what the scholarship on foreign intervention in civil wars tells us to expect, and that’s what we’ve seen in Syria for the past few years.

On the alternatives, though, I am less hopeful than Bridget seems to be. Instead of trying to win two consecutive wars—one to topple Assad, and then another to rule post-Assad Syria—Bridget proposes this:

If protection of civilian lives and carving a greater space for democratic practice is the desired outcome, then it’s time to seize the moment and negotiate, playing hardball for a political solution that provides institutional guarantees for democratizing processes.

But here is the conundrum: How can the U.S. “play hardball” in negotiations over Syria’s fate if it does not wield a credible threat to impose some costly punishment on parties that refuse to negotiate, or that negotiate but threaten to renege on any deal reached? And, given the current state of this conflict, how can it credibly threaten to punish defectors from any deal without fighting? What other threats are going to be so costly that the warring parties would prefer a certain outcome in which they mostly lose to the present uncertainty in which they might win and, in some cases, are profiting along the way?

Alternatively, the U.S. could simply pull back from the fight and leave it to the belligerents and their other patrons to sort out. In her post, though, Bridget alludes to one reason the U.S. has not committed to a hands-off approach: the U.S. is not acting alone, and its ostensible allies in this conflict would carry on without its participation. By keeping its hands in the war, the Obama administration apparently sustains its hope of managing that coalition, and of gaining leverage on other issues beyond Syria. As far as I can tell, the administration also seems to accept the claim that any diminution of U.S. involvement in Syria automatically and durably concedes power to its Russian and Iranian rivals.

Another option is escalation—fight harder. As Dan Drezner recently pointed out, though, escalation only makes sense if you believe that fighting harder will push the war onto a preferred path at an acceptable cost. Like Dan, I haven’t yet heard a convincing description of how that would occur. Even if you manage to win the war to topple Assad, you then have to win the post-war fight and contain the regional and global repercussions, and every recent iteration of this approach has ended poorly. With so many players committed to working at cross-purposes, I cannot imagine how this iteration would be different.

What we’re left with is foreign policy as a form of witchcraft. As the warring parties fight, various onlookers mumble incantations, wave herbs, and dole out potions. They have faith in the effectiveness of these traditional practices. When events fail to take the desired turn, evil spirits are to blame, and the answer is more mojo. If events ever do turn favorably, everyone swears it was his last spell that did it.

Personally, I remain unconvinced that a hands-off approach would be worse than the status quo. Instead of investing more in fighting and killing, why not invest in opening our doors wider to refugees from this war and helping them resettle here? I know the answer to that question: because U.S. domestic politics won’t allow it. It’s a fantasy. But then, so is the delusion of control that has us investing in the further destruction of Syria, and only one of those two fantasies involves the U.S. government spending its money and sending its people to kill other people.

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How Likely Is (Nuclear) War Between the United States and Russia?

Last week, Vox ran a long piece by Max Fisher claiming that “the prospect of a major war, even a nuclear war, in Europe has become thinkable, [experts] warn, even plausible.” Without ever clarifying what “thinkable” or “plausible” mean in this context, Fisher seems to be arguing that, while still unlikely, the probability of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia is no longer small and is rising.

I finished Fisher’s piece and wondered: Is that true? As someone who’s worked on a couple of projects (here and here) that use “wisdom of crowds” methods to make educated guesses about how likely various geopolitical events are, I know that one way to try to answer that question is to ask a bunch of informed people for their best estimates and then average them.

So, on Thursday morning, I went to SurveyMonkey and set up a two-question survey that asks respondents to assess the likelihood of war between the United States and Russia before 2020 and, if war were to happen, the likelihood that one or both sides would use nuclear weapons. To elicit responses, I tweeted the link once and posted it to the Conflict Research Group on Facebook and the IRstudies subreddit. The survey is still running [UPDATE: It’s now closed, because Survey Monkey won’t show me more than the first 100 responses without a paid subscription], but 100 people have taken it so far, and here are the results—first, on the risk of war:

wwiii.warrisk

And then on the risk that one or both sides would nuclear weapons, conditional on the occurrence of war:

wwiii.nukerisk

These results come from a convenience sample, so we shouldn’t put too much stock in them. Still, my confidence in their reliability got a boost when I learned yesterday that a recent survey of international-relations experts around the world asked an almost-identical question about the risk of a war and obtained similar results. In its 2014 survey, the TRIP project asked: “How likely is war between the United States and Russia over the next decade? Please use the 0–10 scale with 10 indicating that war will definitely occur.” They got 2,040 valid responses to that question, and here’s how they were distributed:

trip.warrisk

Those results are centered a little further to the right than the ones from my survey, but TRIP asked about a longer time period (“next decade” vs. “before 2020”), and those additional five years could explain the difference. It’s also important to note that the scales aren’t directly comparable; where the TRIP survey’s bins implicitly lie on a linear scale, mine were labeled to give respondents more options toward the extremes (e.g., “Certainly not” and “Almost certainly not”).

