Is Smaller Better? I Don’t Know, But This Year I’m Thankful for Small States in Global Politics

The roll call most of the way through the final vote on the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty in the UN General Assembly, July 7, 2017.

Denmark does not matter.

Kenneth Waltz*

Mainstream (i.e. American) International Relations (IR) theory has long neglected the role of small states in global politics. The above quip from the grand-daddy of contemporary IR theory is typical of the dismissive attitude many IR scholars adopt towards smaller countries. As a general rule, IR as a discipline focuses much more on the Chinas, Pakistans, and Germanys of the world than the Chads, Palaus, and Guyanas. Slowly, however, awareness is growing among IR theorists that all states matter. In their own ways, realists, liberals, and constructivists are all beginning to look past the “great powers” to identify the important roles small states play in shaping and sustaining global politics.

In 2020, small states received a fair amount of media attention for their better handling of the Covid pandemic than large states. Indeed, an analysis of a dataset of coronavirus cases** confirms that there is a negative relationship between Covid deaths per capita and total population size: visualization here. (Note that the relationship is actually stronger than the trendline suggests, because the y-axis is logarithmic.) In other words, it’s easier to control an infectious disease in a small population compared to a larger one, even when taking into account the more limited financial and technical resources of small states (probably because state capacity increases linearly while diseases spread exponentially).

Despite this being a 2020 end-of-the-year post, however, the pandemic is not what I want to focus on. A more profound reason why small states matter in global politics is that sometimes their very insignificance allows them to speak truth to power far better than bigger states which may have more to lose. Much as medieval jesters may have counted on their very lack of power to safely needle the king, so too do small states sometimes take moral stances that the great powers claim realpolitik prevents them from entertaining.

2020 provided us with several examples of small states speaking truth to power:

As I prepare to teach Introduction to Comparative Politics to Baylor undergraduates in just a few weeks, I’ll be thinking about how I can get my students to appreciate what small states can offer us when studying comparative politics!

* Quoted in: Cox, RW (1992), “Towards a post-hegemonic conceptualisation of world order: reflections on therelevancy of Ibn Khaldun,” in JN Rosenau & C Ernst-Otto (eds.), Governance without Government: Order and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 143.

** The data is downloadable here. I used the figures from Jan. 2nd, 2021. A simple Python script is available upon request.

Oldies But Goodies: Reading U.S. Diplomatic Cables with Students

In the “Deciphering Diplomatic Writing” class I’m teaching at George Washington University this semester, my students and I spend a fair amount of time reading U.S. State Department cables available through WikiLeaks’ “Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy.”  Most are from the 1970s, but there’s also many from the 2000s.  Here are some of the funnier entries I’ve spotted in recent days:

* The actual history here seems pretty interesting.  Five years after Nixon’s “opening to China,” before the U.S. had fully opened an embassy in Beijing and was instead only working out of a “Liaison Office” without sufficient office space, the United States Information Agency was already organizing relatively large-scale public diplomacy campaigns in urban parts of China.  Then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger seems to have personally followed up on the Cinderella film screening (see here and here).

** I haven’t yet been able to figure out who Gandhi would have had working for her who had spent time at Harvard.

A List of Songs that Explain International Relations

For several years now, I’ve been slowly putting together a (semi-serious) list of songs that I think can help explain various IR concepts and theories.  Although it’s still a work in progress, I am now sharing it with the world.

A few opening disclaimers:

