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The ISIS flood in my twitterstream today 2: big picture

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an attempt to "curate" the onrush of news, hitting the high points on a low, low morning ]

I have tried to keep the tweets here limited to their own texts, with illustrations only where essential, and without “parent tweets” and other encumbrances. Even so, it’s a long read — my advice would be to take it fast, first, and then come back to click on articles and other details that look like they’re of particular interest.



And I’m sure a lot has happened during the half-hour or more it has taken me to put even this small selection of relevant tweets together!


R2P Debate Rising ( Part I.)

Friday, February 7th, 2014

I thought I would call the attention of the readership to a debate that has been ricocheting around different social media platforms on R2P (Responsibility to Protect“). I have dealt with the topic several times in the past, related to the ideas of Anne-Marie Slaughter, but not much recently until Victor Allen, over at The Bridge, put up an enthusiastic post:

Strong State, Weak State: The New Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine represents a leap forward in accountability for states and does not infringe upon their sovereignty, as states are no longer held to be completely self-contained entities with absolute power over their populations. Rather, there is a strictly defined corpus of actions that begin the R2P process?—?a process that has different levels of corrective action undertaken by the international community in order to persuade, cajole and finally coerce states into actively taking steps to prevent atrocities from occurring within their boundaries. That R2P does not violate sovereignty stems from the evolution of sovereignty from its Westphalian form in the mid 17th century to the “sovereignty as responsibility” concept advanced by Deng, et al. Modern sovereignty can no longer be held to give states carte blanche in their internal affairs regardless of the level of suffering going on within their borders. This does not diminish state agency for internal affairs, but rather holds them responsible and accountable for their action and inaction regarding the welfare of their populations…

Victor’s post deserves to be read in full.

I did not agree with Victor’s framing of the legal character of state sovereignty, to put it mildly, nor his normative assessment of R2P.  Mr. Allen also described R2P somewhat differently than I have seen from other advocates, but I was less concerned by that as the concept does not seem to be presented with consistency by the community of  R2P advocates and theorists. Having seen similar theoretical debates over the years about angels dancing on pins over 4GW, constructivism, EBO, Network-centric Warfare, OODA,  Clausewitz’s remarkable trinity,  nuclear deterrence, preemptive war, COIN,  neoconservatism, free market economics, the agrarian origin of capitalism in England, Marxist theory etc. I am not too worried if Victor’s interpretation in its specifics is not ideologically perfect. It is representative enough.

I responded to Allen’s post somewhat crankily and with too much brevity:

R2P: Asserting Theory is not = Law 

….As far as premises go, the first point is highly debatable; the second is formally disputed by *many* states, including Russia and China, great powers which are permanent members of the UN Security Council; and the third bears no relation to whether a military intervention is a violation of sovereignty or not. I am not a self-contained entity either, that does not mean you get to forcibly enter my house.

That R2P does not violate sovereignty stems from the evolution of sovereignty from its Westphalian form in the mid 17th century to the “sovereignty as responsibility” concept advanced by Deng, et al. Modern sovereignty can no longer be held to give states carte blanche in their internal affairs regardless of the level of suffering going on within their borders.

Academic theorists do not have the authority to override sovereign powers (!) constituted as legitimized, recognized, states and write their theories into international law – as if an international covenant like the Geneva Convention had just been contracted. Even persuading red haired activist cronies of the American president and State Department bureaucrats to recite your arguments at White House press conferences does not make them “international law” either – it makes them “policy” – and that only of a particular administration. 

This riff  set off something of a reaction on Facebook in private groups and on Twitter as Mr. Allen, who I am sure is a fine gent, has a large set of common colleagues with me, some of whom are Boydians and all of whom are sharp strategic thinkers. Consequently,  Victor’s post(s) as well as mine and a later follow up by a “Leonidas Musashi” ( great nom de guerre)  made it into a high caliber defense forum as well as other sites online. My spleen-venting provoked the following rebuttal at The Bridge:

R2P: A Spectrum of Responses 

….Safranski’s final point about sovereignty as carte blanche seems to be a stealth argument for the principles of R2P:

States always could and did take military action in self-defense when disorders in neighboring states threatened their security or spilled over their border outright.R2P seeks to minimize harm caused by disorder through early action taken prior to conflicts spilling over borders that can potentially cause larger conflagrations, but more importantly, it recognizes that atrocities can happen entirely within the confines of a state, and that the international community will not allow them to continue unchecked. This recognition is easily seen in the rhetoric and discussions regarding rebels in both Libya and Syria. Libya is admittedly a flawed example of the use of R2P, with second-order effects seen in the Russian and Chinese opposition to UN-sanctioned stabilization operations in Syria, but that concern for the population first and the state second were common facets to both bear mentioning in the debate and illustrate the shifting nature of intervention and sovereignty. This shift is exemplified in the contrast between discussions in the UN General Assembly regarding Kosovo/East Timor and Syria: “most of the 118 states that mentioned Syria at the UN General Assembly in 2012 expressed concern about the population, up from less than a third who invoked Kosovo and East Timor in 1999… It is clear that a fundamental shift has taken place regarding humanitarian intervention and that more and more states embrace the broad values expressed by R2P.” (“Democracy, Human Rights, and the Emerging Global Order: Workshop Summary,” Brookings Institution, 2012)

Again, I caution about reading posts in full.

