“Study the world!”

Screenshot from Charli Carpenter's ISA2017 presentation.
Screenshot from Charli Carpenter’s ISA2017 presentation.


Last month Donald Trump actually tweeted something that I can take to heart:

“Study the world!” says the president, who admittedly doesn’t read books. Hey, I’ve been studying the world for most of my adult life, starting way back in the olden days (that’s the 1980s) when I was an undergraduate International Relations major. Now I do it professionally as a scholar and professor of International Relations at Oakland University where I devote a lot of energy toward doing just what the president is calling for.

I just spent the better part of the last week in Baltimore with 6,500 other people who study the world at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association. I wrote about my initial thoughts about the conference here. One of those smart folks, my friend Steve Saideman of Carleton University in Canada, already posted his take on the conference here.

More of those smart folks appear in the presentation below that Charli Carpenter, a super smart professor at the University of Massachusetts, gave on Thursday evening.

Take four minutes and watch it:

A whole bunch of those smart people also took a stand in solidarity with colleagues around the world who were unable, or unwilling to travel to the United States as a result of Pres. Trump’s immigration policies and documented cases of harassment and intimidation directed against Muslim travelers trying to enter the country.

And during the conference, even more of these smart people signed an open letter to the American people in response to the president’s call. (Full disclosure, I have asked to have my name added to the list of signatories as the letter continues to circulate in academic circles.)

Here’s how that letter begins:

Dear Fellow Americans,

Recently, President Trump tweeted that people should “Study the world!” to understand his foreign policy. As scholars of international relations, we have studied the world, and we are concerned that the actions of the President undermine rather than enhance America’s national security.

We agree it is important for any President to protect US citizens from extremist violence, ensure America is respected abroad, and prioritize American interests. But our knowledge of global affairs, based on history, scientific fact and experience, tells us that many of the policies Trump has undertaken thus far do not advance these goals. Instead, they have made Americans less safe.

You can read the full text here, and if you are a PhD in International Relations or a related field and would like to have your name added to the letter, there are instructions how to do so.

North Korea’s the weird kid

dprk nuke

This afternoon I’m talking to my intro International Relations students about nuclear proliferation, arms races, deterrence, preemptive use of force, and other feel-good topics.

And with North Korea once again flexing its nascent nuclear muscles, while Iran does it’s own probing of the new Trump administration’s resolve, this is a particularly apt time to introduce these issues to my students.

Normally I’d just lecture on this. But instead, I’ll lead off with this very excellent documentary. Enjoy!

Teaching international relations at the dawn of the Trump Era


In two weeks Donald Trump goes from president-elect to president of the United States. As I told the students in my introductory level international relations class at our first meeting yesterday, I feel like all my lectures should now be accompanied by an asterisk, at least for the foreseeable future.

I describe the study of international relations to my students as a search for patterns of behavior and an attempt to identify and understand the underlying dynamics that create and sustain those patterns. Donald Trump, when he assumes office, is poised to blow those patterns up. Figuratively, I hope.

First as a candidate, then as president-elect, Trump has put forward and repeatedly reiterated a series of policy positions on national security, alliance relationships, trade policy, nuclear proliferation, human rights, and more that don’t just undermine but essentially repudiate the fabric of international institutions and norms of behavior that have brought a level of stability and peace amongst the great powers, and order to the international system more generally, that is frankly unprecedented in modern history.

That these institutions and norms were largely created, maintained, and enforced by the United States in the years immediately after World War II, and strengthened and broadened in the years since the end of the Cold War, adds to the tragic irony and irresponsibility of the foreign policy that Trump seems about to unleash on the world. As the world’s dominant actor, with unrivaled military, economic, and political clout, we’ve run the show. And now we’re about to walk away from all that.

In short, the United States will no longer defend the liberal world order that it built. As my friend Bill Ayres writes, this puts us into uncharted waters:

So what happens when a Hegemon abdicates? Nobody knows, because we don’t have a lot of good historical parallels. At the moment neither Russia nor China is a serious Challenger – would either start to think about assuming the US role? Would Europe, cut loose by a feckless Trump administration, go its own way, perhaps taking over the institutions the US developed? Would the Euro become the new world currency?

It’s not that Trump’s ideas are without precedent, either in terms of US foreign policy or in the arena of international politics. It’s just that they’ve been out of circulation, some of them for more than a century. A year ago in an article at Politico, Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution wrote:

One of the most common misconceptions about Donald Trump is that he is opportunistic and makes up his views as he goes along. But a careful reading of some of Trump’s statements over three decades shows that he has a remarkably coherent and consistent worldview, one that is unlikely to change much if he’s elected president. It is also a worldview that makes a great leap backward in history, embracing antiquated notions of power that haven’t been prevalent since prior to World War II.

