Most Americans are not familiar with the Eurovision Song Contest. It is a festival of pop culture that pits entries from European countries against one another in a regional pop culture popularity contest. It is cheesy, but it is also becoming a solid way to see how politics impacts daily life.
In the 2016 contest, the Ukraine entered a song that focused on the Soviet-era forced removal of people from Crimea in a thinly veiled reminder that Russia had illegally invaded and occupied the peninsula. As the first invasion and annexation of territory since the Second World War, Ukraine felt justified in using the pop culture platform to highlight what it sees as an illegal status quo. Against expectations, the sorrowful song won a contest more commonly known for its preference for disco and pop dance music.
As the 2016 winners, Ukraine hosted the 2017 contest and politics again intruded. Russia selected a performer that played on a number of powerful sympathies. In addition to musical talent, Yulia Samoylova sings from a wheelchair. She is a powerful symbol for public participation by the disabled. Unfortunately for her, she had also performed at a concert in occupied Crimea. As a result of her travel to the occupied region, she was denied a travel visa to Ukraine, preventing her from performing in the Eurovision Contest.
The furor over the intrusion of politics into pop that erupted was somewhat contrived given what happened last year, and Russian public diplomacy is masterful in turning the tables on those it sees as opponents. At the same time, the controversy points out a key part of international relations: the existence of disputed territories. It also shows how these territories can make even simple things complicated. Sing in the wrong place, and you may face a travel ban.
Disputed territories are relatively common, although disputes such as exist over Crimea are (fortunately) rare. These disputes hit at the heart of the sovereignty principle: the power to control land. Whether it is occupied Crimea, or Turkish Cyprus, the Palestinian Territories, or Western Sahara, these territories can make life complicated for those who live there and those who may want to travel there.
The physical control of the territory gives advantages to the country that holds the territory. There is no legitimate judicial body that can enforce settlement of this kind of dispute. The result is that weaker states are left to make do with what they have, even if it sometimes seems strange and even petty.
In an anarchic world, not even pop music can escape the self-help trap.
Nation-states are sovereign entities. No state can legitimately coerce another state to take any actions that they don’t want to take. Or so all the textbooks say.
They why are the UK and the other European Union (EU) states negotiating over Brexit? Can’t the UK just bail tomorrow and be done with it?
The answer is that the UK could do just that, but the price it pays would be very, very high.
States are sovereign, that much is true, but in an anarchic world, no outside power guarantees commitments. That means that all a state has is its reputation for compliance with its agreements. The UK could just walk away, but they made strong and deep commitments to the EU, including a commitment to follow a set of procedures if they want to withdraw. To abandon these commitments would mark the UK as a state that cannot be trusted.
It would also mean abandoning all of the benefits of EU membership instantly. Economic relationships have value and an instant, disordered end to these relationships would potentially wreck the UK economy. It might also damage the economy of the other EU members, so they have an incentive to play by the rules as well.
Following the rules makes everyone better off, even if there is no outside enforcer.
In cases like this, enforcement is easy. Everyone is better off, so no one chooses to blow up the system. The actual terms of negotiation will be much harder, and the eventual deal will be difficult for all sides to agree on. But, the negotiation and eventual deal still beats throwing the rules out the window. The EU Treaty is thus a self-enforcing agreement, even when one party wants to break away.
This kind of situation is actually remarkably common in international relations. The International Postal Union manages international mail service. The International Air Transport Association sets global standards for the aviation industry to make global air travel safer and more orderly. Numerous other organizations handle these kinds of boring activities that most people ignore every day.
In many high-stakes areas such as security and human rights, organizations face greater challenges. When faced with these challenges, it can be harder to maintain the rules. That is why the design of international institutions can be challenging, and why institutions can fail under pressure. The most famous example is still the League of Nations, which failed to halt Japanese, Italian, and German aggression in the years before World War II.
One of the things that Brexit shows us is that strong institutions that provide large benefits to their members can support rules-based solutions even when faced with serious problems.
It seems like an odd question: does it matter how a government kills its own people? The answer is on the minds of many as reaction to the most recent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government has died down and the Syrian Civil War has returned to its previous slog of conventional butchery.
To the person who dies and their families, the mode of death is probably not important, but for the international community, it can be extremely important how a government kills its own citizens. International law exists in an anarchic world. Nation states cannot be coerced into doing things that they do not wish to do. At least not legitimately under international law. This is both a powerful legal principle and a recognized norm of global governance.
