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.

This week in terrorism history: Nov. 28 – Dec. 3

Fidel Castro, center, died Friday at the age of 90.
Fidel Castro, center, died Friday at the age of 90.


Former Cuban President Fidel Castro died over the weekend at age 90. Among the tributes that rolled in were those from one-time violent national liberation groups like the African National Congress and Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein, and leftist revolutionary movements like the FARC, which saw Castro as a fellow anti-imperialist revolutionary and champion.

Former Provisional Irish Republican Army Chief of Staff Gerry Adams, who has been Sinn Fein President since 1986 and is currently a member of the Irish parliament, will attend Castro’s funeral. Adams said of Castro:

  I have good memories of meeting with Fidel. He was very conversant with Irish history and good friend to the Irish people and an admirer of our armed struggle, especially the hunger strikers of 1981.

The United States in 1982 placed Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, in part due to the Castro government’s provision of safe haven to Basque separatists and links to revolutionary movements across Latin America, including the FARC in Colombia. Cuba was removed from the list last spring as part of the Obama administration’s move to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

President Elect Donald Trump responded to the initial news of Castro’s death with a characteristic tweet:

This was followed early this morning by another characteristically Trumpian tweet:

Now on to this week’s look back.

  • Nov. 27, 2009 — Russia: Derailment of Moscow-St. Petersburg train kills 26, injures 100. Evidence of an explosive device is found, but no claim of responsibility.
  • Nov. 28, 2002 — Kenya: Three suicide bombers drive a vehicle into the front of the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, killing 15 ans wounding 40. Several groups, including Al Qaeda make conflicting claims of responsibility.
  • Nov. 30, 1989 — Germany: Red Army Faction is suspected in the assassination of Alfred Herrhausen, head of Deutsche Bank AG.
  • Dec. 1, 2001 — Israel: Two suicide bombers detonate explosives in a mall, killing 10 and wounding 120. Hamas claims responsibility.
  • Dec. 2, 1983 — Spain: Basque group Iraultza bombs eight US facilities in Spanish Basque territory to protest American involvement in Central America.
  • Dec. 3, 2009 — Somalia: Man dressed in a burqa detonates bomb at a graduation ceremony for doctors in Mogadishu, killing three government ministers along with 16 others. Al Shabaab claims responsibility.