How (Not?) To Win the Information War Over Ukraine

In an opinion piece for The Telegraph last Friday (here), writer Anne Applebaum bemoans that Russia is winning the “information war” over the crisis in Ukraine with demonstrable falsehoods.

The crude and shrill nature of the propaganda now being aired on Russian media and especially on Russia Today (RT), the international news channel owned by the Russian state, has surprised me. Until now, the tone has generally been snide and cynical rather than aggressive. With slick, plausible American anchors and some self-styled hip outsiders—Julian Assange had a regular show—it seemed designed to undermine Western arguments, not denounce them. But now it is openly joining an information war being conducted on an unprecedented scale. The bald-faced lie has now become commonplace.

To counter this torrent of lies, Applebaum argues, the U.S. and Europe need to speak more truth louder.

The only response to an all-out information war is an all-out information defence. The West used to be quite good at this: simply by being credible truth-tellers, Radio Free Europe and the BBC language services provided our most effective tools in the struggle against communism. Maybe it’s time to look again at their funding, and to find ways to spread their reach once more.

I’d say that Putin & co. are clearly winning the propaganda war over Ukraine on the domestic front and playing to a draw on the international side. Press freedom is nearly non-existent in Russia (here), and Moscow’s domestic audience skews nationalist anyway (here), so that’s an easy victory. International audiences are more heterogeneous and surely less sympathetic than native ones, but as Applebaum notes, the Russian government doesn’t need to convince everyone that its version of the narrative is true to shape the politics of the response.

Unlike Applebaum, though, I am not confident that her proposed remedy—loud truth-telling—will produce the desired result. In fact, experiments conducted in the past few years by political scientist Brendan Nyhan and several co-authors suggest that, in information wars, frontal assaults sometimes have the opposite of the intended effect. In a 2013 paper entitled “The Hazards of Correcting Myths About Healthcare Reform” (here), the authors describe the results of an experiment “to determine if more aggressive media fact-checking could correct the false belief that the Affordable Care Act would create ‘death panels.'”

Participants from an opt-in Internet panel were randomly assigned to either a control group in which they read an article on Sarah Palin’s claims about “death panels” or an intervention group in which the article also contained corrective information refuting Palin.

Findings: The correction reduced belief in death panels and strong opposition to the reform bill among those who view Palin unfavorably and those who view her favorably but have low political knowledge. However, it backfired among politically knowledgeable Palin supporters, who were more likely to believe in death panels and to strongly oppose reform if they received the correction.

Conclusions: These results underscore the difficulty of reducing misperceptions about health care reform among individuals with the motivation and sophistication to reject corrective information.

Nyhan and his co-authors got similar results in a follow-on study designed “to test the effectiveness of messages designed to reduce vaccine misperceptions and increase vaccination rates” (here). This time,

A Web-based nationally representative 2-wave survey experiment was conducted with 1759 parents age 18 years and older residing in the United States who have children in their household age 17 years or younger (conducted June–July 2011). Parents were randomly assigned to receive 1 of 4 interventions: (1) information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; (2) textual information about the dangers of the diseases prevented by MMR from the Vaccine Information Statement; (3) images of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine; (4) a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet; or to a control group.

RESULTS: None of the interventions increased parental intent to vaccinate a future child. Refuting claims of an MMR/autism link successfully reduced misperceptions that vaccines cause autism but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes. In addition, images of sick children increased expressed belief in a vaccine/autism link and a dramatic narrative about an infant in danger increased self-reported belief in serious vaccine side effects.

CONCLUSIONS: Current public health communications about vaccines may not be effective. For some parents, they may actually increase misperceptions or reduce vaccination intention. Attempts to increase concerns about communicable diseases or correct false claims about vaccines may be especially likely to be counterproductive.

I see the results of those studies and imagine Russian and other audiences already ambivalent or hostile toward the U.S. as the functional equivalent of those Palin supporters and vaccine skeptics. It’s counter-intuitive and frustrating to admit, but facts don’t automatically defeat falsehoods, and attempts to beat the latter with the former can even encourage some antagonists to dig their heels in deeper. Before the U.S. and Europe crank up the volume on their own propaganda, they should think carefully about the results of these studies.

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The Tragic Figure of Ambassador McFaul

On February 4, U.S. ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul announced that he would leave his post after the Winter Olympics to be with his family again in California, ending what the New York Times described as “a stormy two-year tenure during which relations between the two countries were at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War.”

McFaul had never served as a diplomat before taking this post, and his two years on the job have drawn polarized reviews. Many observers hold McFaul at least partially responsible for the slump in U.S.-Russian relations, and some of those critics point to his inexperience in diplomacy as one cause of that slump. Others praise McFaul for his dogged and open pursuit of “dual-track” diplomacy, publicly engaging with Russian activists and the wider public in person and through social media while also engaging in more traditional relations with the Russian government those activists are trying to transform or topple.

I think there’s truth in both views, but I agree with James Carden (here) that the fault for McFaul’s rocky tenure lies primarily with the people who decided to appoint him to the post. I see Ambassador McFaul as a tragic figure—a man who meant to do good and tried his level best but whose accumulated professional baggage made it almost impossible for him to succeed in the job of a lifetime. (Disclosure: While in graduate school at Stanford, I served as Mike’s teaching assistant for one quarter, for his course on Russian politics. Mike was professionally cordial toward me at the time, but I haven’t had contact with him since finishing school apart from being “friends” with him on Facebook.)

Relations between the U.S. and Russia are both vitally important and persistently fragile, in no small part because the Russian government views its U.S. counterparts with deep distrust. Into this crucial but volatile mix the Obama administration chose to inject a man who had devoted a significant fraction of his public-facing career to transforming Russia in ways the Putin regime could only regard as hostile. As Carden notes,

For twenty years McFaul had been a prolific and consistent promoter of the idea that Western democratic values, American-style capitalism, and Western norms with regard to press freedoms are universal and that it ought to be the goal of American statecraft to impose those norms on Russia. And if the Russian government wasn’t interested in this transformative project, America should engage directly with Russian ‘civil society’ instead. Indeed, writing in the Washington Post in 2000, McFaul was firmly of the opinion that ‘democracy in Russia is a precondition for cooperation.’

