US-Mexico Relations and the Security Stakes of NAFTA Renegotiation

Next month, representatives of the United States, Canada, and Mexico will sit down to begin the formal renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Renegotiating or “ripping up” NAFTA was – along with withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a major component of candidate Trump’s economic plan. President Trump followed through on TPP, withdrawing the US from the agreement on his third day in office. Where the NAFTA renegotiation will lead is anyone’s guess.

The economics of NAFTA are complicated, but the headline result has been to boost productivity in all three partner countries and create a dynamic, interlinked common market. As with any move toward free trade, less competitive enterprises in each country have felt increased competition and pressure. In the main, however, NAFTA has produced broad benefits for all three countries while concentrating the pain – and thus handwringing and political wrangling – in a few specific sectors, like US auto workers and Mexican corn producers. That pain is real, but addressing said pain through compensatory economic policies is more sensible than tossing out the baby with the bathwater.

Walking away from NAFTA would be a terrible idea on purely economic grounds. But its security implications for US-Mexico relations might be even more worrisome. Broadly, NAFTA has contributed to stabilizing the US-Mexico relationship, historically one of the more fraught in the Americas. NAFTA has increased US-Mexico cooperation along the border and reduced incentives for undocumented immigration. Undoing NAFTA thus hazards less cooperation in cross-border law enforcement, may spur undocumented immigration, and may renew diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

First, the big picture. US-Mexico relations have often been troubled due to the former’s territorial ambitions and the latter’s economic dependence on its larger northern neighbor. As former Mexican president Porfirio Diaz noted, “Pobre México, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos” (“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States”). Mexico lost half its territory to its northern neighbor in the 19th century. The United States invaded Mexico by landand sea in the early 20th century. Mexico forcibly nationalized US and British oil companies to create and consolidate PEMEX. The United States was widely reviled not just in Mexico but Latin America more broadly for pushing highly conditional structural adjustment programs in the 1980s.

NAFTA has helped change much of this. Before the election of President Trump, two out of three Mexicans had a favorable opinion of the United States, a trend that extends back to the early 2000s. NAFTA was part of a broader suite of economic and political reforms that helped facilitate democratization, with Mexico’s governing PRI party ultimately losing the presidency for the first time in 2000. Though relations between the two are still strained by several issues, in the macro sense, bilateral relations between the United States and Mexico have been stronger post-NAFTA than perhaps at any previous point in history.

More specifically, NAFTA has promoted US national security in two concrete ways. The first is around cross-border cooperation in law enforcement. Even before border security concerns ramped up in the 2000s due to concerns about terrorism and drug-related violence, increasing cross-border trade catalyzed enhanced cooperation between US and Mexican border security forces. In the late 2000s, this cooperation deepened in response to the Mexican drug war, a war fueled by US consumers and money, US guns, and complex cross-border criminal organizations. This war has claimed as many as 175,000 lives in the past decade.

Since 2008, this cooperation has come under the umbrella of the Merida Initiative. The components of US-Mexico security cooperation are extensive, ranging from seizure and forfeiture of cross-border criminal networks’ assets to US support for justice sector reforms and technology transfers – both hard and soft alike. The Merida Initiative has not been without its critics, but it is difficult to imagine that disengaging around these issues will improve the situation in Mexico. Americans would still demand illegal narcotics and Mexico would still have all the cartel-related problems it faces now – just with vastly diminished resources and worsened economic prospects.

Second, NAFTA has likely helped curb undocumented migration to the United States, a significant source of humanitarian concern – undocumented migrants face arduous conditions during and after their journey – and a flashpoint for nativist sentiment in the United States, especially around elections. Many observers feared a surge in Mexican immigration to the United States, as the opening of Mexico’s agricultural markets to foreign competition would drive down rural incomes and become a significant “push” factor.

Some of this undoubtedly occurred – the Mexican immigrant population in the United States skyrocketed in the late 1980s through mid-2000s. But Mexico was already experiencing massive rural-urban migration and a decline of agricultural livelihoods. NAFTA may have accelerated these processes, but it did not create them, and undoing NAFTA would not stop them. Additionally, NAFTA has also spurred agricultural development in Northern Mexico and helped raise incomes across the country to the point that net Mexican immigration to the United States has moved to zero, and fewer and fewer Mexicans perceive life north of the border as better. Walking away from NAFTA would likely cause a severe contraction in the Mexican economy – which is one 1/17th the size of the US and much more dependent on intra-NAFTA trade than the United States for jobs and growth – that would reverse this tide.

