The Politics of Embarrassment: Brand Failure in Canadian Foreign Policy

This is a guest post from Eric Van Rythoven. Eric Van Rythoven recently finished his PhD at Carleton University studying emotion, world politics, and security. His work is published in Security Dialogue and European Journal of International Relations.

The Trudeau government is in crisis.  Yesterday morning Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s former Attorney General recently demoted to Minister of Veterans Affairs, resigned from cabinet.  The resignation comes on the heels of a Globe and Mail report that someone in the Prime Minister’s Office allegedly attempted to influence Wilson-Raybould in her decision to prosecute SNC Lavalin. 

A politically connected and influential engineering firm based in Quebec, SNC Lavalin is currently mired in charges of fraud and bribery in relation to its work in Libya.  As recently as Monday night Trudeau expressed “full confidence” in Wilson-Raybould, saying that her continuing presence in cabinet “should speak for itself”.

By itself the allegation of political interference in a criminal prosecution has the potential to be a major domestic scandal.  But this scandal could come with serious international repercussions, especially given Canada’s increasingly troubled relationship with China.  To understand why, we need to step back and think about the role of brand failure in the politics of embarrassment.

How states manage their public image is a longstanding concern of International Relations.  During the Cold War competitive behaviour was commonly attributed to a desire for status and prestige (Jervis, Gilpin).  Following 9/11 interest in ‘public diplomacy’ surged as Western countries sought to rehabilitate their public image in the Middle East through cultural outreach and savvy social media (Gilboa, Snow & Taylor). 

This literature overlaps with a broader interest in ‘national branding’ and ‘brand command’ focused on how states manage their public image in an increasingly informationally-dense environment (Potter, Marland).  One could also add to this list the study of international activists using naming and shaming tactics to pressure governments on human rights (Hafner-Burton, Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink).

While these literatures are certainly useful, they can also lead to an overly optimistic view of image management.  What’s missing here are how attempts to craft a positive public image are often marred by struggle, ineptitude, and occasionally failure.  For Irving Goffman it’s precisely these situations when an actor presents conflicting public images that moments of embarrassment begin to emerge.  More than a hypocritical mismatch between words and deeds, or the shame of failing to abide by one’s moral ideals, embarrassment is most evident when an imagined competency is never delivered. 

When embarrassment occurs, Goffman recognized that some audiences would be merciful and help the embarrassed party conceal their failures.  Others, however, would exploit cracks in a fractured public image for gain.  The latter would lead to a struggle to regain and maintain composure over self-image—what we can call the ‘politics of embarrassment’.  Embarrassed parties and their allies look repair or minimize the apparent damage; political opponents look to make the embarrassment all the more pronounced. 

We can think of the dynamics of embarrassment as a play in three acts: the brand, the break, and the blame.  The ‘brand’ refers to a period of branding repertoires which projects a distinct image of competency.  The ‘break’ captures the period where a previous public image, and the competency it promises, comes into question through moments of off-brand behaviour.  The ‘blame’ comes when a break becomes apparent and actors formulate strategies to respond.  Here is when we can see various composure strategies, such as denial or deflection, are employed by the embarrassed subject and their allies to repair their public image.  By contrast, discrediting strategies, such as sensationalizing, are employed by political opponents and aim to widen and deepen the appearance of a break.  When taken together the brand, the break, and the blame capture how the politics of embarrassment represents a struggle to regain and maintain composure over self-image.

The Brand

Why does this matter for Canada?  Because the Trudeau government has worked very hard to project a specific brand rooted in respecting the rule of law.  As Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland argued in her signature June 2017 foreign policy speech: “…our values include an unshakeable commitment to pluralism, human rights and the rule of law.”

Freeland is not alone in this branding exercise.  Trudeau himself regularly cites the rule of law whether in discussing the shared values of the Commonwealth, in speeches at the UN, and even in pipeline decisions.

