Monthly Archives: September 2011

Is Afghanistan Getting Better or Worse?

An interesting dispute has broken out between the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the NATO mission there (ISAF) about whether the latest data show a positive or negative trend in fighting and civilian casualties. Since my new book is all about this kind of question for the world as a whole over recent decades, the dispute caught my eye, and in a way both reports are right.

In the UN report, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tells the Security Council that the first 8 months of 2011 had 39 percent more “security incidents” than the same period last year. The more than 2,000 incidents per month, mostly in the south of the country, the Taliban’s traditional area of strength, include bombings and assassinations, but also weapons cache finds, arrests, and “intimidation.” Suicide attacks were up 50% from last year, with somewhere around a dozen per month, according to the UN.

In recent months the UN counts more than 300 civilian deaths per month, with the rate increasingly modestly from last year. Almost 80% of civilian casualties were caused by the insurgents, and of those caused by NATO the majority were from airstrikes (which caused 38 civilian deaths in July).

NATO disputes the conclusion that things are getting worse, noting that insurgent attacks (the most important element of the UN’s broader “security incidents”) fell 20% in July compared with July of last year. NATO also points to downward trends in insurgent attacks in recent months compared with earlier in the year. “Complex” insurgent attacks decreased 20% in the first half of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. ISAF Cmdr. Gen. John Allen said “the gains are everywhere in some form or another, in terms of security” and pointed to “tremendous gains in the south in particular.”

How can both sides be right? Well, NATO brought in a “surge” of troops and took back territory from Taliban control over the last year, especially in the south. That involved an upswing in fighting, but resulted in a decreased Taliban capacity — hence some increase in incidents and civilian casualties from last year, but a downward trend in attacks as this year goes along. NATO wants to emphasize progress, showing that its strategy is working, whereas the UN wants to emphasize worrisome effects on civilians to show the value of the UN presence.

My opinion — it’s a mixed bag of progress but still a mess. Maybe we can all agree on that?

Yemen on the Brink Again

Yemen protesters 9/24/11The president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has returned from Saudi Arabia where he spent three months recovering from wounds suffered in an assassination attempt. His return confounds the predictions of most analysts, including myself, who had declared him a goner.

After declaring his peaceful intentions, the president had his forces attack peaceful demonstrators at Change Square outside the university in the capital, with sniper fire and mortars. At least 17 protesters were killed, and hundreds fled, but some thousands remain in the square as they have for months. Government forces also attacked the forces of the defectors from the army who have been protecting the protesters. Eleven died there. And they attacked the armed tribesmen from a rival tribe, killing 17.

These attacks follow earlier massacres six days ago, when government forces attacked the young peaceful protesters, who were eventually saved by the army defectors. Then a few days ago the government shelled funerals of protesters who had been killed. It all threatens a dangerous escalation, and the potential for an all-out civil war. The carefully laid plans for a transition — proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and accepted by President Saleh before he changed his mind — seem nowhere closer to being carried out.

In the south of the country, the government regained ground from Islamist militants two weeks ago. More than 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. It’s the fight the USA cares most about,  since Yemeni militants affiliated with Al Qaeda have tried several times to attack the United States. But it’s completely unclear what the status of that fight is.  On the surface, it appears the militants have seized cities in the region, and regularly leave graffiti on the walls of the important port city of Aden. However, some people think the militants are entirely a creation of President Saleh, to convince the West of a terrorist threat and justify military aid to his government. Personally, I tend to think the militant are real, if perhaps manipulated by the government which can attack them or give ground to them as circumstances demand. They are also located right across the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden from the Islamist militants in Somalia, who are definitely real.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, and the fighting this year has destroyed much of its sad economy. Research on civil wars shows that poverty and a recent history of war are two powerful predictors of risk that a new civil war will erupt. Having neighbors like Somalia doesn’t help either. It all puts Yemen at grave risk.

Obama at the UN

Obama UN photoThe world’s leaders have assembled, as they do every Fall, to talk out their problems at the UN General Assembly. It is a quaint ritual in some ways, but important as a gathering where each member state goes on record about its views of the current world. This ritual strengthens the sense of humanity as united, in that everyone is there visibly participating. And even though the General Assembly has little power, it can occasionally make a difference to some extent, as it is likely to do this year when it gets around to granting Palestine an upgraded status but one short of UN membership. Of course the Assembly can highlight differences among countries too. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, recently likened it to the bar scene in Star Wars, full of strange aliens.

