Climate Change is the BIG issue in IR

COP_12_MAVThe most important issue in IR today, climate change, is receiving little scholarly attention in our discipline. To help address this gap, I am hereby winding down much of my work on war, retiring from my IR textbook, and will make climate change my main area of work. Thirty years ago I set out to understand war because it was the overriding moral issue of our time and the greatest threat to humanity. Today that issue is climate change.

Climate matters not only for practical reasons but because it cuts to the heart of IR as a field. IR is all about the governance of an “anarchic” system with weak central authority, in which power resides primarily in sovereign states whose individually rational decisions lead to bad outcomes for all. We call it the collective goods problem (public goods, collective actions, Prisoners’ Dilemma, etc.). It’s the central, pervasive theme of my IR textbook, shaping subfields from war to trade to international development. But the biggest example, the most difficult dilemma, and the case with the greatest impact is climate change.

Each actor’s economy benefits from burning fossil fuels, no single actor can affect the overall outcome alone, yet all will suffer catastrophic consequences as a result. The global governance mechanisms have proven very weak – the Kyoto treaty basically failed, targets are not being met, some leading economies are backsliding, and nobody has a workable plan for how to change our trajectory. Year by year, for our global institutions it’s “talk, baby, talk” while in the real world it’s “drill, baby, drill” from the melting Arctic to the American shale fields to the Persian Gulf.

The basic structural challenges to reaching agreement are amplified by several additional problems. Today’s generation would have to pay costs for the benefit of future generations – a hard sell whether in a democracy or an autocracy. Rich country would have to pay for the benefit of poor countries. And specific constituencies and regions will feel different costs and impacts:  multinational oil companies versus farmers in Bangladesh, for example. On top of it all, there is widespread public confusion about the issue, notably in its categorization as an “environmental” problem as though it will impact cute animals not cities.

This then is a prime area for IR scholarship in general and IR theory in particular.  The guru of IR theory, Robert Keohane, thinks so. But he writes, “In view of the magnitude of climate change, it is distressing to observe the slow response from political science as a discipline.” That’s an understatement. Consider the current issues of our leading IR journals. Let’s count the number of climate change articles and the total number of articles:

  • International Studies Quarterly, 0 for 16
  • Am. Political Science Review, 0 for 10
  • International Organization, 0 for 11
  • World Politics, 0 for 5
  • Journal of Conflict Resolution, 0 for 7
  • Journal of Peace Research, 2 for 8

Across these six journals, we have 2 climate-related articles out of 57. Both of those are about possible effects of shifting weather patterns on something we do study – armed conflicts. Not a single article deals with the challenge of an international system trying to come to terms with a massive collective goods problem that threatens civilization. This in a year when the world will gather in Paris to try for a new global agreement to grapple with the problem. Debra Javeline calls climate change “the most important topic political scientists are not studying.”

Climate change is not an environmental issue. It’s an existential issue – the slow-motion equivalent of an asteroid heading for earth. We have no effective global mechanism to develop and launch a mission to knock that asteroid off its trajectory. Yet every day it gets closer and harder to shift off its course. How would the world respond to that scenario?  Would a hegemon take the reins and implement a solution?  The G20?  The United Nations?  Would all countries have to contribute to an expensive solution?  Would competing programs by different states step on each other’s toes?  Would private companies abandon the profit motive to develop technologies to save us? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking about climate change in IR. Now would be a good time to start. The asteroid is not waiting.

[Photo credit:  COP 12 MAV by agenciaandes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

The World’s Wars — An Update

Homs-tank feb 23 2012 reutersThe two most important wars currently are in Syria and Ukraine, but for different reasons.

The Syria war, now including Iraq, matters because it is by far the world’s deadliest current armed conflict, and because the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, or ISIL) has created a transnational challenge unseen in international politics in many years. The data team in Uppsala, Sweden, was unable to estimate battle deaths for 2013, and the data for 2014 will not be released for several more months, but we know the order of magnitude is tens of thousands per year and something on the order of 200,000 over the last four years. Apparently, somewhat more than half of these are military fatalities with the rest civilians. Many millions of civilians have been displaced and large numbers are suffering terrible deprivation. Humanitarian efforts are frustrated both by inability to reach populations in need and by inadequate funding.  (Contribute to UNHCR here.)

