Pre-Westphalian IR


Here are two blog entries focusing on international politics in pre-Westphalian Europe. The first provides a realist balance-of-power analysis of of the city states and principalities of Europe in 1423, with military power based on the number of horseman each region could muster, and annual income measured in ducats, a currency worth slightly more than the Canadian dollar:)

The Power of Medieval States – A Report from the Year 1423

Map of Europe in 1430, created by Lynn H. Nelson

The second article is more in depth, and offers a more constructivist analysis by the author of Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades, Andrew Latham. While the first article suggests the continuing logic of realism across the ages, this article suggests parallels between the “identity-interest complex” of the Crusades and that of Islamic extremism.

Medieval Geopolitics: An interview with Andrew Latham

“My analysis of the crusades demonstrates how a distinctively religious “identity-interest complex” made possible the religious wars of the late medieval era.  This is a very specific historical case, to be sure, and I have endeavored to present it as such.  But there is no reason to suppose that the argument that religious identities (along with all of their entailments) cannot and do not motivate individual and collective actors on the international stage just as powerfully today as they did a millennium ago.  Indeed, as the works of scholars such as Olivier Roy and David Cook convincingly demonstrate, historical and contemporary Islamist political violence – to take one particularly salient example – is both made possible and motivated by a particular religious identity and its associated political project. Like the crusades, this violence cannot be convincingly explained by recourse to the “hidden logic” of the mode of production, the transhistorical logic of self-help under anarchy, or “second image” dynamics that explain violence in terms of the war-prone pathologies of certain actors on the international stage.”

‘I was terribly wrong’ – writers look back at the Arab spring five years on -The Guardian


“In January 2011, days after the first uprising in Tunisia and the protests in Tahrir Square, the Guardian invited leading writers from across the Arab world to reflect on the revolutionary fervour sweeping the region. Then, they expressed great optimism for the future. Here, they revisit their responses and ask, is there still room for hope?”


This article also provides links to the original interviews conducted in 2011. An excellent look at the hope and disappointment of the Arab Spring.


For further reading, see also:

The Arab Winter -The Economist

This article provides plenty of statistics to back up the gloomy narrative, broken up appropriately by subheadings based on the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. For the Egyptians in particular it has been “meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”


He Said, She Said -New York Times


With the Iranian-Saudi rivalry heating up, the foreign ministers of both countries have published editorials in the New York Times condemning the other state. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the editorials is that they are in the times. Both states clearly are playing to the US. The Saudis want to stop the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. Given that the nuclear agreement is now in effect, and the new relationship survived Iranian ballistic missile tests, the seizure of American naval vessel that “drifted” into Iranian waters, and the imposition of new American sanctions, it would appear that the Saudis have their work cut out for them.


Can Iran Change?

“THE world is watching Iran for signs of change, hoping it will evolve from a rogue revolutionary state into a respectable member of the international community. But Iran, rather than confronting the isolation it has created for itself, opts to obscure its dangerous sectarian and expansionist policies, as well as its support for terrorism, by leveling unsubstantiated charges against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It is important to understand why Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are committed to resisting Iranian expansion and responding forcefully to Iran’s acts of aggression.”

Mohammad Javad Zarif: Saudi Arabia’s Reckless Extremism

US’ Syria Policy ‘Paralyzed’ by Rhetoric that Assad Must Go, Says Hagel -Atlantic Council


Agree or disagree, this is a pretty good example of a realist approach to US foreign policy and the situation in Syria. It is not particularly concerned with a pragmatic response to the crisis than Assad’s moral baggage, or his ideological posture which is anti-Western, anti-Israeli & pro-Iran:

“Former Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, thinks that the Obama administration has become “paralyzed” by its rhetoric that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step down, said budget cuts have pushed the United States “perilously close” to being unable to maintain its military dominance, equated the Republican presidential campaigns to an amateur talent contest, and had some advice for Donald Trump: “focus on uniting this country, not dividing it.”

“We have allowed ourselves to get caught and paralyzed on our Syrian policy by the statement that ‘Assad must go,’” Hagel said at the Atlantic Council on January 13. “Assad was never our enemy. A brutal dictator? Yes.”

But, he added, important lessons should have been learned from the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Following Hussein’s execution in December of 2006, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s divisive policies deepened the sectarian divide in the country and contributed to the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In Libya, the toppling of Gadhafi by rebels aided by a Western military campaign in 2011 plunged the country into a downward spiral of chaos from which it has yet to recover.