Yesterday President Obama had his turn. He praised the UN for working for peace in an imperfect world. Then he spent most of his energy, and political capital, trying to square the circle of U.S. policy on Palestine. A year ago he urged full statehood for Palestine, but now he says it’s not time yet, and he promises to veto a Security Council resolution that would be needed before Palestine could become the 194th member of the UN. (Actually Palestine currently is one vote short of the nine needed in the Council, even without a U.S. veto.) In this, Obama is continuing the U.S. tradition of saving Israel at the UN, yet his Republican opponents still accuse him of throwing Israel under the bus. The guy just can’t seem to catch a break these days.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was thinking of skipping the General Assembly and sending his ultra-right foreign minister instead, to show that the UN is not where the action is. Israel and the UN have not had a good relationship for decades, although the UN originally voted to accept Israel in the community of states, and sent mediators and peacekeepers to end the first Arab-Israeli war, get Israel out of trouble in Suez in 1956, and try to stabilize the area of Lebanon just north of Israel’s borders. It’s been twenty years since the General Assembly rescinded a notorious resolution equating Zionism with racism, but hard feelings linger. So one can see why Netanyahu would want to say, the Palestine issue must be solved here, one-on-one with us. The UN is not where the action is. But that’s just the thing – however much it sometimes resembles a three-ring circus, or worse, a really boring college lecture, the UN is where the action is. And so, there was prime minister Netanyahu today, meeting other leaders and preparing to take his turn and have his say with his 192 counterparts.

And there was Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, making his case for Palestine as a full state, the unfinished half of the partition of British mandate Palestine that the UN proposed more than 60 years ago. (Abbas will speak tomorrow and plans to submit the membership application today.) Everyone sensible agrees there should be a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel. The Security Council endorsed the vision almost a decade ago. Obama agrees. Netanyahu agrees in theory. Just not at the UN, not now, not today. And the problem with Obama’s position is not just that he’s stalling for time, but that he doesn’t seem to have an alternative path or solution that he’s stalling for. Sooner or later reality will catch up with Israeli and American governments and they will have to get proactive and push forward to a solution, not on their ideal terms but on the best workable terms they can get. The Palestinian state will join the UN. And as the old Jewish saying goes, “If not now, when?”


Hammarskjöld’s UN

Hammarskjold photoFifty years ago today, the world lost a leader called by President Kennedy “the greatest statesman of our century.” The second secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, died in a plane crash while trying to negotiate an end to a bloody war in the Congo. Over five decades, the memory of Hammarskjöld has faded, but today’s United Nations – the place where world leaders are again gathering to talk out their issues – bears his imprint from top to bottom. We are living in a world of Hammarskjöld’s making.

For starters, it was Hammarskjöld who first proposed a strange new idea, armed peacekeeping, to the UN General Assembly in 1956 as a solution to the Suez War. It worked. Although peacekeeping today stands as the most visible symbol of the UN, it is not even mentioned in the UN Charter. Hammarskjöld called it “Chapter 6½” of the Charter, between the peaceful dispute resolution in Chapter 6 and the use of force against aggression described in Chapter 7. Today the UN has a force of 100,000 uniformed peacekeepers from 114 countries deployed in 16 conflicts around the world. And it’s a bargain, costing the average American household $2 a month, compared with $700 a month for military spending and veterans’ benefits.

Hammarskjöld also pioneered the concept of the secretary-general as an independent figure of moral authority on the world stage. The great powers in the early days of the UN wanted a weak secretary-general who would not challenge them. Indeed, they picked Hammarskjöld – a bland Swedish technocrat and intellectual who followed developments in nuclear physics and carried a notebook for writing poems – in expectation of a pliable leader who would carry out the Security Council’s wishes and no more.

They were mistaken. Hammarskjöld became an activist secretary-general and the model for an independent secretariat ever since.  When communist China shot down an American plane in 1954 and held the crew prisoner, Hammarskjöld asked to come to China in a personal capacity as secretary-general, not as a representative of the Security Council, which had authorized the Korean War pitting Chinese soldiers against troops under the UN flag. (Taiwan held the Chinese UN seat). The prisoners were released. During the Congo crisis of 1960-61, Hammarskjöld learned that the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council gave him leeway for independent action, since attempts to rein him in could be blocked by any of the permanent five. Over the years, the UN would emerge not as the coercive force for collective security originally foreseen, but as a supranational moral authority able to navigate among conflicting national interests.

