Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Irony of the Past - Turkey and Russia

The world’s history surrounding the World Wars is so fascinating because, through a form of dramatic irony, we get to see the unraveling of a complicated web of powerful alliances. We now know, or at least have a better idea, how the stories unfolded. Today a similarly complicated series of stories is being told through state, non-state, and quasi-state actors. Ironically, our situational irony distracts us from the dramatic irony a future generation will obviate in retrospect as, ironic.

Now that we framed confusion let me note that I believe Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict was not necessarily a game changer; it was an unsurprising adjustment to the bracket of participants. All the participants were playing the same game – some form of countering rebellion. Russia favored the league with the Syrian based on a long-standing set of mutual interests. Turkey favored a different league, as had the West. Consequently, the shooting down of a Russian jet, by Turkey, and subsequent killing of one or more of those pilots and rescue teams is a game changer. It changes entirely the game Russia plays in the region, from countering rebellion to demonstrating regional power. Russia’s reaction to Turkey also has the potential to change how the rest of the Syrian conflict participants react to Russia’s reaction to Turkey.

Since we cannot yet know for sure what that reaction really will be, and since we cannot yet know how the international community will react, collectively or individually (our situational iron), we rely on contextualizing the present with the past. Here is a nice historical synopsis, written in 1949, to put the Turkey-Russia relationship in context. Suffice it to say, they have tried to form a relationship, but they have struggled to make it a friendly one. If the game truly changes, who will join whose side, and who will watch for opportunities from the sideline? The other question I wonder, given our country's intense focus on countering terrorism coupled with the interests of international actors in the region, is are we playing the right game?

(paid access may be required)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Clashes of Civilizations - Mongols and ISIS

ISIS and the Mongols. Is there something we can learn from the Mongol exploits throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe that will inform the civilized world's response to ISIS? The confluence of societies today are writing a complicated history that will eventually unfold into something more clearly distinguishable. While the so-called clash of civilizations (Huntington) taking place today seems out of sorts in the grand scheme of international relations, there was a similarly complicated period in the 13th century in which Christendom (particularly Catholicism), Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, and other societies clashed during Mongol expansion.

A fascinating read from 1955 by historian Christopher Dawson reveals the interplay among them all and how overlapping alliances formed to confront each other’s adversaries. The introduction alone is enough to get a good sense of the complicated challenges facing each societies’ ways of life. Granted, there has been some debate over the years as to the accuracy and authenticity of the various letters exchanged between Mongol Khans and Papal envoys. Furthermore, Dawson was a scholar who focused on the history of the Catholic church, so you'll sense his influence.

Nevertheless, the broader historical point seems true - that Mongol expansion tested the "national interest" of several civilizations and threatened to upset each civilization's "way of life" - a truism that seems to be taking place in today's context. Consider Dawson's exposition in the context of the West, the U.S., Europe, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Syria and...ISIS. To what extent can the contest of alliance making during the Mongol expansion inform today's interactions between Western states and Russia as they confront extremist expansions out of the Middle East?

You can access Dawson's book here:


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Al-Shabaab and ISIS - A Comparison by Clint Watts

Having written about so-called "unlit spaces" such as Somalia, I found this prescient article by Clint Watts in the World Politics Review as an interesting comparative analysis between al-Shabaab and ISIS. One of the key distinctions I have made about unlit spaces is their condition of governance. It is an important element in determining the nature of what makes a particular area necessarily void of development. One of the problems with al-Shabaab and the idea of governance my groups like them, is that they fail to provide a reliable and effective means of serving the public good. Control and constituency are two different things. Watts makes an important point: "Indeed, al-Shabab as a governance-provider has now been replaced by a fledging [sic] but resilient national political process in Mogadishu. The coalition to counter IS appears to have no such vision for ending the Syrian civil war and restoring governance, nor does there appear to be an equivalent plan to restore governance that is locally viewed as legitimate in Sunni areas of Iraq."

Here's a link to the article: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/15418/end-game-al-shabab-as-a-model-for-the-islamic-state-s-decline (login may be required)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

OECD Report - States of Fragility 2015

Having written about fragile and failing states before, I am always interested in the nature and impact these unique places have in the world. A new report out today from the OECD attempts to shed some new light on the landscape of these states who are not thriving as well as the rest of the global competitors. The report offers that in many ways Millennium Development Goals to reduce extreme poverty are being met; however, for these so-called fragile states, the prognosis is not so good.

The report opens by suggesting, "as a group [fragile states] have lagged behind other developing countries. Nearly two-thirds of those now considered fragile are expected to fail to meet the goal of halving poverty by 2015." The question then is, what is a fragile state, and who are they? I recommend taking a look at the OECD report to get an updated perspective on how we should view and understand those countries with great development needs.

States of Fragility 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015

Nigeria and Coups

Here's a really good perspective on Nigerian political context by a good friend regarding recent events there in relation to historical trends. The topic of coups is an interesting one, especially throughout the African continent. There seemed to be a flurry of coups in the early 1990s, but they may have fallen out of vogue until recently. Consider what is going on in Yemen and consider Pakistan's checkered transfer of power in the past few decades as case examples. 

Read Shawn Russell's piece to gain a better appreciation of Nigeria's present day context related to power. Context will continue to be the theme this year on Diplomatic Discourse as I introduce recommended readings to understand international affairs in their proper context.

