Protest projection: Part II

class=”MuiTypography-root-135 MuiTypography-h1-140″>Protest projection: Part II

In this week's Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, Sam Ratner takes a deep dive into new research on what happens when Chinese political prisoners make an appeal to an international audience.

Inkstick MediaJanuary 19, 2022 · 3:15 PM EST

Activists shout slogans to mark anniversary of death of Chinese Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo outside a district court in Hong Kong, Monday, July 13, 2020. 

Vincent Yu/AP

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

Last week on Deep Dive, we looked at some of the unintended consequences for domestic protest movements of being observed by international actors. This week, we’ll look at new research on what happens when domestic protesters very much intend to be observed by the outside world.

Related: Protest projection: Part I

If you are being held in custody by a government because that government perceives you as a political threat, then it is near impossible to appeal to that government’s sense of legal responsibility to gain your freedom.

The whole concept of a political prisoner is, in some basic sense, internationalized. If you are being held in custody by a government because that government perceives you as a political threat, then it is near impossible to appeal to that government’s sense of legal responsibility to gain your freedom. Jailing political prisoners rarely seems absurd to the government doing the jailing. To international audiences, however, the logics of power preservation behind jailing political opponents are often painfully obvious. For that reason, many political prisoners make direct appeals to international audiences in hopes of aid in securing their release.

Related: Struggle for self-determination: Part I

Wei Jingsheng was released as part of China’s effort to win the competition to host the 2000 Olympics, and credited international pressure for helping achieve his freedom. Liu Xiaobo, conversely, died incarcerated despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize.

In a recent article in International Studies Quarterly, political scientist Jamie Gruffydd-Jones takes up the question of what happens once those appeals go out into the world. Gruffydd-Jones studies China, and the focus of his article is on political prisoners there. Chinese dissidents like Wei Jingsheng and Liu Xiaobo have gained international fame and recognition for both their activism and their roles as the faces of China’s carceral approach to deterring dissent. Yet, as Gruffydd-Jones notes, despite both being international causes celebres, Wei and Liu’s stories ended very differently. Wei was released as part of China’s effort to win the competition to host the 2000 Olympics, and credited international pressure for helping achieve his freedom. Liu, conversely, died incarcerated despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize.

Related: Struggle for self-determination: Part II

Drawing from a database of Chinese political prisoners who between 1994 and 2017 who have sought local, national, or international attention for their cases, researcher Jamie Gruffydd-Jones coded whether each case was highlighted by international human rights groups, major international media outlets, or the US State Department.

Gruffydd-Jones takes a data-driven approach to understanding why some international awareness efforts produce results like the campaign for Wei, and why some end in failure. Drawing from a database of Chinese political prisoners who between 1994 and 2017 who have sought local, national, or international attention for their cases, he coded whether each case was highlighted by international human rights groups, major international media outlets, or the US State Department. He then compared the level of international attention each case received to its outcome – namely, were the prisoners released before completing their sentences.

International attention does help free Chinese political prisoners, but only if it comes early in the process.

The answer is that international attention does help free Chinese political prisoners, but only if it comes early in the process. Early international publicity made it 70% more likely that a prisoner would be released before they had been sentenced. Once a Chinese court passed down a sentence, however, the effect of international publicity disappeared. If anything, attention from abroad after a prisoner had been sentenced actually reduced their chances for early release. 

International pressure has also become less effective over time in China.

International pressure has also become less effective over time in China. The effect of all forms of international pressure was higher between 1994 and 2007 than between 2008 and 2014, but the change in the effect of State Department involvement is particularly striking. Up until 2007, being mentioned by the State Department made it slightly more likely that a Chinese political prisoner would receive early release. Since 2008, the impact of a State Department mention is unambiguously negative. As China has grown economically stronger, it appears, its resistance to pressure on human rights issues — especially from the US — has increased.

Naysayers who suggest that any outside pressure will result in the Chinese government merely doubling down on repression to save face appear, at least in pre-sentencing cases, to be wrong.

Gruffydd-Jones’ study is, ultimately, good news for human rights activists. It offers strong evidence that even the most powerful human rights abusers can be pressured to do the right thing in the correct circumstances. Naysayers who suggest that any outside pressure will result in the Chinese government merely doubling down on repression to save face appear, at least in pre-sentencing cases, to be wrong. The fact that such a shift occurs at sentencing suggests that the limits to international pressure have more to do with domestic political structures than with the strategies used by outside advocates.

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Protest projection: Part 1

class=”MuiTypography-root-135 MuiTypography-h1-140″>Protest projection: Part 1

Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, takes a deep dive into why protests led to military interventions in Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and how those interventions played out.

Inkstick MediaJanuary 13, 2022 · 11:15 AM EST

In this Friday Jan. 20, 2012, file photo, anti-Syrian regime protesters gather at a square as they hold an Arabic banner, center, reading, "Hey, the miserable, the tyrant, what else," during a demonstration at the mountain resort town of Zabadani, Syria, near the Lebanese border. 

AP/File 

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

Most protests are directed against a fairly immediate authority. When you march on a picket line, you’re protesting to get more leverage over your boss. When you and your neighbors fill up your downtown chanting “Black lives matter,” you’re protesting (in part) to get more leverage over your local government and police department. But protests have other audiences, many of which are farther away – physically and conceptually – than the people the protest is aimed at. This week and next on Deep Dive, we’ll look at new research about how protest movements impact third parties.

Related: Foundations of international relations: Part I

Sometimes the audience that takes an interest in your protest isn’t even in your country. That happened to Arab Spring protesters in a variety of different ways. People around the region looked at early protests in Tunisia and took inspiration. Then Twitter took an interest and decided that it was the hero of the protests. In the end, though, for many protesters, it was foreign governments that were among the most effectual audiences for their protests. For protesters in Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, that meant military interventions by foreign powers in response to their protests, most of which have had devastating consequences. 

Related: Foundations of international relations: Part II

Though the uprisings were aimed at securing concessions from governments, the reality of the near-simultaneous uprisings throughout the region changed not just the situation of each individual country but the entire regional order.