Mexico is still a significant conduit for undocumented migration, serving as a transit route for migrants from Central America. US and Mexican officials have coordinated to curb Central American migration, at significant cost to Mexico. If the NAFTA renegotiation re-opens old wounds and creates new ones, the United States can expect this form of cooperation to diminish as well.

NAFTA is far from perfect. On balance, however, it has paid economic dividends and improved security cooperation along the US-Mexico border. NAFTA’s collapse would come with significant costs – bilateral security cooperation would be one of them.

What Will Changed, What Will Change, and What Likely Won't

Cross-posted from Political Violence @ a Glance.

Our community lost a beloved, infuriating, and wonderful person, Will Moore, last week. Others have eulogized him and expressed their loss in ways far more profound than I ever could. It pains me that I know I’m leaving out so many impassioned remembrances because they are proliferating so rapidly.

If there is a silver lining to this dark, dark cloud, it is that Will’s death is occasioning a deep, discipline-wide discussion of mental health. Brave colleagueshave broken the taboo of talking about their struggles with depression and social anxiety. This will make it more acceptable for other coping “success stories” – those who have struggled with mental health issues but who have still managed to develop respected publication records and disciplinary status – more comfortable talking about their issues. I hope it will help create an environment in which our colleagues and students can feel less like they are facing these issues alone. Being more honest and open about these struggles and issues will be a positive change for our community.

But let’s be equally, unflinchingly honest about what won’t change – or at least what won’t change unless we act collectively to create space for a healthier disciplinary orientation.

We will still apportion status, money, and coveted professorships on the basis of observable output, scholarly reputation, and “fit”. Mental health issues can affect all three. Most obviously, mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder can directly affect work productivity and creativity through loss of interest, loss of energy, and loss of ability to concentrate. But depression can also result in withdrawing from relationships with friends and colleagues. Social anxiety disorders, issues with reading social cues, and avoidant behavior can affect perceptions of the social aspects of “fit” – does the person pass the “someone I’d like to have lunch/coffee/a drink with” test – as can some of the coping mechanisms, like overdrinking in social situations, some may develop to try and fit in.

And because we will still apportion status, money, and coveted professorships this way, many people struggling with mental health issues will still be marginalized. And we will continue to do other things that augur against our collective mental health.

We will still perpetuate the cult of the monomaniacal. We will still tell graduate students not to appear too into their pastimes and personal lives, lest the discipline conclude they are unserious.

We will still send signals that you’re not doing things right pre-tenure unless your office light is still on at 9 PM. On a Friday.

We will still venerate overextension.

We will still tell graduate students who aren’t interested in taking a 4/4 teaching load far from home and family to get a foothold in the discipline they are not committed enough to the academic enterprise. And don’t worry – if you do take it, you’ll be able to “move up” in a few years.

We will still tell young people they should spend months and years living apart from their loved ones – spouses and children included – in order to take advantage of career opportunities. Given the rising prevalence of dual-academic career couples but the idiosyncratic and uneven way universities address these dual-career couples, we will still tell them that some of their spouses matter and some of them don’t.

We will, individually, continue to view these things as harmful and irrational. And we will forget all of these issues when we look at a dizzying pile of applications for our next tenure-track position and focus on the two or three candidates that have been most successful at navigating all of these incentives we’ve created.

Because we are social scientists, we know these perverse incentives can persist for a long, long time even if we all recognize they are irrational and destructive. We face a classic collective action problem: we would all benefit from a saner, more reasonable set of professional incentives, but unless we all decide this is the case and act accordingly, we dare not step off the established path of overwork, overcommitment, and under-regard for self-care and mental health. If we do, we fall behind our peers.

It’s my sincere hope that we can be better and kinder to ourselves and others. Maybe this is how and where we start. But I fear that as time dulls the shock and pain we will slip back into our established habits and routines. The good (and sad) news is we’ll likely be too busy to reflect on it too much.

