Progress? Not Fast Enough, ISA 2018 edition

By Steve Saideman

I have been in this business for more than 25 years, and have gone to about 25 or so annual meetings of the International Studies Association (and about the same number of APSA’s).  Over the years, I have been struck by how much has changed since I started.

Besides the disappearance of polyester and leisure suits (yes, they still existed in the early 1990s), one of the big changes has been the gender balance.  It used to be the case that it seemed as if the only young women at these meetings were those representing the book publishers.  There are far more women (although not that many seniors) than there once was.

This time, I was struck by the increased ethnic diversity.  Sure, I know from the TRIPstudies (including my own) that 21st century IR is mighty white.  But it is less so than it was.  So, I could be pleased by the improvements. Yet….

Oh, my.   The only person I heard of getting badged–checked to see if they belong in the sea of ISA goers–was an African-American woman.  The same woman was also asked by multiple participants to get their drinks or clean up the lobby.  I will not go into the details, as it is her story to tell, but FFS!!!

So, I am reminded of many conversations with Teen and now College Senior Spew:
Me: sure, things aren’t perfect, but we have made progress (on gender, race, LGBTQ, etc).
Her:  NOT FAST ENOUGH!!!

And, yeah, she persuaded me that she was right.  This ISA was mostly a super-positive experience for me, but it is easier since I am a white, straight, male with an endowed chair and heaps of tenure.  It is easy for me to look around and notice that there is more diversity.  What is less easy for me is to see how the women and the African-Americans and the Latinx and the Asian-Americans and all the rest of the folks are treated and how they experience the event.

Which reminds me of something that happened at the airport.  On my way out, I sat next to a white woman who left her bag behind and walked off.  See something, say something, right?  After waiting a few minutes, I did so.  And then moved far away from that bag.  Twenty minutes later, she returned–that bag had acted as a seat-saver, I guess.  Oh, and security didn’t show up in that 20-minute interval.  Hmmm.

So, see something, say something and then some, right?

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Coordinated diplomatic activity against Russia in response to chemical weapons incident in UK

by Jez Littlewood

Russia can expect to be welcoming over 100 of its diplomats back to Moscow in the coming weeks. Sixteen states have today ordered 106 Russians to leave their territory in a coordinated series of national announcements. The US ordered 12 Russian representatives to the United Nations in New York to leave, and a further 48 were also expelled alongside the order to close the Russian consulate in Seattle. Canada, France, Germany, and Poland each ordered four diplomats to leave, Ukraine ordered 13 to depart, and ten other European states took similar actions.

The coordination of national actions itself indicates a few things.

