Life in the State of Null-Sec: Or, Was Hobbes Right All Along?

I taught Introduction to Political Philosophy this past semester, so my students and I spent a fair bit of time parsing the long-standing debate in Western philosophy about “the state of nature.”  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, the “state of nature” is a phrase used by several social contract theorists in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe what they imagined the world was like before organized government came into being.  Thomas Hobbes, for instance, famously argued that prior to the development of government, every human being was perfectly free to do as they pleased, but that this freedom led to a “war of all against all.”  Accordingly, the life of men and women in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Eventually, though, human beings realized there had to be a better way of doing things, and turned over complete power to the Sovereign, who maintained peace between them with an iron fist.

His counterpart, John Locke, had a more sanguine view about what human existence might have been like prior to the emergence of government.  Locke, influenced by Biblical accounts of the Garden of Eden, suggested that the state of nature was a condition of abundance, where humans co-existed more or less peacefully.  In his view, government was simply established to adjudicate between competing rights claims, like when my right to freedom runs counter to your right to private property.

IR scholars have long been interested in this debate because they have traditionally claimed that in many ways the contemporary international system resembles a state of nature: there is no government or authority above states that can require them to act against their wishes.  Accordingly, if we want to properly understand the current state (and likely trajectory) of global politics, we should have an opinion about what life in the state of nature was actually like.

There are a number of ways to go about such a project, of course.  The easiest would be to carefully consider the findings of Anthropology (I’m personally partial to Steven Pinker’s summary of the main findings of prehistoric anthropologists in The Better Angels of Our Nature), but IR has never been particularly good at taking another discipline’s word for it.  Some IR scholars have looked at “failed states” like Somalia for clues, while others have studied how the modern state emerged historically.  But the secret wish of many IR scholars working in this area would be to organize massive social experiments that would place people in pre-governmental situations and observe their interactions.  Sadly, post the Stanford Prison experiments, this is something that no Institutional Review Board in the world is going to allow.  So large-scale observational studies of people living in a state of nature just don’t seem possible anymore in the 21st century… or do they?

It’s with all of this in mind that I recently came across a just published paper in Games & Culture by Oskar Milik about the (in)famous computer game EVE Online.  Like me, you’ve probably never played EVE, but you might have read about it: it’s the game that routinely garners headlines like “Inside the Epic Online Space Battle That Cost Gamers $300,000” and “‘You Will Lose Both Hands’ — How the Biggest Theft in EVE Online History Ended in Death Threats.”  At its core, EVE is a space opera-themed MMO with very minimal rules.  The game’s developer, Iceland-based CCP Games, prohibits using external software to manipulate things in-game, but besides that pretty much anything goes: you can lie, cheat, trade, scam, build, spy, intrigue, extort, fight, and murder as you please… and so can everyone around you.  It is arguably a classic state of nature, with all 500,000 active players having near-total freedom (and considerable anonymity).  As Milik writes,

The nature of EVE Online would suggest that large organized systems would not readily emerge in this sort of environment, and that in fact, it would be far more likely for the whole system to collapse into a collection of small groups that break apart frequently for short-term gain.  In practice, however, this social breakdown has not occurred.  In fact, the organizations that form in Eve Online are massive, strict hierarchies that have complex leadership and bureaucratic structures.

Milik reports that players have banded together in corporations ruled over by self-styled “warlords,” who make high-level political decisions about war and peace, leading to frequently shifting alliances and coalitions.  At the same time, however, the warlords must ensure that their corporation members actually log into the game often enough and perform certain actions for their political decisions to have any effect.  The warlords attempt to motivate their subordinates via “propaganda” broadcasts, some of which are explicitly modeled after the “State of the Union” speeches American presidents traditionally give.  A sample excerpt, from a past leader of the Goonswarm coalition:

As you know, Goonswarm is involved in a war with enemies that truly hate us.  The war isn’t about space, or moons.  The war is about the Goons.  Our enemies hate our culture.  They hate our propaganda, they hate our posting, and they hate us as people.  This is not a war for resources.  This is a war to wipe out our culture.

As Milik notes, this doesn’t sound terribly different from what leaders on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict routinely claim.  Another quote from a different leader’s speech would make Niccolò Machiavelli proud:

I can either be a nice upstanding citizen and screw over Goonswarm by not being allowed to use the kind of tactics that are necessary to have us succeed and survive in null-sec [“no security” space, the most dangerous areas of the game], which people in the media don’t understand, is basically like lawless Somalia.  You can’t show weakness in null-sec, you can’t behave like a good citizen, or you end up like Attendant Frontier did–those wonderful citizens who got of course rolled over by a stronger power at the first opportunity.