Last December this messaging took on a new urgency as Canada became involved in a serious diplomatic dispute with China.  At the request of the United States government Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Chinese flagship technology company Huawei, while she was traveling through Vancouver.  With the extradition of Wanzhou to the United States pending, the Chinese government has exerted immense diplomatic pressure and retaliated by arbitrarily detaining two Canadians and revising the criminal sentence for a third Canadian to the death penalty.  Throughout the dispute Trudeau has steadfastly maintained that Canada values an independent judiciary and the rule of law.  He even went so far as to criticize China for arbitrarily revising the third Canadian’s criminal sentence to the death penalty.

The Break

Yet now the Trudeau government’s rule-of-law brand appears to be suffering a decisive break.  The first signs of the break came when the Canadian Ambassador to China interfered in the Wanzhou case by suggesting Chinese-language media that she had a strong case against extradition.  Citing President Trump’s comments on using Wanzhou’s case as a bargaining chip in ongoing US-China trade negotiations, McCallum made the case that Trump may have unfairly politicized the process.  McCallum’s assessment about Trump may prove true, but it’s not the place for an Ambassador to weigh in on legal disputes unfolding in an independent judiciary.  McCallum was fired to protect the rule-of-law brand.

The break only deepened on news of allegations that someone from the Prime Minister’s Office allegedly attempted to influence Wilson-Raybould in her decision to prosecute SNC Lavalin.  And although the SNC Lavalin and Wanzhou cases are unrelated, they both signal moments of off-brand behaviour where the Trudeau government failed to deliver on its promised commitment to the rule of law.

The Blame

What this leaves is the question of the blame.  We can already see composure strategies aimed at steadying the government’s image: McCallum’s firing sent a clear signal that he was off message, and Trudeau himself has denied his office directed the Attorney General in any prosecutorial decisions (though the clarity of this denial is in dispute).  These are complemented by a range of discrediting strategies ranging from modest proposals for an ethics investigation to the more sensationalist declarations of a “coverup” by the Trudeau government.  The efficacy of these strategies, including what they reveal and conceal, will determine the severity of the break in the government’s public image and how long it lasts.  Both of these are crucial questions given the looming Federal election in the Fall of 2019.

Finally, perhaps the most important lesson we can take from this moment of crisis is that political branding is never a risk-free proposition.  Off-brand behaviour at home can have effects on foreign relations abroad.  As one columnist recently noted, after the Jody Wilson-Raybould affair “China might be right to wonder if Canadian justice can be bought”.  When the fragile tethers of a public image begin to slip, other states may be right to question who we really are.

What’s a War Crime Gotta Do To Get Some Attention?

This is a guest post by Betcy Jose and Alessa Sänger. Jose is currently a Fellow in the Cluster of Excellence: Formation of Normative Orders at Goethe University. Sänger is pursuing a Master Degree in Curatorial Studies at Goethe Universität and Städelschule and is a collection assistant in the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main.

In a speech at UNESCO just days after a horrific terrorist attack in Paris for which DAESH claimed responsibility, French President Hollande declared, “the right to asylum applies to people… but asylum also applies to works, world heritage.”  In that same speech, Hollande vowed to advance a legal framework in the Parliament that would aid in the safekeeping of threatened cultural heritage.  DAESH has notoriously destroyed priceless cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq or sold it on the black market to fund its activities, much to the horror and despair of the global community. 

Article 53 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions (API) states that it is a crime to “to commit any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.”  Various segments of the global community have condemned DAESH’s actions and called for efforts to stop it or temporarily safeguard these objects until they can be safely returned.  France’s pledge to offer safe haven to these valuable treasures was in response to these efforts and warmly welcomed by many activists who had long pressed for more attention to this vital issue with limited success.

What’s interesting about this speech is why France chose to make such a strong and public statement on this war crime and not another one that’s also been long neglected: the destruction of the environment during the Syrian war. 

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What should we think of the Pope’s UAE visit?

