• Iran is Open for Business: International sanctions are lifted, but uncertainty about global outlook makes for rough timing

    When Iran was declared to have complied with the terms for an end to international sanctions, this triggered the lifting of wide-ranging limits on international trade and investment. Multinational corporations were lined up to enter the Iranian market and initial interest has been strong. Iranian government representatives have undertaken trade missions across Europe and Asia in an effort to find investors to help its stagnant economy. At the same time, Western nations can point to the delay in Iran’s nuclear development as a sign that economic sanctions can work to change how states behave. States closer to Iran, and Republicans in the US Congress have reservations about this success, but events have moved beyond these concerns.


    What is potentially more interesting than the end to sanctions is the impact that the expectation of the return of Iranian oil to global markets means at a time when oil prices have fallen 75% in the past year and oil producing states are facing series economic crises. States like Venezuela and Russia have been forced to make massive cuts in public spending, with Venezuela declaring a state of economic emergency. Even states normally seen as so wealthy as to be immune to these troubles feel the impact. Saudi Arabia has proposed significant cuts to its budget to cover an annual deficit of 15% caused largely by the fall in the oil price.


    While low oil prices may be great when you are putting gas in your car, they can be harder on your 401k. Prices have fallen in part due to increases in production with American oil fields producing significantly higher volumes and the end of limits on American oil exports. But another source of the fall in price has been a drop in demand form emerging market economies. Falls due to increased supply can be good for consumers and for businesses that need products derived from oil, such as airlines. Falls in price due to economic growth shrinking or ending in major economies can be a signal of the start of a global downturn. As a result of the uncertainty as to just what is driving the oil price drops, markets have seen a great deal of volatility in the past several weeks. Concern about additional oil in a world that is already awash in it raises fears that oil prices may fall further, adding the global economic instability. When we see that major oil producing states are also states with problems of stability (Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia) fears can arise that oil prices may make volatile situations even more problematic.


    One of the clearest things that we can see from the end of sanctions against Iran is that interdependence makes for complicated consequences of actions by international actors. Decisions in one area can have a spillover effect in others. Even more importantly, unintended consequences can arise from decisions in far-away places. The price we pay at the corner gas station is impacted by the decisions of political leaders about economic sanctions meant to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The volatility caused by the rapid drop in oil prices impacts stock market prices (and thus retirement accounts) around the world. Efforts to bring Iran back into the community of nations lead to potential instability in other areas. The pause in the Iranian nuclear program frees resources that Saudi Arabia and other states near Iran fear will be applied to conventional military programs, changing (but not ending) the security competition in the region.


    While the world is naturally happy that there is one fewer nuclear power than there might have been, the uncertainty that comes with change can send out ripples into areas that we might not expect at first glance. So while Iran returns to oil markets, it will get a lot less for its trouble than it would have expected a year ago.



    1. How does the end of sanctions on Iran impact how states like Saudi Arabia perceive their security? To what degree does the logic of the security dilemma apply in cases like this?
    2. Does the rapid fall in the oil price mean that the payoff for Iran for agreeing to delay the development of its nuclear program is smaller than anticipated? What does the change in payoff imply about Iran’s incentives to continue to comply with the terms of the deal that ended sanctions?
    3. Would the global impact of the end of sanctions be different if Iran were a producer of a different commodity, such as coffee or diamonds?
  • Disease Ignores Borders: The Zika virus shows how global governance of disease challenges national and global leaders

    Global governance is the attempt to solve problems that cross borders. Few areas of human existence show the need for global governance more than the problems of disease. In 2015 the spread of the Ebola virus across West Africa with a handful of cases spreading through the global transport network to places as far away as the United States showed how even difficult to transmit diseases can take advantage of globalization’s connections and spread around the world.

    PAHO/WHO Release Regarding Zika

    In 2016 a new virus, this time one spread by Aedes mosquitoes has achieved global attention. The World Health Organization, the arm of the United Nations dedicated to fighting global disease, it at risk of spreading across all of the Americas in which the mosquito lives. This would include nearly every nation in the Western Hemisphere.

