Inertia is the strongest force in international relations

5 November 2018, 0830 EST

Details continue to trickle out about the horrific assassination of Saudi dissident and writer Jamal Khashoggi. This has captured the attention of foreign policy experts, who have questioned the alliance’s importance and suggested ways to punish Saudi Arabia. Concern about this incidents has spread beyond experts, however. My students and I have frequently debated what will happen to the US-Saudi alliance. And I recently appeared on WCAX in Burlington to discuss what comes next. To both audiences–and in contrast to some commentators–I gave the unsatisfying answer of “not much.” Time after time on the  issues I follow dramatic transformations seem about to occur, only to fade as the world moves on. As a result, I’m increasingly convinced that inertia drives international relations.

Let’s just look at what has happened since Khashoggi’s murder. There was the possibility of sanctions against Saudi officials, businesses pulling out, or even an end to US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. A few things did happen. The United States withdrew the visas of a few Saudi officials. Criticism of the war in Yemen grew, and Congress invoked the Magnitsky Act. But that’s about it. Trump can easily avoid acting on the Magnitsy Act and a GOP-held Congress will do little to push him on it. Calls for further investigation into the US role in Yemen haven’t progressed to action. Businesses have quietly kept working with the Saudis. And the visa revocation was mostly symbolic.

Some may say US inaction is due to Trump’s inflated obsession with Saudi arms deals, or the Trump Administration’s reliance on Saudi Arabia to combat Iran. But I think it’s more than that. This sort of thing—dramatic event, possible widespread ramifications, and then…nothing—happens a lot. I’d argue that this is a sign of the power of inertia in international relations: things tend to stay in the state they are, whether in motion or at rest.

In my Middle East politics classes, we discuss current (or relatively current events) and students frequently ask whether some current event will be “the big one” that changes everything.  And I keep disappointing them. Just a few examples:

  • In September 2017, Iraqi Kurds voted to separate from Iraq. My students and I discussed the implications, whether Iraq would fall apart and…nothing happened.
  • In September 2016, then US Secretary of State John Kerry announced a ceasefire deal in the Syrian civil war he negotiated with Russia. I dutifully updated my lecture slides, prepared talking points in case I was asked about it and…the civil war continued.
  • In June 2014, ISIL seized the Iraqi city of Mosul and established their own pseudo-state straddling Iraq and Syria. It looked like the beginning of a broad-ranging transformation of Middle Eastern politics, as old borders were reshaped and erased. In my lectures I discussed ISIL as not just a terrorist group, but a harbinger of the region’s future. And then…the Islamic “state” crumbled under attacks from all sides. I literally had to rewrite my lecture the day of class as their last few territorial strongholds fell.
  • Then there’s the Arab Spring itself. The series of protests beginning in 2010 that were to be the Middle East’s 1989, bringing democracy to the region. We all know what happened.

This occurs beyond the Middle East too. In 2016 the UK voted to leave the European Union. The results was not a sudden break, resulting in a cascading disintegration of European unity. Instead, it’s been long protracted negotiations with some calls for another referendum to reverse the decision.

Why is this? Why do dramatic events in international relations so often get swallowed up by the world’s inertia?

Well, international relations are complicated. For example, President Obama couldn’t just negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran; he had to work with international partners and try to sell it to Congress and the American people. So any event gets filtered through multiple policy channels, diluting its impact.

Also, the people ultimately responsible for changing the world get distracted. Anger over Khashoggi’s murder is still there, but it had to compete with the looming US mid-term election, the rise of a right-wing President in Brazil, and Trump’s alarmist rhetoric over a Central American migrant caravan for the US public and punidtry’s attention. Initial calls for action gave way to debates over these other issues.

What does this mean for international relations scholarship? For those of us who attempt to engage the public and policymakers on international issues, we often rush to explain the ramifications of current events in an accessible manner. We are tempted to dramatize the impacts of significant international episodes. We should remember the prevalence of inertia, however, even if that means our carefully caveated analyses gain less airtime than pundits’ slogans.

We can still discuss current events with the public, policymakers or students, however. There is a value in explaining the gradual, subtle ways international relations changes in the midst of its general inertia. Trump may not destroy the liberal order–see a recent Duck of Minerva post on this debate–but he has made it harder for the United States to mobilize Canada and Western European allies while decreasing the desirability of liberal internationalism to the rest of the world. Anger over Khashoggi’s murder may not dissolve the US alliance, but it has made it more acceptable for the foreign policy establishment to question the apparent blank check America has provided to the Saudi regime.  Without realizing, and appreciating, the power of inertia in international relations we may miss these more subtle—but equally important—trends in the world.

[Updated to fix a hyperlink]