Pope Francis recently visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE). His trip is historic, not just because it’s the first by the head of the Roman Catholic Church. He will also lead an outdoor mass, the first to be held, according to the new coverage, in the Arabian Peninsula. Additionally, the Pope signed an accord of “human fraternity” with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, the top center of religious learning for Sunni Muslims. This all sounds good, but I have mixed feelings.

The UAE has been putting a lot of effort into promoting interfaith dialogue and a “moderate Islam.” One example is this Foreign Policy article by the UAE’s ambassador to the US, presenting a “vision for a moderate Muslim world.” There is undoubtedly a strategic element to this, but I don’t doubt the UAE’s sincerity. I’m sure they really do want peaceful relations with the Christians nations they interact with, and are very concerned about the spread of extremism among their population.

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The Implications of 5,000 troops to Colombia

The following is a guest post by Carla Martinez Machain, Michael Allen, Michael E. Flynn, and Andrew Stravers.

One week ago, National Security Adviser John Bolton appeared at a White House briefing holding a note pad with the phrase “5,000 troops to Colombia” written on it. This occurred in the context of rising tensions between the U.S. and the Maduro government in Venezuela after the U.S. recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Since then, there has been much speculation about how likely a deployment is to happen and what it means for the possibility of a US intervention in Venezuela. Of note, Congress currently limits the U.S. presence in Colombia to 800 military personnel (and 600 contractors).

A potential deployment of this size has serious implications for US relations with Colombia, Venezuela, and the Latin American region as a whole. In particular, it can affect how populations perceive the U.S. government and its military. What does current research on the effects of U.S. deployments tell us about how such a move would affect public opinion of the U.S. in Latin America?

U.S. Military Deployments in Latin America

This past summer, our research team traveled to Central and South America to interview local government officials, U.S. embassy officials, and local members of civil society on how a U.S. military presence affects views of the U.S. in host countries. During these interviews, locals repeatedly reported a perception that the U.S. had plans to deploy troops to friendly countries in the region in order to launch an intervention in Venezuela. For example, interview subjects at the U.S. embassy in Panama told us that whenever U.S. troops deploy to Panama for training exercises, there are reports in the local press about Americans going to Panama to establish a base to spy on Venezuela and to prepare for an invasion. Another subject, a Panamanian journalist, confirmed this view.

Some embassy personnel noted that this was not necessarily a bad thing, as it could potentially place pressure on Venezuela to democratize. Given that this view was already prevalent in diplomatic circles last year, it is even harder to believe that Bolton’s “mistake” was an accident. Such a moment could serve as another (less subtle) form of pressure on the Maduro regime.

As shown by the figure above, since the 1990s Colombia has had a history of hosting US troop deployments, many of them as part of Plan Colombia. At the same time, these numbers never approximated the size of the deployment that Bolton may have been considering. At the peak of the U.S. military presence, in the year 2000, there were 225 active duty US troops deployed to Colombia (this number does not include military contractors or other DOD personnel who have been present in support of the troops). As of the most recent reports from the U.S. Department of Defense (September 2018), there are currently 64 active duty US military personnel deployed to Colombia. A 5,000 deployment of military personnel would be a substantial increase over historical numbers.

Implications for Perceptions of the US in the Region

Latin America is a region that traditionally has had positive perceptions of the U.S. At the same time, the United States’ previous military interventions in the region as part of its drug wars and counterinsurgency operations have also bred suspicion about U.S. interventionism. As part of our research project, we conducted a 14,000 person survey across 14 countries that have had large peacetime U.S. troop deployments. Our results show that all else being equal, having direct contact with a member of the U.S. military actually leads to more positive perceptions of the U.S. military and of the American people as a whole. This implies that a military presence in and of itself will not necessarily lead to negative views on the U.S. Of course, the context of the deployment would matter as well.

