So, it’s all just too late, right? Studying climate politics in a time of despair

This is a guest post from Kate Neville, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and School of the Environment at the University of Toronto, and Matthew Hoffmann, a Professor in the Department of Political Science and Co-Director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.[1]

 

Things are not good. We have twelve years before catastrophic climate change is completely unavoidable. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising like a “freight train.” In the face of bleaching and ocean acidification, coral reef conservation is falling short, with global declines of reef cover of 30-50% since the 1980s. Greenland’s ice sheet melting is “off the charts.”

Accompanying the barrage of bad climate news are articles discussing the despair that climate scientists are feeling in the face of their growing knowledge of climate catastrophe combined with the lack of movement they see on climate action (see e.g. here and here). They feel like they are shouting into the ether and no one is listening.

Most of these articles focus on natural scientists on the front lines of studying the dynamics and impacts of climate change itself. However, despair is not a scarce commodity in communities that care about climate change—social scientists who study climate politics are also subject to the existential angst that comes with knowing a catastrophe is looming and feeling helpless to stop it.

By studying the social, economic, and political dynamics that make progress on climate action difficult, social scientists bear the dual burden of both understanding what environmental damage is happening/projected and why the world is not responding to these urgent warnings. Continue reading

Progressives: here’s what happens when you steal GOP talking points

Progressives and liberals were quick to praise President George H.W. Bush when he passed away. Some of this was basic human decency. Some of this was honest admiration for a masterful foreign policy practitioner and a decent man. But some of it felt strategic, a way to point out all of Trump’s failings. Highlighting Bush’s virtues emphasized the issues with Trump and his Presidency. The fact that Bush was a Republican seemed to make this more effective; “look,” Trump critics could say, “here are things Republicans used to value.” It seemed an effective tactic.

And then Trump nominated William Barr to be Attorney General. Barr has been skeptical about the probe into Trump’s Russia ties and thinks the “Uranium One” deal is a major scandal that implicates Hillary Clinton. He has also called on the government to promote socially conservative values. So we can expect some potent attacks on him by progressives…except that he was also Attorney General in the George H.W. Bush Administration. It’s going to be hard to accuse him of being unqualified and dangerous without questioning the wisdom of the man so many recently praised.

This highlights the danger of trying to steal Republican talking points. Progressives frequently do this: “Republicans claim to care about X, but they’re not actually doing much on it.” There are many examples:

  • When President Obama was calling for nuclear disarmament, he referenced a similar call by Ronald Reagan. He made similar appeals to Reagan when announcing the New START treaty with Russia. And I know, at the urging of a progressive foreign policy group I was then part, I made a similar argument but I haven’t found the article yet (I’ll update this if I do). This provided useful historical context to Obama’s policies, but it was also an attempt to undercut Republican objections.
  • When Democrats retook the House in 2006, part of their platform was controlling the deficit that had expanded under George W. Bush. This was also one of Obama’s attack lines in the run-up to his Presidential campaign. Again, this represents fiscal prudence, which is good. But it’s also an attempt to “steal” fiscal prudence from Republicans.
  • Another Bush-era attack line had to do with US Special Operations Forces (SOFs). Democrats didn’t just argue against the Iraq War, they argued that it–and the broader war on terrorism-were being mismanaged and that they could do better. One of their proposals was to “double the size of [US] Special Forces.” This was meant to  highlight the fact that Democrats could be tough on national security too, taking away an additional GOP talking point.

Most of these worked at the time. But they later backfired. Obama’s praise for Reagan makes it harder to criticize problematic aspects of his legacy, and was countered by conservatives, limiting its impact. Democratic criticism of Bush’s deficits opened Obama up to GOP attacks on his economic policies–some of which require expanding the deficit–and Democrats are running into this problem again. Democrats’ call for more Special Forces was criticized for definitional issues (Special Forces refers just to Army personnel) and infeasibility. It also makes it harder to criticize Trump’s use of SOFs in counterterrorism operations that haven’t been debated or approved by Congress.

And I’m not even going to go into poorly-thought-through but convenient attack lines. Remember when Obama mocked Romney for being stuck in the 80s after he expressed concern about Russia, with a lame “the 80’s called” joke.  Progressives at the time (including me) thought it was great, but it’s made current Russia concerns seem opportunistic.