  • Any such list is obviously going to be highly idiosyncratic, so YMMV.  My main criteria for inclusion were: did I like the song, and did the song and/or music video make me think differently about the world.  My list skews heavily towards the United States; pop, rock, and rap; music made since 2000; and contains mostly (but not entirely) English language songs.  If my suggestions don’t do it for you, feel free to check out these two other “IR Playlists” by Michael Tierney and Stephen Walt, or feel free to come up with your own and send it to me!  As you’ll see, there’s a couple spots where I’m still looking for particularly good fits.
  • I’m linking to my preferred version of the songs on Youtube, but given the fleeting nature of music on Youtube, a lot of the links will go dead within a few weeks or months.  If a link is dead, try searching for the artist and song title using Youtube’s search engine.
  • For some of the songs (especially more recent ones) watching the official music video helps understand the message much better, whereas for others I think it’s mostly just the lyrics that matter.  I encourage you to watch both the music video and a lyrics video if you enjoy a given song.
  • Several of the songs have a great deal of profanity (I’m looking at you, Korn!), deal with painful topics in quite brutal ways, depict extreme violence in their music video, or might otherwise trigger strong emotions.  That is part of their point, so caveat auditor.  My listing a song here is not necessarily an endorsement of it.


[Still looking for a good example]


War” by Edwin Starr (1969)

Masters of War” by Bob Dylan (1963)


[Still looking for a good example]


Running the World” by Jarvis Cocker (2006)


Guerrilla Radio” by Rage Against the Machine (2001)

Critical Theory:

They” by Jem (2004)

Imagine” by John Lennon (1971)

Where Is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas (2003)


If I Were a Boy” by Beyoncé (2008)


Earth Song” by Michael Jackson (1995)


Cambodia” by Kim Wilde (1981)

Travelin’ Soldier” by the Dixie Chicks (2002)

Zombie” by the Cranberries (1994)

Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

Interesting Examples of Contemporary Militarism:

The Choir of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” (2014)

The choral anthem of the Cyberspace Administration of China (2015)

Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” by Toby Keith (2009)


“Hilltop” commercial (1971), for Coca-Cola, which proved so popular that its jingle was re-recorded as a full-length song

Korean commercial (c. 2006), featuring a remix of Pachelbel’s Canon in D (c. 1700) w/ Korean traditional instruments, beat-boxing, and break dancing, in order to sell television sets

Violence Within Nations:

Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People (2010)

Youth of the Nation” by P.O.D. (2001)

Violence Across Nations:

[Still looking for a good example, but here’s a tongue-in-cheek one.]

Nobody Speak” by DJ Shadow (2016)

Economic Inequality Within Nations:

I Will Buy You a New Life” by Everclear (1997)

Common People” by Pulp (1995)

Economic Inequality Across Nations:

Prayer of the Refugee” by Rise Against (2006)

Borders” by M.I.A. (2015)


Handlebars” by Flobots (2008)


Make It Bun Dem” by Skrillex & Damian Marley (2012)

Uprising” by Muse (2009)

Political Representation:

Give the People What They Want” by the O’Jays (1975)

Get Up Stand Up” by Bob Marley (1973)

International Negotiations:

Nobody Speak” by DJ Shadow (2016)

Soft Power:

“U.S. Boy” by Jena Lee (2010) [French lyrics here, or the music video gets the point across even if you don’t speak French]


Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd (1979)


Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants (1990)

North-South Solidarity:

We Are The World” by USA For Africa (1985)

South-South Solidarity:

Hello India” by Sasi The Don (2014)

Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” by Shakira (2010)


Changes” by Tupac Shakur (1998)


Y’all Want a Single” by Korn (2003)

Please Use This Song” by Jon LaJoie (2014)

The Financialization of the Global Economy:

“R.M.I.” by MC Solaar (2001) [French lyrics here, music video with a good English translation here]


Born Free” by M.I.A. (2010)

The United Nations:

Jan Egeland” by Ylvis (2012) [with Egeland‘s reaction here (use the auto-translate closed captioning option)]

American Foreign Policy:

Political Science” by Randy Newman (1972)

National (In)Security:

Kenji” by Fort Minor (2005)

Nuclear Weapons:

“Neunundneunzig Luftballons” / “99 Luftballons” by Nena (1983)


Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Evolution of the “Repertoire of Contention”

Way back in April 2018, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies at Jindal Global University hosted a day-long workshop to revisit Dr. King’s legacy.  The Centre kindly invited me to speak at the workshop, and the contributions of speakers were recently published in the December 2018 issue of Delhi-based monthly magazine Seminar.

