Monthly Archives: November 2015

Attempting to Think Rationally About Terror

Like everyone else, I want to express my solidarity with the people of Paris after the atrocious attacks of the weekend. It’s a solidarity I feel at a very visceral level, but not because I have been or am likely to be a victim of such an attack – I realise that we who live in the democracies of the North remain very safe. Rather, I find that reading about the nihilistic cruelty involved in such mass casualty attacks and the gloating that accompanies the slaughter leaves me physically stressed. As tenuous as my own connection to the events actually is, the reports of the Utøya massacre, the Suruç massacre, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, sectarian atrocities in the Syrian civil war and accounts of the massive sexual violence perpetrated by Daesh all left me feeling angry, shocked and disgusted. I find it quite hard, therefore, to think about terror attacks in a cool and rational manner in their immediate aftermath. This can’t be too unusual, if one key aim of terror attacks is to generate irrational emotions for political purposes then it’s not surprising that thinking clearly about them is difficult.

What’s especially aggravating is that so much of what is written online and in social media in the aftermath of such attacks disrespects the dead through callous indifference, self-indulgent weaving of conspiracy theories, or cheap political point-scoring. The bombings always mean we should support my politics. Every horror buttresses preconceived worldviews and generates ugly cries of ‘I told you so!’ by commentators with diametrically opposed views. In particular, those peddling two different versions of the clash of civilizations narrative can always find evidence that confirms their prejudices. I say two, because the ideologies held by the crank left and the wingnut right have come to mirror each other. The standard, original brand Huntington clash of civilizations thesis suggests that civilizations are clearly defined, mono-vocal, essentially unchangeable and destined to come into conflict with each other. According to this narrative the Muslim world is a monolith, any violence done in its name is the result of primordial features of Islam and only reveals the true and essential features. So far, so Breivik.

The other variety of the clash of civilizations has come to dominate far left debates on contemporary international relations. It sees civilizations as being clearly defined, mono-vocal, essentially unchangeable just like the classic version. Only in this version, the West is the intrinsically malign, monolithic culture – persecuting Muslims because they are Muslims due to its deep and ineradicable racism and intolerance. This perspective resembles the most crass, manichean vulgarisation of postcolonial theory – but sadly it seems to have some purchase. This is what happens when people are only able to think about power relations, inequality and insecurity in terms of identity, and when culture is taken at face value rather than placed in its social, economic and political context.

A variant of this perspective has greater influence, owing to the fact that it contains an element of truth. This variant, the Chomskyite perspective on world affairs, sees Islamist terror attacks as a mechanical response to Western actions. The international system is a simple environment in which action leads to an equal and opposite reaction in a quasi-automatic fashion. Only the West has any agency, the criminal acts of Western states call forth terrorist attacks on Western citizens as a sort of misdirected but inexorable karmic force.

‘Blowback’ is very real: dangerous proxies do bite the hand that feeds. Western foreign policy does generate grievances that provide some of the impetus for terror attacks – which is not to say that those actions or even those grievances are legitimate. What those perspectives completely miss, however, is that many of the factors that generate Islamist terrorism are internal to the Middle East and the political struggles within and between the states of the region. Halliday argues in The Middle East and International Relations, that such crass perspectives overstate the role of outside powers and underplay the significance of the different strategies pursued by actors engaged in struggles over the state and the political order within the region. So contextualising the Paris terror attacks requires an analysis of Daesh as an organisation, the structural pressures and opportunities it faces, the crisis and collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states (and yes, the US-UK invasion was central here) and the wider regional sectarian conflict.

The other pitfall to avoid is to assume that we know what the purpose of the terror attacks was. Many people leapt to the conclusion that the goal was to provoke deeper involvement on the part of France and the West. But provocation is only one strategy that may motivate terror. Attacks can also be used as a form of attrition or deterrence, imposing costs and generating fear in order to dissuade an actor from pursuing a particular policy. If this was the goal, then for France to withdraw from the coalition against Daesh would be ‘giving the terrorists what they want’. Indeed given how frequently actors rationalise events due to cognitive dissonance, it’s possible that any change in policy can be claimed as a victory for the perpetrators – after all it demonstrates that they have exercised the power to overcome the will of their enemies and alter their behaviour. Terror attacks may also be used for reputational purposes, as a credible display of strength, resolve and commitment to a cause. The recipients of the message sent through terror are potential recruits or allies in this case, not the enemy themselves. Alternatively, they might not be instrumentally rational in a strategic sense but rather motivated by deeply-felt moral commitments that mandate inflicting harm on a hated enemy – as suggested by Gilbert Ramsay.

In any case, it makes little sense to base one’s reaction to a terror attack on what the perpetrators intended. If the attackers desired to provoke further attacks this does not mean that this should refrain from stepping up its air campaign, as Daesh may have miscalculated as many other violent groups have done in the past when they have provoked their own destruction (Adam Elkus expressed this point very well). Similarly, if the goal of a terror attack is to force a change in policy, then recommitting to that policy does not make sense if the costs really are too great to bear – no matter how painful it may be to admit this. ‘Doing the opposite of what terrorists want’ has a psychological appeal, but is not the basis for sound decision-making.