In a new article in the journal International Politics, political scientist Shamiran Mako develops a theory about why protests led to interventions in those four countries and why those interventions played out the way they did. In Mako’s telling, though the uprisings in each country were aimed at securing concessions from that country’s government, the reality of the near-simultaneous uprisings throughout the region changed not just the situation of each individual country but the entire regional order. Each individual movement on its own did little to change the international structure, but when they all rose at the same time it upended the regional balance of power.

All of a sudden, regional powers could intervene not just at the level of the state but with the elements of the coalition of groups that, in normal times, formed the state.

With the regional balance of power up in the air due to the protests, Mako argues, regional powers saw opportunities to meddle in their neighbors’ affairs in ways that were not possible before. Because the legitimacy of so many governments had been called into question, all of a sudden regional powers could intervene not just at the level of the state but with the elements of the coalition of groups that, in normal times, formed the state. 

In Yemen, for example, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Saudi-led regional group responded to protests by trying in 2011 to broker a transition that would remove dictator Ali Abdellah Saleh and replace him with another GCC-oriented leader. In a situation where Yemen was the only country in the region undergoing transition, the GCC effort might have succeeded, since there would be little reason for other parties to upset the balance of power. As negotiations continued in the post-Arab Spring era, however, other players joined and initiated or increased their support for other Yemeni factions. Qatar and Turkey backed groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran directed some resources to the Houthis. By 2015, with the Houthis gaining ground militarily and Saudi Arabia responding with direct military intervention, the promise of democratization in Yemen had faded almost completely. Instead, the country had become a battleground for factions seeking to stake or expand their claim to a piece of the new regional order being born. 

Basically, chaos is a ladder, but ladders go both up and down. Foreign powers pay particular attention to domestic social movements because, when successful, they create moments when the rules of the international game can change.

Basically, chaos is a ladder, but ladders go both up and down. Foreign powers pay particular attention to domestic social movements because, when successful, they create moments when the rules of the international game can change. In the Arab Spring, the pace and scale of the rule changes created incentives for regional and world powers to target states that could be profitably be divvied up into factions. For people in those states, who began protesting hoping to resolve the contradictions in their societies, the effect of foreign intervention was often disastrous. 

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Foundations of international relations: Part II

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>Foundations of international relations: Part II

How do philanthropic foundations get involved in international climate policy — and what kinds of reforms do they favor? Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, takes a deep dive into this question this week.  

Inkstick MediaJanuary 5, 2022 · 3:15 PM EST

Philanthropist Bill Gates attends the World Leaders' Summit "Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment," at the COP26 Summit, in Glasgow, Scotland, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. 

Jeff J. Mitchell/AP/Pool

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

Last week in Deep Dive, we looked at research on the role foundations do (or, perhaps more accurately, do not) play in democratization around the world. This week, we’ll look at an issue area where the philanthropic arms of the worlds’ super rich claim to have a greater impact: climate change. 

Related: Foundations of international relations: Part I

Capitalism has not yet produced its first green billionaire, and maybe it never will.

In some ways, climate is a natural area for foundations to work in. For one thing, the uber rich are outrageously more responsible for climate change than the average human. Even aside from the carbon footprint of private jets, vanity space programs, and other trappings of supervillainy, the fact remains that even the most low-key billionaire burned a lot of carbon to get where they are. Capitalism has not yet produced its first green billionaire, and maybe it never will. If foundations are meant to turn the assets of the super rich into good for the world, climate work offers an opportunity to mitigate some of the harms that generated those assets.

Related: Glasgow summit pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies faces an uphill battle

For another, it is largely the interests of the super rich that will be affected by climate mitigation efforts. With their funders’ skin in the game, foundations have an extra incentive to insert themselves into international climate action. It’s that impulse that political scientist Edouard Morena wrote about in a recent article in the journal International Politics. Morena dug into the archives to track how foundations involved themselves in international climate policy and what kinds of reforms they favored. 

He found that foundations in the US (where they play an outsized role in policymaking compared to the role of foundations in other democracies) played two key roles in bringing international climate action to the point it is at today. The first, arguably positive, is that foundations worked diligently to bring the US into dialogue with the rest of the world about climate and to keep it at the table. The US — the largest historical carbon emitter in the world and still a massive contributor to fossil fuel output — has long been reluctant to consider the kinds of reforms that are necessary to avert ecological catastrophe. Dating back to the 1980s, longstanding US foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation funded efforts that created key climate organizations like the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC). The Rockefeller Brothers Fund acted as behind-the-scenes dealmakers to protect the IPCC and UNFCCC from fatal interference from US government figures that had an interest in climate denial. 

Related: World leaders pledged to end forest loss. What will it take?

In the late 1990s, the structure of US philanthropy in the climate space began to change.

In the late 1990s, however, the structure of US philanthropy in the climate space began to change. The rise of Silicon Valley and the gobs of cash that came with it brought new players to the table. The Gates’ and Moores were no more eager to pay taxes than the Rockefellers or Fords had been, so a new generation of foundations was born. These new foundations, however, had a different political bent than their predecessors. Still interested in climate issues, they wanted to pursue action on climate through programming that emphasized, rather than limited, capitalist approaches. The “greed is good” method of climate mitigation sought to find technological and market solutions to emissions issues, hoping that the prospect of getting rich on green energy would drive transformational innovation. These approaches were hugely influential — by 2012, the five foundations that most backed these approaches accounted for $350 million of the $450 million being spent annually on climate mitigation philanthropy.

Market-based approaches to climate mitigation demand much less change to the US economic structure than the top-down approaches advocated by progressives, and there is little to suggest that they will yield the same emissions reductions that more drastic reforms could produce.

