Monthly Archives: April 2012

My prediction for a future UN Secretary-General is…

Helen Clark. And I’m not just saying this because she’s a New Zealander. Here are my reasons:

  • There has never been a female Secretary-General of the UN, and yet the UN itself is committed to “gender mainstreaming” – sooner or later the UN will have to have a women on top. This gives Clark a potential advantage over other candidates who are male. To me this is the key reason to predict this. The UN has already had Secretary-Generals from African, Arabian, Asian, Latin American, and European countries but they have all been men, so while they cannot be accused of being Eurocentric they can be accused of being sexist. I’m sure that the big powers are aware of this and will look to do something about it.
  • She has the right experience. In her current role as head of the UNDP she is already near the top of the UN hierarchy. Foreign Policy Magazine recently called her the “most powerful woman you have never heard of,” although seeing as she was Prime Minister of my country for nearly a decade I had, in fact, heard of her. Between leading a country and running the UNDP she surely has enough experience in global politics for the role.
  • New Zealand is inoffensive (to most people). New Zealanders have headed up international institutions before: former Prime Minister Mike Moore was Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, while former Foreign Minister Sir Don McKinnon was Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations. Diplomatically speaking, New Zealand has managed to generally tread enough of an independent path to not be accused of being a big power lackey, but managed to not ever get anyone too offside. Of course being small, isolated, and stable probably helps this. Being a New Zealander should make Clark palatable to both the Security Council (who recommend candidates for the position) and the General Assembly (who vote on it).

So that’s my prediction. I wonder if there’s any bookies taking bets on this sort of thing. Probably not, and if there are they probably aren’t the sort I want to deal with.


Complexity and chaos in international relations theory

I haven’t blogged for a while because of stupid crap (like life) getting in the way. However now I’m back with a rambling musing on the underlying nature of the system of states and institutions which constitute international relations. My apologies if this gets a bit hard to follow but these ideas are still forming in my mind so I might not be able to articulate them brilliantly yet. Still, writing them down might help me make sense of them myself.

So the starting point of what I’m thinking about is the constituent parts of the international order, which is to say nation-states. If a nation is an ethnic group sharing a common history, language, and cultural traditions and a state (in this context) is a formal political entity exercising control and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its territory, then a nation-state is simply a state which contains a nation and represents their interest. Of course, in reality there are very few examples of culturally homogenous nation-states – maybe San Marino is an example – but in practice what seems to happen is that a state helps to reinforce a sense of nationhood amongst its citizens and the two aspects of the nation-state evolve in a complex interplay with each other.  The lure of nationalism is still immensely strong even among people who don’t think they are nationalists. Everyone identifies to some extent with the culture(s) they grew up in and this shapes how they view the world. One doesn’t have to want to conquer other countries or kill some hated foe to be a nationalist, as Michael Billig pointed out in his book “Banal Nationalism”.

National myths develop based upon how the state itself  developed, or as statehood becomes the ultimate goal for ethnic minorities in larger nation-states. The national myth of the USA, for example, is based upon the ideas of freedom and liberty, and developed both because some early colonisers were persecuted religious minorities and because the revolution which saw it secede from Britain has been framed as an attempt to break chains of bondage to the crown. Later the abolition of slavery was awkwardly integrated in, but the place of the Native Americans within the national myth has never been worked out because immigration and escape from persecution are essential parts of what it means to be America, and the Native Americans do not fit this narrative. Individual cultural groups of Native Americans like the Sioux are nations without a state, not a part of the nation-state in which they live. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world states simply fail to survive or develop, and the people that live in these areas end up effectively being excluded from economic and political activity which takes place on a global scale.

The creation of a robust idea of a nation-state is therefore a complicated and messy process decided in part by historical events and geography, and reinforced by the behaviour of itself, its citizens, and other states. I personally feel that history is a vital part of understanding international relations, perhaps because I have studied it a lot. For instance it is impossible to understand the current state of the Israel-Palestine conflict without understanding its history. At an even deeper level, the history of the nation-state as a concept and how it spread around the world are vital subjects to understanding how nation-states operate today. I won’t go into this too much here (because this post will be huge anyway) but it is important to note that it developed out of war and struggles for dominance in Europe and was exported around the world by European colonialism, coercion and influence. Interestingly Europe was also the first part of the world to really try to develop something beyond the nation-state (the EU) at an inter-state level, and the resulting clusterf*ck and rising nationalist fervour in Europe today look set to bury that little experiment. The Eurozone crisis also shows the crucial place of economics in the study of international relations. States influence economies and economies influence states and the two are effectively impossible to separate. While political science and economics may be approached quite distinctly by academics, they are really inextricably entwined in the real world. However, while these big things all influence state behaviour so can “little” things as well: the personalities of the states’ leaders, or the price of food, or even someone’s decision to stop for a sandwich.

