Resilience and EU refugee policy: A smokescreen for political agendas?

“Resilience” enjoys widespread uptake across many and diverse domains – including security and crisis response. Shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty, however, it may be just a buzzword as we know little about the implications of resilience as a strategy to insecurity and crisis. Exploring resilience in EU humanitarian and development policy and how it translates into practice in Jordan and Lebanon, we argue in a recent article that resilience-building may function as a smokescreen for buttressing “Fort Europe” against migrants and refugees. 

 “Resilience” enjoys widespread uptake across many and diverse domains, from technology to business management, to urban planning and counselling. The word stems from the Latin “resilire” – to leap or jump back. It gained traction in the 1970s, when the Canadian ecologist Holling defined resilience as the ability of ecological systems to absorb change and disturbance. Borrowing from Holling, risk scholars like Wildavsky viewed resilience as “the capacity to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have become manifest, learning to bounce back”. Wildavsky argued that resilience was a more effective and cheaper strategy to deal with risks than anticipation and prevention. From the 1990s onwards, resilience became an integral component of disaster risk reduction (DRR) programmes, aimed at minimising the impact of natural disasters and enhancing recovery.

Policymakers have recently started to use resilience in the context of man-made disasters and crisis. For example, resilience has been identified as a major leitmotif in the 2016 European Union (EU) Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy. Prior to the Global Strategy, resilience was already an important component of EU humanitarian and development policies, especially in the context of migration and forced displacement. The EU was not the first to use this buzzword: the UK placed resilience at the centre of its humanitarian and development aid in 2011. Shortly thereafter, USAID published policy and programme guidelines for “building resilience to recurrent crisis”. United Nations (UN) agencies and large international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) currently all have policies, guidelines and programmes aimed at building resilience. 

Despite its widespread uptake, uncertainty remains about what resilience is, how it translates into practice, and the implications of resilience-building as a response to insecurity and crisis, qualifying resilience as a buzzword. The ambiguity surrounding buzzwords often lead scholars and practitioners to dismiss them as empty and meaningless. Yet buzzwords generally espouse strong (normative) ideas about what they are supposed to bring about. The assumptions and rationales underlying buzzwords, moreover, frequently remain unquestioned, making them interesting to study. In our recent article, we examine the EU turn to resilience by analysing key EU humanitarian and development policies. Subsequently, we delve into an empirical example of resilience-building in Jordan and Lebanon to explore how this buzzword translates into practice.  

Our policy analysis yields two aspects that are key in EU resilience thinking. First, resilience-building requires humanitarian and development actors to be simultaneously involved in crisis response and to work closely together. The so-called “humanitarian-development nexus” resonates with older concepts aimed at bridging the ideological and institutional divide between humanitarian and development actors, such as Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development (LRRD). 

Second, resilience assigns significant importance to ‘the local’. This means, firstly, that the EU recognizes the importance of understanding context-specific vulnerabilities and their (root) causes, as well as what local capacities exist that humanitarian and development interventions could tap into, build upon, and strengthen. Next, resilience is strongly framed as the responsibility of national governments and local authorities. Finally, the EU constructs refugees in particular as an asset to host-country economies, their resilience dependent on access to host-countries’ formal labour markets. Refugees are turned into a development opportunity for refugee-hosting states – but at the same time constitute a threat to Europe.

How do these different aspects of resilience translate into practice in Jordan and Lebanon? Jordan and Lebanon host the largest number of Syrian refugees in respect to the size of their population. Government estimates indicate Jordan hosts up to 1.3 million refugees and Lebanon 1.5 million – respectively 13 and 25% of their population. In response to the challenges of Syria’s neighbouring countries, the multi-agency response framework – the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) – was established in 2015. 

In line with EU thinking, the 3RP combines a humanitarian response to protect Syrian refugees with a development response to build the resilience of national government and affected host communities. Although the 3RP structure simultaneously engages humanitarian and development actors in the response, evidence shows that different funding modalities and tensions between (leading) UN agencies weaken rather than strengthen the humanitarian-development nexus in practice. 

