• Arms Race or Arms Rhetoric? Does the rhetoric of a new arms race mean a return to a MAD world?

    It took only hours for the world to take a trip back in time. Barely had word of Vladimir Putin’s statement that Russia would “enhance” its nuclear arsenal reached the world news websites when President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted that the US would “strengthen and expand” its own nuclear arsenal. While these statements are merely words without clear policy proposals, they do raise the specter that deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States present a potential for a return to a nuclear arms race.

    During the Cold War, such language was normal. Expansion of nuclear arsenals was a key feature of the early Cold War and modernization of the arsenals was a recurring theme until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Since the end of the Cold War, the rhetoric on nuclear arms has largely been about reducing the number of weapons deployed by both sides.

    A return to nuclear competition would raise interesting questions for international relations. The use of nuclear weapons has been seen as a serious violation of international norms. No country has used nuclear weapons against an enemy since the United States used two atomic bombs against Japan in the last days of the Second World War. In spite of this taboo, nuclear weapons were a critical factor in Cold War competition.

    Among the key elements of the Cold War balance of power was the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD was a state of affairs in which it was impossible for any party to a conflict to win the conflict. No matter how devastating a first strike was, the retaliation would still wipe out the attacker. The logic being that no country would risk a war if the likely result was annihilation not just of the countries involved, but potentially human civilization itself. So long as both sides had enough weapons, deliverable by means that could survive a first strike, then no superpower war was going to happen.

    In short, MAD argued that lots of weapons was good. Lots of weapons deterred an enemy from fighting a war against you.

    Many scholars criticize the logic of MAD, in particular because it relied on all parties to calculate in a rational way from a shared set of premises. It also required a willingness to end the world if the other side struck first. MAD would be a suicide pact if it ever failed.

    For the generation that came of age after the Cold War ended, this is all ancient history. Misters Trump and Putin are old enough that the Cold War is part of their upbringing. Putin made his career in the former Soviet KGB and Donald Trump came of age in the height of Cold War tensions in the 1950’s and 60’s. These men remember living in a MAD world.

    The United States and Russia maintain large nuclear arsenals, but these are small compared to the massive arsenals that were deployed during the Cold War. It remains to be seen if the vague rhetoric of effectiveness and enhancement lead to real changes in the number and types of weapons deployed. Russia is in the middle of a significant upgrade of all of its armed forces, including its nuclear weapons. The United States is at the start of a plan drawn up under President Obama to develop and deploy a new set of nuclear weapons starting in the 2020’s. So both countries have already started on the modernization path.

    But modernization had been partly due to the shrinking arsenals. For fewer weapons to deter, they must be modern weapons. The idea of both modernization and an expansion of the arsenals raises questions about whether the general trend towards fewer weapons will continue.

    Time will tell whether the two leaders’ words will translate into actions. The increase in rhetoric also reminds us that we never really stopped living in a MAD world. The large arsenals retained by the US and Russia exist to deter each other, but also China, India, and a handful of rogue states like North Korea.

    For now, it might be useful for students of international relations to start reading up on the Cold War.




    1. Deterrence works when a country is convinced that a potential opponent has both the capability and the will to successfully resist an attack and deal a serious blow in response. How do countries know what other countries capabilities are? How do they determine an opponent’s political will?
    2. We often treat nuclear weapons as something different from other weapons of war. Is this a reasonable distinction to make? Is there something morally or practically different about nuclear weapons?
    3. If the United States and Russia modernize and expand their nuclear arsenals, what impact is this likely to have on the other great powers of the world? Will countries such as China and India feel the need to expand their arsenals? Will countries like Brazil, South Korea, and Japan have to develop and deploy nuclear weapons? What kinds of factors will impact these countries’ thinking?


  • Beginning of the End? The Syrian Army completes its recapture of Aleppo

    The battle has raged for years and the former economic hub of Syria has been turned to rubble. After all this time and all this death, the fighting seems to have slogged to a bloody, but decisive end. The Syrian Army, backed by Russian troops and irregular militia forces from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have crushed the last rebel resistance in the city.

    While the remnants of the rebel forces withdraw under a temporary cease-fire, civilians fleeing the fighting tell nightmarish stories of events during the final days of the conflict. A relatively new phenomenon in the annals of war has emerged as a number of people in the rebel-held areas posted videos to social media saying goodbye or asking for help as the government forces closed in.

    The final push in Aleppo has been accompanied by severe criticism of the Russian and Syrian governments for alleged human rights abuses, including war crimes such as the deliberate targeting of hospitals and civilian aid workers. The closing day of the conflict saw frequent reports that the militias fighting on the Syrian government side were lining up men of fighting age and killing them in the streets regardless of whether they had been rebels.

    Whether these stories are true or not, there is no question that the Russian and Syrian governments have paid scant attention to the niceties of the laws of war. While that may result in condemnation in European capitals, it has ended the fight in Aleppo.

