Category Archives: Political Risk

You Say You Want a Revolution?

Journal review: Nam Kyu Kim, “Revolutionary Leaders and Mass Killing,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 1-29 (2016): accessed June 22, 2016.  [Sage link]

When people remark to me that “we need a revolution,” depending on my mood and on our relationship, I usually remark sardonically something to the affect of “so you want blood, violence, and potentially a decades long civil war?”

They usually then stare at me agape like I said something not true.

This, I argue, is the truth: Revolutions strongly correlate with mass violence.

A Study on Revolutionary Leaders And Mass Violence

A recent article published in the critically-respected Journal of Conflict Resolution examines claims that revolutionary leaders are more violent than counterrevolutionary leaders and the results are stark. This study particular grabbed me for it’s uniqueness, scope, and breadth. Kim states that “this article is an attempt to fill th[e] gap by providing rare cross-national evidence showing the importance of individual leaders in explaining mass violence.“Not many articles have directly done this before, it seems (I write “it seems” because I am just now beginning my graduate studies and am in no way an expert on this, but Kim does mention the uniqueness of his study.)

Nam Kyu Kim, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln examined almost 80 different revolutionary leaders from and 748 country-years (sum of all of the years that any dictator was in power) regarding perpetuating mass violence. National data sets from over 162 countries from 1955 to 2004 were utilized. The basic question studied was: are revolutionary leaders distinctly commit more acts mass violence than nonrevolutionary leaders. This study even factored in those who took power through extra-judicial means (coup d’état, rebellions).

Leaders who took power through coups or rebellions but who didn’t have an exclusionary revolutionary ideology didn’t commit acts of violence at the level that revolutionary leaders did. Revolutions are unique and distinct situations. One could also argue that this adds evidence to the Great Man theory column of debate regarding just how important individuals are in the grand scheme of history.  People – specific leaders (and their ideologies) – matter tremendously.

The results paint a pretty stark picture: yes, revolutions are violent and revolutionary leaders commit more acts of wanton destruction than other leader-types regardless of the situation on the ground:

“These results indicate that the violent behaviors of revolutionary leaders are not entirely attributable to the political turmoil surrounding revolutions but are also a factor of the leaders’ personal attributes.”

This is precisely why authoritarian ideology terrifies me. Narrow exclusionary notions of who belongs to the “us” group makes it easier to dehumanize the “other” and the results are often ugly (see 1994 Rwanda genocide).

Revolutions Call For and Create…

Kim does focus on individual leaders but he also briefly breaks down and muses on the fact that the very properties of revolutions produces situations that are more prone to violence because they categorically create opposition movements. “The radical transformation of society produces large dissatisfied groups whom leaders may view as a serious threat to their goals,” writes Kim. Justifications run amok and groups outside the “universe of obligation” (Fein, 1993, according to Kim) are scapegoated as opponents of the movement. For fear of a counterrevolution, any forms of stopping such a movement is justified in ideological terms. It’s easy to see how subjects can easily turn into objects. In fact, recent understandings of the brain show that this switch can, unfortunately, happen quite swiftly.

Kim’s Main Findings

  • There are substantial differences in the behavioral tendencies of political leaders to initiate mass violence; revolutionary leaders are more likely to commit genocide or politicide than nonrevolutionary leaders.”

    Kim even tested differences within revolutionary leaders; those “with an exclusionary ideology are more likely than revolutionary leaders with no exclusive ideologies to commit mass atrocities.”

  • The risk of genocide or politicide is high in the immediate postrevolutionary period when regime change occurs; even after their hold on power stabilizes, revolutionary leaders are still more likely to commit genocide or politicide.”

    Meaning that the potential and propensity for mass violence doesn’t decrease the longer the leader is in power, which speaks a lot about the individual’s ideas rather then any external happenings. In fact, evidence shows that “risk of mass killing outbreak rises after 6 years in office.” The “importance of ideology and religion” is stressed here.

It’s important to note the caveats here which highlight just how tentative such studies are. It doesn’t make for good headlines or quite digestible InfoFood but we would all be better off if we ended each conversation with “…but more study is definitely needed, of course.” Kim: “My findings cannot provide a definite conclusion about the relative significance of the ideological ambitions of the revolutionary leaders versus their past experience of violence or attitudes toward risk and violence.” Maybe it’s just the fact that these leaders have experienced victory or certain discrete goals in the past and that is why they were more likely to use violence. The author also states that he only found weak evidence (though statistically significant) in support of the hypothesis that revolutionary leaders are more likely to commit mass atrocities than others. Also, revolutionary leaders are less likely to engage in mass attacks when “faced with interstate conflicts.”