Second, whereas the 3RP country chapters are officially under the leadership of the Jordanian and Lebanese government, significant challenges arise in practice. Especially the involvement of Lebanese authorities was limited at the start of the crisis, its later statements and measures straining its relationship with the international community. Evidence indicating that Lebanon may strategically maintain the precariousness of Syrian refugees’ lives, moreover, points at the need for caution in insisting on national governments’ responsibility. 

Finally, the same framing of refugees as a development opportunity underlies initiatives like the EU-Jordan Trade Agreement, which promises access to EU markets in exchange for refugee work permits. The nature of the Jordanian and Lebanese labour market – in combination with structural political, social and economic problems – makes refugees’ employment as a pathway to resilience an unlikely reality. It also constructs refugees as a commodity, to be exchanged for aid. 

In conclusion, the way in which resilience is understood and the challenges it generates when translating resilience into practice, make us wonder whether this buzzword is not just a smokescreen for ulterior political motives. Building the resilience of “countries of origin and transit” may conveniently prevent migration, meanwhile externalizing the control of migration and forced displacement to crisis-affected states. As Jordan and Lebanon continue to struggle with the impact of the crisis, the EU’s strategy of refugee containment may instead increase their vulnerability, ultimately threatening rather than safeguarding the security of Europe.

Rosanne Anholt and Giulia Sinatti work at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. They are the authors of “Under the guise of resilience: The EU approach to migration and forced displacement in Jordan and Lebanon”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

Changes to the editorial board

Contemporary Security Policy has an active Editorial Board, which reflects its aims and scope and its worldwide audience. The membership of Editorial Board is updated on an annual basis to capture emerging research agendas and to give new colleagues the opportunity to contribute to the development of the journal. I have made a number of changes to the Editorial Board.

First of all, Terry Terriff has decided to step down from the Editorial Board. He was the co-editor of the journal from 1991 to 2004 and has served on the Editorial Board since. When he took the reins, the journal was still known by its original name as the Journal of Arms Control and Disarmament. Together with Stuart Croft, he transformed it into Contemporary Security Policy as we know it today. I want to thank Terry Terriff for his exceptional service of nearly three decades. Second, several other long-standing members of the Editorial Board have also decided to step down. They include Lawrence Freedman, Keith Krause, Andrew Mack, Derek McDougall, Patrick Morgan, and David Sorenson. They have all served on the Editorial Board for more than a decade and have made valuable contributions to the journal. I equally want to thank them for their service. Their expertise and experience as leading scholars will be missed.

It is also time to welcome new colleagues. To reflect the development of the journal, I have invited four new colleagues to join the Editorial Board. These are highly qualified scholars, from a variety of countries, who bring along exciting new expertise. Many of them are from the new generation. All of them share a commitment to high quality publishing in peer-reviewed journals. They are also dedicated in terms of policy impact and outreach.

The new colleagues on the Editorial Board are:

  • Mely Caballero-Anthony (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
  • Myriam Dunn Cavelty (ETH Zürich, Switzerland)
  • Jeffrey A. Friedman (Dartmouth College, USA)
  • Courtney J. Fung (The University of Hong Kong, China)

The Editorial Board will continue to be updated in the future.

Hylke Dijkstra, Editor-in-Chief

Resilience and local ownership in the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy

The EU Global Strategy (2016) and the Review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (2015) initiated a new approach in the EU’s neighbourhood policy, with resilience and local ownership being hallmarked as the guiding principles. In a new article, Irina Petrova and Laure Delcour explore what meaning the EU attaches to these concepts and whether the recent narrative shift also brought about changes in the EU’s practices in the neighbourhood.

In the face of increasing instability and multiple crises, the European Union has recently embraced the concept of resilience as a governance strategy. As argued by Nathalie Tocci, “the EU acknowledged the need to build risk and uncertainty into its policies: The fact that developments in our surrounding regions (and beyond) are not simply beyond our full comprehension, but also and above all beyond our control.” Resilience therefore implies a greater reliance on the partners’ domestic structures. This puts local ownership at the heart of the EU’s foreign policy approach.

