Archive for April, 2013

Given the centrality of competition among distinct political entities, this Game of Thrones, it is easy and inevitable to invoke international relations theory to understand the world of Westeros.  Various scholars have done so online with realist and constructivist approaches.  My task here is to consider what do the books and TV series tell us about how people (non-IR scholars) understand international relations.  That is, what do readers and viewers pick up about the nature of international relations from the series and perhaps what would IR theorists notice that others would not?

  In Game of Thrones, the personalities of individuals are crucial to the choices and the outcomes, just as many non-experts see International Relations.  Rather than events being driven by institutions and unseen structural forces, individual Presidents, Prime Ministers, autocrats are seen as the primary movers and shakers—Bush, Obama, Thatcher, Merkl, Netanyahu, Hussein, Qadaffi, Bin Laden, Khomeini, and so on.

In the first book/season of Game of Thrones, events seem to be driven by Ned Stark’s honor—that he not only leaves his home to keep his commitment, but he ultimately tells Queen Cersei, his rival, of his plans to thwart her.  The personality flaws of the old King and the new (drunk and crazy, respectively) are key to understanding the outbreak of the war.  While one can argue it is about legitimacy as the new King, Joffrey, may not be the blood of the old King, it is his cruelty that alienates and motivates.  In the books, there are far more references to the correlation between major wars and “bad” Kings and between peace and “good” Kings.  This is far too simplistic for most IR scholars, but, to be sure, we need to be reminded that individuals do matter.  French Presidents Chirac and Sarkozy came from the same part of the political spectrum, but had very different stances towards NATO, for instance.   So, Game of Thrones reinforces a tendency among ordinary people to emphasize personality and individuals.

The second consistent theme in the books is treachery.  The way to win the Game of Thrones, like other popular models of International Relations, is to take advantage of the trust of allies and others.  It seems that the most successful players in the Game are those that know when and how to betray allies: Tyrion, Littlefinger, and so on.  This certainly accords well with at least our understanding of diplomacy as a world of secret deals and backstabbing.  The reality that scholars tend to focus on is actually the prevalence of cooperation and the need to make binding commitments.  More academic attention is paid to signaling commitment than to surprise betrayals.

The third aspect of the TV show is that the economy tends to be de-emphasized.  IR scholars are long conditioned to understand that the power of countries and outcomes in war tend to depend significantly on economic processes.  In the books, there are some references to “international” finance as the Lannisters were borrowing money to pay for their rule, but in the TV show, there is almost no serious consideration of the economic bases of each rival.  Only Daenerys faces significant problems economically, as she does not have the resources to buy the mercenaries and ships necessary to return to Westeros.  Otherwise, the various contenders do not dwell much on trade and finance at least not on TV.

The fourth theme in Game of Thrones is the power of technology.  Dragons are the equivalent of nuclear weapons, which explains why Dany and her “kids” become targets of much admiration, fear and envy.  While it becomes clear that one cannot win with dragons alone—one needs to have boots on the ground to hold the throne, they are game changers in this world.  More clearly, Wildfire is the key to winning the Battle of the Blackwater.  This plays into some basic attitudes about modern warfare—that those with the big bombs or the latest equipment win the battles and the wars.  Of course, the opposite has been true for some time—that the weaker less advanced side has won the most wars.  Indeed, the question ahead is whether a side facing defeat in the quest for the thrones might resort to insurgency.

The joy of Game of Thrones is that the world that is drawn and televised is complex enough that people can read into it what they want.  For normal people who are not schooled in IR scholarship, they will see individuals and lies but not the economic constraints nor the limits of technology.  For IR scholars, we can see that anarchy (no one legitimate authority) can provide incentives for pre-emption and security dilemmas, but also varied reactions as there is more than one way to survive the Game of Thrones.  There will be plenty of opportunities to deploy IR theory to make sense of George R.R. Martin’s world.  That is probably the only sure thing when one begins to play this most dangerous of Games.


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Having come under the international spotlight in August 2002, Iran’s nuclear program is now seen by many in the West as a threat to world peace. While the Islamic Republic has invariably insisted on its purely peaceful nature, skeptics emphasizing the venture’s military purpose usually raise a number of points that they believe have long characterized the Iranian nuclear policy: over a decade of secrecy surrounding the program speculatively from mid-1980s to early 2000s; heavy involvement of the military in its development; cost-benefit irrationality of the endevor should it be for civilian purposes only; its vast scale and scope; and finally systematic attempts by the government to procure sensitive nuclear technology from global black markets. Interestingly, almost all arguments for or against Iran going nuclear and building the bomb revolve around the imperative of international security and the implications an Iranian atomic weapon would have for it.