The advocates of this new approach worked diligently to freeze out activists who argued for more drastic, government imposed curbs on carbon emissions. A 2015 publication by a coalition of “greed is good” advocates lumped together climate deniers and “climate idealists… frustrated with the progress made to date… in light of the necessary emissions reductions required” as equally dangerous to the movement to limit climate change. Their spending power and their targeting of more progressive voices has, Moreno found, served to keep the interest of the US (and, by extension, its billionaires) front and center in the climate debate. Market-based approaches to climate mitigation demand much less change to the US economic structure than the top-down approaches advocated by progressives, and there is little to suggest that they will yield the same emissions reductions that more drastic reforms could produce. As people in the US and around the world become more concerned about climate change, and appetite for drastic change increases among the average person, the role of foundations involved in climate advocacy in protecting the interests of billionaire funders should not be overlooked.

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Monetary policy by other means: Part II

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>Monetary policy by other means: Part II

Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, takes a deep dive this week into the security effects of keeping orderly budgets. Fighting a war requires raising money, and raising money requires convincing potential donors and lenders that you’re a good investment risk.

Inkstick MediaDecember 22, 2021 · 5:15 PM EST

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, speaks with European Commissioner for Budget and Administration Johannes Hahn during a meeting of the College of Commissioners at EU headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. 

Virginia Mayo/AP/Pool

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

Last week on Deep Dive, we focused on new research about how an independent central bank can be an asset for countries trying to put down rebellions within their borders. This week, we’ll look at the security effects of another mechanism that countries use to signal financial stability: Keeping their budgets in order.

Related: Monetary policy by other means: Part I

Fighting a war requires raising money, and raising money requires convincing potential donors and lenders that you’re a good investment risk.

Fighting a war requires raising money, and raising money requires convincing potential donors and lenders that you’re a good investment risk. When countries go abroad to raise war funds, an independent central bank can help convince creditors that their loans will be repaid before the country’s financial system goes belly up. When countries raise money at home, however, the result depends more on the public’s faith in the country’s fiscal policy than its monetary policy. When people get taxed, they want to be able to tell where the money goes. When they can’t, they tend to get restless.

For political scientists Gary Cox and Mark Dincecco, the most basic element of a sound fiscal policy is what they call a “credible budget.”

For political scientists Gary Cox and Mark Dincecco, the most basic element of a sound fiscal policy is what they call a “credible budget.” This means a budget that the state is legally required to produce, has a defined length (usually a year), and can be evaluated by some sort of representative body. In short, the state should be able to show how much it wants to spend, how long it will take to spend it, and be willing to take questions about why it is spending $1.7 trillion on bad jets.

Cox and Dincecco take that definition for a spin in their new article in the Journal of Politics, where they use the experience of states in early modern Europe to test whether credible budgets lead to improved performance in wars. In that period, when European states were still consolidating their power and state institutions were frequently in flux, there was considerable variation in how states arranged their fiscal affairs. One thing everyone agreed on, however, was that spending more money made you more likely to win wars. Most leaders of the era saw wars as essentially spending contests — whoever could bring more cash to bear would win in the end.

In states that took on credible budget structures, not only did peacetime spending increase but wartime expenditures grew some 38% beyond peacetime levels.

By tracking the fiscal structure of 10 European powers, Cox and Dincecco measured how moving toward budget credibility affected both state spending in wartime and the outcomes of the wars the states were involved in. The numbers they come up with are pretty convincing. In states with no credible budgets, wars resulted in hardly any added expenditure. Rather than finding ways to raise more money, rulers demanded in-kind contributions to the war effort from their subjects, including labor and conscription. In states that took on credible budget structures, however, not only did peacetime spending increase but wartime expenditures grew some 38% beyond peacetime levels.

That massive increase in spending bought victories. Studying wars that states with credible budgets fought against those without them, Cox and Dincecco find that the states with more advanced fiscal structures won over two thirds of the time. 

Credible budgeting is hardly limited to participatory democracies, and the martial benefits of fiscal responsibility do not fade just because autocracies are the ones being responsible.

The debate Cox and Dincecco are most interested in influencing with their work is over the origin of the apparent advantage democracies have in fighting wars. Some argue that democracies win wars against autocracies because when a state’s population is involved in the decision to go to war, they will offer more inputs to the war effort and extract fewer costs to stand up a fighting force – basically, that participatory democracy makes warmaking go smoother. Others, however, say that what democracy really does is prevent executives from getting involved in stupid wars that they can’t win. By constraining executive power, it incentivises military moves that are actually in the country’s best interest. Cox and Dincecco come down on the latter side. Credible budgeting, they point out, is hardly limited to participatory democracies, and the martial benefits of fiscal responsibility do not fade just because autocracies are the ones being responsible. When any kind of executive is held accountable for their spending choices, the researchers argue, their chances of military success improve.

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How do ‘whole-of-government’ programs actually work? Part II

class=”MuiTypography-root-125 MuiTypography-h1-130″>How do 'whole-of-government' programs actually work? Part II

Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, takes a deep dive into the "whole-of-government" approach to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

The WorldDecember 8, 2021 · 3:15 PM EST

In this Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, file photo, people pass a banner reading "STOP EBOLA," forming part of Sierra Leone's Ebola free campaign in the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone. 

Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/AP/File

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

Last week, we examined research on how members of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan interpreted the idea of “whole-of-government” counterinsurgency in that war. This week, we’ll look at what the obsession with WOG approaches in the US wars of the mid-aughts has wrought in modern public policy: An insistence on utilizing WOG approaches for all kinds of problems. 

Related: How do 'whole-of-government' programs actually work? Part I

The international effort to counter Ebola was a success, preventing a catastrophic outbreak and providing hope — soon to be dashed — that international public health cooperation would be a major feature of 21st century international relations. 

In an article in the journal Development and Practice, US Agency for International Development (USAID) official Megan Rhodes and global health researcher Samuel Boland take a meta look at a recent episode in the US government’s ongoing quest to use its whole self. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the US pledged assistance from a range of agencies to help local governments contain and treat the disease. The agencies would work together, coordinating to offer a “whole-of-government” response to the challenge of Ebola. The international effort to counter Ebola was a success, preventing a catastrophic outbreak and providing hope — soon to be dashed — that international public health cooperation would be a major feature of 21st century international relations. But was it really an example of a successful WOG effort?