But what happens when the sovereignty principle buts up against other laws and norms? Various treaties and conventions prohibit the deliberate killing of civilians in wartime, the possession of chemical weapons, the use of chemical weapons, the deliberate targeting of people based on their ethnic, religious, or cultural identity. There are also conventions that set different standards for killing people during civil wars as opposed to killing in times of peace.
This complex web of international law and the norms that support it are intended to constrain the actions of governments. The familiar problem is that of enforcement. Who enforces international laws and norms when they are violated?
The deliberate killing of civilians by a government is illegal under international law regardless of whether or not a war is going on. The incidental killing of civilians during wartime is permitted under the laws of war. It is expected that civilians will be killed in wars. The sad truth is that civilian deaths almost always outnumber military ones in any war. So long as care is taken to limit this damage, killing civilians is legally and normatively accepted in wartime.
Civil Wars like the one in Syria make drawing clear lines hard. It also raises the cost of enforcement for the international community. A state that feels its survival is at stake is more likely to turn to brutal measures, but it will also be hard to punish effectively. Syria will accept economic sanctions if that is what it takes for the government to stay in power.
The resolve of the international community to enforce international law is a key part of the calculus of political leaders. When the international community is reluctant to enforce or when it actively signals that it will not enforce, governments are free to do as they will.
The Syrian Civil War has seen horrors perpetrated by all sides in the conflict. The international community has been cataloging these horrors, but has no stomach for the kind of intervention it would take to stop the war. In time, the perpetrators of these crimes may face international justice. The International Criminal Court (ICC) exists to tackle just these kinds of circumstances. The challenge is that the ICC has struggled to address past conflicts and now faces the possibility of some members withdrawing, weakening the Court’s reach.
Whether there will be justice for the victims of war crimes in Syria will ever know justice is hard to say. International law is tricky in these cases, even when people agree that a crime has been committed. But for the purposes of determining what is and is not illegal, how you kill your people does matter. Whether the crimes are horrible enough that you will be remembered and possibly hunted years later makes a difference.
Time will tell what justice may come after the war, but for now, only the most heinous acts catch the world’s attention.
Following the deaths of 87 people in a Syrian government attack that appears to have been conducted using sarin nerve gas, the United States launched an attack on the Syrian government airfield from which the attack came. This is the first time that the United States has directly attacked Syrian government installations in the Syrian Civil War.
The attack lightly damaged the air base, which resumed bombing the rebel held city of Khan Sheikhoun within 24-hours of the US attack. Despite its relatively small military impact, the symbolic impact is much more powerful.
International relations is a realm of uncertainty. Political leaders never really know what other political leaders are going to do. When the leadership of a state changes, it can be very difficult for other leaders to know what the new leadership will do. When the leadership has made vague and contradictory statements (which often happens in democratic elections) the uncertainty is multiplied. In the case of the, still new, Trump administration, uncertainty has been higher than usual.
Regardless of any other aspects of the strike, this action is a powerful signal that the powerful reluctance to use force against nation-state actors of the Obama years is not how the Trump administration sees the world. The Obama administration used American air power to pummel non-state groups around the world, including a massive increase in drone strikes, but had gone to great lengths to avoid attacking nation-states.
While the attack was a signal, and a costly one (the Tomahawk missiles are over $1 million each), it leaves a great deal of additional uncertainty. Given the limited nature of the strike, it is not clear to what extent American policy will actually change. With the death toll in the Syrian Civil War about to cross the half-million mark, the message appears to be that killing with conventional weapons is fine, but killing with chemical weapons is not.
In the complex world of great power politics, the strike may have more value than anything related to Syria. It was a clear signal to Russia that American wiliness to accept a Russian client state’s massacres was limited. Taking place during the visit of the Chinese president, the strike also sent a powerful signal that the Trump administration may also be willing to be more forceful with other rogue states, such at North Korea.
As the days and weeks unfold, the picture of what the strikes mean in the big picture will become clearer. Diplomats and public relations officers will clarify and expand on the US position. The responses of the other major powers will show how they respond. And the great game will continue.
For the families of the dead in Khan Sheikhoun it will be little solace, but they can at least take some comfort in knowing that there are red lines to restrain the Syrian government from the worst of the worst kinds of behaviors.