Peace efforts for Syria are near a standstill.  There are no peacekeepers, no agreements, no negotiations, no UN Security Council resolutions laying out the path to follow. Russia backs the Assad government and the West opposes it. The UN envoy has been trying to get local cease-fires in specific places (currently working on Aleppo) with limited success.

Meanwhile ISIS holds territory in Syria and Iraq, most importantly the city of Mosul, Iraq.  ISIS challenges the entire state system on which international relations has operated for centuries.  This unites all the countries to stop them, from the United States and European powers to Russia, Iran, and the Gulf states. However, peace negotiations are not a viable option, and the military campaign against ISIS raises a collective goods problem in terms of who bears the costs.  Currently Iran and Iraq on the ground, and mostly the USA in the air, are providing the bulk of forces.  Given its lack of allies, ISIS will not pose a long-term threat, and is over-hyped in the media owing to its spectacles of barbarism, in my opinion.

The war in eastern Ukraine is far smaller and less deadly (about 6,000 deaths) but matters for another reason – it breaches red lines that had contained armed conflicts in recent years.  For the first time since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, two state armies have been directly fighting each other. This is a bit ambiguous, however, since Russia has sent its forces into battle with insignia stripped off, as “little green men,” rather than overtly.

The Russian seizure of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 represents a very, very rare case in recent decades of one member of the United Nations taking territory from another by armed force. Iraq did so with Kuwait in 1990 but the border was restored the next year by an international coalition in the Gulf War. Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 but the matter remains highly contested still.  These days, borders disputes are far more often resolved through international law and arbitration – this has happened in several Latin American cases and in West Africa in the past decade.  In Crimea, the land-grab is mitigated by the fact that Russia traditionally owned the peninsula and still has its navy based there. When Russia and Ukraine were both part of the Soviet Union, in 1954, Khrushchev abruptly transferred ownership to Ukraine. Still, many international borders have odd histories but using military force to readjust them would be an extreme step backward from the progress we’ve made over decades.

At the moment a shaky cease-fire (Minsk II) is in place in eastern
Ukraine, though it’s too early to say if it will hold up or just serve as a resupply lull.  Peace negotiations have included Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France.  Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are present, though often frustrated in their efforts.  The Ukrainian government would like to see UN peacekeepers but Russia probably will not allow this.  Ukraine and Russia have lived with a wide range of conflicts, ranging from natural gas prices to ethnic/linguistic differences, ideological divergence, and territorial disputes, ever since the USSR broke up in 1991.  There is some hope that a political process in the coming years will allow the two countries to coexist peacefully, perhaps with Crimea joining Russia under a legal framework approved by Ukraine, and eastern Ukraine firmly returned to Ukraine’s control with local autonomy. Economic sanctions on Russia are taking a high price but may or may not change Russian behavior.

The Ukraine war is also the main, though not the only, instance of armed conflict spreading beyond the zone of fighting that has characterized recent years.  That zone extends from central Africa through the Middle East to Pakistan. Beyond, and at the edges, wars had been winding down.  This is still true in Colombia, the only important armed conflict left in the Western Hemisphere, where peace talks have been going on for two years and a cease-fire is taking hold. But in West Africa, new and serious fighting has broken out in northern Nigeria; in northern Africa, Libya is descending into civil war; and in Southeast Asia, new fighting has broken out in the north of Myanmar/Burma.  These are all reversal in areas at the edge of the world’s zone of active warfare, where wars of recent decade had been fading away and peace had been taking hold.

Smaller wars in the heart of that zone continue.  Brutal ethnic conflicts in the Central African Republic and in the world’s newest country, South Sudan, are abating somewhat but settlements remain elusive.  In both cases, outside powers are engaged in working for peace, and UN peacekeepers are present (sizable missions, about 10,000 in CAR and 15,000 in South Sudan). UN peacekeeping also continues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (about 25,000 troops), where progress is being made slowly, and in Darfur, Sudan (about 20,000).  Somalia has made a lot of progress in the last few years, with insurgents pushed out of cities, but Yemen has become more violent in recent months and is in danger of splitting in half.  Israel and the Palestinians appear destined to fight recurrently as they did in Gaza last year. Afghanistan remains at war after the withdrawal of NATO combat forces (though direct talks with the Taliban are in the works).