Following successful wars of conquest, it’s also the warlords who get to decide to divide up the territorial gains among their followers, in true feudal style, which is the other major way warlords have of maintaining control over corporation members.  Indeed, when you compare this time-lapse video of territorial changes in the Eve Online universe with this video history of Western Europe, it seems rather clear to me that some of the same fundamental processes are at work in both.

But a fun wrinkle for would-be warlords is that they often don’t know who in their organization they can trust, as apparently spies and double-agents are rife among players: “misplaced trust [can] have huge repercussions.  A single person, given proper access, can instantly dissolve an organization with a thousand members, as seen in multiple game-changing spy actions in the history of the game.”  Despite these difficulties, the corporations persist and are a central element of players’ experiences of EVE.

All in all, then, it would seem that the core insight of Hobbes’ take on the state of nature seems to hold in the case of EVE, namely that in an anarchic state of nature individuals will voluntarily surrender their freedom and band together for safety from one another.

Could IR scholars gain additional insights into how human beings act in anarchic situations by studying virtual worlds in a serious manner?  Could MMO games provide social scientists with quasi-experimental set-ups for deeper explorations into how individuals act under a variety of conditions?  I’d argue it’s worth looking into.  Milik closes his article by noting that perhaps more than the near-total absence of rules in EVE Online, it’s arguably other features of the game that lead to its Hobbesian outcomes, such as the fact that territoriality was hard-coded into the game.  Indeed, in one of the most famous IR articles of all-time, Alexander Wendt suggested that when actors encounter anarchic situations, the anarchy per se doesn’t determine their behavior, but rather the actors’ mindsets going into it.  Are there other popular MMOs out there whose game developers have chosen to emphasize different aspects of human behavior (say, Second Life)?  If so, what could those games also reveal about human nature?  Social scientists should find out.

The Koreans Are At It Again…

For the 2016 Summer Olympics, the New York Times made some beautiful charts displaying which countries have dominated which Olympic sports over time.  You should really check out all the charts for yourself here, but just to make things easier here are two of them:

Total Medals Across All Sports

(My goodness was East Germany a sporting powerhouse during the Cold War, especially compared to West Germany, which had four times its population–16 million vs. 63 million in 1990!!!)

At the level of individual sports, the dominance of specific countries is even more clear-cut.  Here’s the chart for the medals just in long-distance running events (the 5K, the 10K, and the marathon):

long-distance-running

Ethiopia and Kenya nowadays account for well over half the medals in these sports, although that honor used to go to Finland (of all places) during the interwar period.

This relationship between sport and nationalism, about a country performing well on the international stage is important to a lot of people, which is why some governments are willing to spend $7.2 million in training and support for each Olympic medal their athletes bring home.

Entering into this potent mix of nationalism, money, and athletics are the new e-sports (about which I’ve written here previously and will again shortly).  One thing that’s interesting thus far in the brief history of international e-sports competition is that it’s not the usual suspects bringing in the loot.  Over-generalizing somewhat, the U.S. and Russia tend to be conspicuously absent from elite global tournaments, which are instead usually dominated by the South Koreans and the Chinese.  Indeed, in the ongoing League of Legends Worlds 2017 tournament, for a remarkable *third* year in a row the two finalists are Korean teams, ensuring a Korean threepeat regardless of the outcome of the matches that will be played in the sold-out “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing on November 4th.

As my own just-updated-but-much-less-pretty-than-the NYT‘s graph shows, this isn’t because more Korean teams are qualifying for the World Championship, but rather because of simply outperforming teams from other countries during the tournament itself:

Geographic Origins Chart

The last aspect of this story to consider is that the International Olympics Committee, with its finger in the wind, has just formally offered to consider e-sports for inclusion in the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics and beyond.  Now, if I’m the next South Korean minister for culture and sports (not the one that was recently convicted of perjury as part of the corruption investigation into now-ousted President Park), I’ve got to figure that for a tiny fraction of the £350 million the British spent acquiring their medal haul in the Rio Olympics, I can simply lobby the IOC to include as many e-sports in future Olympics as possible.  The medals should simply drop into my country’s lap, although only time will tell…

The Rise of a New Regulatory Power in the East?

One form of power states can have in global politics is regulatory power (also sometimes called market power).  The idea is that if your state contains a large, rich domestic market, you can derive influence over other parts of the world eager to gain access to it.  For instance, the United States is by far the largest market in the world for pharmaceuticals, which gives decisions taken by the U.S.’ Food and Drug Administration a significant international impact.  Pharmaceutical companies from all over the world have lobbyists in Washington D.C. who carefully scrutinize the agency’s every move (in fact, Big Pharma is the industry that spends the most on federal lobbying).

