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.