Welcome to IR Theory and Practice!

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This blog is intended primarily for my students, though all are welcome.The material posted here is chosen because it provides more information about issues being discussed in class and/or illustrates theoretical arguments. In addition to being tagged by subject, posts are also therefore tagged by course number. The blog also provides links to other web sites (blogs, news magazines and think-tanks) that may be of interest. The last group of links, “Perspectives: Left Right and In-Between” are for web sites that take a clear ideological stand. No source is completely “neutral” or “objective”. However, these sites self-identify as promoting a particular political or ideological agenda. Whether you agree or disagree with their particular point of view, read them critically but also generously.
Comments have been turned off -at least for the time being. My hope is that we will talk about this material in class. For those who wish to be notified when new posts are published, there is a “Follow” button on the sidebar to the left.

How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump -MIT Technology Review

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This detailed and thoughtful article asks “How did digital technologies go from empowering citizens and toppling dictators to being used as tools of oppression and discord?” and what can we learn from the experience?

The Lessons:

  1. the weakening of old-style information gatekeepers (such as media, NGOs, and government and academic institutions), while empowering the underdogs, has also, in another way, deeply disempowered underdogs.
  2. the new, algorithmic gatekeepers aren’t merely (as they like to believe) neutral conduits for both truth and falsehood. They make their money by keeping people on their sites and apps; that aligns their incentives closely with those who stoke outrage, spread misinformation, and appeal to people’s existing biases and preferences.
  3. the loss of gatekeepers has been especially severe in local journalism. While some big US media outlets have managed (so far) to survive the upheaval wrought by the internet, this upending has almost completely broken local newspapers…
  4. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.
  5. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.
  6. Russia exploited the US’s weak digital security—its “nobody but us” mind-set—to subvert the public debate around the 2016 election.

The way forward?

“If digital connectivity provided the spark, it ignited because the kindling was already everywhere. The way forward is not to cultivate nostalgia for the old-world information gatekeepers or for the idealism of the Arab Spring. It’s to figure out how our institutions, our checks and balances, and our societal safeguards should function in the 21st century—not just for digital technologies but for politics and the economy in general. This responsibility isn’t on Russia, or solely on Facebook or Google or Twitter. It’s on us.”

For the full article, see: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611806/how-social-media-took-us-from-tahrir-square-to-donald-trump/

Artificial Intelligence Is Now a Pentagon Priority. Will Silicon Valley Help? -NYTimes

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Here is a brief article on the militarization of Artificial Intelligence:

  • “In a May memo to President Trump, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis implored him to create a national strategy for artificial intelligence.
  • Mr. Mattis argued that the United States was not keeping pace with the ambitious plans of China and other countries. With a final flourish, he quoted a recent magazine article by Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state, and called for a presidential commission capable of “inspiring a whole of country effort that will ensure the U.S. is a leader not just in matters of defense but in the broader ‘transformation of the human condition.’”
  • “In late June, the Pentagon announced the creation of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, or JAIC. Defense officials have not said how many people will be dedicated to the new program or where it will be based when it starts next month. It could have several offices around the country.
  • The Defense Department wants to shift $75 million of its annual budget into the new office and a total of $1.7 billion over five years, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not allowed to speak about it publicly.”

Of course, its not just the US. If one state militarizes a new technology, others are sure to follow:

The Chinese government has raised the stakes with its own national strategy. Academic and commercial organizations in China have been open about working closely with the military on A.I. projects. They call it “military-civil fusion.”

Not surprisingly, the militarization of AI has raised concerns:

  • “…in the eyes of some researchers, creating robotic vehicles and developing robotic weapons are very different. And they fear that autonomous weapons pose an unusual threat to humans.
  • “This is a unique moment, with so much activism coming out of Silicon Valley,” said Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that explores policy related to national security and defense. “Some of it is informed by the political situation, but it also reflects deep concern over the militarization of these technologies as well as their application to surveillance.”

It is worth noting that the development of any new military technology has the potential to impact the balance of power and/or the offense/defense balance…..