Here in this rebuttal Victor doubled down, which I admire because that is interesting, but with which I agree with even less because he seems to be far removed from how the world really works in terms of international relations, not merely in practice, but also in theory as well.  That said, his response deserves a much more serious reply than my first post evinced. I have been fiddling with one ( I seem to be moving slowly these days) but another voice – “Leonidas Musashi” – has entered the debate at The Bridge with a sharp retort against Allen’s conception of R2P:

Responsibility to Protect: Rhetoric and Reality 

….My main observation, however, is that the discussion thus far has been focused more on a “right” to protect than a “responsibility” to do so. The arguments indicate that a state has a responsibility to protect its people but takes for granted that third parties somehow inherit this responsibility when the state cannot fulfill it. There is a missing explanation here. The need to justify such efforts may seem callous, but a nation’s highest moral order is to serve its own citizens first. Such an explanation would certainly be a legitimate demand for a mother that loses a son who volunteered to defend his nation, or for a government entrusted by its people to use their resources to their own benefit. While it is often stated that the international community “should” intervene, explanation of where this imperative comes from is not addressed other than by vague references to modern states being interconnected. But this implies, as previously stated, a right based on the self-interest of states, firmly grounded in realistic security concerns, rather than any inherent humanitarian responsibility to intervene. Instability and potential spillover may very well make it within a nation’s vital interests to intervene in another country and pursuing humanitarian and human rights goals within the borders of another state may well be in a nation’s secondary interests. But if this is the case, the calculus of the political leadership will determine if pursuing this goal is worth the cost/potential costs – as has been done in such cases as North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe, Tibet and Syria. In either case, the decision is determined by what is in the nation’s interests, a reality that makes R2P not a mandate, but a merely a post hoc justification for interventions that do occur.

Leonidas makes many good points, in my view, but the intellectual fungibility of R2P as a concept, its elastic and ever evolving capacity to serve as a pretext for any situation at hand is the most important, because it is potentially most destabilizing and threatening to other great powers with which the United States has to share the globe. In short, with great responsibilities come greater costs.

In part II. I will lay out a more methodical case on the intellectual phantom that is R2P.


Two Cheers for the State?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

An excellent post from Adam Elkus – strongly recommended!

The State Problem In National Security Policy

….The report makes a lot of comments about the rise of individual autonomy, the empowering of regional network-cities, and technology’s acceleration of the power of non-state actors. Wired interpreted part of this as signaling a decline of the statewhich has been a popular theme since Martin van Creveld’s work on theTransformation of War. I think that is an accurate characterization of the parts of the 2030 report that talk about the empowerment of non-state actors and the rise of international networks. I’m less interested in the report, though, than in the general narrative of state decline in national security policy discourse.

We’ve heard that states are in decline, and both benign and malign networks and private actors are on the rise. This isn’t a new theme—if you look back a few decades the rise of multinational corporations and the multilaterals prompted a similar debate about sovereignty and power in the modern world. The state-centric defense practitioner is enjoined to move beyond caring about states and embrace a new reality.

…. What we have been dealing with, however, is an unfortunate tendency to write the non-state actor and transnational network out of the last few centuries of history. But he (or she) stubbornly refuses to go away. We can talk about some of the reasons why this might be the case in the international environment but it is also worth talking about why we often assume much more coherence and cohesion in our domestic environment than reality may justify.

….In Charles Tilly’s book Democracy, he argues that four processes are necessary to create and sustain a democratic state: the growth of state capacity by suppressing alternative sources of power, the reduction of categorical inequalities, and the integration of strong tie-based trust networks into public life. Warlords and kingpins that predate make it difficult for rights to be guaranteed. Categorical inequality lessens the ability of the people to meaningfully control their own destiny. And strong trust networks that cannot express themselves in political and social life also have the potential for predation and the erosion of state authority. Tilly casts these processes as never-ending in scope, and states are capable of backsliding on any one of them.

Very rich food for thought.

Trust networks are an interesting way to look at broader social networks and discern, at times, the presence of modularity (and therefore specialized skills, capacities, knowledge etc.) within a looser network structure (weak ties and links vs. highly interconnected sets of hubs with strong ties). We tend to graph these things in simple diagrams, like concentric circles with “al Qaida hard core” in the center, but really, they are more akin to clumping or clotting or uneven aggregation within a less dense field of connections.