International-relations theorists can tell you that there are plenty of structural reasons why the U.S. and Russia struggle to cooperate in many areas. Still, it’s hard to see how the appointment of someone with McFaul’s background to the post of ambassador could have done anything but make that cooperation even harder. When McFaul hit the ground running in directions that only seemed to confirm the Power Vertical’s suspicions of him, he almost certainly dug himself into an inescapable hole. But how else could it have been? The ambassador believed what he had been saying about the democratization of Russia his whole adult life, and as a man of good character, he had to act on what he believed.

The tragic flavor of Ambassador McFaul’s tenure permeates an excellent “exit interview” with him on the New Republic‘s web site. In that interview with Julia Ioffe, McFaul seems to speak candidly about how he approached his job, how hard it was, and where he succeeded and failed. In the “success” column, he notes that the U.S. continues to run supplies for troops in Afghanistan through Russia, and he points to cooperation on counter-proliferation efforts in Iran, North Korea, and Syria. At the same time, he acknowledges that, on the issue to which he has devoted much of his career—the democratization of Russia—things have only gotten worse. Asked what the future holds for Russia’s opposition, McFaul says,

I mean, my honest answer is: I don’t know. The space for political action has been dramatically constrained. That’s just obvious. At the same time, I am impressed by the vibrancy of Russian society. There’s a dynamism here that is not going to end.

That’s poignant in its own right, but the tragedy comes into starker relief in his response to an earlier question. After talking about his dual-track strategy and the Russian crackdown that has coincided with it, McFaul admits that the public engagement he has practiced and continues to champion may sometimes have exacerbated the problem.

JI: Do you feel at this point that tougher measures against Russia would be counterproductive?

MM: I think it’s easy to overestimate the coercive power of outsiders when dealing with large powerful countries like Russia. But I don’t have a good answer to that. I genuinely do not. I know that we struggle with it every day. I know that we want to make sure that we listen to our Russian colleagues. Many times I’ve heard from civil-society leaders and members of the opposition that, in the name of a nice sound bite or photo op, we have done damage.

For a man who clearly cares deeply about Russia and its people and came to Moscow to do good, that has to be a tough admission to make. He did exactly what he said he would do, and Russia’s domestic politics and its relationship with the U.S. both moved in the wrong direction.

Postscript. Since publishing this post, I’ve heard from a few people who inferred from the final sentence that I hold McFaul partially responsible for those domestic and international trends. That’s not what I meant to say. I think the domestic trend in particular was largely baked into the situation, and there was little McFaul could have done to alter it. As a longtime observer of democratization and Russia, I’d say that the erosion of political rights and civil liberties we’ve seen in that country over the past few years can be explained fine by general theories of political development; we don’t need to reference the ambassador’s dual-track diplomacy to explain it.

That said, I do suspect that the Russians’ perceptions of McFaul’s efforts to engage with their domestic “enemies,” and what those efforts and his background “revealed” about American intentions, made it marginally harder to find common ground in the international arena. Since the collapse of the USSR, I think that the U.S. has consistently underestimated the extent to which its efforts to expand Europe and transform the Soviet successor states have stoked Russian insiders’ distrust of, and hostility toward, the U.S. In that context, I wonder if things which seem tangential or modest to us—like McFaul’s academic and professional history—are perceived very differently by them. Or maybe they’re just really good at cranking up the faux outrage machine. In any case, I hope the ambassador will have a chance to speak more to that argument in public when his tenure is officially over.

Cold War Meddling and Coup Attempts

Last April, the American Economic Review published a fascinating paper by some prominent economists that’s only just come onto my radar screen, thanks to a recent Facebook post from Cullen Hendrix. Here’s the abstract:

We provide evidence that increased political influence, arising from CIA interventions during the Cold War, was used to create a larger foreign market for American products. Following CIA interventions, imports from the US increased dramatically, while total exports to the US were unaffected. The surge in imports was concentrated in industries in which the US had a comparative disadvantage, not a comparative advantage. Our analysis is able to rule out decreased trade costs, changing political ideology, and an increase in US loans and grants as alternative explanations. We provide evidence that the increased imports arose through direct purchases of American products by foreign governments.

That’s quite a result—not because we didn’t think stuff like this happened, but because that “stuff” is rarely discussed in academic work on international political economy and even more rarely makes it into our statistical models. We know that powerful states do lots of things to try to shape the world around them, but those things are often hard to observe and even harder to measure, so we usually just leave those “treatments” out of our statistical abstractions of international and domestic politics and hope for the best. (Hello, omitted variable bias!)

But I digress. Where Berger & co. were primarily interested in the economic effects of those interventions, their paper got me thinking about the political ones. Might the episodes of Cold War meddling the authors identify in their data help explain where and when coup attempts happened, too? Theory says “probably,” but not necessarily in a simple way. As Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov have argued (here), during the Cold War

The United States and the former colonial powers in Europe had an ambiguous attitude toward coup plots: sometimes helping, sometimes thwarting, and sometimes doing nothing… Because the world was thought to be a chessboard of West vs. East, attitudes toward both the seizure of power by the military and about whether to pressure for elections varied by which side of the ideological conflict the relevant actors took.

Well, was there a clear pattern? Berger & co. have posted extensive replication files (here), and I’ve already got data and scripts to estimate and compare statistical models of coup risk (here), so let’s have a look, starting with a few words on the measures of foreign meddling.