See: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/26/technology/pentagon-artificial-intelligence.html

America Is Living James Madison’s Nightmare –The Atlantic

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This article chronicles the ills faced by the American political system. There are a number of interesting points worth thinking about. To begin with, it positions itself clearly on the side of representative democracy instead of direct democracy.

• “Madison’s reading convinced him that direct democracies—such as the assembly in Athens, where 6,000 citizens were required for a quorum—unleashed populist passions that overcame the cool, deliberative reason prized above all by Enlightenment thinkers. “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason,”
• “The Framers designed the American constitutional system not as a direct democracy but as a representative republic, where enlightened delegates of the people would serve the public good. They also built into the Constitution a series of cooling mechanisms intended to inhibit the formulation of passionate factions, to ensure that reasonable majorities would prevail.”
• “The people would directly elect the members of the House of Representatives, but the popular passions of the House would cool in the “Senatorial saucer,” as George Washington purportedly called it: The Senate would comprise natural aristocrats chosen by state legislators rather than elected by the people. And rather than directly electing the chief executive, the people would vote for wise electors—that is, propertied white men—who would ultimately choose a president of the highest character and most discerning judgment.””

Please note: the points above cover both the best and the worst of characteristics of representative democracy. It prevents mob rule, but only by allowing a privileged group (white landed men) to act as a buffer between the will of the people and policy.

The author describes the current state of American Politics as a “Madisonian Nightmare”:

• “The polarization of Congress, reflecting an electorate that has not been this divided since about the time of the Civil War, has led to ideological warfare between parties that directly channels the passions of their most extreme constituents and donors—precisely the type of factionalism the Founders abhorred.”
• “Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob. Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and faster than arguments based on reason. Rather than encouraging deliberation, mass media undermine it by creating bubbles and echo chambers in which citizens see only those opinions they already embrace.””

Quite correctly, the author points out that the problems started before Donald Trump and his twitter revolution.
• “The executive branch, meanwhile, has been transformed by the spectacle of tweeting presidents, though the presidency had broken from its constitutional restraints long before the advent of social media. During the election of 1912, the progressive populists Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson insisted that the president derived his authority directly from the people. Since then, the office has moved in precisely the direction the Founders had hoped to avoid: Presidents now make emotional appeals, communicate directly with voters, and pander to the mob.”

This trend has been exacerbated by:
Mass Political Parties: “Whatever benefits the parties offered in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, have long since disappeared. The moderating effects of parties were undermined by a series of populist reforms, including the direct election of senators, the popular-ballot initiative, and direct primaries in presidential elections, which became widespread in the 1970s.”

The Imperial Presidency: “Madison feared that Congress would be the most dangerous branch of the federal government, sucking power into its “impetuous vortex.” But today he would shudder at the power of the executive branch. The rise of what the presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency” has unbalanced the equilibrium among the three branches. Modern presidents rule by executive order rather than consulting with Congress. They direct a massive administrative state, with jurisdiction over everything from environmental policy to the regulation of the airwaves. Trump’s populist promise—“I alone can fix it”—is only the most dramatic in a long history of hyperbolic promises, made by presidents from Wilson to Obama, in order to mobilize their most ideologically extreme voters.”

Media polarization: “which has allowed geographically dispersed citizens to isolate themselves into virtual factions, communicating only with like-minded individuals and reinforcing shared beliefs. Far from being a conduit for considered opinions by an educated elite, social-media platforms spread misinformation and inflame partisan differences. Indeed, people on Facebook and Twitter are more likely to share inflammatory posts that appeal to emotion than intricate arguments based on reason.”

Ideological Polarization: “At the moment, the combination of low voter turnout and ideological extremism has tended to favor very liberal or very conservative candidates in primaries. Thanks to safe districts created by geographic self-sorting and partisan gerrymandering, many of these extremists go on to win the general election. Today, all congressional Republicans fall to the right of the most conservative Democrat, and all congressional Democrats fall to the left of the most liberal Republican. In the 1960s, at times, 50 percent of the lawmakers overlapped ideologically.”

