Rebuilding social cohesion—restoring bonds of social trust that bind people
together in communities and enable them to peacefully coexist—commonly serves
as a central goal for peacebuilders engaging in communities fractured by
political violence. Despite a growing consensus
about the necessity of promoting social cohesion in the aftermath of widespread
violence, questions remain about how scholars, practitioners, and donors can
collaborate to implement effective peacebuilding practices.
To address these challenges, we brought
together sixteen scholars and practitioners for the inaugural peacebuilding
symposium of the Conflict 2 Peace Lab at the
Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State
University. Drawing on lessons learned from similar
the gap” initiatives, we designed a workshop to
facilitate exchange and find spaces for building community and mutual learning.
Our time together focused on three themes: concepts and theories of social
cohesion, effective peacebuilding practices, and monitoring, evaluation, and
Finding Common Cause: Peacebuilding in Research and Practice
Over two days of structured discussion and
information conversations, several commonalities emerged.
Warning! According to the law that the Russian parliament passed yesterday, this post might need to be prefaced with a disclaimer that the following text has been compiled by a foreign agent. An individual can be labeled as a “foreign agent” in Russia if they (1) distribute information, and (2) receive funds from sources outside Russia. I am ticking both boxes here, even as an academic working at a university, and the law intentionally left the “information spreading” extremely broad: you can literally post something on social media. It would be up for the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to decide who receives a “foreign agent” label. A specific procedure is yet to be established, but if an individual is deemed a foreign agent, they will have to create their own legally registered organization within a month in order to interact as a foreign agent with the Russian government.
This iteration of the law comes as a sequel to the ‘amendments to the law on non-commercial organizations’ of 2012 that obliged Russian organizations to register as ‘foreign agents’ in case they were involved in ‘political activity’ (even through funding) and received funding from abroad. It has affected by now a large number of my colleagues, including the Sova Center for the Monitoring of Xenophobia that was forced to pay a large fine. As one of the defenders of the law stated on prime-time television and in line with the usual liberal anti-American narrative and a conspiracy theme:
The purpose of the law is to reduce the influence of foreign countries on the policy. Thus, our law is much softer than the one in the US […]. And at the same time if you engage in politics, that means fighting for power, you must inform the Russian citizens. Those who oppose this law, do this for two reasons: the first – or they want to seize power in Russia in the interests of foreign states and against the interests of Russia, and the second – they get Western money and want to steal it.
Duma Member Sergey Markov
The law on foreign agents was passed in the same session with more restrictive legislation on public rallies undoubtedly taking the cue from Vladimir Putin who remarked during his Direct Line in December 2011 that he was sure that some of the people went to the protest ‘in a foreign country’s interest and for a foreign country’s money’. The notorious usage of the singular as opposed to the plural was telling – the country in question was not named, but it was clear for the audience that he was talking about the only country that could afford financing a protest in Russia, the USA.
Pervyi Kanal, Russian state TV, responded to the Direct Line with lightning speed and three days later on Sunday prime time news there was a segment on ‘the history and spread of coloured revolutions’, where it was stated that there is a special American think tank that is active in countries where the US ‘is interested in changing the regime’. One of the Pervyi Kanal’s experts emphasized that ‘there are many symbols and concepts, but the aim and the sponsor is the same – the USA’ (Pervyi Kanal, 18 December 2011). Thus, the Soviet frame about American dollars buying instability and wars was time and again re-articulated both by state officials and TV personalities.
Why pass this new foreign agent law now, one might ask? After all, who doesn’t like that goofball Donald and who is afraid of that barely competent State Department that can’t even fact check a TIME magazine cover? According to a Russian MP, it’s because of Maria Butina’s case:
Very recently, Maria Butina returned to Russia. She was sentenced to a year and a half under a similar law that’s in place within the United States of America because she failed to register as an individual ‘foreign agent.’ […] We’re talking about protection from direct foreign influence on the media market […]. Unfortunately, political forces in our country use tactics like these quite often in order to bring often unreliable and compromised facts forward for discussion.