Essentially what I’ve been gearing up to say over those last couple of paragraphs is that international relations is an extremely messy and complex subject, where a wide range of factors interact to produce the eventual outcome. This is a defining characteristic of all social sciences and social scientists often try to develop theories to simplify their explanations of these outcomes but I’m not sure that works often enough, at least in international relations (I haven’t studied other social sciences enough to really comment on them). I am willing to concede that part of my thinking on this may be the result of how my brain works – I think I naturally think inductively not deductively –  but I am confident enough in this view to say that no conventional international relations theory will ever fully explain state behaviour. There is however a theoretical  framework out there which while it may lack the ability to predict state behaviour, it can explain much of it. This is what is called either chaos theory or complexity theory, and it was developed to explain complex systems which are highly sensitive to their initial conditions. I think international relations is just such a system, and the application of chaos theory can help explain certain aspects of it. I am definitely not the first to think this: here is an article on it which looks like it could be interesting, and here is another. In fact a quick search around throws up an impressive number of articles on the subject of chaos and/or complexity in international relations. I haven’t actually read any of them though! (Although I will soon, once I have the time. I promise. Really…)

The point is that it seems like a few people are thinking the same way. It will be interesting to see if these ideas ever take hold at the heart of international relations scholarship or if they are left as the domain for the lunatic fringe. Obviously all explanations of complex systems can only focus on certain aspects and necessarily simplify or exclude certain things, and I am not deluding myself into thinking that the application of chaos theory to international relations will be some sort of final destination in the search for full understanding. However, it is interesting to consider what it can add to the debates of the discipline – for instance, a description of nation-states as strange attractors could explain why they are so resilient to external forces like globalisation and internal forces like shifting demographics. Anyway, these are just my thoughts on the subject for now. Maybe when I actually read some of those articles I will change my mind!


Cuba stays at home watching the Vampire Diaries… while the other countries party

So I can’t help but think of high school politics when looking at the recent Summit of the Americas. Seems like all the kids had a party but deliberately snubbed one kid (Cuba) because the big bullying jock (the USA) and his sidekick (Canada) have a problem with him, while the other kids aren’t happy about it they aren’t really in a position to do anything, except maybe skip the next party themselves. Obviously the complexities of the Cuba-US relationship are deeper than those of a bunch of hormonal teenagers, but the whole situation got me thinking that perhaps the US needs to rethink its approach to the Cuban regime. While the days of planting exploding cigars to blow up Fidel Castro might be gone, the US still maintains its embargo on Cuba. Obama might claim this is because Cuba has a poor human rights record and has not made steps towards democracy, but that position is laughably hypocritical when you consider how close the US is with Saudi Arabia, a country whose human rights record is surely among the worst in the world  – especially if the definition of human rights is one taken from a liberal Western standpoint (which I will assume Obama’s definition is).

Anyhow, I was wondering if the embargo and isolation approach is even a good idea if the US and its allies want Cuba to democratise. Obviously this approach hasn’t worked for over half a century so maybe a change of tact is needed. If Cuba was opened up to US trade, the resulting wealth and increase in American soft power due to an increase in American firms and products in the country might force the country’s leaders to embrace free market reforms themselves as the pressure grows from a swelling middle class. After all, this basic model of democratisation following economic growth is widely accepted, and an increase in trade with the US could only bolster Cuba’s economy.

Food for thought… and even some mainstream pundits in the US are thinking the same way. After all, I think the US can safely claim it won the Cold War: no need to be scared of commies anymore! These days it’s the Chinese and/or the Muslims everyone’s afraid of (except Mitt Romney).

Being worried about communism is so last century.


Good riddance, democratic peace theory

I’ve never had much time for the democratic peace theory. It strikes me as empirically suspect, overly simplistic, and ethnocentric. Now it looks like the spread of democracy itself will finally put an end to this nice but rather naive idea.

Put simply this theory states that democracies will not engage in war with each other and was most famously proposed by one of those Wise Dead White Men, Immanuel Kant, in 1795. In the last couple of decades it has gained in popularity despite some rather obvious flaws. While I think that there may be something to the proposition that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other than non-democracies the evidence for this is still not conclusive, and the idea that they don’t at all has already been disproven. I would suggest that over the next decade or two the democratic peace theory will be so openly refuted that it will no longer be a tenable position. The reason for this is simply the increasing number of democracies in the world.