“You can take a brutal dictator out, but you better understand what you may get in return,” Hagel said. “We never asked that question: What is coming after Assad?”

Did data miss the Arab Uprisings? -World Bank



“What we saw in both Egypt and Tunisia, as well as in other countries who witnessed unrest including Bahrain and Syria, with this behavioral metric was the reality masked by GDP per capita trends and other classic economic metrics. In fact, in the years leading to the unrest, while trends of traditional metrics could be best described as “uneventful, with a slight uptick,” life evaluation data were telling a clear and consistent story in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. The general theme of those data were, “‘Warning, contents under pressure. Do not shake!” This was due to the clear decline in how citizens themselves were evaluating their lives. It was apparent that far too many saw the future as bleak, irrespective of GDP or what other classic metrics said about their countries.”

Iraqi Kurdistan Economic Report 2016: Kurdistan’s Great Recession -Marcopolis


By Dr. Mark DeWeaver

Not long ago, the future looked bright for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Long an oasis of peace in an otherwise unstable region, by 2013 the three Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniyah, and Dohuk had become the most prosperous part of the country. Not only were they developing their own oil and gas resources but they were also diversifying into non-oil sectors such as cement, tourism, and real estate. In the major cities consumers were flush with cash—business was booming at shopping malls, car dealerships, gold shops, hotels, and restaurants. Iraq’s tallest apartment and office buildings were under construction. The region’s dream of becoming the “next Dubai” seemed to be fast becoming a reality.

Today the KRI’s multi-year economic boom has turned to bust. Last year’s 50% drop in oil prices, the occupation of neighboring provinces by Islamic State (IS) militants, and the suspension of fiscal transfers from Baghdad to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have resulted in a government-budget crisis of epic proportions. State-sector salaries have gone unpaid for months at a time, KRG-controlled banks have no cash to fund depositors’ withdrawals, arrears to construction contractors are piling up, and billions of dollars in payments due to foreign oil companies have not been made.

The impact on the private sector has been little short of catastrophic. Consumer spending has collapsed, property prices have crashed, occupancy rates at four and five star hotels have plummeted, and work on many projects has come to a virtual standstill. Capacity utilization at cement plants is falling, car dealerships are struggling, income at banks and insurance companies is down sharply, and sales of big-ticket electronics items are slumping. Businesses that only two years ago were making record profits are now fighting for survival.

Outside of Iraq, Kurdistan’s great recession has attracted surprisingly little attention. While the war against the Islamic State continues to monopolize the headlines, the KRI economy is seldom in the news. This one-sided emphasis on the security situation is unfortunate because it obscures some of the most serious problems the region is facing. The outsider might well be left with the impression that everything in Kurdistan will be fine once enough precision guided munitions have found their targets in the IS-controlled areas south and west of the border. In this report, our objective is to fill in some of the gaps in previous coverage of the KRI by providing a comprehensive account of the region’s current economic downturn. We believe that our findings will be useful not only to those following the KRI economy for practical reasons but also to researchers interested in the business cycle dynamics of commodity exporting countries.

Canadian-Saudi relations in the spotlight -Globe and Mail


The Harper government signed a deal to sell armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Despite growing criticism, the new Trudeau government is honoring the deal. The criticisms are focusing on two things. First, the nature of the vehicles and how they will be used:

“Let’s be clear: These are weapons. The Canadian light armoured vehicles, or LAVs, that will be sold to Saudi Arabia are not jeeps. They are big, 8×8 armoured vehicles with gun turrets on top. And they are being sold to an internal security force, not Saudi Arabia’s regular army. That force, the Saudi Arabian National Guard, is tasked with protecting the royal family. It deploys its armoured vehicles at protests. There can be no assurance they will never be used against Saudi civilians.”

The Saudi National Guard is indeed an internal security institution, and its chief task is protecting the regime. These vehicles could be used to put down civilian unrest, including Shi’a protesting against discrimination and potentially pro-democracy demonstrations. They could also be used against extremist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. The National Guard also acts as a check against the regular Saudi army, lest they ever get the idea to stage a coup. Not surprisingly, the national Guard is heavily armed in Saudi Arabia.

The Trudea government is also coming under criticism for the Saudis human rights record, and whats written in its own appraisals of the regime.

“The Liberal government is refusing to make public a recently completed assessment of the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia even as it endures criticism for proceeding with a $15-billion deal to ship weaponized armoured vehicles to the Mideast country.

Saudi Arabia, notorious for its treatment of women, dissidents and offenders, became the focus of international condemnation this month over a mass execution of 47 people, including Shia Muslim cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, an exceptionally vocal critic of the ruling Al Saud family.