Rhodes and Boland examine that question by reading the reports that all the agencies involved in the WOG anti-Ebola campaign produced to grade their own performance. Focusing on reports from the Defense Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, USAID, and the USAID inspector general, they mined the reports and their recommendations for any sort of broad-based (“whole-of-government,” even) agreement about what went right and what could be improved.

Though the Ebola effort may have had the characteristics of a WOG program, the reality is that executive structure in the US remains stubbornly separated into parts of government.

Of course, the fact that each agency has its own report is itself indicative of the trouble with the concept of WOG efforts. As Rhodes and Boland write, “a publicly available, comprehensive review of the [US government’s] ‘whole of government’ response which synthesizes common recommendations and deconflicts differing proposals about the best way forward would represent enormous value,” but none exists. Instead, each agency participating in a style of policy implementation that is supposed to be defined by close cooperation between agencies graded itself on how well it cooperated with others. Though the Ebola effort may have had the characteristics of a WOG program, the reality is that executive structure in the US remains stubbornly separated into parts of government. Indeed, the authors note, “no major relevant institutional reforms of interagency work across DOD, HHS, or USAID have occurred following the West Africa Ebola Epidemic.” 

Most of the reports … noted cultural and communications mismatches between agencies, noting that different agencies often have difficulty sharing plans or observations because the language they use for each is so varied.

Keeping that in mind, it is instructive to look at what all the relevant agencies said they wished they had done to make WOG work more effective. All the reports agreed that work is needed to make clear which agency is responsible for what in WOG operations, due to the duplication of effort and lack of clarity that marks the beginnings of cooperation between agencies that are normally separate. The reports also all agreed that data sharing is crucial, and that the arduous process of un-siloing data is a major drag on creating effective cooperation. Most of the reports also noted cultural and communications mismatches between agencies, noting that different agencies often have difficulty sharing plans or observations because the language they use for each is so varied.

Rhodes and Boland rate the fixes for each of these issues as being technically and logistically doable — even easy in many cases. Yet the fixes, like the overall report on WOG cooperation on Ebola, have not come to pass. The reason for this might be found in last week’s Deep Dive. In that article, Maya Dafinova argued that national politics was the major determinant of commitment to WOG approaches. With political will for interagency cooperation likely to vary, agencies move to protect their resources and reputations rather than restructure to maximize interoperability with others.

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How do ‘whole-of-government’ programs actually work? Part I

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>How do 'whole-of-government' programs actually work? Part I

Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, takes a deep dive into how the implementation of whole-of-government counterinsurgency varied between the Swedish and German experiences in the war in Afghanistan.

Inkstick MediaDecember 1, 2021 · 1:15 PM EST

In this Jan. 28, 2012 file photo, members of the NATO- led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrol west of Kabul, Afghanistan. 

Hoshang Hashimi/AP/File 

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

For the generation who came up in the era of The Surge — the US military’s doomed effort to turn around the Iraq War by adopting a new counterinsurgency strategy, deploying more troops, and taking branding advice from the X Games — one piece of defense-speak that sticks in the brain is the cursed phrase “whole-of-government.” We heard it hundreds of times, in press conferences, congressional testimony, and (for the nerdy among us) doctrine — counterinsurgents need to take a “whole-of-government” approach to counterinsurgency. For people still involved in insurgency studies and US policymaking around foreign security assistance, it’s still around, being used as a gold standard for other countries facing internal rebellions to live up to. 

But… does it mean anything? If we set aside the alarming connotations of a literal interpretation of the phrase “whole-of-government approach to counterinsurgency” — mail carriers delivering cash bundles to Shiite militias in Baghdad, park rangers marking trails for special operations forces to follow on night raids — what are we left with? How much of government is actually included in a “whole-of-government” effort, and how do different divisions of government coordinate? Those are the questions we’ll take on this week and next on Deep Dive, looking at research on how putatively whole-of-government programs actually function.

A new article in the European Journal of International Security by political scientist Maya Dafinova examines how the implementation of whole-of-government (which she mercifully shortens to “WOG,” an innovation we will also adopt going forward) counterinsurgency varied between the Swedish and German experiences in the war in Afghanistan. As Dafinova points out, the essence of WOG is in increasing cooperation, coordination, and coherence within a range of government agencies that extend beyond just the military. Within the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, many members pursued WOG approaches to their deployments, but results were all over the map. Dafinova looks at differences within governments as potential causes of the variation in how WOG worked out.

Both Germany and Sweden are parliamentary democracies with coalition governments — that is, the government is made up of multiple parties that negotiate how they are going to govern. Dafinova hypothesized that those coalition negotiations might condition how WOG efforts function even more than politics within the bureaucracies that would actually be doing the coordinating. In other words, it might matter less whether the defense ministry, the foreign ministry, and the development fund all got along and more whether the defense minister’s party, the foreign minister’s party, and the development fund director’s party got along. 

In interviews with nearly 50 people on both civilian and military sides of the Swedish and German deployments in Afghanistan, Dafinova found that shifts in how WOG was prioritized and interpreted correlated very closely to shifts in the governing coalition of each country.

In interviews with nearly 50 people on both civilian and military sides of the Swedish and German deployments in Afghanistan, Dafinova found that shifts in how WOG was prioritized and interpreted correlated very closely to shifts in the governing coalition of each country. In Sweden, when right wing parties gained more power, military and civilian officials felt more pressure to collaborate and pursue synergies in their work. When the left was ascendant, attention on WOG approaches waned and the debate turned to the value of having a military role in Afghanistan at all. That left the civilian and military bureaucracies to sort out cooperation among themselves – a recipe for little cooperation to take place. The Swedish International Development Corporation Agency even went so far as to limit its staff’s ability to interact with the military, worried that WOG approaches would just lead to their tactical cooptation by the defense ministry.

By 2010, a focus on WOG approaches was a crucial factor in allowing the German government — deeply ambivalent about its role in the US-led war on terror — that its involvement in Afghanistan was not fundamentally a matter of military intervention.