    Zika is an unpleasant disease in most of those infected, with symptoms that include rash, fever, and joint pain. Deaths are rare for those who are infected under normal conditions. For women who are pregnant, Zika may significantly increase the risk of microcephaly in the unborn child, resulting in serious birth defects. While this link has not been definitively demonstrated, a significant increase in microcephaly cases in 2015 tracked closely to the spread of Zika diagnoses.


    While national governments respond to disease risk, the disease itself does not have any concern for borders. Diseases like Zika (and chikungunya, dengue, and others) spread through mosquitoes biting infected persons and spreading the disease. Natural vectors like the mosquito, with its wide range can easily spread disease across national borders.

    To combat the spread of disease requires an international response. For this purpose, a variety of international organizations exist, with the WHO being the main coordinator of global responses. As the above link shows, the WHO works with local and regional groups to coordinate the response to diseases and to work with national governments to respond. The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) coordinates regional action in the Americas, with the cooperation of the WHO.


    While Zika is relatively new to the Americas, the international response follows the strategies that have been developed in response to other mosquito borne diseases like malaria and dengue. International institutions facilitate international communication, cooperation, and coordination in response to these shared threats. National governments respond according to their national political processes, but with the help and support of the international bodies.

    While there are limits to what can be done to stop the spread of diseases like Zika, the improvement in communication and coordination means that it does not take years (or decades in the worst cases) for the danger to generate an international response. While that response is still hampered by the sovereignty of individual states, the shared interest in preventing disease makes coordination easier by providing more clearly shared interests.

    Zika is likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, but at least the international response can help to limit its negative effects.



    1. Does the unusual nature of mosquito borne disease (it impacts all countries and can easily cross borders) make the incentive for states to cooperate stronger? Would the nature of response to disease change if there was not a non-human vector involved in its spread?
    2. Disease lends itself to scientific responses that have a relatively wide consensus among the experts who work to respond to disease outbreaks. Does this kind of concrete, scientific foundation make it easier to solve the problems of global governance?
    3. Does the non-fatal (if still horrible) nature of Zika impact how the world will respond to it? Ebola spreads from person to person, is highly contagious, and tends to kill most of the people who become infected. The spread of Ebola in West Africa also saw a global response as soon as the disease spread outside of the region. If Zika were similarly lethal, would the global response to it be different?
  • Democracy in the Shadows of Sovereignty: Taiwan elects first female president with no prospect for progress on ending its odd isolation

    The Republic of China (ROC), commonly called Taiwan, elected its first female president this past weekend. In a vibrant democratic election that saw three major parties compete over a complex set of domestic and international policies, the Democratic Progressive Party of Tsai Ing-wen won a clear majority of seats in the legislature. Ms. Tsai was elected president in the same vote, giving her part control of both the executive and legislative branches.


    The ROC is a vibrant democracy in which power is routinely passed from one party to another. The people are free to vote their preferences and there is a raucous press that seeks to hold political leaders accountable. Despite this, the ROC is a country that exists in the shadows of international politics. Why a wealthy, democratic country must live in perpetual diplomatic limbo is the result of interesting history and an international legal system based on the principle of sovereignty.

    At the end of the Chinese Civil War, the defeated Nationalist Kuomintang withdrew to the island of Formosa and built a separate state apparatus that maintained the legal fiction of control over all of the China. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party firmly established its control of the mainland, engaging in diplomacy as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As the years dragged on, most of the world came to realize the reality that the PRC was actually in control of China and that the ROC’s claim was far removed from reality. With this came a gradual shift in official diplomatic recognition from the ROC towards the PRC. Today, most of the states of the world recognize the PRC as ruling all of China. The problem is that this recognition includes Formosa, the island that is controlled by the ROC, leaving the ROC the outsider in the game of international recognition.

    The result is that we have something that looks like two, independent states in practice, but which international law recognizes as one, unified state. While there are several cases of disputed control, few are as complex as the question of the ROC. The ROC is democratic and prosperous. It has close trade relations with many other countries. But the world still treats it as part of the PRC. The PRC has reacted very sharply in the past when political parties have raised the issue of declaring independence and seeking to end the pretense of a unified China. Several militarized disputes have taken place since the 1950’s that have involved the United States in conflicts over the Taiwan Straight.

