A civil war followed the Arab Spring. A majority of the population is displaced from their homes. Regional powers have intervened to support opposing sides in the conflict. International NGO’s and the United Nations accuse all sides of human rights violations. ISIS and Al Qaeda have moved in to fill the power vacuum, threatening regional stability.
Sound familiar? You almost certainly were thinking of the crisis in Syria, but all of the above equally describes the civil war that has raged in Yemen since rival groups attempted to take control of the country following the Arab Spring. In spite of being a terrible crisis of incredible severity, the international media pays far less attention to the situation in Yemen, leading to a much lower general knowledge of the conflict.
Yemen is another example of state failure due to civil war. It includes intervention by regional powers, in this case Saudi Arabia (with American backing) in support of the internationally recognized government and Iran in support of the Houthi rebel movement. In this conflict, ISIS is the newcomer, with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) having a long history of activity in Yemen. There is no direct intervention in the civil war by the major powers, at least not yet. The United States has attacked some Houthi positions, but only after these positions fired missiles at US Navy ships patrolling off the coast.
If the players are familiar, so is the terrible cost of the ongoing conflict being paid by the civilian population. Yemen was a very poor country at the start of the conflict and much of its infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. This has made humanitarian aid difficult to deliver even before you add the possibility of being shot at. As the situation deteriorates, people starve.
In Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere, conflicts that drag on for long periods generally lead to significant harm to civilians. Much of this relief comes from non-governmental groups and the United Nations. The money to pay for these efforts depends on public attention to the crises. With so much focus on Syria, the smaller conflicts have a difficult time getting noticed.
Life and death hang on the ability to hold the attention of the world’s media.
Saudi Arabia is often considered one of the world’s most conservative places. It is a theocratic monarchy in which a highly conservative form of Islam provides a foundation for the rule of an absolute ruler. We often hear about how Saudi Arabia works to limit individual freedom as defined in Western states, with the ban on women driving often held out as a central piece of evidence.
So it is an interesting moment in globalization when this highly conservative country hosts its first Comic Con. Comic Conventions take place around the world. They are often associated with a free-wheeling individualism as people dress to fit their favorite fantasy universes. They are an example of globalization at the cultural and individual level that we often have trouble seeing directly.
At a Comic Con, you have a wide range of characters and genres represented. You have comic books, but also movies related to them. You also have anime, movies based in Japanese graphic novels, represented strongly. The characters and worlds in these fictional universes have a following around the world, even in an otherwise highly conservative country like Saudi Arabia.
Technology has spread these cultural artworks around the world and attracted a global following. Anyone with an internet connection can access a vast range of content, and then engage in a vast online world that discusses it. At Comic Cons, you can meet, in person, many other people with shared ideas and shared cultural symbols. This is globalization at work.
Comic Cons lack the shock value of wars or of humanitarian crises, but they show how a global cultural iconography can come to be shared by people in vastly dispersed areas. Unified by a shared cultural space, but separated by geography, people who attend these events represent a type of global community. So, the next time you see a movie that is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, remember that you are sharing a moment with hundreds of millions of your fellow global citizens.
During the Cold War, it was taken as a given that the Soviet Union would test any new American president. It was an effort to see how the new leader would react under stressful conditions. After the Cold War, the desire to test new leaders to measure their political will and political temperament has not vanished.
Donald Trump has had a couple of chaotic weeks in office, leading a government that seeks to unsettle the past ways of doing things. Despite all of the rhetoric of change, the tests of resolve from foreign leaders are following a very familiar pattern.
International relations is a confusing and dangerous field for those who practice it. You can know a great deal about a country and its leaders, but you always are faced with some degree of uncertainty. You can know how a leader will probably react based on their past decisions, the type of political institutions in their nation-state, and a range of other factors that influence the kinds of incentives they face. But you never know how much of your estimates of probable actions will match reality until the leader actually makes decisions.
Wars have happened because political leaders have gotten this kind of calculation wrong. The German Kaiser was convinced that Great Britain would never fight to protect France, and thus missed a key element that determined the outcome of World War One. In 1941, the Japanese Imperial government thought that the United States would negotiate a peace after being attacked if it freed them to fight in Europe. That miscalculation led to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unconditional surrender of Japan in 1945.
When nations miscalculate what political leaders in rival states will do, the results can be costly.
So, tests of resolve are common tools of policy. The idea is to create a situation that matters, but not too much. This allows all parties to send costly signals to each other about how they will act at other times. Russia spends time and money to deploy a missile system to the borders of NATO member states. This is a costly signal that threatens NATO allies and signals that Russia is willing to break its past commitments. The ball is then in the court of the Trump administration to respond. The response is a costly signal of how the Trump administration will react in future cases of threats. This signal is not just for Russia, but for all of the potential competitors.