My contribution examined how King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the contemporary American left all attempted to use innovative protest tactics to change the “repertoire of contention,” a term sociologists use to refer to the set of actions most individuals in a society recognize qua protest tactics.  If you’re interested, you can find the whole long piece on my page, but I’m excerpting a portion of it here because I think IR scholars and students aren’t sufficiently familiar with the term.

Happy 2019, everyone!


In both the cases of the Indian independence movement and the American civil rights movement, the protesters ultimately proved successful by combining savvy media courtship with innovative,  powerful, and non-violent protest techniques.  In one of his last published pieces, Dr. King wrote at length about the importance for black protesters to become “creative dissenters” (“creative” appears 9 times in the essay). This notion of breaking down the apathy of the audience via the  popularization of novel forms of political protest was central to the missions of both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King. Today, sociologists refer to the same idea with the term the repertoire of contention.”  This concept, first developed by Charles Tilly, asks the question: how do you recognize a given action as a form of political protest? How do you know if something you see is a political protest or not?
While this may seem like an easy question, it is not always. For instance, I recall an evening when I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires during my university years. I was in my host family’s apartment when suddenly a terrible racket could be heard in the street below.  I looked out the window and saw a long procession of people walking along banging on pots as loud as they could.  “What in the world was this?”, I thought to myself. My host family could tell that I was very confused, and they told me that this was a cacerolazo, a form of grassroots political  protest common in Latin America where people try to direct attention to a political issue by, at a set time, collectively making as much noise as they can using household objects.
A much more chilling example is given in the chart below from the work  of sociologist Michael Biggs. It shows how suicide began catching on as a form of political protest in the early 1960s. In particular, self-immolation was pioneered as a protest tactic by Buddhist monks against the draconian South Vietnamese government, and has stayed in the worldwide repertoire of contention so forcefully that even in 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi wished to make a statement about economic injustice in Tunisia, he chose the immediately recognizable form of setting himself on fire, thereby helping to ignite the Arab Spring.

The Four Questions I Get Asked About E-Sports

I’ve now twice had a chance to give a talk to some aspiring sports lawyers about the continuing growth of e-sports.  I’ve noticed that when discussing e-sports, I tend to get asked the same few questions, so I thought I’d jot down my current answers here.

1)  Are e-sports a sport?

Well, it depends on how you define a sport.  Do you have a minimalist definition, which usually says something like “a sport is any type of competitive yet recreational activity centered around human skill,” in which case e-sports can safely be said to be sports, alongside activities such as chess, poker, billiards, bowling, curling, and competitive eating?  Or are you a maximalist, holding out for a definition that would also require that a sport have elements of significant physical exertion, fast reflexes, and major teamwork?  (For an extended discussion of these and other criteria, see this scholarly paper by Jenny et al. 2016).

Personally, I don’t think the question matters.  If it looks like a sport, walks like a sport, and quacks like a sport, it’s a sport.  Consider the following: more people (60 million) watched the finals of the League of Legends Worlds tournament in November than watched the most recent finals of the MLB’s World Series (28 million) or the NBA finals (24 million).  Professional e-sports players have agents, coaches, analysts, physical trainers, and nutritionists.  And they compete in tournaments where the prize pool can run in the tens of millions of USD (the prize pool for a major pro golf tournament in the US typically runs between $10 and $12 million; the prize pool for Dota 2‘s The International 2017 was $24.7 million).

Basically, if there are player associations, teams, tournaments, umpires, professional dispute arbitrators, production crews, videographers, play-by-play announcers, color commentators, translators, hair and make-up people, grueling practice schedules, and hundreds of millions of fans, how are e-sports not sports?

2)  What’s the appeal of e-sports?

For the most part, fans of e-sports watch for the same reasons people watch “off-line sports” (the genius moniker e-sports fans have bestowed on traditional sports).  There’s the appeal of rooting for your team; the gripping narrative arcs that emerge over time; the preternatural reflexes that are showcased; the intricate teamwork that is required to win at elite levels; and the combination of high-level strategy and split-second tactical decision-making that must be mastered to be successful.