    It remains to be seen if the end of the siege of Aleppo is the beginning of the end of the wider conflict. While the government forces were retaking Aleppo, the city of Palmyra was retaken by ISIS in a significant symbolic defeat for the government. Rebel fighters vowed to fight on, but Aleppo had been the last urban center they had controlled. The fall of Palmyra and the use of foreign militias shows the weakness of the Assad government, so it is not clear that it has the power to continue to push on multiple fronts.

    In spite of the challenges, events seem to be turning against the Syrian opposition groups that are not affiliated with ISIS. Aleppo was their last urban center and this defeat pushes them into smaller towns and the countryside. Foreign support has gradually diminished over the past year and the loss of Aleppo signals that the rebel cause may be lost. The resolve shown by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian supporters has shown the tepid support of America and its European allies to be far less reliable.

    ISIS remains a serious threat. In spite of Russian and Syrian rhetoric, their forces have largely ignored ISIS, focusing instead on destroying the moderate rebel groups. The fight against ISIS in Syria has largely been carried out by the US and its European allies through air strikes, with the main push against ISIS taking place in Iraq.

    It is likely that the Syrian Civil War will continue. Having crushed the rebels in Aleppo, the Syrian government continues its advances. ISIS fights on in spite of losses in Iraq and gradual attrition from American and European air strikes. The moderate rebel groups have withdrawn from Aleppo, but they still hold substantial territory in the north of Syria. Conflicts such as this can be very hard to end. All sides have an incentive to fight on. ISIS has an ideological obsession fueling its fighters. Moderate rebel groups hear of the mass killings of suspected rebel sympathizers after the fall of Aleppo (true or not) and fear what will happen if they surrender. The government has no incentive to negotiate when it is winning the war. So the fight may drag on.

    In spite of the incentives to keep fighting, the fall of Aleppo still opens a door. With no real chance of defeating the government, the rebels may seek terms to end the war. In a strong position, the Syrian government may decide that reconciliation starts with an end to the conflict that does not include a massacre. International backers of the rebels may see no point in supporting a conflict that is doomed to fail and may push for peace that lets them walk away without further wasted resources. ISIS will fight on, but they will gradually be ground down under sustained pressure if the other parties make common cause against it.

    While major victories make peace possible, it requires a sustained will on the part of all parties to make it happen. We will see in the coming weeks if that will is present.




    1. Russia and Syria are accused of war crimes and the use of brutal tactics in the conflict. But these tactics also worked. While it remains to be seen if the victories are sustainable, does the Syrian government’s survival and growing momentum suggest that those who follow the niceties of international law in wartime are making a mistake in doing so?
    2. With the fall of Aleppo, the rebel groups have taken a serious blow to their odds of winning the conflict. Given the low likelihood of success, why would they continue to fight? What aspects of the conflict lead the rebels to continue to fight in spite of the likelihood of losing? How does this fit into models of political behavior based on rational decision-making?
    3. Does the internationalized nature of the Syrian Civil War make finding peace harder under these circumstances? Would the rebel groups be more likely to seek peace if they lacked foreign backing? Would the government be more likely to seek peace if it did not have foreign backing? What does this tell us about the role of outside intervenors in the end of civil wars?


  • Who Cares About a Phone Call? Donald Trump, China(s?), and the Useful Fiction of Unrecognized States

    Anyone who has followed the antics of American politics this year has probably gotten used to periodic furors over Donald Trump doing or saying something that is outlandish and unconventional. So when he takes a phone call from the leader of a country that no US leader has taken a call from since the 70’s, it seems like it should barely register in people’s minds.

    Except that this particular antic struck an international nerve and has led to deep concern even among countries that are not directly involved.


    A big part of the concern is that the phone call with Taiwan highlights something that always makes leaders in the international community nervous. It calls attention to the useful fiction of unrecognized states.

    Nation-states are the core of the international system. They are enshrined in international law as the highest organizational units in a system that consists of many actors. Critical to legal status of the nation-state is that it is sovereign: there is no higher authority within its borders. And that is the rub: Who decides what those borders are and who controls what’s inside them?

    Territory is a critical part of sovereignty because it defines the borders within which a nation-state has legitimate authority. Two states cannot be sovereign over the same piece of land at the same time. So, when control over territory is contested, states get very serious and tensions can escalate very quickly. This is true even when the specific incident of the moment is small.

    National self-determination is also an important principle. Nations should have the right to determine for themselves if they are to be ruled by their own nation-state. While this sounds great in theory, it leads to complications in practice. Nasty, hard to resolve complications.

    The idea of unrecognized states is thus an important, useful fiction in international law. Entities can exist that have all of the characteristics of nation-states but are not recognized as such by the international community. The lack of recognition fudges the issue of control of territory by pretending it does not exist. The useful fiction can limit the potential conflict between states, at least as long as all sides accept the status quo.