    The domestic politics of the two countries take the issue of independence very seriously. In the ROC, the issue is openly debated as part of the democratic political system. In the PRC, there is only the party line: One China. These domestic political concerns play out in the backdrop of a United Nations system that enshrines the sovereignty of its member states into international law and requires that all members respect these rules. The result is that there is no clear path for resolution of the issue so long both sides hold irreconcilable positions.

    As a proponent of greater (but not total) independence, Ms. Tsai will have to navigate the economic perils of an aging population and a decline in economic output among regional trading partners, most notably the PRC. At the same time, she must tread careful ground, pressing the PRC on matters of autonomy and setting a less conciliatory tone than her predecessor in discussion about international affairs. Pursuing effective public policy in the shadows of sovereignty will be a challenge as economic uncertainty raises broader challenges in the region.



    1. Why do states care so much about recognition? What difference does it make that the world does not recognize the independence of the ROC? Does the PRC suffer if states decided to recognize the ROC as independent?
    2. Do the democratic institutions in the ROC make it more or less effective at navigating the world of international diplomacy while lacking sovereignty as we normally think of it? Would we feel the same way about the ROC if it were a dictatorship?


  • Eating its Young: The Arab Spring Turns Five

    It is often said that revolutions tend to eat their young. Starting with great hope and promise, revolutions can devolve into chaos and violence once groups move past removing an old regime to the problems of building a new one. Five years since the start of the Arab Spring, it appears that a movement that optimists hoped could start a wave of democracy and open government in the Arab world has fallen into the more pessimistic historical pattern. Only Tunisia has experienced a relatively stable transition to representative government while Libya, Yemen, and Syria have all collapsed into failed states.


    The Arab Spring was one of the most interesting case studies for people who study international relations since the end of the Cold War. Long historical processes involving colonialism, the Cold War, the Non-Aligned Movement, complex domestic politics, and one of the most complex regional balances of power anywhere on earth made the Arab world one of the most interesting areas of study in IR. The Arab Spring was a rare chance to see significant change as the old equilibrium was punctuated by a series of shock events and the chance for radical change emerged.


    Of even greater interest was the incredible mix of domestic, international, and transnational politics at work. Social media turned individual acts of protest and violence into global symbols. Social media made organization within and across borders simpler and cheaper. The use of camera phones to show video of events on the ground brought an end to the ability of state-media to control the images of the events on the ground.


    The Arab world has historically been plagued by poor governance by their large state institutions, most modeled on central planning and government control of economic life. The low rates of growth brought about high rates of unemployment and a general lack of opportunity in societies with fast-growing populations where the majority of the populations are under thirty years of age.


    Add to all of this a complex regional balance of power that includes Arab states set against Israel, Arab states against Iran, secular states against religious ones, and competition between several states who want to hold the mantle of leadership for the Arab world.


    Outside intervention had cracked the fragile balance of power by tearing down one of the key players in the region: Iraq. The American invasion and subsequent botched nation-building efforts left a vacuum of power in the center of the Middle East and had raised serious questions about how the area would rebalance.


    In the calm before the Arab Spring, the Middle East and North Africa showed the complex nature of interdependence in the twenty-first century, but there was little expectation of radical change. Shock events create disruption in part because no one is prepared for them when they come. A few small incidents involving individuals boiled over into street protests. In several countries, this was followed by the refusal of security forces to shoot their fellow citizens and a rapid path to reform.


    In some areas, the security forces did shoot. In Bahrain and a few other places, this rapid intervention quelled the protests. In Syria the shooting failed to quell the protests, but the protests also failed to remove Bashar Assad from power. Egypt saw a shift to elected government, the attempt by the winner of elections to take over the deep state, followed by a coup that essentially restored military rule. Libya and Yemen saw the governments overthrown, only to be followed by chaos, civil war, and international intervention.


    It is still relatively early to offer any final judgements on the Arab Spring. Transitions take time to complete and it is likely that the chaos in Syria, Libya, and Yemen will continue for some time. Tunisia appears relatively stable, but still fights against extremist groups based in neighboring states who oppose the moderate and open government that currently rules the country. Transnational actors like the Islamic State group foment chaos in the hopes of picking up the pieces when things fall apart.