An assessment should be made based on an unvarnished assessment of the actor’s own goals, the costs of various alternative policies and the likely effects on the overall strategic environment – bearing in mind risk that comes with any compromise of fundamental values. Terror is not the automatic, mechanical result of Western foreign policy and nor should it determine Western foreign policy in an automatic, mechanical fashion.

Edit: An interesting interview with John Berger, who favours the provocation interpretation, focusing on the lack of good options for dealing with Daesh.

More edits: Best comments from the Crooked Timber thread herehere and here, drawing heavily on the Spiegal article. Follow up interview with Haykel after the Atlantic article. Another overview.

Networked Neorealism?

The past few posts have been quite critical of Neorealism. I thought it might be interesting to say something qualified in the theory’s favour. In Networks of Nations, Zeev Maoz presents what he calls the theory of networked international politics. It hasn’t been discussed very much on IR blogs, apart from by Braumoeller over at the Monkey Cage during a discussion of systemic theory and networked vs. traditional approaches. Maoz’s theory applies familiar mechanisms drawn from existing IR theories to analyse social network patterns of interstate interaction. Drawing on Neorealism he analyses patterns of strategic interaction, Liberalism patterns of mutually beneficial self-interested interaction, Constructivism patterns of homophily and the formation of different cultural cliques, and World Systems Theory patterns of inequality and hierarchy. He also makes some novel claims about prestige and status in the network of nations, developing some original hypotheses that develop concepts within social network theory (but which also echo recent and classic discussions of status in international relations). Interestingly, he finds that each theory makes successful predictions in its own core area of competence. Combining the different mechanisms, Maoz puts forward a complex and detailed account of how the spillovers generated by cooperation amongst security-seeking states results in an increasingly complex, evolving network structure of cooperation within the international system. Democratisation within strategically interacting groups of states tends to reduce competition and accelerate the formation of cooperative relationships. Yet the system remains unequal and hierarchies of status may generate conflict.

This is only a brief summary of a dense, detailed book that examines dozens of hypotheses and a huge range of interactions at different levels of analysis within different areas of world politics. One area of focus is what Maoz calls the strategic reference group (SRG), which he refers to as the basic unit of for the analysis of national security policy within his framework. An SRG is a state’s security environment, it is made up of all the states who are likely to be perceived as threats to a state – those the state has been involved in military disputes with, those the state has been in a rivalry with, and allies of both sets of ‘enemy’ states (the friend of my enemy is my enemy). Neorealists believe that states often engage in ‘internal balancing’, arms build-ups, if they believe that they are vulnerable. The military capabilities of others are dangerous unless they are checked and negated by counterveiling power. Building up a state’s own power resources is one way a state can make itself less vulnerable, forming alliances is an alternative strategy. Do states actually behave this way? Maoz finds that yes, states will tend to build up their military capabilities if they are weak relative to their strategic reference group*. Forming alliances makes a state less likely to engage in a military build-up. So it seems that isolated states with many powerful enemies seek to increase their capabilities. States that are powerful, have powerful allies and have few enemies may feel themselves safe enough to reduce their capabilities – perhaps opting for butter instead of guns.

This at least seems to provide support for a Neorealist perspective, especially the Defensive Neorealism of Waltz, Walt and Glaser, as Maoz’s results are consistent with the hypothesis that states seek security by attempt to achieve ‘enough’ power. But there are one or two problems. First, Maoz’s definition of the strategic reference group isn’t thoroughly Neorealist. In Maoz’s analysis, states are not concerned about all other states, just specific threatening states. States have specific issues and disagreements with past enemies, strategic rivals, and their allies. Anarchy is not necessarily a war of all against all in the theory of networked international politics. Second, I’m slightly cautious about the findings as there could be other factors not included in the model that might lead to states within SRGs to experience a growth in military personal and expenditure at the same time or sequentially. Economic growth and industrialisation are likely to be regional processes and may be associated with a rise in military capabilities. Third, Maoz notes that states that are very strong compared to their SRGs are less likely to get involved in conflict. Does this support or undermine Neorealism? If Neorealists are committed to the hypothesis that unipolar global and regional inter-state systems are very unlikely to form and very unstable because they provoke counter-balancing coalitions, then this seems to undermine the theory. Fourth, although Maoz argues that these results are robust and in line with Neorealist expectations, he notes that they don’t have a great deal of predictive power. So Neorealist theories don’t explain all that much how states respond to potential threats – perhaps (as Maoz suggests) because states have many foreign policy tools available to them apart from military build-ups and alliance formation.

Maoz examines many other processes within the global inter-state system in further detail, again finding that some Neorealist claims are borne out. But so are the claims of other theories, such as democratic peace theory. Even on a charitable interpretation of patterns of conflict and cooperation, Neorealism provides an incomplete account of the phenomena that it was created to make sense of.