The backsliding in recent years can only be discouraging.  This has accompanied an overall deterioration in top-level relations, especially between Russia and the West. China continues to be the most peaceful great power (in history, arguably), but has stepped up its alarming moves to claim large contested areas of the nearby seas. North Korea continues to add to its arsenal of at least a half dozen nuclear weapons, and Iran’s nuclear program could create a sizable arsenal within years, and a regional arms race, if current negotiations fail. The U.S. and Russian nuclear programs are “modernizing” after years of downsizing that saw stockpiles shrink by three-quarters over thirty years.

We should keep today’s wars in perspective, however.  Overall, the world’s armed conflicts are still smaller, fewer, and more geographically limited than during the Cold War.  Almost all of Central, East and Southeast Asia, southern Africa, Europe, and the Americas are at peace. In historical perspective, we just marked the 70th anniversary of the deadliest bombing raid in history, on Tokyo in 1945, which incinerated 100,000 civilians in one night – more than the total battle fatalities in the world last year.

State of the World’s Wars

UCDP battle deaths to 2013 smallThrough the haze of horror and grief at war scenes around the world, systematic data collection can provide a needed big-picture perspective. The world’s experts on that, in Sweden, recently released the updated dataset on armed conflicts through 2013.

The bad news is that 2013 continued a trend in the wrong direction (so far clearly continuing into 2014), with war increasing in the world. The measure of total “battle-related deaths” refers to military and civilian deaths caused by violence during war fighting, which is only a fraction of total war-related deaths, but more reliable than other measures for tracking trends. The world total battle-deaths dropped dramatically from the Cold War era, with around 200,000 annually, to the low point of under 12,000 in 2005 (and typically for years in that period, around 20,000). Since then, it has trended up, reaching more than 45,000 last year.

How much more, we don’t know, because the data collectors could not come up with a “best estimate” figure for the war in Syria, and gave only a minimum, 22,750. That minimum is about equal to the battle-deaths for the rest of the world combined, and the real figure for Syria could easily be double that minimum, which would make Syria a strong majority of the world’s battle deaths. Another way to think about this is that if tomorrow a cease-fire took hold in Syria/Iraq (strictly hypothetical under current conditions), the world’s battle-death totals would drop by at least half, perhaps two-thirds or more, and return the world to the low levels of overall conflicts that characterized the early 2000s.

There is a policy message here: While other international dramas and tragedies flare up, don’t lose track of Syria. It is the world’s bloodiest conflict by far. The spread of the war to Iraq in 2014 has only strengthened this imperative.

Moving to the rest of the world, the 2013 data list six other “wars,” defined as producing more than 1,000 battle-related fatalities in the year. This is an arbitrary definition but one long used by political scientists, and effective in separating smaller, sporadic armed conflicts from more serious ones with regular ongoing fighting. Afghanistan had about 8,000 battle-deaths and the others all fewer than 2,000 – Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan, Pakistan, and D.R. Congo.

Another 26 “armed conflicts” were recorded, in 18 countries (some countries have several insurgencies at once). The more serious of these conflicts, with more than 200 battle-deaths in 2013, were in India, Mali, the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.  Today, Ukraine would be in this category, as would Israel/Gaza and Central African Republic. Others, however, could drop off the list as some progress toward peace is happening in India, Mali, and the Philippines.

The most positive trend that continues in the world despite the upsurge of the Syria/Iraq war, is the absence of interstate war in the world, a new development historically that has proven robust over the past decade. The war in eastern Ukraine has not escalated to a fight between the regular Russian and Ukrainian armies, a fight that would have crossed the red line against interstate war. Neither have the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. The world’s regular state armies still threaten each other, with 20 million soldiers worldwide and every conceivable weapon, but none have fought each in a war for 11 years. (Russia-Georgia in 2008 killed 500 in 5 days.)

I’ve revised my “Wars in Progress” page to reflect the new data.

Seeking a Job with the UN

The following guest post by Elisa dos Santos is reprinted for students interested in UN jobs, courtesy of PassBlue (whom I thank). The original is posted here (Feb. 4, 2014).

So.Sudan IDP camp Julio Brathwaite/UN photoApplying for a job at the United Nations requires a high degree of perseverance — “like trying to find a secret passageway from a brick wall — but eventually you get through,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the director of news and media at the UN Department of Public Information in New York.