What Berger & co. have compiled are annual, binary indicators of CIA and KGB influence in domestic politics for all countries of the world except the USA and USSR during the period 1947-1990. By “influence,” they mean “periods in which a leader is installed or supported” by one or the other agency. For example, they tag Chile with a 1 (yes) in the column for U.S. influence from 1964, when the CIA supported Eduardo Frei’s successful election campaign and then went on to back various right-wing groups, until 1970, when the presidency passed to Salvador Allende, of whom the U.S. government was not so fond.

Instead of trying to assess the importance of these influence measures by estimating a model and looking at coefficients and p-values, I took some advice from Mike Ward & co. (here) and asked if these variables could help us predict coup attempts. If these episodes of CIA and KGB meddling had much effect on coup risk, then their addition to a base model of coup risk should noticeably improve that model’s predictive power.

To see if they do, I used a 10-fold cross-validation process to get out-of-sample estimates of coup risk from models without and with Berger & co.’s measures of CIA and KGB influence, then compared the accuracy of those two sets of estimates. The base model is the same one I used in my coup forecasts for 2014, and it covers a lot of ground, from national wealth and colonial legacies to political regime type and recent coup activity. Country-years are the units of observation, and the dependent variable in all cases is a binary indicator of whether or not any coup attempts (successful or failed) occurred during that calendar year. Except for the marker for election years, all covariates—including the measures of U.S. and Soviet influence—were lagged one year.

Here’s a plot of the ROC curves for out-of-sample estimates of coup risk from models without (black) and with (red) those intervention indicators. The numbers reported in the bottom right-hand corner of the plot are the areas under those curves (AUC), and bigger is better. As you can see, the addition of these lagged indicators of periods of CIA and KGB influence has no real effect on the model’s predictive power, suggesting that these variables don’t help explain the location and timing of coups, at least not in the context of this model.

A Comparison of the Predictive Power of Coup Risk Models Without and With Measures of CIA and KGB Influence

A Comparison of the Predictive Power of Logistic Regression Models of Coup Risk Without (black) and With (red) Lagged Indicators of CIA and KGB Influence

After seeing those results, I wondered if the effects of U.S. and Soviet influence on coup risk might depend on some of the other things in my model, like political regime type or the occurrence of elections. To allow for contingent effects without specifying exactly what those contingencies might be, I re-ran the analysis using Random Forests instead of logistic regression. The plot below shows the results. Again, nothing doing.

A Comparison

A Comparison of the Predictive Power of Random Forests of Coup Risk Without (black) and With (red) Lagged Indicators of CIA and KGB Influence

It would be easy to look at those plots and conclude that CIA and KGB meddling didn’t play much of a role in coups during the Cold War after all. It’d be easy, but it’d also be wrong.

One of the great things about the paper that set off this whole exercise is that the authors extensively document their data, to include short descriptions of the forms of U.S. and Soviet influence they observe and the sources from which that information came. When we take a closer look at those descriptions (“Summary_of_Interventions.pdf”), it becomes clearer that the source of my null result isn’t the fact that the CIA and KGB weren’t in the business of backing or thwarting coups. Instead, the issue is that the effects often flowed in the opposite direction. That is, coups and other forms of meddling in the selection of national leaders were often what started these episodes of influence in the first place. Influence doesn’t cause coups; coups cause influence.

Once we realize this, it’s less surprising to discover that coups were actually somewhat less likely during periods of CIA or KGB influence than not. When I estimate a logistic regression model using all of the available data (1960-1990), the coefficients on the lagged indicators of CIA and KGB influence are both negative and not tiny: -0.3 and -1.0, respectively, with standard errors of 0.2 and 0.5. If you think those agencies might have helped protect their clients from domestic rivals, that result makes sense.

Ultimately, there are two lessons here, one substantive and one methodological. On the substantive side, this exercise reaffirms the knowledge that the great powers of the Cold War era had significant sway over politics within many other states, including the selection and survival of their leaders. Of course, we didn’t need a statistical analysis to tell us that; we only needed to review the evidence Berger & co. have compiled on the way to their finding about how those efforts affected international trade.

On the methodological side, the counter-intuitive findings from the analysis described in this blog post are a useful reminder that we shouldn’t stop thinking when we hit Enter on our statistical estimations. When interpreting results like these, we have to think carefully about what is and isn’t being measured. The models we can specify with data and methods at hand don’t always match the ideas in our heads, and it’s on us to keep the two straight.

Why More Mass Killings in 2013, and What It Portends for This Year

In a recent post, I noted that 2013 had distinguished itself in a dismal way, by producing more new episodes of mass killing than any other year since the early 1990s. Now let’s talk about why.

Each of these mass killings surely involves some unique and specific local processes, and people who study in depth the societies where mass killings are occurring can say much better than I what those are. As someone who believes local politics is always embedded in a global system, however, I don’t think we can fully understand these situations by considering only those idiosyncratic features, either. Sometimes we see “clusters” where they aren’t, but evidence that we live in a global system leads me to think that isn’t what’s happening here.

To fully understand why a spate of mass killings is happening now, I think it helps to recognize that this cluster is occurring alongside—or, in some cases, in concert with—a spate of state collapses and during a period of unusually high social unrest. Systemic thinking leads me to believe that these processes are interrelated in explicable ways.

Just as there are boom and bust cycles within economies, there seem to be cycles of political (dis)order in the global political economy, too. Economic crunches help spur popular unrest. Economic crunches are often regional or global in nature, and unrest can inspire imitation. These reverberating challenges can shove open doors to institutional change, but they also tend to inspire harsh responses from incumbents intent on preserving the status quo ante. The ensuing clashes present exactly the conditions that are ripest for mass killing. Foreign governments react to these clashes in various ways, sometimes to try to quell the conflict and sometimes to back a favored side. These reactions often beget further reactions, however, and efforts to manufacture a resolution can end up catalyzing wider disorder instead.