As Democrats get ready for 2020, there are a lot of potential attacks on Trump. Candidates and their campaigns will be tempted to attack him as not being a good enough Republican. If those attacks come from a centrist trying to present a Bill Clinton-esque “third way” that may be ok. And if it is praise for an earlier, more cooperative era of politics, that’s fine too. But more often than not they’ll come from progressive candidates who are just trying to score an easy point. This very well may work, but it will continue to muddle Democratic messaging. Resist the temptation.

 

 

Radical IR: approaches or implications?

Dillon Tatum had an interesting post here last week, calling for a “radical” international relations. As Tatum notes, “radicalism intervenes in the political domain with the goal of fundamental transformation” and IR could function similarly.

What would that look like? I think many would imagine a radical IR as radical in its approaches and methods. That is, scholars would critically examine biases and assumptions, uncover power structures and erase them. In this envisioning of critical IR, conventional methods—quantitative analyses, positivist qualitative studies—are part of the problem. They limit the questions we ask and the type of answers we accept as valid.

But is this really the case? Must IR reshape itself to push back on the common wisdom and make the world a better place? I’m not sure. Looking at music, Frank Zappa was certainly radical, in both approach and implication. But Brian Wilson, while adhering to standard pop sensibilities, used the “rules” to produce music with far-reaching, shockingly radical implications. Maybe it could be the same with IR.

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Big Goals and Small Adversaries: Why Grand Strategy Matters

The United States is closing in on the 18th anniversary of its first wartime death in Afghanistan, that of CIA operative Mike Spann, providing a melancholy opportunity to emphasize the role of grand strategy as a policymaking tool. To this end, I ask why the United States has done relatively poorly in so many of its so-called small wars, wars against much weaker adversaries. Its poor record is surprising because the United States has done so well in its major wars, including the world wars, the Korean War, and the Cold War.

Some of the United States’ smaller wars have gone as planned. The invasion of Grenada and replacement of its leftist government in 1983 was quick. The attack on Panama to replace President Noriega in 1989-1990 was also relatively short and low cost for the United States. Some small wars (small from the great power perspective, of course) have not turned out quite as planned, but have also not escalated significantly either vertically or horizontally, or in costs. These include the humanitarian military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Why should Iraq and Afghanistan still drag on, then, when the United States and its allies are fighting weak non-state actors whose ideologies hold little appeal? Why did the U.S. intervention against insurgents in Vietnam last 21 years? Why did its intervention against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement, which started out stealing and buying its weapons from the Salvadoran military in the Salvadoran civil war, last 13 years?

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Toward a Radical IR

David Brook’s latest column in the New York Times, banging on the same themes about “the kids are just not right,” raises some questions about what it means to engage in radical politics in the Trump era. Brooks compares the younger generation’s belief “that the system itself is rotten and needs to be torn down” to accomodationist and gradualisms.  He continues on to speculate about how these new attitudes might affect older, more “pragmatic,” liberals who desire to work within the system. Brooks, as usual, uses a conservative argument to position himself in the “middle.”

I have been thinking a lot about this issue of “radicalism” contra arguments about working within systems that are unjust in thinking about liberal world order and its futures. It has led me to a question I am currently exploring in a work-in-progress about what the possibilities are of radicalism as a way of approaching international politics. Against arguments like Brooks’, and even more sophisticated arguments about agonistic democracy developed by thinkers like Chantal Mouffe, I think there is a place in IR for radical conceptions of transformation, order, and politics.

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Aid and Diplomacy, Not Tear Gas: How to Address the Central American Migrant Crisis

On Sunday, the US Border Patrol fired tear gas into Mexico at migrants, including children, attempting to enter the US near the San Ysidro border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. The use of a chemical weapon banned in war against families rightly provoked widespread condemnation (Border Patrol agents also used pepper spray against migrants in 2013, fired tear gas and pepper spray into Mexico in 2007, and have killed rock throwers at the border in the past). Migrants attempting to enter the US are frustrated by the Trump administration’s restriction of the process of seeking asylum, a legal right under US and international law, a situation that won’t be solved by processing asylum seekers on Mexican soil.