In light of that corroborating evidence, let’s assume for the moment that the responses to my survey are not junk. So then, how likely is a US/Russia war in the next several years, and how likely is it that such a war would go nuclear if it happened? To get to estimated probabilities of those events, I did two things:

  1. Assuming that the likelihoods implicit my survey’s labels follow a logistic curve, I converted them to predicted probabilities as follows: p(war) = exp(response – 5)/(1 + exp(response – 5)). That rule produces the following sequence for the 0–10 bins: 0.007, 0.018, 0.047, 0.119, 0.269, 0.500, 0.731, 0.881, 0.953, 0.982, 0.993.

  2. I calculated the unweighted average of those predicted probabilities.

Here are the estimates that process produced, rounded up to the nearest whole percentage point:

  • Probability of war: 11%
  • Probability that one or both sides will use nuclear weapons, conditional on war: 18%

To translate those figures into a single number representing the crowd’s estimate of the probability of nuclear war between the US and Russia before 2020, we take their product: 2%.

Is that number different from what Max Fisher had in mind when he wrote that a nuclear war between the US and Russia is now “thinkable,” “plausible,” and “more likely than you think”? I don’t know. To me, “thinkable” and “plausible” seem about as specific as “possible,” a descriptor that applies to almost any geopolitical event you can imagine. I think Max’s chief concern in writing that piece was to draw attention to a risk that he believes to be dangerously under-appreciated, but it would be nice if he had asked his sources to be more specific about just how likely they think this calamity is.

More important, is that estimate “true”? As Ralph Atkins argued in a recent Financial Times piece about estimating the odds of Grexit, it’s impossible to say. For unprecedented and at least partially unique events like these—an exit from the euro zone, or a nuclear war between major powers—we can never know the event-generating process well enough to estimate their probabilities with high confidence. What we get instead are summaries of peoples’ current beliefs about those events’ likelihood. That’s highly imperfect, but it’s still informative in its own way.

A Note on Trends in Armed Conflict

In a report released earlier this month, the Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) observed that “the body count from the top twenty deadliest wars in 2014 was more than 28% higher than in the previous year.” They counted approximately 163 thousand deaths in 2014, up from 127 thousand in 2013. The report described that increase as “part of a broader multi-year trend” that began in 2007. The project’s executive director, Peter Epps, also appropriately noted that “assessing casualty figures in conflict is notoriously difficult and many of the figures we are looking at here a probably underestimates.”

This is solid work. I do not doubt the existence of the trend it identifies. That said, I would also encourage us to keep it in perspective:

That chart (source) ends in 2005. Uppsala University’s Department of Peace and Conflict (UCDP) hasn’t updated its widely-used data set on battle-related deaths for 2014 yet, but from last year’s edition, we can see the tail end of that longer period, as well as the start of the recent upward trend PS21 identifies. In this chart—R script here—the solid line marks the annual, global sums of their best estimates, and the dotted lines show the sums of the high and low estimates:
Annual, global battle-related deaths, 1989-2013 (source: UCDP)

Annual, global battle-related deaths, 1989-2013 (Data source: UCDP)

If we mentally tack that chart onto the end of the one before it, we can also see that the increase of the past few years has not yet broken the longer spell of relatively low numbers of battle deaths. Not even close. The peak around 2000 in the middle of the nearer chart is a modest bump in the farther one, and the upward trend we’ve seen since 2007 has not yet matched even that local maximum. This chart stops at the end of 2013, but if we used the data assembled by PS21 for the past year to project an increase in 2014, we’d see that we’re still in reasonably familiar territory.

Both of these things can be true. We could be—we are—seeing a short-term increase that does not mark the end of a longer-term ebb. The global economy has grown fantastically since the 1700s, and yet it still suffers serious crises and recessions. The planet has warmed significantly over the past century, but we still see some unusually cool summers and winters.

Lest this sound too sanguine at a time when armed conflict is waxing, let me add two caveats.

First, the picture from the recent past looks decidedly worse if we widen our aperture to include deliberate killings of civilians outside of battle. UCDP keeps a separate data set on that phenomenon—here—which they label “one-sided” violence. If we add the fatalities tallied in that data set to the battle-related ones summarized in the previous plot, here is what we get:

Annual, global battle-related deaths and deaths from one-sided violence, 1989-2013 (Data source: UCDP)

Annual, global battle-related deaths and deaths from one-sided violence, 1989-2013 (Data source: UCDP)

Note the difference in the scale of the y-axis; it is an order of magnitude larger than the one in the previous chart. At this scale, the peaks and valleys in battle-related deaths from the past 25 years get smoothed out, and a single peak—the Rwandan genocide—dominates the landscape. That peak is still much lower than the massifs marking the two World Wars in the first chart, but it is huge nonetheless. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in a matter of months.

