A Merry IR Christmas!

I puttered around with this last year.  It seems an apt moment to re-post it.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!


The Three Ghosts of IR Theory*

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the lab

Not a creature was stirring, not even a crab;

The monitors glowed dully with Microsoft’s wares,

In hopes that dissertation fairies soon would be there.

The first-years tossed and turned in their beds,

Wrestling with Political Theory deep in their heads,

But I puttered on, deeply immersed in Chapter 5,

Trying to make sense of an old government archive,

When out on the quad there arose such a clatter,

That I peered through the lab windows to see what was the matter.

I let out a gasp, for what did I see,

But the three frightful ghosts of IR theory!

Monstrous figures rent out of time,

They were the very embodiments of IR paradigms!

The first approached me, and seeing me aghast,

Declaimed, “It is I, the Ghost of IR Past!

Realism is my bellicose and bloody domain,

And in it everything states do is foreordained.

Domestic politics are put in a black box,

And institutions are a load of bollox!

But sadly my predictions did not bear fruit:

The end of the Cold War made my viewpoint moot!

So now all I do is haunt the hallways of Chicago,

Trailing old Mearsheimer like a sad little shadow.

I sought to be timeless and quite ahistorical,

But now I’m just a straw man, a device rhetorical.”

Barely had I made sense of his sorrowful speech,

When the second figure drew nigh and began to preach:

“It is I, the Ghost of IR Present!

Rationalism is the theory I represent.

States are rational actors, just like you and I—

Always wanting their utility to be amplified!

Understanding politics is no difficult task, you see—

Simply identify all the main interests in society.

Then add a rough measure of power,

And you’ve got a new dissertation chapter in under an hour.

But make sure all your studies have a large N,

Lest you encounter an actual expert on Phnom Penh,

Who could go on to point out your paper’s many flaws,

And leave you desperately grasping for straws.

Do remember, whenever your study is in doubt,

To let ‘Bayesian updating’ be your shout!

Sure, my critics say I’m non-falsifiable,

But the power of my reach is undeniable.”

The smug countenance of this shade moved away,

And in its lieu came a much quieter fay.

She began, “Do not despair!

In the future IR will not always be so square.

I am the Ghost of IR (Forthcoming):

Know that one day the field will be more becoming.

A multiplicity of diverse perspectives will be welcome,

And qualitative scholars won’t have to flee to Belgium.

We’ll actually read what they write in the humanities,

And we’ll finally overcome our economics envies.

In this great post-positivist paradise,

Having regional expertise won’t be seen as a vice;

Instead everyone will ‘soak and poke’ all day,

And head off for extensive field research in Bombay.

Your APSR articles will no longer be your main metric,

We’ll all have become so much less Euro-centric—

Well, except for mandatory readings of Foucault,

To whom we’ll all still have to kowtow.

While that day has not yet arrived,

Towards it you must nevertheless strive!”

Those rousing words, I do freely confess,

Made my heart swell deep within my breast.

With that, the three shades began to drift away,

Having brought me some solace during their stay.

And I heard them exclaim, as they moved out of sight—

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”


* I would like to thank Ilona de Zamaróczy for her assistance with this project.

The Coming Personalization of American Foreign Policy

If 2016 has taught me anything, it’s the folly of making predictions.  Accordingly, this post represents not a prediction about the future, but instead a way of thinking about how President-Elect Donald Trump seems to be approaching foreign policy and especially diplomacy as the January inauguration draws near.

Feminist thinkers have long used the phrase “The personal is political.”  In an unintended way, this phrase arguably captures a great deal of Trump’s mindset.  Many observers have noted Trump’s preference for people over institutions; he seems to put his trust in flesh-and-blood individuals over disembodied organizations, and loyalty and personal connections go a long way with him.  Furthermore, while his own promises seem important to him (although perhaps selectively), policies, practices, and traditions he has not personally helped develop seem to hold little sway.  All of this leads to a personalization of policy-making: an environment where Trump and a small, inner band of confidantes formulate policy on topics that directly matter to him while keeping established stakeholders at arm’s length.

