• The Perils of Frenemies in Times of Intervention: Turkey shoots down a Russia fighter aircraft on the Turkis-Syrian border

    As a source of examples of international relations in the news, you just can’t beat the conflict in Syria. This point was demonstrated again this week as Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that had strayed into its airspace.

    Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War has created a great many tensions. Russian bombing of the opponents of the Assad government has been widespread and notable for its lack of concern about collateral damage. It has also been seen as focused on the non-IS opposition groups, including several that were receiving American and Western aid and training. On several occasions, Russian aircraft have skirted the (long and winding) border between Syria and Turkey.

    Russia is nominally fighting IS and other anti-Assad forces in Syria. Turkey Is also fighting IS, but is also supporting the anti-Assad groups that Russia is bombing. Other NATO allies (the US, France, and the UK) are fighting IS, but largely limited in their support for other groups. Arab Gulf states support a number of other anti-Assad forces with money and training, but without direct intervention.

    Following IS-backed attacks in Lebanon, France, and Turkey just over a week ago, air strikes by French, American, and British aircraft increased. Leaders from the anti-IS states met to discuss greater coordination of their efforts. And then a Russian SU-24 light bomber strayed into Turkish airspace. The aircraft was shot down and the fate of the pilots and of the crews of the rescue helicopter sent to retrieve them are still uncertain as of this writing.

    The Syrian Civil War was already among the world’s most complex conflicts. It involves numerous rebel factions, more than a dozen outside powers who have intervened, several different international organizations trying to build to a resolution, and members of violent non-governmental organizations sowing violence and terror. Top this off with the spillover effects as the events in Syria drive problems in neighboring states and you get a very, very dangerous mix of factors.

    So, when Turkey, a member of NATO, shoots down a Russian aircraft, the mix of factors is especially dangerous. The lack of an overall framework of cooperation makes the presence of so many different forces difficult to manage. While NATO allies have some shared command and control, there is no formal system for cooperation with Russian forces. The various rebel forces lack a unified leadership and are backed by different countries with different agendas. IS also plays a powerful part in this mix, fighting everyone else and exporting terrorist attacks across the region and beyond.

    With danger comes opportunity. Coming so soon after the recent IS-backed attacks, the shooting down of the Russian aircraft highlights the problems of uncoordinated action. While tragic, and certain to raise tensions in the short-term, the focus on the potential dangers may spur greater efforts at coordination among the regional players and the outside powers that have intervened in the conflict. At the moment, tempers are running high, but often a demonstration of concrete dangers can spur states to limit the potential for future escalation.

    At the same time, events like these highlight the problems of an anarchic international system: No outside power can force these states to cooperate, or even to coordinate their actions. Outside powers largely follow their own interests, opening the door to serious incidents such as this one.

    With tensions high and tempers flaring, one can hope that the major powers will see the value in focusing the anger on the shared enemy: IS. But when there is no shared national interest in the outcome of a civil war, the danger remains that uncoordinated intervention will allow the conflict to fester while raising the costs to all of the parties.


    Discussion Questions:

    1. Shared alliance ties enhance communication and coordination between allied states. Does the lack of alliance ties between Russia and the other outside intervenors make the conflict of interests over the outcome of the Syrian Civil War more difficult to resolve?
    2. Does the escalation of tensions between the outside intervenors make it more likely that the Syrian Civil War will drag on?
    3. How do the strategies of the major powers intervening in the Syrian Civil War reflect their national interests in the outcome? How does this influence their actions in the crisis over the shooting down of the Russian aircraft?
  • A Shadow Falls Across the City of Lights

    Attacks by the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) in Paris, France on Friday November 13th sent reverberations across the world. Killing 129 people and injuring hundreds more, these attacks sent a ripple of fear and anger across the nations of the West. The tragedy that unfolded in Paris could have been worse, with the attacker bound for the France-Germany soccer game in the Stade de France was stopped before he could enter the stadium.

    The attacks highlight the challenge of engaging in effective counter-terrorism in free societies as well as the problem of coping with violence by non-state actors in the 21st Century. A wave of arrests has followed across Europe, with some of the arrests following pitched battles between paramilitary police and the remaining terrorist fighters. At the same time, France and other nations fighting IS in Syria stepped up their attacks, striking the nominal capitol of the IS territories in Raqqah.

    These two strategies show the parallel between traditional military tools and the tools of law enforcement that has become the norm in the fight against violent non-state actors. Law enforcement treats the attacks against civilian targets as violations of law, tackled under domestic legal statutes with some degree of international cooperation. Military force is used to attack bases, command and control facilities, and to kill the leaders of the organization.