The Center for Global Affairs at New York University presented a much-attended “Careers With the United Nations and Multilateral Organizations” panel in the fall, presenting several UN officials who gave insight into the process of applying for a permanent, temporary or consulting job at the world body.

The UN receives about 800 job applications for each post that is open annually through its digital employment portal, Inspira, which lists thousands of jobs at hundreds of “duty stations” throughout the world, among nearly 100 UN organizations, at any given time. These applications are scanned by the UN human resources department, with 200 to 300 making the cut to be sent to internal evaluators for further screening.

The UN’s Young Professionals Program, or YPP, is an alternative process to obtaining a job; it is open to people no older than 32 and is useful for those who have not accrued the five years of professional work experience that is required for many jobs listed in the Inspira database.

Because hundreds of people may be applying for any given job through Inspira, the most important thing you can do when filling out an online application on the portal is to “spend a lot of time on your personal history profile, put a lot of details about your work experience,” Dujarric, who is a former journalist and helps evaluate job applications of prospective candidates, said. “Your experience is what will make a difference.”

It takes about 10 months for applications to be evaluated for a position, a long time frame that involves following many rules and regulations to assess candidates, although consultancies and temporary posts are filled much faster. It is important to remain patient during the process and “follow as many parallel tracks as possible; apply to different places at the same time,” Dujarric said.

David Ohana, who runs the film and special projects at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is a model of patience. As a panelist at the event, he said that “it took over 10 years and 27 job applications” until he received a phone call for an interview at the UN.

Another way of getting a foot in the door is working for an organization that is involved in the UN indirectly. “Spending time at an NGO [nongovernmental organization] is a great way to get noticed by the UN, especially if it’s something in the same area,” said Kurt Chesko, a program officer at the UN Mine Action Service and a panelist. (An additional source for job information in the nonprofit world is

While languages other than English are vital for applying for a job in the UN Secretariat — which carries out the daily tasks of the world body through its base in New York and stations worldwide — it is critical that applicants can write clearly in English.

“Sometimes, the UN overlooks really great candidates because they don’t have the English background,” Dujarric said. If you are a native English speaker, he added, don’t forget to put that in your personal history profile. Inspira offers three kinds of entry-level jobs to apply to: consultancy, professional and general service.

It is also important to know that when people apply for a general service category job in the Secretariat, they can get stuck behind a “virtual wall” between so-called ‘G posts’ and the professional category, Dujarric said. “That’s something to keep in mind as you plan your UN career.”

Moreover, professional level posts generally require a master’s degree. The UN global staff is more than two-thirds male, so the organization encourages women to apply for positions to help make it a more gender-balanced operation.

“If you really are interested and you don’t think you have a great background, such as 20 years of experience, a piece of advice: network as much as possible, go to as many events as you can, do as many internships as you can,” said Isabel Raya, who worked as a consultant for the Sustainable Energy for All initiative in the office of the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

Raya, who is a graduate of the Center for Global Affairs master’s program, with a concentration in international development, came from Spain to New York to ultimately seek a career at the UN. Like the other panelists, she advised the audience to network and to be persistent.

“Think outside the box,” she said. “The best thing you can do is to network as best as possible. Follow the UN agency you are most interested in, attend events open to the public, start networking, keep business cards.”

With her international affairs background, Raya worked at two separate unpaid internships at the UN, which she said was a “full-time job and difficult to combine with [her] studies,” but worth it. One of the internships involved traveling to Mexico to be a Spanish-English translator for three weeks.

Related articles

For ‘Young Professionals,’ How to Land a Job at the UN

For a Job at the UN, Start by Making Contacts

Two Resources for Job Seekers in Foreign Affairs

Elisa dos Santos is a business economics major and presidential scholar at Hofstra University Honors College and an intern at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Washington. She is also a co-founder and president of the Hofstra University Hunger Project and a member of the Hofstra Gold Leadership Program. She is fluent in Portuguese.