Most of those who attempted to scale the border fence were reportedly from Honduras, the country with the world’s second-highest homicide rate. Young people there are caught between murderous gangs, violent and corrupt police, and paramilitary ‘social cleansing’ squads who target young men, while gender-based violence rates are also high. There are similar, if slightly less violent, dynamics in El Salvador and Guatemala, and increasing state repression in Nicaragua. Despite changes in US immigration policy and enforcement under the Trump administration, the US remains for many Central Americans a place of hope for a better, more secure life.

In this environment, deterrence efforts will have limited effectiveness. Continue reading

What was behind the UAE’s detention of a UK graduate student

Like everyone else, I’m still trying to catch up after the Thanksgiving holiday. So I have a quick, kind of speculative post this week.

It looks like the distressing saga of Matthew Hedges has finally been resolved. As I wrote about before, Hedges is a grad student in the UK who traveled to the UAE to conduct field work. After interviewing several subjects about UAE security policies, he was arrested and charged with espionage. He was recently been sentenced to life in prison, although the UAE just pardoned him.

There is a lot to figure out with this case–what it means for scholars working on the Persian Gulf, whether universities should still have relationships with the UAE, and (most crucially) how to secure Hedges’ release. But one angle I’ve been thinking about, and which I don’t think has been explained properly, is why did the UAE do this? Why did they detain a UK citizen, risking international criticism and condemnation?

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How praising Trump as a religious freedom champion will undermine Uighur advocacy

The US Congress recently introduced bills that would call on the Trump Administration to press China over its treatment of the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group.  This would seem to be a good fit, as Trump has been critical of China throughout his time in office. And religious freedom–under which this would initiative would fall–seems to be the one area of human rights his Administration cares about. But any US pressure on China will be undermined by the similarity between some of China’s Uighur policies and the Trump Administration’s Muslim travel ban. This relates to a broader point I’ve been trying to raise (unsuccessfully) with international religious freedom advocates who praise Trump: he may implement a few policies in line with your initiatives, but the overall tenor of this Administration will undermine the cause.

The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that has been horribly repressed by the Chinese government. China had initially placed strict controls on Xinjiang–the region in which most Uighurs live–for alleged counterterrorism reasons. This expanded into broader restrictions on Uighur’s way of life, targeting their faith. China has tried to force Uighurs to act contrary to their faith, even requiring Uighur shopowners to sell alcohol. This recently escalated into the detention of Uighurs in concentration camps in which they will be “re-educated.”

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What would Benedict Anderson say about Trump?

I’ve been watching the current debate over nationalism with some interest. Donald Trump identified himself as a nationalist in the run-up to the mid-term elections. He contrasted this with his foes, for whom he used the problematic term “globalist.” Many saw this as a concerning move, especially paired with Trump’s alarmist rhetoric over a caravan of Central American migrants. It also prompted a response from France’s President Macron, criticizing nationalism as a “betrayal of patriotism.” This got me thinking of my graduate studies, which involved a good amount of reading on nationalism (intended to help conceptualize religious contention). And it made me go back to one of my favorite books of all time, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities

Imagined Communities is one of those books that is referenced more often than read. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an article mention Anderson’s concept of imagined communities in passing without really engaging with it or even seeming to really understand. Anderson argued the nation is a modern concept, an “imagined political community..imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” He argued it emerged from cultural and social developments that undermined the hold of the “religious community” and “dynastic realm” over individuals’ identities. So (a quick aside) no, it is not just an “imagined community,” it is a particular type of community with a particular conception of its place in time and space.

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Writing Wednesday: a tense dilemma

Yesterday I avoided Twitter almost entirely. I went to bed early last, and am only now looking at the key results in the pre-dawn hours. But since it may have been a late night for most readers of the Duck, we’ll keep things short today.

I am heading off to the ISSS-IS conference at Purdue this weekend. If any readers are attending, feel free to contact me and maybe we can grab a coffee. You can Tweet at me (@lukemperez) either publicly, or privately (I will open direct messages on Thursday evening.).

In the meantime, I wanted to talk about writing in tenses. It turns out, writing about writing sometimes poses interesting challenges. Solvable, to be sure, but ones that do not normally arise during gradaute school.

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Academic Smothering. Part II.