Russia is only one of the states seeking to get a feel for Donald Trump. North Korea and Iran have tested ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads since Trump’s inauguration. China has accelerated economic integration plans within Asia to fill the gap left by the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
It is still early days for the Trump administration and the response to these threats has varied. Iran was hit by additional sanctions. North Korea will likely face additional penalties, but through the United Nations process rather than unilaterally. And Russia? Given all the furor over Russia and its possible role in the 2016 elections in the US, the response here is an important early signal about the resolve to stand by our NATO allies.
It is still too early to judge the response to this challenge. This is not a simple matter and it requires a thoughtful response, even in an administration distracted by other issues. The response may also take a long time to implement.
But it is still nice to see that in at least one area of contemporary politics, all the old rules still apply.
Refugees have been much in the news in the past several years. More than 20 million people are displaced just in the Middle East and North Africa. Around the world, the total number of refugees is greater than those displaced in times of world war. International organizations have struggled to cope with the refugee crises of recent years, but lessons from past crises also haunt the community of practitioners trying to assist those displaced by conflict.
In the early 1990’s the nation-state of Somalia collapsed and a civil war began that has still not ended. While the international community still recognizes Somalia as a nation-state, it has not been one in a practical sense for nearly three decades.
In the Dadaab refugee camp, established in Kenya at the start of the conflict, an entire generation of displaced persons has been born and raised since being displaced from Somalia. Efforts to provide relief and resettlement at the start of the war have been replaced with serious concerns that the camp has now become a permanent part of Kenya, with the nominally Somali residents being increasingly disconnected from a home that many have never seen.
Dadaab represents the terrible problem of refugee relief. International law, and human fellow feeling, compel people to provide basic humanitarian relief for the people displaced by conflict. At the same time, the idea is that these people should eventually either be resettled or they should return home. But what do you do when they cannot return home and they don’t want to permanently move to another country?
This is the paradox of the modern refugee camp: They are awful places, but less awful than many alternatives. Somalia is still basically a failed state. While some sections of the country are relatively stable, the civil war drags on and on. The danger to Somalis in Dadaab is very real. At the same time, there are people who have lived in the camp for 25 years. That is a quarter-century of life in a makeshift shanty-town.
As terrible as the camp is, there is a consistent supply of food, basic (if patchy) security, and even schools and markets for people to learn and work in. It may not be idyllic, but it beats being shot in the crossfire of competing militias.
More Somalis in Dadaab could potentially resettle, but most of the world does not want them. The idea that Western countries do not want to allow foreign refugees to resettle is not new. Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, and others join Somalis on a list of peoples that no Western country wants. Poor neighboring countries, with high unemployment and relatively small formal economies are not much more welcoming to large numbers of foreigners coming into the labor market.
At the end of the day, Dadaab provides a powerful warning for the large number of refugee crises facing the world today. It is possible that in seeking to provide temporary relief, they may create a permanent group of stateless persons. If the underlying conflict is not concluded and peace restored, we may see millions more people joining the ranks of the stateless.
It is often argued that we are making the world a better place by learning from our history. It remains to be seen if this will be true for today’s refugees.
One of the central challenges of writing an international relations blog is that there is a strong sense of trying to keep things focused on the international system and events taking place outside the borders of the United States. It is easy to leave the American Politics to that other Know Now blog.
But there are times when American politics is international relations. This is one of those times.
One of the challenges of understanding international relations is that it is incredibly complicated. There are lots of moving parts. Many actors with curious acronyms, foreign place names, and the oddly (to the eyes of most citizens of nation-states) anarchic world of the international system. To understand this complexity, we rely on theory to simplify the world. We build theoretical models to tell us what is most important as a focus for our attention. Ideally these models help us to explain the world we live in and then predict what may happen in the future.
There are many differences across theories of international relations, but an enduring tension is the role that individuals may play in determining the events of the international system. When discussing the system-level theories there are powerful forces at work, interacting in complex webs of power relations, international market forces, the movement of populations, even the occasional natural disaster. It is hard to see the role of individuals in this high-level view. At other times, we look at the specific leaders of nations and examine psychological and institutional factors that influence their behavior. There are lots of other approaches, but all must deal with this problem of the individual and their role.
Rarely has such a discussion seemed more appropriate than with the Trump presidency. Whether you love him or hate him, Donald Trump has raised interesting questions about the role of the individual in international relations.
Political leaders always have more impact than average citizens on a daily basis. They have an institutional role that makes this so. Leading a nation-state makes it easier to have an impact. Average citizens can play a powerful role in unusual times, but more often they play small, incremental roles. These roles are important, but they rarely make headlines. Political leaders get to make headlines.
But how much to they actually do? Donald Trump is the leader of a republic. He was elected to lead the nation, but with his power checked by legislative and judicial branches. These domestic institutions constrain him and what he can do. He is also constrained by political survival. If he wants to stay in office, he has to maintain a winning coalition to do so. These are significant constraints on his actions.