It will of course not be the first time in American history that the Diplomat-in-Chief has evinced these tendencies: the Nixon White House was permeated by a thick atmosphere of paranoia, racism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism that even Trump and company will have trouble rivaling.  (Those interested in India and desirous of a close-up look of the Nixon White House should pick up Gary Bass’ excellent The Blood Telegram.)  And look, even that human-rights-abusing, genocide-enabling administration managed to generate a few foreign policy successes.  So perhaps not all is lost.

Yet, personalizing American foreign policy opens the door to a wide range of potential pitfalls. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it can become difficult for third-party observers to separate the signal from the noise in highly personalized atmospheres, since there aren’t the lower echelons of the bureaucracy to consistently reinforce the desired message.  Did Trump’s decision to accept a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president represent a drastic rethinking of America’s diplomatic stance towards the island?  No one really knows (including perhaps Trump), because the policy is not broadly emanating from across the communications apparatus of the American state.

Making politics personal carries other risks.  For instance, in a thoughtful article Bloomberg Businessweek discusses the heightened risks that Trump-branded real estate, particularly skyscrapers, are likely to face during his administration.  Who should pay to secure these highly visible, newly prominent buildings?  (For a map of their locations around the world, see here.)

One way increased personalization may be measurable in the near future could involve seeing if Trump nominates a larger-than-usual number of political appointees at the ambassadorial level.  Over the past half-dozen administrations, the percentage of American ambassadors drawn from outside the State Department’s pool of career diplomats has varied between 26% and 38%, according to data maintained by the American Foreign Service Association.  (For those curious, after several bungled nominations early on, the Obama administration ended up clocking in at around 30% political appointees over his two terms – which, depending on the exact data you use, is either the lowest or second-lowest number of political appointees by a modern 8-year president.)

A larger number of political appointees by the Trump Administration would signal a desire to bypass the State Department and keep its “experts” at bay, as well as political patronage on a larger-than-usual scale, even for Washington, D.C.  Indeed, we’ve seen Trump advocate for political appointees like Anna Wintour (!?) in the past.  And in an interesting twist, Trump is not limiting himself to nominating American ambassadors: he suggested a few weeks ago (via a tweet, of course) that he wouldn’t mind if the United Kingdom appointed former UKIP leader Nigel Farage as its ambassador to the United States.

Fortunately, there is probably a ceiling on how many political appointees Trump could name, if only because few well-heeled Americans are clamoring to be the U.S.’ top representative in Dushanbe.

The Amazingness of Imperial British Record-Keeping

Would you like to know who passed their driver’s license exam in Uganda in June of 1912?  I know, who wouldn’t?!?  Well, thanks to the amazing thoroughness of Britain’s colonial records as well as the fantastic Africana archive at Northwestern University, now you can!

Uganda May 1912 Driver's Licenses - Cropped.jpg

I find it interesting that while the historian in me loves the completeness and detail of records preserved in old archives, the civil libertarian in me is aghast when the U.S. government collects infinitely larger troves of such data today.  If the NSA simply recast its mission as one of aiding future historians, I would be way more on board.  It will be fascinating to see how historians 50 years from now will view the present era with the help of Big Data.

(Also, when did “motorcycle” become a single word?)

If No One is Going to Read Something, Should You Still Write It?

Now that I’ve wrapped up my dissertation and am starting to think about how I might go about turning it into a book or some articles (or ideally both!), I’ve been giving some thought to the relationship between writing and reading.  I have many close friends in journalism, and for them the relationship is rather straightforward: you write in order to be read and, for the most part, the wider the readership, the better.

For academics in the humanities and social sciences… it’s complicated.  Yes, the ultimate goal is for our work to be read (and perhaps even have an impact on the wider world), but the intended audience is usually much more limited.  I’ll be lucky if my dissertation is read in whole or in part by more than a dozen people, and I’m sure many are familiar with the oft-heard claim that the median academic publication is never cited (for discussions, see here, here, and here).

But even if academic writing isn’t always widely disseminated, I think it has great value as a way of making the writer lay out his/her thoughts clearly and intelligibly.  Academic writing (and particularly a humanities/social sciences dissertation) can be a form of writing qua learning.  The messy realities of wrestling words and ideas into coherent shape on a page show up in an academic’s teaching, punditry, and activism for years down the line.