In addition, there are probably two additional factors that contribute to the appeal of e-sports.  One is the sense of trendiness the whole enterprise retains–it’s cooler to be seen around campus wearing a Fnatic t-shirt than a Lakers jersey.  The final element, I would argue, is that e-sports taps into novel forms of masculinity that are resonating with young men around the world, but particularly in East Asia.  It’s relatively rare to find examples of Asian male athletes who can attract a global following.  There are several, of course (Jeremy Lin, Sachin Tendulkar, Manny Pacquiao, for starters), but the somewhat parochial appeal of many Asian sports combined with the continued marketing dominance of U.S. and European sports makes it difficult for young Asian athletes to break out onto the world stage.  Or at least that was the case until the advent of e-sports, which is allowing young South Korean athletes like Flash or Faker to become household names for millions.  This strong presence of East Asian athletes in most e-sports is contributing to the emergence of potentially less aggressive and “macho” models of masculinity.  It’s important to remember that this ongoing transformation is still occurring in an all-male space—-there are currently zero professional female players in most e-sports–and I don’t want to downplay the widespread sexism, misogyny, and homophobia prevalent in the e-sports world.  But from my perspective there does seem to be a widespread shift in the type of masculinity an athlete is expected to perform.

Contrast, for instance, these two recent hype videos, the first from halfway through the recent League of Legends tournament, the other previewing the 2017 NFL Superbowl match-up.*  While both videos attempt to depict their athletes as cool, powerful, motivated, and skilled, I would argue that the masculinity on display in the first video is markedly different: the men are younger, quieter (no player shouts in the first video), and less physically imposing (crossed arms and stoic faces are favored over dashes and leaps).  I suspect that ultimately it will be these boyish, bespectacled, beardless-yet-immaculately-coifed, and occasionally rotund young men who will go on to reshape our image of what an athlete is in the coming decade, in part because they seem so much more relatable to fans who live increasingly sedentary lives.

3)  Why do some countries have well-developed e-sports scenes while others don’t?

Some countries have very well-developed e-sports scenes, with numerous players, teams, and fans.  Other countries do not.  While some of this variation can be explained on demographic grounds, much of the rest remains a mystery.

There are some basic variables that explain why e-sports are bigger in some countries than others.  All things being equal, we would expect countries with faster internet rates, higher disposable incomes (to be able to afford fast broadband connections), youthful populations, and greater amounts of leisure time to both play and spectate e-sports more.  Accordingly, rich countries with fast Internet and lots of leisure time like South Korea, Taiwan, Sweden, and Denmark have well-developed e-sports scenes, despite relatively older populations.  E-sports are also strong in the United States and China, two countries with large youth bulges, booming tech sectors, and governments which are actively lending their support to the nascent industry.  (In the U.S. this has taken the form of official recognition of e-sports athletes for visa purposes, while China has gone further by integrating e-sports into its national sports training academies and setting up an official national team in 2015.  Analysts note that China seems to have decided to highlight its strength in e-sports as part of its “soft power” outreach to the rest of the world.)

If we were to use our basic variables to predict the relative strength of each country’s e-sports scene, we’d quickly discover a number of outliers—countries located either very above or below the regression line.  I suspect some countries which would be plotted well above their predicted scores might include Brazil (dominant in CS:GO), Vietnam (where a TV station airs e-sports full-time), and the Philippines (with strong Dota 2 teams).

Conversely, I expect we would find Australia and Mexico to be punching below their weight.  Also worth considering is the case of Japan, whose e-sports scene lags far behind East Asian peers like South Korea, China, and Taiwan.  A while back Bloomberg ran an article examining why e-sports aren’t more prominent in Japan, given Japanese young people’s love of most things digital.  Fascinatingly, the article advanced a path-dependency argument, proposing that the current disinterest stems largely from an obscure piece of legislation from the 1980s that defined illegal gambling in an overly broad way.  (The law has just been repealed.)