In hindsight, I don’t think it’s an accident that the last phase of comparable disorder—the early 1990s—produced two iconic yet seemingly contradictory pieces of writing on political order: Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, and Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy.” A similar dynamic seems to be happening now. Periods of heightened disorder bring heightened uncertainty, with many possibilities both good and bad. All good things do not necessarily arrive together, and the disruptions that are producing some encouraging changes in political institutions at the national and global levels also open the door to horrifying violence.

Of course, in political terms, calendar years are an entirely arbitrary delineation of time. The mass killings I called out in that earlier post weren’t all new in 2013, and the processes generating them don’t reset with the arrival of a new year. In light of the intensification and spread of the now-regional war in Syria; escalating civil wars in Pakistan, Iraq, and AfghanistanChina’s increasingly precarious condition; and the persistence of economic malaise in Europe, among other things, I think there’s a good chance that we still haven’t reached the peak of the current phase of global disorder. And, on mass killing in particular, I suspect that the persistence of this phase will probably continue to produce new episodes at a faster rate than we saw in the previous 20 years.

That’s the bad news. The slightly better news is that, while we (humanity) still aren’t nearly as effective at preventing mass killings as we’d like to be, there are signs that we’re getting better at it. In a recent post on United to End Genocide’s blog, Daniel Sullivan noted “five successes in genocide prevention in 2013,” and I think his list is a good one. Political scientist Bear Braumoeller encourages us to think of the structure of the international system as distributions of features deemed important by the major actors in it. Refracting Sullivan’s post through that lens, we can see how changes in the global distribution of political regime types, of formal and informal interdependencies among states, of ideas about atrocities prevention, and of organizations devoted to advocating for that cause seem to be enabling changes in responses to these episodes that are helping to stop or slow some of them sooner, making them somewhat less deadly on the whole.

The Central African Republic is a telling example. Attacks and clashes there have probably killed thousands over the past year, and even with deeper foreign intervention, the fighting hasn’t yet stopped. Still, in light of the reports we were receiving from people on the scene in early December (see here and here, for example), it’s easy to imagine this situation having spiraled much further downward already, had French forces and additional international assistance not arrived when they did. A similar process may be occurring now in South Sudan. Both cases already involve terrible violence on a large scale, but we should also acknowledge that both could have become much worse—and very likely will, if the braking efforts underway are not sustained or even intensified.

Watch Locally, Think Globally

In the Central African Republic, an assemblage of rebel groups has toppled the government and installed a new one but now refuses to follow its writ. As those rebels loot and maraud, new armed groups have formed to resist them, and militias loyal to the old government have struck back, too. All of this has happened on the watch of a 2,000-person peacekeeping force from neighboring states. With U.N. backing, those neighbors are now sending more men with guns in hopes that another 1,500 soldiers will finally help restore some sense of order.

This is what full-blown state collapse looks like—as close to Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all” as you’re ever likely to see. As I wrote at the start of the year, though, CAR is hardly the only country in such shambles. By my reckoning, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia still, and maybe DRC and South Sudan qualify as collapsed states, too, and if Mali doesn’t anymore, it only just squeaked back over the line.

As the very act of listing implies, we often think of these situations as discrete cases. In our social-scientific imaginations, countries are a bit like petri dishes lined up on a laboratory countertop. Each undergoes a similar set of experiments, and our job is to explain the diversity of their outcomes.

The longer I watch world affairs, though, the less apt that experimental metaphor seems. We can only really understand processes like state collapses—and the civil wars that usually produce them, and the regime transformations that  often precede and succeed them, and virtually everything else we study in international studies—by thinking of these “cases” as local manifestations of system-level dynamics, or at least the product of interactions between local and global processes that are inseparable and mutually causal.

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. These streams of change are distinct in some ways, but they also shape each other and share some common causes.

And what are those common causes? The 2007 financial crisis surely played a significant role. The resulting recessions in the U.S. and Europe rippled outward, shrinking trade flows and remittances to smaller and poorer countries and pulling down demand for commodities on which some of their economies heavily depend.

Those recessions also seem to have accelerated shifts in relative power among larger countries, or at least perceptions of them. Those perceptions—see here and here, for example—may matter even more than the underlying reality because they shape governments’ propensity to intervene abroad, the forms those interventions take, and, crucially, other governments’ beliefs about what kinds of intervention might occur in the future. In this instance, those perceptions have only been reinforced by popular concerns about the cost and wisdom of foreign intervention when so many are suffering through hard times at home. This amalgamation of forces seems to have found its sharpest expression yet in the muddled and then withdrawn American threat to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons, but the trends that crystallized in that moment have been evident for a while.

The financial crisis also coincided with, and contributed to, a global run-up in food prices that still hasn’t abated by much (see the chart below, from the FAO). As I mentioned in another recent post, a growing body of evidence supports the claim that high food prices help produce waves of civil unrest. This link is evident at the level of the global system and in specific cases, from the countries involved in the Arab Spring to South Africa. Because food prices are so influential, I think it’s likely that climate change is contributing to the current disorder, too, as another force putting upward pressure on those prices and sometimes dislodging large numbers of people who have to pay them.

As Peter Turchin and others have argued, it’s possible that generic oscillations in human social order—perhaps the political analogue of the business cycle—are also part of the story. I’m not confident that these patterns are distinct from the forces I’ve already mentioned, but they could be, at least in part. In any case, those patterns seem sufficiently robust that they deserve more attention than most of us give them now.

Last but not least, the systemic character of these processes is also evident in the forms of negative and positive feedback that arise to try to reverse or accelerate the slide into entropy. Powerful players with a stake in extant structures—mostly states, but also private corporations and even transnational NGOs—work to restore local forms of order that reinforce rather than challenge those structures. At the same time, other actors try to leverage the entropy to their own advantage. Governments less invested in the prior order may see new opportunities to weaken rivals or husband allies. Transnational criminal enterprises often find ways to expand revenue streams and develop new ones by smuggling arms and other contraband to and through societies that have fallen apart. Since the late 2000s, for example, “there has been a significant increase in the number of attacks on vessels by pirates,” Interpol claims, and I don’t think this concurrence of this trend with the spikes in popular unrest and state collapse is purely coincidental.