Which got me to thinking–are there other forms of writing which are not primarily intended to be read?  And the answer that leapt to mind are a lot of major governmental reports.  Sure, every now and then governmental organizations produce big reports that are widely read and discussed (and can even get on the NYT‘s bestseller list), but they are the exception, not the rule.  And even for the exceptionally well-publicized reports, like the recently released Chilcot report on the U.K’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War, it’s doubtful that it’s primarily intended to be read, given that it’s 2.6 million words long, or about three times the length of the complete works of Shakespeare.

So then why are these reports written?  Why is all of this energy expended writing something that probably will not be read all that much or all that closely?  One possible answer is that bureaucratic writing may have a documentary function – the act of writing the report serves as evidence, independent of whether it’s read or not.  In other words, sometimes bureaucratic reports are written just because they have to be, in the same way that sometimes meetings are held just because they have to be, even if no one else is present in the room.

Maybe that’s why long, unreadable government reports get written, but critically-minded scholars like James Ferguson and Isaac Kamola have convincingly argued government texts almost always have a secondary role beyond simply fulfilling bureaucratic requirements.  Governmental and para-governmental reports are also always political interventions!  For instance, in my dissertation I discuss 14 high-status reports about East African regional integration that received funding from European sources between 2007 and 2014.  I note that while the reports typically present themselves as having technical, problem-solving aims, they also have the secondary political function of raising the profile of certain contested issues and forcing East African governments to cease foot-dragging and implement policy changes.  Sure, maybe they’re read only by a few dozen people, but that intended target audience will feel the message loud and clear.  We should not be fooled by the generic formats or the routine list of acronyms on the inside cover—intended or not, these reports are interjections into the political economy of East Africa.

Given this discussion, it’s particularly interesting that one organization which takes seriously the question of which of its reports actually get read is the World Bank (to its credit):

About 13 percent of [the WB’s] policy reports were downloaded at least 250 times while more than 31 percent of policy reports are never downloaded.  Almost 87 percent of policy reports were never cited.
If I can’t figure out how to turn my dissertation into a book or articles, it might nevertheless have a future as a World Bank policy report!

World, Meet Donald.

President-Elect Trump, say hello to the world.

Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by polls that showed Hillary Clinton well ahead, the global community now seems to be scrambling to figure out who Donald Trump is and how he might govern.  As shown below, data from Google Trends confirms that worldwide searches for “Donald Trump” are at an all-time high.


(100 arbitrarily designates the most Google searches ever recorded for a given search term since 2004, with everything scaled relative to that.  In other words, the number of people worldwide Googling Trump has more than quadrupled in the aftermath of the election.)

The top six non-North American countries to evince interest in President-Elect Trump are apparently Kenya, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, Singapore, and Nigeria.  I’m not sure what to make of that, except that there’s probably bias in favor of English-speaking countries built into those results.

More qualitatively, I can attest to how strong interest in the American election has been in the Delhi region, and how powerfully people here have been affected by the surprising result.  An Indian colleague took the Wednesday off as a sick day to deal with her incipient depression.  And just this afternoon a forum on the future of Afghanistan-Pakistan-India relations surprisingly segued into a long Q&A about Trump’s likely future foreign policy.  Now admittedly these have been happening in the milieu of the Indian intelligentsia, so I’m glad that Google’s data confirms that this part of broader, worldwide trend.

I’m not a believer in American exceptionalism, but for a variety of material, cultural, and historical reasons much of the rest of the world does continue to pay exceedingly close attention to developments in the United States.  The rise of Donald Trump doesn’t seem likely to change that anytime soon.

Will the U.S. Tomorrow Be a 0 or a 1?

There’s a number of datasets out there that collate information about electoral violence in countries around the world (e.g. this one).  While I’m not an expert on them, I presume that the U.S. in recent decades has been coded a 0 for “no significant instances of electoral violence.”  Here’s fervently hoping that by tomorrow night the 2016 U.S. elections will not be coded as a 1 by future researchers.