Maoz’s Networks of Nations is a fascinating application of familiar theoretical frameworks to a host of levels of analysis within the international system – social network analysis seems to offer a veritable smorgasbord of possible levels of analysis for international relations scholarship. Focusing on indirect as well as direct interactions between states offers a very powerful set of tools for scholars looking for behavioural patterns in world politics. It would be especially interesting to see a network analysis of other middle-range theories in IR – is for example territorial peace and conflict a network phenomena? In my view such research would help us think creatively and rigorously about the nature of international systems and move past exhausted theories.

*I think that there is a mistake on page 143, which states that the variable State/SRG capability imbalance is generated by ‘subtract[ing] a state’s military capabilities from the sum of the military capabilities of its SRG members’. The name of the variable, the discussion in the text, and the operationalisation of the variable in the case where a state has no SRG all suggest that this is a typo and that the actual operationalisation is the state’s military capabilities less the sum of the capabilities of the states in its SRG. This operationalisation is consistent with Maoz’s interpretation of the negative coefficient for the variable in regression model for military build-ups: ‘As the difference between the capabilities of the focal state and the aggregate capabilities of its SRG increases, the extent of the absolute and rate-of-change in the state’s capabilities declines’. In other words, states with large capabilities and a weak set of states in their SRG (i.e. a positive State/SRG capability imbalance) are likely to reduce their military capabilities.

Leaving exhausted theories behind

Two years ago prominent Neorealist authors Mearsheimer and Walt lamented the current inattention to grand theory in IR as an academic field (which they also summarised over at Duck of Minerva). They argued that ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ had replaced inquiry into the fundamental features of world politics and the debate among rival intellectual frameworks seeking to make sense of international relations. There probably is too much ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ in IR, the use of positivist methods to answer micro-questions that no-one has every actually cared about abounds in major journals. But Mearsheimer and Walt’s critique was odd and misdirected in lots of respects, as others noted at the time it was published. Notably, M & W are dismissive of any non-positivist approach such as critical theory and feminism – yet their commitment to positivism hardly sits well with their aversion to ‘normal science’.

I’ve got time for Stephen Walt as a theorist, his version of Neorealism is flexible and non-dogmatic. His analysis in his blog is measured and rejects nationalistic claims about US exceptionalism. But along with Mearsheimer, his criticism of ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ reads like rearguard action in support of a version of Realism that just doesn’t convince any more, doesn’t provide any useful leads for empirical research and doesn’t warrant any further theoretical refinement.

The example that they use to illustrate ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ is telling, as it does little to support their case. Research by conflict theorists on strategic rivalries, they claim, produced:

an expanding set of empirical findings but did not produce a broader synthesis or a general explanation of the various positive and negative results. Instead, we get generalizations of the following sort: ‘Dyads that contend in territorial disputes have a greater probability of going to war than is expected by chance,’ or ‘[Enduring] rivals have a greater probability of going to war than other dyads’ (Vasquez and Leskiw, 2001: 308–309). But we still have little idea why.

Glossed over here is the issue that these findings have been interpreted by scholars as running directly against the default assumptions of Neorealism! Conflict theorists in the steps to war tradition argue that war does not arise out of the general jockeying for power among states, the whirl and dance of military coalitions that states create and dissolve as they each seek to advance their own power or security at the expense of any and all others. Instead, conflict originates in specific issues over which pairs of states disagree – most often territorial issues – and self-reinforcing, reciprocated patterns of power-political behavior between such pairs of states. It is completely false to suggest that the claims in the strategic rivalries literature are atomic, atheoretical hypotheses – they are part of a well-established, elaborate research project set out most fully in Vasquez’s The War Puzzle. It’s also false to suggest that no attempts have been made to explain why territory is especially likely to generate conflict or why strategic/enduring rivals account for so much conflict in modern international history. Vasquez’s original arguments suggested links between the psychology of territoriality and aggression, he and others later emphasised the role of hardliners and the formation of pro-war coalitions within states in sustaining rivalries, others still emphasise the socially constructed aspects of territory and rivalry. The arguments and empirics presented by the steps to war approach might still fail to convince, but it makes no sense to claim that it is not a theoretically-informed research programme that attempts to contribute to our knowledge of fundamentally important features of the international system.
M & W’s example is badly chosen and interpreted uncharitably and misleadingly. On the other hand, Vasquez’s criticism of Neorealism as a research programme, made in 1997, still stands up:

The field hardly needs realism to tell it that states will oppose threats to themselves (if they can) or that revisionist states will seize opportunities to gain re-wards (especially if the risks are low).

Once again, Neorealism offers little more than the banal observation that international politics is a rough-and-tumble world and that states pursue their interests – if we define interests broadly enough to include just about any possible goal that a state might feasibly pursue. Walt has offered some well-judged observations about contemporary international politics, but these are often made in spite of Neorealism – indeed as corrections to the baseline Neorealist model developed by Waltz. The discipline of IR doesn’t need Waltzian Neorealism as a grand theory, certainly not to the exclusion of critical theory, or middle-range research programmes such as steps to war, or the much more convincing rival systemic theories that despite M & W’s protests are actually out there.