Although resilience and local ownership have been, for over a decade, studied in the context of peacebuilding and development, the extension of these concepts to other EU policies has yet to be scrutinized. We seek to enrich the understanding of the interplay between these two concepts by exploring how they are used in the neighbourhood policy (more specifically, its eastern dimension), a key foreign policy priority of the EU.

Our analysis of the EU’s foreign policy documents highlights a narrative shift. While the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy was previously built on the modernization theory (according to which external actors provide ready-made policy templates to be applied by domestic actors), after the 2015/2016 policy revision it increasingly refers to tailor-made cooperation templates and broad societal involvement. This signals a shift to a hybrid perspective on resilience-building, whereby resilience envisages the adaptation of domestic structures based on external templates, but only under the condition that they fit well with the local context.

Yet to what extent has this narrative turn also brought about actual change in the EU’s practices in its eastern neighbourhood? To answer this question, we traced the EU’s objectives, instruments and mechanisms in three pivotal areas of cooperation with eastern neighbours: trade, mobility, and good governance. Our findings reveal similar patterns across all three sectors. 

First, in contrast to broad conceptualization of resilience and local ownership in the EU’s rhetoric, the toolbox used in the EaP reflects a narrow operationalization of these concepts. For instance, policy instruments used as part of the visa liberalisation process or the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements indicate the EU’s framing that resilience of the EaP states can only be enhanced via the adoption of Western/European (or EU-promoted) standards. Despite the promise of a tailor-made approach, the cases of Azerbaijan and Belarus are particularly illustrative of the fact that approximation with European standards is still expected (albeit on the smaller scale) even from those partners who insisted on building a truly common bilateral agenda.  

Second, all three sectors show that the EU has left little scope (if any) to accommodate the preferences of those countries seeking closer ties with the EU, when these preferences diverged from its own vision. This continued reliance on the modernization paradigm in resilience-building reduced the space for the local ownership. 

Third, limited local ownership implies a logic of subordination between domestic and  external actors. This is despite the emphasis placed on partnership, ownership and dialogue in the EU’s narrative. Hence, our article confirms that the vision of the EU’s resilience-building in the neighbourhood aims at an effective governance of the EaP countries, rather than the genuine empowerment of local actors [hyperlink to the Introduction to the SI]. Therefore, if the EU is serious about adopting resilience as a way to navigate in an increasingly unstable and uncertain world, a substantial overhaul of policy practices is still required to match the narrative turn.

Irina Petrova is a doctoral researcher at the Leuven International and European Studies (LINES) Institute at KU Leuven. Laure Delcour is an Associate Professor in European Studies and International Relations, Université Paris 3-Sorbonne nouvelle (Paris). The are the authors of “From principle to practice? The resilience–local ownership nexus in the EU Eastern Partnership policy”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here

Deconstructing Scholarship on Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria

08/09/11- Mogadishu, Somalia – AMISOM Troops stand in Mogadishu stadium, the former al-Shabaab headquarters.

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis argues that scholars should develop a better understanding of insurgency groups in Africa, such as Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, including their origins and the state functions they provide.

Insurgent groups in Africa are to a greater extent attracting the attention of a new generation of scholars who are bent on deconstructing the previous misunderstandings of the activities of the insurgent movements. As they increase their local and regional operations, African insurgent groups remain resistant and resilient and frustrated in all military attempts to defeat them.

Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria are the two most crucial and critical insurgent groups in Africa. Because they do not constrain and confine them to insurgent activities, it is important to reconsider their other activities to move beyond the preoccupation of only exploring the aspect of their terror attacks.

Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram undertake more than insurgent activities. As a result, there is no serious scholar who can confidently call them as “terrorist organisations,” because for them terrorism is not an end, but a means to an end. They use terror attacks as a strategy (albeit evil) in a tactic toolbox than an essence of an organisational ultimate policy (see, for example: https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/horn-sahel-and-rift/).