Straddling the Fine Line between Healthy Nationalism and Troubling Racism at the League of Legends Worlds Tournament

You probably don’t know this, but the annual League of Legends World Championship is going on right now.  What is “League of Legends,” you ask?  Simply put, the most popular computer game in the world.  And since I’m currently in the process of writing an academic paper about it, readers of this blog are going to be hearing about it in the coming months.  (Curious to see what the game looks like?  This five-minute video provides a good primer.)

If you’re unfamiliar with League of Legends (often abbreviated LoL), the first thing we have to talk about is its globe-spanning popularity.  Riot Games, LoL‘s developer, recently announced that it’s averaging a mind-blowing 103 million monthly players (i.e. individuals who play at least once a month).  Prior to this announcement, Riot had last disclosed its player numbers in January 2014, when it claimed 67 million monthly players and 27 million daily players, so the game is continuing to grow in popularity even 7 years after its initial release.  Perhaps even more interestingly, while Riot did not break out its average number of daily players in the latest announcement, if we assume that the proportions of monthly to daily players from 2014 still hold, then somewhere on the order of 40 million people around the world play LoL on any given day (roughly equivalent to the population of Algeria).

Compare those numbers to something like Pokémon Go, which you surely heard about during the big craze in July.  At its peak, Pokémon Go was averaging around 43 million daily users worldwide (see Figure 1 here), but has since seen a precipitous drop-off in its player base.  And while it’s not a perfect comparison, the bottom line is that insofar as you thought that Pokémon Go was significant/important/worthy of further study, you should be even more interested in the bigger, richer, and much more stable LoL.  Indeed, one (admittedly non-randomly-sampled, and hence suspect) analysis done in November 2015 found that LoL accounted for 23% of all the time people spend playing online computer games.

Ok, so the game is a big deal, at least for people who play computer games.  But the second thing you need to know about LoL is that people don’t simply play the game, they also watch it.  As in, they watch highly-skilled professional players compete live or online as a form of entertainment.  Watching video games in this way is called e-sports, and e-sports, according to its proselytizers, is the future of all sports.  I don’t want to wade too much into that debate (you can instead read a random Wall Street Journal columnist tackle it here).  Rather, what’s significant for our purposes is that the biggest LoL competition of the year is the annual World Championship, which 334 million viewers across the world tuned into last year (a number which will be undoubtedly even higher for this year).  And the World Championship is directly owned and operated by Riot Games, which invites the teams, chooses the venues (this year’s finals will be in a sold-out Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles), broadcasts the matches, and sets the overall tone of the event.

The third thing about LoL we have to talk about is “the Koreans.”  Statistically speaking, professional LoL teams based in South Korea are the most dominant in the world.  As the figure below shows, while South Korean teams have only made up 19% of the entrants in the five most recent LoL Worlds, they have taken 33% of the quarter-finals spots, 50% of the semi-finals spots, and 70% of the finals spots.  A Taiwanese team managed to take home the trophy in the 2012 tournament, but since then a Korean team has won the top spot every year… including in this year’s finals, which hasn’t even happened yet, but given that both of the finalists are from South Korea, the trend is sure to continue.


(* All teams based in Russia and Eastern Europe are categorized as “European,” even if they qualified for the tournament via the Wild Card slots.)

What makes the South Koreans so dominant (and not just at LoL, but e-sports more generally)?  Arguably a series of interconnected factors: a well-established professional gaming infrastructure, with things like dedicated gaming houses, coaches, and support staff; financial and social rewards for elite pro players that are higher than anywhere else in the world; accordingly, more elite competitors in close proximity, giving Korean teams better opponents to practice with; and lastly, truly relentless training regimens.

From the perspective of Riot Games, the continued streak of Korean dominance at Worlds is not necessarily a bad thing, since it generates some handy narratives and provides a useful framing device everyone can grasp: will this finally be the year the Koreans are upset?  Indeed, in my academic working paper I focus on how Riot Games is seeking to commodify nationalism in order to generate interest in its professional-level e-sports offerings while at the same time trying to avoid the problematic racism and xenophobia that is often prevalent in the online gaming community.