  1. This is serious. States do not readily expel diplomats from their territory. They can signal displeasure with another country through a variety of means in both public and private channels, for example recalling their own Ambassador to Russia. Ordering Russian diplomats to leave is very public and purposeful. The coordination of national activity, in this case, indicates clearly that certain Western states share the UK’s concerns about Russian activity and have been convinced that Russia must answer questions about the chemical weapons attack in the UK earlier this month.
  2. The response increases the pressure on Russia. The UK has been working with its allies and partners over the last few weeks on how to respond to the use of a chemical warfare agent in Salisbury (UK) in an attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer. The UK has stated it believes Russia is responsible and its Western partners have now acted in a manner that supports that claim. Democratic states do not expel diplomatic staff on a whim. This coordinated response indicates that whatever information the UK has shared with its allies and partners has been convincing enough for them act and to act together. Coupled with other UK activity, including last week’s arrival of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to take samples from the victims of the attack, the signals here are that the UK, and others, have a very high degree of confidence in the evidence about the chemical weapon used. Even if Russia did not order or sanction the attack – something that will probably not be known for many years – the type of chemical used (the alleged ‘novichok’ type of chemical warfare agent) leads back to Russia and some very serious questions. The UK is not alone in holding this view.
  3. It is not just about chemical weapons. The chemical weapons incident is being linked to other Russian actions over the last few years. As the Canadian statement notes: “This is part of a wider pattern of unacceptable behaviour by Russia, including complicity with the Assad‎ regime, the annexation of Crimea, Russian-led fighting in eastern Ukraine, support for civil strife in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other neighbouring countries, interference in elections, and disinformation campaigns.”
  4. Russia will retaliate. Further diplomatic expulsions are likely for the states who have acted today. Indeed, TASS is reporting that Russia will reciprocate in each case. One potential key early indicator will be if Russia reciprocates (in numbers) or escalates the number of expulsions across some or all states. Another aspect to watch carefully is whether or not Russia responds to some states more harshly than others.
  5. This issue is not going away. The deaths of various Russians over the last few years have been ignored or subject to private diplomatic signals or statements. Aside from the inevitable response from Russia in the coming hours and days, this chemical weapons issue is not going to fade any time soon. Last week inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in the UK to take samples and send them for independent analysis. At some point in the next two to four weeks the results of that analysis will have to be revealed. If the results confirm the UK analysis, pressure will mount in the OPCW and internationally for Russia to explain a few things. If the results contest the UK analysis, the UK will itself have some explaining to do to its allies and the wider world. Even if things calm down over the next few days, the issue will be pushed to the fore once again in a few weeks.
  6. The continued fallout will have negative implications in the near term. A continuation of the deterioration in Russian-Western relations generally should be expected. At stake here is not simply chemical weapons but the actions of the Russian state in a variety of areas as the Canadian statement notes. The collective signalling from Western states might, however, act as a catalyst for change. A slow, walk back from both covert and overt adversarial activity might be initiated if Russia takes the view that its interests are now being hurt and other foreign policies thwarted because of its actions. In short, the perceived advantages of such activities are outweighed by the disadvantages incurred by a coordinated Western response. It is not likely to be identifiable in words any time soon, but actions over the coming months may indicate a reduction in tensions.
  7. How, or if, other states respond, will be informative. Statements of support or statements objecting to the Western response may indicate if this issue remains contained as a Western-Russian flare-up or is spreading to the wider international order. We should expect Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and potentially others to express support for Russia and decry the perceived hostility of the UK, US, Canada, and others. What China, India, Brazil, South Africa, or others do or not do in the coming days will be an important indicator of whether or not Russia stands alone, or the risk of a West versus the Rest international dispute is taking shape as many fear.
  8. There will be knock-on effects. Outside the immediate issue of chemical weapons where the dispute itself is likely to have serious detrimental impacts on the CWC and the OPCW in 2018, there are likely to be direct and rippling indirect effects on other arms control issues in the coming months. US-Russia relations in the nuclear weapons area have been deteriorating for several years and this is one further obstacle to any new talks on nuclear arms control. The fate of the Iran agreement – the JCPOA – and the expected summit between the US and the DPRK will also experience some of the negative implications of this dispute. As, indeed, will the routine arms control meetings under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, and in the United Nations Security Council as it attempts to deal with continued use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war.

 

Key sources:

Spy poisoning: Russian diplomats expelled across US and Europe http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43545565 [March 26, 2018]

Canada expels Russian diplomats in solidarity with United Kingdom https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2018/03/canada-expels-russian-diplomats-in-solidarity-with-united-kingdom.html [March 26, 2018]

The US’ Dilemma: Alliance Politics Vs. Ethnic Ties in Syria

By Uri Marantz

US-Turkish relations are at an all-time low. The northern theatre of the Syrian civil war, going strong for eight years now, is the focal point of the latest tension. Recently, the US has announced that it is doubling down on one of the most effective fighting forces in the region, the Kurds, hoping to capitalize on hard-fought gains that US-backed Kurdish forces have made against the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, Turkish offensives have crippled Kurdish militias resulted in the loss of life for Syrian civilians. The US position has been deliberately ambiguous to avoid antagonizing another close US ally, Turkey, but recent commitments to the Kurds have drawn harsh reactions from the Turks. In response to US promises to the Kurds that it would train a 30,000-strong army to stabilize the region and back a permanent border protection force east of the Euphrates, Turkey has fired back, accusing the US of “building an army of terror” on its doorstep, threatening to “drown” the US-backed forces with its own onslaught, and even firing on US troops if they get in harm’s way. These statements are unprecedented.

