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Demonstrating Resolve, the Roundabout Way

By Taylor Marvin

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

How can the United States and its European allies show Vladimir Putin that their warnings against further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine are serious? New America Foundation president, Princeton professor, and former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that President Obama must “demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations” by striking the regime of murderous Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. “The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow,” Slaughter writes, by demonstrating American resolve and causing Putin to reconsider the credibility of American threats. Limited strikes in Syria — she specifically suggests destroying the Syrian government’s fixed-wing aircraft — “might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.”

Daniel Larison rejects Slaughter’s logic, writing that “it makes absolutely no sense to argue that bombing a Russian client in one place will change Russian behavior in another place for the better.” In fact, Larison and the National Interest’s Robert Golan-Vilella note, Slaughter’s argument has already been tested: the Obama administration already used forced to punish an authoritarian ruler massacring his own people, in Libya. Admittedly Syria is a Russian client in a way that Gaddafi’s Libya was not, but the point stands: if using force in Libya did not send a strong message about US resolve, would additional military intervention in Syria marginally strengthen the cumulative evidence of the Obama administration’s willingness to use force to the point that Putin would have never annexed Crimea, or — if the strikes were carried out now, as Slaughter proposes — suddenly stand down?

Of course not. The lesson the world drew from the war in Libya is not that the United States and its allies would use force in all circumstances, but instead that the United States and its allies would use force in very specific ones. In Libya organized rebel forces were ready to be the ground army airpower would support, Libya did not have an Iranian ally that could match intervention with asymmetric retaliation, and there was little risk of downed aircraft and dead pilots. In Syria, none of these conditions hold, and similar benchmarks certainly don’t hold in Ukraine.

Larison further writes that “nothing would be more useful for Moscow as a matter of propaganda than to have the U.S. illegally attacking another country.” This is also true. Arguments that failing to punish Russia will usher in a future of frequent great power aggression are often met with the counterargument of, well, this future is just the recent past, and Americans only notice and object to sovereignty violations when it’s not them doing the violating. While sovereignty and non-interference concerns are not in and of themselves a reason to dismiss hitting the Assad regime, advocates of intervention in Syria should acknowledge that it would strength Putin’s diplomatic position as well as weaken it. While global opinion has been generally against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, this opposition has not been as strident as the US and Europeans would have hoped. If strikes in Syria allowed a ‘well, both sides do it’ thought to take root, many leaders would find themselves with a convenient excuse to avoid the diplomatic and political risk of meaningfully punishing Russian aggression.

But ultimately the entire discussion is silly. Strikes in Syria can only be expected to influence Moscow’s calculus if they prompt a reassessment of the punishment Russia could face for further action. American resolve has no bearing on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, because everyone — Obama, the EU, Putin, the Ukrainians, everybody — knows that the United States is not going to go to war or even meaningfully threaten war with a major nuclear power. Striking Syria as a proxy demonstration of American resolve just makes this more obvious. If America is so committed to facing down Putin in eastern Ukraine, why is it striking Syria then? Because the United States cannot credibly threaten to use military force against Russia. The only coercion that is on the table is diplomatic efforts, which striking the Assad regime has at best a negative relation to. It’s akin to punching the skinny guy next to the hulking bar-fighter you’re trying to intimidate, just to show you’re serious.

I don’t think it is, as Danny Hirschel-Burns said on Twitter, surprising that a former “senior US policymaker would have such a simplistic view of credibility” because this really isn’t an argument about Ukraine at all. Anne-Marie Slaughter has favored military intervention in Syria for years, endorsing in January 2012 intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine should conditions be favorable and calling for unilateral limited military efforts to establish safe-zones in February 2012. Maybe, given the enormous human suffering in Syria over the last two years, the world should have followed Slaughter’s advice — reading 2012 Syria op-eds in 2014 is deeply sorrowful — but in any case it is obvious now that this military intervention is not coming. Citing strikes in Syria as a useful part of the Western toolkit in Ukraine is just, in my mind, a way of keeping the possibility of intervention in the public eye. The crisis in Ukraine is simply an excuse to keep that conversation going.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

René Caillié, Timbuktu looking west, 1830. Via Wikimedia.

René Caillié, Timbuktu looking west, 1830. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Anne-Marie Slaughter counsels striking Syria — specifically, the regime’s fixed-wing air force — as a show of credibility to deter Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. Daniel Larison reminds that “Russia wasn’t impressed by the willingness to use force in Libya,” and questions why strikes in Syria should make any impression on Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

On a similar bent, Tom Nichols fears that a successful Russian dismemberment of Ukraine without serious punishment risks the entire international order by “accepting the return of war as a normal part of statecraft without even the pretense of self-defense.”

After the deadliest incident in the history of climbing Mount Everest, a look at where and how people die on the mountain.