This is an ongoing tight-rope walking act for the savvy, Chinese-owned but Santa Monica-based studio.  Some other game developers have punted in similar situations.  For instance, Blizzard Entertainment designed its popular Hearthstone game in such a way that players can only interact with one another through a very limited set of pre-scripted dialogue options, lessening the possibility of negative player interactions.  At the other end of the spectrum, Valve Corporation seems to have little interest in policing the notoriously toxic Counter-Strike community.  Overall, e-sports is already and quite unfortunately developing a reputation as a nasty realm, with all-too-frequent examples of racist language occurring (e.g. here, here, and here).  And the misogynistic streaks rife in online gaming culture were on prominent display during the 2014 Gamergate saga.

It is into this potent and problematic brew that Riot is making huge splashes.  I argue in the paper that Riot’s model thus far seems to be to emulate FIFA’s World Cup, while also borrowing liberally from ESPN and the Olympics.  Thus, Riot allows some displays and markers of what I believe it considers to be “healthy nationalism” to appear in its broadcasts as a way of playing up regional differences and generating audience interest in its tournaments.  For instance, Riot has allowed players at Worlds to incorporate national flags as part of their on-stage uniforms and even to drape themselves in their national flags.*

But at all times Riot remains extremely leery of opening the door to racist and chauvinist behavior from fans and players, which the company clearly believes would delegitimize its product, affect its bottom line,** and dash its dreams of bringing e-sports into the global mainstream.  That fine line between healthy nationalism and troubling racism was on prominent display at this year’s LoL Worlds tournament.  For instance, the Chicago crowd at the quarter-finals waved American flags and cheered on North American team Cloud 9 with chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”, but also had the dubious distinction of openly booing South Korea’s Samsung Galaxy team when they took the stage, a first for the LoL community (see reactions here and here).  On an even less positive note, Riot took the drastic decision to formally sanction a professional Chinese player while the tournament was ongoing for having recently used racial slurs in non-tournament play.

In the end, what all of this offers the outside observer is a window into the thinking of a hyper-globalized company that makes a digital product that it seeks to distribute and monetize across cultural lines.  How can nationalism and international competition be commodified in “good” ways in the 21st century?  We’ll have to see what Riot’s long-term answer is, and if it continues to prove as successful as it has.  For the time being, though, if you’re at all curious about any of this, I invite you to tune into the world finals on Sunday.

Put your money down on the Koreans.

* Technically Team Solo Mid’s support player Biofrost wore the Canadian flag onstage at last month’s North American regional qualifier, not Worlds.

** For a useful discussion of the limitations of Riot’s commitment to diversity, particularly in its hiring of broadcast personnel, see Ferguson Mitchell’s commentary here.  But see also Phil Kollar’s recent paean to Riot’s farsightedness and all-around decency here.  The truth is doubtless somewhere in the middle.

The Iranian Government is Broadcasting the American Presidential Debates…

From Slate‘s Joshua Keating, citing Bloomberg:

The second presidential debate on Oct. 9, featuring Donald Trump denying allegations of sexual assault and threatening to jail Hillary Clinton, was the first U.S. debate ever broadcast live on television in Iran. Evidently, they were so happy with that demonstration of the virtues of liberal democracy that they’re going big for Wednesday night’s showdown in Vegas: airing the debate on three channels so it will be available in Persian, Arabic, and English.

As Trump might put it, “SAD.”  Read more here.

Which Countries Should Make the Cut?

Suppose you wanted to teach a schoolchild about the countries of the world, but had to limit yourself to only 54 countries.  Which countries would you pick?  To be sure, everyone will answer this question differently based on where they live, their family’s history, what languages they speak, what sports they follow, and many other factors.  Still, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the U.S., China, and Russia would make almost everyone’s lists.  And other major global powerhouses like Germany, Japan, India, France, the U.K., and Brazil would more often than not make the cut.  Meanwhile, for better or worse, poor Kiribati, Guyana, and the Gambia are usually going to be left out.

I ask this question because my awesome Hindi teacher recently gave me a poster that is typical of those used to teach Indian schoolchildren about the world:flags

It’s interesting to reflect on the choices the poster’s designer made when coming up with his or her 54 picks.  From my perspective, some are inspired, but a few are rather questionable.