A large U.S. deployment to Colombia could easily play into the hands of many leftist groups throughout the region and perpetuate ideas that U.S. humanitarian assistance and military exercises (such as medical care provided in November 2018 by the US navy hospital ship USNS Comfort to Venezuelan refugees in Colombia) have ulterior motives. Additionally, criminal behavior by military personnel can become national news stories and feed anti-US sentiment.  Our past research shows that humanitarian assistance provided by the U.S. military is correlated with greater trust in the U.S. government and military . If leftist groups are indeed able to link these deployments with interventionism, that trust could be eroded.

Some may argue that a greater U.S. military presence in the region could prevent future human rights violations by Latin American government.  After all, even Colombia, often held up by the U.S. as a counterinsurgency success story, has experienced human rights violations in heavy-handed counterinsurgency operations by the military. Existing work has shown that in some cases, U.S. troop deployments are correlated with greater respect for human rights. Yet, this is true only in areas that are of low security salience for the United States. Given the high security interest that the U.S. has in Colombia, both because of counterdrug operations and because of its proximity to Venezuela’s leftist government, a large deployment would be unlikely to lead to improved respect for human rights in the region.

Recent talk from Bolton about the benefits of opening Venezuelan oil to U.S. companies did little to contradict narratives of renewed U.S. interventionism in Latin America, and signaling U.S. intentions to send more military forces to the region also makes the suspicion seem more plausible. While pressuring the Maduro regime through these signals may have the intended effect in Venezuela, it would be wise for the Trump administration to take these more region-wide political dynamics into account, if its goal is to diminish Maduro-style forces throughout the whole of Central and South America.

This material is based upon work supported by, or in part by, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Research Office under grant number W911NF-18-1-0087.

Hey, NYT, we need to talk.

I know, democracy dies in darkness (sorry, WashPo put it better) and we need good journalism, but what you publish in the Opinion Section often does not qualify as journalism, like, at all. I am not even talking about “Intellectual Dark Web” (which is neither intellectual, nor dark, but maybe web) or blatant climate denialism; you seriously need a Russia bullshit detector. Because so far, Russia articles are mostly botched Cyrillic wrapped in a cliché inside an Orientalist talking point.

The latest “scary Putin/racist nonsense/KGB/italicized Russian words” piece grazed your pages yesterday and it already caused the Russia Twitter to eye roll off our couches. For starters, who knew that there is a Russian word for “lies”. Like, really. If you actually spent time in St. Petersburg or Moscow (because those authors never go further out in fear of bears and balalaikas) you would know that “vranyo” is hardly a word that would ever be used in the context of whatever “active measures” you are talking about. Which are, by the way, not a thing, as well as the “Gerasimov doctrine”.

So, what’s with the “corruption DNA”, people? Last time I checked, 23andMe doesn’t offer a breakdown on social vices. When the author talked to Volodya back in the 90s, did he also take some of his genetic material? Or tested every single Russian out there? Who counts as a Russian? Just the Russian-speakers or the ones who live in Russia proper? Do you get the corruption DNA if you have a baby with a Western person? So many questions, and, sadly, no bigotry-free responses.

And what’s with the menacing pictures of Putin? At least when I write my posts I preface them with some presidential wardrobe malfunction action, aka the executive nipples. Yes, Putin is watching you, but so is PRISM and that one has way more capabilities and potential for abuse than its Russian analogue. So, Volodya (at least, it’s not Vlad) was fine when he helped you get rich and had beer with you in the 90s but not anymore? As Maxim Edwards remarked, it’s unclear why the contingent of “I made a killing in the nineties and then it went to shit” still needs to be heard. Even though there are a couple of valid points in the piece, they are overshadowed by racism and conceit of a “civilized” Western man braving the borderless wasteland that is Russia and trying to advertise his company that “recovers assets”.

I have to wrap this up before my head explodes from the uncontrollable rage at the stupidity and arrogance of some of your contributors. Do better next time.

The Importance of Recognition in Venezuela

This is a guest post from Elsy Gonzalez, a PhD candidate from the University of Chicago in the Department of Political Science.