Scholars of the European Union (EU) in particular have seized upon the idea of regulatory power.  Most international observers agree that the EU is a powerful actor on the global stage, but few agree as to why.  The EU doesn’t have the most jaw-dropping military in the world (as Donald Trump seems to have recently discovered, the U.S. accounts for the bulk of NATO’s combat readiness – one NATO estimate claims that US defense expenditures effectively represent 72% of the Alliance’s overall defense spending).  And while the EU collectively provides just over half of the Official Development Assistance in the world, claims that it is a significant “civilian power” have yet to attract many adherents.  Others argue that the EU’s power stems from its consistent commitment to human rights and other global norms, but critics retort that the EU is just as hypocritical as any other great power when its interests are on the line.

All of which leaves some EU-philes to fall back on the size of its market and argue that the EU’s main influence in the world comes in the form of regulatory power.  And it is true that the EU’s Common Market is the richest market in the world, even with the U.K. poised to leave in a few years’ time.  Industries in developing countries sometimes live and die as the result of internal EU regulatory whims.  On topics like vehicle emissions standards and food safety regulations, when the EU speaks, the world listens (especially at places like the WTO).

As with so many other things, however, the emergence of China as the major new economic power threatens to disrupt this regulatory status quo.  You can see it in lots of places (for example, regulations surrounding renewable energy), but recently it’s become apparent to me in an unusual corner of the world economy: digital games.

Both the Chinese government as well as Chinese society more broadly are worried about their children spending too much time playing digital games, particularly on mobile phones.  In 2008, China became the first country to officially declare internet addiction a clinical disorder, and the country’s relationship with digital gaming has only become more complicated in the years since.

For instance, earlier this year the Chinese government forced all digital game companies that release games in the PRC to publicly report the formulas that calculate their in-game item drop rates.  For context, in many kinds of digital games, you get rewards for accomplishing various in-game tasks: perhaps a better sword or a cool-looking suit of armor if it’s an RPG, or perhaps a unique color scheme for your character in an MMO.  Game makers discovered decades ago that having an element of randomness to these rewards kept people more engaged (and playing longer) than if it was a simple matter of doing X leading to Y.  Accordingly, semi-randomly generated items that “drop” when the player is successful remains a core mechanic for many of the world’s leading digital games.

The Chinese government is now forcing game makers to publicly reveal the rates at which such items are generated. While the government’s announcement didn’t give a lot of detail about its rationale for the move, most observers agree that the main goal is to try and limit excessive gaming: if players can do the math themselves and realize that it will on average take them dozens or even hundreds of hours of performing a same repetitive action to obtain a given piece of loot, they might just give up on the whole thing.  (Or they might just decide to buy the desired loot at the in-game store using real-world currency, but that’s a separate problem.)

Chinese gaming companies are increasingly paying attention to these signals emanating from Beijing.  Last month, the world’s biggest digital game maker, Tencent Holdings,  took the unprecedented move of voluntarily restricting how many hours a day its younger users could play King of Glory, the leading mobile game in China.  Henceforth, players younger than 12 will be restricted to only one hour of playtime per day, and those between 12 and 18 will be limited to two hours a day.  (In addition, the age-verification system, which is already linked to real-world identities, will be beefed up).

Why would a publicly-traded company interested in its bottom line volunteer to limit access to one of its most profitable products?  Perhaps because the influential state-run newspaper People’s Daily had recently run a slew of editorials against the game, calling it “poison,” with a predictable drop in the company’s share price.

Overall, the big takeaway here is that the Chinese government is displaying a willingness to directly regulate a global media industry in a way that used to largely be the domain of Western nations.  What we are witnessing emerging in China right now has the potential to re-shape the global entertainment industry in a way not seen since the rise of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its film ratings system in the 1930s.  With digital games having overtaken movies in terms of both their sales and cultural salience, China is taking the lead on regulating an industry that promises to be one of the most dynamic of the 21st century, with consequences that will likely ripple out for decades to come.  Stay tuned… and don’t spend too much time grinding for that loot.

 

Painting Nationalism in the 19th Century

Three places, three artists, a 75-year time span, one recurring artistic motif: depicting an entire nation through a female figure.

Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple

Eugène Delacroix, “La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple” [Liberty Leading the People], 1830.

American_progress

John Gast, “American Progress,” 1872.

Bharat_Mata

Abanindranath Tagore, “Bharat Matā” [Mother India], 1905.