This article describes a set of institutions that had been weakened by years of dysfunctional politics. One point may be missing though. The representative architecture of the US political system that Madison cherished may have also played a role in the alienation and radicalization of the American public. After all, it’s the elite buffer that has been the target of much of the populist anger on both the left and the right. To many Americans, the Madison’s “cooling saucer” has been nothing but a swamp.

Please see: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/james-madison-mob-rule/568351/

Syria: A Year On, Chemical Weapons Attacks Persist International Action for Deterrence, Justice Ineffective -Human Rights Watch

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“…information, based on data from seven sources, shows that the Syrian government is responsible for the majority of 85 confirmed chemical weapon attacks. The data also show that the Syrian government has been largely undeterred by the efforts of the United Nations Security Council, the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and unilateral action by individual countries to enforce the prohibition on Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

“In Syria, the government is using chemical weapons that are banned the world over without paying any price,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “One year after the horrific sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun, neither the UN Security Council nor the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has acted to uphold the prohibition against chemical weapon attacks.”

https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/04/04/syria-year-chemical-weapons-attacks-persist

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

 

Sources: Human Rights Watch, OPCW−UN Joint Investigative Mechanism, UN Commission of Inquiry, OPCW Fact−finding Mission in Syria, United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria, Amnesty International, & Bellingcat. Note: When sources identified differing numbers of injuries, we used the HRW confirmed number or the lowest estimate.

 © 2018 Human Rights Watch

‘Big price to pay’: Inside Trump’s decision to bomb Syria -Washington Post

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“The absence of a clear strategy in Syria complicated the discussions. Trump had campaigned as a noninterventionist and vowed to withdraw from Middle East entanglements that he decried as costing American lives and treasure.

And yet to Trump’s national security team, action of some kind seemed to be a requirement, as officials said they listened to the president deride his predecessor, Barack Obama, for sometimes discussing possible military action and then not delivering it. At a White House dinner last Tuesday, Trump opined that the problems in Syria were caused “because Obama did not enforce his red lines,” according to one attendee, Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law School professor.”

“Military officials said Saturday that they believe that no one — not even Syrian government personnel — was killed in the attack, which struck nonresidential facilities in the middle of the night.

Although options for more-expansive actions were also discussed, the plan that Trump ultimately endorsed, with a mix of air- and sea-launched missiles and sophisticated standoff airstrikes, was designed to minimize risk to U.S. and allied personnel and lessen the chances of unwanted escalation, officials said.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/big-price-to-pay-inside-trumps-decision-to-bomb-syria/2018/04/14/752bdd9a-3ff9-11e8-8d53-eba0ed2371cc_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3fd4fa747347

The U.S. Has Troops in Syria. So Do the Russians and Iranians. Here’s Where. -New York Times

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“American troops landed in the ground war in Syria in late 2015 with a small contingent of Special Operations forces, hoping to forge an alliance with local militias and rebel groups that could fight the Islamic State.

In the months that followed, the number of American troops grew. Their Kurdish and Arab allies, later known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, started ground assaults that would eventually lead to the loss of Islamic State strongholds in the northern cities of Manbij and their de facto capital in Raqqa.

There are currently an estimated 2,000 American troops in Syria, according to the Pentagon. The influx of forces transformed what had been an initial band of commandos in armored pickups into a scaled-down version of the sprawling military presence in neighboring Iraq.”

 

 

 

 

Gulf Cooperation Council arms race: Who sells to whom -al Jazeera

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“Amid regional instability, an arms race is under way among Arab Gulf countries. The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait – have spent billions of dollars on weapons this year alone.

Here’s a look at the recent deals made.”

  • Saudi Arabia
    So far in 2018, Saudi Arabia has allocated over $3bn to arms deals.
  • Qatar
    Qatar has allocated over $490m to arms deals in 2018.
  • Kuwait
    So far in 2018, Kuwait has allocated over $300m to arms deals.
  • United Arab Emirates
    The United Arab Emirates has allocated more than $200m for arms purchases in 2018.
  • Oman
    Oman has allocated more than $60m for buying weapons in 2018.
  • Bahrain
    Bahrain has not reported any arms purchases yet in 2018.

For specific details see: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/04/gulf-cooperation-council-arms-race-sells-180412125953374.html