Turkish Military Intervention in Northern Syria

Why is the Turkish government launching a military operation into northern Syria in 2018? Is the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, really willing to risk an all-out war with the US over its policy of support for the Kurds in the Syrian civil war? Has the US’ ambiguous policy in northern Syria of low-key but forceful support for the Kurds so they can fight IS without antagonizing the Turks reached the limits of its effectiveness? Amid the many questions one could ask about this perplexing situation, perhaps the most timely one is whether the US has a deliberate strategy that may even remotely succeed. I argue that as long as US forces are strategically embedded among the Kurds in the northern town of Manbij, Turkish forces are unlikely to force the issue and provoke a direct confrontation. There is a certain bargaining logic, a method to this madness, that US commanders are counting on to deter Turkish adventurism in this conflict. The strategic logic is reminiscent of what Thomas C. Schelling, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and scholar of strategy, calls the “art of commitment” in deterring one’s enemies.

Coercion and deterrence are central themes in Schelling’s 1966 classic, Arms and Influence. At its heart, the art of commitment is about relinquishing the initiative. It is important to first maneuver oneself into an advantageous position, a defensible posture, before handing the initiative over to the enemy to force the confrontation. The deterrent is in the “power to hurt” the enemy if they decide to follow through on a reckless course of action, even if it hurts oneself to do so. Of course, words are not enough to make this point. The art of commitment requires action to be credible. This is why standing armies burn bridges behind them: it eliminates any option to retreat in the face of an enemy’s assault, demonstrating a commitment to stand and fight because the only other option is death or defeat. The same counter-intuitive logic applies to the “trip wire” of US forces stationed in Japan and South Korea since the 1950s. By maneuvering themselves into an uncompromising position (of strength, in this case) and then “relinquishing” the initiative, the US has managed to effectively outsource the decision of whether to start a war or not to its enemies. The same logic applies among US allies in Syria today.

US Alliance Politics with Local and Regional Actors

Years of close military coordination with US forces on the ground have helped Kurdish forces clear Islamic State (IS) and other Salafist-jihadist strongholds in the area and establish command and control over what is likely to form the core of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in a post-war Syria. As the Kurds grow more capable, confident, and battle-hardened, however, Turkey is likely to perceive a rising threat and respond with threatening postures and the use of force. Hence the US dilemma: two of its closest allies in the Syrian civil war are actually enemies with starkly divergent preferences. If Turkish forces follow through on their threat to extend the intervention east of Afrin to Manbij, where 2,000 US special forces are stationed as part of the international coalition against IS, the ensuing conflict would not just destabilize northern Syria, it would spark an unprecedented military conflict between the US and Turkey, two central NATO allies.

On January 20, 2018, Turkish forces launched their most recent military intervention in northern Syria against resurgent Kurdish forces. Despite code-naming the latest offensive Operation Olive Branch, its mandate is far from peaceful. The goal is to stymie advances made by the mostly Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Afrin district, all under the umbrella of the Kurdish Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Turkey claims to be fighting the Islamic State (IS) as well, but no known IS forces are known to exist in this region. This is ironic since Kurdish forces were only able to advance in these territories after they succeeded in fighting to evict IS from wide swathes of northern Syria. In recent weeks, the Kurds have withdrawn strategic garrisons from Deir al-Zour in the east to reinforce besieged positions in Afrin, citing the failure of the US to deter Turkish advances as forcing their hands. This is controversial because the remnants of IS, including its senior leadership, are believed to be holed up there, and the priority of the US and its allies in Syria is supposed to be defeating IS once and for all. So how do Schelling’s bargaining theories help us understand why Turkey is unlikely to force a full-on conflict as long as US forces are stationed in Manbij and integrated with local Kurdish forces?

Arms, Influence, and Deterrence at Play

The US has committed itself to the Kurds in northern Syria more than words ever could by deploying Special Forces in and around Manbij and refusing to evacuate them despite Turkey’s increasingly belligerent demands. US foreign policy has been muddled, confused, and ambiguous in Syria for years, and the election of President Donald J. Trump has done little to change this state of affairs. Nevertheless, US military commanders decided that the risk of supporting Kurdish fighters by deploying ground personnel in this war was worth the benefit long before Turkeys’ latest intervention in northern Syria. For the US to withdraw now would incapacitate the Kurds, risking its progress against IS, inviting Russian and Iranian influence into this part of Syria, and crippling US credibility among its allies going forward. For all these reasons, US commitment to the Kurdish SDF remains intact and the refusal of US forces to vacate the premises in the face of Turkish aggression virtually guarantees that the Turks cannot advance on Manbij as long as US forces are present. While 2,000 US special forces may not be able to stop tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers and Turkish-backed rebels, they may still act as a credible “trip wire” that would provoke a harsh retaliation if crossed.