This system-level view finds linkages between a host of recent trends that we usually only consider in isolation from each other. It also suggests that this, too, shall pass—and then occur again. If Turchin & co. are correct, the current wave of disorder won’t peak for another several years, and we can expect the next iteration to arrive in the latter half of the current century. I’m not convinced the cycles are as tidy as that, and I wonder if the nature of the system itself is now changing in ways that will produce new patterns in the future. Either way, though, I hope it’s now clear that the miseries besetting CAR aren’t as disconnected from the collapses of Libya, Syria, and Yemen or the eruptions of mass protest in a host of countries over the past several years as our compartmentalized reading and theorizing usually entices us to think.

President Obama, You’re the Fish in this Morbid Game of Poker

I believe the Obama administration’s planned punitive strikes on Syria are wrong for larger reasons (see here for a 2012 post that’s still relevant today), but I’m also convinced that they’re likely to be ineffective for the narrower goal of deterring the use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond. I don’t mean to make light of a horrible situation, but I think a gaming analogy can help show why.

Think of the repeated interactions between the Assad regime and the U.S. as a single game of poker with several hands. In 2011, President Obama said Assad had to go, and the U.S. hinted that it would intervene to support the Syrian opposition. That was a raise, Assad called it, and the U.S. effectively folded that hand by not following through on its initial raise.

More recently, President Obama declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that Assad’s forces must not cross, and then they crossed that line, apparently more than once before the massive attack near Damascus on 21 August. Again, the administration made a raise in hopes of driving Assad off his hand, but again Assad re-raised.

Now the Obama administration is threatening to strike Assad’s forces to punish him for the CW attack. While making this threat, though, the administration is simultaneously signaling that a) the attack will be limited and b) the administration hopes not to have to do more. These terms are more or less written into the authorization Congress is now considering, and they are being reiterated every time a member of the administration makes a public case for a military response.

In poker terms, this approach is like trying to drive your opponent off a pot with a modest bet when you hold a weak hand. Unless your opponent has really weak cards, that kind of bet is usually more effective at enticing that opponent to stay in the hand, not encouraging him to fold. In the Syrian case, the Assad regime has repeatedly signaled that it will play every hand to the end, so this kind of bet will almost certainly not have the desired effect.

That outcome is even more likely if the opponent has good reason to think your hand is weak. When the Obama administration can’t muster much domestic or international support for its punitive strikes and whatever support it can muster is predicated on those strikes being very limited in their scope and intent, then I’d say that’s easy to read as a weak hand. It’s a bit like waving around a pair of eights and threatening to make a small raise. To drive a committed rival to fold, you need to really change the expected value of the pot, and this approach simply doesn’t do that to a regime that has shown itself to be deeply committed to playing every hand to the end.

Some supporters of punitive strikes seem to think the effect those strikes would have on Assad’s forces is less important than the signal this action would send to potential future violators. The goal is not to hurt Assad as much as it’s to reinforce the norm. Unfortunately, the same problem extends to future hands with other players, too. If I were a ruler considering using chemical weapons at some later date, the lesson I think I’d have learned from Syria so far is that the rest of the world actually isn’t willing to pay a steep cost to reinforce this supposed norm for its own sake. In fact, we’ve developed a tell: if the stakes are high for other reasons, our initial raise will probably be a bluff, and it probably won’t be that costly to stay in the hand and see if that’s right.

I can see two paths out of the current situation. One is to acknowledge that our tepid raise has failed to drive Assad off this pot and go ahead and fold this hand. The outcome is essentially the same, and we don’t incur bigger losses getting there. The other is to change the hand we’re playing by committing to do whatever it takes to prevent Assad’s forces from using chemical weapons again. In other words, we commit to regime-defeating war if necessary and we signal that stronger commitment to Assad’s forces and their backers as clearly as possible.

If this more aggressive approach isn’t both feasible and desirable—and I believe it’s neither—it’s hard for me to see what’s gained by continuing to pretend that’s the hand we’re playing when everyone knows it isn’t and calling yet another of the Assad regime’s horrible raises.

Sovereignty Without Territoriality?

The concentration of manpower was the key to political power in premodern Southeast Asia… This overwhelming concern for obtaining and holding population at the core is shot through every aspect of precolonial statecraft. What Geertz says about Balinese political rivalries—that they were “a struggle more for men than for land”—could apply equally to all of mainland Southeast Asia. This principle animated the conduct of warfare, which was less a grab for distant territory than a quest for captives who could be resettled at the core… Early European officials were frequently astounded by the extremely vague demarcation of territories and provinces in their new colonies and puzzled by an administration of manpower that had little or nothing to do with territorial jurisdiction… As Thongchai Winichakul’s insightful book shows, the Siamese paid more attention to the manpower they could summon than to sovereignty over land that had no value in the absence of labor.

That’s from Chapter 3 (pp. 64-68) of James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. To an inhabitant of the “modern” world who studies international politics, Scott’s description of powerful states that only vaguely demarcated and policed their putative territorial boundaries serves as an intriguing reminder that the fusion of territoriality and political sovereignty we now take for granted is not inevitable. Organizations can and have exercised substantial authority over human society without husbanding exclusive control over specific patches of land. Scott sees similar processes at work in nineteenth– and twentieth-century sub-Saharan Africa:

The theme of manpower concentration permeates the literature on indigenous politics: “The drive to acquire relatives, adherents, dependents, retainers, and subjects and to keep them attached to oneself as a kind of social and political ‘capital’ has often been remarked upon as characteristic of African political processes.”… As in Southeast Asia there was little emphasis on sharp territorial boundaries, and the important rights were over people, not places, except for particular ritual sites. The competition for followers, kinsmen, and bondsmen operated at every level.