While I am fairly wary of Robert D. Kaplan’s writing, an interesting review of his latest book and another on China’s rising ambitions.

Murderous opposition threatens environmental activists in Brazil and elsewhere. Killers and the interest are rarely punished, because forces who favor exploiting the land typically have far greater political weight than the environmentalists and indigenous groups who fight to conserve it.

Javier Corrales looks at why Venezuela’s protest have been dominated by the middle class, which he links to the country’s growing incomes and a broader world trend of middle class protest.

Mitchell Plitnick sees right-wing nationalism, not religious politics, as the real long-term threat to Israeli society.

After the death of famed author Gabriel García Márquez, Kevin Lees writes on how the Colombian author introduced him to Latin America. And via Patrick Iber, how should García Márquez’s long and close relationship with Fidel Castro color how we view his legacy?

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the so-called Carnation Revolution that spelled the end of the Portuguese Estado Novo dictatorship and colonial empire, but after forty years of democracy Portugal faces depressing economic woes.

Finally, more linkage at Political Violence at a Glance.

Will Governments Ever Say No Thanks to Global Events?

By Taylor Marvin

The June opening of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is fast approaching, but not all Brazilians are happy that their country will be hosting soccer’s premier event. Despite Brazilians’ futebol-mad reputation, a February poll found that only 52 percent of Brazilians supported hosting the Cup. By April that number had fallen below fifty percent. In addition to construction fatalities and fears of heavy-handed policing during the Cup, many residents of the South American giant are concerned about the event’s cost, and believe that funds devoted to what the government of President Dilma Rousseff has dubbed the Copa das Copas or ‘Cup of Cups’ could be better spent elsewhere. Rousseff, who is heavily favored to win what is expected to be a rough second term in October, certainly hopes that the World Cup and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics will be a high point of her term in presidency. But even if the World Cup and Olympics unfold successfully and protests are kept to a minimum, Brazil’s efforts to host these events have not gone as smoothly as their backers would have hoped.

The problems associated with hosting large international sporting events — rushed construction, ballooning costs, and public opposition — are not limited to Brazil. The days before the opening of this winter’s Sochi Olympics were marked by widespread media reportsor, less charitably, mocking — of substandard construction and a frantic last-second push to finish building accommodations. Less immediately, the Sochi Olympics, which were the most expensive in history, drew attention to Russia’s widespread corruption problem, which challenges the Games’ overt goal of demonstrating Russia’s modernity and encouraging foreign business. The Sochi Games also leave behind a fantastically expensive resort city no one seems to know what to do with. While it is debatable whether Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine is related to the Sochi Games, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the threat of retaliatory sanctions certainly doesn’t help.

Elsewhere, Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup requires truly staggering construction in the oil-rich Gulf State. Conditions for the migrant workers tasked with building these facilities and infrastructure projects are so bad and so many workers are expected to die that it is possible to seriously raise the question of whether FIFA can be considered a mass killer. South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup was also troubled by serious worries about the country’s ability to host such a massive event.

If hosting massive international sports grows more expensive and difficult, will governments eventually decide that it simply isn’t worth it? After all, noble-minded talk of the thrill of sport and international cooperation aside governments’ desire to host these high-profile events is really driven by the international prestige and attention they bring. If the risks of spiraling costs and mass protests — particularly in the age of social media — put this prestige in doubt, governments may be more hesitate to spend such vast sums. The almost gleeful mocking of unfinished Sochi construction must have raised many eyebrows in countries scheduled to host their own international sporting events. Will governments ever look at the precedent of negative reporting on Sochi’s unfinished hotel rooms and Qatar’s thousands of dead laborers and simply say ‘no thanks’?

This question is particularly relevant for democratic governments. Autocracies, like Russia and Qatar, can simply decide that event-driven gains to their prestige are worth the possible costs to their image or domestic unrest over construction costs. Autocratic countries, less constrained by human rights concerns, also have greater ability to preserve their own image by keeping demonstrators away from the international media. In democracies, however, these risks are more difficult to shrug off, particularly on the domestic level — while Brazil’s Rousseff remains heavily favored to win reelection, protests driven by anger over the Cup did real damage to her polling, damage she is surly aware of.