Following Operation Shah Euphrates in 2015 and Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016-2017, Operation Olive Branch may be part of a strategy to bolster President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s image ahead of a possible election in 2018. The PYD, YPG, SDF, and other Kurdish forces are seen as extensions and enablers of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group which the Turkish government has long been at odds with after fighting a decades-long civil war to a virtual stalemate and seeks to punish by targeting Kurds in the Syrian civil war. The anti-Kurdish offensive is part of a tried-and-true strategy of ethnic politics to promote Turkish nationalism and fire up the conservative base. There may be some logic to the diversionary war theory after all, which suggests leaders facing domestic problems divert attention by launching militarized conflicts abroad. If done well, Erdogan may even benefit from rally-round-the-flag effects. Nothing unites the people like the threat, real or imaginary, of a shared enemy. So far, military operations into Syria have proven popular in Turkey. As long as the Turks refrain from targeting US forces, which for now remain embedded in the Kurdish forces in Manbij, Erdogan will likely benefit from Operation Olive Branch and capitalize on the ethnic nationalist dividends gained from Syria.

 

Uri Marantz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Conflict Management and Resolution program at NPSIA. 

Launching a “Bloody Nose” Attack Against North Korea is Likely to Backfire

by Mark Haichin

Throughout the past few weeks, there’s been considerable speculation that the Trump administration is considering a preventive military strike against North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons program. Presumably, this strike would target some aspect of the weapons program, like a nuclear facility or launch site, to signal to Kim Jong-Un and his regime that they need to act less aggressively or face a larger-scale attack in the future. The logic here is that a “rational” government would be expected to weigh the costs of backing down versus the costs of fighting against a nuclear superpower and choose the former, since the latter would almost certainly result in losing power or being outright annihilated. This would seem to be pretty consistent with basic deterrence theory so far, since a limited attack could be considered a signal of American willingness to retaliate against a North Korean attack (just ignore the Trump administration’s statements that North Korea can’t be deterred).

The problem is that trying to get North Korea to back down by “bloodying its nose” is a a fundamentally flawed plan. If anything, the evidence seems to suggest that launching this kind of attack against North Korea is, at best, likely to be totally ineffective at getting Kim Jong-Un’s government to back down on its aggression. The worst-case scenario, going from both my own research and the work of mostcommentators observing the current crisis, is that this could actually provoke North Korea into attacking the US or South Korea – i.e. the very thing that the attack is meant to prevent. So why is it that a limited strike against North Korea is such a bad idea?

To begin with, it assumes that the North Korean government has the same sensitivity to the costs of war as the US. There’s a large body of research, however, that argues that this is not the case. Rather, nondemocratic states like North Korea are expected to be less sensitive to the costs of war to their population than a democracy because their governments draw power from a few elite supporters instead of a large base of voters. As a result, they’re not worried about being voted out of office because of an unpopular and costly war; instead, they need to keep their backers (usually political elites and top military officers) rewarded to keep their support. My own PhD research suggests that these governments will be fine with fighting other states if their supporters don’t suffer as a result. Moreover, an actual attack against them will put these regimes in a position where they need to retaliate in some way to avoid looking weak, since that can get them removed from office (sometimes in a very permanent manner).

In the North Korean context, this means that launching a limited attack to try and scare the regime with the potential costs of war is unlikely to work. Historically, the Kims have repeatedly shown that they are willing to let their citizens suffer extraordinary costs to retain power, including causing famines by redirecting resources to their supporters. Furthermore, North Korea has also repeatedly antagonized the US and South Korea, including capturing the USS Pueblo in 1968and repeatedly attempting to assassinate South Korean presidents. The North Korean government has continued to act aggressively despite becoming diplomatically isolated and repeatedly sanctioned for its actions, since its supporters mitigate the costs by taking resources from the population instead. A preventive attack against North Korea would fail to deter it from further aggression simply because its government is insensitive to costs that don’t directly impact the leadership.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Sejong_the_Great_%28DDG_991%29%2C_Yang_Manchun_%28DDH_973%29%2C_USS_Wayne_E._Meyer_%28DDG_108%29%2C_USS_Michael_Murphy_%28DDG_112%29%2C_USS_Stethem_%28DDG_63%29%2C_USS_Lake_Champlain_%28CG_57%29_and_Nimitz-class_aircraft_carrier_USS_Carl_Vinson_%28CVN_70%29_%2834389374276%29.jpg
The USS Carl Vinson and several South Korean Navy ships conducting a joint exercise in South Korean waters in May 2017