Second, the long persistence of this lower rate does not prove that the risk of violent conflict on the scale of the two World Wars has been reduced permanently. As Bear Braumoeller (here) and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (here; I link reluctantly, because I don’t care for the scornful and condescending tone) have both pointed out, a single war between great powers could end or even reverse this trend, and it is too soon to say with any confidence whether or not the risk of that happening is much lower than it used to be. Like many observers of international relations, I think we need to see how the system processes the (relative) rise of China and declines of Russia and the United States before updating our beliefs about the risk of major wars. As someone who grew up during the Cold War and was morbidly fascinated by the possibility of nuclear conflagration, I think we also need to remember how close we came to nuclear war on some occasions during that long spell, and to ponder how absurdly destructive and terrible that would be.

Strictly speaking, I’m not an academic, but I do a pretty good impersonation of one, so I’ll conclude with a footnote to that second caveat: I did not attribute the idea that the risk of major war is a thing of the past to Steven Pinker, as some do, because as Pinker points out in a written response to Taleb (here), he does not make precisely that claim, and his wider point about a long-term decline in human violence does not depend entirely on an ebb in warfare persisting. It’s hard to see how Pinker’s larger argument could survive a major war between nuclear powers, but then if that happened, who would care one way or another if it had?

Watching the States Get Made

The part of the world the US State Department calls “the Near East” is beset right now with a series of interlinked civil wars that threaten to cohere into a wider and even-worse regional conflagration. As it happens, this disorder is exposing the constitution and construction of the contemporary international system to a degree we don’t often see.

In fact, it’s all there in a single passage from a Reuters story on Yemen today (here). The passage starts like this:

[Yemeni President] Hadi’s flight to Aden has raised the prospect of armed confrontation between rival governments based in the north and south, creating chaos that could be exploited by the Yemen-based regional wing of al Qaeda.

Fighting is spreading across Yemen, and 137 people were killed on Friday in the bombings of two Shi’ite mosques in Sanaa. The bombings were claimed by Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and said it was also behind an attack that killed 23 people in Tunisia on Wednesday.

As this opening implies, the crisis in Yemen is not “just” a civil war—as if that weren’t bad enough for the people who live there. In addition, the state has almost-completely collapsed.

The contemporary international system is organized around the principle of sovereignty vested in organizations we call states. On paper, every swath of territory is legitimately claimed by one and only one government, and that government enjoys final authority over all political doings in its patch of earth (and airspace and, when relevant, coastal waters).

In much of Yemen right now, though, at least two rival factions lay claim to political authority in the same territory. They are actively fighting over those competing claims, but no faction is strong enough to win the struggle, so, effectively, there is no sovereign. What’s more, at least one of those factions isn’t just trying to seize control of part or all of an existing state. Instead, it is trying to create a new state of sorts that cuts across the borders of several extant ones.

Okay, so now what? The passage continues:

In [a recent] letter to [the UN] Security Council, Hadi called for a [UN Security Council] resolution to “deter the Houthi militias and their allies, to stop their aggression against all governorates, especially the city of Aden, and to support the legitimate authority”.

Here we see that, to help its cause, one faction is appealing for help to the organization that sits atop the existing system—the UN Security Council. Led for now by President Hadi, that faction bases its appeal on its purported legitimacy.

If asked, the leaders of that faction would probably say that their legitimacy flows from their victory in Yemen’s last national elections. Now, those elections weren’t exactly the freest and fairest on record, and the ongoing civil war makes plain that some segments of the population in the territory claimed by Yemen’s national government don’t recognize the election winners as their rightful sovereign. Those elections were also conducted with significant support from the UN and other governments. So, although they are construed as an internal source of legitimation, they could not have occurred without external intervention. Never mind, too, that the faction making this appeal also happens to be the one that has continued to permit the most powerful state in that system, the USA, to conduct drone strikes and other operations on its territory against one of that faction’s chief rivals in Yemen’s civil war.

Never mind all that. Elections are the mechanism that the organization sitting atop this system formally recognizes as the only rightful source of political authority, so the appeal makes sense.

So, how is the UN responding?

U.N. mediator Jamal Benomar is likely to brief the council on Sunday via video link, diplomats said. The Security Council is negotiating a statement on Yemen that could be adopted during the meeting, diplomats said.

“We join all of the other members of the Security Council in underscoring that President Hadi is the legitimate authority in Yemen,” Rathke said in a statement released in Washington.

Unsurprisingly, we see that the UN responds positively to an appeal that implicitly and explicitly reinforce the order it was established to protect and deepen. Even less surprising, we see this positive response in a case where the party making the appeal happens to be the faction favored by the states that wield the most power in that system. In his statement, UN mediator Benomar implies that the positive response reflects the domestic legitimacy of Hadi’s authority. In fact, the whole exchange reveals how sovereignty flows from the system to its parts as much as the other way around.

Finally, the passage concludes:

[Benomar] called on the Houthis and “their allies to stop their violent incitement” but made no mention of Iran, whose backing for the Houthis has raised U.S. concerns.