Of course, despite their costs the recent Olympics Games in Beijing, Vancouver, London, and Sochi, and the South African FIFA World Cup, were all ultimately successful. These events experienced cost overruns, delays, and ultimately leave behind brand-new facilities and infrastructure that are difficult to find a use for once the games are over, but all of these events suffered no major disasters and brought positive global attention to their host countries. This positive coverage is why it is difficult to imagine a large-scale move away from hosting massive international sports events by democratic governments. Despite negative attention like the #sochiproblems Twitter hashtag that trended in the opening days of the Winter Olympics, international media coverage of international athletic events follows a script. In the lead up to the games, media focuses on construction and the dramatic possibility of delays. Because this news is not yet a major story, this coverage tends to be delegated to the international news that most consumers do not closely follow. As the event approaches and journalists arrive to the host city, they fill their time by reporting on facilities problems, adding audience-drawing drama to an otherwise uneventful waiting period. But once the matches actually start, sports reporting dominates. Barring a serious disaster, this feel-good coverage of athletics and the glamor of opening and closing ceremonies is what viewers around the world will remember after the events are over. The negative legacy of these events, like corruption and useless facilities, are much less reported on once international journalists have left.

As long as something does not go seriously wrong, both international audiences and Brazilians will likely remember the 2014 World Cup for the soccer, not delays and cost overruns. From the perspective of international prestige, that’s a win. Similarly, the brutal truth is that it is difficult to imagine a world where anonymous worker deaths leave a greater impact on audiences than the highlights of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. As long as media coverage of these events follows the same script, governments will likely keep chasing the perfect Copa das Copas.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

"Kelileh o Demneh," 1429. Via Wikimedia.

“Kelileh o Demneh,” 1429. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

More on the new heavy arms spending by a number of African states.

Marginalized young Saudis risk arrest by posting protest videos on YouTube, which accuse the country’s rulers of being “totally detached from the reality of people’s lives, because they remain preoccupied with succession to the throne and grand projects, such as initiating interfaith dialogue, although they do not communicate with their own people.”

Brazilian presidential candidate Eduardo Campos will run alongside environmentalist vice presidential hopeful Marina Silva, though current president Dilma Rousseff is widely favored to win reelection. Rousseff’s expected October win would mean four back-to-back terms by her Workers’ Party in the presidency.

A not very favorable take on the state of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who leaves office next year, though the Economist’s dig at her makeup is sexist and unwarranted.

Is Brazil’s militarized favela pacification strategy chasing security or just counterinsurgency?

Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea was unexpected, but a conflict over Ukraine’s consideration of closer ties to Europe was clearly brewing for some time. Why wasn’t the West better prepared?

Dan Nexon doubts that NATO has any credibility on Ukraine and that “escalating efforts by NATO at military deterrence actually increase the pressure on Moscow to take decisive action in the near term.” James Goldgeier attacks the common argument that post-1989 NATO expansion provoked Russia and was thus a mistake — if Russia takes such offense at its neighbors joining the Atlantic alliance, maybe it shouldn’t have given them such reason to fear it. (Via Max Fisher.)

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has failed, leaving the United States with the question of what to do next. Focusing on first developing Palestinian institutions as a road to statehood is just “a prescription for extending the occupation indefinitely by making it run smoothly,” writes Paul Pillar.

Peter Frase considers the middle ground between Star Trek utopianism and bleak hopelessness about the future many on the left seem to embrace. I think “post-history” is a good way of describing both.

From yesterday, more links at Political Violence at a Glance.

Chasing the DC Foreign Policy Career Dream

By Taylor Marvin

Are you a student or young graduate hoping to break into the DC foreign policy world? Writing in Foreign Policy, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Eric Trager shares advice for those hoping for careers focused on the Middle East. Trager’s points are intuitive, and reasonable. If you want to work on Middle Eastern policy issues, regional skills are vital. This is particularly true in the current job market, where a huge number of highly-qualified candidates competing for a limited number of entry-level foreign policy positions (a small number undoubtably made smaller by the gradual trend towards unpaid internships replacing what were once entry-level paid work, which is more pronounced in but not limited to prestige niches) means that employers can be as selective as they want. Trager recognizes this, warning applicants that “there is simply too much talent for too few paying jobs.”

So what makes a successful entry-level applicant? Regional language skills, or better yet fluency, is a minimum requirement, and the Arabic dialects many first-generation Americans may have learned at home isn’t enough. Applicants should also have spent time in the Middle East. It isn’t enough to just simply study abroad in highly-trafficked regional centers, Trager writes, noting that job applicants “who stray from well-traveled paths within the region — studying in Haifa, rather than Jerusalem, for example — always stand out.” It’s also valuable for candidates who write senior theses in college to conduct actual research in the Middle East. Finally, a DC internship is vital. American foreign policy jobs outside of academia are overwhelmingly centered around Washington, and “the best applicants for entry-level positions will have spent at least one summer working in D.C. getting to know its ways,” in Trager’s words.