On one end of the spectrum, the Islamic Republic leaders are portrayed as a bunch of mad mullahs who cannot wait for the moment to get the bomb and nuke Israel, their perennial archfoe. Proponents of this line of thought, mostly found amongst radical neocons in Washington and messianic doomsayers in Tel Aviv, usually urge a pre-emptive American-Israeli strike to dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme or at least irreversibly damage it. Even some of those who do believe in the rationality of IRI leadership encourage such an option on the grounds that the costs and long-term consequences of deterrence (or otherwise non-action) are much greater than those of a carefully planned military action now. It is also contended that nuclearization of Iran would unleash a perilous domino effect in an already volatile region while raising the possibility of mass-destruction weapons falling into the hands of non-state terrorist actors who might not hesitate to use them against various targets, including Western capitals.


On the other end of the spectrum, acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran is seen as a promising development and a harbinger of regional stability, as it would provide a firm balance of power in the Middle East. An Iranian bomb, the argument thus goes, would serve to balance Israel’s regional monopoly on atomic weapons and thus eliminate the destabilizing effects it has had in the region over the past decades. “Power, after all, begs to be balanced” and the more nuclear capabilities come to emerge, the better, as the fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD) can work as an effective deterrence to war-waging. Others hold a more qualified view, maintaining that a nuclear-armed Tehran, emboldened by the protection of the ultimate deterrent, would show a more adventurist and aggressive behavior abroad, but see coercive diplomacy rather than war as the best strategy to deal with the problem. Asserting that non-military methods of prevention must be given enough chance to run their course, this group regards military action as the option of last resort, which has officially constituted the US policy under Barack Obama.


From Security to Rights?


Despite the enormous volume of research and commentary on the issue, the domestic ramifications of a nuclear Iran have received almost no attention. One reason for this neglect lies in the very nature of international politics, which arguably attaches “rights” a status inferior to “security” and thus tends to prioritize the latter’s protection even if it is achieved at the expense of the former’s violation. For a constituency of around seventy five million, however, such an emphasis, not least when it comes to their country’s nuclear activities, seems to be of secondary importance, which may explain why international efforts to curb Tehran’s atomic ambitions have so far failed to elicit any reasonable amount of sympathy from the Iranian street. For many around the world, including Iran, endowment with the bomb is a matter of national pride after all. Moreover, people may ask why “they” should have it and “we” shouldn’t. Is American or European blood redder, as the Persian expression goes? Truly, blanket economic sanctions have had an effect in sharpening popular discontent against the Islamic Republic, but there is no escaping the fact that the policy has also worked to alienate notable segments of Iranian society from Western democracies, which they increasingly find equally blameworthy for their current plight.


It is high time, therefore, to broaden the oppositional discourse and factor “people” centrally in and accordingly the human rights implications of IRI’s dash for nuclearization, in the hope that such an intellectual recalibration may refine the public opinion by shedding light on where the atomic venture may take the Iranian society. Put simply, one needs to ask what impact the Islamic Republic’s access to the bomb would exert upon the Iranian society, the human rights situation and the struggle for democratization inside Iran.


May Guaranteed Survival Lead to Respect for Human Rights?


Ever since its establishment by the 1979 revolution, the IRI has seen itself living in an adverse security environment. Surely the revolutionary ideology and far-reaching attempts to export it around the world are largely to blame for the enmity and rivalry Tehran has long been exposed to, but whatever the reason, bone-deep survival fears have always been there, creating a siege mentality in the Iranian corridors of power. The Iran-Iraq War, which broke out with Saddam’s aggression in 1980 and lasted as long as eight years, and more recently the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, both Iran’s immediate neighbors, helped institutionalize this mentality, making the IRI leadership acutely sensitive to the external environment as a probable source of internal subversion. While the discourse of enmity and insecurity are in important part sustained by the regime itself, it is significant to note that contextual elements do play a role in keeping it alive. A latest example is the civil war in Syria, which has posed a fundamental challenge to the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s sole regional ally, and is threatening to transform the whole security landscape of the Middle East in disfavor of Iran.