What the “bloody nose” strike is likely to accomplish is provoke North Korea into attacking either South Korea or the US in retaliation. Given the numerous threats made by President Trump throughout 2017 and the buildup of US forces nearby, it would be easy for Kim to assume that even a limited attack is the prelude to a larger war. If this was the case, he would likely respond with force to deter the US from escalating further, which would mean his removal from power and, in all likelihood, his death. This would likely mean attacking Seoul with the thousands of artillery pieces placed near the border, as well as launching conventional and nuclear missiles at American military targets, which even conservative estimates suggest would lead to hundreds of thousands being killed. Even if the limited strike is recognized for what it is, Kim would likely still launch some kind of limited reprisal as a show of strength and to avoid a potential coup. Overall, proposals to deter North Korea with a limited attack are more than likely to lead to disaster instead of deterrence.

 

Mark Haichin is a PhD candidate with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.

Guidelines for NATO Spending: Inputs, not Outputs or Outcomes

I tend to complain a lot about the NATO 2% expectation – that members are supposed to spend 2% of their GDP on defense stuff, which probably makes more Canadian than anything else I do (I don’t skate or watch hockey much).  This is aspirational and countries are supposed to reach it by 2024.  I have written much about why this is problematic (it tends to make Greece look good, which is a clue; doing is more important than spending, etc), but today I want to focus on the heart of the matter: 2% is a measure of input and nothing else.

The basic idea is if we all spend a significant hunk of money, we will get more defense than if we spend somewhat less money.  But spending more money on defense may not improve NATO’s ability to field effective armies, navies and air forces.  For many members, spending more could simply mean spending more on personnel, which might lead to a more capable force or it might not.  There are additional NATO goals which get far less coverage, which are aimed at persuading members to spend significant hunks of cash on capital–building ships, planes, tanks and other equipment.  Again, this is a focus on input.  Spending more on equipment does not necessarily mean getting better or more equipment.  It could simply mean more waste.

The funny thing is that the US is pushing Belgium to buy the F35, suggesting that this would help them get to 2%.  Buying a super-expensive plane may or may not improve Belgian military performance, but it might get Belgium off of the free-rider list?  I am trying to remember a similar example of being so focused on inputs that they become more important than outcomes, but can’t at the moment.*

Sure, we tend to focus on inputs or even outputs because they are easier to measure, and in NATO dynamics, are things about which it is easier to come to a consensus.  It is hard to measure outcomes like readiness and effectiveness.  Also, big numbers are not secret whereas actual military capability–what can a country really do–might have to be covered in secret sauce.  But what really matters is whether NATO can fight better (against others, not against each other) or not.  Spending more might help, but it might not, depending on where the money goes.  When countries underperform, is it because they underspend or because they have restrictive rules or because they have lousy strategies (who could that be?) or because their procurement processes are busted (hello Canada!) or because the adversary gets a vote?

One last semi-related point: asking the Western democracies to spend more on defense after encouraging austerity post-2008 is a hard sell, and, yes, domestic politics is a thing.  After years of saying that spending must be cut on social programs because debt is the supreme evil, saying that the first priority now must be defense is just not going to fly, especially with all of the complex coalitions that are barely governing so many members of the alliance.

So, as we keep invoking 2%, let’s keep in mind that many countries will never reach it, as it would require more than a few to increase defense spending by 50-100% AND it allows us to ignore the bigger challenges of how to foster greater effectiveness and readiness.

* The only thing I can come up with would be examples from the Soviet Union of meeting five year plan targets by building huge non-usable things that helped reach the goals measured by weight like one really ball-bearing or something like that.

From Nascent Insurrections to Full-Blown Insurgencies: Why Some Militant Groups Engage in Sustained Armed Conflicts

The following post summarizes findings from NPSIA Ph.D. Candidate Michael Shkolnik’s latest research paper.