All of these points are reasonable. In an age where American foreign policy in and outside of government suffers from a lack of hands-on regional skills among its practitioners, language ability and study experience in the Middle East should be vital for graduates hoping to spend their careers studying the region. Yes, this trend towards language fluency and extensive study abroad requirements for entry-level applicants is partially driven by an oversupply of hopefuls and an undersupply of actual paying jobs, but it also has real value, as anyone who remembers Fred Kaplan’s anecdote in The Insurgents relaying that roughly one percent of US embassy officials in Baghdad in 2006 spoke fluent Arabic knows. These requirements are also driven by the simple selectivity that makes it difficult to distinguish valuable knowledge from arms-racing “credential creep,” as Faris Alikhan terms it. As Adam Elkus (a qualified FP watcher if there ever was one) noted on Twitter, a post 9/11 foreign policy career bubble is now popping — particularly for those focused on the Middle East, I’d guess — and the jobs that many students expect simply aren’t there.

But value aside, there’s another obvious takeaway from Trager’s advice — that the foreign policy world is limited to those from wealthy backgrounds. Or more pithily, it means that “building a career in policy often means not only living on little income, but paying your way around the world,” in Sarah Kendzior’s words. Think about what these requirements practically signify from a student’s perspective. Assuming they achieve admission into an elite college at all, taking three years of language courses as a four-year undergraduate means that a student must decide that they’d like to focus on the Middle East as a freshman, at the latest. In other words, a career in Middle Eastern policy requires many students to make decisions about the rest of their lives when they’re nineteen years old. Study abroad is open to all students on paper, but in reality studying for one or two semesters in a foreign country requires significant amounts of money for visa expenses, food, travel, and so on. If these expenses are covered by scholarships and grants great, but for many they are not. Since most students who study abroad tend to do so in their junior year, conducting senior thesis research in the Middle East implies many students studying abroad not only once, but twice.

Unpaid DC internships are great resume builders for students who attend universities in the Washington area. But for those in other parts of the country — so the vast majority of university students — it’s much harder. An unpaid DC summer internship requires moving across the country, finding housing in an unknown city, and covering living expenses for a summer. Many summer internships are full time, so unless interns have the energy to work a night job they either have to take out a loan or have their parents cover their expenses. Given that an unpaid internship only maybe leads to future paid employment, borrowing money to fund one is not unreasonably too much for many.

Similarly, this is all assuming that students have the opportunity to move across the country for a summer at all. For working students this may not be possible, either because they need the money or they’ll simply lose their job back home if they do. If “at least one summer” at a DC internship is the bare minimum, now we’re talking about blocking off two summers, or possibly three if a fall semester study abroad stint conflicts with a full-length summer internship. Again, this isn’t to say that on-the-ground regional experience isn’t important, or that cultural immersion isn’t vital to those learning Arabic or Farsi. (Immersion is instrumental to learning Romance languages, much easier for English speakers to acquire than Arabic.) But we should be realistic about what Trager’s guidance practically means for students. Foreign policy driven by a knowledge elite will tend to be staffed by, well, the elite.

There really isn’t a good answer here. American foreign policy is best served by practitioners with deep knowledge of both their region of focus and Washington, DC. But restricting foreign policy jobs to only those lucky enough to meet a steep criteria of experience and internship requirements is bad for everyone. If Trager’s advice really is the minimum necessary to be competitive for an entry-level DC policy job, we’re selling students a lie. International Studies majors are at least in theory benchmarked around the assumption that there are jobs for graduates, an assumption strengthened by the entire world of consumer foreign policy media fed to students. Perhaps we should be telling International Studies majors that jobs in their field are restricted only to the elite (and to an extent all liberal arts and social science majors are now told that), but the message doesn’t seem to be sinking in — particularly for students who succeed above expectations in their International Studies majors at the expense of extracurricular internships and experience focused on later out-of-major employment. Of course everyone knows that International Studies isn’t Petroleum Engineering or Computer Science (or even Economics for that matter), but at least in my experience IS classes are not presented as a fun four-year course of study its students are never going to need in their professional lives, even if that is true for most.

Again, there’s nothing unreasonable about Trager’s advice from the perspective of an employer seeking quality work. Ultimately the lesson to Middle Eastern policy hopefuls boils down to what prospective law students are just beginning to hear: unless you are already firmly in the elite, don’t try.

The Ultimate Luxury Good

By Taylor Marvin

Algerian Su-30MKA. Photo by Wikimedia user Ardastos.

Algerian Su-30MKA. Photo by Wikimedia user Ardastos.

Last month, Peter Dörrie took a fascinating look in War is Boring at the weapons shopping spree going on in Africa. Across the continent, a number of countries are spending heightened oil revenue on new, high-profile military acquisitions — for uncertain goals. It isn’t just that countries like Algeria, Angola, and Uganda could better serve their impoverished citizens by spending resource income on bolstering public institutions or development projects. Instead, these acquisitions, which include advanced Russian-sourced fighter aircraft, serve little obvious immediate military need.