Becoming a Foreign Service Officer

The following guest post from International Relations Online, a free online resource for those interested in careers in International Relations, may interest many current students. Elsewhere I’ve posted “Careers in IR” boxes from my textbook International Relations, covering jobs in government, business, NGOs, and education.

fso victor

FSO Experiences

Become a Foreign Service Officer

Foreign Service offers challenging and rewarding career opportunities for those who are passionate about public service on behalf of the United States government. Foreign Service Officers support U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions around the world. They experience the cultures and customs of different nations while promoting peace, advancing U.S. interests, and protecting U.S. citizens abroad.

Is Foreign Service Right for You?

A career as a Foreign Service Officer can be exciting and glamorous, providing high levels of responsibility as well as opportunities to work with important and interesting people. As employees of the U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Officers receive competitive salaries, government-paid housing, and additional benefits including health insurance, paid vacations, and retirement funding.

Despite the many benefits offered by Foreign Service, the lifestyle that comes with the career is not for everyone. Some foreign posts are in dangerous settings or in remote locations that lack amenities that many U.S. citizens have come to expect. Families are encouraged to accompany Foreign Service Officers to their posts, except in cases where there is imminent danger or civil unrest. Depending on the post, life abroad may be either enriching or difficult for family members.

Before choosing Foreign Service as a career path, you should assess both the rewards and the downsides and decide if you are willing to adapt your life to the job. The U.S. Department of State provides an online quiz that can help you decide if the positive aspects of a Foreign Service career outweigh the negatives. Candidates should also become familiar with the Foreign Service Officer Qualifications List, which describes 13 character dimensions that are deemed essential to Foreign Service work.

Choosing a Career Track

In addition to looking at the pros and cons of the Foreign Service lifestyle, it is important to learn about the different career tracks. Your preparation for the career track you choose will affect whether or not you are selected for a position with the Foreign Service. Choose carefully, because once a Foreign Service candidate has specified a track during registration for the Foreign Service Officer Test, it is difficult to switch to a different track.

These are the five Foreign Service career tracks:

Consular Officers protect Americans living, working, and traveling in foreign countries.
Economic Officers work with U.S. government agencies and foreign governments in the areas of trade, science, technology, energy, the economy, and the environment.
Management Officers are leaders who handle a wide range of challenges while overseeing embassy operations.
Political Officers analyze political events in foreign and negotiate with foreign officials.
Public Diplomacy Officers are experts in cross-cultural relations who promote U.S. values, policies, and interests abroad.

A detailed description of each track can be found in the State Department’s Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process.

Acing the FSOT (Foreign Service Officer Test)

The Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) measures a Foreign Service candidate’s knowledge, skill, and abilities. The three-hour test is administered three times per year in test centers located in the U.S. and abroad. The test consists of four components: a job knowledge test, an English expression test, biographic questionnaire, and a written essay. A sample of the type of questions included on the FSOT is provided at the end of the Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process.

Ordering the official FSOT Study Guide is the best way to ensure a passing score on the test. In addition, it is important to have strong foundational knowledge of world affairs. To this end, the U.S. State Department provides a resource list of books, journals, and websites to help candidates prepare for the Foreign Service selection process.

Final Steps

Candidates who pass the FSOT move to the final assessment steps. First, they are asked to answer a series of Personal Narrative questions. These questions are centered on six precepts: intellectual skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills, management skills, leadership, and substantive knowledge. The next step is the Foreign Service Oral Assessment, which is designed to determine how candidates put the 13 Foreign Service character dimensions into practice. Administered over the course of a single day, it includes a team exercise, a structured interview and a case management exercise.

Candidates who successfully complete all Foreign Service tests and assessments are asked to obtain medical and security clearances and complete the Final Review Panel. Only those who pass the review will be considered for positions as Foreign Service Officers.

Philippines Storm and Climate Change

Super typhoon Haiyan: survivors walk past a ship that lies on top of damaged homesThanks to the BBC (again), we can watch in near-real time as desperate masses of Filipinos struggle to stay alive without water, food, or health care. The “super-typhoon” that hit them is possibly the biggest storm ever recorded.

On the other side of the world, in Poland, an international conference got underway to try to negotiate about precursors to a possible agreement to someday set targets to reduce the growth of the rate at which we are adding carbon to the atmosphere. The Philippine delegate cut through all that with an emotional speech that electrified the room, linking the devastation in the Philippines to the world’s failure to prevent climate change. “We can fix this. We can stop this madness,” he pleaded. He began fasting until the conference takes effective action.