It is important to point out that there are already several counter-examples to the democratic peace theory but these are usually cast aside by the argument that the countries involved aren’t actually democracies – the so-called “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Here’s a list of wars between democracies, and although the “not a real democracy” argument might hold for some (or most) of them, by narrowing the definition of democracy so much the proponents of democratic peace theory reduce the size of the statistical sample so much that their own conclusions can no longer escape being called a statistical anomaly, or explained away by other means. For instance, the vast majority of democracies are for historical reasons based in areas of European cultural heritage – Europe itself, North America, and Australasia, or what is commonly referred to as the West – and when countries outside of this implement democracy it is often taken to be “not a true democracy.” However an explanation of why these Western democracies have not engaged in war with each other (except for Britain declaring war on Finland during WWII… oops, don’t mention that!) could just as easily be their shared cultural backgrounds and the mutual interests they hold which significantly reduce the chance of war between them.

Now that more and more countries are becoming democracies counterexamples of the democratic peace theory will become more common too.  The obvious place to look for this is the Middle East – Egypt is in transition to becoming democratic and it  at least seems possible that something similar may happen in Syria in the future.  All that has to occur than is a conflict between one or both of these states and Israel and there is yet another example of democracies going to war with each other. Of course Palestine holds elections too, so there is already an ongoing conflict between Israel and another democracy, not to mention the tensions with Lebanon which is also a democracy. What these cases show is that when two democracies do not have mutual interests and view themselves in completely different ways then the fact they are democracies does not prevent them from fighting each other. As more states become democratic the number of states with contested borders or other reasons for disputes who both happen to be democracies will increase.

Having said all this, it is possible that being a democracy reduces the chance of conflict with other democracies but generating statistical proof of such a proposition means accounting for variables such as culture and mutual interests which are inherently qualitative. International relations is not a subject which is suited to statistical/quantitative analysis for this very reason.

Democracy is still a desirable goal for a whole bunch of reasons, but claiming that democratising the world will end conflict is just plain wrong. Trying to defend the democratic peace theory on the basis that counterexamples are not true democracies is pure ethnocentrism. Effectively it is saying that only Western powers are true democracies, and that they are somehow superior to other democracies from other parts of the world while ignoring such obvious problems with their own political systems as the shambles of the 2000 US Presidential Election. Clearly this is bulsh*t. Without the “no true democracy” argument democratic peace theory really doesn’t stand up, so can we please forget about it now?


What makes the news the news?

Obviously there’s a lot more going on in the world than can fit in an hour-long news show or on the front page of a website, so how do certain events become considered newsworthy and others not? There seems to be two common answers to this question: the mainstream view that stuff that makes the news does so because it is more important than stuff that doesn’t, and the leftie perspective that the stuff that makes the news represents the interests of powerful businessmen and politicians. I think both these arguments have merit in certain situations, but there’s other factors at play  that don’t often get considered.

Firstly, the two commonly presented reasons for the nature of news coverage. Some events have a much larger impact on people’s lives and global politics than others, and these generally make the news over things that have a lesser impact. For instance an event like the Eurozone crisis receives much more global coverage than a constitutional crisis in Papua New Guinea because it can affect almost everyone on the planet through disruption of financial markets, lost jobs, currency fluctuations etc, whereas as interesting as the PNG crisis was it really only affects people who live there or have interests there. Fair enough then I guess. However, the statement that the news represents the interests of an elite is also broadly true – especially in how certain events are portrayed. The lack of coverage given at the time to such monumental events as the biggest conflict since WWII can only reflect the fact that there was no business or financial interests for the West to protect in this case and thus it wasn’t deemed important. But surely an event does not have to be influential on the people reading its lives for it to be considered newsworthy, or else why does Syria dominate the news? As horrible as the situation there is it doesn’t directly affect the lives of the vast majority of news consumers in the same way that the Eurozone crisis does. The 10,000 or so dead there sounds like a lot, but more people than that are estimated to have died on the island of Bougainville during the war there and I doubt many people have even heard of the place outside of the South Pacific. This will probably change when a movie about it starring Hugh Laurie comes out.