Trump and Ethnicity in Comparative Perspective

Cross-posted from Political Violence @ a Glance:

Whether appeals to white identity and white resentment propelled Donald Trump – as improbable a major party candidate as we have seen in recent memory(seriously, that happened) – to the presidency-elect[1] of the United States is highly debatable. Trump’s election has been interpreted as part of a broader “global white backlash” and the return of xenophobic politics in the developed world, but the evidence is still not conclusive. What’s not up for debate, however, is that Trump’s election has empowered white nationalists and refocused our attention on racial politics in the United States. Since the election, hate crimes have spiked and white nationalists have hailed Trump’s victory and some of his personnel decisions.

This has caught many by surprise. It might not have if Americans were more used to thinking about the United States in comparative perspective.

I study contentious politics and repression, mostly in Africa. When I think about politics, ethnicity and ethnic identity are never far from my mind. This is especially true in those contexts where ethnicity is a red line for economic, political, and social marginalization: where one’s ethnic identity either qualifies or disqualifies you for a jobhousingmembership in a club, or – at least historically – from holding high elected office. That is, ethnic identity is not just about culture, language and/or religion, but it also becomes a vehicle for obtaining and maintaining power.

Social scientists take as given that these conditions obtain in the vast majority of developing countries, which for complex reasons tend to be more ethnically diverse and more prone to intrastate conflict than wealthier, more industrialized or post-industrial societies. Moreover, it is uncontroversial to argue in these circumstances that political competition revolves around ethnicity. But ethnic politics are highly relevant (and climbing with a bullet) in the United States – which is unique among developed, capitalist countries for its long history of domestic slavery and Jim Crow – and increasingly so in Europe, as the countries of the European Union grapple with a mass influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa and lingering resentment over the costs of addressing the fallout of the Great Recession.

In the United States, race and ethnic politics (REP) has largely been studied through the prism of minority group politics and political behavior, i.e., black/Latino/Asian American, etc. public opinion and voting behavior. This is not to say ethnic politics scholars ignore power dynamics and the legacy of white oppression of minority groups – indeed, race and ethnicity scholars are more likely than most “Americanist” political scientists to take seriously concepts like power – but simply to point out that REP tends to operate from the assumption that US race and ethnic dynamics are sui generis, rather than a case or set of cases among many. That is, and this is just an impression, so let me know if I’m wrong here, most REP scholars don’t look to Kenya, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or broader, cross-national work on ethnic conflict to inform their analyses, even if ethnic power dynamics in the United States look more like those cases than we would like to admit.

Here, I outline six “truths” – some inconvenient, some helpful – regarding the comparative literature on ethnic politics and conflict and what it might suggest for both prospects for violence and for addressing the rising tide of white nationalist sentiment in the United States. Rather than focusing on why white nationalism and white resentment are on the rise, I take it as given and focus on what the ethnic politics literature has to say about its likely effects for US politics and ways in which its pernicious message might be marginalized.

Inconvenient Truths

Given this gloomy picture, is there any good news?

Helpful Truths

  • Cooperation works best when groups self-police. Opening his seminal article with Jim Fearon on interethnic cooperation, David Laitin relates the following anecdote:I grew up in a Jewish section of Flatbush that bordered an Italian neighborhood. Sometimes on our way to school, some Italian kids-nearly all of them went to parochial schools-would hassle and even attack us. Although they lived only a few blocks away, we didn’t even know their names. We just called them “the St. Brennan’s kids.” Our parents would see our injuries and report the incidents to our school principal, who was Jewish, but from a different neighborhood. He contacted the relevant authorities at St. Brennan’s, who would investigate the matter and punish the culprits. The funny thing was, no one ever seemed to think of calling the police. They were Irish.To Fearon and Laitin, the key to maintaining positive interethnic relations is in-group policing: to maintain harmony, members of the in-group must check the bad behavior – the race baiting, threats, and outright violence – of members of their own group. The solution wasn’t to get a larger gang of Jewish kids together to rumble with the Italians. That type of logic only escalates conflict. Rather, the solution is for leaders within ethnic communities to police the behavior of the agitators among them. That means, my white friends who do not want to see white nationalism take hold in the United States: It is on us. We have to call it out. We have to marginalize these voices and push white nationalism back to the fringe. We cannot and should not expect others to do it for us.