    IS represents a particular challenge to traditional approaches to security. It claims to be a state, with territory and sovereignty. It also claims to be at war with all of those who do not share its extremist ideology. That war includes the use of unconventional, terrorist violence against civilians. States must fight on multiple fronts as they seek to wear down IS in Syria while leaving the bulk of the fighting to other factions in the Syrian Civil War. At the same time, they fight home-grown extremism through counter-terrorism policies in their own countries. Nation-states are forced to adapt their traditional approaches to security to combat a very different kind of threat. This also requires international cooperation on multiple fronts, cooperation that has been lacking in the past. Similar attacks in recent days in Nigeria and Lebanon went almost unnoticed by the world community. Hopefully the potent symbolism of the City of Lights can help promote cooperation where these other attacks did not.

    In moments such as these, it can be hard to think of major events as part of the larger picture of how we understand international relations. Our hearts cry out for the innocent lives lost. We feel powerful sympathy for the victims and their families. We also feel a bit of fear that our nation could be the next one that is attacked. At the same time, the more we understand about these complex issues, and the factors that cause them, the more effectively we can work to prevent these kinds of events in the future.

    But for now, our hearts remain with the people of France, of Lebanon, of Nigeria. We grieve for all of the victims of terrorism across the world. And we hope that wise leaders will work to make these events less likely in the future.

  • A Step on the Road to Democracy: Myanmar Votes, but Democratic Transitions are Seldom Easy

    After several tense days in which vote totals tricked in and the military government was slow to announce the results, Myanmar’s President, Thein Sein and the other leaders of the military government congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) on their sweeping victory. More important, the generals pledged to accept Suu Kyi’s request for discussions aimed at forming a reconciliation government to manage a transition to greater democracy.

    Myanmar was the focus of international attention as the NLD faced off against a military government that had ruled the country in one form or another since 1962. A similar national election in 1990 had resulted in a sweeping victory of the NLD only to see the military government cancel the results and maintain another quarter century of military rule. With such a precedent the election this past weekend raised two questions: 1) could the NLD win the seats needed to gain a majority in the new Parliament? And 2) if the generals faced a major defeat would they respect the result?

    After several exciting days it now appears that the answer to both questions is yes. While final vote totals have not been released as of this writing, it does appear that the NLD will take over 80% of the seats up for election. The military had reserved 25% of the seats for itself in the hopes of blocking the NLD from gaining a majority of the seats in the parliament, but this seems to have been overwhelmed by the powerful tide of votes in favor of the NLD.

    There will be celebrations around the world as Myanmar takes this tentative step towards democracy, but what does history tell us about democratic transitions? Democracy has many benefits in stable countries with well-established institutions. It is getting those democratic institutions in place and keeping them in place long enough to become well-established that can be tricky. As a form of government, democracy’s popularity ebbs and flows. Democracy has come to many nations only to vanish again as the strain of transition weighs heavily on new institutions.

    Democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq was brought from outside these countries and was poorly established before the US forces began to return home. In these countries, the shallow planting of the tree of liberty led to death before the roots could take hold. But democracy that comes from internal movements has had more success. Democratic transitions in the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe have been successful enough that many of these countries are now members of the European Union, an organization where well-established democracy is a criteria for membership. But internal efforts at democratic transition have also failed in places like Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe.

    A lot depends on the leaders of the transition. Myanmar has a popular and well-known leader in the Nobel Peace Laureate Suu Kyi. The overwhelming nature of the support for the NLD also gives it a powerful mandate for change. If the generals and the Laureate can work together, Myanmar has a chance to become a stable democracy. While many challenges lie in the future to cloud a skeptics heart, the powerful victory of democracy in a country where the military has ruled for half a century gives us all a reason to smile as the light of liberty burns just that little bit brighter today.


    Discussion questions:

    1)      Under what conditions are democratic transitions more likely to succeed? Are there some factors about a country’s circumstances that would make it more likely to enjoy success?

    2)      Myanmar is a poor country strategically located between two large regional powers: China and India. Does this strategic location between the world’s largest democracy (India) and the world’s second largest (but undemocratic) economy have an impact on the likelihood of Myanmar’s successful transition to democracy? What impact, if any, might these two neighbors have on Myanmar’s transition?


  • The Most Successful Professional Sports Team Ever? New Zealand wins the Rugby World Cup

    Who is the most successful sports team ever? That questions generates argument almost anywhere you go. Depending on where you are, the argument may get heated. In the American South the argument will almost certainly end up being about college football. In the Canadian West it will be about the great Stanley Cup winning teams of the past. Increasingly, however, we find that sport has a global flavor and that this kind of argument can get pretty messy. Is the Brazilian national football (soccer to Americans) team of the 1970’s the greatest? What about the West German teams of the Beckenbauer era? Indian Test Cricket in the Sachin Tendulkar era certainly set scoring records. Maybe we want to think of the lifetime of the franchise and its global reach? Then the Dallas Cowboys, Manchester United, Real Madrid, and a handful of other global franchises fight it out for global value.