And the legacies of all three depictions, all of which resonated widely at the time they were produced, continue to produce effects over a hundred years later, for both good and ill.

On Grading States

Did you care about your grades in school?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  Perhaps you thought that your own personal learning and experience was more important than some arbitrary number some outside entity assigned you.  Or perhaps you realized that regardless of how your grades were obtained, it mattered because others (parents, peers, universities) believed them to matter.

Recently a number of IR scholars have been pursuing a similar line of inquiry, but for states rather than schoolkids: do governments care about the grades that they get from outside observers?  There are, after all, an extraordinary number of international actors that periodically rank countries all around the world on a wide range of criteria, from how free they are, to how easy it is to do business in them, to how happy they are, to the degree they can be considered a “failed state,” or even on how well they provide their citizens with iodine.

Do these rankings matter at all?  Do governments change their behavior in response to receiving either good or bad grades?  An excellent piece recently published in the Washington Post by Duke University political scientist Judith Kelley provides a quick literature review of the emerging consensus on what is being called “Scorecard Diplomacy.”  I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read it in full, but the main bits are probably these:

Why should states, or anyone else, care about scorecards? First of all, they are easier to understand and digest than complicated policy reports. Instead of emphasizing detailed data, they sort countries into categories (e.g., countries that are succeeding vs. countries that are failing), or rank them with some score, showing which countries are at the top and at the bottom. These categories and rankings are framed to pressure the countries being ranked. For example, if your country is at the bottom of a well-respected scorecard for “Ease of Doing Business,” you might find that international businesses start to avoid investing in your economy.  […]  My recent book on the TIP report on human trafficking explains what I call the “cycle of scorecard diplomacy.” The TIP report doesn’t just rank countries. Producing the report involves U.S. diplomats on the ground engaging with governments year-round and orchestrating indirect pressure by media and civil society.  […]  Because countries are rated again and again, they have an incentive to improve their behavior in the hopes of boosting future grades. As a result, states pay more sustained attention to an issue than they would do if they were just shamed in an ad hoc way.  Beth Simmons and I have shown that countries criminalize human trafficking more quickly when they are included in the report, get worse grades or see their grades drop. My work on TIP shows that this is not just because countries fear being sanctioned. The stigma of the scorecard makes states change their behavior. Countries that criminalize trafficking also work harder on related efforts to fight the problem. In many countries, the TIP report has led states to set up new institutions, to train judges and police, to improve shelters, and to increase trafficking prosecutions and convictions. Thus scorecards can prompt real changes.

In addition to the evidence that Kelley, Simmons, and others have found, my own work going through U.S. diplomatic cables confirms that government officials around the world really do care about the results of external benchmarking.  For instance, in November 2009 the Tanzanian president told visiting American diplomats that following a poor outing in the World Bank’s Doing Business report that year, he had set up an inter-agency team to respond to the shortcomings in Tanzania’s business environment the report had called out.

Taking a step back, the bigger picture here is that International Relations as a discipline is increasingly cognizant of the fact that states are not the hyper-rational, soulless, emotionally-stunted creatures that many scholars depicted them as during the realist and rationalist heydays of the 1980s and 1990s.  States are disembodied, corporate actors, yes, but they are ultimately comprised of individual human beings and often respond in typically human ways to circumstances.  For instance, states can be shamed; states avoid actions that will cause them cognitive dissonance, even if they are in the state’s material interest.  States “puzzle about problems” and learn from one another.  In short, states are “social.”  So maybe it’s actually not that surprising that they do care about their grades.

A Pandemic in the IR Classroom?

In February I attended the International Studies Association’s annual conference, held in Baltimore, MD.  At the conference, I had the great fortune to participate in two pedagogy panels which showcased the wide range of techniques that are being used in classrooms all over the world to get students excited about learning International Relations (IR), meet a wider range of students’ learning styles, and improve learning outcomes across the board.

There was some great stuff on offer: Felix Rösch of Coventry University uses a form of dancing called Contact Improvisation in his classes to get students to not just think about IR but also feel about it–the necessity for empathy and trust on the dance floor serves as a way for students to begin reimagining the status quo of world politics).  Andreas Aagaard Nøhr and Gustav Meibauer discussed a simple-but-elegant way in which Powerpoint presentations can be turned into Choose Your Own (IR) Adventure stories for students.  The diplomacy-focused simulation they presented had our group weighing the pros and cons of serving Icelandic fish head stew at the diplomatic gathering that we had been tasked with virtually organizing!