It is easy to poke fun at many of Trump’s foreign-policy notions—the promises to “take” Iraq’s oil, to extract a kind of imperial “tribute” from U.S. military allies like South Korea, his eagerness to emulate the Great Wall of China along the border with Mexico, and his embrace of old-style strongmen like Vladimir Putin. But many of these views would have found favor in pre-World War II—and even, in some cases, 19th century—America.

In sum, Trump believes that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II. He has three key arguments that he returns to time and again over the past 30 years. He is deeply unhappy with America’s military alliances and feels the United States is overcommitted around the world. He feels that America is disadvantaged by the global economy. And he is sympathetic to authoritarian strongmen. Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.

But can he do it? That we still don’t know. And that’s what I mean when I say that Trump is poised to blow up the patterns of international politics that we have known for nearly 70 years, and which I have taught my students for as long as I have been doing this.

Robert Jervis of Columbia University, one of the great senior scholars in the field of international relations, sees in the Trump presidency an opportunity to test some of the things we thought we knew about the underlying causal factors shaping the patterns of global politics we observe. For example:

  • How important is the individual head of state in shaping his country’s foreign policy?
  • How strong a constraint on the head of state’s decisions is the foreign policy bureaucracy?
  • Domestic political calculations are presumed to be important influences on a president’s foreign policy agenda. Will Trump prioritize the populist trade and immigration policies that so resonated with his voters? Will he pay a price for his embrace of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s meddling in the presidential election? (Survey data suggests he won’t.)
  • At the level of the broad international system, our theories point to a strong tendency of democracies to cooperate with each other while engaging in more conflict-ridden relations with non-democratic states. Will this pattern hold given the transactional way that Trump conceives of relations between states?

Right now we just don’t have enough information to answer these questions. But we will soon enough. Until then, I’ll have to slap that asterisk on my lectures.

This week in terrorism history: Dec. 4-10

A member of Jahabat Fateh al-Sham with  the group's flag in Idlib province, northern Syria.
A member of Jahabat Fateh al-Sham with the group’s flag in Idlib province, northern Syria.


It was a relatively quiet week on the global terrorism front, so let me start this week’s look back by drawing to your attention a fascinating article posted at The Atlantic this morning profiling Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, an Egyptian who was killed in Syria three weeks ago in an air strike carried out the United States.

Muhajir, a veteran of the Afghan jihad 1980s, is credited with developing the theological justifications for the extreme violence that would later characterize ISIS and other groups. At the time of his death he had broken with ISIS and thrown in with Jahabat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front, fighting against both his one-time allies and the Assad regime in northern Syria.

As the article, penned by reporters Charlie Winter and Abdullah K. al-Saud, puts it:

While there is a striking paucity of open-source information about him, the Egyptian national, a veteran of the Afghan jihad and long-time al-Qaeda associate, had a massive impact upon the development of jihadist thought in the last four decades. Indeed, it’s hard to overstate his importance in the context of modern Islamist terrorism—neither the Islamic State nor al-Qaeda would be where they are today without him.

The profile highlights Muhajir’s role as the “theological brains” behind the ultraviolence that characterized the emergence of AQI, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor group to the Islamic State:

Ranging from ruminations on the merits of beheading, torturing, or burning prisoners to thoughts on assassination, siege warfare, and the use of biological weapons, Muhajir’s intellectual legacy will remain a crucial component of the literary corpus of ISIS—and, indeed, whatever comes after it—as a way to render practically anything permissible, provided, that is, it can be spun as beneficial to the jihad.

The full article is well worth your time if you are interested in understanding how religiously motivated terrorist groups justify the extreme levels of violence they characteristically exhibit. Here’s the link to the article again. Now on to this week’s list.

  • Dec. 4, 2000 — Israel: Awad Selmi, senior HAMAS leader, is killed during a terrorist operation.
  • Dec. 5, 2013 — Yemen: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) kills 52 and wounds 167 in a car bombing and gun attack on a military hospital in Sanaa.
  • Dec. 6, 2000 — Sri Lanka: Landmine believed planted by the LTTE kills four bus passengers and wounds 21.
  • Dec. 7, 2009 — Pakistan: Explosions in Lahore and Peshawar kill 58 and wound more than 150. No credible claim of responsibility.
  • Dec. 8, 2009 — Iraq: Near-simultaneous vehicle bombs at government buildings kill 127. Al Qaeda is blamed.
  • Dec. 9, 1976 — Northern Ireland: The Irish Republican Army carries out a series of fire-bomb attacks on shops in Derry.
  • Dec. 10, 1992 — Ireland: The Ulster Freedom Fighters, a cover name used by the Ulster Defense Association, carry out seven incendiary bomb attacks on shops in Dublin and in other Irish towns near the border with Northern Ireland.