The media coverage of this storm and other recent weather destruction always warns us that no particular weather disaster can be attributed to climate change. This is technically true, but misleading. If you are sitting on the beach while the tide is rising, you will notice that some waves come up much higher on the beach than others, unpredictably, and with no relation to the tide. But over time, for certain, your picnic is going to get soaked. Same thing with planet Earth – our picnic is for certain going to be completely soaked if we continue on our current path.

People wonder if the recent weather disasters will be the “new normal.” The answer is definitely no. The new normal will be far, far worse. The trends that will play out over the next few decades have only just begun. This is just a little taste of a future that will be truly catastrophic, barring a major change in the direction of human civilization.

The massive denial about climate change that now pervades our collective consciousness is reminiscent of the “nuclear numbing” of the public during the Cold War. We were aware of such matters as nuclear war planning, but their logical consequences were too horrible to look at. So we delegated the uncomfortable core issues to experts and policy makers, who could treat the issues surgically, with acronyms and euphemisms. The nuclear freeze movement upended that arrangement, and I wish the same would happen for climate change. The experts and policy makers are not solving it. The international governance institutions are not up to the job. And, embarrassingly, my own dear United States is on the wrong side of the issue, emitting way more than its share of carbon and failing to lead the push for change, indeed even undermining the world’s feeble efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol (unratified by the USA).

Climate change is the overriding moral issue of our time. So when I say the USA is on the wrong side of the issue, I mean the wrong side of history.

[Donations to help the people in the Philippines can be made through one of these groups.]

Guide to Middle East Complexity

WaPo ME chart BSm0bOBCYAAAph6The idea seems to be gaining traction that the Middle East is incredibly, incredibly complex – far too complex for Americans to ever understand and far, far too complex to intervene in with any hope of success, be it military strikes on Syria, peace negotiations with Israel and Palestine, or military aid to Egypt. Last week the Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher published a chart of Middle East players filled with arrows in every direction — sheer chaos (the chart was from an Egyptian blogger, “the big Pharoah”).

I’ve redrawn the chart – breaking “Syrian rebels” into four constituent groups but otherwise retaining the same actors — and it’s not that complicated. (Sure, a level down from here, on either chart, lies lots of complexity down to individual personalities and cross-cutting ties, but that wasn’t the original chart’s point.)

Goldstein Middle East Chart

Fisher comments on his chart:  “There are rivals who share mutual enemies, allies who back opposite sides of the same conflict, conflicting interests and very strange bedfellows.” But actually, on my version you see mostly a two-way split between the Russian-backed Shi’ite axis in the upper right and the actors on the left. The main complexity is a rivalry between Qatar (home of al Jazeera TV) and Saudi Arabia (along with the other Gulf states). They back opposing sides of the conflict within Egypt between General Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood. They both support the Free Syrian Army but favor different factions within it (the Saudi-backed side is dominant now in the Syrian rebel leadership). In the lower right, al Qaeda and the Kurds each control territory in Syria and are more concerned with administering it than bigger ambitions.

There are a few anomalies but not of great significance. For instance, Israel likes the USA, which likes Qatar (where we held military exercises this year), which likes Hamas, but Hamas does not like Israel!

Thirty years ago studying international relations in graduate school, my professor Nazli Choucri taught me that “the Middle East conflict” was actually at least five conflicts layered over each other.  Today it’s even less about Israelis versus Arabs than then. But the region is not a swirling cloud of unpredictable and shifting conflicts that no one could ever understand. Journalists at the Washington Post, and elsewhere, should try to understand and explain these conflicts, not throw up their hands. My opinion.

For those of you who would like a map to go with the chart, here you go:

middle east map

Syria War Reverses Trend in Battle Deaths

UCDP battle deaths to 2012The latest battle-deaths data, for 2012, have arrived from the researchers in Uppsala, Sweden, and the news is bad. With the civil war in Syria killing tens of thousands last year, the world total battle deaths jumped up about 70%, reversing the downward trend of recent decades, though not reverting to the high fatality levels of the Cold War years.