Hadi held open the door to a negotiated settlement with a call for the Houthis and other groups to attend peace talks in Saudi Arabia.

I think this bit is especially fascinating, because it shows how governments simultaneously play by and against the rules, and how the intergovernmental organizations constituted to codify and enforce those rules try to mitigate the damage by pretending this double-dealing isn’t happening. Iran is the only state specifically described as a transgressor here, but the passage also mentions Saudi Arabia, which has forever meddled in Yemeni affairs, and the US, which has done a lot more meddling in Yemen over the past 10 years or so as part of its so-called Global War on Terror. Talking openly of these double-dealings would underscore how prevalent they are, but these routines contradict the formal rules, so the defenders of the extant order try to minimize those behaviors’ corrosive effects by not speaking of them.

In our daily doings, many of us take for granted the organization of human society into a series of states whose boundaries have already been properly established and whose governments receive their political authority from the tacit or explicit consent of the people they rule. Meanwhile, when events conspire to pull back the curtain a bit, we see a messier scene in which powerful organizations continually engage in rituals and sometimes forceful actions that mostly but not always work to sustain that system; in which authority flows from power as much or more than the reverse; and in which upstarts keep trying (and mostly failing) to get in on the action or overturn the table.

If At First You Don’t Succeed

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about a failed attempt to do some exploratory text-mining on the US National Security Strategy reports (here). That project was supposed to give me a fun way to learn the basics of text mining in R, something I’ve been eager to do of late. In writing the blog post, I had two motives: 1) to help normalize the experience of getting stuck and failing in social science and data science, and 2) to appeal for help from more experienced coders who could help get me unstuck on this particular task.

The post succeeded on both counts. I won’t pepper you with evidence on the commiseration front, but I am excited to share the results of the coding improvements. In addition to learning how to text-mine, I have also been trying to learn how to use RStudio and Shiny to build interactive apps, and this project seemed like a good one to do both. So, I’ve created an app that lets users explore this corpus in three ways:

  • Plot word counts over time to see how the use of certain terms has waxed and waned over the 28 years the reports span.
  • Generate word clouds showing the 50 most common words in each of the 16 reports.
  • Explore associations between terms by picking one and see which 10 others are most closely correlated with it in the entire corpus.

For example, here’s a plot of change over time in the relative frequency of the term ‘terror’. Its usage spikes after 9/11 and then falls sharply when Barack Obama replaces George W. Bush as president.

NSS terror time trend

That pattern contrasts sharply with references to climate, which rarely gets mentioned until the Obama presidency, when its usage spikes upward. (Note, though, that the y-axis has been rescaled from the previous chart, so this large increase still has ‘climat’ only appearing about half as often as ‘terror’.)

NSS climat time trend

And here’s a word cloud of the 50 most common terms from the first US National Security Strategy, published in 1987. Surprise! The Soviet Union dominates the monologue.

NSS 1987 word cloud

When I built an initial version of the app a couple of Sundays ago, I promptly launched it on shinyapps.io to try to show it off. Unfortunately, the Shiny server only gives you 25 hours of free usage per billing cycle, and when I tweeted about the app, it got so much attention that those hours disappeared in a little over a day!

I don’t have my own server to host this thing, and I’m not sure when Shiny’s billing cycle refreshes. So, for the moment, I can’t link to a permanently working version of the app. If anyone reading this post is interested in hosting the app on a semi-permanent basis, please drop me a line at ulfelder <at> gmail. Meanwhile, R users can launch the app from their terminals with these two lines of code, assuming the ‘shiny’ package is already installed:

library(shiny)
runGitHub("national-security-strategy", "ulfelder")

You can also find all of the texts and code used in the app and some other stuff (e.g., the nss.explore.R script also implements topic modeling) in that GitHub repository, here.

In Praise of a Measured Response to the Ukraine Crisis

Yesterday afternoon, I tweeted that the Obama administration wasn’t getting enough credit for its measured response to the Ukraine crisis so far, asserting that sanctions were really hurting Russia and noting that “we”—by which I meant the United States—were not directly at war.

Not long after I said that, someone I follow tweeted that he hadn’t seen a compelling explanation of how sanctions are supposed to work in this case. That’s an important question, and one I also haven’t seen or heard answered in depth. I don’t know how U.S. or European officials see this process beyond what they say in public, but I thought I would try to spell out the logic as a way to back up my own assertion in support of the approach the U.S. and its allies have pursued so far.

I’ll start by clarifying what I’m talking about. When I say “Ukraine crisis,” I am referring to the tensions created by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its evident and ongoing support for a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. These actions are only the latest in a long series of interactions with the U.S. and Europe in Russia’s “near abroad,” but their extremity and the aggressive rhetoric and action that has accompanied them have sharply amplified tensions between the larger powers that abut Ukraine on either side. For the first time in a while, there has been open talk of a shooting war between Russia and NATO. Whatever you make of the events that led to it and however you assign credit or blame for them, this state of affairs represents a significant and undesirable escalation.

