Category Archives: foreign policy

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.

Rethinking IR Theory Through Foreign Policy Analysis I

Time seems to have flown this year. Despite good intentions, I didn’t follow up on a little burst of posts I wrote in April. Exam season and a big shift in my employment circumstances occupied a lot of my time, preventing me from getting back into the groove of blogging. Here goes an attempt to turn this around.

Previously, I wrote about my growing dissatisfaction with ‘Third Image’ international relations theory, that is to say international relations theory focusing wholly or exclusively on the international system. These approaches, exemplified by the work of Kenneth Waltz and Alexander Wendt conceived of the international system as bounded and separate from other social, political and economic processes. From this perspective international system is governed according to its own logic, which means that scholars of international relations don’t need to look beyond their own discipline in order to make sense of international relations – they just need to understand the typical patterns and modes of interaction characteristic of the international sphere. Because over the long-run the international system has certain tendencies that push it in a particular direction, nor do scholars need to pay much attention to the causes or consequences of particular decisions by those acting in the name of states. Third Image theory makes claims that are too general to generate concrete explanations or predictions about particular foreign-policy choices, and the foreign policy choices of states are unlikely to alter the general tendencies that these system-level theories identify. Foreign policy is assumed to be chaotic and idiosyncratic, the general course of international relations comprehensible.

A big problem for some of these theories is that they don’t square very well with evidence. I have become better and better acquainted with the behavioral literature in conflict and peace research, and the evidence tends to sit awkwardly alongside the expectations of Waltz’s Neo-Realism. Quite simply, as Vasquez has maintained, Neo-Realism has not been the source of very many claims that have been corroborated by large-n positivistic research on topics of central importance to Neo-Realism such as conflict between major powers. Just as problematic, rival theories such Liberalism that emphasise factors such as the political system of a state, deemed irrelevant by Neo-Realism, have proven quite successful at generating hypotheses that can survive quantitative tests. Away from the behavioural strand of IR research, a wealth of historical and sociological research has provided evidence that the international system has, since its inception, been shaped quite powerfully by more fundamental forms of social relations such as systems of property rights, gender relations and ways of imagining and depicting space.

Another prong of attack originates in the sub-discipline of foreign policy analysis, the very existence of which demonstrates the enduring power of Third Image thinking in international relations. FPA isn’t on the map of that many scholars of international relations, it’s a corner of the discipline with its own questions, debates and theories. At Brunel I taught an introductory course that combined an overview of the development of the contemporary international system with a primer on foreign policy and the level of analysis problem. The course seemed to go well and the approach clicked for most of the students. Getting more acquainted with some of the classics on FPA prompted me to delve further into this area, and I discovered that there are some really useful contributions alongside some problems and pitfalls. In a follow-up post I’ll discuss Valerie Hudson’s Foreign Policy Analysis: Classic and Contemporary Theory, in which she sets out the stall for FPA as an essential part of IR.