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.
Regional Names.jpg

For the Next Time Your Cranky Uncle Complains About How Terrible Things Have Gotten

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Theories of unstoppable progress can be dangerous, but it’s hard to argue that our world is not a richer, more equal, healthier place in 2017 than it was in 1817.  To the above can be added Steven Pinker and others’ work showing that over the long-term human against human violence is trending downwards.  Maybe 2017 won’t be such a terrible year after all, if we look beyond the headlines to the slow, painstaking work of improving health care systems, teaching everyone literacy and numeracy, and solidifying political institutions.

A deeper dig into the data is available here.

A Merry IR Christmas!

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

 

The Three Ghosts of IR Theory*

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

Not a creature was stirring, not even a crab;

The monitors glowed dully with Microsoft’s wares,

In hopes that dissertation fairies soon would be there.

The first-years tossed and turned in their beds,

Wrestling with Political Theory deep in their heads,

But I puttered on, deeply immersed in Chapter 5,

Trying to make sense of an old government archive,

When out on the quad there arose such a clatter,

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

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

But the three frightful ghosts of IR theory!

Monstrous figures rent out of time,

They were the very embodiments of IR paradigms!

The first approached me, and seeing me aghast,

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

Realism is my bellicose and bloody domain,

And in it everything states do is foreordained.

Domestic politics are put in a black box,

And institutions are a load of bollox!

But sadly my predictions did not bear fruit:

The end of the Cold War made my viewpoint moot!

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

Trailing old Mearsheimer like a sad little shadow.

I sought to be timeless and quite ahistorical,

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

Barely had I made sense of his sorrowful speech,

When the second figure drew nigh and began to preach:

“It is I, the Ghost of IR Present!

Rationalism is the theory I represent.

States are rational actors, just like you and I—

Always wanting their utility to be amplified!

Understanding politics is no difficult task, you see—

Simply identify all the main interests in society.

Then add a rough measure of power,

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

But make sure all your studies have a large N,

Lest you encounter an actual expert on Phnom Penh,

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

And leave you desperately grasping for straws.

Do remember, whenever your study is in doubt,

To let ‘Bayesian updating’ be your shout!

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

But the power of my reach is undeniable.”

The smug countenance of this shade moved away,

And in its lieu came a much quieter fay.

She began, “Do not despair!

In the future IR will not always be so square.

I am the Ghost of IR (Forthcoming):

Know that one day the field will be more becoming.

A multiplicity of diverse perspectives will be welcome,

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

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

And we’ll finally overcome our economics envies.

In this great post-positivist paradise,

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

Instead everyone will ‘soak and poke’ all day,

And head off for extensive field research in Bombay.

Your APSR articles will no longer be your main metric,

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

Well, except for mandatory readings of Foucault,

To whom we’ll all still have to kowtow.

While that day has not yet arrived,

Towards it you must nevertheless strive!”

Those rousing words, I do freely confess,

Made my heart swell deep within my breast.

With that, the three shades began to drift away,

Having brought me some solace during their stay.

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

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

 

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