Last Wednesday, January 23, President Trump recognized Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. Through this statement, Trump ultimately rejected Nicolas Maduro’s government and hedged his bet on regime change in this South American country. While this behavior is hardly surprising given the recent animosity between Washington and Caracas, many other countries in the region and around the world flocked to support Guaidó as president shortly thereafter. Those that recognized are as interesting as those that have not, and their timing speaks volumes.

What is the background? On May 20, 2018, Venezuela held presidential elections in which Maduro declared himself victorious for a new six-year term amidst a flurry of international condemnation, for what has been deemed a fraudulent election. The following day, the countries that make up the Lima Group declared they did not recognize the legitimacy of the electoral process for not abiding by the international standards of a democratic, free, fair, and transparent election. Following months of uncertainty and domestic turmoil, incumbent Nicolas Maduro assumed power for his new term on January 10. Meanwhile, Juan Guiadó also assumed power as head of the National Assembly, and the group later declared him interim president in lieu of Maduro.

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Your Publons Profile and Extra Credit in the After Life

What’s the right amount of reviews to do in a year? For my university’s annual performance review, I went through and counted how many I did last year, which included some grant and book proposals. I topped out around 40, which seemed like a high number to me.

How many is too many?
Is that actually a high number though? Perhaps that is just the price of seniority and being in the business for a good number of years. In my case, I get a lot of requests for reviews from journals outside political science, since I write on climate change impacts and water.

Is it fair?
We know that the reviewing processes is skewed and inequitable. Some people submit but won’t review much or at all and are regarded by journal editors as bad citizens. But most people simply do not get many review requests. Paul Djupe’s 2015 paper in PS found that my 40 reviews would be well above the norm:

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Duckies Reminder

This is a guest post from Brent Sasley, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and chair of the ISA Online Media Caucus.

Just a reminder that nominations for the Duckies (Online Achievement in International Studies) will close February 1, but we are still accepting nominations until then! Send nominations to onlinemediacaucus@gmail.com. Self-nominations are welcome.

The categories are:

  • Best Blog (Group) in International Studies
  • Best Blog (Individual) in International Studies
  • Best Blog Post in International Studies
  • Best Twitter Account
  • Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media

Please note that award nominees or their designated representatives MUST be present at the Duckies.

The Duckies will be presented at a reception at the ISA convention in Toronto, hosted by the Online Media Caucus and sponsored by SAGE Publication, on Wednesday, March 27 at 7:30. 

If you have any questions, please contact 2018-19 OMC Chair Brent Sasley (bsasley@uta.edu).

IR Theory After Trump: A First Image Renaissance? Part II

This is the second of two guest posts ]by Eric Parajon, Richard Jordan, and Marcus Holmes. The first can be found here.

In our last post, we explored recent TRIP survey data illustrating that International Relations scholars overwhelmingly blame President Donald J. Trump for a perceived decline in America’s international respect. We also detailed how this individual level explanation seemed at odds with a reluctance over the past three decades on the part of IR scholars to publish articles focusing on the role of the individual or the “first image”. We closed our piece with some possible explanations for the divergence between what scholars study and what they say is important. In this post, we further detail what we see as the most compelling explanation, that scholars have correctly assessed Trump’s importance, but how they study the world does not mirror how they see the world. 

It is absolutely true that IR scholars research the second and third images almost exclusively–but it is also likely true that very few think the first image unimportant. It may be that the discipline has simply not known how to study individuals systematically, and this confusion masquerades as disinterest.

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IR Theory After Trump: A First Image Renaissance? Part I

This is a guest post, the first of two, by Eric Parajon, Richard Jordan, and Marcus Holmes. Eric Parajon is a recent graduate of William & Mary and currently a Project Manager for the Teaching, Research, and International Policy Project. Richard Jordan is an assistant professor at Baylor University. He researches game theory, security, and leadership. Marcus Holmes is an associate professor of Government at William & Mary. He recently published Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Social Neuroscience and International Relations.