The big picture here is a long-term decline of armed conflict worldwide from the World Wars (a hundred times worse than today) to the Cold War proxy battlefields (several-fold worse than the post-Cold War era) to the most recent decade of fewer and smaller civil wars and generally no interstate wars. The Syria spike in 2012 marked the highest battle fatalities since the Eritrea-Ethiopia war ended in 2000. Since then, war deaths had been bouncing along at historically low levels, with some ups and downs. Other than the one-sided clashes of the U.S. coalition with Iraq in 2003 (several weeks) and of Russia with Georgia in 2008 (five days), the world has not had an interstate war since the early months of this century. Maintaining the taboo on interstate war is a prime imperative as the crises in Syria, and elsewhere, threaten to get worse.

There was a similar spike in battle deaths in 2009 when the bloody, brutal end of the Tamil Tigers insurgency in Sri Lanka pushed up the worldwide total. But that spike was smaller than the 2012 one, and lasted only two years before dropping down again. Syria might (or might not) go on for a lot longer than two years.

It is important to understand that the “battle deaths” measure is a partial estimate of total war deaths. Although it includes both military and civilian deaths, only those from violence are counted—be it a gun battle, air strike, or suicide bombing—and only those that occur in the context of a battle, where two sides are attacking each other. So, for example, a government massacre of peaceful protesters would not be included, nor would the many people who disappear and whose bodies show up dumped in the street (or never show up). Disease and starvation among refugees also are not counted, and only verified deaths are included.

The Syria battle-death total for 2012 was about 15,000—clearly just a subtotal of the war’s cost, but a useful subtotal for tracking change through time. That 15,000 was up from 1,000 in 2011, and was almost double the annual battle deaths in Sri Lanka in 2008 and 2009. It was higher, per year, than either Iraq or Afghanistan at their worst (of course, they lasted for years and we have yet to see about Syria). It is possible the Syria number reflects in part a greater effort by several parties to document deaths in the war, compared with other armed conflicts around the world. But in my view this effect does not explain most of the striking rise in deaths.

Other than Syria, 2012 showed few changes from 2011. Battle deaths in Afghanistan remained around 7,000; those in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan each fell between 1,000 and 3,000; and those in Iraq were below 1,000. Other low-level armed conflicts sputtered along in Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey, Burma/Myanmar, D.R. Congo, southern Russia, South Sudan and Pakistan (in decreasing order of battle deaths, all between 300 and 1,200). The world total for 2011 was 23,000, and it increased in 2012 to 38,000.

Fundamentally, we don’t know the answer yet to the big question:  Is the 2012 spike the start of a sustained reversal of the declining war trend, back to the bad old days of the Cold War? Or is the 2012 spike like the 2009 spike but higher and longer-lasting, namely a temporary jump in war that reverts in a few years to a low world battle deaths level (and perhaps future temporary spikes)?

The most worrisome aspect of the Syria war is its potential to spread geographically and potentially spark much larger armed conflicts. Already low-scale but lethal violence has jumped borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Currently, the Syrian government receives weapons and soldiers from Iran and from the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, a client of Iran’s. Meanwhile the Syrian rebels receive weapons from Qatar, a Sunni emirate right across the Gulf from Shi’ite Iran, and the Sunni Islamist fighters in Syria receive volunteers, weapons, and money from various foreign populations, notably Sunni areas of Iraq. If that weren’t bad enough, the old superpowers, America and Russia, are also lined up on opposite sides. One reason for the high battle deaths of the Cold War era was that outside weapons and money on both sides kept proxy wars going for years. This could all too easily happen in Syria.

Because there are so few good options to improve the situation in Syria, media and public attention tend to drift away from the issue. That is a mistake.

Unfortunately, the international community failed, earlier in the conflict, to use the United Nations effectively as the powerful tool that it could be.  Because Americans (public and officials) underestimate the potential of the UN, we do not put enough effort into using that potential. In October 2011, the Syria problem came before the Security Council. I thought the great powers should find what they agree on and pass a resolution to enact it. That would have meant deep compromises to get Russia on board. But it would have brought the Syria problem within the UN where the great powers could exert influence to contain and manage the problem.