Everyone tried to put a good face on it, but the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome that created the organization that would become the European Union (EU) were marked by deep concerns about the future of the union.
Most striking was the absence of the United Kingdom. The British had voted to leave the EU 9 months ago and the formal request to leave is expected shortly. The British had never been enthusiastic members of the EU, but the choice to formally withdraw is a significant blow to the idea that the union is destined to grow ever closer.
Other concerns also vex EU leaders. The Eurozone faces serious economic problems and is in need of real institutional reforms if it is to continue to manage a single currency for a diverse group of countries. Brexit was only one sign of a growing anti-EU movement in Europe. No other country appears on the verge of leaving, but in uncertain times things can be surprising.
Despite its problems, the EU remains a spectacular success as a vehicle for global governance. Created in the ashes of the Second World War as a tool to promote integration and cooperation, the European Coal and Steel Community (the original name for the organization that would become the EU) was meant to make a future major power war in Europe impossible. The idea was to bring states together to promote common interests and to resolve problems peacefully. With two world wars and the Great Depression fresh in people’s minds, this was a significant matter.
The EU has become a powerful international actor, in spite of the oddity of an international organization acting somewhat like a nation-state. For years, the EU moved towards an erosion of sovereignty in favor of integration and transnationalism. While that process has largely halted with Brexit, it remains one of the only examples where nation-states have ceded significant part of what had been sovereign decision-making.
The EU has been widely copied, but few of the imitators have managed to duplicate its success. The struggles of the African Union, MERCOSUR, and numerous other regional groupings shows how powerful the sovereign impulse can be. The EU’s success is exceptional.
So, as the EU turns 60, we can look at its struggles (as reporting in RT, Russian state media likes to do) or we can sit back and marvel at how an organization built on the rubble of war has managed to keep the peace while making many of its members fat and happy. Through turbulent decades, the EU did its job reasonably well. And that deserves a celebration.
Strangely, the terrorist campaign of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is largely seen as ancient history outside of the United Kingdom and Ireland in spite of having ended only two decades ago. A conflict that dragged on for decades has left lasting wounds that still fester in Northern Ireland and among the victims of violence on all sides. But the end of the violent conflict came with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 when all sides agreed to abandon violent struggle and shift to a political process.
Martin McGuinness was a key player in the peace process that led to the Agreement. A commander in the IRA with blood on his hands from several terrorist attacks, McGuinness decided that violent struggle was ultimately futile and became an integral part of the peace process, eventually working with his long-time enemies to form the first post-Agreement government in Northern Ireland.
The death of Mr. McGuinness reminds us that intractable conflicts can be brought to an end. A struggle that lasted from the establishment of English rule and endured for centuries eventually ended when all sides determined that the violent struggle no longer offered the chance of victory. The IRA abandoned armed struggle and moved to a political process. At the same time, the British and Irish governments agreed to work with terrorists and to accept people with blood on their hands into government. Both sides accepted the necessity of compromise to work out a peaceful settlement.
In a world where protracted conflicts are regrettably common, the Irish case offers some hope, and a few potential lessons. One is that it is easier to work with groups that don’t have maximalist demands. The IRA wanted a free, united Irish state on the whole of the island of Ireland. They were fine with leaving England to the English. That such a goal is not pursued through politics, as opposed to violence, is a shift in tactics, but not in aims.
Another lesson is that you can talk to some terrorists, but they have to be willing to talk to you. A hurting stalemate helps both sides see that there is value to abandoning violence. The IRA could not gain their goals through violence, but the UK government could not defeat the IRA. In the end, compromise suited both sides.
There are more lessons, of course, but as we look at other conflicts, the willingness of groups to compromise is a key part of bringing a conflict to an end. In negotiations, peace is possible, but only when it is seen as preferable to endless conflict.
The fight against the group that call itself the Islamic State (ISIS) is not known for sharing globally recognized values. Their actions in the past have shown a degree of brutality that has made it a byword for barbarism around the world. The violation of international norms of behavior brings with it harsh criticism, but does it matter if ISIS does not care?
Chemical weapons have been banned by international treaty: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) bans the possession or use of such weapons. The use of chemical weapons is considered a war crime. There are few aspects of the laws of war that are clearer than these prohibitions. In spite of this, the use of chemical weapons has become more frequent in the wars in Iraq and Syria that include ISIS among the combatants.