Faced with this crisis, the U.S. and its NATO allies have three basic options: compel, cajole, or impel.

Compel in this case means to push Russia out of Ukraine by force—in other words, to go to war. So far, the U.S. and Europe appear to have concluded—correctly, in my opinion—that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine does not warrant a direct military response. The likely and possible costs of war between two nuclear powers are simply too great to bear for the sake of Ukraine’s autonomy or territorial integrity.

Cajoling would mean persuading Russian leaders to reverse course through positive incentives—carrots of some kind. It’s hard to imagine what the U.S. and E.U. could offer that would have the desired effect, however. Russian leaders consider Ukraine a vital interest, and the West has nothing comparably valuable to offer in exchange. More important, the act of making such an offer would reward Russia for its aggression, setting a precedent that could encourage Russia to grab for more and could also affect other country’s perceptions of the U.S.’s tolerance for seizures of territory.

That leaves impel—to impose costs on Russia to the point where its leaders feel obliged to change course. The chief tool that U.S. and European leaders have to impose costs on Russia are economic and financial sanctions. Those leaders are using this tool, and it seems to be having the desired effect. Sanctions are encouraging capital flight, raising the costs of borrowing, increasing inflation, and slowing Russia’s already-anemic economic growth (see here and here for some details). Investors, bankers, and consumers are partly responding to the specific constraints of sanctions, but they are also responding to the broader economic uncertainty associated with those sanctions and the threat of wider war they imply. “It’s pure geopolitical risk,” one analyst told Bloomberg.

These costs can directly and indirectly shape Russian policy. They can directly affect Russian policy if and as the present leadership comes to view them as unbearable, or at least not worth the trade-offs against other policy objectives. That seems unlikely in the short term but increasingly likely over the long term, if the sanctions are sustained and markets continue to react so negatively. Sustained capital flight, rising inflation, and slower growth will gradually shrink Russia’s domestic policy options and its international power by eroding its fiscal health, and at some point these costs should come to outweigh the putative gains of territorial expansion and stronger leverage over Ukrainian policy.

These costs can also indirectly affect Russian policy by increasing the risk of internal instability. In authoritarian regimes, significant reforms usually occur in the face of popular unrest that may or may not be egged on by elites who defect from the ruling coalition. We are already seeing signs of infighting among regime insiders, and rising inflation and slowing growth should increase the probability of popular unrest.

To date, sanctions have not dented Putin’s soaring approval rating, but social unrest is not a referendum. Unrest only requires a small but motivated segment of the population to get started, and once it starts, its very occurrence can help persuade others to follow. I still wouldn’t bet on Putin’s downfall in the near future, but I believe the threat of significant domestic instability is rising, and I think that Putin & co. will eventually care more about this domestic risk than the rewards of continued adventurism abroad. In fact, I think we see some evidence that Putin & co. are already worrying more about this risk in their ever-expanding crackdown on domestic media and their recent moves to strengthen punishment for unauthorized street rallies and, ironically, calls for separatism. Even if this mobilization does not come, the increased threat of it should weigh on the Russian administration’s decision-making.

In my tweet on the topic, I credited the Obama administration for using measured rhetoric and shrewd policy in response to this crisis. Importantly, though, the success of this approach also depends heavily on cooperation among the U.S. and the E.U., and that seems to be happening. It’s not clear who deserves the credit for driving this process, but as one anonymous tweeter pointed out, the downing of flight MH17 appears to have played a role in deepening it.

Concerns are growing that sanctions may, in a sense, be too successful. Some observers fear that apparent capitulation to the U.S. and Europe would cost Russian leaders too much at home at a time when nationalist fervor has reached fever pitch. Confronted with a choice between wider war abroad or a veritable lynch mob at home, Putin & co. will, they argue, choose the former.

I think that this line of reasoning overstates the extent to which the Russian administration’s hands are tied at home. Putin & co. are arguably no more captive to the reinvigorated radical-nationalist fringe than they were to the liberal fringe that briefly threatened to oust them after the last presidential election.

Still, it is at least a plausible scenario, and the U.S. and E.U. have to be prepared for the possibility that Russian aggression will get worse before it gets better. This is where rhetorical and logistical efforts to bolster NATO are so important, and that’s just what NATO has been doing. NATO is predicated on a promise of collective defense; an attack on any one member state is regarded as an attack on all. By strengthening Russian policy-makers’ beliefs that this promise is credible, NATO can lead them to fear that escalations beyond certain thresholds will carry extreme costs and even threaten their very survival. So far, that’s just what the alliance has been doing with a steady flow of words and actions. Russian policy-makers could still choose wider war for various reasons, but theory and experience suggest that they are less likely to do so than they would be in the absence of this response.