Less noted but perhaps more important, however, are the massive political repercussions the regime’s fear of subversion through external forces and the consequent psychological pressures have produced at home, with the authorities moving to behave more aggressively toward the civil society and ratcheting up crackdown on alternative voices at times when foreign threats have been amplified. That is, a positive relationship can be established in the context of post-revolutionary Iran between heightened fears of regime change from outside and intensified state repression inside. This may tempt one to make the conclusion that the authoritarian rule of the Islamic Republic, accompanied as it has been by socio-political repression and domestic securitization, is likely to give way to a more democratic system of governance and greater respect for human rights if the ruling establishment feels sustainably secure about its survival. In other words, as soon as the IRI would get the ultimate deterrent and thus immunize itself against external threats to its survival, it might open up internally, allow for more democratic power-sharing, stop suppression of civil liberties, and thus democratize itself. According to the argument, therefore, nuclearization and the security guarantee it provides is likely to bring about democratization.


In fact, such an outcome may be a positive corollary of going nuclear, but whether historical evidence bears this out is subject to question. At least when it comes to the case of Iran, history points largely to the contrary: throughout a span of over three decades since the 1979 revolution, stints of increased immunity to external threat have often seen intensified civil repression, political fraud, and deterioration of human rights situation in the country.


Working examples of this correlation can best be found during the post-war presidency of Aki Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) when the intelligence and security apparatus, which had just been relieved from the threat posed by Iraqi aggression, embarked on a systematic campaign of opposition cleansing. After all, the chain murders of non-conformist intellectuals, dissidents and critics that came to a height in late 1998 had begun a decade earlier. The presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), characterized by his reform-oriented foreign policy of détente and dialogue, also offers some evidence to that effect. Ensured by the favorable security environment following the collapse of Saddam Hussein, in which the reformist government of Iran played a helpful role, and the nuclear concessions of October 2003, whereby it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol, the ruling hardliners moved to hijack the parliamentary elections of February 2004 by selectively blocking the participation of around 3000 candidates. Notably, the aberration, comfortably carried out as it was, set a precedent for electoral fraud in the 2005 and 2009 presidential votes.

One should admit that the jury is still out. It is not a far-fetched argument, however, to say that Tehran’s acquisition of the bomb will likely put the final nail in the coffin of struggle for democracy and human rights in Iran. Of course, this is not to say that lack of access to the ultimate deterrent will necessarily improve the likelihood of democratization in such an authoritarian setting, but that if a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic can hardly be contained externally – particularly as far as small-scale and asymmetric conflicts are concerned – it cannot at all be contained internall

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In 1884 The Times newspaper coined the phrase ‘Scramble for Africa’ to describe the contention between the major European powers for a share of what the Belgian king Leopold contemptuously referred to as  ‘this magnificent African cake.’ Britain, France, Belgian, Germany and the other big powers each attempted to carve out their share of the African continent during the infamous Berlin Conference, held over several months in the winter of 1884-1885. They then proceeded to invade and occupy their designated colonies in the period leading up to World War I, without any concern for the fate of the inhabitants of the African continent. That was the era of the so-called ‘civilising mission’ and ‘White man’s burden,’ that provided openly racist justifications for the conquest and partition of almost the entire African continent. It was undoubtedly one of the great crimes against humanity leading to literally millions of deaths of African men, women and children even in a singly colony, such as King Leopold’s ironically named Congo Free State.

The crimes of colonial conquest and rule, which also created the arbitrary division and externally imposed boundaries that still plague Africa, were perpetrated many years ago. Today, however, commentators speak of a new ‘scramble’ for Africa when referring to the intense rivalry between today’s big powers, such as the US, China, Britain and France, that has already led to military intervention in several African countries, most recently Mali and Libya, the establishment of the US African Command (AFRICOM) with a pan-African remit, in addition to economic and other forms of intervention and external interference throughout the African continent. Recent events in the Central African Republic, where a coup has taken place that appear to favour the leading members of NATO at the expense of the members of the BRICS grouping, have also been explained in terms of a new scramble.

The contention between the world’s major economic and military powers has been a constant feature of the African continent’s recent history. It was certainly a feature of the 1930s, when the fascist powers, Germany and Italy, as well as Japan demanded a ‘place in the sun,’ a re-partition of Africa in their favour and Italy, with the connivance of Britain and France, invaded and occupied Ethiopia. Competition and contention also existed during the ‘Cold War’, the period of the bi-polar division of the world between the US and Soviet Union and their respective allies. In this period the big powers sought to subvert the efforts of African countries to rid themselves of the shackles of colonial rule and to establish proxies and clients, new neo-colonial states that provided economic and geo-political advantage throughout the continent. The activities of the Soviet Union in Ethiopia for example and the NATO powers in Angola and South Africa are obvious examples.