In October 2014, the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis conducted a sophisticated, multi-pronged attack targeting two Egyptian military positions and killing 31 soldiers. A month later, that group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, escalating violence and solidifying itself as an unprecedented threat to Egyptian national security. The dramatic and rapid rise of the Islamic State group and its affiliates shocked many observers around the world. By waging a successful military campaign in 2014, the militant organization was able to gain control of significant territory in Syria and Iraq, consolidate new power bases in the region, attract an unprecedented number of foreign fighters, and coordinate large-scale attacks around the world. Now, as the group loses its core territorial stronghold, observers are concerned about the potential emergence and escalation of other terrorist insurgencies around the world.

Data on terrorism and civil wars point to a sharp increase in militant activity worldwide in recent years – both in terms of casualties from terrorist attacks and battle-related deaths during armed conflicts. It is puzzling why some initially weak militant groups, who face immense difficulties in garnering material resources and support, are able to eventually engage in sustained violent operations and confront more powerful militaries. Most militant groups fail to survive beyond their first year, let alone pose a serious threat. Why do some militant groups engage in sustained armed conflicts while other groups do not?

In a recent paper, I conduct quantitative regression analysis on 246 prominent militant groups from 1970-2007 and find that, on average, organizational characteristics are better predictors of sustained armed conflict than measures of group capabilities. Some of my core findings diverge from current explanations of insurgency onset or outcomes. Posing a serious challenge to a state is not necessarily a function of how powerful or capable a group may seem – it’s more about the competitive militant environment and internal organizational capacity to effectively mobilize resources and maintain armed hostilities against regime forces. Three particular factors of importance emerged from my analysis: group ideology, organizational structure, and competitive militant environment.

Militant Group Ideology

Exploiting or fueling grievances among a particular population is critical for groups to mobilize for an insurgency. Some militant groups should be more capable of capitalizing on grievances than others – particularly religious and ethno-nationalist groups that can draw on resources from a well-defined constituency. Religiously motivated groups, in particular, tend to be more lethal and maintain indivisible objectives, making negotiated settlements improbable. These types of organizations are also better at overcoming key militant organizational hurdles: collective action and principal-agent problems. Religious groups are often in a stronger position to effectively screen recruits and mobilize resources via their robust social networks compared to more secular rivals. This is one explanation behind why Hamas was better at managing its operatives than its more secular rival Fatah. Religious groups rarely achieve their ultimate objectives. But my research suggests that those religiously motivated militant groups are far more likely to engage in sustained armed conflicts than other ideologically oriented groups – whether they are ultimately successful or not.

Organizational Structure

Research on social movements and militant group structures suggests that centralized and formally structured groups are more likely to achieve broader objectives than more decentralized groups. Militant groups with hierarchical structures tend to be more lethal and have a higher likelihood of ultimately defeating the states they fight. More centralized and integrated groups are more capable of allocating resources effectively, reducing principal-agent problems, and keeping lower-ranking members in line with the group’s broader objectives. By looking at a different dependent variable, however, my findings challenge conventional wisdom: groups with relatively less centralized command and control are just as likely to engage in sustained armed conflict than the most hierarchically structured organizations. Groups with more autonomous cells and specialized wings should still be able to launch a sustained insurgency, regardless of whether they end up beating the regime. Less centralization might make it harder for counterinsurgency forces to infiltrate and dismantle militant groups.

Competitive Environment

Competition for resources and manpower among rival constituent factions and other rebel groups is particularly crucial in the early phases of a violent conflict. Violence serves as an important signal of capabilities and resolves among groups competing for leadership of a particular constituency. Recent work highlights the importance of rival relations and internal movement structure to assess strategic success. In general, I find that more competitive militant environments also reduce the likelihood any particular group presents a major threat to the states they fight. This study also finds that the overwhelming majority of militant groups that engaged in sustained armed conflicts were the most dominant group in their environment around the time the group challenged the state. In the nascent stages of an insurgency, militant groups often have to consolidate rivals – whether by destructive campaigns or alliance formation – before emerging as the dominant organization and then taking on the regime.

Theoretical and Policy Implications

This study offers some implications for scholarship and policy, by examining an underexplored outcome of interest and addressing a selection bias prevalent across literature on political violence. It is important to study analytically distinct phases of armed conflict and differentiate between various militant group objectives (i.e. organizational, strategic) when evaluating success. Understanding this phenomenon is critical since groups that sustain military operations gain more influence and fundraising capabilities while further weakening the target state. Battlefield successes, in turn, encourage more recruitment and defections from rival groups. It is far more difficult for states to defeat a full-fledged insurgency than prevent a nascent insurrection from flourishing. There is no single theory that can explain particular militant group trajectories and counterinsurgency campaigns require context-specific analysis. But this paper presents generalizable empirical associations across diverse militant groups, while acknowledging the limits of large-n research, and identifies key cases for in-depth analysis by the author in subsequent work.