Today the great powers all generally support the UN, as do their publics. (Don’t believe the UN-bashing rhetoric in U.S. politics – a 2007 survey showed that an overwhelming 79 percent of Americans favor strengthening the UN, a sentiment shared in the other permanent Security Council member states.) This too owes a debt to Hammarskjöld, who had to hold his ground against harsh attacks from both sides early in the Cold War until cooler heads prevailed. The Soviet Union blasted the UN for its role in Korea and its refusal to seat communist China instead of Taiwan. It attacked Hammarskjöld personally for the UN’s supposedly neo-colonial peace mission in the Congo in 1960. In fact the USSR proposed doing away with the position of secretary-general, and Nikita Khrushchev famously banged out his displeasure with a shoe during a General Assembly session. The European powers opposed the UN’s Congo mission because it blocked the secession of Katanga province, a great source of mineral wealth and hence European profits. (But contrary to speculation at the time, the Hammarskjöld plane crash was an accident, not an assassination by Katanga’s secessionists.)

And the United States in 1953 created a “loyalty board” that investigated more than 1,700 Americans working in the UN. This created the bizarre spectacle in 1954 of the U.S. government holding hearings against Ralph Bunche – the brilliant African-American professor who worked at the UN as Hammarskjöld’s implementer-in-chief – at the same time Bunche was president of the American Political Science Association and a dinner guest at the White House.

Against these attacks from all sides, Hammarskjöld held firm to a vision of the United Nations as a workable institution, not hostage to any country, that could take on the world’s most difficult political conflicts and find practical solutions to them. And despite its continuing challenges – the reluctance of members to cede an inch of sovereignty, the inadequate funding given to huge tasks, the grandstanding at the General Assembly, and more – that workable, practical UN is the UN we have today. The United Nations still has far to go to reach humanity’s highest ideals, but Hammarskjöld would be pleased to see how far it has come.

Peace Is Increasing!

One of the most important and overlooked developments in International Relations is the decline of armed conflict in recent decades. The most consequential part of this change is that the world’s regular national armies are no longer fighting each other anywhere in the world. Even the remaining civil wars are getting fewer, smaller, and more localized. Of course, we all focus on the worst ones — currently Afghanistan and Pakistan — because they are newsworthy and do need our attention. But in the big picture, humanity’s efforts to reduce war and win peace are working.

Recognizing those successes means we can build on them. In particular, UN peacekeeping has done tremendous good in stabilizing cease-fires and peace agreements, yet these missions are chronically underfunded. The average American household pays $700 a month for the military budget, and $2 a month for peacekeeping.  My modest proposal is to raise it to $4 and give a tremendous boost to peacekeeping.

Please share this “Peace Is Increasing” video widely and let’s set people straight about the progress that’s taking place. The YouTube URL is

The whole story is in my book Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, just published today! The book website,, is linked in the right column of this blog (“Peace Increasing”) and includes the first chapter, a radio interview, and my recent summary article in Foreign Policy magazine.

If you thought a disease, epidemic, or economy was getting worse when it was actually getting better, you’d make all kinds of mistakes in “treating” it. The same goes for war. Like spending $700 a month per American household on the military budget. Knowledge is power, and understanding the changing world we live in has to be the basis for sound foreign policies. Spread the word.


The United Nations – Next Up

UN HeadquartersWith the 9/11 anniversary past, we are ready to look ahead to the next big issue, and in my opinion that’s going to be the United Nations, whose General Assembly convenes shortly for several weeks of speeches by the world’s leaders. This year, Palestine is the top of the agenda.

The Palestinian Authority leaders are tired of years of stalled peace talks, or no peace talks, while Israel expands its settlements in the West Bank. So they are pushing the issue by taking their case for a state of their own to the UN. Western leaders who showed up recently to plead with Palestinian leaders to not bring the issue to the UN were told they were coming too late with too little to offer.

The issue will likely go first to the Security Council, which must approve any new member but where the USA has promised to use its veto to stop such an outcome. Then the Palestinians can go to the General Assembly and ask that their status be upgraded from “Observer” (like the Red Cross) to “Observer nonmember state” (like the Vatican). Right now this looks pretty likely to succeed. Although seemingly a small change, the new status would let them, for example, take conflicts with Israel to the World Court (where only states can bring cases).  Israelis who are always anxious, not without reason, and especially now as relations fray with their former allies Turkey and Egypt, have become even more anxious about the Palestinian UN gambit.

Nobody knows how this turn of events will turn out in the unstable region, but in my view Israel has little to fear from a focus on Palestine in the UN. Nor does an Observer State pose any greater threat to Israel than an Observer Party does. The UN General Assembly rescinded its resolution equating Zionism with racism some twenty years ago, and can be no more than an annoyance to Israel at worst. At best, it is a place where all the world’s countries can come together and hash out their positions on the issues of the day. And the issues of the day this time includes Palestine, so I say go for it.