When Syria used chemical weapons against its civilian population, this was seen as a gross violation of international norms, a violation of international humanitarian law, a war crime, and a sign that the regime was especially desperate to sow fear in its opponents. In spite of this, the Syrian government has suffered no real consequences for its actions, with Russia and Chine vetoing the latest attempt to impose penalties at the United Nations Security Council.
If a nation state can get away with such a gross break from international norms, what about a non-state actor like ISIS. In spite of its grandiose name, ISIS is not a state. It controls territory, but it is not recognized by any other government. As a non-state actor, ISIS cannot sign the CWC. Only states can sign treaties.
Does this mean that ISIS can act with impunity? The answer is: No. Well, maybe.
In international law there is the doctrine of “jus cogens” which is a fancy Latin term for the concept that there are some norms that simply cannot be set aside. These norms are called “peremptory norms” and they apply to everyone, regardless of the circumstances. The prohibition of the use of chemical weapons is not a peremptory norm. Enough countries have agreed to the CWC that it is pretty close, but there is no clear red line that gets crossed in order to be considered a peremptory norm.
Norms are funny things. They depend on the assumed belief that they reflect the right thing to do in the eyes of the community. This is hard to define and it depends on actions, not just on talk. While it was generally thought that chemical weapons use was across the line, the lack of action against Syria seems to suggest that it is not.
But this is not new. The Syrian government used chemical weapons against its civilian population. ISIS has used chemical weapons in the past against both civilian and military targets.
But does this matter? While the conflict rages, it is hard to tell. The perpetrators are engaged in the conflict and the world community has no stomach for a major intervention. But there will be an “After the War” time when people seek to return to normal. In this time, there will be calls for justice. Then, the world will have another chance to show whether or not the use of chemical weapons against civilian populations rises to the level of jus cogens.
A civil war followed the Arab Spring. A majority of the population is displaced from their homes. Regional powers have intervened to support opposing sides in the conflict. International NGO’s and the United Nations accuse all sides of human rights violations. ISIS and Al Qaeda have moved in to fill the power vacuum, threatening regional stability.
Sound familiar? You almost certainly were thinking of the crisis in Syria, but all of the above equally describes the civil war that has raged in Yemen since rival groups attempted to take control of the country following the Arab Spring. In spite of being a terrible crisis of incredible severity, the international media pays far less attention to the situation in Yemen, leading to a much lower general knowledge of the conflict.
Yemen is another example of state failure due to civil war. It includes intervention by regional powers, in this case Saudi Arabia (with American backing) in support of the internationally recognized government and Iran in support of the Houthi rebel movement. In this conflict, ISIS is the newcomer, with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) having a long history of activity in Yemen. There is no direct intervention in the civil war by the major powers, at least not yet. The United States has attacked some Houthi positions, but only after these positions fired missiles at US Navy ships patrolling off the coast.
If the players are familiar, so is the terrible cost of the ongoing conflict being paid by the civilian population. Yemen was a very poor country at the start of the conflict and much of its infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. This has made humanitarian aid difficult to deliver even before you add the possibility of being shot at. As the situation deteriorates, people starve.
In Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere, conflicts that drag on for long periods generally lead to significant harm to civilians. Much of this relief comes from non-governmental groups and the United Nations. The money to pay for these efforts depends on public attention to the crises. With so much focus on Syria, the smaller conflicts have a difficult time getting noticed.
Life and death hang on the ability to hold the attention of the world’s media.
Saudi Arabia is often considered one of the world’s most conservative places. It is a theocratic monarchy in which a highly conservative form of Islam provides a foundation for the rule of an absolute ruler. We often hear about how Saudi Arabia works to limit individual freedom as defined in Western states, with the ban on women driving often held out as a central piece of evidence.
So it is an interesting moment in globalization when this highly conservative country hosts its first Comic Con. Comic Conventions take place around the world. They are often associated with a free-wheeling individualism as people dress to fit their favorite fantasy universes. They are an example of globalization at the cultural and individual level that we often have trouble seeing directly.
At a Comic Con, you have a wide range of characters and genres represented. You have comic books, but also movies related to them. You also have anime, movies based in Japanese graphic novels, represented strongly. The characters and worlds in these fictional universes have a following around the world, even in an otherwise highly conservative country like Saudi Arabia.