Adam is also right that the irregular, the illegal, the tribal, the secret society, the rebellious peasant was largely ignored by nationalistic  historians in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century – and when they came back in vogue in the 1960′s with revisionist, labor, social, cultural etc. schools of historians, they tended to groan under the heavy yoke of dogmatic Marxist class analysis and then later the radical academic obsessions with race, gender and sexual orientation “oppression”. Too seldom, were these people and their doings found to be interesting in themselves so much as puppets for a very tortured, abstract passion play to exorcise demons and pursue petty grudges against other scholars.

In any event, Adam is worth reading in full.



New Book: Mission Revolution by Jennifer Morrison Taw

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Mission Revolution: The US Military and Stability Operations by Jennifer Morrison Taw

Columbia University Press just sent me a review copy of Mission Revolution: The US Military and Stability Operations by Jennifer Morrison Taw, an assistant professor of IR/Security Studies at Claremont McKenna College.  Taw has written a very timely book given the looming threat of sequestration – she has investigated and analyzed the institutional and strategic impact of the US having elevated MOOTW (military operations other than war) in 2005 to a DoD mission on par with war-fighting, terming the change a “Revolution”.

[ Parenthetical aside: I recall well Thomas Barnett loudly and persistently calling for the Pentagon to deal with MOOTW by enacting an institutional division of labor between a heavy-duty Leviathan force to handle winning wars and a constabulary System Administration force to win the peace, manage stability, defend the connectivity. Instead, in Iraq and Afghanistan we had one Leviathan force trying to shoehorn in both missions with a shortage of boots, a river of money and a new COIN doctrine. Soon, if budget cuts and force reduction are handled badly we could have one very expensive, poorly structured, force unable to do either mission.]

Thumbing through Mission Revolution, it is critical and well focused take on the spectrum of problems the US has faced in the past ten years trying to make a “whole of government” approach an effective reality in stability operations and counterinsurgency. Taw covers doctrine, training, bureaucratic politics, procurement, policy, grand strategy, mission creep, counterterrorism and foreign policy visions of the civilian leadership, all with generous footnoting.

I am looking forward to reading Mission Revolution and giving it a detailed, in-depth, review in the near future.


The Debate over the Influence and Extent of “Realism”

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

 Kudos to Dan Trombly of Fear, Honor and Interest. Why?

First, for drawing attention to the debate between Dan Drezner and Anne-Marie Slaughter over, hmm, “Real-world Realism” in American foreign policy:

Dan DreznerMeet the new foreign policy frontier…. same as the old foreign policy frontier

….Well, this is… this is… I’m sorry, I got lost among the ridiculously tall strawmen populating these paragraphs.   I’ll go out on a limb and posit that not even Henry Kissinger thinks of the world the way Slaughter describes it.  Just a quick glance at, say, Hillary Clinton’s recent speech in Hong Kong suggests that actual great power foreign policies bear no resemblance whatsoever to that description of “traditional foreign policy.” 

Slaughter knows this very well, given that she was Clinton’s first director of policy planning.  She also knows this because much of her writing in international relations is about the ways in which traditional governments are becoming more networked and adaptive to emergent foreign policy concerns.  

Rebuttal time…..

Anne-Marie Slaughter- The Debate Is On! A Response to Dan Drezner

….I’ll take that bet. I think it’s exactly how Henry Kissinger still thinks of the world. Indeed, he has just published a book on China — of course, because from the traditional realist perspective China is by far the most important foreign policy issue in the 20th century, as it is the only possible military and economic competitor to the United States. Hence, as realists/traditionalists never tire of repeating, the U.S.-China relationship is the most important global relationship of the 21st century: what matters most is ensuring that as both nations pursue their power-based interests they do not collide catastrophically. Never mind that an avian flu virus that is both fatal and aerosol-borne arising anywhere in Asia could do far more damage to global security and the economy than China ever could — just see the forthcoming movie Contagion.

The second reason for giving Mr. Trombly props is that his excellent post in response to the above was a lot more interesting and substantive than their pleasantly jocular and Friedmanesque exchange:

Old School realism and the problem of society

….Waltz cares about states because states, in the time periods he examines, are the primary bearers of power. Power, not the state, is likely the more long-standing differentiation between the liberal/idealist and realist schools of international affairs. Realists generally care more about who has power, and particularly coercive power, because in the realist view, it is the power to control – not to collaborate, connect, or convince – which is the final arbiter and source of other forms of  socio-political-economic behavior.

