Foreign Fighters: what to read to grasp the key issues

By Jez Littlewood

Back in March 2013 I wrote Syria, Western Foreign Fighters and Counterterrorismand concluded that ‘we would be wise to begin thinking about foreign fighters…and what happens to them after their ‘tour of duty’ in Syria and the risks that will emerge once the conflict is resolved and they return home.’ Since then the issue of foreign fighters has forced its way to the top of the intelligence and security agenda of many Western democracies, Canada included.

In the UK ‘more than half of MI5’s anti-terror investigations involve Britons who have traveled to Syria’ according to a March 14 piece in the Financial Times. Australia is rumoured to have over 150 individuals active in the Syrian conflict. And in mid-June Calgary Police Chief indicated that up to 30 individuals from the city are believed to be abroad and that number was likely ‘at the small end of the continuum’; if that is correct, then presumably figures provided in testimony in February 2014 by the Director of CSIS need an upward revision: ‘CSIS is aware of over 130 Canadians who are abroad in support of extremist activities, including approximately 30 in Syria alone.’

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Reading “Lean In” from Mozambique

Reading “Lean In” from Mozambique[1]

I am writing this from Mozambique, where I am on sabbatical while my spouse has taken a post with the Canadian embassy.  Like many women, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” with interest – compelled by both the subject and the hype that surrounded her book. I was prompted to complete this piece by the news that Sandberg will release a new version of “Lean In,” tailored to the needs of graduate students. 

While reading “Lean In” from Mozambique, I was reminded of the stark contrasts of our world, and of the very different realities that face the world’s women.  Mozambique has enjoyed high economic growth rates (averaging 7-8% over the last decade), but it still ranks 184 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index – third from the bottom.  Mozambique remains desperately poor: its 2012 GNP was 14.59 billion USD.[2]  In the first 9 months of 2013, Facebook’s revenue (where Sheryl Sandberg is Chief Operating Officer) was 5.2 billion USD,[3] which places its 2013 revenue on course to be roughly half of Mozambique’s GNP.   

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What I learned from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

I (finally) finished reading Daniel Kahneman’s popular 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is a compelling read (and miraculously jargon-free) with loads of insights on the sources and consequences of our psychological biases. Above all, Kahneman demonstrates the general inability of the human mind to deal comfortably with statistics; rather, we seem prone to making decisions based on rapid and often superficial intuitions, usually based on a small number of oversimplified analogies. We have particular trouble when simple analogies come to mind quickly and vividly.

Many of his insights are applicable to the study of foreign policy decision-making and international relations, and public policy-making more broadly. One of the concepts Kahneman describes, for example, is the planning fallacy. Individuals, business executives, and politicians alike commonly fall victim to this bias, making plans and forecasts that are unrealistic, overly optimistic, and fail to take into account the statistical base-rate of similar cases. In the grip of the planning fallacy, people overestimate benefits and underestimate costs, spinning “scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or to deliver the expected returns – or even to be completed.” As somebody about to start a PhD in Political Science, I am no exception to this pattern.

This tendency towards over-optimism can be advantageous in certain situations. People feel happier when they are thinking on the bright side of things, which may actually make them more successful; entrepreneurs are more likely to attract investors to their company when they project confidence in their business model; politicians need to sell a positive message of hope and transformation of the status quo in order to win votes.

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Summer Reading for IR Hobbyists

PM posted at Duck of Minerva 15 Must-Read books for Poli Sci Students.  The overlap between his list and my list is, well, mighty thin: Hendrik Spruyt’s The Sovereign State and Its Competitors and Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War.   I like Michael Ross’s other work but have not read his Oil Curse book.
If the premise is to give students a hint of what academic Poli Sci really is and also to get them into “the systematic study of politics,” I would have a somewhat different list focused more on Comparative Politics and IR (since I deftly avoided American Politics at all levels until I had to teach it).   So, what are my top books to get people into Poli Sci, either as undergrads starting out or for summer reading for those who are unlikely to go to grad school (especially if they listen to us).

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