In sum, given a short menu of unpalatable options, I think that the Obama administration and its European allies have chosen the best line of action and, so far, made the most of it. To expect Russia quickly to reverse course by withdrawing from Crimea and stopping its rabble-rousing in eastern Ukraine without being compelled by force to do so is unrealistic. The steady, measured approach the U.S. and E.U. have adopted appears to be having the intended effects. Russia could still react to the rising structural pressures on it by lashing out, but NATO is taking careful steps to discourage that response and to prepare for it if it comes. Under such lousy circumstances, I think this is about as well as we could expect the Obama administration and its E.U. counterparts to do.

Russia Throws Cuba a Lifeline

Russia has just reinvigorated its relationship with Cuba, and I suspect that this renewed friendship of convenience will help Cuba’s Communist regime stick around longer than it would have without it.

A few things happened, all apparently part of an elaborate quid pro quo. First, while visiting Cuba last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that his country was forgiving nearly all of Cuba’s lingering Soviet-era debt to Russia, or more than $30 billion. Then, a few days later, reports emerged that Cuba had agreed to allow Russia to re-open a large Soviet-era intelligence-gathering facility used to surveil the United States during the Cold War. While in Havana, Putin also spoke of reviving broader military and technological cooperation with Cuba, although he did not say exactly what that would entail. Last but not least, Russia and Cuba reportedly also signed some significant economic contracts, including ones that would allow Russian oil companies to explore Cuban waters.

Putin’s government seems to be responding in kind to what it perceives as a deepening  U.S. threat on its own borders, and this is important in its own right. As a specialist on the survival and transformation of authoritarian regimes, though, I am also interested in how this reinvigorated relationship affects prospects for political change in Cuba.

Consolidated single-party regimes, like Cuba’s, are the most durable kind of autocracies, but when they do break down, it’s usually an economic or fiscal crisis that sets the process in motion. Slumping state revenues shrink the dole that encourages various factions within the party to stay loyal to the ruling elite, while wider economic problems also give ordinary citizens stronger motivations to demand reform. When frustrated citizens and disgruntled insiders find each other, the effect can be especially potent. Economic crisis doesn’t guarantee the collapse of single-party regimes, but it does significantly increase the probability of its occurrence.

The Soviet Union bankrolled Havana for many years, and the Cuban economy has been limping along since that funding stream disappeared along with the country that provided it. In 2o11, the Communist Party of Cuba finally responded to that malaise as formal theory leads us to expect that it would: by experimenting with some limited forms of economic liberalization. These reforms are significant, but as far as I can tell, they have not yet led to the kind of economic renewal that would give the ruling party a serious boost.

One of the reasons the Cuban regime managed to delay those reforms for long was the largesse it received from its close friends in Venezuela. As I discussed in a post here last year, Hugo Chavez’s government used its oil boom to help finance the Cuban regime at a time when Havana would otherwise have been hard pressed to search for new sources of revenue.

With Hugo Chavez dead and Venezuela’s economy in crisis, however, this support has become unreliable. I had expected this uncertainty to increase pressure on the Communist Party of Cuba to expand its liberalization in search of new revenues, and for that expanded liberalization, in turn, to improve prospects for popular mobilization and elite defections that could lead to broader political reforms.

The renewed embrace from Russia now has me revisiting that expectation. The forgiveness of more than $30 billion in debt should provide an immediate boost to Cuba’s finances, but I’m also intrigued by the talk of new oil concessions. For years, the Cuban government has seemed to be hoping that hydrocarbons under its waters would provide it with a new fiscal lifeline. That hasn’t happened yet, but it sounds like Russia and Havana increasingly see prospects for mutual gains in this sphere. Of course, it will also be important to see what other forms of economic and military support are on offer from Moscow and how quickly they might arrive.

None of these developments magically resolves the fundamental flaws in Cuba’s political economy, and so far the government shows no signs of rolling back the process of limited liberalization it has already begun. What’s more, Russia also has economic problems of its own, so it’s not clear how much help it can offer and how long it will be able to sustain that support. Even so, these developments probably do shrink the probability that the Cuban economy will tip soon into a deeper crisis, and with it the near-term prospects for a broader political transformation.

Refugee Flows and Disorder in the Global System

This

The number of people displaced by violent conflict hit the highest level since World War II at the end of 2013, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, António Guterres, said in a report released on Friday…

Moreover, the impact of conflicts raging this year in Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine and now Iraq threatens to push levels of displacement even higher by the end of 2014, he said.

…is, I think, another manifestation of the trends I discussed in a blog post here last September:

If we think on a systemic scale, it’s easier to see that we are now living through a period of global disorder matched in recent history only by the years surrounding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and possibly exceeding it. Importantly, it’s not just the spate of state collapses through which this disorder becomes evident, but also the wider wave of protest activity and institutional transformation to which some of those collapses are connected.