So importance to the audience generally and the interests of the “news-selectors” (to perhaps coin a phrase) are both factors in what makes the news, but they are not the sole determinants. One blindingly obvious factor is that there is always going to be a finite amount of reporting available even in our information-saturated internet age and so certain events will always be excluded. Similarly, it is easier to report from certain environments for logistical reasons and thus this influences the level of reportage. Ultimately though I think the biggest factor that people don’t realise is a version of the network effect.  Once a news story starts to get attention other people hear about it and read about it, and then it begins to be perceived as important and gets more attention over time. If one website or news agency reports on an event its competitors will too because they will worry about missing a story and thus losing credibility.  Some events will gain enough interest when they first occur to reach a critical mass and continue to be reported on, while others won’t get enough attention and will fall off the radar. At least in the internet age if you are really interested in a story you can look it up yourself, but the idea that the web would destroy traditional news providers seems to have been disproved. Most people are happy to be told what the news is, and won’t question why one thing is news and another is not.

 


Some reasons for people to chill out over North Korea

In an earlier post I explained why I think Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities are kinda scary. Continuing on this theme, here are a few reasons why I think North Korea’s missile test and possible nuclear test aren’t things to stress about:

  • North Korean leaders are not insane – they want to remain in power. When you are isolated and threatened by much bigger, more well armed opponents it can be useful to appear insane because people will be wary of you. Having nuclear weapons will mean that the North Korean regime will continue to be propped up by international (primarily Chinese) food aid because the world is scared of what North Korea will do if it starts to collapse. Developing a missile just means that the threat of North Korea going nuts isn’t as hollow, because they have a delivery system for their nukes now. Using a nuke as an offensive weapon would be suicidal on the part of North Korea’s leaders, and I really don’t think they want to be nuked themselves.
  • Following on from the previous point, this exercise is about the North Korean leadership maintaining internal control as well. Nothing like a missile test and setting off a nuke to get the people cheering for your weird Stalinist quasi-monarchy thing you have going on.
  • No one, least of all China and the US, wants war on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea knows this so it can push the boundaries knowing it is safe from retribution. Case in point, the torpedo attack on that South Korean naval ship a while back. Ballistic missile and nuclear tests are naughty, but definitely not naughty enough to go to war over.
  • Breaking a UN Security Council Resolution, as these tests will, doesn’t actually mean anything unless there’s actions the UN members can take to punish you. North Korea’s already diplomatically isolated and under economic sanctions, so what can the big boys do except cutting off aid or military action – neither of which they will do because they don’t want North Korea firing off a nuke as it is attacked and/or collapses because it can no longer feed its citizens.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are effectively a way of ensuring the long-term survival of the Pyongyang regime – something akin to a guy in a crowded room holding a hand grenade and threatening to pull the pin unless his demands are met. Odds are he won’t do it, but no one will want to take that risk.

It is important to note that China also wants North Korea to survive, as it provides a useful buffer between China and the liberal capitalist ally of the US in the form of South Korea. Having a land border with such a state is not something the Chinese government wants to have to deal with. At the same time, although the US and South Korea would both rather North Korea did not exist the cost of  making this happen would be far too high to contemplate.


Hold on, did Syria just invite a NATO attack?

Well it was only a matter of time until I wrote a blog about the Syria mess, so here it is.

Yesterday reports emerged stating that Syrian government forces had fired across the borders into Lebanon and Turkey. While Lebanon is probably used to its neighbours firing shots into its territory by now the situation with Turkey is potentially a game-changer, for a simple reason: Turkey is a member of NATO. If Turkey can claim that its territorial integrity is under threat (when another government starts shooting people inside your borders I’d say you’ve got a good case) then under the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty its NATO allies are obliged to join the fight. Furthermore, NATO has already established a precedent for just such an operation without a mandate from the UN Security Council, so those pesky vetoes from Russia and China could be rendered meaningless. A NATO operation in Syria would arguably be more legitimate than the Kosovo one because it would be the result of an attack on a NATO member.

As long as the violence in Syria remained contained within its own borders then arguments for intervention could always be countered by the principle of sovereignty, but the moment those shots crossed the border a new justification became available to those who want intervention. Of course a few gunshots over a border might not seem like much of a threat to Turkey’s territory and the Syrian government can deny that it was their troops who fired. Nonetheless, the spread of violence beyond Syria itself indicates a fundamental shift in the nature of the crisis and offers a potential way to approach it outside of the confines of the UN Security Council system.

Whether intervention would be a wise idea is not a question I am going to go into here. I just wanted to point out the implications of the attacks in Turkey as I see them. With the failure of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan (gee, that was unexpected…) the idea of a diplomatic solution seems dead and buried, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of shift in Western powers’ approach to the crisis. It might be a good time to buy shares in the companies that make those fancy drones and smartbombs.