In fact, I’d say there are at least three interconnected but distinct spaces in which political authority can be organized—physical (territory), social (people), and economic (trade)—and the three don’t necessarily have to hang together. Scott has already described for us states whose sovereignty was rooted primarily in the social and economic realms with less attention to territory.

Contemporary drug cartels arguably exemplify the possibility of organizations that compete for power in trade space without asserting sovereignty over territory or society in the way that modern states do. Large cartels sometimes attempt to establish territorial zones of impunity or even governance, but those efforts often come in response to rivals’ attempts to quash their power in trade space. More important, the point of that territorial control is usually to gain freedom from interference in their economic activities, not to assert the full panoply of political authority we attach to the modern idea of sovereignty. As John Sullivan says of contemporary “criminal insurgencies” in Mexico and elsewhere,

Organized crime groups (gangs and cartels)…usually seek to elude detection and prefer co-opting (corrupting) the instruments of state rather than engaging in direct confrontation… Yet as the current crime wars illustrate, these actors can directly confront the state when their interests are challenged (Bailey & Talyor, 2009).  Criminal insurgency is the mechanism of the confrontation with the state that results when relationships between organized crime and the state fall into disequilibrium.

Criminal insurgency presents a challenge to states and communities. Criminal insurgency is different from conventional terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents’ sole political motive is to gain autonomy and economic control over territory. They do so by hollowing out the state and creating criminal enclaves to secure freedom to maneuver.

It’s harder for me to think of an organization that competes for sovereignty in the social realm without seeking control over territory or trade. I suppose organized religion comes closest. Although some hierarchical religious organizations historically have also pursued control over land and trade, in ideological terms, their main claim attaches to the souls of their adherents and nothing else. Ethnicity might fit the bill, too, insofar as leaders of these communities of putative kinship claim authority over members wherever they may be and whatever trade they might take up. It’s also interesting to think about whether or not cyberspace is emerging as a fourth realm for political organization, intertwined with but at least partially independent of the other three, but that’s a question for another day.

What’s confusing to modern ears, I think, is the application of the word “state” to these other things. Scott explicitly did so, and I’m implicitly doing so here. My point in doing so is to highlight that the constructs we call “states” are just one of many organizations constantly competing for power in these various spaces. What’s unique about the modern state is its explicit claim to dominion over all three of those spaces—physical, social, and economic—within a particular set of sharply demarcated borders.

So, let’s flip it around: instead of calling all of these organizations states, let’s reserve that term for the modern thing, but let’s allow Scott’s passage to remind us that states are neither as inevitable nor as successful in their efforts to establish that dominion as we often assume. Instead, they are just one organizational form competing for sovereignty in these various realms, and their success in those struggles is neither as complete nor as final as they would like it to be. The fusion of sovereignty in the modern state is a specific idea, not a natural fact, and a self-serving one at that.

The Quixote, er, Magnitsky Act Kicks In

The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, a.k.a. the Magnistky Act, went live yesterday, when the U.S. government imposed visa bans and asset freezes on 18 Russian citizens, most of them government officials, over their alleged involvement in gross human-rights violations. Less than 24 hours later, the Russian government responded in kind, releasing its own list of American citizens who would be barred from entering its territory because they had been “implicated in human rights violations.”

I happen to think the Magnitsky Act is a mistake, a well-intentioned but quixotic and ultimately counterproductive attempt to express anger over the horrible things Russia’s sistema is doing to its own people.

If David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova are right, then my frustration with the Magnitsky Act makes me a “staunch supporter of Kissingerian-style realpolitik.” Last December, Kramer and Shevtsova wrote a piece for The American Interest endorsing the act and laying out the case for its importance and potential effectiveness.  They acknowledge that the Act’s chief aim is to express certain values, to reject the “transactional” version of international politics in favor of a “normative” politics grounded in universal human rights. At the same time, they also argue that, “by limiting their external resources and hindering their elites’ personal integration into the West,” the act can have some practical effect on the durability of Russia’s authoritarian regime. For this “Magnitsky factor” to kick in, Kramer and Shevtsova acknowledge, the European Union will have to adopt similar measures, “since Europe is the main recipient of Russia’s corrupt exports.” Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen, and I’m dubious that it will.

Even if that doesn’t happen, though, Kramer and Shevtsova believe the Act is a good thing because it pushes international relations in the correct direction.

Incorporating the Magnitsky approach into the West’s foreign policy does make it more complex. The West will have to abandon its traditional methods and stereotypes and move on to a multi-step diplomacy that may not yield immediate results. But this is no loss: current Western diplomacy no longer involves strategic thinking. The West may boast of its tactical successes, but these come at the expense of strategic failures. The question is whether Western diplomacy will be able to move on to normative politics.

As they see it, diplomacy should serve above all else as an instrument for affirming and promoting liberal democratic values—which, they presumably believe, are self evident and universal. To promote these universal values, Western diplomats should stop cooperating with corrupt autocrats and should instead reach out directly to other countries’ citizens, who, they argue, would welcome the West’s overt repudiations of their corrupt elites.

For the life of me, though, I simply can’t understand how this “normative politics” is actually supposed to work. Politics is the name we’ve given to the process of people trying to work out how to get along in shared spaces with mutually desired but finite resources. If everyone agreed on what the proper means and ends are, we wouldn’t need the word.

When people in that shared space disagree about how to accomplish a shared objective or, more fundamentally, what the proper objectives are, there aren’t a whole lot of options. Basically, you’ve got coercion, persuasion, transaction, or failure to cooperate, which could mean either walking away or fighting. The U.S. and Russian governments bump into each other in many issue spaces, and they don’t always agree on proper ends and means in those spaces. For the U.S. government, coercing Russia isn’t really an option, and persuasion doesn’t always work, either. That leaves bargaining or failure, and between those two, I prefer the former.