In China and Russia, a narrow political elite rules each country. In Russia there are elections, although not ones that are very free or fair. But the fig-leaf of representative government exists. In China even suggesting competitive elections is generally followed by punishments by the state. In these countries, leaders face fewer limits on their power, but they are still constrained by the other nation-states and how these nations are seen.
So, how much power do these leaders have, really? Realist thinkers would argue that they have very little, that states act in the interest of power maximization and a given leader matters little. Liberal institutionalists will argue that the institutional constraints limit the power of leaders, but that leaders own preferences do matter. And the arguments could go on and on.
In practice, the complicated world is not explainable by any one theory. Donald Trump is heavily constrained by institutions, but he has the power to set an international agenda that comes from being the leader of the largest economy and strongest military in the world. He has limited power, but his quirks matter because of the nation he leads. When Donald Trump argues that dismantling the post-war international order is a good thing, people will pay attention. Leaders of the global South have been calling for that for years, to much less attention. That Chinese President Xi Jinping is now the only leader of a major power state arguing for an open global trade system represents a fundamental shift in the international agenda.
It is early days in a Trump administration and his decisions have largely been symbolic in international terms. It remains to be seen whether the problems of his first three weeks are just on-the-job training (which is normal) or if they represent a real break with the system that has maintained world peace for the last seventy years. Regardless of which is the answer, the “individuals matter” theorists are smiling, at least for today.
In a world where we often focus on what goes wrong, there are times when it is good to look at what goes right. Or at least, somewhat right. In a democracy, leaders are expected to give up power and leave office when they lose an election. In established democracies, they do this. In nations that have new or weak institutions, a president leaving office is not guaranteed, even when they lose an election.
One solution for states with more fragile governance is to seek outside support for democratic institutions. In the case of the Gambia, this solution worked as planned, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervening to ensure the transition of power to the elected president Adama Barrow.
In Western media, Africa is often presented as a basket case of weak institutions, plagued by instability. At times, African nations have lived down to this stereotype. Little known to most Westerners, Africa has developed some of the most innovative global governance institutions in the world.
ECOWAS is one of the most interesting examples of this institutional innovation. Begun as a simple regional economic organization, the leaders of ECOWAS countries soon realized that, as poor developing nation-states, simply signing a treaty was not going to bring instant rewards. Lacking the established and stable institutions found in the industrial North, and still suffering the legacies of colonialism, the regional grouping would need to take a different path.
ECOWAS developed a security dimension to its organization that aimed to promote stability among its members by providing peacekeeping forces and other mechanisms for stabilizing the local security situation. In response to civil war and instability among its members, the organization built local peace-keeping and intervention forces that proved important in settling civil wars in several of its members.
In recent years, ECOWAS has institutionalized a commitment to democracy that is rarely paralleled in other organizations. With memories of dictatorships still fresh in several of its members, ECOWAS made a firm commitment to support democracy. This commitment was sorely tested following the 2016 election in The Gambia.
The Gambia is not a model of democracy. The incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh rose to power in a coup de etat in 1994, ousting the military government of Dawda Jawara that had ruled since independence in 1965. In spite of the violent origin of the Jammeh government, four elections had been held in which President Jammeh was returned to power. None of these elections was particularly free or fair, but they did preserve the basic form of democracy.
In 2016, things were expected to be the same. Only the people of The Gambia had other ideas. Despite an unfair process, the people voted for an inexperienced former property developer named Adama Barrow to replace Mr. Jammeh as president.
At first things looked positive: Mr. Jammeh conceded defeat (to the great surprise of most observers) and agreed to step aside. Soon after, however, he changed his mind and announced that the election results were null and void and that another election would be held.
At this point, most of the world said the usual unhappy things and wagged its collective finger. But ECOWAS faced a critical choice, and the organization chose to act.
Peace talks were attempted in which ECOWAS leaders sought to convince Mr. Jammeh to leave peacefully. These talks failed. President Barrow was sworn into office while in exile and ECOWAS troops from several neighboring states entered the country on January 19, 2017. Following the intervention, Mr. Jammeh agreed to leave The Gambia and go into exile.
An African regional organization had applied its international rules protecting democracy. It had enforced its rules with its own military forces backing up its diplomatic efforts. And after very little actual fighting, democracy was preserved in The Gambia.
Democracy is generally thought of as a bottom up process. Most of our political theory starts with things like a social contract in which the people contracts with a government that they select to represent their interests. But when institutions are weak and democracy is new, it helps to have outside help. ECOWAS has shown that democracy can be supported from above: regional organizations can support and maintain democratic institutions when they fail in a member state.
In a world of bad news and instability, it is nice to see that very poor countries, facing many obstacles, have shown the will and capacity to preserve democratic institutions in the face of threats from within. That is good news.