In Germany, the story was different but the importance of coalition politics was just as great. In contrast to Sweden, in Germany WOG approaches were a significant bargaining chip in coalition negotiations. In 2005, the left-leaning Green Party traded their vote on a missile defense integration program for moving €10 million from the defense budget to the Provincial Development Fund, a major vehicle for civilian-led intervention in Afghanistan. By 2010, a focus on WOG approaches was a crucial factor in allowing the German government — deeply ambivalent about its role in the US-led war on terror — that its involvement in Afghanistan was not fundamentally a matter of military intervention. 

In all, Dafinova found, the presentation of the WOG concept as an apolitical commitment to uniting military and civilian instruments of national power bore little resemblance to the way WOG approaches were actually implemented. The pressure for military and civilian agencies to work together was highly conditioned on the state of national politics, and subject to the same horse trading and ideological demands as any other political issue. In the end, the government referred to in “whole-of-government” is less the bureaucracies at the operational level of the state and more the political coalitions atop it.

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Political climate: Part II

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>Political climate: Part II

Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, takes a deep dive into how the US military might be bad for the planet: It's the single-largest petroleum consumer in the world and is also the largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Inkstick MediaNovember 17, 2021 · 3:30 PM EST

In this Sept. 29, 2021, file photo, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. A new Pentagon plan calls for incorporating the realities of a hotter, harsher Earth at every level in the US military. 

Rod Lamkey/AP/Pool

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

Last week on Deep Dive, we looked at new research on why people who are worried about the security implications of the shift toward renewable energy need to take a deep breath. This week, we’ll investigate the geographic center of the tension between climate security anxiety and climate change denial: the United States Department of Defense.

Related: Political climate: Part I

The sheer perverseness of the relationship between the Pentagon and climate action is hard to overstate. On one hand, the Pentagon is, in a very real sense, the problem. The US military is the single-largest petroleum consumer in the world and also the largest greenhouse gas emitter. If the Defense Department was a country, it would be the 55th-largest carbon emitting country in the world, worse than Morocco, a country with 37 million people. US military might, in other words, is bad for the planet.

On the other hand, due to a strange quirk of US politics, the Pentagon is charged with managing the problem – or at least its secondary consequences. The US government is worried about the effects of climate change on the international security environment, and has charged the arch-polluters over at the Defense Department with making sure that none of those effects blow up in the national face. In planning and national strategy documents, the Pentagon is required to explain how it will burn more fossil fuels to limit the security fallout of burning fossil fuels. 

A new article by researchers Mackenzie Burnett and Katherine Mach in the journal Global Environmental Change interrogates this contradiction. The authors reviewed a range of national security documents and conducted 42 interviews with climate security researchers and Pentagon national security practitioners to understand how climate issues actually get treated inside the five sided puzzle palace.

Even among the Defense Department planners who personally believed that climate change is an urgent issue, most felt that their colleagues saw it as a concern for the future and a low priority.

In some ways, the researchers and the practitioners had similar approaches to thinking about climate and security. They agree that climate change is real, and that it poses a major threat in the form of both natural disasters and political upheaval. However, they also disagree on some main points. Researchers all understand that the effects of climate change are upon us already, and that the threats it poses will manifest in the short term as well as the long term. Practitioners, conversely, were much less likely to see climate change as a short term threat. Even among the Defense Department planners who personally believed that climate change is an urgent issue, most felt that their colleagues saw it as a concern for the future and a low priority. Indeed, practitioners rated the importance of climate in their work a 3.67 out of 10. Researchers averaged 7.05 out of 10. 

Even the practitioners Burnett and Mach spoke to agreed that this disconnect is a policy problem for the Defense Department. Though part of the challenge of taking climate seriously at the Pentagon is political – researchers and practitioners both agreed that the Trump administration reduced focus on climate, a perception borne out by the distinct drop in the number of Pentagon documents discussing the issue – the lack of focus on the problem inside the Department is also institutional. In their interviews, many practitioners volunteered that climate awareness in the Pentagon has not kept pace with increased concern about the issue in the general public. As a result, climate discussions lack urgency, and climate is only applied selectively as a justification for future planning.

Of course, climate issues have been getting kicked down the road for years and years at this point. The US Navy formed a Task Force on Climate Change in 2009 – a move that felt overdue then – only to see it disbanded in 2019. Until political momentum inside and outside the Pentagon align, there will likely be no moment at which the long term concerns of the practitioners suddenly become short term concerns. The Pentagon still has a long way to go to come to terms with its role as both a polluter and a manager of pollution’s ill effects.

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Political climate: Part I

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>Political climate: Part I

Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, takes a deep dive into the political and climate risks of fossil fuel production.

Inkstick MediaNovember 10, 2021 · 5:00 PM EST

A flare burns natural gas at an oil well on Aug. 26, 2021, in Watford City, North Dakota. A new federal report released Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, says fossil fuel extraction from federal lands produced more than 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases last year. 

Matthew Brown/file/AP

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

Happy COP26 to those who celebrate. As world leaders fiddle in Glasgow, Scotland, this week and next on Deep Dive we’ll look at new research on how real action on climate change could shift global politics in ways that would upend some of the basic assumptions we hold about what drives conflict and insecurity around the world.

The discourse about transitions away from fossil fuel is, frankly, bizarre. If the current rate of fossil fuel emissions continues, the world is careening toward climate disaster. Yet much of the discussion about shifting toward other energy sources focuses not on the benefits of averting the monstrous effects of over 2 degrees of warming but on the dangers of the new supply chains that will be required to support a renewable energy economy. If everyone needs batteries, the thinking goes, then lithium and graphite production could become as divisive as oil and coal production is today.

In a new article in the journal Energy Research and Social Science, researchers Jim Krane and Robert Idel urge everyone who is freaking out about wars over wind turbine production to chill. They make a compelling argument that, while expanding renewable energy production and use will require new supply chains, investments, and forms of resource extraction, the political risks of those new operations pale in comparison to the political risks (to say nothing of the climate risks) of fossil fuel production.

Their argument hinges on a major difference between renewable energy systems and fossil fuel energy systems: When you make an internal combustion engine you keep having to fill it with gas, but when you make a solar panel, you’re done. That is, once you’ve gathered the initial inputs to make renewable energy generation, all the risk around energy access falls away. As long as you’ve got sun or wind or waves or the inexorable process of nuclear decay, you don’t need to worry about refilling your power source.