In this post, I’ve tried to bring insights from the comparative literature on ethnic politics and ethnic conflict to bear on the rise of white nationalism in the United States and what can be done about it. What did I miss? And how can scholars like myself re-engage with US-focused scholars around these issues?

[1] As of November 28, 2016, anyway. It’s been that kind of year.

[2] Prior to 1965, whites exercised monopoly political power, excluding all other ethnic groups.

Africa Bernie Sanders Hate crimes Kenya Kosovo Myanmar ObamaRichard Spencer Sri Lanka Trump United States US Voting Rights Act

Protectionism in the 2016 US Presidential Election

Via @piie:

The disconnect between the United States’ massive increase in trade exposure and minimal (if any) associated rise in government spending to address trade-related costs is at the heart of the apparent turn toward protectionist politics in the 2016 US presidential election. Protectionist rhetoric is a surrogate for a deeper discussion about the role of the government in an increasingly open economy. Trade makes the United States better off as a whole, but evidence that the costs are unevenly shared is mounting. Trade and technological change have cost many American people their jobs, and social transfers (for unemployment, disability, retirement, and health care) are not closing the gap in their incomes. In this environment, both left- and right-wing populist candidates have been able to gain traction, in large part by attacking free trade. But trade may not be the culprit: Many advanced economies sustain much higher levels of trade exposure and do so with large social expenditures to address the costs. The protectionist turn this election year is the result of neither a sea change in public opinion on trade nor an anti-trade youth in revolt. At root, it is the result of government spending and compensatory policies not keeping up with technological and trade shocks—particularly the China shock—to the US labor market.

Download the whole piece here.

Rough Patches on the Silk Road? The Geopolitics of the Belt and Road Initiative

Cross-posted from Political Violence @ a Glance.

Note: This post draws on the author’s chapter in a recently released Peterson Institute for International Economics Briefing volume. The author is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Institute.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a plan to build a vast network of roads, rail lines, new ports, and other infrastructure improvements a in more than 60 countries, at a cost of $4 trillion – is an economic policy designed to radically expand trade and investment in Asia and around the Indian Ocean. Critically, however, it is also a security initiative with the aim of facilitating economic integration and promoting longer-run peace in the region.

The economic benefits are likely to be large, but there may be rough patches along the new Silk Road. While the proposed investments are precisely the types of trade-enhancing projects development economists have long called for, the geopolitical implications of BRI are complicated. From the restive western Chinese province of Xianjing to Jammu-Kashmir, the Myanmar-Chinese border, and the Indian Ocean, BRI-related initiatives target or traverse some of the world’s most contested territories. Major power development programs abroad – such as the US Marshall Plan and Alliance for Progress – have always been motivated by a mixture of economic and security concerns. Indeed, BRI is intended in part to address security fears emanating from these regions by improving economic prospects.

On the security front, BRI provides one big (potentially) security-enhancing opportunity stemming from the generally positive effects of regional economic integration. The picture, however, is not entirely rosy. BRI entails significant security risks as well. Some, like China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, have received considerable attention. Others have not. This post focuses on the threats stemming from the short-term creation of soft targets related to specific infrastructure projects in potentially volatile areas and the longer-term geopolitical impacts of these projects for India. In both the best- and worst-case security scenarios, the elephant in the room is of the indicus variety.

Assuming BRI achieves its intended goal – further integration between China and the economies of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – it should establish common interests among China’s trading and investment partners as well as between linked countries, including India. Trade and financial integration tend to reduce conflict between states, raising the opportunity costs – in terms of foregone trade and investment – associated with conflict and creating vested domestic interests in both that prefer peace to war. The rise of global supply chains and production networks, in which intermediate goods are often not immediately substitutable from other sources and therefore incentives to maintain existing supply chains are strong, only enhances these tendencies.

Many parallels have been drawn between the Marshall Plan, the United States’ massive re-development and re-integration plan for Western Europe following World War II, and BRI. Yet most focus on the wrong detail: the difference in magnitude of the associated financial commitments. While BRI may ultimately dwarf the Marshall Plan – If the Chinese government reaches its maximal funding target of $4 trillion USD, the investment would be roughly 31 times larger – a striking similarity is that of intention. Both undertakings reflect efforts by major powers to develop and integrate the economies of their neighbors and trading partners in order to avoid militarized competition. In this sense, the Marshall Plan was one of the most successful security initiatives of the Cold War, helping to integrate Western European economies and forestall a return to the economic competition and arms races that had catalyzed two World Wars. While it remains to be seen whether BRI will match the successes of the Marshall Plan, it is similar in ambition, even if this ambition is being downplayed rhetorically.