Duma’s Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy (United Russia party)
For starters, of course the American law is not that similar. Individual foreign agents in the US are supposed to be taking action in the interest of a foreign government or lobbying politicians. You know, like the convicted Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort. But lobbying effort is completely absent from the Russian law. While Butina was portrayed as another victim of “deep state” elite battles that ravage the American establishment, with the impeachment hearings kicking into high gear, who knows who will be the next President in the US and what kind of cookies the next State Department is going to distribute in Russia? In the meantime, “sovereign internet” is coming along and the laws are ready.
So by this point we all know the big news on Syria. Overnight, Trump announced that–after consulting with Turkish President Erdogan–the US would be pulling troops out of north Syria, giving Turkey freedom to operate. This would likely involve military actions against Kurdish forces there, which Turkey fears are coordinating with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. This is concerning for two reasons. First, the United States had worked with these Kurdish forces to fight ISIS, so we’re basically abandoning them. Second, this will basically leave ISIS detention camps unguarded, possibly letting this terrorist organization regroup.
A lot has been said on Twitter and elsewhere. This will hurt US credibility. We shouldn’t have open-ended commitments in the Middle East, but this isn’t the way to stop them. This is no way to treat our allies. I encourage you to read others’ takes, and I’m not going to pretend these insights are original to me (but you could read my thread if you want).
But I did start thinking about what Turkey is hoping to accomplish. They’re framing this as a security issue; they want to uproot forces supporting insurgents in their territory. That is understandable, even if we don’t like abandoning Syria’s Kurds. But there are indications this is part of a broader push to increase Turkey’s regional influence.
This is a guest post from James Guild who is a PhD candidate in political economy at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. His research interest is economic growth and infrastructure development in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and his work has appeared in The Diplomat, Jakarta Post and New Mandala. Follow him on Twitter @jamesjguild
The dominance of rational-positivist approaches to modern social science, particularly in the United States, has tended to privilege research designs featuring deductive hypotheses that can be rigorously tested, typically with large-n datasets. This means the role of culture, society and history is often situated lower on the methodological hierarchy. I think many would agree that culture and socially constructed meaning are important variables in understanding political and economic outcomes; but there is little consensus on how to define or measure them, which makes them tricky analytical concepts.
This is a guest post from William G. Nomikos,
Assistant Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis.
Follow him on Twitter @wnomikos.
Recent relations between North Korea and the United States suggest a puzzle for International Relations. The Trump administration has relied on what it has called a “maximum pressure” campaign—a set of sections and threats of military escalation—to prevent North Korean nuclear missile tests and to roll back North Korean nuclear proliferation.
According to the prominent theory of International Relations known as “audience costs,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should take maximum pressure threats seriously. President Donald Trump is facing a challenging re-election campaign and voters should punish him if he makes a threat but subsequently backs down. Yet North Korea has shown very little signs of taking these threats seriously. If anything, North Korea has advanced its nuclear weapons program.
What explains this divergence between a well-established theory, a robust set of empirical evidence and North Korea-U.S. relations? Do audiences care about reputation in foreign policy? Probably not. In my recently published research with Nicholas Sambanis, we find that domestic audiences care more about a leader’s perceived competence than their ability to manage the nation’s reputation. In this study, we identify a new mechanism by which audiences evaluate leaders in foreign policy crises and find that existing research overestimates “audience costs.”
Remember this summer, when we were about to go to war with Iran? Iran seized an oil tanker passing through the Persian Gulf. Iran also shot down a US drone. The United States responded by shooting down an Iranian drone flying near a US ship, and nearly launching an air strike against Iran. The United States also expanded sanctions on Iran.
With Trump’s behavior becoming…unpredictable, and hawkish advisers like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo seemingly ascendant in the Administration, some sort of military clash appeared likely. But at some point this likely event kind of…faded away. It’s hard to point to a specific moment–someone backing down, tensions defusing dramatically. The issue just slipped away.
This is a guest post by Linda Monsees who works as a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Goethe University Frankfurt and is the author of Crypto-Politics.