 

Michael Shkolnik is a Ph.D. Candidate at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He recently served as a senior adviser and scholar-in-residence with the Strategic Foresight unit in Canada’s foreign ministry, focusing on futures of terrorism and international security trends. In the past, Michael worked with security-related research institutes in Ottawa, Washington D.C., and Israel. The views expressed here are strictly those of the author.

 You can follow him on Twitter:  @Shkolnik_M

 

 

Interdisciplinary Programs: Creating ‘Expert-Generalists’ or Simply Re-packaging and Re-branding Curricula?

by Samuel 

Many university students will choose to enrol in an interdisciplinary program as the first step towards a career upon leaving high school, or as a means of refining academic achievement at the graduate level. Interdisciplinary programs, university degrees which blend multiple disciplines to create a student with diverse skill sets, are designed to create professionals who have a ‘toolbox’ of academic disciplines which enable them to solve increasingly complex problems in the workplace. Interdisciplinary programs are increasing in popularity and may be important to generating capable workers for knowledge-based economies, but what impact are they having on traditional academic disciplines? Is reduced ‘depth’ the price of increased ‘breadth’ of education?

A critique of academia recycling and repackaging curricula

Although seemingly harmless, a managerial tool enabling post-secondary administrators to reshuffle academics and programs can be overused to the detriment of learning and the reduction of degree value. There are four main criticisms of the current state of academic interdisciplinarity caused by administrative pressures:

Insularity of faculty. When it comes time to design new interdisciplinary programs, a tendency to pick professors from a single discipline or to build the program as an off-shoot from a larger department may lead to group-think mentality. Therefore, insularity stems from the lack of cross-disciplinary conversation within the new department and the lack of fresh outside perspectives. Avoiding such narrow thinking was the whole point of interdisciplinarity in the first place! Although the average political economy degree, for example, may attract new students that would otherwise not have applied to a political science department, political economy departments across Canadian universities hire an overwhelming majority of political scientists. Academic homogeny within departments may erode the notion that interdisciplinarity is more than the simple repackaging of academics.

Borrowed infrastructure and virtual programs. The creation of ‘virtual departments’ that bring together an assortment of professors as well as other teaching staff and researchers, but do not have a distinct location, is often a cost-effective solution to creating an interdisciplinary program without needing additional capital investment. The shared faculty in such departments generally remain attached to their primary department (most often a ‘traditional’ discipline) and are asked to teach on specific topics that fall under the umbrella of the ‘virtual department’. Such ‘virtual departments’ use disciplinary silos without blending disciplines and fail to bring academics from a cross-disciplinary environment together. This often leaves ‘virtual departments’ with no permanent tenured faculty members of their own to their own devices. It can also complexify the administrative tasks students face as well as a lack of advice from faculty that can affect students’ theses, grant and proposal writing, and opportunities for research assistant positions.

Academic deflation. Many have argued that the lack of specialisation, especially in previous degrees such as college or bachelors, fail to provide students with the fundamental building blocks generally found within any discipline (and that there already exists collaboration across disciplines). In addition to students’ knowledge being spread too thin across a variety of subjects, the lack of specialisation can cast doubts with regards to what can often be perceived as watered-down skills in many disciplines. ‘Create your own degree’ programs that allow students to pick their own coursework across a wide array of disciplines and subjects often fail to provide their students with the necessary core courses or building blocks within each discipline. This dynamic lends itself to academic deflation and a re-packaging of academics to create generalist degrees with a theme.

Multiplication of disciplinary silos. Unfortunately, to multiply the number of cross-disciplinary programs, universities have occasionally recycled and re-branded academics into their own new disciplinary silos. Creating new insular silos of study, as opposed to transdisciplinary sharing, bears the danger of, as Reading claims, “interdisciplinary programs themselves becoming disciplines”. The critique here lies in the multiplication of disciplines within universities, which achieves little other than re-branding silos. As an example, these new silos for students could consist of anything from a health sciences degree that fails to interact with the faculty of medicine to an environment/conservation degree that fails to interact with the department of public policy or any of the natural sciences.