Instead, the U.S. administration, in an exception from its generally solid foreign policy record, pushed an anti-Assad resolution that guaranteed a Russian veto. Then we passed a similar resolution in the General Assembly by a huge margin, having absolutely no binding effect but embarrassing Russia when few countries sided with it. The United States thus deftly used the Syria crisis to show how bad Russia is, and demonstrate the moral superiority of America and its allies. U.S. and western officials declared fervently that Assad must go. This may all be true, but it did not help the Syria people one bit. And when China took Russia’s side in the UN, the attempt to isolate Russia more or less failed too.

Now, so many months and so many deaths later, the United States is trying to get on the same page with Russia to work out some kind of solution in Syria.  It is vastly harder now. It still needs to be tried.

One point of my work on the decline of war is that the continuation of the recent trend is not inevitable. There is an ever-present potential for a reversal. What happens in the coming years will depend on the choices that people make. We’ve made some bad ones about Syria. But now the job of making the best of a bad situation is vitally important for the entire world, before Syria’s lethal wildfire intensifies and spreads along the Sunni-Shi’ite divide and beyond.


[Data source:   UCDP Battle-Related Deaths Dataset v.5-2013, Uppsala Conflict Data Program,, Uppsala University.]

Resources for Learning International Relations

textbkcov-long-0205971369For 2013-14, as in the past year, I plan to blog only sporadically while posting material useful to students using my textbook International Relations. The most recent is a Portuguese and Spanish glossary translating the book’s key terms (i.e. the major key terms in IR). Thanks to Emile Phaneuf for contributing this resource. Other resource now available on this site are:

Global Challenges in 2030 — Essays by IR scholars Joseph S. Nye Jr., Beth A. Simmons, Shibley Telhami, John Gerard Ruggie, Charli Carpenter, Andrew Moravcsik, Daniel W. Drezner, and Michael W. Doyle. [Navigate forward through posts from the intro page.]

Careers in IR — “How will this class help me land a job?”

My current list of Wars in Progress

And of course past blog posts relating current affairs to IR themes will remain on the site as well.  By the way, I’m always happy to hear from students anywhere in the world who are using the book.  (Contact info.)

The Next War to End

One of the interesting aspects of the decline of armed conflict in recent decades is the geographical shrinkage in the area of the world affected by actual shooting wars in progress. This pattern continues with the most recent war to end, in the Philippines, at the far eastern end of the zone of conflict stretching from west and central Africa to south Asia.

Kachin soldiers Jan 20 2013 AFPThe war likely to end next is Burma [Myanmar]. The government there has taken substantial steps toward democracy after decades of authoritarian military rule (including massacres of protesters more than once). Around Burma’s borders are ethnic groups who carried on armed conflict with the government. All the major groups have now reached cease-fires except one, the Kachin in the north next to China. Their war had been suspended for 17 years under an earlier cease-fire that broke down in 2011. (Note: peacekeepers help maintain cease-fires, but the Kachin conflict had none.) A recent government offensive greatly weakened the Kachin position, and now the sides seem close to reaching a cease-fire, according to a report from last week’s negotiations. The next round of talks are to take place before April 10. Both China and the United States would like Burma’s wars to end comprehensively; China could send refugees home, and would gain economically from Burma’s development, and the United States wants a successful transition to democracy there. In the past month, only “sporadic” clashes have taken place, and if a cease-fire agreement is reached I will take Burma off my list of wars in progress.

I had thought the next war to end would be far west of the arc of conflict, the last real outlier geographically — Colombia. It is the last war in the western hemisphere, the last remnant from a bygone era when most of Latin America was up in flames with leftist armed insurgencies, rightist militias, and great-power meddling. What remains today, in Colombia, is a weak guerrilla force sustained by cocaine revenues and losing its recent battles with the government. Peace talks are underway, and one of these months Colombia might reach a cease-fire. Until then, they fight while they talk.

The East Asian peace has been noted as a key component of the world’s overall pattern of declining violence.  The end of wars in the Philippines and (potentially) Burma would extend that peace southwest, with favorable implications for ending the little war in southern Thailand.  (Then, on to India, where small-scale Maoist insurgencies continue.)

Wars begin with a bang and end with a whimper, at least the media attention paid to them does. Cease-fire agreements that could end longstanding wars in places like the Philippines, Burma, and Colombia may seem like small potatoes compared with the outbreak of a new war. But the shrinkage of the world’s zone of war is a big deal, expanding whole regions of the world where a new norm of not fighting active wars is gaining traction.