    Taiwan is among the most famous, and most dangerous of these useful fictions. Under generally accepted international law there is one China, a geographic entity ruled by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This nation-state is recognized as governing all of mainland China and the island of Formosa. On the island of Formosa is the generally unrecognized state of the Republic of China, more commonly referred to as Taiwan. Taiwan retains a claim to be the legitimate government of all of China, but no one recognizes this. This has led both Taiwan and the PRC to agreement in principle on the “One China” concept, but disagreement on who the “real” government of that One China is.

    This is not a trivial problem. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy that has developed its own political and economic system and has little desire to be governed by its authoritarian counterpart. The PRC does not accept the potential of independence for Taiwan and even the election of governments that had discussed independence has led to the PRC ratcheting up economic and political pressure on the island’s government. To break from the One China principle is to argue that China is no longer sovereign over Taiwan, a position that the PRC is unwilling to accept.

    So, when the US president-elect seems to set aside the One China policy and take a direct call from the president of Taiwan, this seems to imply American recognition of Taiwan as an independent state. That overturns the status quo and angers the PRC.

    While Taiwan is the most famous, there are lots of unrecognized states out there. A week ago, this blog wrote about the division of Cyprus and the unrecognized state of Northern Cyprus. Somaliland and Puntland are relatively stable unrecognized states within the internationally recognized, but failed, nation-state of Somalia. The list could go on and on.

    It is international recognition that defines who is accepted as a nation-state in the international system. This makes questions of recognition key. And it makes states very, very prickly when issues related to recognition arise.

    This is why a phone call can become a major international issue. The Westphalian system depends on mutual recognition with states only being recognized when the community at large accepts them. When someone looks like they might muddle the status quo, states can get very angry, very quickly. And small things can quickly impact much larger ones.




    1. In an anarchic system with no higher authority, what role does mutual recognition play in determining legitimacy among the community of states? Why does the anarchic nature require that such a system be based on this mutual recognition?
    2. In many cases, unrecognized states are those that seek independence from another state. In the case of the One China principle, both parties claim the whole of the territory. If Taiwan were to abandon the One China principle and begin working towards a separate independence, would this weaken the PRC’s opposition?
    3. Mutual recognition underpins the entire system of international law under the United Nations, but new nation-states have been created through splits from the larger state on numerous occasions. (Ex: South Sudan, East Timor, Eritrea, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, etc.) Why does the PRC resist the recognition of such a small part of the whole when countries around the world have accepted national self-determination for their groups?

  • Foodies Before it was Trendy: Two Global Food Icons Die at Age 98

    Two men you have probably never heard of died just over a week apart. Both men were 98 years old and both played a significant role in world food. The results of their efforts are among the clearest and simplest examples of how basic, daily items can become part of globalization that impacts the lives of billions.

    Peng Chang-kuei is a name that you have probably never heard. But if you have eaten at an American Chinese food restaurant, you have probably eaten the dish that he invented: General Tso’s Chicken. Peng’s invention of an Americanized Hunan dish is a staple of American Chinese restaurants from your local campus food court to Peng’s original restaurant in New York.

    Peng was the banquet chef for the Kuomintang government that was defeated in the Chinese Civil War and forced to retreat to the island of Formosa in 1949, leading to the creation of the nation of Taiwan. In the early years, Taiwan maintained a tricky diplomatic balance, arguing that they were the legitimate government of all of China in spite of being unable to challenge the People’s Republic of China’s government on the mainland.

    During this early period, Peng was the man responsible for feeding the diplomats that came to Taiwan. To welcome the American Seventh Fleet, he prepared a banquet that included a new dish: General Tso’s chicken. In 1971, Peng retired from his duties and moved to New York where he opened the iconic Peng’s restaurant. Henry Kissinger became a regular and this led to steady flow of diplomats and other notables to the restaurant. General Tso’s chicken was a regular menu item, but American tastes required a significant change from the original: lots more sugar. The result is the General Tso’s chicken that several of you who are reading this may have had for lunch.

    Globalization can sometimes come full circle. After have created an Americanized version of a Hunan dish, the result was a dish that did not suit the tastes of people actually from the Hunan province. But as China opened to the world and traditional (some would say “real”) Chinese food has spread, General Tso’s chicken has been taken up and various examples of the “real” recipe have begun to appear as Hunanese chefs try to show what a traditional version might be like.

    If Peng’s creation shows how local foods can be coopted to fit markets in other regions, Michael Delligatti’s invention shows how a basic food for the masses can become a global icon. Few food items are more iconically American than the Big Mac. The center of McDonalds menu for almost four decades, the Big Mac traveled the globe as McDonalds spread the American style of fast food to every continent.