There were also several presentations about ways to use games and simulations in the IR classroom, something I’m always super excited about in principle but get scared of when it comes time to put it into practice. During the talk, I started thinking about various well-known board games, and how they might be related to IR theories.  Specifically, it occurred to me that IR educators might be able to take advantage of a major new trend in the board game world: the rise of cooperative board games.

For a bit of context, consider board games as existing on a spectrum from purely zero-sum games to highly cooperative games where individual victory can only be achieved via group success.  Let’s illustrate with a few IR-related board games.  At one end of the spectrum might be Risk, which is the board game incarnation of a quintessential winner-take-all, hyper-offensive realism (replete with “the stopping power of water“!).  A bit further along the spectrum would be Diplomacy,  which I would argue resembles classical realism, with real politik somewhat attenuated by alliances, private and public communication systems, and rudimentary international norms.  [Diplomacy has gotten a fair amount of attention from IR educators already – here’s the take of my former colleagues Dave Bridge and Simon Radford.]  The next step up might then perhaps be the well-regarded Settlers of Catan, which somewhat approximates neoliberal IR theory: we’ve moved out of the realm of outright warfare into economic competition, but relative gains still tend to outweigh absolute gains.  In a great post, Mintaro Oba highlights how players often choose to modify the game’s official rules in order to make certain tactics more or less usable, and also notes how norm violators can be sanctioned by other players.  So informally “modding” the game can certainly incorporate some of the key insights of constructivist IR theory.

While Settlers is a great game (I should know, I’m the reigning champ in my family!), it is not the be-all and end-all in terms of board games.  One can still climb up a few rungs on our continuum and get to wholly cooperative board games like Pandemic.  In Pandemic, a team of 2-4 players must work together to prevent several ferociously spreading infectious diseases from destroying humanity.  While each player controls their own avatar and can take whichever actions they wish to combat the plagues, players swiftly learn that the only way in which they will prevail is if they closely coordinate, often down to the level of what means of transportation characters will use to move from one region to another.  Typically, 15 minutes or more of intense group discussion may precede a single turn being taken.

In terms of mapping it onto an IR theory, Pandemic arguably showcases several of the features of “epistemic communities.”  Epistemic communities are groups of technical experts in a single issue area whose power stems from their collective application of reason and expertise to a given problem.  Still, though, I find that Pandemic offers a less useful vision of global politics than do some of the other games mentioned above.  This is because the game completely removes power differentials and national self-interest from the gameplay.  In the world of Pandemic, all parties are guided by altruism and a desire for the group as a whole to do well… or else the world ends.  But recent history has shown us that even when potentially devastating global threats like Ebola/Avian Flu/H1N1 or global warming are taking place, international cooperation still occurs in an overall context of national self-interest. (Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Change Accords is a clear case in point.)

So, are cooperative games not useful in the IR classroom?  What if we modified the rules of Pandemic a bit to make it resemble real world politics a bit better?  For instance, the instructor could assign each player responsibility for a specific region (just like in current structure of the World Health Organization, which is organized along regional lines) and, unlike in the official version of the game, players would receive individual scores, not a single collective outcome.  These individual scores would depend on whether or not the group succeeded in stopping the virus, but with points subtracted for the magnitude of the deaths in the player’s assigned region.  We are now in the realm of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s stag hunt, where overall group success exists in uneasy balance with individual incentives.  Done properly, our students would have a chance to gain first-hand experience with and reflect upon the wide range of social techniques societies have devised to prevent free-riding in collective action situations.

Who knows, maybe next time I get asked to teach IR 101 my students and I will see what we can get out of playing board games along the IR spectrum!

Micro-Managing on a Global Scale: In Private, American Diplomats Can Be Extremely Hands-On

Joint US-Tanzania Pandemic Preparation Workshop, March 2011
U.S. defense officials address Tanzanian counterparts at a Pandemic Preparation Workshop, March 2011. Photo by Khalfan Said (U.S. Embassy, Tanzania). Used here under a CC license.

The 250,000+ State Department cables released by the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks in the 2010 incident know as Cablegate can seem like old news nowadays.  In the 7 years since, we’ve had several other leaks of sensitive data troves, including the Sony emails, the Panama Papers, the DNC Committee emails, and the national security dossier compiled by Edward Snowden.  But for me Cablegate remains interesting, even after all this time, because of the unique corpus of diplomatic cables it provided to researchers and ordinary citizens alike.  Taken collectively, the documents offer unique insights into the practices of recent U.S. diplomacy.

For instance, one interesting story that emerges from the cables is how U.S. diplomats are crucial linchpins in the diffusion of transnational modes of governance.  State Department personnel lie at the uneasy juncture of global governance and American hegemony, and are repeatedly seen in the WikiLeaks cables persuading, exhorting, cajoling, wheedling, inducing, and threatening foreign partners to accept (Americano-centric) “international” norms and standards.