For this basic reason, BRI’s potential security benefits are large. However, they are balanced by several risks stemming both from the infrastructure expansion itself and its geostrategic implications for India. The BRI is a series of massive infrastructure projects, ranging from highways and railways to ports, pipelines, electrical substations, and dams. Much of this investment is slated to occur in volatile areas, and infrastructure and the attendant construction projects make for enticing “soft” targets for violent dissidents looking to make headlines, wreak havoc, and/or ensnare a more powerful foe in a costly counterinsurgency campaign.

South and Southeast Asia are home to a disproportionate number of the world’s national self-determination movements, such as the Timorese in Indonesia and Assamese in India, and virtually all of them have used violent means to contest state claims to rule. Infrastructure is the skeletal system of the state: roads and power grids are the most obvious mechanisms by which the state facilitates its own projection of authority into areas where its penetration is otherwise weak or contested. For this reason, infrastructure projects are especially contentious when they occur in areas where ethnic or religious minorities seek autonomy or self-determination. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for instance, plans to link the western Chinese city of Kashgar to Pakistan’s warm-water deep-sea port at Gwadar. To do so, the project will need to traverse territory dominated by marginalized ethnic minorities in both states – Balochs in Pakistan, Uyghurs in China. Pakistan is already increasing the size of its military – with plans to increase it even further – in order to protect BRI-related infrastructure projects. Moreover, it will pass also through the contested Jammu-Kashmir region.

This brings up the Indian elephant in the room: India’s perceptions of BRI. In the long-term, BRI will include India but also encircle it. BRI potentially threatens Indian interests in two main ways: 1) increasing Chinese and Pakistani activity in the disputed Jammu-Kashmir region; and 2) increased Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

Jammu-Kashmir is one of the last true powder kegs in global geopolitics. The competing claims of India and Pakistan to the disputed territory is a live issue putting nuclear armed rivals against one another in the shadow of a third, larger nuclear power (China) with its own ambitions in the region. As I write (October 3, 2016), Indian and Pakistani troops are exchanging fire across the Line of Contention. This latest flare up occurs just days after Indian troops crossed into Pakistani-controlled disputed territory to strike Pakistan-based – and by some accounts, supported – anti-India militants.

As China’s economic interests shift toward Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, its naval posture will as well. Greater Chinese emphasis on the Indian Ocean will come at the cost of commensurate Indian suspicion of China’s activities in its maritime backyard. India has been the ocean’s regional hegemon since the 1990s, and it still fields two aircraft carriers to China’s one, but this hegemony will certainly be threatened.

While BRI is an economic policy, it has the potential to radically alter the security landscape in Asia, linking regional economies in ways that massively increase the economic costs of war and instability and bringing development to long-marginalized regions and people. Both developments would promote peace. However, the process is likely to entail some significant security risks. In the short-term, infrastructure projects will expand into restive regions and contest local authority. Given that the 21st century is expected to belong, economically, to China and India, maintaining peaceful relations between the two ascendant powers will be one of the central challenges of our time.

Shit Happens: When Equilibrium Theories Meet Non-Equilibrium Outcomes

This post cross-posted from Political Violence @ a Glance:

Note: This post was filed last Thursday, before the attempted coup in Turkey unfolded. The event referred to in the introduction is not/was not at all related to the coup.

Recently, I was asked by a group of policymakers to envision a scenario in which something bad would happen. This bad thing is (thankfully) rare in terms of historical precedent but always extremely consequential – hence the interest in foreseeing it. The specifics of outcome are unimportant. What is important is how the process of envisioning this outcome – and other rare but consequential outcomes – challenges  our essentially equilibrium-based theories of political behavior and human interactions.