Regardless of how this study will stand up in the subsequent years, this is an important first step in systematically analyzing the potential escalation factors regarding mass violence.

When Being Small is a Plus

In international relations, being powerful is, according to many realists, the only metric that matters. Forget your morals, ideals, strategies, etc, what actually matters is pure power. In Nye’s brilliant The Future of Power, he explains how things aren’t that simple.

There are ways that a smaller state, or power, can use its subservient position vis-à-vis a larger friend, actually can gain power or can use that position in the relationship to it’s advantage. While reading today, I was struck by an complimentary example – evidence – of this very idea: Chechnya.

In “The Chechen Gambit,” Tatia Lemondzhava, energy analyst from the World Bank, writes about how Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov is playing his subservient role to his advantage. Kadyrov in, perhaps, a performative public propaganda-dance announced that he will not run for re-election coming up when his term ends on April 5. The author writes that Kadyrov “has consistently used the political capital he has amassed since assuming office to bargain for dividends from the Kremlin.” You see, Lemondzhava’s point here is that Kadyrov doesn’t actually intend to step down. What he wants to happen is to force Russian president Vladimir Putin to go on-the-record and, essentially, beg and/or urge Kadyrov to reconsider.

This is a brilliant gambit.

Putin’s hands are tied because for the last decade or so he has relied on Kadyrov to maintain order in the Sunni North of Chechnya. The analyst reports that in a time of austerity, Kadyrov’s region is the sole region to receive more as opposed to less aid in the recent years. Kadyrov’s supporters planned on taking to the streets regarding his decision; they started a social media campaign, too. Kadyrov urged his supporters to be patient: Putin will come to the rescue, guys, trust me, is the implication.

“The largest state does not always win in the manipulation of economic interdependence,” writes Nye. Kadyrov’s move is equivalent to threatening retaliatory actions, in a way. It’s also an example of realpolitik, perhaps: is the alternative worse? Putin will most definitely answer with the affirmative: yes, indeed, this is why I will come out and urge Kadyrov to stay. This is not zero-sum, of course. Russian benefits by not having to deal with potential upheaval. Chechya retains it’s popular leader. Kadyrov gains even more prestige.

I encourage readers to read the whole article as it’s a fascinating example of how a lesser power who completely relies on a large power can use it’s seemingly subservient position to it’s advantage.

Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World

Book review: Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World (2015) by the president of Eurasia Groups Ian Bremmer (PhD; Stanford)

I find NYU political scientist and Time magazine editor-at-large Ian Bremmer fascinating. He is able to hold a conversation about modern affairs in a way that is authoritative yet casual and analytically brilliant and intellectually challenging. His latest book, his ninth, is his first book completely focusing on the foreign policy strategy of the U.S. I also vehemently (often, but not always) disagree with a lot of what he says; I am drawn to thinkers who challenge, provoke, and simply, to those who I disagree with. I believe this is how we grow as a thinker and is how we understand other perspectives.

Up front, he presents an interesting argument that Russia is not really a serious threat to the U.S. but that the U.S.-EU relationship could become tense due to Europe needing Russian financial customers, energy, and defense contracts. A provocative claim and one backed up with empirical data. The U.S. trades with Switzerland and Belgium, for example, more than with Russia (U.S. Census). Bremmer is worried about China who sometime during the next decade will become the largest economy but will still be “poor, potentially unstable, and authoritarian.” Whether we are talking about Russia aggression; or Chinas’ rise; or global warming (which Bremmer does not cover really at all, to my dismay); or the threat of terrorism; possible disease epidemics; or the refugee crises, America needs to choose a coherent strategy. Bremmer argues there are 3 potential choices.

Incoherent America (1990-2015)
Bremmer’s main argument is that post-Cold War through to this year, America has not had a coherent foreign policy strategy and the sole remaining superpower made mostly bumbling mistakes built on ignorance, hubris, and blurry vision and spotty goals like the Somalian intervention (Clinton); expanding NATO (Clinton/Bush 43); and the War on Terror + Bush tax cuts (Bush43/Obama). On Obama, Breemer argues that in his first term, he had a more coherent strategy but that quickly dissolved and “President Obama refused to commit to any foreign policy framework to help him make difficult decisions.” This brings us to 2015, the 2016 presidential campaigns, and the future. We need a strategy, not just tactical ideas but a coherent strategy to guide the country and to signal to the world our strengths and values. Bremmer often meets with foreign ministers from allies and enemies alike and they all say: we don’t know what America stands for. This is a problem.