Perhaps the country whose e-sports deficit I’m most interested in understanding at the moment is India’s.  Yes, India’s Internet is slow and unreliable, and yes, there’s a cultural taboo against playing video games.  But if you consider India’s massive youth population, you’d think it would have a far more developed e-sports scene.  A Taiwanese team once managed to win the LoL Worlds Tournament, but India, with 56 times the population, isn’t home to a single professional LoL team.  Some online commentators blame India’s under-representation on an early Indian e-sports tournament held in Noida in 2012 that at the very least was quite poorly organized and at the worst was a deliberate scam.  But while it’s true that the fiasco may have “dragged [the Indian e-sports scene] five years back,” I feel like there must be other factors at play which I don’t fully grasp as yet.  Hopefully recent investments of money in the Indian e-sports scene can shake it out of its present lethargy.

4)  Is there anything uniquely different about e-sports qua sports?

The International Olympic Committee has said it is open to considering including e-sports events in future Olympics.  Does this mean that e-sports and offline sports are fundamentally the same?  Or are there unique aspects to e-sports without precedent in traditional sports?

Consider, for instance, this list Forbes published about ten emerging legal issues related to e-sports.  For the most part, the article simply lists legal issues that apply to any professional sport: the importance of well-structured contracts; the need for appropriate revenue-sharing to keep leagues, team owners, and players all content; the perennial difficulty of obtaining visas for foreign players.  There’s nothing really new or distinctive here (except perhaps the point that existing sports stadiums are often ill-suited to displaying e-sports in their best light, which may require new types of infrastructure to be built).  Similarly, a lot of the scandals that have already occurred in the e-sports world will be familiar to fans of offline sports: match-fixing; illegal gambling; young players trying to skirt minimum-age requirements; pervasive racism; etc.

But there are a few genuinely novel aspects to e-sports that will require athletes, fans, and regulators to adopt new practices and attitudes in the coming years.  Unsurprisingly, most stem from the virtual nature of the software systems that undergird e-sports.  There are several I could discuss, such as how e-sports will deal with the existence of in-game bugs, but in the interest of space let me focus on just one, illustrative example: the frequency with which the rules change in e-sports compared to offline sports.

Consider that the Laws of Cricket were codified in 1788 and have largely remained the same since then, with only a few minor revisions.  In contrast, as of mid-March 2018, League of Legends has had over 267 significant changes to its rules since its creation in 2009 (see the complete list of these “patches” here).  This is a difference of orders of magnitude!  Freed of any hard-to-change physical components (like the cleats, balls, nets, goalposts, and fields of soccer) and with total control over their IP (whereas no one “owns” soccer, even if it is governed by FIFA), the game companies that own the software that enables e-sports have shown no compunctions about constantly tinkering with their products, ceaselessly altering them to encourage certain types of behavior, prohibit others… or sometimes for seemingly no reason whatsoever.  This can be infuriating for professional teams, who often find that strategies and techniques they have carefully prepared and honed are deliberately invalidated by the game’s developers, as happened to Alliance’s “rat Dota” strategy circa 2013 and the use of “lane swap” tactics by many North American LoL teams shortly before the 2016 Worlds Tournament.  Defenders of the frequent rule changes argue that they help keep e-sports fresh and “balanced;” to succeed in e-sports, pros must constantly innovate and adapt rather than rely on the same strategies.  Whether or not that’s a compelling argument, there’s also a cost to spectators as well: because the rules of the games change so often, casual fans who are not constantly keeping up may find the sport nigh unrecognizable if they revisit it after an absence of several months or a year.  Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer for how often the rules of e-sports should change, but it is unquestionably a significant difference in comparison to offline sports, and one which is tied to the virtual nature of the underlying software.

As e-sports continue developing and becoming ever more popular in the decades to come, players, fans, owners, coaches, and game developers alike will collectively have to determine how best to govern and oversee this emerging form of competition.


* I couldn’t easily find online the equivalent video for the most recent Superbowl LII.

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):


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” [Liberty Leading the People], 1830.


John Gast, “American Progress,” 1872.


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.