For most of the history of thinkers identified with realism, the state did not exist, nor did the conception of the state as a unitary actor. Thucydides, long identified as one of the fathers of Western realism, was not a Waltzian structural realist in the slightest. As most early realists did, he cited the origins of political behavior in irrational and rational drives, which originate in the hearts and minds of men. There were no states in Thucydides’s day, but city-states, empires, and various other forms of political organization which did not survive to the present day. Thus one had to be quite conscious not just of particular parties and factions, but even individuals, who, in a polis such as Athens could completely upturn the designs of the Athenian state. In his description of the varying governments and systems of organization at play, Thuycdides actually shows a keen awareness of how regime types and the social composition can influence international politics, but only insofar as it involves the exercise of power. The exchange of goods, culture, and ideas matters far less to him. Slaughter does offhand mention that an Avian flu could kill far more than a war and be more likely. Interestingly enough, the plague of Athens does play an important role in Thucydides’s history

….This pessimism about the dangers of those lacking political virtue, or restraint of their passions, from acquiring power colors, in one way or another, much of the subsequent 2,500 years of realist thought. Ultimately, the interactions and aims of the various interest groups that Slaughter describes, and Drezner dismissed, are not necessarily prescriptively ignored but the subjects of active disdain, fear, and scorn

Much to like in this fairly lengthy post, which  I recommend you read in full.

Now for my two cents.

First, as a factual matter, it would not be hard to establish that Dr. Slaughter is correct and Dr. Drezner is not that Henry Kissinger does think like that. He most certainly did while he was in power, as is amply recorded in the National Archives, Kissinger’s memoirs and secondary works by historians and biographers who made Kissinger their subject. To all appearances, Brent Scowcroft, Kissinger’s protege thinks the same way, as did Kissinger’s master, Richard Nixon, whose private remarks regarding the unimportance of ephemeral actors to geopolitics were brutal. The UN, for example, Nixon dismissed as a place for “just gassing around” and Nixon was happy to use the UN (and George Bush the Elder) as unwitting props in his China Opening.

Policy makers do not think like IR academics do, even when they are IR academics like Dr. Slaughter or Dr. Kissinger. They don’t have the time or luxury of remove from events. The cool, detached, analytical, Harvard intellectual who wrote Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy became the emotive, egoistic, domineering, slightly hysterical, bureaucratic operator and diplomatic tactician as National Security Adviser. I suspect a six days a week, sixteen hour days of crisis management culture as Policy Planning Director at State likewise tempered Slaughter’s time for theorizing speculations.

That said, there is some room present for Dr. Drezner’s skepticism and Mr. Trombly’s “active disdain, fear and scorn”of non-state actors (which I think is a spot on gestalt of the Metternich-worshipping Henry the K).

The state as an organization of coercion and defense is unrivaled in human history by any other political form except the tribe. The state is fine-tuned to be a beast of prey and open challeges to the state, in all it’s panolpy of might, without a long preparatory period of eroding it’s legitimacy and attriting it’s will to power, seldom turn out well unless the challenger is another state. Non-state actors who challenge state authority tend to survive and thrive initially only by being elusive, deceptive, adaptive, faster and by inflicting moral defeats until they accumulate enough armed power to co-opt, thwart, deter or topple the state by force. This requires the challenger engaging the state in such a way that it habitually reacts with excessive restraint punctuated by poorly directed outbursts of morally discrediting excessive violence ( see Boyd’s OODA Loop)

When non-state actor challengers gain sufficient political momentum and break into a full-fledged armed insurgency, a dangerous tipping point has been reached because insurgencies are generally very difficult, expensive and bloody to put down, often representing a much larger pool of passive political discontent. The advantage begins to turn to the challenger because the mere existence of the insurgency is itself an indictment of the state’s competence, authority and legitimacy. Some states never manage to regain the initiative, slipping into state failure and co-existing with the insurgency for decades or being ignominously defeated.

We live in an era of state decline, or at least an era of erosion of the state’s willingness to use force in self-defense with the unconstrained savagery of a William Tecumseh Sherman or a Curtis LeMay. While overall, the zeitgeist favors the non-state actor, challenging the state a much harder trick when it is ruled by a charismatic sociopath, an authoritarian lunatic or when the machinery of security is organized on the basis of extreme and homicidal paranoia. Very little political “room” exists in such circumstances for non-state actors of any size to emerge because the state has used terror to atomize society and dissolve natural bonds of social trust; dissidents, if they are to be effective, often must rely upon external support and patronage.

This is not to say that the power Dr. Slaughter commends, to “collaborate and connect” is unimportant. Far from it, as it represents a very formidible long term threat to the omnipotence of states by permitting a highly networked and wealthy global civil society to self-organize to check their power. At the inception though, “collaboration and connection” is very fragile and vulnerable to state interdiction. Representing oneself as a political challenge to the state before power is acquired to any significant degree is unwise; if empowering civil society in tyrannies through “collaboration and connection” is the goal of the USG, it ought to be done under the radar with plausible pretexts and without an obvious affiliation to American sponsorship.

That would only be…..realistic.


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