Kramer and Shevtsova apparently believe that this kind of transactional politics is the antipode of normative politics, but I don’t think that’s so. Steven Spielberg’s recent retelling of the passage of the 13th Amendment in Lincoln nicely illustrates what I have in mind. I don’t know the history well enough to vouch for its authenticity, but in Spielberg’s account, Lincoln engages in several forms of normatively sketchy politics to accomplish his larger objective. As an experienced politician, Lincoln knows he can’t simply will his way to the world he desires, so he makes difficult choices that involve trade-offs between competing goals. In his push to abolish slavery, Lincoln doles out government jobs, twists the arms of fence-sitters, and even stalls on talks to end the horribly bloody war. He does these things in pursuit of an objective that is morally just but, in his mind, also has its own instrumental purposes. There simply is no purely righteous path, no cost-free choice.

I think world politics works the same way. To say, as Kramer and Shevtsova do, that Americans must chose between having our government punish corrupt Russian elites or letting those elites act with impunity is a false choice. Like all things political, the relationship between the U.S. and Russian governments involves many things, and that relationship is just one of many relationships in international politics. Instead of expecting our government to prioritize the promotion of certain values above all else, I would prefer to see that government flexibly pursue a wider array of objectives, because we know that’s what it will take to get at least some of those things done. I welcome efforts to shame Russian authorities for the terrors and indignities they inflict, and to help Russian citizens who want to organize in an attempt to transform their country’s politics. I just happen to think those efforts are better pursued by non-governmental organizations, or through international legal structures to which the Russian government has willingly acceded.

Hugo Chavez’s Death and Prospects for Political Liberalization in Cuba

You’ve heard of the butterfly effect, right? Well, what about the Chávez effect?

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez died early this week, and his absence will probably have ripple effects on the stability of political regimes in several other countries with which Chávez’s was closely tied. Chávez’s international influence had waned in recent years with the exit from the global political stage of his foil, George W. Bush; the re-emergence of Brazil as a regional economic heavyweight; profound stresses on Venezuela’s own economy, wrought in part by evident flaws in Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”; and, of course, the decline in Chávez’s health as he struggled with the cancer that eventually killed him.

Even in poor health and diminished political stature, though, Chávez loomed large in the politics of several other countries, and none more so than Cuba. At least in part, that interdependence stemmed from the close personal relationship between Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. As Victoria Burnett wrote about yesterday for the New York Times, however, there was also a very practical aspect to the close relationship between Cuba and Venezuela under Chavez as well.

Cuba receives more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, purchased on favorable terms as part of an exchange that has tens of thousands of Cubans working in Venezuelan clinics, schools and ministries. The subsidized oil accounts for about two-thirds of Cuba’s consumption and is credited by many Cubans with keeping the lights on and the air-conditioners running during the brutal summer heat.

It’s possible that Chávez’s successors will indefinitely sustain this generosity, but I doubt it. Venezuela was already struggling to get its own economic house in order. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s oil production has declined in recent years and its domestic consumption has steadily risen, leaving less of the surplus that bankrolled Chavez’s largesse. Even if Chávez’s successors come from the Bolivarian movement he built, it’s hard to see how they will be able to keep subsidizing other regimes when their own has fallen on hard times. And, of course, absent Chávez, Venezuela’s opposition parties stand a much better chance of clawing its way back into government—if not in next month’s special election, then certainly in the ones to follow.

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As Venezuelan largesse dries up, the pressure on the Communist regime in Cuba to search out new sources of revenue will sharply increase. It’s possible that Castro & co. will find another great foreign patron, just as they did when Venezuela stepped into the shoes the Soviet Union had filled for so long before its collapse left Cuba in the lurch. Possible, but, I think, unlikely. Following a similar “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, the Islamic Republic of Iran also has an affinity with Cuba, but Iran’s got serious financial troubles of its own. China seems a more capable future patron, but it’s hard to imagine the Chinese government doing something as provocative to the U.S. as flat-out bankrolling the Cuban regime with so little to gain from it. What China is already doing is helping to finance the hunt for oil in Cuban waters. A major oil strike would throw the Cuban government a new lifeline, but as John Sullivan noted in a September 2012 piece for the New York Times Magazine, “So far, though, the wells have come up dry or disappointing.”

If the Cuban regime can’t find a new foreign patron or strike oil, it will be increasingly tempted to try political liberalization as an alternative strategy. I laid out the logic behind this choice in a conference paper I wrote in 2007 and summarized it again in a recent article on North Korea for Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab. Quoting at length from the latter:

To understand why a seemingly stable dictatorship would ever give its political opponents an opening, it helps to consider the political economy of authoritarianism. Dictators repress their citizens because it helps them stay in power. Political rivals can’t beat you if they can’t get organized, and they’ll find it very hard to organize if they can’t meet, talk, or reach out for support. Following this logic, we usually think of political liberalization as something that dictators resort to only when forced by restive mobs threatening to end their rule, if not their lives.

What that conventional view misses, though, are the financial and economic trade-offs that harsh repression entails. First, the machinery of monitoring and repression can be expensive, and the information it produces isn’t always reliable, so shrewd autocrats will always be looking to cut costs and improve outputs in these areas. Second, and less obviously, repression indirectly imposes drag on an economy by inhibiting productive exchanges among citizens. These market frictions can create a gap between an economy’s actual growth rate and the growth it might achieve with a freer citizenry.

When a dictator’s revenues depend on the performance of his country’s economy, these trade-offs give him some incentive to loosen restrictions on civil liberties. The question is when that incentive becomes strong enough to outweigh the political risks of reform.