    While we do not have the satisfaction of knowing what the future will hold, there is still hope that the Arab Spring may yet prove a turning point in the region. Eventually the civil wars will end and the instability will wind down. What emerges may yet be an improvement on the stagnant states that governed the region before the protests began. No matter what the outcome, the complex network of actors, institutions, and competing interests will continue to make the region among the most interesting in the world.


    1. Politics in the Middle East and North Africa are interesting in part because they are located on a critical crossroads of global trade and economic exchange. Would the events of the Arab Spring have gotten so much attention in the international community if the region were less strategically vital?
    2. At first glance, the Arab Spring seems to defy the realist idea that states are unitary actors who pursue their own interests. Despite this, we still hear policy-makers discuss the results of the Arab Spring in realist terms (national interest, balance of power, etc.). How would a scholar of the realist school of IR see the events of the Arab Spring in a way that is different from the view presented above?
    3. What does the complicated set of movements that we call the Arab Spring tell us about the role of changing communications technology in twenty-first century international relations? Does the improved ability to communicate change how we think about ideas like global citizenship?

  • From Electoral Politics to Advocacy: Former Dutch Prime Minister to take over as head of Save the Children International

    Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former Prime Minister of Denmark and a leading member of the Danish Social Democratic Party has chosen to give up electoral politics to become the Chief Executive of one of the world’s largest charitable non-governmental organizations (NGO’s.) Thorning-Schmidt had been the head of her party for over a decade and had led Denmark’s coalition government from 2011 – 2015.

    For a successful political leader to move to the top job in an aid NGO reflects the growing power and prestige of large NGO’s in the world. It also reflects the powerful role that NGO’s play in shaping the global agenda in issue areas such as human rights and the enforcement of international humanitarian law. In citing her reasons for taking the position, Thorning-Schmidt noted the long-running success of Save the Children in advocating for children’s rights and the opportunity to continue this tradition.

    Save the Children is one of the larger aid organizations in the world. With a budget of over $US 2 billion and operations in over 120 countries, Save the Children has a global footprint that brought aid to more than 55 million children in 2014 according to its Annual Report . Like many large NGO’s Save the Children is organized as an umbrella organization that operates through local partners. This helps to combine global funding and organization with local knowledge and experience.

    NGO’s like Save the Children serve a dual function in the international system. On one hand they help to resolve problems of global governance that are not resolved by states or other actors. On the other, they advocate for an expansion of programs for the people that are their focus. International human rights law provides numerous protections to children via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as through various regional agreements such as the Banjul Charter. At the same time, children are frequent victims of many of the negative events in the world from civil wars to economic crises. Save the Children and its partner organizations serve to shape and spread international norms related to the rights of children through their advocacy efforts, helping to shape the motivations and policies of other actors in the international system. They also provide direct benefits through their local actions, making a direct impact on the lives of tens of millions of children each year.

    In the absence of a global government, numerous gaps in global governance exist that are filled by organizations working in the anarchic international environment. NGO’s often work to fill these gaps and it is dedicated, motivated individuals that make these organizations successful. As a venue for progressive social change in the international system, Save the Children offers an excellent chance for Ms. Thorning-Schmidt to both shape global opinion and to make a positive impact on the lives of tens of millions of children around the world.


    1. Many of the largest NGO’s (Save the Children, The ICRC, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, etc.) work in areas like aid, development, and human rights. Is there something about this particular set of issue areas that makes them particularly amenable to NGO’s as a tool for addressing them?
    2. All of the formal definitions of rights are established by nations states, usually through inter-governmental organizations such as the UN, the EU, the AU, etc. Yet we often see that the organizations that push most strongly for enforcement are NGO’s. Why do states create global and regional human rights charters if they seem so reluctant to enforce them when fellow signatories violate their provisions?
  • Woe to the Forgotten: Siege Warfare and Starvation in Syria

    Starving people forced to eat dirt and leaves. Siege lines where entire populations are prevented from receiving food aid. While these are most familiar to modern readers as images from descriptions of medieval warfare or perhaps from watching Game of Thrones. Unfortunately the return of starvation as a matter of policy to headlines does not come from long-forgotten stories or from contemporary fiction. Today’s images are the latest in the horrifying violations of international humanitarian law to emerge from the Syrian Civil War.