Option #1: Independent America
Here Bremmer delineates the disaster that has been the rise of the military-industrial complex and the costs, human and fiscal, of American acting as the one true superpower. The author cites a 2013 Harvard study showing that when all is said and done, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will cost our country nearly $7 trillion. Americans in hundreds of polls have shown our disapproval of national building, war, “free trade” deals like NAFTA, and so on and so on. Americans are fatigued and understand that we need to nation-build here at home. Independent here refers to the fact that American citizens want America to make decisions that prioritize our interests; not our allies or our neighbors even. We need to go our separate ways and to worry about our needs such as infrastructure, education, and caring for our veterans now they are back home from a decade of war. This strategy is bolstered by being supported by the American public in poll-after-poll-after-poll.

This brings us to Bremmers’ – or Americas’ rather – second option.

Option #2: Moneyball America
Moneyball Americans view Independent America as isolationists. This view of America sees that we “must lead coalitions of the willing,” and “U.S. foreign policy must promote and protect global growth, both by minimizing the risk of war and by giving as many countries as possible a stake in stability through commerce and investment.” Moneyballers, based on the Oakland A’s famous baseball approach, “rel[y] on a cold-blooded, interest-driven approach to maximize the return on the taxpayer’s investment.” Value over values. We need to “maximize returns on minimal investment.” This is a business-minded approach. We should view foreign policy like businesses view venture projects. Regarding the three leading Middle East powers, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, we should – in my loose summation – play all three cards. Or: American should use its hand to balance powers. Don’t get caught up in too many nets; have an exit strategy.

Option #3 Indispensable America
This final option is probably the option that most Americans are familiar with. America must lead. America is the shining light on the hill. America is the best-est most brightest country in the world. I’m being a little breezy here. On a serious note: this option is realistic. In Bremmers’ words through the glasses of a proponent: “Americans can only be more secure in a world where democracy, rule of law, access to information, freedom of speech, and human rights are universally recognized and protected, because these values create lasting strength, resilience, security, and wealth in the societies that establish and protect them.” Basically someone must lead and that someone has to be the U.S., according to this viewpoint. Regarding debt and money: “The United States can pay its debts by simply printing more money.” This is probably the sentence I agree with the most in the entire book, but that’s for a different time perhaps. In summation, this strategy is the most historically and realistically coherent, in my opinion.

What strategy should we choose?
In the beginning of the book, Ian produces a 10-question quiz and he asks the reader to take it. After each chapter/strategy-option, he reprints the quiz with highlighted answers based on the arguments of each option. According to the questions (an ex: U.S. spy capabilities: a) will always be a double-edged sword. b. Threaten our privacy. c. Are vital for protecting America. I chose a, by the way which is in alignment with Independent America, for example.) I have a mumbled complicated and overlapping (read: non-strategy strategy) answer. 10% of me is an Independent America; 50% of the time I agree with Moneyball America; 30% of the time I align with the Indispensables.

This is interesting because while reading the book, I mostly agreed with Independent America as the most wise choice of the three; followed closely by the Indispensable chapter. In reality, the way Moneyball was presented, I do sort of think about problems in my life and in politics in this way. So what did the author choose? Professor Bremmer actually chose Independent America as the wisest choice; he does so reluctantly mind you.

This book is a fantastic primer and summary of the world that awaits us. As someone who is graduating with a B.A. in political science in just a few months, I knew all of the facts presented here; I know the arguments, history, and context and therefore, I could have used a more complex book. I definitely think climate change is the existential issue of our lives; thus I always want climate change discussed more. Always. However, I am not casting aspersions. This book is great for all Americans to read. Whether you think nation-states are inherently bad and you are an anarchist or whether or not you are a international institutionalist who thinks nation-states should yield to a world government, Superpower is written as the world is, not as any of us want it to be. America will be the world’s most powerful country, in many ways, for the foreseeable future. I recommend this book to political science students; government and business leaders; and all other engaged and responsible citizens across the country.