The conventional view of political liberalization tells us this shift only occurs when dictators face an imminent threat of revolution. If the end already seems nigh, rulers might try to prolong their tenure by meeting their opponents halfway and hoping that compromise satisfies the mobs at the gates. This process is sometimes described as liberalization “from below,” because it’s driven by popular unrest.

Careful consideration of the political and economic trade-offs involved, however, suggests another possibility: Dictators might also pursue “liberalization from above,” gambling on reform when the economy is stagnating and political opposition is especially weak. Under these circumstances, expanded freedoms of speech and movement can open new avenues for economic growth without immediately producing a serious political challenge. There might be plenty of pent-up demand for political change, but revolutions require organization, and organization takes time, so shrewd rulers might attempt to shoot those rapids in search of calmer waters on the other side.

Viewing Chavez’s departure through the lens of this theory, I think the prospects for significant political liberalization in Cuba in the next few years just improved markedly. In fact, there were many signs that the Cuban regime was already leaning in this direction, including moves since 2010 to allow more private enterprise, loosen restrictions on property rights, and, most recently, the decision to end the exit visa requirement for travel abroad. I think those modest reforms reflect the very pressures noted above, and the departure of the Cuban regime’s greatest patron and ally will only turn the screws tighter. Late last month, Raul Castro announced that he would retire when his second term as president ends in 2018. In light of this week’s news from Venezuela, I would be surprised to see Castro’s tenure last that long, and I suspect that transition will go much deeper than a simple change of leadership.

Comparative Politics, Meet Complex Interdependence

On the IPE@UNC blog a few days ago, Kindred Winecoff compellingly argued that much of the theory-testing done in international relations (IR) and international political economy (IPE) in recent years rests on the false assumption that outcomes across cases are independent of each other. Paraphrasing here, he points out that “almost all” of the big theoretical traditions in IR and IPE—neorealism, liberal institutionalism, and Marxism among them—identify ways in which outcomes across cases are strongly interdependent, but the research designs we usually adopt to test those theories implicitly assume they are not. In other words, “in the typical case, our empirical design does not match our theoretical structure.”

I think he’s right, and I think the same can be said of theories of political development, which is really most of what comparative politics is about. Two cases of current interest illuminate how it’s really impossible to understand persistence and change in national political institutions without thinking about how those institutions are embedded in a larger global context.

Let’s start with Myanmar. Conventional theories meant to apply to the reforms occurring there focus our attention on domestic processes, like socioeconomic modernization or economic inequality, as the likely impetus behind these changes. At best, though, these processes are structural conditions that have shifted little in Myanmar in recent years, and at worst they’re close to irrelevant. Myanmar is currently experiencing a rush of “modernization,” but much of it’s happening as a consequence, not a cause, of the regime-initiated liberalization. Any effort to understand why this liberalization is occurring now has to consider the growing fears of Burmese elites about their dependency on China, the bite of U.S. sanctions, and the opportunity costs of remaining isolated in a global economy that sees the country as an untapped trove and under-served market. If you try to estimate the effects of income or education or inequality on these trends in a model that ignores these wider forces, you’re probably going to get a misleading result.

Or take Bahrain. It’s impossible to explain the start of the popular uprising in Manama in the spring of 2011 without talking about diffusion, and it’s impossible to understand the outcome (so far) without looking at the material and diplomatic support the monarchy receives from powerful patrons—support that is itself rooted in those patrons’ regional geopolitical (counterbalancing Iran) and global economic (oil) concerns.

If you want to get really silly, imagine trying to infer the effects of income or oil wealth or inequality on the propensity for democratization from a data set composed only of Panama and Iraq. Talk about omitted-variable bias…

I don’t mean to imply that of scholars of comparative politics are oblivious to these issues. Interpretive studies of political development often reference international forces, and over the past 20 years, we’ve increasingly tried to incorporate these ideas into our statistical models as well. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s thoughts on linkage and leverage are an example of the former. Other studies have nibbled at the problem by looking for evidence of diffusion in patterns of democratization, or at the marginal effects from participation in international organizations and other treaty regimes. Studies on the relationship between oil wealth and the survival of authoritarian regimes also lean in this direction, although it’s telling that newer research suggests that these effects really aren’t about oil per se so much as the specific role that commodity has played in a particular (and likely fleeting) realization of the global political economy. Dependency theory also operated at this level, although the results were a bit cartoonish and the long-term predictions have now been proved flat wrong.

What’s still missing from comparative politics, I think, is the one-two punch of theories that are more explicitly systemic combined with methods that suit those theories. Right now, we’ve got little bits of each, but nothing that really brings the two together. We’re stuck in a complex adaptive system that doesn’t really distinguish between national and international, political and economic, human and natural, and our theories of stability and change in political institutions should take that whole more seriously.

Instead of thinking of the international environment as something we incorporate into our models by tacking one or two covariates onto the tail ends of our country-level equations, we should think more carefully about country-level institutions as middle-range manifestations of processes occurring in a global system. The simplifying assumption that states are separable units certainly has its uses, but we shouldn’t conflate that utility with causal relevance. Like maps, all models are simplifications, but those simplifications aren’t useful if they ignore the very causes they’re meant to locate. That’s true in a metaphorical sense, but as Winecoff calls out in the blog post that sparked this ramble, it’s also true in the more literal sense that badly misspecified models produce unreliable results.

I’ll wrap this ramble up by noting that the “development” metaphor itself helps illuminate the problem, and might even contribute to it by reinforcing a certain frame of mind. In many fields of study, “development” is a process that happens to individuals and follows a certain arc. It connotes directional growth and maturation, and it has a beginning, middle, and end. When we apply this metaphor to politics—comparing “fledgling” and “mature” democracies, for example, or talking about the “international community” as if it were something like a gathering of people in a room—we get stuck in a rut from which it’s hard to see the other, arguably richer, aspects of that world.

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