Many African states face interstate security concerns, but the conventional, peer-on-peer wars multirole fighters are most suited for remain rare. Instead of immediate defensive aims, Dörrie writes citing SIPRI fellow Siemon Wezeman, these fighter purchases are mostly intended “to build up forces for regional power projection” and that “geopolitical posturing is also a factor.”

But why would African states purchase costly arms that appear out of step with their practical security needs, and that they are unlikely to be able to effectively maintain anyway? Restricting the question to just fast jets — “the crown jewels of Africa’s air arms,” in Dörrie’s words — several explanations arise. The first is the simplest. As Dörrie notes these states do perceive themselves as having real military need for airpower. African military acquisitions are also likely partially due to an arms race dynamic, where one state’s newly-acquired military advantages give its neighbors a powerful incentive to match it on the battlefield. This dynamic can play out even when two states are not rivals. For example, Brazil’s decision late last year to select the Saab Gripen NG as the culmination of a long-delayed fighter acquisition program seems partially driven by neighboring Venezuela’s 2006 purchase of Sukhoi Su-30MK2 fighters. Venezuela and Brazil have no serious rivalry; while the Brazilian government may be worried by political instability next door, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose anointed successor is the current Brazilian executive, publicly endorsed Venezuela’s current administration in the last election.

Secondly, while the weak states, internal conflict, and decrepit economies that characterized most of post-independence Sub-Saharan Africa meant that only a few of the region’s countries, most notably apartheid-era South Africa, could afford to build formidable militaries, today this is no longer the case. (It has been argued that these weak states also discouraged interstate war by giving everyone an incentive preserve a norm discouraging territorial conquest and secession, which could further discourage weapons purchases suited to interstate warfare.) Growing economies and resource booms have given more African governments the fiscal ability to invest in expensive weapons — it is no surprise that of the states Dörrie lists Algeria and Angola are major oil exporters, and South Africa was until recently seen as Africa’s largest economy.

This leads to the most interesting explanation for Africa’s fast jet purchases: prestige. Beyond their practical role in credible posturing and power projection, advanced combat aircraft are enormously prestigious military assets, making them a useful tool for status seeking states. Few states have the resources to maintain fleets of modern fighter aircraft, whose allure grants them public attention outsized compared to their military impact. For countries without major navies, it isn’t wrong to view fighter aircraft as flagships. This is particularly true of the Sukhoi Su-27 derivatives highlighted in Dörrie’s report. Sukhoi Su-27 variants and derivatives — in NATO parlance, “Flankers” — are a family of extremely formidable Russian multirole aircraft with its origins in the closing decades of the Cold War. Designed to counter advanced Western fighters over the Cold War battlefield, since dissolution of the USSR the Su-27 and its many, many derivatives (the aircraft family is notoriously confusing) have found wider success on the global export market than their European rivals.

For numerous reasons, the Su-27 family has proven popular among poorer states than its Western rivals: in Africa, the Su-27 is flown by Angola, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, and the Su-30 by others. This isn’t to discount the aircraft’s abilities, which by most accounts matches or exceeds Western 4th generation fighters. But the family’s buyers are an interesting demonstration of the role of prestige-seeking in military acquisitions.

Effective military organizations are extremely difficult to build, because military efficacy is not only determined by equipment. Other determinants of a military’s ability to effectively operate, like doctrine, training, an educated, politically independent officer corps, and so on, are far harder to buy. For states that find themselves unable to make the society-wide reforms necessary build these institutional resources, highly-visible acquisitions can provide a shortcut to international military prestige. This shortcut is particularly available for oil states, who are able to channel funds more or less directly from oilfields to arms exporters, and states whose aircraft are piloted by foreigners — during the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War aircraft were famously flown by European pilots, for example — where fielding advanced combat aircraft boils down to essentially writing a check.

Of course, buying advanced aircraft without investing the time and resources to build a similarly capable military organization does not translating into combat effectiveness — or “effectiveness” at anything, as the clumsy Malaysian response to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has shown. As Dörrie writes, many African states have had trouble maintaining their air equipment, and training their pilots. But even if African states prove unable to keep sophisticated aircraft combat-capable, these acquisitions are still worrying. Most obviously, prestige military purchases divert funds that could be better spend on development and providing social services. But that isn’t the only worry. When you have a hammer, nails, and so on.

Update: I should add that a comment by Howl at Pluto blogger LFC regarding rumors late last year that Angola would acquire an aircraft carrier is remarkably applicable to this question: “Rulers and govts care about status, and weapons — even if operated on a somewhat token basis due to shortage of trained personnel etc. — continue to confer status.”

Correction: I originally listed Sudan as an oil exporter; after the secession of South Sudan its oil production has fallen significantly.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Grafia S.A.I.I.G, Abruzzo travel poster, 1920. Via Wikimedia.