That kind of political risk around fossil fuels drives a lot of political calculations about international security issues, from the Strait of Hormuz to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

This is in sharp contrast to the way fossil fuel economies work. Most of the risk in fossil fuels derives not from the production of energy-generating facilities, but from market shocks to the inputs for those facilities. It isn’t hard to source the steel to make cars, but if major gasoline refineries go offline then the costs of driving can jump significantly. When Russia wants to mess with the EU, it doesn’t restrict its exports of natural gas power plants, it restricts its exports of natural gas. That kind of political risk around fossil fuels drives a lot of political calculations about international security issues, from the Strait of Hormuz to the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

As Krane and Idel point out, those risks just don’t apply to renewable energy production. If political actors found some way to halt, say, lithium production, people who were already driving around cars with lithium batteries would face exactly zero inconvenience or economic cost. There would be price increases in future production to be sure, but once the infrastructure of renewable energy use is in place it becomes very difficult to target. And indeed, as with fossil fuels, it is difficult for producers of minerals crucial to renewable energy production to effectively restrict their sale.

In 2010, China — a major producer of so-called “rare earth metals” — imposed an embargo on their sale to Japan. At first, prices for components involving the metals skyrocketed as investors panicked. But then everyone remembered that rare earth metals are a commodity like any other, and that the market is fungible. Soon, new sources of the metals were coming online and third countries were buying from China and reselling to Japan. Japanese component prices were back to normal before China called off the boycott.

Krane and Idel quantified the vast gulf in risk between existing energy systems and renewable systems by looking at how much mining is necessary to make each system work. Using the Texas electrical grid as a case study, they measured how much mining is necessary to maintain one gigawatt of wind capacity over 20 years and how much is required to produce the same energy in coal plants. Just for that gigawatt, replacing coal with wind would result in 25 million fewer tons being mined over two decades. Texas alone produced 77,857 gigawatt hours of electricity from coal in 2019. That level of decline in energy inputs represents a major reduction in political risk, even setting aside its obvious climate benefits.

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Opportunity seizure: Part II

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>Opportunity seizure: Part II

This week's Critical State takes a deep dive into the wide-ranging estimates of civilian casualties resulting from US operations in Afghanistan, with a focus on both the technical and political reasons for these kinds of discrepancies.

Inkstick MediaNovember 3, 2021 · 2:00 PM EDT

In this Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021 file photo, Afghans inspect damage of Ahmadi family house after US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/AP/File

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

In last week’s Deep Dive, we looked at new research on how states are using the opportunity provided by the COVID-19 pandemic to expand their repressive repertoires. This week we’ll look at a different kind of state opportunism — the kind of ontological opportunism states grasp when their version of the truth is pitted against the stories told by civilians and international organizations in conflict.

Related: Opportunity seizure: Part I

In a forthcoming article, scholars Christiane Wilke and Khalid Mohd Naseemi investigate the wide gaps between different estimates of civilian casualties resulting from US operations in Afghanistan. As an opening case study, they look at a US airstrike in Herat province in 2008 that killed a number of civilians who were near an insurgent fighting position. At first, the US military denied that there had been any civilian casualties. Eventually, however, US forces claimed that the strike had killed 33 civilians and 22 insurgents. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC)  — an independent Afghan investigative body associated with the Afghan government — said that 91 people had been killed, of whom at least 78 were civilians, which is over twice the number claimed by the US. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said that 92 civilians had been killed in the strike. 

Wilke and Naseemi are interested in both the technical and political reasons for these kinds of discrepancies. In their persuasive telling, it is primarily the political prerogatives of a being a powerful state that allow the US to consistently lowball civilian casualty estimates.

There are technological differences between how the US and other actors go about establishing civilian death tolls. The US military uses its substantial surveillance abilities to track physical evidence of civilian casualties.

There are technological differences between how the US and other actors go about establishing civilian death tolls. The US military uses its substantial surveillance abilities to track physical evidence of civilian casualties. It has access to video of many airstrikes, as well as video of strike targets in the minutes (and sometimes hours and days) leading up to airstrikes and significant expertise in interpreting that video. It also has internal reports from people who conduct the strikes. Combined, the US military’s reliance on these technical inputs constitute what Wilke and Naseemi call a “forensic turn” in US evaluation of civilian casualties. By claiming that these technical methods are definitive, the US can reject the kind of work that AIHRC, UNAMA, and other groups do to investigate civilian casualties.

The US flatly refuses to interview non-military witnesses to airstrikes, and has severely criticized investigations that involve witness testimony.

The work that the US rejects basically boils down to one thing: Talking to people. The US flatly refuses to interview non-military witnesses to airstrikes, and has severely criticized investigations that involve witness testimony. Complaining about the UNAMA and AIHRC reports on the 2008 strike, US General Michael Calahan said that witness testimonies were “tainted  by alleged witnesses’ interest in seeking financial, political, and/or survival agendas.” Setting aside the general’s concern about the apparently perfidious “survival agendas” of civilians in wartime, his statement draws its weight from the implication that the US forensic approach is somehow free from bias.

Yet, as Wilke and Naseemi argue, the forensic turn and the devaluing of witness testimony is not only biased, but serves to reify the advantages the US enjoys in being the dominant interpreter of its own actions. One of the largest sources of discrepancy Wilke and Naseemi found in their research is differences in who counts as a civilian. A 2019 US airstrike in Farah province is a case in point. US forces bombed a suspected drug lab in Farah, killing or injuring as many as 145 people. The US reported exactly zero civilian casualties from the strike, effectively claiming that if you worked in a drug factory that paid taxes to the Taliban, you could not count as a civilian. UNAMA, conversely, spoke to people in the area who reported that many who worked in the drug lab did so out of economic necessity or as a result of Taliban coercion, and were not Taliban members themselves. UNAMA issued a report saying that it had verified 30 civilian deaths in the airstrike, but estimated that there were far more.

