• Why are they Negotiating Brexit? The Cost of Withdrawal from the EU

    Nation-states are sovereign entities. No state can legitimately coerce another state to take any actions that they don’t want to take. Or so all the textbooks say.

    They why are the UK and the other European Union (EU) states negotiating over Brexit? Can’t the UK just bail tomorrow and be done with it?

    The answer is that the UK could do just that, but the price it pays would be very, very high.

    States are sovereign, that much is true, but in an anarchic world, no outside power guarantees commitments. That means that all a state has is its reputation for compliance with its agreements. The UK could just walk away, but they made strong and deep commitments to the EU, including a commitment to follow a set of procedures if they want to withdraw. To abandon these commitments would mark the UK as a state that cannot be trusted.

    It would also mean abandoning all of the benefits of EU membership instantly. Economic relationships have value and an instant, disordered end to these relationships would potentially wreck the UK economy. It might also damage the economy of the other EU members, so they have an incentive to play by the rules as well.

    Following the rules makes everyone better off, even if there is no outside enforcer.

    In cases like this, enforcement is easy. Everyone is better off, so no one chooses to blow up the system. The actual terms of negotiation will be much harder, and the eventual deal will be difficult for all sides to agree on. But, the negotiation and eventual deal still beats throwing the rules out the window. The EU Treaty is thus a self-enforcing agreement, even when one party wants to break away.

    This kind of situation is actually remarkably common in international relations. The International Postal Union manages international mail service. The International Air Transport Association sets global standards for the aviation industry to make global air travel safer and more orderly. Numerous other organizations handle these kinds of boring activities that most people ignore every day.

    In many high-stakes areas such as security and human rights, organizations face greater challenges. When faced with these challenges, it can be harder to maintain the rules. That is why the design of international institutions can be challenging, and why institutions can fail under pressure. The most famous example is still the League of Nations, which failed to halt Japanese, Italian, and German aggression in the years before World War II.

    One of the things that Brexit shows us is that strong institutions that provide large benefits to their members can support rules-based solutions even when faced with serious problems.



    1. The UK wants to leave the EU, but it wants to keep most of its economic ties to the EU economy. How likely is it that the other EU member states will be willing to offer this benefit without concessions in return? At what point might this change the mutual benefit equation discussed above?
    2. The EU member states are all democracies. They have to be democratic to become members. Does the fact that all of these countries are democratic, and thus select leaders through a set of rules and procedures, make the political leaders of these countries more likely to accept rules and procedures in international politics? Does the democratic nature of the membership make following the rules easier?
    3. Sovereignty was clearly important enough that a majority of UK voters were willing to leave the EU to preserve it. Does the willingness of the UK to leave the EU damage the reputation of the UK for honoring its commitments? Is following the rules on the way out just a bandage over the wound to the UK’s reputation?

  • Barrel Bombs, Yes. Sarin Gas, No. Does how a government kills its own people matter?

    It seems like an odd question: does it matter how a government kills its own people? The answer is on the minds of many as reaction to the most recent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government has died down and the Syrian Civil War has returned to its previous slog of conventional butchery.

    To the person who dies and their families, the mode of death is probably not important, but for the international community, it can be extremely important how a government kills its own citizens. International law exists in an anarchic world. Nation states cannot be coerced into doing things that they do not wish to do. At least not legitimately under international law. This is both a powerful legal principle and a recognized norm of global governance.

    But what happens when the sovereignty principle buts up against other laws and norms? Various treaties and conventions prohibit the deliberate killing of civilians in wartime, the possession of chemical weapons, the use of chemical weapons, the deliberate targeting of people based on their ethnic, religious, or cultural identity. There are also conventions that set different standards for killing people during civil wars as opposed to killing in times of peace.

    This complex web of international law and the norms that support it are intended to constrain the actions of governments. The familiar problem is that of enforcement. Who enforces international laws and norms when they are violated?

    The deliberate killing of civilians by a government is illegal under international law regardless of whether or not a war is going on. The incidental killing of civilians during wartime is permitted under the laws of war. It is expected that civilians will be killed in wars. The sad truth is that civilian deaths almost always outnumber military ones in any war. So long as care is taken to limit this damage, killing civilians is legally and normatively accepted in wartime.

    Civil Wars like the one in Syria make drawing clear lines hard. It also raises the cost of enforcement for the international community. A state that feels its survival is at stake is more likely to turn to brutal measures, but it will also be hard to punish effectively. Syria will accept economic sanctions if that is what it takes for the government to stay in power.