So, why does academia occasionally engage in ‘cheap’ interdisciplinarity?

Although it is our opinion that interdisciplinary programs have a great deal to offer students, these critiques of trends in universities recycling, repackaging and rebranding academics should serve as warning signs to applicants in interdisciplinary programs of study. But why do administrations do it this way?

Attracting an untapped demand and expanding revenues. The workforce continues to rapidly evolve. Employers are seeking employees who are cognitively flexible and capable of drawing from a broad array of academic disciplines. Driven by the ‘knowledge-based’ economy, employers demand experts within a given field, who also can draw from a toolbox of generalist skills. An economist may be required to support the accounting department of a start-up company while also understanding the political climate of a given market. In general, demand for flexible and interchangeable agents creates demand for ‘expert generalists’ (pardon the neologism), which certain universities have capitalised on. The risk associated with this dynamic is the creation of interdisciplinary programs – perceived to be selective and elite – which output students with a dressed-up general degree.

Stretching current resources. From an administrative perspective, interdisciplinary programs also set conditions to increase the productivity of an indeterminately employed faculty while supplementing them with contract instructors. Rather than allowing faculty to research and teach exclusively within a given discipline, cross-assigning them to interdisciplinary studies departments increases the potential number of students which can access a given faculty member. For example, a political science professor may now also instruct graduate students focusing on sociology, economics, or history. By pulling faculty out of specific disciplines, the potential number of students they may influence becomes much higher.

Not only stretching resources but also adding cheap resources. The multiplication of interdisciplinary programs (or at least how they are currently implemented in academic institutions) makes it easier to bring in adjunct professors and sessionals that are cheaper. For example, applied interdisciplinary programs such as public policy, international development, journalism and so many others can call upon practitioners as sessionals or part-time faculty. The practice of relying on sessionals and other part-time faculty has been widely criticised within academia but has often fallen on deaf ears.

Finding the magic formula: creating the ‘proper’ interdisciplinary program

To ensure quality and credibility of interdisciplinary studies programs, it will be incumbent upon universities to ensure the assigned faculty are genuinely interdisciplinary: academic credentials from multiple disciplines must be demonstrated. So how can we build a truly interdisciplinary program? Building a robust interdisciplinary program requires institutionalisation and branding. A few key characteristics should be considered when program-building:

Dedicated faculty. Although some cross-listing of faculty may be acceptable, core faculty must exist within an interdisciplinary school. This is critical to establishing and maintaining a high standard of intake and output. Such faculty should be ‘protected’ from delivering research or instruction within other, larger departments, and should be the leaders in establishing the definition of ‘interdisciplinary’ from the school’s perspective.

Dedicated facility and space. The existence of an interdisciplinary school should not be on paper alone. A physical location with dedicated study space, library facilities, and support staff is required. This ensures a sense of permanence among faculty and students and sets conditions for the institutionalisation of research units, alumni, and scholastic journals.

Branding and association. Given dedicated faculty, standards, and physical location, a school’s association with a given industry, sector, or profession provides both students and faculty direction and guidance with regard to research objectives and curriculum development. This ‘centre of excellence’ approach sets important conditions for academic/practitioner interaction and can be a mechanism to measure the school’s effectiveness.

Controlling standards. Ultimately, the department and faculty themselves must monitor the standard, and clearly articulated standards must exist within a designated interdisciplinary program. Students must have a clear understanding of how they may be permitted to draw from various disciplines to accomplish course objectives, and some degree of differentiation from a ‘traditional discipline’ approach should be apparent. Close monitoring of standards is required.

Hiring more faculty that themselves studied in an interdisciplinary environment could be a great leap forward. However, regardless of where one stands, some consideration should be given to whether it is incumbent upon faculty to provide a truly interdisciplinary approach, or if students themselves must piece together a degree within a multidisciplinary environment.

 

 

Samuel MacIsaac is a Ph.D student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, where he specializes in International Economic Policy. He holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Montreal. His research interests include international migration, international finance and trade, and international relations. He has written on issues relating to negative interest rates, the impact of trade on education outcomes and forecasts of immigration within Canada.  

Bryan Bereziuk is a Ph.D student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in International Conflict Management and Resolution.  He is an experienced practitioner in counter-insurgency operations and defence organizational development.  His research interests include counter-terrorism policy development, insurgency containment, and international technology transfers.