Let’s consider a few examples, all drawn from the cables sent from U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam (since those are the ones I know best).  In December 2005, it was American diplomats based in Tanzanianot Tanzania’s delegation in New York City or any UN official—that passed on names that had been recently added to the UN Security Council terrorist watchlist, just to make sure the relevant Tanzanian authorities had taken note.  A follow-up cable noted that actually Tanzania did not maintain its own terrorist watchlist and quoted a senior Tanzanian bureaucrat (in a rather frank admission) as saying that “the Government of Tanzania and the Bank of Tanzania depend on information from the U.S. Government to keep its list of terrorist entities updated.”

Or consider how, beginning in early 2006, American diplomats sought to get Tanzania to enact domestic legislation as required by its obligations under Article VII of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  The cables show that U.S. embassy officials met with Tanzanian counterparts on at least seven occasions between February and November 2006 to discuss the issue.  One of those meetings involved a U.S. diplomat sternly warning that Tanzania was likely to miss internationally-mandated deadlines.  Another featured a high-level delegation from Washington visiting Tanzania to conduct (Newspeak-approaching) “compliance diplomacy.”  The write-up of that visit contains an admission that “most [Tanzanian] officials seemed concerned that the purpose of the trip was to chastise them for some compliance shortfall.”

A third meeting involved a U.S. Embassy official meeting with the Principal Parliamentary Draftsman at the Tanzanian Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to inquire about the status of the draft legislation regarding the CWC.  Assured that the legislation had already been submitted to the Cabinet for consideration, the Embassy official followed-up separately with the Cabinet Secretariat, apparently “just to double check”… and discovered that the relevant legislation had been passed on the day after his/her visit to the Draftsman.  In a scathingly deadpan summary, the official noted that the Tanzanian government may be “overly optimistic” about their implementation timelines.

By November of 2006, the draft legislation was almost ready to be formally unveiled in the Tanzanian parliament–at which point a savvy Tanzanian interlocutor approached the U.S. Embassy with a request for unspecified “assistance”:

“Before we move the bill to Parliament,” she explained, “we would like to hold seminars to sensitize the Parliament.” [She] asked Poloff [Political Officer] what U.S. assistance might be available for sensitization seminars. She noted that, if the [Government of Tanzania] adequately briefed Members of Parliament on the importance of the CWC, the process would move more efficiently.

Due to the unfortunately incomplete nature of the Cablegate files, this is where our knowledge of the story ends.  It’s unclear if the U.S. provided any further help with the legislation, nor whether it was ultimately adopted and implemented by the Tanzanian government (I strongly suspect it was, although a quick (English-language) Googling session didn’t turn up any results).

All in all, though, these brief anecdotes reveal at least three broader lessons about the realities of contemporary American diplomacy. For starters, the degree of paternalism on display is striking–in private, American diplomats speak of actively shepherding desired legislation through the legislative processes of friendly countries.

Second, it’s worth noting the extent to which both terrorist watch lists and the CWC were issues for the United States but largely unimportant for the Tanzanians, who explained that they were (in the words of an American participant) “a poor nation that did not possess missiles or WMD and had as its primary concerns improving the economic and energy situation and eliminating poverty.”  The cables tend to show that American priorities outweigh Tanzanian ones in their bilateral relationship: for instance, only once does the documentary record show Tanzania’s deep reservations about how the U.S. has shown zero indication over the last 50 years of taking seriously its obligations under Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which mandates that state parties begin negotiations about complete nuclear disarmament “at an early date.”  At the same time, however, power is a slippery thing, particularly in the diplomatic realm.*  The weak almost always have weapons and tactics available to them, chief among them foot-dragging.  And the misalignment of incentives between the two parties did open up space for Tanzanian state actors to seek various forms of compensation in exchange for their efforts.

A third ironic takeaway from the episodes above is that while American diplomats in the Global South are constantly out doing the legwork of making sure that other states abide by their international legal commitments, their government back home is notoriously loath to accept any international legal obligations on itself (cf. Wikipedia’s handy list here).  This is a major difficulty with having the hegemon’s diplomats play the role of international bureaucrats–ultimately there is no replacing the legitimacy that comes from having a genuine international mandate.

Overall, a close reading of the WikiLeaks cables complicates simplistic understandings of policy diffusion by looking at how direct, embodied interventions by the agents of powerful actors have often facilitated the spread of norms, laws, and ideas in recent global politics.  It moves our attention away from “networks” and the digital realm to the flesh-and-blood human beings who send nagging emails and forward on important messages.  As with so many other aspects of human behavior,  pestering others does seem to like an effective way of getting things done in international diplomacy.