    Starvation is one of the oldest weapons of mass warfare. Sieges have starved populations around the world at least since we have invented writing to describe the results. The systematic horror of being slowly starved to death is something that has been described repeatedly in the literatures of nearly every civilization. In the 21st Century it was hoped that such evils were things of the past. The deliberate starvation of civilians is a violation of international humanitarian law. It is both a crime against humanity and a war crime. Despite this, it has become a common tactic in Syria, used by nearly all parties to the conflict. To this point, the tactic has received little international attention in spite of several cycles of starvation, temporary aid supplies, followed by a return to starvation in four years of war.

    Like many other aspects of the Syrian Civil War, the equilibrium of ignorance is punctuated by pictures that pull at the heart-strings of the international community. Images of starving children in the town of Madaya so emaciated that the details of their bone-structure are visible have called public attention to the problems. Stories of eating a soup of dirt and leaves, the eating of cats, dogs, and rats, and people rioting over cooking oil have shocked the global community.

    Forced onto the international policy agenda by NGO’s and global media, rhetoric from policy makers around the world was quick, with action gradually following. A number of the worst impacted cities were visited by relief convoys on Monday, although it is unclear if the relief will have much lasting impact until more information is known about the extent of the situation on the ground. Even these convoys were hampered by the wide range of actors controlling the patchwork of territory that the convoys have to cross.

    Regardless of the outcome of the relief missions, the Syrian Civil War seems set to drag on for the foreseeable future. In the absence of an end to the conflict, history suggests that starvation will not disappear as a tactic as the conflict drags on. While there may be some immediate relief, the consistent use of the policy by many of the parties to the conflict over a four-year time period suggests that a return to such tactics is likely. At least until another NGO or media organization releases a video of a slowly dying child.



    1. If starvation is widely understood to be illegal under humanitarian law and the laws of war, why is it so difficult to enforce these rules on the actors in the Syrian Civil War? What elements of the international system make this kind of enforcement so difficult?
    2. Most of the information that brings starvation to public attention comes through NGO’s. Most of the relief supplies are moved by NGO’s in concert with IGO’s, usually the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) and various UN agencies. What does this example tell us about how NGO’s and IGO’s are used to resolve issues in global governance? Can NGO’s and IGO’s solve cooperation and coordination problems that states cannot solve alone?
  • The World in 2016, Part 2: Global governance, and the persistence of international institutions

    While examining the growing instability in the world that comes from international conflict, it is easy to become pessimistic about the prospects for 2016. When looking at the broader picture of international relations, there remains tremendous scope for optimism. The institutions of global governance have shown remarkable resilience in the face of significant challenges for the past decade and there is good reason to expect this trend to continue.

    While conflict involving non-state actors rages, the likelihood of major power war remains remote. The security institutions that have managed great power conflict since the end of the Second World War remain effective, in spite of the relative decline of the United States and a decline in the credibility of the United States as a stabilizing force in conflict management. While tensions exist between great powers, no state has engaged in actions that seriously threaten the great power peace. Even where disputes exist, there is little indication that military force is likely to be used as a means of settling the dispute. The West has accepted the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimea, with the EU likely to remove sanctions later this year and the US potentially to follow as Russian cooperation in Syria becomes the focus of the US-Russia relationship. While significant territorial issues exist in the Asian ocean basins, no country has called for increased militarization of the disputes. The main military threat in the region remains the unpredictable regime in North Korea. While these conflicts could flare up at any time, no great power has any serious conflict of interest with any other great power. In the absence of such conflicts, the prospects of great power war remain remote in 2016.

    While there remains the problem of significant volatility in the global economy, the economic institutions that navigated the Great Recession of 2008, the Euro Crisis, and a collapse in commodity prices seem set to navigate the coming corrections in emerging markets and a potential rebalancing of Chinese economic growth. Free trade has expanded with the agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and most of the world’s nations have resisted calls to abandon the openness of the global trade system under the WTO through crises of greater severity than any likely to occur in 2016. Shock events can occur at any time, but the success of the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank in managing the turbulent past decade with the help of the G20 and regional organizations suggests that the world stands on a solid foundation of global economic management.