Grafia S.A.I.I.G, Abruzzo travel poster, 1920. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

In what is sure to be controversial, New York Times op-ed asks whether Iran and Israel are exchanging theocracy. While I think it is important to remember that US policy in support of Israel is not primarily driven by American Jews, and Iran is far from a democracy, Abbas Milani and Israel Waismel-Manor’s argument is a provocative one.

The “Cuban Twitter” fiasco risks USAID’s ability to present itself as an aid agency (via IR/PS).

Qatari construction for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will likely kill thousands of migrant workers. Danny Hirschel-Burns ask whether this makes FIFA a mass killer.

Why isn’t Brazil taking a harsher line on Mercosur partner Venezuela’s repression? And what’s behind Brazil’s “uncritical” take on international development?

Conflict over including cross-cultural subjects engulfs Australia’s history textbooks in “curriculum wars.”

Capital in the 21st Century seems an interesting book, though Kevin Drum has a few criticisms.

Michelle Goldberg sees #CancelColbert, a Twitter push spearheaded by Asian American activist Suey Park, as symptomatic of “left-wing anti-liberalism” and activism that has become “less about winning converts and changing the world and more about creating protected enclaves and policing speech.” Brittney Cooper counters that activism is not about censorship or dividing progressivism, but instead “forcing an acknowledgment that racism is painful, harmful and unacceptable.” (Via
Aura Bogado and šīrīn šəfī.)

More linkage on conflict at the blog Political Violence at a Glance.

Dueling Narratives in Venezuela

By Taylor Marvin

Last month Dorothy Kronick published a long piece on Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis at FiveThirtyEight. In keeping with the young publication’s self-proclaimed data-driven mission, Kronick attempts to explain Venezuela’s political conflict between supporters of the government, led by Hugo Chávez heir Nicolás Maduro, and the opposition, which is primarily supported by the middle class and the country’s traditional elites, through Venezuela’s economic performance and social metrics, such as poverty reduction and the infant mortality rate. Kronick suggests that the violent political divide between chavistas and opposition supporters is partially due to different measures of Chavismo’s success. “Chavistas compare the present to Venezuela’s pre-Chávez past,” Kronick writes, “while the opposition contrasts the current economic situation with more recent developments in the rest of Latin America.”

Under Chávez, first elected in 1999, and his successor Maduro, who was elected in April 2013 after Chávez’s death, poor Venezuelans have experienced real gains. Poverty rates have fallen, and the social works championed by the Chávez and Maduro administrations have brought healthcare and other forms of social welfare to the poor who form the bedrock of Chavismo popular support. However, at the same time Venezuela’s wider economy has decayed, a decay driven by the state’s reliance on the oil economy, political instability, and Chavismo’s erratic appropriation of private industry. To middle class Venezuelans, the argument goes, the last decade compares poorly to Venezuela’s neighbors, who have been able to fight poverty while not sacrificing political stability and sustainable economic growth.

Via Erik Loomis, a piece by Mark Weisbrot posted in Jacobin critiques Kronick’s analysis. Most interestingly, Weisbrot doubts the theory that Maduro’s supporters compare contemporary Venezuela’s development with its two-party-oligarchy past while his opponents judge it against the wider region: “Do voters anywhere in the world judge their government based on a comparison to its peers?” Weisbrot further argues that Venezuela’s economic performance under the Chávez and Maduro administrations is better than commonly believed, and faults Kronick for highlighting metrics unrelated to Venezuelans’ standard of living. Weisbrot also notes that Venezuela’s heavy foreign aid spending means that oil revenue that left the country did not do so to line the pockets of corrupt officials. “From an economic, human, and moral point of view, this is relevant,” he writes, closing the piece.

This exchange is interesting because of its intersection between economic analysis and identity politics. While limited both by space and FiveThirtyEight’s data focus, Dorothy Kronick appears to understate the role of social identity in Venezuela’s political conflict. Chavismo has always been driven by the state’s relationship with Venezuela’s common people. Chávez and, less skillfully, Maduro speak directly to Venezuela poor, in a racially diverse country look like them, and have devoted great effort to improving their lives in a very visible way. Not unreasonably, chavistas view the opposition as a remote elite desperate to recover their historical privileges at the expense of the masses. But that does not make the ‘truth’ of the opposition’s perspective false. Middle and upper class opposition supporters are not wrong to see Madruo’s administration as erratic, authoritarian, and totally unprepared to address the country’s economic problems and out-of-control crime rate, and its repressive response to student protests as vicious and brutal.

These two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Chavismo can enjoy mass support while still being autocratic and supplementing its ability to win elections with a deliberate campaign to subvert independent institutions. Similarly, the Venezuelan government’s anti-poverty measures have made a real difference in millions of lives, while also doing so in a clientelistic manner and are less sustainable and evaluated than conditional transfer programs like Brazil’s successful bolsa família.