Social scientists tend to theorize in probabilistic terms. We know the world is an inherently strange and contingent place, but within all that strangeness and contingency exists a set of general tendencies, i.e., responses by actors to particular circumstances and actions of others that are more or less likely to occur. As we see it, our job is to uncover and explain these tendencies, washing away the nuance of the specific instance in favor of mining large numbers of observations in order to uncover the general relationship. These tendencies inform our thinking about the world and allow us to make statements like “regimes facing large youth bulges are more repressive” or “regimes facing dissidents using guerrilla tactics are much more likely to engage in mass killings of civilians.”

Within conflict studies, this approach is often wedded to the rationalist paradigm. In order to understand why things happen, we must identify the relevant actors, identify their interests, and then figure out how the way their interactions are structured. Then, we assume actors pursue strategies that maximize the likelihood that their preferred outcome will come to pass.

This way of thinking about the world has proven pretty useful. But it has its limits. In particular, it confronts a huge weakness when trying to inform thinking about rare, hard-to-foresee events. Erik Gartzke’s “War Is in the Error Term” lays out this problem as it pertains to interstate war. Interstate war is incredibly rare. The Correlates of War project identifies roughly 95 traditional interstate wars – like the Spanish-American War or Falkland Islands War – in the entire international system between 1816 and 2007. Most of those were relatively minor: only 29 of them resulted in more than 20,000 combatant deaths. Most IR scholars would be hard-pressed to name more than 50 of them. And while I’m not going to crunch the numbers, I’d be happy to bet that more has been written about two of them – World Wars I and II – than the rest combined. By an order of magnitude. Or two.

In “War Is in the Error Term,” Gartzke is reflecting on the rationalist tradition in conflict studies, which holds that because war is costly, it is ex-post inefficient. There is always some bargain that the parties would have preferred to war: a leader takes a golden parachute into exile, countries X and Y agree to a different demarcation of their border, etc. Hence, to explain war one must uncover why the parties failed to achieve the bargain. That is, war is not an equilibrium outcome – something has to go wrong for us to observe actual conflict.

Because Erik is a clear writer, I quote rather than paraphrase:

We cannot predict in individual cases whether states will go to war, because war is typically the consequence of variables that are unobservable ex ante, both to us as researchers and to the participants. Thinking probabilistically continues to offer the opportunity to assess international conflict empirically. However, the realization that uncertainty is necessary theoretically to motivate war is much different from recognizing that the empirical world contains a stochastic element. Accepting uncertainty as a necessary condition of war implies that all other variables—however detailed the explanation—serve to eliminate gradations of irrelevant alternatives. We can progressively refine our ability to distinguish states that may use force from those that are likely to remain at peace, but anticipating wars from a pool of states that appear willing to fight will remain problematic.

When outcomes are mutually undesirable, and all parties know those outcomes are mutually undesirable, we generally expect they will not occur. And most of the time, they don’t. But it’s the instances in which they do occur over which we obsess, and it is precisely these instances in which our rationalist, probabilistic theories tend to break down.

Shit happens. An unsuccessful would-be assassin gets a shot at redemption when his target’s driver randomly turns onto the street where the assassin is standingA discarded cigar wrapper helps turn the tide of the US Civil War. One sounds like a moron standing up in a room of highly educated, extremely well-informed people and saying “For outcome X to occur, something weird has to happen” – but that may well be the right answer.

Before 2008, economic analysts could have given you a million reasons why the financial crisis would not have occurred; no one apart from a few double bass-drumming weirdos stood to benefit. But after the fact, even as fundamental a believer in rationalism as former Fed chair Alan Greenspan was forced to concede, “I have come to see that an important part of the answers to those questions is a very old idea: ‘animal spirits,’ the term Keynes famously coined in 1936 to refer to ‘a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction.’” “Animal spirits” is not a term traditionally associated with sober, rational analysis. By it, Greenspan and Keynes before him refer to irrational exuberance and discounting of the potential pitfalls of risky behavior.

In the quoted piece, Greenspan then goes on to suggest these animal spirits can be measured and incorporated into economic forecasting. But this misses the point. Even if Greenspan’s thoughts inform future forecasts, there will be some black swan event that catches us by surprise. Ex-post, we will all scratch our heads and wonder why we did not see it coming, and change our theoretical and predictive models to incorporate the insights from the latest crisis. And then the next crisis will occur, and the process will repeat ad infinitum.