    In many other areas, 2016 is likely to see continued progress in global governance. The COP21 meetings made significant strides in environmental governance. While the final agreement did not please all parties, the agreement included significant advances on past agreements and showed that political leaders can apply the lessons of the past to the agreements of the future. In global sporting governance major reforms of FIFA, WADA, and other organizations have begun that may lead to a more transparent and open system for managing global sport. Serious anti-corruption reform seems a long way off, but at least there has been a shift in the right direction

    Non-governmental organizations continue to show that they can step in where states and intergovernmental organizations fail, providing relief and development aid on every continent. Further, these NGO’s are pioneering new and innovative ways to involve local people constructively in their projects, both empower locals and helping them to gain greater recognition internationally. Groups like the Skoll Foundation continue to use technology to promote communication and innovation among NGO’s to spread best practices around the world.

    2015 saw many trends that bode well for 2016. In many ways, the world is likely to see improvement for many of its people in 2016. While progress may be uneven as instability rolls back developments in areas experiencing conflict, the benefits to the citizens of the world seem set to outweigh the costs. While only time will tell if 2016 will live up to its potential, it will certainly not leave us without events to hold our interest.

  • The World in 2016, Part 1: Global instability, security, and the persistence of non-state violence

    With 2015 over and a new year upon us it is a good time to see what the past year can tell us about what we are likely to see in the new one. Students of international relations are likely to find 2016 at least as interesting as 2015. Unfortunately, some of the things that will make 2016 interesting reflect growing global instability and the potential for escalating violence in many parts of the world.

    The year began with a significant escalation of tensions in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia executing 47 prisoners, including a leading Sunni cleric who had been critical of the government. This led to Iranian groups attacking and ransacking the Saudi diplomatic stations in Iran in revenge for the death of their fellow Sunni. In the last two days, this has led to the recalling of ambassadors and the breaking of diplomatic relations. Given the ongoing proxy war in Yemen and significant differences over the future of Syria, this conflict does not show any signs of ending soon. Outside powers seem to lack the political will or credibility to intervene with either Iran or Saudi Arabia. Given the need to begin implementation of the Iran nuclear deal in 2016 and the need to make progress on peace in Syria to stem the spread of the Islamic State (IS) organization, this conflict appears likely to delay progress in international peace efforts.

    If concern over nuclear proliferation was not already on the minds of global citizens, the detonation of a nuclear device by North Korea on January 5 added additional tension in a region with a fragile balance of power between a developing China and the United States. That North Korea claimed the weapon was a hydrogen bomb and thus significantly more powerful than the atomic weapons that were tested on three previous occasions. Coming on the heels of the announcement that North Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile last November, tensions on the Korean peninsula seem to have escalated dramatically.

    Violence by non-state groups continues in the new year, although there have been gains against IS in Iraq. While IS has been forced back on the battlefield, European governments announced that several IS-inspired terror plots were foiled on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, although in some cases this was achieved by cancelling public celebrations. This suggests that the group remains committed to exporting its ideology in spite of its losses.

    An odd war of non-state actor vs. non-state actor began last year with the hacker collective Anonymous declaring war on IS and beginning to hack their online social media accounts and to interfere with recruitment. It is not clear if this conflict will continue in 2016, but it is unusual to see two NGO’s of different type and form in open conflict.

    The list could go on as global instability sends ripples across the world. One of the most interesting aspects of 2015 was how great power rivalries carried on while states also engaged in cooperation against non-state actors such as IS. This is a trend that is likely to continue as new kinds of conflict seem to be impervious to older solutions. Open war between nation-states remains unlikely, especially between the major powers, but several great powers continue to prepare for future conflicts.

    When looking at the potential for conflict in the world it is easy to see danger around every corner, leading to pessimism about the future of the world. In spite of this, there is a great deal of what was positive in 2015 that is also likely to continue. And some of these trends may even offer new solutions to the problems of conflict in the world.