If that’s true, then Mr. Guterres is probably right when he predicts that this will get even worse this year, because things still seem to be trending toward disorder. A lot of the transnational activity in response to local manifestations is still deliberately inflammatory (e.g., materiel and cash to rebels in Syria and Iraq, Russian support for separatists in Ukraine), and international efforts to quell some of those manifestations (e.g., UN PKOs in CAR and South Sudan) are struggling. Meanwhile, in what’s probably both a cause and an effect of these processes, global economic growth still has not rebounded as far or as fast as many had expected a year or two ago and remains uncertain and uneven.

In other words, the positive feedback still seems to be outrunning the negative feedback. Until that turns, the systemic processes driving (and being driven by) increased refugee flows will likely continue.

Addendum: The quote at the start of this post contains what I think is an error. A lot of the news stories on this report’s release used phrases like “displaced persons highest since World War II,” so I assumed that the U.N. report included the data on which that statement would be based. It turns out, though, that the report only makes a vague (and arguably misleading) reference to “the post-World War II era.” In fact, the U.N. does not have data to make comparisons on numbers of displaced persons prior to 1989. With the data it does have, the most the UNHCR can say is this, from p. 5: “The 2013 levels of forcible displacement were the highest since at least 1989, the first year that comprehensive statistics on global forced displacement existed.”

The picture also looks a little different from the press release if we adjust for increases in global population. Doing some rough math with the number of displaced persons in this UNHCR chart as the numerator and the U.S. Census Bureau’s mid-year estimates of world population as the denominator, here are some annual statistics on displaced persons as a share of the global population:

1989: 0.65%
1992: 0.84%
2010: 0.63%
2014: 0.72%

In no way do I mean to make light of what’s obviously a massive global problem, but as a share of the global population, the latest numbers are not (yet) even the worst since 1989, the first year for which UNHCR has comparable data.

There Is No Such Thing as Civil War

In a 2008 conference paper, Jim Fearon and David Laitin used statistics and case narratives to examine how civil wars around the world since 1955 have ended. They found that deadly fights between central governments and domestic challengers usually only end after an abrupt change in the relative fighting power of one side or the other, and that these abrupt changes are usually brought on by the beginning or end of foreign support. This pattern led them to ruminate thus (emphasis in original):

We were struck by the high frequency of militarily significant foreign support for government and rebels. The evidence suggests that more often than not, civil wars either become – or may even begin as –the object of other states’ foreign policies…Civil wars are normally studied as matters of domestic politics. Future research might make progress by shifting the perspective, and thinking about civil war as international politics by other means.

Their study recently came to mind when I was watching various people on Twitter object to the idea that what’s happening in Ukraine right now could be described as civil war, or at least the possible beginnings of one. Even if some of the separatists mobilizing in eastern Ukraine really were Ukrainian nationals, they argued, the agent provocateur was Russia, so this fight is properly understood as a foreign incursion.

As Jim and David’s paper shows, though, strong foreign hands are a common and often decisive feature of the fights we call civil wars.

In Syria, for example, numerous foreign governments and other external agents are funding, training, equipping, and arming various factions in the armed conflict that’s raged for nearly three years now. Some of that support is overt, but the support we see when we read about the war in the press is surely just a fraction of what’s actually happening. Yet we continue to see the conflict described as a civil war.

In the Central African Republic, it’s Chad that’s played “an ambiguous and powerful role” in the conflict that has precipitated state collapse and ethnic cleansing there. As the New York Times described in April,

[Chad] was accused of supporting the overthrow of the nation’s president, and then later helped remove the rebel who ousted him, making way for a new transitional government. In a statement on Thursday, the Chadian government said that its 850 soldiers had been accused of siding with Muslim militias in sectarian clashes with Christian fighters that have swept the Central African Republic for months.

At least a couple of bordering states are apparently involved in the civil war that’s stricken South Sudan since December. In a May 2014 report, the UN Mission to South Sudan asserted that government forces were receiving support from “armed groups from the Republic of Sudan,” and that “the Government has received support from the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), notably in Juba and Jonglei State.” The report also claimed that “some Darfuri militias have allied with opposition forces in the northern part of Unity State,” which borders Sudan. And, of course, there is a nearly 8,000-strong UN peacekeeping operation that is arguably shaping the scale of the violence there, even if it isn’t stopping it.

Pick a civil war—any civil war—and you’ll find similar evidence of external involvement. This is what led Jim and David to muse about civil wars as “international politics by other means,” and what led me to the deliberately provocative title of this post. As a researcher, I see analytic value in sometimes distinguishing between interstate and intrastate wars, which may have distinct causes and follow different patterns and may therefore be amenable to different forms of prevention or mitigation. At the same time, I think it’s clear that this distinction is nowhere near as crisp in reality as our labels imply, so we should be mindful to avoid confusing the typology with the reality it crudely describes.

Whither Organized Violence?

The Human Security Research Group has just published the latest in its series of now-annual reports on “trends in organized violence around the world,” and it’s essential reading for anyone deeply interested in armed conflict and other forms of political violence. You can find the PDF here.