    Sport is now a global force in social, cultural, and economic terms. There is only one truly global sport: football. The Football World Cup Final draws a global audience that dwarfs such trivial sideshows as the American Football Championship known as the “Superbowl”. Most other sports follow the cultural or economic influence of the nations that started them. Baseball is played in areas of American cultural dominance or in areas where American culture had a strong influence. Basketball has spread in a similar way, although it continues to spread to new areas of the world.

    Few great powers had a wider reach than the British Empire. Its sporting legacy has no rival in history. Football, Cricket, and Rugby spread with the British Empire, becoming global sports on the back of the economic, political, and military power the Empire brought to bear. Non-governmental organizations were created to govern these global sports and solve the problems of global governance related to standardizing rules, organizing global competition, and enforcing an agreed-upon set of rules for the interactions between powerful organizations at the national level.

    While football became the global game, played nearly everywhere and becoming the closest thing to a shared cultural experience across the entire world, rugby largely stayed in the areas where the British Empire had the greatest influence. Among these former British colonies, rugby remains a popular sport and a center of national pride.

    Which leads us to the Rugby World Cup Final that was played this past Halloween. The New Zealand All-Blacks showed sporting dominance that has been unequalled at the global level. This team became the first to win three Rugby World Cups. They were also the first team ever to win back-to-back championships. They did so by beating (twice in four years) a global field of strong competition. Today’s international rugby is far more competitive than at any time in the past as a new group of countries begins to challenge the traditional giants.

    So, does the dominance of New Zealand make them the most successful sporting franchise ever? In their history, they have won over 75% of their international matches (called “tests”.) They have not lost a World Cup match since the George W. Bush Administration and they have a winning record against every team they have ever played. Combine that with more championships than any other team in their sport, and you have a solid argument that the All Blacks are the best sporting franchise in the world.

    Congratulations New Zealand on two in a row.




    Sport faces many of the same kinds of cooperation and coordination problems that we see in other areas of global governance. Why are global sporting organizations able to solve these problems when other NGO’s seem less able to do so?

    Sports teams are rapidly becoming part of global identity. Manchester United jerseys sell wildly in China. Warlords in failed states set aside their differences and work together to build mobile phone networks so that they can listen to the Real Madrid game live via the internet. What is it about sports that brings people together in a way that other competitive efforts to not? What about sports contributes to the sense of the shared community of the sports fan?

  • From marginalization, a common global identity whose core value is diversity

    On October 23rd, The World Indigenous Games kicked off in Brazil. Part sporting event and part cultural festival, the WIG included participants representing indigenous peoples from across the globe. The emergence of a shared identity among indigenous groups around the world marks one of the ways that the historical legacy of colonialism still impacts our world today.

    Under colonialism, indigenous groups across the world suffered greatly. The imposition (successful or attempted) of Western economic, cultural, and political models decimated the local peoples in the lands that Europeans colonized. The specific experiences varied widely but a shared experience of marginalization binds this exceptionally diverse group of peoples around the world.

    In the past several decades these groups have begun to come together, their shared experiences shaping a common identity. This identity is based on the shared historical experience of marginalization in the colonial that continued in the post-independence era. Indigenous groups represent an incredible diversity of languages, cultural practices, social traditions, and forms of political organization, but they are bound together by the shared experience of colonialism and genocide. At the core of the global indigenous persons movement is a celebration of this diversity, a desire to preserve their cultural heritage, and a drive for recognition and acceptance in their own societies and in the global community.


    The WIG represents a new celebration of indigenous cultures and values and serves as a further demonstration of the shared identity that binds these diverse peoples together on the international stage. It shows how shared ideas and norms can shape identity and drive action by non-governmental groups. In addition to a wide range of Western and Indigenous sports, the cultural events that are part of the games seek to educate both participants and the wider world about indigenous peoples and their place in the world.

    History can leave a powerful legacy for marginalized groups, but while the power of past subjugation can weigh heavily, it can also serve as the basis for positive change in the present. As people build upon their shared experiences to teach a tolerance for diversity and the lessons of what the lack of such tolerance wrought in the past, we can see lessons for future generations about the cost of forgetting our shared humanity.


    Discussion Questions:

    Identity is shaped by a shared social construction of the self. Could a global identity emerge in a world without rapid communications? If we did not have global communications and a system of shared social media, could groups as diverse in physical and cultural terms as these come together to form a shared identity?

    While the global indigenous person’s movement has made great strides in building a shared international identity, the economic circumstances of indigenous peoples generally remain poor. Does the development of a shared identity matter if the material conditions of indigenous peoples does not improve? Or is the idea of material progress simply another way of applying the Western notion of development to groups that do not share the same cultural values as the West?