Among IR scholars, research on the role of individuals in world politics, or the “first image,” has languished for three decades. With the dominance of structural and rationalist approaches in the late 20th century, combined with skepticism individuals can be studied in a systematic, rather than idiosyncratic way, the first image has largely been neglected. Data out of the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project at William & Mary illustrate the point. Over the last thirty-five years or so, only 12.5% of the articles analyzed, in a wide-swath of IR journals, featured any engagement with the first image:

Figure 1: Proportion of scholarly journal articles utilizing each image approach (Grouped by year)

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The International Religious Freedom Campaign: A Cautionary Tale

There was some interesting/concerning information hidden at the end of the New York Times coverage of Secretary of State Pompeo’s Cairo speech. After criticizing Obama’s foreign policy and calling for action on Iran, Pompeo mentioned the progress Egyptian President al-Sisi had apparently made on religious freedom, specifically protecting Christians.

Some may dismiss this as cynicism or a sign of role Pompeo’s faith plays in his policies, but I think it’s more than that. It represents the worrying state of the international religious freedom (IRF) campaign, a robust, if low-key, international human rights campaign that used to pride itself on its nonpartisan nature. While progressives assume this campaign is a conservative cause and conservatives aren’t interested in hearing critiques, both should care deeply about what’s happened to it.

Here’s the text that caught my eye:

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Enes Kanter was right to be cautious

The NY Knicks will be travelling to London in a few weeks for a game against the Washington Wizards.  But center Enes Kanter has announced he won’t be joining them. Kanter, who is Turkish and a frequent critic of Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he is worried about his safety if he leaves the United States. This may seem surprising, but it shouldn’t; Erdogan has launched a campaign of repression against his critics, both in Turkey and around the world. Kanter has every reason to be concerned.

At first, this decision may seem a bit dramatic, like something out of a spy novel. A basketball star travels to a foreign country and is kidnapped or killed by his repressive home government? Some may believe the Turkish government’s rebuttal that Kanter is really having visa issues (which Kanter denies).  Others, may see this as primarily a political statement, as the New York Times seemed to suggest:

It was a dramatic escalation of his longstanding criticism of Erdogan and a reflection of the way Kanter has been determined to use his fame as an athlete for political activism he considers crucial and dire.

But anyone who’s been following Turkish politics over the past few years  should believe a threat to Kanter’s safety is credible.

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Where Is Intro to IR When You Need It?

One of the basic claims I make as a poli sci professor is that my goal is to help the next generation become more informed citizens, so that they understand their interests, and can vote accordingly.  So, when I see a a guy getting upset that his business is hurt by tariffs, I want to scream.

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New Year. New Intentions.

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I just listened to Pod Save America’s resolutions podcast. Ana Marie Cox was a guest and talked about her approach to New Year’s resolutions. She talked about “intentions” rather than resolutions since resolutions have the air of failure about them: you either completed the task or you didn’t. Intentions has a quality that is less judgmental and more aspirational.

Aside from some discussion of self-care (which I think is generally good), the podcast focused on time management and our interaction with technology, which resonated with me. Several of the Pod Save crew talked about how they hoped to approach Twitter and social media more generally differently, whether it be only re-tweeting articles they actually read, never scrolling on Twitter before reading a few articles, or just avoiding amplifying outrage on the platform.

More broadly, I have given a lot more thought about how I use social media, who and how I interact with people, and how I manage time more generally.

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2019 Duckies

This is a guest post from Brent Sasley, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and chair of the ISA Online Media Caucus.

ISA 2019 is coming up fast, so it’s time to start thinking about the Duckies! A lot has happened in the last year, and scholars and researchers have been more active than ever in trying to help us figure it all out. Let’s recognize their efforts!

The Online Achievement in International Studies Reception and Awarding of the Duckies will take place on Wednesday, March 27 at 7:30pm, hosted by the ISA’s Online Media Caucus (OMC). We will first listen to our wonderful and popular Ignite speaker series, and then present the awards in our five categories. OMC would like to recognize the generous support of SAGE Publishing for the reception and for OMC’s work in general.