Technology has spread these cultural artworks around the world and attracted a global following. Anyone with an internet connection can access a vast range of content, and then engage in a vast online world that discusses it. At Comic Cons, you can meet, in person, many other people with shared ideas and shared cultural symbols. This is globalization at work.
Comic Cons lack the shock value of wars or of humanitarian crises, but they show how a global cultural iconography can come to be shared by people in vastly dispersed areas. Unified by a shared cultural space, but separated by geography, people who attend these events represent a type of global community. So, the next time you see a movie that is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, remember that you are sharing a moment with hundreds of millions of your fellow global citizens.
During the Cold War, it was taken as a given that the Soviet Union would test any new American president. It was an effort to see how the new leader would react under stressful conditions. After the Cold War, the desire to test new leaders to measure their political will and political temperament has not vanished.
Donald Trump has had a couple of chaotic weeks in office, leading a government that seeks to unsettle the past ways of doing things. Despite all of the rhetoric of change, the tests of resolve from foreign leaders are following a very familiar pattern.
International relations is a confusing and dangerous field for those who practice it. You can know a great deal about a country and its leaders, but you always are faced with some degree of uncertainty. You can know how a leader will probably react based on their past decisions, the type of political institutions in their nation-state, and a range of other factors that influence the kinds of incentives they face. But you never know how much of your estimates of probable actions will match reality until the leader actually makes decisions.
Wars have happened because political leaders have gotten this kind of calculation wrong. The German Kaiser was convinced that Great Britain would never fight to protect France, and thus missed a key element that determined the outcome of World War One. In 1941, the Japanese Imperial government thought that the United States would negotiate a peace after being attacked if it freed them to fight in Europe. That miscalculation led to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unconditional surrender of Japan in 1945.
When nations miscalculate what political leaders in rival states will do, the results can be costly.
So, tests of resolve are common tools of policy. The idea is to create a situation that matters, but not too much. This allows all parties to send costly signals to each other about how they will act at other times. Russia spends time and money to deploy a missile system to the borders of NATO member states. This is a costly signal that threatens NATO allies and signals that Russia is willing to break its past commitments. The ball is then in the court of the Trump administration to respond. The response is a costly signal of how the Trump administration will react in future cases of threats. This signal is not just for Russia, but for all of the potential competitors.
Russia is only one of the states seeking to get a feel for Donald Trump. North Korea and Iran have tested ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads since Trump’s inauguration. China has accelerated economic integration plans within Asia to fill the gap left by the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
It is still early days for the Trump administration and the response to these threats has varied. Iran was hit by additional sanctions. North Korea will likely face additional penalties, but through the United Nations process rather than unilaterally. And Russia? Given all the furor over Russia and its possible role in the 2016 elections in the US, the response here is an important early signal about the resolve to stand by our NATO allies.
It is still too early to judge the response to this challenge. This is not a simple matter and it requires a thoughtful response, even in an administration distracted by other issues. The response may also take a long time to implement.
But it is still nice to see that in at least one area of contemporary politics, all the old rules still apply.
Refugees have been much in the news in the past several years. More than 20 million people are displaced just in the Middle East and North Africa. Around the world, the total number of refugees is greater than those displaced in times of world war. International organizations have struggled to cope with the refugee crises of recent years, but lessons from past crises also haunt the community of practitioners trying to assist those displaced by conflict.
In the early 1990’s the nation-state of Somalia collapsed and a civil war began that has still not ended. While the international community still recognizes Somalia as a nation-state, it has not been one in a practical sense for nearly three decades.
In the Dadaab refugee camp, established in Kenya at the start of the conflict, an entire generation of displaced persons has been born and raised since being displaced from Somalia. Efforts to provide relief and resettlement at the start of the war have been replaced with serious concerns that the camp has now become a permanent part of Kenya, with the nominally Somali residents being increasingly disconnected from a home that many have never seen.
Dadaab represents the terrible problem of refugee relief. International law, and human fellow feeling, compel people to provide basic humanitarian relief for the people displaced by conflict. At the same time, the idea is that these people should eventually either be resettled or they should return home. But what do you do when they cannot return home and they don’t want to permanently move to another country?
This is the paradox of the modern refugee camp: They are awful places, but less awful than many alternatives. Somalia is still basically a failed state. While some sections of the country are relatively stable, the civil war drags on and on. The danger to Somalis in Dadaab is very real. At the same time, there are people who have lived in the camp for 25 years. That is a quarter-century of life in a makeshift shanty-town.