For instance, I love that the designer included the U.N. flag!  Also, given that it’s intended for an Indian audience, having India’s neighbors (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal,* Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) is important.  And whether intended or not, it’s a nice touch that three of the countries that were founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement alongside Jawaharlal Nehru’s India are all here: Indonesia, Egypt, and Ghana (R.I.P. Yugoslavia!).

Looking beyond India’s immediate neighbors, though, the situation gets a bit murkier. Europe is arguably over-represented, with 14** countries out of the 54, including very surprising picks like Cyprus and Hungary (but not Spain).  With the exception of Afghanistan, Central Asia is per usual ignored, despite the fact that Tajikistan is  a stone’s throw from Kashmir.  Refreshingly, sub-Saharan Africa is actually relatively well-represented (with 5 or 6 countries, depending on how you count Mauritius), but the picks are kind of odd: Zambia and Ethiopia make the cut, but not Nigeria.

Perhaps the weirdest region of all is the Americas south of Mexico: the only two other Latin American countries listed are Cuba and Panama!!  Where’s Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country by both population and area?  Or Argentina?  At first I thought someone at the Panamanian Embassy in New Delhi had cleverly paid off the city’s educational printers, but a bit of research suggests that there may be more going on here than I first realized.  According to this surprisingly detailed Wikipedia page, one of the largest communities of Indians in the Americas is located in Panama City and traces its origins back to Sikh laborers brought in to help build the Panama Canal.  Apparently relations between the two countries are a flourishing example of South-South cooperation.

Who knows, perhaps there’s similarly cool things underlying some of the other apparently odd choices on this poster.  But I stand by my statement that Hungary really shouldn’t have made the cut, lol…


* Nepal has a cool flag!
** Not including Turkey, Russia, or Israel.

GDP Sure Stinks as Our Go-To Measure of Economic Activity

Measuring the size of national economies is hard.  That’s clearly true in the case of developing countries, where underlying economic data is often not available, made-up, or deliberately manipulated.  But even for rich countries it’s difficult to know how to factor in all the different kinds of economic activity humans engage in.  How should the value of multinational corporations be divvied up across the various countries they are present in?  How should public goods provided by the state be valued?  Should you attempt to measure non-market transactions, like the labor traditionally provided by “stay-at-home” mothers?  What about accounting for negative externalities, like the increasing threat of climate change?  What base year should you use?  And how should you deal with (highly variable) exchange rates?  The Economist recently asked if Brexit had helped France’s economy overtake the U.K.’s, and the best it could come up with was a tepid “probably”.

Every now and then methodological changes by national statistical authorities visibly highlight the artificiality of GDP figures. Consider the following few cases:

  • On November 5, 2010, Ghanaians went to bed thinking their country had a GDP per capita of about $753, placing them among the poorest countries in the world.  The next morning they woke up, however, to newspaper accounts proclaiming that the National Statistics Office had changed the base year for calculating GDP from 1993 to 2006, which (along with other methodological changes) had caused the country’s per capita GDP estimate to jump to $1318.  Overnight Ghana had become a solidly middle-income country!  Woohoo!
  • A recent European change in the way the investments of multinational corporations are counted in GDP figures caused Ireland’s GDP to grow by 26% in 2015…  at least on paper.  But, as an economist at University College Dublin tactfully put it, “It’s complete bullshit!”
  • Speaking of bovine shit, India’s 2015 GDP revisions for the first time officially included the value of the “organic manure” that the country’s livestock produce.  Just like that, India’s GDP increased by 9.1 billion rupees (roughly $135 million), but not before some serious academic work had been done calculating the “average evacuation rates” of various species (who says academics never have any fun!).  The Wall Street Journal has a good primer on India’s new GDP figures… and how other “real-world” statistics like the quantity of exports don’t seem to corroborate them much.

Perhaps the solution, then, should be to just get rid of GDP altogether, as more and more people are suggesting.  But then how would the hordes of quantitatively-minded political science Ph.D.s indulge in their favorite pastime of building econometric castles out of data made of sand?