I am a firm believer in rationalist explanations for most phenomenon, and ceteris paribus statements are likely to remain the rationalist social scientists’ stock-in-trade for the foreseeable future. Competing theories of conflict, economic crises, and other rare-but-consequential events have their problems as well – to wit, the “ancient hatreds” explanation for ethnic and religious conflict massively over-predicts violence, and false positives may be as big a problem as false negatives. Moreover, that we must continuously refine our predictions about the future in light of new information is a positive thing: it suggests we are learning more about the world around us. But we need to be circumspect about how well equilibrium theories can be expected to perform when predicting non-equilibrium outcomes.

What Do We Know About Civil Wars? out now

Kudos to Dave Mason and Sara Mitchell for having put together a great edited volume on the state of our understanding of civil wars - causes, conflict processes, and prospects for peace. My contribution was co-authored with Halvard Buhaug and Scott Gates on environmental factors in conflict. This would be a great resource for an upper division undergraduate course or a backgrounder/survey introduction for graduate students.



#Foodtank Summit 2016

Last week's #Foodtank summit was a blast. Really enjoyed my panel with Tim Carman, Food Writer, Washington Post, @timcarman@washingtonpostJohanna Mendelson Forman, Professor, Conflict Cuisine, American University, @Johannawonk, @conflictcuisine; Kimberly FlowersDirector, Global Food Security Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), @kimberlytalksag@csisfoodRay Offenheiser, President, Oxfam America, @roffenheiser@OxfamAmericaAllan Jury, Vice President of Public Policy and Senior Advisor, World Food Program USA, @WFPUSA; and Lauren Herzer Risi, Senior Program Manager, Environmental Change and Security Program, Wilson Center, @LaurenHerzer, @TheWilsonCenter.

New Chicago Council brief...

Very proud of this partnership with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who have been at the forefront of the push to keep agricultural development on the congressional agenda. Here, I outline the case for thinking about food insecurity and food price spikes as national security issues for the United States.

Here's the executive summary for your perusal:

Feeding the world and teaching the world to feed itself is not just a humanitarian endeavor. It is vital to US national security. Food price–related unrest can have an immense impact on the stability of countries vital to US interests. Fortunately, the United States is well positioned to lead the fight against food insecurity across the globe.

  • Even with increases in agricultural productivity, Africa and Asia have become increasingly dependent on global markets to satisfy their growing domestic demand for food. For example, Africa's 20 most populous countries are all net grain importers. This import dependence has made these countries more sensitive to food price volatility than ever before.
  • Food price shocks can act as a catalyst for both nonviolent and armed conflict. Particularly in urban areas of lower- and middle-income countries, high food prices and reduced access can trigger protests and rioting. For example, food price–related protests toppled governments in Haiti and Madagascar in 2007 and 2008. In 2010 and 2011, food prices and grievances related to food policy were one of the major drivers of the Arab Spring.
  • Unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has led to upheaval in some of the most strategically significant regions for the United States. From 2007 to 2011, instability in key oil-producing regions led to fluctuations in global energy markets and fears the unrest would spread to other major oil exporters in the Gulf. Instability in the region has also exacerbated the ongoing civil war in Syria, contributing to growing US-Russia tensions and a massive refugee crisis in Europe.
  • Because food insecurity can be strongly linked to political instability, the United States should rededicate itself to a program of research, knowledge transfer, and assistance in developing agricultural capacity abroad and support national governments in pursuing strategies that proactively address food price stability in order to decouple food systems from violent unrest. This brief offers proactive policy recommendations, including:
  • Improving our understanding of the relationship between food insecurity and political instability. This field is nascent, and a deeper comprehension of the linkages is important to build a policy platform.
  1. Leveraging US knowledge to support improvements in national and regional emergency grain reserves in key regions.
  2. Facilitating commodity hedging by importing governments.
  3. Addressing export bans, which often have devastating impact on regional markets.
  4. Encouraging the adoption of regional food balance sheets.
  5. Helping foreign governments navigate the transition from general food subsidies to targeted, means-tested food assistance.

Beyond these recommendations, and as previous Chicago Council reports have argued, combatting food insecurity will also require massive reinvestments in agricultural infrastructure, research, and development, as well as the expansion of technical education in the agricultural sector.