 

* Occasionally, the WikiLeaks cables reveal the shoe to be on the other foot in terms of their relative knowledge and expertise.  In May 2007 the U.S. Embassy’s economic officer was asked to lobby experts in the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism about adding and removing specific animal species from the CITES treaty.  Writing back to headquarters, the officer sounded out-of-his-depth and out-maneuvered, describing his interlocutor as “a seasoned CITES COP veteran and very diplomatic,” and requesting significant amounts of supplementary information from Washington to defend various American proposals.

(If you enjoyed this, you might also like this previous post I wrote about American diplomacy using the WikiLeaks cables.)

There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Federal Agency: With Its Budget on the Chopping Block and Severely Understaffed, the State Department Is at an Impasse

United_States_Department_of_State_headquarters
The State Department’s HQ in Foggy Bottom. Copyright by AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Early hints of what U.S. President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal might look like emerged two weeks ago, and much of the discussion has focused on which U.S. federal agencies stand to win and lose in the Age of Trump.  In keeping with its avowed “America First” policy, the Trump administration proposes increasing American defense spending (which already surpasses the defense budgets of the next 11 biggest spenders) to $603 billion a year, while slashing the budgets of the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) by around 37%.  In interviews and speeches, Trump and his subordinates have argued that the State Department is wasteful, focuses on the wrong priorities, and may even be inherently un-American.

Fortunately, America’s foreign ministry still has some friends in the U.S. Congress, including powerful Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain, all of whom spoke out against the proposed cuts.  Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pooh-poohed the enactment of such dramatic cuts, thereby providing tacit support for Senate Republicans to cross party lines and vote down any eventual Administration budget proposal that would gut the State Department.

America’s military establishment also rushed to defend their diplomatic brethren: 121 retired U.S. generals and admirals released an open letter to Congressional leaders asking them to fully fund America’s diplomatic and foreign aid initiatives.  In the letter, they cited earlier Congressional testimony by current U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who as an active-duty general in 2013 said: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Given that Congress has the final say over budgetary matters in the U.S., the State Department will probably survive budget season with its funding mostly intact.  But the politics surrounding Trump’s budget proposal are distracting attention from a different way in which the Trump administration is hobbling the work of America’s foreign ministry.  According to DiploPundit.net, a website which closely follows the inner workings of the State Department, only 4 of the ministry’s 39 most senior positions have been filled by the Administration thus far.  To a certain extent, this reflects the normal practice of new incoming administrations asking for the resignation of all senior management in order to staff Foggy Bottom with their own people.  But by historical standards, Trump has been incredibly slow in naming staffers to key positions, nor does he seem to be allowing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to simply appoint whoever he wishes either.  The same startling degree of inaction has also carried over to the State Department’s sister agencies, such as USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which together oversee the bulk of America’s foreign assistance.  Trump has not yet seen fit to appoint a single senior individual to either agency.

It deeply cripples the ability of federal agencies to act in a meaningful way when their topmost administrators are only in an acting capacity.  Not only can new policies and priorities not be enacted, but it also makes it more difficult for agencies to attract top-level talent moving forward and contributes to an overall loss of institutional memory.  Even day-to-day activities suffer when there is no clear leadership at the top: for decades the State Department has held a near-daily press briefing where reporters can ask for the opinion of America’s foreign ministry on issues from around the world.  Since President Trump took office on January 20th, the State Department has held only four.

At this point, it seems like keeping the State Department on the back foot by holding up the appointment of senior officials is a deliberate move on the part of the Trump administration.  And since appointments are purely a Presidential prerogative, there is little Congress can do to change the situation.  For a State Department already used to operating on a shoestring budget mentality, it looks like a grim year ahead.

(See also my previous post on the State Department in the Age of Trump.)

What’s in a (Region’s) Name? How an Australian Diplomatic Triumph from the 1990s Poses a Warning for Indian Foreign Policy Today

HippoReads.com has kindly published a piece of mine about how the names we give to different regions of the world matter.  I’m reprinting it here in case it would be of interest to this blog’s readers.

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In the 1990s, Australian policymakers faced a serious problem.  They were increasingly being sidelined in important decisions in the rapidly growing regions of Southeast and East Asia.  As a mostly white, settler nation, Australia was left out of Southeast Asia’s preeminent regional grouping, ASEAN, despite its geographic proximity.  And on the occasions when Australian politicians and diplomats were able to participate in pan-Asian gatherings, they ran headfirst into the exclusionary “Asian values” discourses of leaders such as Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.  Isolated and peripheral, Australia risked missing out on one of the greatest economic booms in world history.