To illustrate this post, I would love to put that cute stock photo of a woman dressed in a taupe formal suit holding an adorable baby in a diaper, but it is just wildly unrealistic. For starters, the baby is horribly underdressed and the suit would have been covered in drool/spit-up/mysterious orange food rests in mere seconds. FYI, stock photo editors, working on a computer with a baby on your lap is also not an option, because in the end there will be one, and it will not be your computer.

Guilt ridden and severely sleep deprived (and by “severely” I mean no sleep stretches longer than 3 hours at a time for the past year) you are back at work. You have secured a coveted day care place for your adorable baby boy who now has to navigate about 3-4 languages in his head because as an academic you often do not live in your home country and you drag your better foreign half with you wherever the job market takes you. You are excited to be back… until you realize that daycare is great, but it also means germs and your baby getting sick and you taking sick leave to make sure the little one recovers. Hello, sleep stretches of one hour and carrying the baby upright for most of the day because the stuffed nose would not let him breathe properly. While we are on the subject of carrying, why does nobody tell you that the best preparation for having babies is heavy-weight lifting? German pre-war housing is sure lovely until you have to carry a 9-kg baby, a diaper bag, a laptop and a couple of books on everyday nationalism 4 flights of stairs.

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Inertia is the strongest force in international relations

Details continue to trickle out about the horrific assassination of Saudi dissident and writer Jamal Khashoggi. This has captured the attention of foreign policy experts, who have questioned the alliance’s importance and suggested ways to punish Saudi Arabia. Concern about this incidents has spread beyond experts, however. My students and I have frequently debated what will happen to the US-Saudi alliance. And I recently appeared on WCAX in Burlington to discuss what comes next. To both audiences–and in contrast to some commentators–I gave the unsatisfying answer of “not much.” Time after time on the  issues I follow dramatic transformations seem about to occur, only to fade as the world moves on. As a result, I’m increasingly convinced that inertia drives international relations.

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Blogger’s Block: The History of the End?

I have had trouble blogging this past year. It’s a challenge to think about academically informed observations on contemporary global politics when the world is in some places literally on fire and democracy appears to be in retreat. From a normative standpoint, it’s been a hard thing to step back from with some sense of analytical detachment that blogging on this platform typically requires.

In a special section of PS last year, I wrote about how to deal with these times on social media. In addition to blogging, I sought on social media to engage folks who thought differently from me about key issues I care about. In that piece, I talked about how a collegial and civil tone might be the key to a different kind of political discourse, one that I thought was sorely needed in the United States and elsewhere.

I think that approach to political discussion is correct both normatively and instrumentally if were living in a persuasive moment (and here, I suppose I’m something of a Habermasian or, in IR parlance, have affinity for the “Let’s Argue” approach by Thomas Risse).

But, I don’t think we are in a persuasive moment, but a mobilizational one.  Continue reading

Writing Wednesday: Roadblock

I am at roadbloack in my book proposal. This is normal, insofar as most writing projects will hit roadblocks from time to time. But I wanted to take a quick moment and unpack what it is, and note that a roadblock is different than writer’s block. Writer’s block is a condition of not being able to think of what to write. We are all familiar with writer’s block, even the kind that is really just procrastination masquerading as writer’s block. But the genuine species occurs when the mind—because of fatigue, lack of preparation, distraction from life or politics—cannot focus on the immediate task of generating new words to write down. A roadblock is kind of the mirror opposite of a writer’s block. I know what needs to be written, but I do not have the materials, citations, and resources to get there. As it happens, solving a roadblock is a lot like crafting national security strategy. It begins first and foremost with a definition of objectives, and then proceeds to devise the means-end logic chain of tasks and smaller objectives which will advance toward the final objective.

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What makes international order, liberal?

Over the weekend IR Twitter was abuzz with both the Red Sox winning the world series and a multi-threaded discussion on liberal international order. Regarding the former I have very little to say except that I think Boston baseball might be overrepresented in academe (not just in political science), and that this over representation likely tracks with the clustering of elite schools in New England. But on the latter, there is much more still to be said about international order. Paul Post (@profpaulpoast) has the master summary for the twitter scholars. While I enjoyed reading up on the debate this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice something unsatisfying about too.

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At what point do we call this a right-wing terrorist campaign?