As terrible as the camp is, there is a consistent supply of food, basic (if patchy) security, and even schools and markets for people to learn and work in. It may not be idyllic, but it beats being shot in the crossfire of competing militias.
More Somalis in Dadaab could potentially resettle, but most of the world does not want them. The idea that Western countries do not want to allow foreign refugees to resettle is not new. Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and others join Somalis on a list of peoples that no Western country wants. Poor neighboring countries, with high unemployment and relatively small formal economies are not much more welcoming to large numbers of foreigners coming into the labor market.
At the end of the day, Dadaab provides a powerful warning for the large number of refugee crises facing the world today. It is possible that in seeking to provide temporary relief, they may create a permanent group of stateless persons. If the underlying conflict is not concluded and peace restored, we may see millions more people joining the ranks of the stateless.
It is often argued that we are making the world a better place by learning from our history. It remains to be seen if this will be true for today’s refugees.
One of the central challenges of writing an international relations blog is that there is a strong sense of trying to keep things focused on the international system and events taking place outside the borders of the United States. It is easy to leave the American Politics to that other Know Now blog.
But there are times when American politics is international relations. This is one of those times.
One of the challenges of understanding international relations is that it is incredibly complicated. There are lots of moving parts. Many actors with curious acronyms, foreign place names, and the oddly (to the eyes of most citizens of nation-states) anarchic world of the international system. To understand this complexity, we rely on theory to simplify the world. We build theoretical models to tell us what is most important as a focus for our attention. Ideally these models help us to explain the world we live in and then predict what may happen in the future.
There are many differences across theories of international relations, but an enduring tension is the role that individuals may play in determining the events of the international system. When discussing the system-level theories there are powerful forces at work, interacting in complex webs of power relations, international market forces, the movement of populations, even the occasional natural disaster. It is hard to see the role of individuals in this high-level view. At other times, we look at the specific leaders of nations and examine psychological and institutional factors that influence their behavior. There are lots of other approaches, but all must deal with this problem of the individual and their role.
Rarely has such a discussion seemed more appropriate than with the Trump presidency. Whether you love him or hate him, Donald Trump has raised interesting questions about the role of the individual in international relations.
Political leaders always have more impact than average citizens on a daily basis. They have an institutional role that makes this so. Leading a nation-state makes it easier to have an impact. Average citizens can play a powerful role in unusual times, but more often they play small, incremental roles. These roles are important, but they rarely make headlines. Political leaders get to make headlines.
But how much to they actually do? Donald Trump is the leader of a republic. He was elected to lead the nation, but with his power checked by legislative and judicial branches. These domestic institutions constrain him and what he can do. He is also constrained by political survival. If he wants to stay in office, he has to maintain a winning coalition to do so. These are significant constraints on his actions.
In China and Russia, a narrow political elite rules each country. In Russia there are elections, although not ones that are very free or fair. But the fig-leaf of representative government exists. In China even suggesting competitive elections is generally followed by punishments by the state. In these countries, leaders face fewer limits on their power, but they are still constrained by the other nation-states and how these nations are seen.
So, how much power do these leaders have, really? Realist thinkers would argue that they have very little, that states act in the interest of power maximization and a given leader matters little. Liberal institutionalists will argue that the institutional constraints limit the power of leaders, but that leaders own preferences do matter. And the arguments could go on and on.
In practice, the complicated world is not explainable by any one theory. Donald Trump is heavily constrained by institutions, but he has the power to set an international agenda that comes from being the leader of the largest economy and strongest military in the world. He has limited power, but his quirks matter because of the nation he leads. When Donald Trump argues that dismantling the post-war international order is a good thing, people will pay attention. Leaders of the global South have been calling for that for years, to much less attention. That Chinese President Xi Jinping is now the only leader of a major power state arguing for an open global trade system represents a fundamental shift in the international agenda.
It is early days in a Trump administration and his decisions have largely been symbolic in international terms. It remains to be seen whether the problems of his first three weeks are just on-the-job training (which is normal) or if they represent a real break with the system that has maintained world peace for the last seventy years. Regardless of which is the answer, the “individuals matter” theorists are smiling, at least for today.