Of note, I slightly disagree with Shawn's assessment and comparison of Nigeria to Mali. He is much more the expert on these matters, but I will point out that Nigeria and Mali are not similar case comparisons. Nigeria's resource curse, as Paul Collier would suggest, make her more prone to rent-seeking corruption, which, in my estimation would be the primary driver of political conflict motivating a coup. I don't think that is the case in Mali. I have to wonder if Mali's case has more to do with control of ethnic historiographies.  Nevertheless, Shawn's essay is an important piece.
Beware a Nigerian Coup d’Etat

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Context is Key

After yet another (rather lengthy) reprieve, I'm back. I think I left off talking about a comparison of the Somali and Afghan constitutions. Well, that discussion may get tabled, while we adjust the focus to a broader scope to include the larger matter of the so-called Arab uprisings, or seasonally unchanging "Arab Spring."

Without a doubt, what has been unfolding throughout the Middle East and to an even greater extent, the oft-referred Muslim world, has been significant.  However, to what extent are the events a function of civilization clashes, western influences, the war in Iraq, or some other external geopolitical force? One could easily get a narrow view of the various uprising individually and collectively throughout the region when one views them through a Western lens focusing on the last ten years or less. What is taking place has roots many decades old. Moreover, what is taking place may be largely related to internal adjustments to economic and cultural opportunity through structural reformations of rule.

Over the coming weeks and months, I am going to highlight some reading recommendations that will provide more background, more history, more substance to help frame a better sense of the context in which today's global challenges are taking place. Marwan Muasher's The Second Arab Awakening:And the Battle for Pluralism is the first such book that I recommend to begin re-framing one's thoughts and perspectives about what has been happening in the Arab world for the past few years. He asks the question, "is the Arab world moving toward democracy?"[1] It’s a good question, but the answer is neither simple nor clear. This is where context is key. Muasher makes the following observation related to the way many are mistakenly viewing today's events:
one's answer depends on the prism one uses... a three-year window is probably no the best prism through which to  view the recent developments in the Arab world. The question over the long term is whether the present change, however uncertain and difficult, will lead to democratic societies. After all, the first "awakening" of the Arab world succeeded in getting rid of foreign autocratic rule, but if failed to produce pluralistic governments. Why should we expect the second awakening to do so? Can we detect signs that indicate whether countries of the Arab world are moving toward democracy and pluralism or away from them? Despite the despair and cynicism that has seeped into thinking about the Arab uprisings so far, the developments are not all negative.[2]

Jordan's former foreign minister makes the case that an intellectual awakening at the turn of the twentieth century failed to materialize into positive structural changes to governance. Instead authoritarianism filled various voids where popular control was needed. Unfortunately, those authoritarian models based on degrees of ethnic, religious, and secular principles have done more to exclude majorities from the same opportunities retained by ruling elites.

He emphasizes the concept of pluralism as a key ingredient for tolerance of ideas and inclusion in democratic governance. He also emphasizes that today's changes will rely largely on "third forces" namely a new generation of idealists who are committed to finding peaceful means to reform political structures and processes.[3] A key takeaway from Muasher interpretation of this second Arab awakening is that it has only begun. Therefore, it is too early to tell what is really transpiring and how this story will actually unfold.

As we observe the events taking place in the Middle East and throughout the rest of the Muslim world, we must place today’s situation into a much broader context of political struggle and ideological reformation. Consider Marwan Muasher’s brief analysis of this second wave of new generations demanding a pluralistic polity. Then ask this question: what happened with the first awakening?

[1] Muasher p. 78
[2] Muasher pp. 78-79
[3] Muasher pp. 163-168

Friday, June 27, 2014

Institute of Land Warfare Publication

The good folks at the Institute of Land Warfare recently published an adaptation of my monograph, Special Operations Forces in Unlit Spaces: Understanding the World's Dark Spots in the Context of SOF Operational Planning, as part of their Land Warfare Paper series. Working with them was a pleasure, and I appreciate their attention to editing detail. Here is a link to the publication: http://www.ausa.org/publications/ilw/DigitalPublications/Documents/lwp101/index.html

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Gone but not Forgotten

I've been away for a spell, but I have not forgotten about this forum. I'll be returning to it very soon. There is definitely a lot to talk about in the world, particularly regarding many out-of-context misinterpretations of recent foreign policy approaches the United States has taken. The unfortunate bi-product of multiple 24-hour news outlets is that the level of analysis pertaining to current events fails to account for the current context in comparison to similar situations in context. Therefore, we will attempt to dig a little deeper than one or two news cycles with some recent events and look at their significance in the context of geopolitical norms and international theories.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Juxtaposing Drone Ethics with Nazi War Trials: A Review of Eichmann in Jerusalem

My previous essay regarding Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, is now published through the good folks at e-International Relations. Here is the link the revised essay. The original is still posted in the archives, but I appreciate the efforts they did to clean it up. The version on e-IR is a little tighter and it juxtaposes today's argument related to the ethics of drone prosecution of terrorists with trials of Nazi war criminals. Check it out:


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pakistan's New Generation of Terrorists - Council on Foreign Relations

To understand the history of Afghanistan, one must account for Afghanistan's neighbor - Pakistan. Similarly, to understand the nature of the Taliban and other threat groups that have arisen, one must understand the interplay between Afghanistan and Pakistan to include their surrounding border states, such as India. The Council on Foreign Relations has a nice backgrounder on these threat groups.

Pakistan's New Generation of Terrorists - Council on Foreign Relations