After wars on drugs, Christmas and everything in between, it seems that we people tend to call everything a war – everything despite a real war. But really, we are now in a ‘war on truth’? Politicians, companies, and countries start disinformation campaigns and lots of stories are shared that do not qualify as journalism. And this spread of fake news got us in a ‘war’? I get it, we are still in the process of overcoming the shocks of certain elections that did not end the way many of us would have liked. Combine this shock with a natural technology-angst and this thing called fake news becomes a real threat.
But isn’t the task of a social scientist to take some distance, anaylse, explain and – dare I say? – even give guidance? So what about the ancient wisdom of ‘Don’t Panic’? I get the feeling that much of the academic debate reproduces assumptions about the impact on fake news rather than investigating them. A closer look at empirical research shows that the impact of fake news isn’t that big – fake news do not really seem to change people’s voting behaviour. And well, do I need to tell you that spreading false information for political or economic gains isn’t such a new phenomenon either? If you think about it, fake news are a form of propaganda. Of course, networked technology makes it possible that these news items spread faster than ever before. I am not denying that fake news are a thing, the public discourse might just overrate its impact. So, fake news are widely shared and it certainly shapes current political debates – but maybe not in the way most people think?
Research on fake news has shown that people really do not seem to care too much about the veracity of the stories that they share. In the UK, more than a third of people sharing news admit sharing inaccurate or false news, an insight corobroated by other sociological research. While it surely is a problem when people (and I include myself here) cannot distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news, people seem also be fine with sharing non-true stories. Acknowledging these insights then also means that ‘media literacy’ is not really a solution to the problem. danah boyd actually made this argument in a much nicer way, so check out her article over here. Focusing on media literacy does not acknowledge the underlying political and social problems that might be the source for the spread of fake news. Media literacy is considered to be the right tool to educate people about which kind of news they need to read. But this focus on education makes the problem of fake news one of young and uneducated people. According to this view, media literacy will help people who cannot distinguish between fake and non-fake news to become more educated. Fake news is thus only a problem of ‘them’ – the young and uneducated. The underlying political economy, the importance of clickbait and legitimate political protest are covered up by such a focus on media literacy.
Fake news, post-truth, disinformation will probably just become part of our political vocabulary. This reflects changes in technology and the media culture and even though we feel uncomfortable about this we should maybe listen more to people who have actually done empirical research on this rather than repeating panicked judgements.
Awhile back, when cross-posted here and at Lawyers, Guns and Money to harp on the Game of Thrones denouement, LGM Commenter “Dogboy” clicked a link in that post to this article by Stanford researcher Scott Sagan (with Benjamin Valentino), purporting to show (via survey experiment) that Americans would be fine carpet-bombing civilians in Iran. Dogboy’s rightful reaction: “WTF, WHY DID I CLICK THE LINK?” To which I was happily able to reply, “Don’t worry, I’ve studied this data and the authors are wrong. Stay tuned for my follow-up essay in the next few days.”
It has taken many days to issue my follow-up, partly because, while I was busy completing replications on the Iran study and preparing a rebuttal for publication, Sagan and his team published another similar study on North Korea just before Trump headed over there.
This time, their survey
respondents were not asked to saturation bomb an Iranian city (a flagrant
violation of the Geneva Conventions), but to violate the UN Charter through a
preventive strike on North Korea, with nuclear or conventional weapons
depending on your treatment group, weighing the strategic gains against various
game-theoretic likelihoods of various levels of civilian casualties in both North
and South Korea, ranging from 15,000 to 1.5 million.
Naturally, of course, the mediareported on
this study, published in the Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists and titled “What Do Americans Really Think
About Conflict With Nuclear North Korea? The Answer is Both Reassuring and
Disturbing” by focusing on the DISTURBING: the quote from the article most
frequently mentioned in the media is this one:
“As we have previously found, the U.S. public exhibits only
limited aversion to nuclear weapons use and a shocking willingness to support
the killing of enemy civilians.”
Well, having just
replicated the original Iran study,* and also looked closely at this new North
Korea one, I can tell Dogboy and everyone else that
we can (mostly) relax. Here’s why: what Sagan’s team calls “disturbing” is not
really that disturbing, and even if it is, the “Reassuring” way outranks the
“Disturbing” in statistical terms. Below are three reasons why you shouldn’t
worry too much about the blood-thirstiness of your fellow Americans.