In a world where we often focus on what goes wrong, there are times when it is good to look at what goes right. Or at least, somewhat right. In a democracy, leaders are expected to give up power and leave office when they lose an election. In established democracies, they do this. In nations that have new or weak institutions, a president leaving office is not guaranteed, even when they lose an election.
One solution for states with more fragile governance is to seek outside support for democratic institutions. In the case of the Gambia, this solution worked as planned, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervening to ensure the transition of power to the elected president Adama Barrow.
In Western media, Africa is often presented as a basket case of weak institutions, plagued by instability. At times, African nations have lived down to this stereotype. Little known to most Westerners, Africa has developed some of the most innovative global governance institutions in the world.
ECOWAS is one of the most interesting examples of this institutional innovation. Begun as a simple regional economic organization, the leaders of ECOWAS countries soon realized that, as poor developing nation-states, simply signing a treaty was not going to bring instant rewards. Lacking the established and stable institutions found in the industrial North, and still suffering the legacies of colonialism, the regional grouping would need to take a different path.
ECOWAS developed a security dimension to its organization that aimed to promote stability among its members by providing peacekeeping forces and other mechanisms for stabilizing the local security situation. In response to civil war and instability among its members, the organization built local peace-keeping and intervention forces that proved important in settling civil wars in several of its members.
In recent years, ECOWAS has institutionalized a commitment to democracy that is rarely paralleled in other organizations. With memories of dictatorships still fresh in several of its members, ECOWAS made a firm commitment to support democracy. This commitment was sorely tested following the 2016 election in The Gambia.
The Gambia is not a model of democracy. The incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh rose to power in a coup de etat in 1994, ousting the military government of Dawda Jawara that had ruled since independence in 1965. In spite of the violent origin of the Jammeh government, four elections had been held in which President Jammeh was returned to power. None of these elections was particularly free or fair, but they did preserve the basic form of democracy.
In 2016, things were expected to be the same. Only the people of The Gambia had other ideas. Despite an unfair process, the people voted for an inexperienced former property developer named Adama Barrow to replace Mr. Jammeh as president.
At first things looked positive: Mr. Jammeh conceded defeat (to the great surprise of most observers) and agreed to step aside. Soon after, however, he changed his mind and announced that the election results were null and void and that another election would be held.
At this point, most of the world said the usual unhappy things and wagged its collective finger. But ECOWAS faced a critical choice, and the organization chose to act.
Peace talks were attempted in which ECOWAS leaders sought to convince Mr. Jammeh to leave peacefully. These talks failed. President Barrow was sworn into office while in exile and ECOWAS troops from several neighboring states entered the country on January 19, 2017. Following the intervention, Mr. Jammeh agreed to leave The Gambia and go into exile.
An African regional organization had applied its international rules protecting democracy. It had enforced its rules with its own military forces backing up its diplomatic efforts. And after very little actual fighting, democracy was preserved in The Gambia.
Democracy is generally thought of as a bottom up process. Most of our political theory starts with things like a social contract in which the people contracts with a government that they select to represent their interests. But when institutions are weak and democracy is new, it helps to have outside help. ECOWAS has shown that democracy can be supported from above: regional organizations can support and maintain democratic institutions when they fail in a member state.
In a world of bad news and instability, it is nice to see that very poor countries, facing many obstacles, have shown the will and capacity to preserve democratic institutions in the face of threats from within. That is good news.
Some things are so terrible that they leave a scar on the collective psyche. Holocaust Remembrance Day is a day set aside to remember such a thing. The Holocaust was the systematic extermination of people deemed undesirable by the Nazi government. It was the application of industrial organization to mass murder. While genocide has become a familiar term in global parlance, there is still something especially terrible about the Holocaust.
The Holocaust killed as many as 20 million people. Jews were the largest single group, but the Holocaust was intended to kill everyone deemed inferior by the Nazi regime. The goal was the purification of the human race through extermination of any group seen as impure. Had the Nazi dream of global conquest been fulfilled, this would have meant the extermination of the vast majority of the people on the planet.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust the world vowed that it would never happen again. To this end, the United Nations adopted, and nearly every nation ratified, the Genocide Convention. The Genocide Convention is unique in international law in that it requires nation-states to violate the sovereignty of other nation states in cases where genocide is taking place. Failure to act in the face of genocide is specified as a crime against humanity, making those who tolerate genocide war criminals.