Under Foreign Minister Gareth Evans (1988-1996), Australian diplomats deliberately sought to counter these trends by promoting the idea of an “Asia-Pacific region,” whose membership would depend less on culture than on geography.  They figured that while some might deny that Australia was an “Asian” country, it would be much harder to refute its location in the Pacific Ocean.  Significant rhetorical, financial, and institutional resources were devoted to facilitating the emergence of the new concept, and to provide it with an institutional anchor Australia championed the newly-formed Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.

Not all of the aims of the Australian Foreign Ministry ultimately succeeded.  For instance, APEC subsequently lost a lot of its initial momentum and has been eclipsed by rival forums, such as the ASEAN+ formats.  But the concept of an “Asia-Pacific region,” which Australia naturally belongs to, has firmly taken hold and seems uncontroversial today (see the figure at the end of this article).  Ultimately, a seemingly innocuous name change helped Australia to achieve a deeper level of economic and political integration with its neighbors than ever before.  Indeed, the invention of an “Asia-Pacific region,” practically out of whole cloth, was probably one of Australia’s most significant diplomatic feats in the 20th century.

The case of Australia in the 1990s has great relevance for Indian diplomacy today, but in an inverted fashion.  Australia’s problem was that the country did not fit well into the existing regional frameworks, and it took significant resources to change that perception.  India’s problem is that although it is already linguistically and geographically at the heart of an impressive region—the Indian Ocean region—it does not always avail itself of easy opportunities to ensure that things stay that way.

It is an incredible boon to Indian policymakers that the body of water between Cape Agulhas and the Straits of Malacca is referred to around the world as the Indian Ocean.  Not only does it help keep India’s name at the forefront of people’s minds, it semantically signals that India has a preeminent role to play in shaping affairs everywhere from Maputo to Perth.  While the appellation of the South China Sea grows more contested every year, there are currently no serious efforts to rename India’s ocean.  But there could be some day!  The relatively rapid invention of the “Asia-Pacific region” should remind Indian diplomats that without rhetorically and financially tending to the concept of an “Indian Ocean region,” it could conceivably be called “the West China Sea,” “the East African Ocean,” or even “the Bay of Pakistan” in a few decades’ time.

To its credit, the Modi government seems to recognize this, having embraced India’s role as an emerging naval power much more seriously than previous Indian governments.  The Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken of India’s role in helping ensure “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR, a play on the Hindi word for “sea”).  Military cooperation with other littoral states has increased significantly, and the Indian government is also helping the region’s small island states develop “blue economies” that make better use of the Ocean’s potential riches.  Furthermore, Prime Minister Modi has wisely accorded the Indian Ocean region priority in his foreign travels, conducting state visits to Sri Lanka (the first visit by an Indian head of government in 28 years), the Seychelles (33 years), Australia (28 years), and Mauritius (although not the Maldives).

Still, there remain a great deal of low-hanging fruits that Indian diplomats are not picking.  For instance, the Indian Ocean Commission (more usually referred to by its French name, Commission de l’Océan Indien) is a regional grouping comprised of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Réunion (an overseas region of France).  Despite its SAGAR policy, India has never applied for membership or even observer status in the IOC; meanwhile, the European Union provides the Commission with millions of Euros every year and maintains significant influence in those countries.

A bigger prize is the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).  Founded in the mid-1990s at the instigation of South African President Nelson Mandela and Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, the organization is the closest entity the Indian Ocean has to a bona fide regional organization à la ASEAN or Mercosur.  Today the organization has 20 members and conducts periodic meetings, but it has not lived up to the high hopes of its founders.  Despite promising work in technical areas, like fisheries management and maritime search and rescue, IORA has not carved out a role for itself in helping to manage the region’s trade flows or political disputes.  Perhaps part of the reason it has failed to capture the public imagination is that its meetings have been conducted only at the level of foreign ministers, at least until now.  Indonesia, which currently holds the association’s rotating chair, will host a high-level summit of IORA in Jakarta in early March.  The Prime Minister’s Office has yet to announce whether or not Mr. Modi will be in attendance.  It would be a shame, however, if he did not go, given the rare opportunity to further promote the importance of the Indian Ocean region and highlight India’s role therein.

If India does not do more to shape its namesake region, others will happily step up to rechristen it, with unpredictable political and economic ramifications.  The time to act is now.  Already those wily Australian diplomats have for several years been hard at work on a new scheme: promoting a novel “Indo-Pacific region” which, conveniently, they would be at the heart of.
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