The way race and institutional hierarchies shape public perceptions about who can be believed, therefore, is maybe the single greatest mediator of truth in armed conflict.

These discrepancies in definition and witness legitimacy draw on what Wilke and Naseemi call “racialized hierarchies of credibility.” The US draws on racialized perceptions of Afghans as being fundamentally less trustworthy than actors from major, white-led institutions to create opportunities to tell the accepted story about its own actions in Afghanistan. Even UNAMA does this, although to a lesser extent. After all, it does speak with Afghans, but the credibility of its reports is a reflection on the esteem in which the UN is held, rather than the Afghan witnesses they rely on. The way race and institutional hierarchies shape public perceptions about who can be believed, therefore, is maybe the single greatest mediator of truth in armed conflict. It is the difference, in the popular imagination, between 33 people being killed in an ill-considered airstrike seven years into a two decade war, or 92 being killed in the same strike.

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Political science of the periphery: Part I

Political science of the periphery: Part I

By
Sam Ratner

A Venezuelan migrant family walks away from the Venezuelan border in Pamplona, Colombia, Oct. 7, 2020. 

Credit:

Ferley Ospina/AP 

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This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from The World and Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

You know the state, right? It’s got borders, and a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within them? On the international stage, it acts on an equal legal basis to all the other states? It has a flag? Most international politics studies rest on this classical conception of the state, and yet, anyone who actually studies statehood will readily admit that few, if any, states actually meet those definitional requirements. Borders can be fluid, claims to a universal monopoly on force strain credulity, and states are self-evidently unequal in international law — check out who gets seats on the UN Security Council, for starters.

Related: Federalism in violence: Part I

On the edges of countries, states tend to get a lot less state-y.

Recognizing this conundrum, political scientists have tried to build other models for understanding how people experience international politics in areas where the classical definition breaks down. The next two editions of Deep Dive will look closely at border areas. On the edges of countries, states tend to get a lot less state-y. A boundary that might be clear when viewed on a map in a national capital can become much fuzzier when you’re actually looking at the mountain range that contains some unmarked border. And the concept of legitimate violence gets complicated in places where smuggling gangs are more capable of providing security to civilians than police. This week and next, we’ll look at new research that considers border areas as distinct political phenomena, related to but different from classical ideas of the state.

A recent article in the Journal of Latin American Geography uses a border lens to look at the most contemporary of security problems: COVID-19. Oxford political scientists Annette Idler and Markus Hochmüller examined how the unique characteristics of borderlands have affected the course of the pandemic on the Colombian periphery. 

Related: Peacekeeping work: Part II

Idler and Hochmüller call the reduced state-ness of areas around national borders the “border effect.” The effect increases insecurity in border areas due to a mix of lowered state capacity and high potential illicit gains from cross-border smuggling, but it also creates opportunities for non-state service provision. The pandemic has brought examples of both phenomena. In border areas where non-state armed groups have a bigger footprint and more local legitimacy than state forces, Idler and Hochmüller’s contacts reported some of those groups were enforcing curfews and other public health measures. The National Liberation Army (ELN), a leftist rebel group, even declared a unilateral ceasefire in their war with the Colombian government in order to address the pandemic.

Related: Colombia to refuse coronavirus vaccines for undocumented immigrants 

Colombia closed its border with Venezuela in response to the pandemic, despite the fact that thousands of Venezuelans living near the border need to commute into Colombia regularly to work and buy goods.

Yet many of these same groups have sought ways to profit from lessened state control during the pandemic. Colombia closed its border with Venezuela in response to the pandemic, despite the fact that thousands of Venezuelans living near the border need to commute into Colombia regularly to work and buy goods. As many as 4,000 Venezuelans are still crossing the border illegally each day, but they must now do so using informal routes that put them at the mercy of non-state armed groups. Checkpoints have sprung up, at which border crossers must pay exorbitant fees to various armed actors, and kidnappings of border crossers is on the rise. 

The more non-state groups shape daily life in this public health crisis, the less people will think of themselves as being members of a classical state when the crisis abates.

In general, the pandemic has led to an increase in state involvement in most people’s lives. From stay-at-home orders to stimulus checks, citizens have directly felt their government’s responses to the virus. In borderlands like those on the Colombian periphery, the opposite effect can happen. An increase in discussion of state involvement without the capacity to actually extend state power into border areas can lead to those residents feeling even more disconnected from the central state than they did before. That feeling, Idler and Hochmüller argue, is what non-state groups are pursuing in both their positive and negative responses to the pandemic. The more non-state groups shape daily life in this public health crisis, the less people will think of themselves as being members of a classical state when the crisis abates.

Critical State is your weekly fix of foreign policy without all the stuff you don’t need. It’s top news and accessible analysis for those who want an inside take without all the insider bs. Subscribe here.

The international politics of COVID-19: Part II

The international politics of COVID-19: Part II

By
Sam Ratner

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron wrap up a joint press conference at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France. 

Credit:

Andrew Harnik/AP

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This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from The World and Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

This week, Critical State finishes up its coverage of the journal International Organizations’ special issue on COVID-19 and its effects. More articles from the issue are forthcoming, but here it takes a look at political scientist Daniel Drezner’s article discussing COVID-19’s effects on the international system overall.

Related: The international politics of COVID-19: Part I

Political scientist Daniel Drezner predicts that COVID-19 will result in a greater entrenchment of existing international power structures.

Many have portrayed the COVID-19 pandemic as a system-altering shock — something that will leave the world forever changed. Drezner, however, gazes down from the heights of wherever it is that political scientists consider the basic interactions of states (Walnut Hill, in Drezner’s case) at a disease that has killed over half a million people worldwide and says, basically, “enh.” Rather than foreseeing a massive shift in the structure of international relations, Drezner predicts COVID-19 will result in the opposite: a greater entrenchment of existing international power structures.