At a time when many Latin American countries are strengthening democracy and growing their economies, it’s silly to dismiss the thought that the Venezuelan opposition sees the differences between the neighbors and their own country’s failing institutions and mass basic good shortages. But chavistas can draw a different lesson. Ideologically-aligned or at least allied administrations, such as Evo Morales’ in Bolivia, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and, more distantly, Cristina Kirchner’s in Argentina and the administrations of Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, all face some domestic opposition but have not seen the same violent mass opposition as in Venezuela. The lesson Maduro supporters can draw from this is that their own opposition is less willing to compromise — a reluctance, of course, driven by Chavismo’s own radicalism — than elsewhere in South America, a virulence that puts greater repressive actions on the table, so to speak.

Ultimately support for or opposition to Maduro’s administration is more a question of politics and identity than data. Even more uncertainly, it rests on inherently-uncertain counterfactuals and predictions about the future. Would Venezuela — whether the country as a whole, or specific segments of society — be better off today if Chávez had never come to the presidency? Will it be worse off at the end of Maduro’s term than today? If an over-reliance on oil is one of the greatest long-term challenges facing Venezuela, what’s to say that this same resource curse — which is not limited to leftist governments — would not have metastasized under another administration? Will Maduro ever leave power at all, or will he be forced from it before his term is completed in 2019? If Maduro is not forced out now will a military coup depose him in the future, making a coup driven by opposition politicians and technocrats today ultimately preferable to a more violent one in the future?

Data can help us make educated guesses about these questions, but can’t definitively answer them, and the business of politics is more driven by the narratives that inform people’s engagement with them. These narratives are the real long-term costs of Venezuela’s political conflict. When politics becomes this contentious, with such violently high stakes, someone will always be the loser. If Maduro is forced from power now or even fairly loses the 2019 election, chavistas will, not unreasonably, see it as the work of a classist — ‘that bus driver‘ — and elitist opposition who played dirty rather than lose their privileges. If the opposite occurs, the opposition will watch their country being run into the ground by negligent ideologues who would rather dismantle democratic institutions than risk losing power.

Both these narratives are, in a way, true.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Nakkash Osman, "The Ottoman Army Marching On The City Of Tunis," 1581. Via Wikimedia.

Nakkash Osman, “The Ottoman Army Marching On The City Of Tunis,” 1581. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

A German publishing company hopes to publish a print edition of the English-language Wikipedia — all 1,000 hardcover volumes of it. Given fears about the impermanence of information hosted on the internet and electronic data storage in general, I think this is a great idea.

After the prospect of Venice’s secession from Italy was recently in the news, Italian police arrest two dozen alleged violent separatists.

What did third century China think of the distant Roman Empire?

Ten potential long-term effects of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ posts from the past two weeks are enormously important.

The completely bonkers idea of converting the Soviet Mach 3 MiG-25 interceptor into a VIP transport: alas, it was not meant to be.

From Thursday, more linkage at Political Violence at a Glance.

How Real Is BRICS Solidarity on Crimea?

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho and Presidência da República, via .

Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho and Presidência da República, via Agência Brasil.

Last week a resolution calling on the international community not to recognize the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea easily passed through the United Nations General Assembly. The non-binding agreement, which urged restraint and a peaceful resolution to the conflict, received a hundred votes in favor, 11 against, and 58 abstentions, in addition to a number of UN member states not present for the vote.

While the resolution was adopted, commentators immediately drew attention to the comparatively low number of “Yes” votes. It is difficult to think of a more blatant violation of international norms than Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and later annexation of the peninsula after a singularly-unconvincing referendum. While the only states to vote against the resolution were Russia and ten of its close allies such as Cuba, Venezuela, Sudan, and Armenia, the high number of abstentions is a puzzle. Why would so many states remain on the sidelines, so to speak, of such a clear-cut issue?

More importantly, why did Russia’s BRICS peers — a loose bloc of large developing economies composed of, besides Russia, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa — all abstain from the vote? The BRICS bloc, a grouping that was first proposed (minus South Africa) by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001, has always been an association stronger on paper than the real world, but this show of solidarity is striking. While China is a Russian ally that also hopes to regain territory it once lost — in China’s case, Taiwan — its government has also long presented itself as committed to ideals of territorial sovereignty and states’ freedom from foreign interference, a stance its abstention undercuts. Brazil, India, and South Africa are all democracies that presumably should strongly oppose Vladimir Putin’s ‘might makes right’ annexation of Crimea.