Since the ratification of the Genocide Convention, the world has changed a great deal. The Holocaust has faded into memory. Few remember that the overall goal was to kill most of the human race. Some even deny that the Holocaust ever happened. In searching for content for this blog post, four of the first ten video links were from Holocaust denial sites.
Holocaust Remembrance Day strives to keep alive the memory of what was done. Those who deny that the Holocaust happened represent a lunatic fringe, but the regrettably common occurrence of genocide in the post-World War Two era has raised questions about the global commitment to prevent genocide.
A key part of preventing genocide is to remember the horrors that it brings. The Holocaust was the first modern genocide. It remains the only genocide practiced by a modern, industrial state that turned the tools of industrial production to murder.
That the Holocaust was committed by a modern industrial state matters. Genocide is not something that only happens “over there” to “them”. It can happen whenever people decide that a group different from themselves is not actually a group of people. When we dehumanize a group enough, we can kill them and not lose sleep. The Holocaust started with rhetoric about racial and social purity and the need to keep the wrong kind of people away, even if it meant rounding up your neighbor and making them vanish.
Millions of Germans went along with this regime, including thousands who knew the extent of what was being done. Today Germany owns its history. Postwar Germany made a point of taking collective responsibility and of preserving the memory of both the Holocaust, and the fact that people let it happen.
Sitting in a safe, quiet office and writing a blog entry about the Holocaust, it is easy to see this as something that happened long ago. It is easy to rest on the norms that have developed since the Second World War and argue that the Genocide Convention makes a repeat of these events impossible. But then a review of genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and other places shows that the legal framework means less in practice than it should.
In 2016 several African leaders began the process of withdrawing from the International Criminal Court, the modern descendant of the Nuremburg and Tokyo Tribunals that punished war criminals of WWII. In 2016 radical nationalist parties in Europe saw big gains in local elections. Populist leaders spewing the rhetoric of dehumanization and division have again joined the mainstream of political discourse across the globe. And the killing goes on in places like Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen.
Norms are tricky things in international relations. A norm as powerful as the prohibition against genocide can be widely accepted. The problem comes in enforcing the norms when they are violated. Genocide is a large-scale crime. To stop it requires resources and political will, not just from political leaders, but from the people they represent. Early intervention has been rare. The most common action by the international system has been justice after the fact, with perpetrators facing limited justice in international courts. In the absence of justice, norms are a poor deterrent.
As this Holocaust Remembrance Day passes, it is good to stop and mourn those who died. It is also important to think about what role the Genocide Convention and other tools to fight against crimes against humanity play in international relations. Can such tools be used effectively to limit these crimes in the future? Or are we doomed to repeat the process again and again: a crime without end?
When we think of global governance, the most common thoughts that come to mind focus on organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, or the World Trade Organization. While large, formal organizations play a critical role, the complexity of global governance goes beyond what these organizations can manage. The gap is partially filled by non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that operate in a wider range of countries under widely differing conditions and following a dizzying array of goals.
One of the most interesting NGO’s is the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation (IOPPC), more often known by the name of its annual meeting: The World Economic Forum. It is an informal NGO that is dedicated to the broad principle of improving the state of the world. Like several other informal governance NGO’s, the IOPPC is technically a Swiss non-profit organization. It is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
The IOPPC was created in 1971 to promote the improvement of the state of the world through building social entrepreneurship in world affairs. Managed by a Board of Trustees drawn from a diverse range of government and private industry, the organization seeks to make the world a better place.
Each year the World Economic Forum is held in Davos, Switzerland and brings together a diverse group of the world’s elite to discuss global problems and a vast array of different ideas about what can be done about them. Leaders from many different parts of the world come together to speak and listen and to share ideas about the future. At this rare conference, the Columbian pop singer Shakira can speak as an equal at the same conference as Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China. Shakira’s discussion of the need for greater emphasis on education for young children stems from a long career working to improve the lives of poor children in her home country and in her service as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Xi Jinping is the first Chinese president to attend the Forum in a sign that China is seeking a larger role in promoting its soft power abroad.
The World Economic Forum lacks the institutional power of intergovernmental organizations like the UN. It lacks the material power of nation-states. Despite this weakness, the influence of the ideas discussed at the forum represent the emerging norms of an international elite that has enormous personal power in many countries around the world. Just how much this matters will be widely debated by students of international politics, but the attention given to the Forum shows that it, at least, has the world’s attention.