• Terrible Memories: Holocaust Remembrance Day

    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?



    1. Global days of recognition show a common set of norms about what is significant in international relations. They reflect a common set of values. Does such a common set of norms matter in the relations between states? If the norm conflicts with material interest, do norms ever win?
    2. One problem with genocide is that it is expensive to stop once it is underway. Large-scale military intervention is often the only option to force an end to it. Given the small number of countries with the ability to project power globally, can the international commitment to prevent genocide ever be meaningful unless this small group is willing to bear the bulk of the costs of prevention?
    3. Ideally, an early warning system could identify genocide before it happens. The problem would be how to act without violating the sovereignty of the state in question. If a state is about to commit genocide, the Genocide Convention does not clearly apply and any intervention would violate sovereignty. How could an early warning system work to stop genocide in a world of sovereign states?

  • Informal Governance: The World’s Elite gather for the World Economic Forum in Davos

    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.



    1. The World Economic Forum is a talking-shop where the world’s elite discuss major issues. Does this matter in international relations? Does the transmission of ideas and norms actually make a difference?
    2. When we think of global power, we generally think in terms of armies and industrial might. In spite of this, the representatives of powerful states like the PRC send their political leaders to the World Economic Forum. Why would an increasingly powerful nation-state like the PRC send its president to a forum that most leaders of the major powers did not attend?
    3. Davos represents informal elements of global governance. In the absence of a single world government that can enforce agreements between actors in the international system, is informal governance really any different from the more formal versions? If all global governance is basically about self-help, does the distinction between formal institutions and informal exchange of ideas matter?

  • Global Sporting Parity or Global Money Grab? FIFA Adds 16 More Teams to the World Cup Final in 2026

    Among the stranger bits of global governance is the fact that some areas of governance are dominated by non-governmental organizations. Among the most famous is the governance of world football, or soccer as we call it in the USA.

    The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is the organization that controls the sport of soccer for most of the world. While technically FIFA is a Swiss sporting organization, in practice it is a complicated organization that is a federation of the soccer associations of its 211 member states. FIFA is a federal organization with its members divided into six regional confederations (Africa, Asia, Europe, North and Central American and the Caribbean, Oceania, and South America) that govern regional competitions. The members are not nation-states, but the local national soccer associations that govern soccer in their respective countries. While some of these national associations are controlled by governments, many are private. In this sense, FIFA is an NGO that is made of up layers of other NGO’s.

    FIFA organizes international tournaments and manages relations between member associations. These tournaments generate massive revenues running well into the billions of dollars. Soccer is the only truly global sport enjoyed by masses around the world. It has an outsized impact on the global sporting psyche.

    Following a series of corruption scandals over the awarding of the World Cups in 2018 (to Russia) and 2022 (to Qatar), FIFA saw a number of senior officials arrested by a variety of national governments. The media ran wild with reports of the scale and scope of the corruption that greased the wheels of the sport.

    As an NGO, FIFA is ultimately accountable to its members, the national associations. At the same time, it is also subject to national laws in various member states that have strong anti-corruption laws. After decades of famously corrupt decision-making, FIFA sought to turn the page and make a fresh start.

    The expansion of the World Cup Final to 48 total teams means lots more money flowing to FIFA, but it also alters a hugely popular 32-team format. The fact that FIFA kept the length of the tournament the same, but added 16 teams also increase the already grueling pace of the tournament and creates logistical problems for host countries. It also dilutes the value of the regional tournaments as now nearly a quarter of the members will make the Final.

    So, what will the result of this change be? Who knows. It certainly means more soccer teams make the tournament, but it remains to be seen if this simply creates more brutal matches where football giants like Germany and Brazil destroy the smaller countries like Iceland.

    Regardless of the outcome, there is not likely to be any change in world football. FIFA has governed the world’s most popular sport since 1904, predating most of the rest of our global governance architecture. Private governance may not have much accountability, but it makes for great television.



    1. When we think about global governance, we normally think of intergovernmental organizations created by nation-states. How does an NGO like FIFA exercise power in the international system? How is it capable of enforcing its rules on the national associations?
    2. FIFA is a private association and its members are national associations and is thus operating in many different legal environments. In spite of this, FIFA leaders were arrested and some have pled guilty to corruption in various courts around the world. How does this complexity show the problems of applying national laws to international actors?
    3. How would the governance of world football be different if the global governance were managed by nation-states through an IGO? Would such a distinction matter in practice?

  • The Year in Review, 2016

    Being a blogger has a significant drawback. What you write gets recorded for posterity. So when you look back on writings a year ago and evaluate your predictions, it can be a humorous experience. Or a horrifying one.