    The resolve of the international community to enforce international law is a key part of the calculus of political leaders. When the international community is reluctant to enforce or when it actively signals that it will not enforce, governments are free to do as they will.

    The Syrian Civil War has seen horrors perpetrated by all sides in the conflict. The international community has been cataloging these horrors, but has no stomach for the kind of intervention it would take to stop the war. In time, the perpetrators of these crimes may face international justice. The International Criminal Court (ICC) exists to tackle just these kinds of circumstances. The challenge is that the ICC has struggled to address past conflicts and now faces the possibility of some members withdrawing, weakening the Court’s reach.

    Whether there will be justice for the victims of war crimes in Syria will ever know justice is hard to say. International law is tricky in these cases, even when people agree that a crime has been committed. But for the purposes of determining what is and is not illegal, how you kill your people does matter. Whether the crimes are horrible enough that you will be remembered and possibly hunted years later makes a difference.

    Time will tell what justice may come after the war, but for now, only the most heinous acts catch the world’s attention.



    1. International treaties and conventions protect human rights in times of war. At the same time, these are only enforceable by other nation states paying the costs of enforcement. Can justice be produced by this kind of system? Or does it depend on the circumstances of the crimes?
    2. Chemical weapons kill indiscriminately and can do lasting damage to the areas in which they are used. They are banned under international law. Despite this, we have seen both the Syrian government and the Islamic State group use chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War. If the norms and laws against use are so strong, why have multiple parties decided that using them is a good idea?
    3. To punish perpetrators of war crimes requires time and patience as well as the ability to gather evidence to support cases later on. This can be difficult in times of war. It can often be simpler to simply revert to the use of force to punish states that perpetrate such crimes. But that use of force can be difficult to do legally given the need for UN Security Council approval. Does the horror of war crimes justify violating international laws on the use of force to punish them?

  • Drawing a Line, or Just Sending a Signal? America Strikes the Syrian Government

    Following the deaths of 87 people in a Syrian government attack that appears to have been conducted using sarin nerve gas, the United States launched an attack on the Syrian government airfield from which the attack came. This is the first time that the United States has directly attacked Syrian government installations in the Syrian Civil War.

    The attack lightly damaged the air base, which resumed bombing the rebel held city of Khan Sheikhoun within 24-hours of the US attack. Despite its relatively small military impact, the symbolic impact is much more powerful.

    International relations is a realm of uncertainty. Political leaders never really know what other political leaders are going to do. When the leadership of a state changes, it can be very difficult for other leaders to know what the new leadership will do. When the leadership has made vague and contradictory statements (which often happens in democratic elections) the uncertainty is multiplied. In the case of the, still new, Trump administration, uncertainty has been higher than usual.

    Regardless of any other aspects of the strike, this action is a powerful signal that the powerful reluctance to use force against nation-state actors of the Obama years is not how the Trump administration sees the world. The Obama administration used American air power to pummel non-state groups around the world, including a massive increase in drone strikes, but had gone to great lengths to avoid attacking nation-states.

    While the attack was a signal, and a costly one (the Tomahawk missiles are over $1 million each), it leaves a great deal of additional uncertainty. Given the limited nature of the strike, it is not clear to what extent American policy will actually change. With the death toll in the Syrian Civil War about to cross the half-million mark, the message appears to be that killing with conventional weapons is fine, but killing with chemical weapons is not.

    In the complex world of great power politics, the strike may have more value than anything related to Syria. It was a clear signal to Russia that American wiliness to accept a Russian client state’s massacres was limited. Taking place during the visit of the Chinese president, the strike also sent a powerful signal that the Trump administration may also be willing to be more forceful with other rogue states, such at North Korea.

    As the days and weeks unfold, the picture of what the strikes mean in the big picture will become clearer. Diplomats and public relations officers will clarify and expand on the US position. The responses of the other major powers will show how they respond. And the great game will continue.

    For the families of the dead in Khan Sheikhoun it will be little solace, but they can at least take some comfort in knowing that there are red lines to restrain the Syrian government from the worst of the worst kinds of behaviors.



    1. Signaling is one way that nation-states communicate, but it still leaves uncertainty. Does the use of military force to send costly signals create more danger than sending signals through other means such as economic sanctions? Or is the use of force simply the extension of policy by other means?
    2. Does the value of the signal that the US sent with this strike depend on what is done by diplomacy in the weeks and months that follow?
    3. The Civil War in Syria is a complicated mix of actors engaged in a long and bloody conflict, with the great powers engaged working on very different missions in the region. Does a renewed American willingness to use force against the Syrian government improve the prospects for an end to the overall conflict?