America is reeling from the horrific attack on a synagogue in Pennsylvania, in which an anti-Semitic man killed 11 people. And we were already reeling from a series of attempted mail bomb attacks by a right-wing man targeting important liberal figures. Meanwhile, another right-wing attack this week in Kentucky was nearly overlooked. Those on the right tend to view these as horrible but isolated events. Those on the left point, rightly, to the vicious rhetoric coming from Donald Trump and some of his Republican allies, as well as the country’s lax gun laws. But I wonder if we should go further: is America facing a right-wing terrorist campaign?

What would this mean? Here is a passage from Bruce Hoffman’s influential Inside Terrorism on the definition of terrorism:  “We may therefore now attempt to define terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.” Likewise, Audrey Cronin, in her important book How Terrorism Ends, defined terrorist campaigns as involving “three strategic actors—the group, the government and the audience—arrayed in a kind of terrorist ‘triad.’”

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Writing Wednesday: embracing criticism for book revisions

Many a postdoc are likely in my position this year, dissertation defense safely in the review mirror and settling into the groove of their research. Those who, like me, are fortunately enough to have the very civilized two-year appointment rather than the barbaric one-year, time and attention can be allocated more judiciously. Still, that does not mean the last few months has been easy. In many ways it is more difficult than before because the only guidance for my project comes from what I can discover and the only deadlines are those which I set. Writing a proposal is a protracted process, but worth doing sooner rather than later.

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Congress, Trump, and Internationalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

This post comes from Bridging the Gap co-director Jordan Tama, Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University. 

American presidents have typically been more internationalist than the average member of Congress. For instance, many presidents have struggled to persuade Congress to approve important international agreements or increase spending on diplomacy and foreign assistance. Scholars of U.S. foreign policy have provided a compelling explanation for this pattern: since voters hold presidents more accountable than members of Congress for the country’s overall welfare and security, presidents have a stronger incentive than lawmakers to advance broad national interests through overseas engagement.

Under Donald Trump, however, this pattern has been stood on its head. As Trump has sought to advance his “America first” agenda by pulling back from international commitments, Congress has at times become the country’s strongest voice for maintaining and deepening overseas ties. This has been evident in the rejection by Congress of Trump’s proposals to cut the State Department’s budget by one-third, the reaffirmation by Congress of the U.S. commitment to NATO, and the restriction by Congress of the president’s ability to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea.

Yet simply labeling elected officials as internationalist or the term’s opposite (nationalist or isolationist) fails to capture a lot of the nuance in their foreign policy positions. In a terrific new Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, Beyond the Water’s Edge: Measuring the Internationalism of Congress, a team led by Kathleen Hicks, Louis Lauter, and Colin McElhinny looks under the surface of recent foreign policy debates to explore congressional internationalism in depth. The report is based on an impressive set of original research, including case studies of recent congressional activity in several foreign policy issue areas and detailed profiles of a representative sample of 50 members of Congress.

Importantly, the study finds that internationalism is more widespread in Congress than one might think.  Continue reading

What the UAE’s detention of a UK graduate student means for Middle East studies

I feel like I should say something about the disappearance—and likely assassination—of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. This tragedy was enabled by America’s permissive stance towards Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US support for other horrific Saudi policies (like its bombing of Yemen). I’ve expressed concern on Twitter and in personal conversations, and have been writing about Yemen for years.

But to be honest, I don’t think I have anything new to say at this point. Most Duck readers will already know, and be upset, about this situation. Instead, I want to raise another concerning human rights abuse by one of our Persian Gulf allies: the detention of UK graduate student Matthew Hedges by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

A few months ago, reports spread of a UK man detained in the UAE on espionage charges; he was rumored to be an academic doing research in the country. These reports were later confirmed as the UAE announced it had charged Hedges with espionage for trying to obtain classified information and gain access to confidential archives. Hedges is a PhD student at the University of Durham, and was studying the UAE’s post-Arab Spring foreign policy. He has been held in rough conditions and there are concerns about his physical and mental health. Continue reading

Killings in Kandahar: Implications

The news out of Kandahar is pretty awful: the top leadership of the province was killed in an apparent attempt to kill General Austin Miller, the commander of US and NATO forces in the country.  There is not many details, but the WashPost account is suggestive of some key dynamics and challenges.

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