Please send in your nominations for the 2019 Duckies in the categories below. Be sure to include hyperlinks. Send nominations to onlinemediacaucus@gmail.com by February 1, 2019. Self-nominations are welcome.

Please consider submitting a nomination in the following categories:

Best Blog (Group) in International Studies

Best Blog (Individual) in International Studies

Best Blog Post in International Studies

Best Twitter Account

Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media

Please note that award nominees or their designated representatives MUST be present at the Duckies.

Once the due date for nominations has passed, the Online Media Caucus leadership board will assess the recommendations and determine the final recipients. If you have any questions, please contact 2018-19 OMC Chair Brent Sasley.

I’m So Bored With the USA

The United States is the safest country in the world. It has vast ocean moats to the east and west and weak friendly neighbors to the north and south. It has sufficient resources to shun global trade should it so choose. It is also the wealthiest and strongest country the world has ever seen.

The heaviest foreign policy costs it has paid in the 20th and 21st centuries have come from self-inflicted wounds. The war in Vietnam. The war on Afghanistan. The war on Iraq. Those have had terribly high human, economic, resources, moral, and opportunity costs. Each of those wars was a choice made by U.S. presidents.

With the resignation of Secretary of Defense Mattis some have become more concerned about competitor states taking advantage of the chaos within the U.S. administration. Continue reading

Under Pressure

Somewhat cranky and slightly under the weather Putin graced the foreign journalists with his presence for almost 4 hours. Starting right off the bat with some optimistic economic indicators (that he used to be able to juggle without any papers), the conference progressed with its predictable pace and predictable plot points: a bunch of questions on economy, token booed Ukrainian question, some dad jokes and good tsar, bad boyars excuses. There was no panache, pizazz or punch. Putin is tired (at some point he was off by 20 million when talking about the Russian population) and his whataboutist rhetoric expected. His cough has got better since last year though.

At the beginning, Channel One gleefully pointed out that all accredited journalists are welcome at the press-conference (not really) and there are absolutely no restrictions. Press Secretary Peskov started with the Kremlin press pool soft ball questions (as though they don’t get enough access to the body of the sovereign on a regular basis). Crimea came up almost right away and kept coming up throughout the press conference. Putin got himself some rally-around-the flag theory ready and angrily pointed out that the only reason there was a “provocation” in the Kerch Strait is because presidential elections are coming up and President Poroshenko was looking to boost his failing rating. Moreover, Russia will increase its military presence in the Azov Sea the way it sees fit, especially given that some governmental officials in Ukraine are threatening to blow up the pained Crimea bridge. Putin forcefully denied that an “annexation” of the peninsula took place (despite having used that word himself several days prior). It was the citizens who came and voted to re-unite with Russia and now they are being punished for their vote by Western sanctions.

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Dear Political Science, it is time for a SELF-REFLEXIVE turn!

This is a guest post by Lahoma Thomas, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. This piece on reflexivity and positionality emerged from a panel she organized at APSA 2016, titled: “Race in the Field: Understanding How Identity Frames Field Research”and has evolved as one of her primary research agendas. Follow her on Twitter at @LAHOMAthomas.

The issues of reflexivity and positionality have been prominent features of my academic career, especially throughout my doctoral studies in political science. Reflexivity entails a critical reflection on one’s own interpretations and their influences. It requires one to consider that one’s positionality—that is one’s location in the society’s system of social stratification— informs the way one sees and makes sense of the world, and shapes the way one engages and conducts oneself within it.

I came to the discipline as a social worker, where my professional praxis demands an awareness of my own positionality, along with ongoing self-reflexivity concerning the impact of my interventions on the lives of those I work with. The discussions and ethical considerations with which I was familiar, contrasted with those I experienced in the political science classroom and the broader political science literature on methodology. As a doctoral student, I experienced the absence of this awareness especially in the scholarship on fieldwork. Continue reading

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.

 

 

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