    Delligatti faced fierce resistance from the McDonalds corporate office at first, but when he eventually sold them on the idea, the Big Mac became a key part of the McDonalds brand. And when that brand travelled, the Big Mac travelled with it. Under various names around the world that particular American burger with its special sauce, lettuce, cheese, on a sesame seed bun has become part of the food landscape.

    McDonalds has become so widespread that the Economist Newspaper created a “Big Mac Index” to compare the value of international currencies. So many countries have the same hamburger that the relative price of the burger makes for an interesting comparison.

    From exile in Formosa to American style Chinese restaurants around the world, and back to his home in Hunan, Peng Chang-kuei’s influence shows how the simplest of things can have a global impact under the right circumstances. From a chain of burger shops across the US to the global face of American cultural globalization (love it or hate it) McDonalds spread Delligatti’s creation around the world. Together, two men you’ve never heard of helped to shape the global diffusion of ideas about food. It is a rare thing to change what a couple hundred million people had for lunch.




    1. We often see globalization as a big, conceptual part of our lives. These two men show how small things that fit into daily life can also be part of globalization for billions of people around the world. What other examples exist of this kind of cultural diffusion under globalization? How do these kinds of activities compare to the big activities like trade deals and the flow of persons?
    2. In a giant world of powerful nation states, immense institutions, and complex networked connections, it is often easy to set individuals aside and forget that individuals can have a powerful impact on outcomes. What are some other examples of individuals who have had a global impact? In a world of powerful, often impersonal forces, can individuals still change the world?
    3. Globalization has brought many small things into the lives of billions of people around the world. We often speak about a world in which globalization has become so widespread that it cannot be reversed or changed. Is this view of globalization accurate? Could globalization be rolled back in spite of how powerful it has become in the lives of billions of people around the world.


  • Still Failing After All These Years: Cyprus Peace Talks Fail… Again

    The longest running conflict that you have never heard of looks likely to continue. In 1974 the island of Cyprus was divided when a coup backed by Greece led to an invasion by Turkey and the partition of the island into a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north.

    While we tend to think of intractable partitions as something that is a holdover from colonial times, the situation on Cyprus shows that well-established nation states can still hold territorial grudges. The internationally recognized government of Cyprus is a member of the European Union and the United Nations, and technically is the government of the entire island. The Turkish-backed government in northern Cyprus is recognized by only a handful of countries and remains in international legal limbo. Efforts by the United Nations to resolve the conflict have failed in recent years as neither side is willing to give ground on issues of historical grievance.

    Cyprus raises interesting questions about what makes a nation-state in the modern era. International law and the de facto recognition of the international community recognized that the nation-state of Cyprus is the legitimate government of the entire island. In spite of this, the separate entity of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus continues to exist and to exercise control of the northern portion of the island.

    The dispute over control of the island is a particularly complex one. In 1974, a Greek-backed coup displaced the existing government and led to a conflict between two NATO member states that were both allied with the West in the Cold War. The resultant stalemate emerged, in part, because large-scale war between two NATO members was not a tolerable outcome to the wider alliance. The result was a frozen conflict in which a clear resolution was impossible. Military resolution was not an option and there was no political will to resolve the conflict.

    In the year 2000, the EU opted to accept Cyprus as a member in spite of the partition of the country. In 2004 a UN-backed peace agreement was put to the voters on both sides of the line of partition. Turkish Cypriots accepted the agreement but Greek Cypriots rejected it, leaving the conflict frozen.

    In 2016 negotiations neared an agreement for the re-unification of the island and there were hopes that the long-running conflict would end. Unfortunately, the negotiations failed, largely along the same lines that have led to the failure of past agreements: the redress of historical grievances.

    The result is that the status quo rules. A de facto state exists in Northern Cyprus that is not recognized by the international community. This state exists in international limbo in spite of the fact that a majority of its citizens preferred reunification the last time it was offered. Neither side has any desire to pursue a military solution and diplomatic solutions have now repeatedly failed. For the moment it appears that Cyprus will remain divided for the foreseeable future, leaving a frozen conflict between two NATO states simmering in the Eastern Mediterranean.



    1. Cyprus is a strategically important island, but it is not at the center of an active military conflict between Greece and Turkey, who remain allies under NATO. Why would two NATO allies maintain a conflict between them that damages their relationship? What elements of the Cyprus conflict make it worth the political risk?
    2. Diplomatic recognition is highly valued, but why? If Northern Cyprus is a de facto state, why does diplomatic recognition matter so much? What difference does it make if the international community does not recognize the country?
    3. The United Nations system is built on the idea that sovereign member states cannot be divided or dissolved except by agreement. At the same time, national self-determination is a basic right of peoples around the world. How does this right of self-determination square with the principle of sovereignty? If the people of a particular region want to be a nation-state, what right does the international community have to deny them recognition?