    At the start of 2016 I made some general predictions about the course that the year was likely to follow. While some predictions were on target, these mostly had to do with instability and conflict. Many of my more optimistic notes were off the mark. Like most pundits, I missed the major swing in the attitudes of voters in the global North against globalization and global governance.

    In reality, 2016 was a very interesting year for those who are interested in international relations. Sovereignty, that core of the Westphalian international system that has seemed under threat since dawn of the era of modern globalization after the Second World War, came back with a vengeance.

    Voters in the North, the region that had driven globalization (for better or for worse) rejected global governance in several key elections. In Great Britain, the British people narrowly opted to leave the European Union, ending membership in one of the most influential international organizations.

    Voters in the United States, the nation that created much of the existing global governance architecture, rejected globalization and internationalism and elected a President, Donald Trump, who campaigned openly for a wholesale rejection of the existing system of international institutions. For the nation most clearly associated with globalization to select a president who repudiated most existing trade agreements and openly questioned continued American security commitments through organizations like NATO brought into question the entire system of global governance as it currently exists. While it remains to be seen just how much of the rhetoric of the campaign applies in practice, the fact that a repudiation of the liberal international order that has kept the peace since 1945 was a winning campaign position has leaders around the world worried.

    While liberal internationalists worry, political realists rejoice. The return of great power politics makes everything old new again. As Russia asserts its influence through the base use of force and a rising China militarizes the South China Sea, the realist assumptions of power balance and the primacy of force look to be a much stronger part of global political rhetoric than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

    2016 saw a great many horrors. While terrorism on the streets of Europe and North America garnered a great deal of media attention, it was merely a rounding error compared to the bloodbaths in other regions of the world. The (increasingly inappropriately labeled) Islamic State (IS) group saw defeat after defeat on the battlefield and turned to franchising out attacks against soft targets. Iraq and Syria saw the largest numbers of deaths, but the attacks took place on four continents. While the military power declines, their power to disrupt is increasingly their only means of remaining relevant.

    The Civil War in Syria set new standards for cruelty as Russia and Syria moved to crush the last resistance in Aleppo. While reports are still hard to verify, reputable non-governmental groups and the United Nations all claim that the siege of Aleppo was ended in large part through the deliberate attacks against civilian infrastructure, most despicably the targeting of hospitals and aid workers. If the accusations of human rights violations are confirmed, the list of war crimes will be long.

    While there are many other conflicts (Yemen, Libya, Central African Republic, etc.) that involve death and destruction, the international focus given to the Civil War in Syria put the credibility of the United Nations to the test there as in few other places. In 2016, the UN was found wanting. Despite repeated efforts and unprecedented rhetorical criticism, the UN was largely ineffective in progressing peace in Syria. At the start of 2017 a coalition of Russia, Syria, Iran, and Turkey appears to be the dominant force in setting the terms of a victor’s peace. While this does at least offer some prospect of an end to the Civil War in Syria in 2017, it is not a good precedent for the international resolution of future conflict.

    One of the clear positives of 2016 was the continued work of non-governmental groups around the world. Provision of relief supplies following natural disasters (as well as human-generated ones) remains a staple of NGO activity, but innovation in many other areas continued. Private development programs, mixed public-private partnerships, and all manner of other combinations of state and non-state efforts continued around the world. Some worked, some failed, but while state and IGO efforts struggle, NGO’s often fill the gap in key areas.

    For all the bad news of 2016, there were also bright spots. The Rio Olympic Games successfully let the world set aside its problems for a few weeks to celebrate national pride through the healthy avenue of sport. For all the predictions of disaster, and the turmoil in Brazil’s domestic politics, the Olympics gave the world a pleasant summer break from bad news.

    Moving into 2017, the world faces many challenges, but for the student of international relations it should be another very interesting year. Current events should unfold in a way that shows just how important the broader international community is in the lives of individual people.

    And for an international relations blogger, things will never be dull.



    1. Since the end of the Cold War many scholars have argued that sovereignty was gradually eroding and that the Westphalian system was potentially being replaced by a post-Westphalian system based on mixed governance. 2016 seemed to see a resurgence of sovereignty at the core of national behavior. Did 2016 show a shift in the bigger trend, or was it just a blip in the continued shift away from sovereignty as the most important element in international relations?
    2. In 2016, the prediction that things would be nasty and brutish seemed the safest bet. Is that also true for 2017? Or did 2016 resolve the issues that caused much of the conflict in the system?
    3. Realist explanations for international relations were popular in 2016. Are the assumptions that realism makes about international relations really the right lens through which to look at 2016? Or do other approaches offer better explanations of the behaviors of states in 2016?