Plenty of other issues are on the UN agenda as well. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has, like several of his predecessors, proposed a greater emphasis on preventive diplomacy to head off wars. It’s much cheaper than waiting until war occurs and then sending in peacekeepers. But until violence breaks out, it has always been hard to get the attention of the great powers on the Security Council. And by “attention” I mean money. The Security Council gives too few resources to peacekeeping and diplomacy in general, and especially to preventive efforts. (And by “resources” I mean money.)

Speaking of money, the U.S. Congress has a bill under consideration to radically change the funding of the UN. In this case “radically change” means “destroy.” The bill proposed by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would make US contributions to the UN voluntary. Other countries would presumably follow suit, and the UN would more or less collapse. Then the USA would be stuck paying more money to solve problems from conflicts to contagious diseases ourselves and with coalitions of the willing. Under the proposal, U.S. contributions to peacekeeping — a tremendous success story overall, albeit not without problems — would be halted. The UN Foundation has begun a petition campaign at to oppose the House bill.

To put this in perspective, the average American household pays $700 a month for our military forces, and $2 a month for UN peacekeeping. I propose in my new book, Winning the War on War, that we dramatically increase funding for peacekeeping — like maybe all the way up to $4 a month. I’m thinking we could afford that without too seriously damaging our military budget.

Peacekeeping and the UN itself are just about the biggest bargains around these days. Cutting off their funding is the dumbest idea to come out of a Foreign Affairs Committee chair in a long time. My only question is how long it will take Democrats to realize that the United Nations — an institution that some 79 percent of Americans want to strengthen, in a recent poll — is the perfect “wedge issue” for the 2012 elections. It separates the crazy Republicans in the House of Representatives — and their tea-party, UN-bashing friends — from the moderate Republicans (yes, Virginia, we still have moderate Republicans here in New England) and independent voters. Want to bash the UN? Bring it on!


The World’s Most Important Issues

Here’s a shout-out to the college students starting the semester using my textbook International Relations. You will learn about many complex issues, trends, and theories. But keep your eye on some Big Issues that matter most. Here are five of them:

1. Global Warming. It is for your generation the greatest threat to humanity, a catalyst of international conflicts, and an issue that the international system has proven utterly incapable of solving so far. Global warming is the very model of a “collective goods problem” in that all countries will share the outcome but each one’s contribution to that outcome is made independently. If China and the United States keep burning coal (and they do), Europe, Southeast Asia, and others will pay the price even if they themselves act responsibly.

Within countries, where there is a government with coercive powers, the solution to problems like this is to force people to follow a solution, just like we make cars get smog inspections and repairs. The international system (a.k.a. “anarchy”) does not have that option. So we’re left with cooperative arrangements based on reciprocity, like the Kyoto treaty — you cut x amount of carbon, we cut y amount…  Without enforcement, and with long-term benefits but short-term costs, it hasn’t worked.

For decades, scientists have warned that global warming would lead to bigger storms, floods, droughts, and fires as the world’s weather system became unbalanced. Hurricane Katrina came and went, and lately we seem to have lots of these weather disasters. But a rising number of Americans, now about half, think the effects of global warming have been exaggerated. Congress certainly doesn’t want to pay to address it. And China still wants to keep growing at 10 percent a year.

As you learn about world order and the many structures of the international system, state-based and nonstate, think about this question: What would need to happen in order for the world to respond effectively to the problem of global warming?

2. The Decline of Armed Conflict: Another huge and underappreciated trend is the decrease in warfare in recent decades. The world’s states have not only joined the UN and agreed to work out their problems peacefully, they’ve actually stopped fighting. The remaining wars of the world, civil wars, are being gradually dampened, with greater effectiveness, by international peacekeeping.

What is it about the international system that has let countries deal with one of the worst, oldest problems of the human race, war, so much better than it deals with global warming? This issue is so important, it’s the subject of my new book, Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.

3. The Arab Spring: Nobody knows quite why it happened — presumably the huge “youth bulge” in Arab countries’ demographics had a role, as did the spread of information technologies, and the poor economic performance of the Arab world. And nobody knows quite where it’s going — perhaps a democratic transformation of the entire region, or perhaps a bloody Shi’ite-Sunni war. But everyone knows that It’s Big!