“A Large Hawkish Minority
Lurks.” Basically, Sagan’s team found Trump supporters are happy
to bomb foreigners. Why the authors want to focus on (or have the media focus
on) the minority of voters who would support war crimes over the large majority
of Americans that don’t is unclear. But what they find “disturbing” is these
voters also appear “appear insensitive to informational cues that most security
experts would expect to reduce such levels of support.”
Voters may ‘appear’ that way, however, because
Sagan and his team did not include ‘informational cues’ on knowledge or
exposure to the Geneva Conventions in their experiment – something lots of
‘security experts’ including my co-author and I found matters tremendously in
such matters. Indeed, when we replicated the original Iran Study we found that
providing these cues reverses the result on saturation bombing:
What this means is that in real life, where
international and domestic human rights groups (plus generals) would invoke the
Geneva Conventions or UN Charter, support for these acts would be much lower
than a carefully controlled survey experiment might suggest.
“A Shocking Willingness to
Support Killing Civilians.” No. Absolutely not. What they found is
that a large majority of Americans (77%) opposed killing civilians, whether or
not this was done through conventional bombing or nuclear weapons. Again, this
is “reassuring” not “disturbing” and it is also entirely consistent with the
Geneva Conventions, which prohibit killing civilians no matter what weapons you
This new North Korea
finding is actually consistent with what Alex Montgomery and I found on our
replication of the original Iran study, as reported in this companion piece in Foreign Policy on audience
reactions to the firebombing of King’s Landing: the vast majority of Americans
believe it’s wrong to target civilians under any circumstances.
“A Strong Retributive Streak?” Sagan and his team also write that, even though “the majority of Americans do not want President Trump to return to threats to attack North Korea,” there is a “strong retributive streak in US public opinion.”
This is a stretch. On the original Iran study, the authors developed this claim, because they found that among those willing to bomb the city, some Americans used a sort of “they deserve what they get” or “bomb them all” kind of explanation. On our replication, we found that only a minority of Americans really preferred to target civilians once you control for framing effects embedded in the original prompt, and of those that only a tiny minority (12%) evinced this sort of mentality when we studied the open-ended comments explaining the answers. This dropped to 6% if we gave an open-ended version of the question itself, rather than forcing respondents to choose between terrible options:
Now that’s an augmented
replication of the original Iran study. In the new North Korea study, Sagan and
his team argue death penalty support predicts retributive attitudes toward
civilians and maybe so (we haven’t explored that), but this is hardly a
“disturbing” finding about Americans, since death penalty support is at
The Media Does Like
Whether these findings
are legitimately disturbing or not, the media sure latched on to the claim that
they were, and circulated the erroneous conclusion that this means Americans
are happy to kill civilians – just as they did when the original (and flawed)
Iran study came out.
This is a shame because
what Americans think about what other Americans think can actually influence
what Americans think – and that can influence what policymakers do. If the
media’s misappropriation of this survey finding, due to a carelessly worded
title in a research paper, leads Americans to think many of their countrymen
are fine disregarding the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions, that
really is terrifying. Because research shows those rules are sometimes
the thin red line encouraging restraint in war.
Here’s my argument: Late 80s/early 90s Soviet Union. The United Kingdom in 2016. The United States 2016 to now. Three contemporary examples of international suicide that conventional IR neither predicted nor can account.
Ok, so perhaps suicide is too hyperbolic a concept and we should go with appetite for self-destruction . Certainly in the case of the Soviet Union any agential claim regarding the state is overdrawn. But either way I think there is a point here. All three states, and particularly the last two, undertook an internally driven diminution of international standing and capacity—dare I say, power.
It seems like good times have come around again for realists. After decades in the theoretical and empirical doldrums (getting end of Cold War wrong, opposition to war in Iraq, terrorism and COIN) realism is back. The most recent U.S. National Defense Strategy renews a focus on great power competition, specifically with China and Russia. The Pentagon has offloaded MRAPs and is stocking up on boost phase interceptors, hypersonics, and other weapons platforms not all that useful against insurgents but great for peer competitors. Oh, happy days for the balance of power!
airstrikes near Balakot inside the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
on the 26th of February, and Pakistani
airstrikes in response, have created anxiety because nuclear conflict lies
at the end of a steep escalation ladder. India was retaliating against a Valentine’s
Day suicide attack
on a convoy of paramilitary forces in Pulwama, in Indian-administered Kashmir,
in which 42 were killed.
Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM), one of several Pakistan-based militant
groups operating against the Indian state in Kashmir, claimed
responsibility. Indian retaliation targeted
a madrassa thought to affiliated to JeM in Pakistan. India’s position is that because
groups like JeM are proxies of the Pakistani state, crossborder strikes are
justified as a means of preemptive
self-defense combatting terrorism.
This dynamic highlights both the uses and hazards of proxies
as a tool of crossborder coercive statecraft. It follows a long and ignominious
tradition of the use of proxies to weaken strategic competitors that has recent
roots in Cold War competition, and has been used by both India and Pakistan. I
argue that Pakistan’s use of proxies is becoming increasingly counterproductive
as a tool for enhancing its own security by diminishing its neighbor’s, even as
recent Indian policies toward Kashmir have created an environment hospitable for
This week has seen a number of key events and crises in
global politics that have made crystal clear once again the careening mess that
is US foreign policy under the current administration. The Trump administration
has no real overarching strategy—the argument that allies in Europe and
elsewhere should bear more of the costs of their defense was not articulated as
part of any coherent broader vision—and gutting of the diplomatic corps has
left the US devoid of expertise and key actors to confront crises when they
First, there were two big stories around nuclear powers this
week. The biggest being India and Pakistan’s clashes, which came on the heels
of a suicide bombing attack on Indian troops in Kashmir by a local man that was
claimed by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. In a scenario that Toby Dalton and George Perkovichworried
about and predicted, an air raid by India into Pakistan resulted in bombs
dropped on an open field, with two Indian planes apparently shot down, and one
airman captured. Pakistan responded with a raid of its own across the Line of
Control in Kashmir, sparking fears
of escalation between the two nuclear-armed states. The Indian raid marked
the first known aerial attack by one nuclear power on the territory of another.
The United States is the safest country in the world. It has vast ocean moats to the east and west and weak friendly neighbors to the north and south. It has sufficient resources to shun global trade should it so choose. It is also the wealthiest and strongest country the world has ever seen.
The heaviest foreign policy costs it has paid in the 20th and 21st centuries have come from self-inflicted wounds. The war in Vietnam. The war on Afghanistan. The war on Iraq. Those have had terribly high human, economic, resources, moral, and opportunity costs. Each of those wars was a choice made by U.S. presidents.
With the resignation of Secretary of Defense Mattis some have become more concerned about competitor states taking advantage of the chaos within the U.S. administration. Continue reading
The United States is closing in on the 18th anniversary of its first wartime death in Afghanistan, that of CIA operative Mike Spann, providing a melancholy opportunity to emphasize the role of grand strategy as a policymaking tool. To this end, I ask why the United States has done relatively poorly in so many of its so-called small wars, wars against much weaker adversaries. Its poor record is surprising because the United States has done so well in its major wars, including the world wars, the Korean War, and the Cold War.
Some of the United States’ smaller wars have gone as planned. The invasion of Grenada and replacement of its leftist government in 1983 was quick. The attack on Panama to replace President Noriega in 1989-1990 was also relatively short and low cost for the United States. Some small wars (small from the great power perspective, of course) have not turned out quite as planned, but have also not escalated significantly either vertically or horizontally, or in costs. These include the humanitarian military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Why should Iraq and Afghanistan still drag on, then, when the United States and its allies are fighting weak non-state actors whose ideologies hold little appeal? Why did the U.S. intervention against insurgents in Vietnam last 21 years? Why did its intervention against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement, which started out stealing and buying its weapons from the Salvadoran military in the Salvadoran civil war, last 13 years?