The 2013 edition takes Steven Pinker’s Better Angels as its muse and largely concurs with Pinker’s conclusions. I’ll sheepishly admit that I haven’t read Pinker’s book (yet), so I’m not going to engage directly in that debate. Instead, I’ll call attention to what the report’s authors infer from their research about future trends in political violence. Here’s how that bit starts, on p. 18:

The most encouraging data from the modern era come from the post–World War II years. This period includes the dramatic decline in the number and deadliness of international wars since the end of World War II and the reversal of the decades-long increase in civil war numbers that followed the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

What are the chances that these positive changes will be sustained? No one really knows. There are too many future unknowns to make predictions with any degree of confidence.

On that point, political scientist Bear Braumoeller would agree. In an interview last year for Popular Science (here), Kelsey Atherton asked Braumoeller about Braumoeller’s assertion in a recent paper (here) that it will take 150 years to know if the downward trend in warfare that Pinker and others have identified is holding. Braumoeller replied:

Some of this literature points to “the long peace” of post-World War II. Obviously we haven’t stopped fighting wars entirely, so what they’re referring to is the absence of really really big wars like World War I and World War II. Those wars would have to be absent for like 70 to 75 more years for us to have confidence that there’s been a change in the baseline rate of really really big wars.

That’s sort of a separate question from how we know whether there are trends in warfare in general. We need to understand that war and peace are both stochastic processes. We need a big enough sample to rule out the historical average, which is about one or two big wars per century. We just haven’t had enough time since World War I and World War II to rule out the possibility that nothing’s changed.

I suspect that the authors of the Human Security Report would not dispute that claim, but after carefully reviewing Pinker’s and their own evidence, they do see causes for cautious optimism. Here I’ll quote at length, because I think it’s important to see the full array of forces taken into consideration to increase our confidence in the validity of the authors’ cautious speculations.

The case for pessimism about the global security future is well rehearsed and has considerable support within the research community. Major sources of concern include the possibility of outbreaks of nuclear terrorism, a massive transnational upsurge of lethal Islamist radicalism, or wars triggered by mass droughts and population movements driven by climate change.

Pinker notes reasons for concern about each of these potential future threats but also skepticism about the more extreme claims of the conflict pessimists. Other possible drivers of global violence include the political crises that could follow the collapse of the international financial system and destabilizing shifts in the global balance of economic and military power—the latter being a major concern of realist scholars worried about the economic and military rise of China.

But focusing exclusively on factors and processes that may increase the risks of large-scale violence around the world, while ignoring those that decrease it, also almost certainly leads to unduly pessimistic conclusions.

In the current era, factors and processes that reduce the risks of violence not only include the enduring impact of the long-term trends identified in Better Angels but also the disappearance of two major drivers of warfare in the post–World War II period—colonialism and the Cold War. Other post–World War II changes that have reduced the risks of war include the entrenchment of the global norm against interstate warfare except in self-defence or with the authority of the UN Security Council; the intensification of economic and financial interdependence that increases the costs and decreases the benefits of cross-border warfare; the spread of stable democracies; and the caution-inducing impact of nuclear weapons on relations between the major powers.

With respect to civil wars, the emergent and still-growing system of global security governance discussed in Chapter 1 has clearly helped reduce the number of intrastate conflicts since the end of the Cold War. And, at what might be called the “structural” level, we have witnessed steady increases in national incomes across the developing world. This is important because one of the strongest findings from econometric research on the causes of war is that the risk of civil wars declines as national incomes—and hence governance and other capacities—increase. Chapter 1 reports on a remarkable recent statistical study by the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) that found that if current trends in key structural variables are sustained, the proportion of the world’s countries afflicted by civil wars will halve by 2050.

Such an outcome is far from certain, of course, and for reasons that have yet to be imagined, as well as those canvassed by the conflict pessimists. But, thanks in substantial part to Steven Pinker’s extraordinary research, there are now compelling reasons for believing that the historical decline in violence is both real and remarkably large—and also that the future may well be less violent than the past.

After reading the new Human Security Report, I remain a short-term pessimist and long-term optimist. As I’ve said in a few recent posts (see especially this one), I think we’re currently in the thick of period of systemic instability that will continue to produce mass protests, state collapse, mass killing, and other forms of political instability at higher rates than we’ve seen since the early 1990s for at least the next year or two.

At the same time, I don’t think this local upswing marks a deeper reversal of the long-term trend that Pinker identifies, and that the Human Security Report confirms. Instead, I believe that the global political economy is continuing to evolve in a direction that makes political violence less common and less lethal. This system creep is evident not only in the aforementioned trends in armed violence, but also in concurrent and presumably interconnected trends in democratization, socio-economic development, and global governance. Until we see significant and sustained reversals in most or all of these trends, I will remain optimistic about the directionality of the underlying processes of which these data can give us only glimpses.

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