The new ‘scramble’ might be said to have commenced with the contention for the resources of the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the late 1990s. Competition for the uranium, coltan, cobalt and other minerals in the DRC led to a major war involving seven African nations in 1996, and consequently to millions of deaths (estimates vary between 3-10m people).

The new ‘scramble’ is also a consequence of the fact that Africa stands poised to break free from the economic dependency that has been one of the most enduring and damaging legacies of colonial rule and its aftermath. In the past decade six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies were in Africa. In eight of the last ten years Africa’s economic growth has been faster than that of East Asia. Africa’s population is growing too and expected to provide half of the world’s increase in population in the next forty years. It is also expected that Africa will soon have over 100m people with an income of over $3000 per annum (almost the same as India). As a consequence the World Bank has reported that the continent could be on the brink of the same kind of economic take-off as experienced by China and India in the past, even though it is still heavily reliant on external investment. Africa is becoming increasingly important not only as a supplier of raw materials but also as a location for capital investment (this has increased by 500% over the last ten years).  The continent is particularly important for its oil and gas supplies in established areas such as Libya, Nigeria, Guinea, Angola, and Algeria but also in new areas such as, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Somalia. The US gets 15% of its oil from Africa, more than from the Middle East, and this is set to rise to around 25%. However, the US and its allies often find themselves in competition with the other big powers. China, for example, now obtains a third of its imported oil from Africa. The major buyers of Sudan’s oil are China, Japan, India and Malaysia and China has also become a major purchaser of Nigeria’s oil.

At the same time as the increasing contention for economic advantage in the continent, the people of Africa are demanding an end to the consequences of neo-liberal globalisation and unpopular governments that are little more than the proxies of external powers. It cannot be forgotten that the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ actually began in Africa and that the struggles of the people of Egypt and Tunisia for empowerment and people-centred economies continue. The possibility of revolutionary change as well as economic growth has only intensified the contention between the big powers in Africa and their attempts to maintain their domination over the continent. The old imperialist powers have been joined by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and others, all contending for Africa’s mineral resources and growing markets, as well as for strategic advantage in the continent. The BRICS countries used to account for 1% of Africa’s trade but now account for 20% and by 2030 possibly 50%. The biggest impact has come from China which is now the major economic power in Africa, has provided interest free loans, buys increasing amounts of Africa’s other minerals as well as oil, has tens of thousands of workers in Africa, in addition to many manufacturing and construction companies.  Contention between the NATO powers and China is occurring throughout the continent and was evident in Libya, throughout the Sahel region and in other countries such as the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Unable to compete economically, the western countries led by the US have sought other means to preserve their influence. The US established its AFRICOM in 2007 allegedly as part of the ‘war against terror’ and to safeguard US national interests but with the aim of countering the influence of China and other economic rivals in Africa. AFRICOM with the support of Britain, France and other NATO allies used military might to intervene in Libya, not in the interests of the people of that country, since it was the most economically developed in Africa with its own unique political system, but in order to establish in their own interests the stated policy of ‘regime change,’ something which is entirely contrary to international law and the Charter of the United Nations. Libya was one of the few African countries not allied to NATO, nor to AFRICOM, and played a vital economic and political role in the African Union. The destruction of the ‘Great Jamahiriya’ has consequently had a major negative impact not just in North Africa and the Sahel region but also throughout the continent.

AFRICOM, which has established connections and joint training exercises with the military in most African countries, appears to have been modelled on earlier US military initiatives in Africa such as the Pan-Sahel Initiative, and Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Project, that both centred on Mali. It is an extraordinary coincidence that it was precisely in a region identified as important for strategic and economic reasons and targeted by the Pentagon for ‘counter-terrorism’ for nearly a decade, that ‘terrorists’ then appeared in the wake of military intervention in Libya, necessitating further military intervention in Mali by France, Britain and other allies of the US in 2013.

It is to be noted that just as during the ‘scramble’ for Africa in the nineteenth century all kinds of justifications are now advanced for continued external interference: ‘humanitarian intervention,’ the need to control ‘ungoverned spaces’ and ‘fragile states,’ as well as the ‘right to protect’ civilians. But perhaps these pretexts should be regarded in the same way that we now regard the ‘civilising mission’ and ‘white man’s burden’.

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