Brazil, India, China, and South Africa’s stance is especially puzzling because their abstention on the UN resolution reaffirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity is, for all practical purposes, a vote in favor of Russia. With its invasion and annexation already successful, Russia now seeks to defend the status quo, a reality that a refusal to condemn Russia supports. One potential answer to this puzzle is that, as Daniel Larison has written, these countries simply don’t see the Crimea issue as vital enough to their interests to take on the diplomatic risks of a firm position. Another is that Russia put great effort into urging its fellow BRICS countries to support it, though this alone is an unsatisfying explanation — it’s difficult to see Russia as having the leverage to coerce a bloc of countries that together are far more populous and economically powerful than itself.

Via Milena Rodban, in The Diplomat Zachary Keck suggests another explanation. Noting a statement by BRICS foreign ministers denouncing the push to impose costs on Russia’s Crimea annexation, Keck sees the the BRICS countries’ abstentions at the UN General Assembly as a deliberate repudiation of Western norms and the pressures by which the United States and its allies seek to enforce them. This repudiation is part of a strategy designed to united the otherwise disparate BRICS countries. “BRICS has often tried to overcome these internal challenges by unifying behind an anti-Western or at least post-Western position,” Keck writes. “In that sense, it’s no surprise that the group opposed Western attempts to isolate one of its own members.”

This is a provocative explanation for BRICS solidarity at the UN. However, there is also a simpler one. As Keck lists, the BRICS bloc has incentives to both preserve its own unity and demonstrate its relevance, but the UN vote is less a demonstration of the strength of this “post-Western” solidarity than that the costs of doing so are very small.

Yes, an abstention is an implicit voice of support for Russia, but it is far less forceful than the “No” votes on the Assembly resolution. The most obvious takeaway from the vote isn’t that Brazil, India, China, and South Africa abstained from the vote along with with 54 other countries, but that Russia was only able to draw “No” votes from a small number of its obvious allies and, more embarrassingly, clients. Moreover, while 100 “Yes” votes is hardly a ringing endorsement of the norms against territorial annexation, the vote itself was never in doubt. The non-Russian members of the BRICS bloc could afford a mild show of solidarity with Russia because there was no chance that their measured statements in opposing sanctions and abstentions would actually lead to the rejection of the Assembly resolution.

Similarly, the governments of Brazil, India, China, and South Africa are unlikely to pay any costs for their positions at home. In Brazil, in particular, a recent Christian Science Monitor piece noted that while Russia’s annexation is unpopular in the Brazilian press, the conflict is overshadowed by domestic issues, like the fast-approaching World Cup, and in the international realm events in Brazil’s immediate neighborhood. Recent pieces published in Brazilian media have, for example, argued that a referendum cannot legitimize annexation, warned of future conflict, and echoed the argument that Russia will lose influence in the rest of Ukraine. But it seems unlikely that the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is widely favored to win reelection this fall, will suffer any serious domestic pushback from abstention, along with those of its democratic BRICS counterparts in India and South Africa.

Another explanation for the vote’s cost — and thus its importance as a post-Western moment — born by the BRICS is that several of the bloc’s members face secessionist movements of their own. China has real fears of Tibetan and Uyghur separatism — in addition to the possibility of a formal Taiwanese independence declaration — and India a number of separatist movements, most notably in Jammu and Kashmir. Supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea must be costly to states facing secessionist movements, the theory goes, because it will encourage separatists elsewhere. However, this seems not to be the case in practice. Political scientist Steve Saideman has extensively argued countries support or oppose secessionist movements “based on the context of each one, rather than to any over-arching principle.” Canada recognized Kosovo because such a move fit into the country’s wider foreign policy goals, despite its own secessionist movement in Quebec; a notably counterargument to this theory is Spain’s non-recognition of Kosovo. All this suggests that Brazil, India, China, and South Africa’s support for Russia will not bring future costs by encouraging domestic secessionists. This is particularly true for Brazil, where to the best of my knowledge a breakaway southern state has no chance of success or even much real support. (One of the movement’s website appears to now be a Japanese porn site.)

So it’s possible that Brazil, China, India, and South Africa all abstained from the Assembly resolution on Crimea to stand against — so the narrative goes — a hypocritical West. But even if this is true, this is less a bold stance than an empty one. Bland statements and abstentions do aid Russia, but do little in any practical way. It is worth remembering that a single “No” vote from a large, democratic country like Brazil, India, or South Africa would have been an immensely powerful public relations tool for Putin. The fact that Russia couldn’t manage to get even one from its BRICS counterparts substantially weakens the argument that the vote represents some new post-Western moment. The BRICS group may, in Oliver Stuenkel’s words, be driven by a narrative “that emerging powers are successful and that the rise of the Global South is set to fundamentally change the distribution of power in global affairs.” But that does not mean that the Brazil, India, China, and South Africa are willing to bear serious costs in support of Russian military adventurism.

Instead, it is more likely that BRICS leaders are only willing to offer token — and more importantly, largely costless — support for an increasingly unpopular and isolated Russia.