To make his case, Drezner looks at the history of disease and world politics. What he finds is that while pandemics have caused major changes in international relations in the past — such as when the Antonine Plague of 165 AD ended the territorial expansion of the Roman empire or when smallpox and measles hastened the European genocide of native population in the Americas — those effects have lessened over time. Since Napoleon, developments in science and public health have increased the capacity of states to cope with pandemics and lessened their impacts on international politics. The influenza pandemic of 1918, for example, was basically forgotten in popular history until COVID-19, despite its massive demographic effects, because states had the ability to absorb the losses it produced. By the time SARS came around in 2003, it was contained quickly enough to barely be a blip on China’s remarkable economic expansion. 

Drezner sees that trend continuing today. Despite stumbles, some major, by both countries in their COVID-19 response, it does seem that the US and China will exit the pandemic as the most powerful players in the international arena, the same as they entered the crisis. Though the pandemic has upended the US economy, it has not appreciably diminished US economic power, which it has demonstrated through the Federal Reserve offering other central banks access to dollars and propping up liquidity within the US. 

While China has gained plaudits for controlling the virus before the US, its attempts to grow its international profile through international pandemic response have largely backfired, Drezner argues. The personal protective equipment and other material aid China has distributed to other countries has often been poorly made, and allegations that China bullied the World Health Organization into unduly praising its early pandemic response make both the country and the WHO look bad.

Indeed, the pandemic has not even produced a major shift in economic competition between the US and China.

Indeed, the pandemic has not even produced a major shift in economic competition between the US and China. Early in the pandemic, Drezner points out, the Trump administration pursued its trade deal with China rather than pressing China on public health cooperation. The resulting trade deal remains in place, even as rhetoric between the two countries has again grown heated.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that COVID-19 will cause a transformation of the international system on its own. Instead, like in so many crises, the default result will be increased power for those who already hold it. In this age, shaking up the balance of power requires political organization rather than simply waiting for nature to have its say.

Critical State is your weekly fix of foreign policy without all the stuff you don’t need. It’s top news and accessible analysis for those who want an inside take without all the insider bs. Subscribe here.

Life after combat: How relationships in wartime continue to shape society

Life after combat: How relationships in wartime continue to shape society

Interviewed by
Sam Ratner

The abandoned headquarters of Mozambican opposition party Renamo is pictured in the port city of Beira, ahead of local government elections, Nov. 19, 2013. 

Credit:

Grant Lee Neuenburg/Reuters 

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This interview was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from The World and Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

How do relationships between combatants forged in wartime continue to shape political, economic, and social relations even after those combatants have been reintegrated and the conflict ends? 

Related: In Colombia, imprisoned ex-combatants help maintain peace

Nikkie Wiegink, an assistant professor at Utrecht University, studies social reconstruction after war, armed group dynamics, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants, coal mining and the anthropology of infrastructure.

Wiegink’s new book, “Former Guerrillas in Mozambique,” is a groundbreaking ethnography of how relationships between combatants forged in wartime continue to shape political, economic, and social relations even after those combatants have been “reintegrated.”

Related: In rural Colombia, former FARC rebels now fight for jobs and security

Wiegink spoke with Sam Ratner of Critical State via email as part of their Midnight Oil series to find out more about her work on dispossession and resettlement studies. 

Critical State: What is the hardest question you try to answer in your work?

Nikkie Wiegink: Now that I study dispossession and resettlement issues associated with coal mining, as well as civil war combatants and their lives after conflict, I’ve had occasion to think about what draws those interests together and makes me so curious about both of them. In a way, both are about understanding what underlies processes that are often framed as “bad” or “evil.” What are the inner workings of war, but also what are the inner workings of dispossession caused by large-scale extractive projects? And how do the people involved in such processes make sense of them?

In my experience, people generally think of what they do and who they are as good. Thus while people may be part of processes that engender dispossession or violence, as a mining official or as a combatant or as something completely different, people often consider their daily life and work, or something that they define as something worthwhile, which can mean many things. I’m fundamentally curious to understand who these people are who work in these constellations and how they talk about their work and their lives. When I was researching former Renamo guerrillas in Mozambique, that meant understanding what war participation (among many other things) means in people’s life trajectories.

Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs frame post-war reintegration as a rupture — people were in society, then left it to go to war, and are now returning to their pre-war relationship to society through reintegration — but that isn’t how many combatants experience it. Instead, I found that former fighters’ life trajectories comprised of a mixture of ruptures and continuities of relationships and networks, which included their relatives, the spiritual world, fellow former fighters, political parties and much more.

Related: It’s time for the US to rethink Huntington’s philosophy: Part I

How do you go about answering that question?

Part of it is basic ethnographic research — to study people’s lives and the stories they tell about their lives from within. In hours-long interviews, I’d go through all the stages in peoples’ lives. But it’s also important to be part of peoples’ lives and see how their lived experiences compare with the stories they tell. For example, Renamo former combatants can tell you about how they found their wife in the war and how they connect to their fellow former combatants, but it’s another thing to see how every week they would drink together, how they engage in relationships of trade and patronage dynamics with fellow war veterans. My research thus involves being part of people’s everyday lives, as much as possible, and getting the widest possible picture of peoples’ experiences.

In Maringué, an area of central Mozambique where I did fieldwork and where many ex-combatants from the Mozambican civil war live, people would tend to say, “Everything is good, the war is over, we are all brothers and sisters now.” In their narratives, people would explicitly not emphasize the political divisions that continued to characterize post-war Mozambique. But just by being there and going to church gatherings and masses, at a certain point, I realized that oh yeah, that church is a church primarily associated with Renamo, that church is associated with Frelimo, and that people would go out of their way not to cross political lines.

Similarly, it took a long time for me to understand that when people would describe someone as being from a certain area, they meant it often as a political identifier more than a geographical one — because a reference to some areas meant they were associated with Renamo, while others would be indications of Frelimo. It took time to understand the way people talk about things — especially about politics in the case of my research. 

I was in Maringué for 14 months, and I still probably did not get half of it. There are many layers of meaning behind what people say. That’s the real value of doing participant observation next to the interviews.

This interview has been lightly edited.  

Critical State is your weekly fix of foreign policy without all the stuff you don’t need. It’s top news and accessible analysis for those who want an inside take without all the insider bs. Subscribe here.