America is reeling from the horrific attack on a synagogue in Pennsylvania, in which an anti-Semitic man killed 11 people. And we were already reeling from a series of attempted mail bomb attacks by a right-wing man targeting important liberal figures. Meanwhile, another right-wing attack this week in Kentucky was nearly overlooked. Those on the right tend to view these as horrible but isolated events. Those on the left point, rightly, to the vicious rhetoric coming from Donald Trump and some of his Republican allies, as well as the country’s lax gun laws. But I wonder if we should go further: is America facing a right-wing terrorist campaign?
What would this mean? Here is a passage from Bruce Hoffman’s influential Inside Terrorismon the definition of terrorism: “We may therefore now attempt to define terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.” Likewise, Audrey Cronin, in her important book How Terrorism Ends, defined terrorist campaigns as involving “three strategic actors—the group, the government and the audience—arrayed in a kind of terrorist ‘triad.’”
This post comes from Bridging the Gap co-director Jordan Tama, Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University.
American presidents have typically been more internationalist than the average member of Congress. For instance, many presidents have struggled to persuade Congress to approve important international agreements or increase spending on diplomacy and foreign assistance. Scholars of U.S. foreign policy have provided a compellingexplanation for this pattern: since voters hold presidents more accountable than members of Congress for the country’s overall welfare and security, presidents have a stronger incentive than lawmakers to advance broad national interests through overseas engagement.
Under Donald Trump, however, this pattern has been stood on its head. As Trump has sought to advance his “America first” agenda by pulling back from international commitments, Congress has at times become the country’s strongest voice for maintaining and deepening overseas ties. This has been evident in the rejection by Congress of Trump’s proposals to cut the State Department’s budget by one-third, the reaffirmation by Congress of the U.S. commitment to NATO, and the restriction by Congress of the president’s ability to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea.
Yet simply labeling elected officials as internationalist or the term’s opposite (nationalist or isolationist) fails to capture a lot of the nuance in their foreign policy positions. In a terrific new Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, Beyond the Water’s Edge: Measuring the Internationalism of Congress, a team led by Kathleen Hicks, Louis Lauter, and Colin McElhinny looks under the surface of recent foreign policy debates to explore congressional internationalism in depth. The report is based on an impressive set of original research, including case studies of recent congressional activity in several foreign policy issue areas and detailed profiles of a representative sample of 50 members of Congress.
Importantly, the study finds that internationalism is more widespread in Congress than one might think. Continue reading
The news out of Kandahar is pretty awful: the top leadership of the province was killed in an apparent attempt to kill General Austin Miller, the commander of US and NATO forces in the country. There is not many details, but the WashPost account is suggestive of some key dynamics and challenges.
In under two weeks, Brazil will have the second round of its presidential election. Former military officer and fan of fascists Jair Bolsonaro looks set after a strong first-round showing to defeat Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad. If he wins, Bolsonaro will have strong party backing in Congress, though he does not care much for the legislature—in 1999, Bolsonaro said Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship “should have killed 30,000 people more, starting with Congress and [then-President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso.” Bolsonaro’s running mate is retired General Hamilton Mourão, his planning adviser and likely Minister of Transport is General Oswaldo Ferreira, an anti-environmentalist who looks for inspiration to infrastructure projects enacted by Brazil’s military government, and Bolsonaro has promised to stack his cabinet with generals. Current and retired military officers have been prominent backers of Bolsonaro, and Bolsonaro announced that he would not accept any result other than victory, menacingly saying “I cannot speak for military” but that there “could be a reaction by the Armed Forces” if he lost and deemed it due to PT fraud (never mind that the PT is not currently in power).
As Michael Albertus highlighted, the military is returning to Brazilian politics in a big way. While the military in Argentina was punished for its dictatorial Dirty War, elites with ties to dictatorship never faced sanctions or fully left the political scene in countries like Brazil and Chile. In Brazil, civilian leaders managed to weaken the military during the transition to democracy, but it retained a broad scope of activities, including internal security and development, especially in combating the drug trade, a mission with which current President Michel Temer tasked the military earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro spent his time as a representative in Congress “interested in helping the military above all else,” and his message that he will restore law and order both resonates with a Brazilian public fed up with high rates of violent crime and with a military keen to reassert itself. Continue reading
The disappearance and suspected murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi this month has led to calls for the US to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. President Trump has ignored these calls, saying “it would not be acceptable to me” to cease arms sales to Saudi Arabia because doing so would hurt the US economy. Arms sales have been a remarkably consistent news topic, from discussions about US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, to the recent grounding of the F-35 fleet, to disputes with Turkey about its arms purchases. This is, on the one hand, unsurprising: the United States sold $55.6 billion in weapons in the 2018 fiscal year, a 33 percent jump from the previous year. Yet the way the Trump administration talks about arms sales in terms of their sheer market and economic value reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the political stakes of arms sales.