A country’s human rights record is an important consideration in the arms export control process that determines whether Canadian-made weapons can be exported there. The Saudi deal was brokered by Ottawa, which also serves as the prime contractor in the transaction.”


Finally, the Globe and Mail has also had a look at policy briefs that suggest Ottawa needs to deepen its ties to Saudi Arabia, because of the country’s strategic position and because of potential economic opportunities.

“Current bilateral engagement includes a particular focus on Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” it says. “Saudi Arabia is a regional power, the only Arab country in the G20. It is a key contributor to global energy security and Canada’s largest trading partner in the region.”

“The memo says there are trade and investment opportunities for Canada in the Gulf region because its economies are “diversifying into areas of Canadian strength, including financial, education, health care services, agriculture, as well as infrastructure.”

The briefs make no mention of civil rights, and the public versions have the references to political reform within the Saudi Kingdom redacted.

“The censored version of the memo makes no mention of human rights, including the case of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife now lives in Quebec.

But a section on how Canada can support “gradual, consensual political and social reforms” in the region is almost entirely blacked out.”

U.N. says some of its peacekeepers were paying 13-year-olds for sex -Washington Post


Allegations of sexual misconduct and/or rape among UN peacekeepers are not new. This report is notable because

  1. The UN is acknowledging that peacekeepers have become involved in the criminal underworld that often develops in large, long-term camps.
  2. It includes reports of the systematic use of rape: “Christian women were raped by members of the mostly Christian “anti-balaka” militia after being accused of interacting with Muslims” in the “M’Poko camp.
  3. The UN only acted after “a whistleblower leaked an internal U.N. investigation to French authorities, according to U.N. officials. Last month, the report by a panel including former Canadian supreme court justice Marie Deschamps found that U.N. staff in Bangui had “turned a blind eye to the criminal actions of individual troops” in that case.”
  4. The report raises the issue of identifying the countries where the accused peacekeepers come from. The UN is reluctant to identify the countries no doubt because it is afraid that countries will stop providing peacekeepers in case there is a scandal. Its not surprising that the UN is concerned about its image, and the image of peacekeeping operations, but sweeping the problem under the rug is short-sighted. Sooner or later these problems always make into the public eye, and the damage done to the UN’s reputation by covering it up is almost as bad as the offenses themselves.

Why Saudi Arabia escalated the Middle East’s sectarian conflict -Washington Post


Although Iran is not without fault, the sudden crisis in Iranian Saudi relations is due to the Saudis escalating the rivalry by executing Shi’a cleric Nimir al-Nimir. But why? According to Marc Lynch’s post at the Monkey Cage, a blog maintained by the Washington Post, the reasons are complex. The Saudis are feeling increasing vulnerable, the conflict in Yemen is dragging on, Tehran’s nuclear deal with the US is allowing Iran to escape its regional isolation, and the Saudis see a leadership void in the Sunni Arab world which they wish to fill. Will this lead to an Iranian-Saudi war? Probably not. But as Lynch argues: the mobilization of sectarian passions are part of the standard playbook for Riyadh when faced with regional and domestic challenges. But the new forces unleashed by the Arab uprising, from state weakness and civil wars to potent new media platforms, make this sectarian game much more dangerous than in the past. It will be far more difficult to deescalate these sectarian passions than it has been to inflame them.”

Can FSA get back on its feet after Russian intervention? -al Monitor


The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was one of the original anti-Assad militias in the uprising. Because it is considered the most ‘moderate’ and most secular of the anti-Assad forces, it has been the darling of the west since the start of the fighting. However, the FSA is falling on increasingly hard times. On the regime side, it has become one of the primary targets of the Russian bombing campaign, which is supposed to be focused on targeting ISIS. On the Salafi side, it has to fend off ISIS and the AL-Qaeida affiliated the al-Nusra Front. The United States, which is still sympathetic to their cause, is now directly involved with supporting Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that are the biggest threat to ISIS’ position within Syria. If things continue, the FSA may become irrelevant. In part, this reflects the balance of power in Syria. In part, it also reflects the US’ attachment to the Kurds in Iraq. It also reflects the US’ prioritization of ISIS above all else in Syria.

“The SDF are basically taking areas that are of vital interest to the FSA. This falls within a Russian, Assad regime and SDF strategy to disconnect FSA from the IS front line, which would make them irrelevant in the eyes of the West,” Hatahet said. This loss would deprive the FSA of bargaining power in the next negotiations on Syria.