The problem with the problem of bridging the gap

Cross-posted from PV@aGlance:

Adam Elkus’ “The Problem of Bridging the Gap” has generated some heat among political scientists wrestling with what it means to bridge the gap between academic discourse and practical policy relevance. Dan Nexon, lead editor of the International Studies Association’s flagship journal, effectively re-blogged it at Duck of Minerva. Witty and concise, it amounts to a “medium-length polemic” (Nexon’s words, not mine) against the concept of policy relevance. While an entertaining read, the critique misses the mark. If we accept it on its own terms, the logic is persuasive. If we question its most fundamental assumption, the critique unravels.

Elkus’ critique consists of four points (if you have ten minutes, a sense of humor, and care about this discussion, please go read it):

  1. “It judges the value of academic inquiry from the perspective of whether or not it concords with the values, aims, preferences, and policy concerns and goals of a few powerful elites.”
  2. “It demands that academic inquiry ought to be formulated around the whims and desires of the people being studied.”
  3. “It makes no demands on the policymakers themselves.”
  4. “It allows questions and projects to be assigned from above rather than discovered, and substitutes political efficiency for scientific contribution as a review criteria.”

I could take issue with points 2-4, though each contains a grain of truth. But Elkus’ first point is the most important, so here it is in its entirety:

"It judges the value of academic inquiry from the perspective of whether or not it concords with the values, aims, preferences, and policy concerns and goals of a few powerful elites. Why, if anything, do we judge “policy relevance” by whether or not it helps government policy elites? Surely governmental elites, politicians, think-tankers, etc aren’t the only people who care about policy! The “policy relevance” model is simply a normatively unjustified statement that political scientists and social scientists in general ought to cater to the desires and whims of elite governmental policymakers."

This definition of policy relevance is not the revealed word of the Almighty(ies). Policy relevance is a contested concept that can be defined in multiple ways. Elkus’ definition of policy relevance—seeking to inform the opinions of elite policymakers, politicians, and think-tankers in order to affect government policy—is far from the only plausible one. If we define policy relevance in broad terms, such as, “a desire to engage with the world we study, rather than to merely observe it,” the type of work that fits under the policy relevant banner expands considerably. For instance, the entire field of development economics is very applied, i.e., oriented toward affecting outcomes, even if that is not universally viewed as a good thing. Development economists often engage directly with the communities they seek to help, with or without engagement with policymaking elites. Even within the field of security studies, where Elkus’ critique would seem to have the most validity, engagement need not mean just high-level meetings at the Pentagon or on the Hill. The Sie Center for International Security and Diplomacy’s Carnegie Corporation-sponsored “Bridging the Academic-Policy Gap” project brings together academics, civil society leaders, policymakers, and ordinary citizens to discuss the ways nonviolent actors and strategies can be agents of peace in highly violent contexts. Our work ranges from dialogue and exchange with nonviolent organizers to collaborating with fisheries scientists tasked with managing critical natural resources. In these cases, our work seeks to influence and inform policy at the grassroots and/or implementation level. These projects have clear bearings on security outcomes, provided we accept a broader definition of what constitutes security studies. And we’re not alone: AidData-affiliated researchers are engaged in partnerships with USAID field officers—hardly Beltway insiders—on a wide range of development assistance-related research. I’m sure there are more examples out there, and I hope the commenters flag them.

These types of collaborations occur at the operational level and often entail thankless hours spent pouring over data and discussing practical implementation issues. As these types of activities occur far from the op-ed pages of national newspapers and don’t make for great sound bytes on news channels, it’s unsurprising they are not the first thing that comes to mind when Elkus thinks of policy engagement. Indeed, Elkus’ critique seems geared toward a particular brand of policy relevance that emphasizes media engagement. The merits of that type of engagement notwithstanding, it remains but one of many ways to bridge the gap. But, cumulatively, the type of direct engagement discussed here, outside the limelight, may be more influential.

Elkus is good to remind us that we should be critical of attempts to forward specific agendas under the banner of policy relevance. But in doing so, he forwards an overly narrow definition of policy relevance and then critiques the concept of policy relevance for being overly narrow. I am sure there are reasonable facsimiles of Elkus’ straw man—the credulous academic armed with a regression table and no understanding of actual politics—wandering around Washington. I’m just not sure they are typical of social scientists’ engagement with policymakers.