This is the latest of the waves of democratization that have swept the world over several decades, touching Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Military governments are becoming rare, and authoritarianism seems to be endangered. Stay tuned for breaking developments this semester!

4. Palestine: Speaking of the Middle East, the Israel-Palestine conflict can seem like just part of the background music in world politics, but it’s actually moving toward a breakthrough or breakdown. The world’s longest-running major armed conflict (60+ years), Palestine holds tremendous emotional resonance for Arabs and Muslims whose countries are not even remotely affected by the conflict directly. It also shapes America’s standing in a world region where a lot of oil comes from.

Later this month, Palestine may bring its case to the United Nations. That has set off a flurry of activity either to support that option or come up with an alternative. In effect, the idea of a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security) is on the line, with support eroding on both sides.

5. The Euro Zone:  Many of the benefits that countries enjoy in the international system come from trade and prosperity, no where more so than in Europe. The economic crisis that began in 2008, and has never really resolved, threatens those benefits. China faces the loss of export markets. The United States faces paralyzing stagnation. Most importantly, Europe faces the greatest test ever of its experiment in economic integration.

In particular, the euro currency — the world’s boldest financial experiment in history — is on the line. When it created the euro, the EU let individual countries control their own fiscal policies (taxation, spending), while centralizing monetary policy (how much currency to print). Right away it became clear that some countries, notably Greece but including big players like France, had cheated on the requirements of fiscal discipline needed before adopting the euro. Now Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and even Italy are facing debt crises because they spend too much and don’t take in enough revenue. Cutting government spending in the middle of a stagnant economic period is politically unpopular and may not make much sense economically either. But that leaves Germany and other stronger, more responsible EU members holding the bag for the problems of Greece & Co. The Germans don’t want to pay for others’ problems, but don’t want to let the euro be destroyed either. Again, stay tuned.

So, there you have it — five big issues to keep in mind, ranging from environmental politics to conflict to political economy. If you are a student studying IR this semester, you will have a great seat to watch the concepts in your textbook unfold in the real world in real-time.

Syrian Stalemate

Damascus protest photo Aug. 2011In Libya over recent months, events moved inexorably toward the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. The same is not true in Syria. Both the regime’s hold on power, and the demonstrators’ determination to keep protesting, are likely to last a long time. And there is not much the international community will prove willing and able to do about it.

The violence continues day to day. On Fridays especially, and all week long, the protesters turn out in the streets, having broken a wall of fear that had lasted for decades, and now stating they would rather die than be humiliated (a powerful motivation).  Government forces shoot them dead and torture them in prisons, apparently having calculated that one or two dozen deaths a day, rather than hundreds at once, will not create a crisis. Amnesty International has documented 88 fatalities in Syrian prisons, but the abuses run much deeper. This week the Syrian attorney general for the city of Hama, in an act of great bravery, resigned from office and said in an Internet video that he had seen 70 executions, hundreds of torture cases, and 420 victims in mass graves, in that city alone.

As the regime loses any shred of legitimacy, international pressure also continues to mount. The UN’s top human rights official now estimates that 2,200 people have been killed during the protests. European and American leaders continue to ratchet up sanctions and call for the resignation of Syrian president Assad. Turkey’s president, once a vital friend of Assad’s, has abandoned him. And now even Syria’s last ally, Iran, is showing some signs of weakening, as an Iranian lawmaker called the Syrian protesters’ demands legitimate and asked his government to stop backing Assad.

But there is a big gap between turning into a pariah state with no friends and actually losing power. Just ask the leaders of Burma or North Korea, who have been in power a long time. That is the gap Syria seems unlikely to cross. The Assad regime is based in a religious minority (Alewites, an offshoot of Shi’ism) and fears annihilation if the majority (Sunnis) gets into power. Despite a crack here and there, the officials and the armed forces have remained united and carried out the will of the top leadership.

That leaves little room for Libya-style military intervention. There is no rebel army to support with NATO airstrikes. There are no former government officials to form a transitional government. The opposition holds no territory. And with so much blood now shed, there is little prospect for a political solution that would usher in reforms or power-sharing.

Hence my depressing conclusion — this one is still a stalemate, and more people will continue to die. Eventually the protests may run out of steam, as they did after violent crackdowns in Iran a few years ago and Bahrain earlier this year. Or the opposition may turn to armed rebellion with a bloody civil war the result. Or a couple of dozen dead protesters a day may become the new normal in Syria, and it may drop out of the news as the West returns to our normal of weather disasters, sex scandals, and election spectacles. Speak up if you see a way out of this; I don’t.