The issues surrounding the F-35 are instructive. From potentially decapitating pilots to recognized hardware issues, the F-35 has become a favorite (if too easy) punching bag in the defense community. Despite issues with the F-35’s capabilities, the plane is still a sought-after weapon – and not just because states have already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into developing and producing it.
The recent fighting between the US and Turkey over Turkey’s F-35 procurement illustrates the political stakes of such deals. Turkish companies produce components for the F-35, and Turkey is supposed to receive at least 20 of the planes. But in December 2017 Turkey purchased the Russian-produced S-400 missile defense system and, in response, the US Senate wanted to prohibit Turkey from acquiring the F-35. There is some concern that the S-400 will be able to collect intelligence about the F-35’s capabilities – and send this information back to Russia.
Yet much of the debate concerns the broader political problems of Turkey buying the S-400. States treat arms transfers as signals of foreign policy alignment: Turkey’s deal with Russia drove home its deteriorating relationship with the US and European States.
This political salience is reflected in statements by US and other policy-makers about the arms sale. US Assistant Secretary of State Weiss Mitchell said, “We can’t be any clearer in saying, both privately and publicly: a decision on S-400s will qualitatively change the US-Turkish relationship in a way that would be very difficult to repair.” Similarly, US Senator James Lankford said, “Turkey has gone a long way from being a NATO ally and an important partner in working against terrorism, to the situation today.” US allies are taking Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 as a symbol of rift between Turkey and the West, with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute calling it “meltdown in relations between Turkey and the US.” Israel has repeatedly expressed its concern about Turkey to the United States, arguing that allowing Turkey to get the F-35 would reward its bad behavior, and that Turkey should no longer be considered a “real” NATO member.
The political effects of the plane on the U.S.–Turkey relationship are independent of its military capabilities and will not change even though the entire F-35 fleet was grounded yesterday. The F-35 is, if nothing else, a status symbol that reflects the strength of political ties between states that have it.
As a signal of alignment, arms sales have wide-ranging consequences. Turkey’s simultaneous pursuit of the F-35 and the S-400 has emboldened other US friends to do the same. What was once unthinkable – US-friendly states actively courting Russian weapon systems – is becoming increasingly common. India, which was recently designated a Major Defense Partner by the United States, also signed a deal to get the S-400 and Saudi Arabia, a US ally, has hinted its interest in getting the S-400 as well.
Arms deals are much more than the transfer of military capability. Nor can they be thought of purely in economic terms. But – in responding to calls to suspend arms transfers to Saudi Arabia for its air campaigns in Yemen or, this week, for its supposed murder of Jamal Khashoggi – Trump has chosen to emphasize the economic consequences of halting arms transfers: “We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country,” he said. “Part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems and everybody’s wanting them. And frankly I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
Even if Saudi Arabia proved the crucial market to keeping US production lines open, Trump is overlooking the foreign policy signal that the arms sales send. By continuing to supply Saudi Arabia with arms, the US is tacitly endorsing Saudi actions. Congress should, at the very least, suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The State Department approved $1 billion worth of sales to the kingdom in March – delaying the transfer of TOW anti-tank missiles would be one clear way to signal US displeasure with Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, why should Saudi Arabia cooperate with investigations into the disappearance of Khashoggi, or modify its policy in Yemen? In the realm of international politics, talk is cheap; actions matter. Cutting off arms sales or switching suppliers is one way states can signal their dissatisfaction with partners, as Turkey so clearly did by purchasing the S-400. The political stakes of arms sales are high – and it is crucial that policymakers consider that political significance in their arms sales decision calculus along with economic and military considerations.