When examining Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, a new generation of Africanist scholars began to use the terms such as “extremist movements” or “extremist organisations”; “insurgent movements” or “insurgent organisations”; “Islamist movements” or “Islamist organisations”; “militant movements” or “militant organisations”; “radical movements” or “radical organisations” rather than making sentimental descriptions such as “terrorists.”

The new reconsideration and reconceptualisation of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram has been obliged by the very fact that, in opposition to the Western-supported secular governments of Somalia and Nigeria, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have adopted state systems and structures on the basis of parallel Islamic governments (obviously with their own strict scriptural interpretation) in the areas under their control. 

The state-like rules of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram provide more than social and security services that the governments of Somalia and Nigeria have failed to provide to the local population. Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have achieved to capture and continue to rule peripheral societies where the failed state of Somalia and the fragile state of Nigeria cannot reach and as such where the provision of security is non-exist.

Despite their position as parallel governments, the ways in which Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are often emotionally vilified is something that blinds and blocks us (as scholars studying those insurgencies in Africa) to present the everyday reality exist in the areas under their control. With the label of ‘terrorist organisations’, observers can hardly adventure into the other aspects of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.

However, it is thus quite difficult to overlook the fact that both Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram began as popular movements providing alternative governments to local populations, even though their approach and engagement had fundamental differences, because Boko Haram started as a social movement offering social services to marginalised communities in northern Nigeria, while Al-Shabaab started as a jihadist network right from the beginning.

Al-Shabaab was born out of the brutal Ethiopian invasion of southern Somalia in the winter of 2006, an invasion approved by the United States and allowed by the United Kingdom and the rest of the West. In the beginning, Al-Shabaab was not separate from the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) which emerged in the summer of 2006, but its founders behaved and pretended they were ruling a separate entity. Yet, Al-Shabaab could not exist without the legitimacy it had enjoyed under the shadow of the UIC.

In Somalia, scholars studying Al-Shabaab do not squabble about their research findings of Al-Shabaab. Whilst they backbite each other behind the backdoor privately, scholars tend to avoid disputing each other publicly. In contrast to Nigeria, scholars studying Boko Haram are arguing over the emergence and existence of Boko Haram to the extent that ideological positions in the form of left wing and right wing exist in the scholarship on Boko Haram, also including personal insults in the discussion.

Overall, nonetheless, there is a burgeoning scholarship on Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, but most of this scholarship is concerned more with Boko Haram than with Al-Shabaab. Academic and non-academic books have been published about these insurgent movements, even though more on Boko Haram than Al-Shabaab. Astonishingly, the third largest African insurgent movement Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) has not been attracted a book of its own.

Arguably, Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa and the highest oil-producing state in Africa and as such is much more important than Somalia, the most failed state in the whole world, but is not Al-Shabaab, the only insurgent movement in the world currently controlling a large swathes of territory, more important than Boko Haram, which is only concentrated in small parts of northern Nigeria?

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis is a Somali academic specialising in Somali history and politics at the University of Oxford. He is a research fellow at the CRP, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is the author of “Building peace from the margins in Somalia: The case for political settlement with Al-Shabaab“, Contemporary Security Policy, 39(4), pp. 512-536.

Contested public attributions of cyber incidents and the role of academia

In a recent article in Contemporary Security Policy, Florian J. Egloff reflects on the contested nature of public attributions of cyber incidents and what role academia could take up.

In the last five years, public attribution of cyber incidents has gone from an incredibly rare event to a more regular occurrence. For example, in October 2018 the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre publicized its assessment of cyber activities conducted by the Russian military intelligence service (also known by its old acronym, the GRU). Clearly, publicizing activities that other political actors like to keep secret is a political act – but what kind of political act is it and what happens when a government publicly attributes? 

For research on governmental public attribution, one can split the public attribution process into two phases: mechanisms that lead to public attribution and what happens after an incident is publicly attributed. Little research exists on either phase with regard to attribution of cyber incidents. This is problematic, as our understanding of contemporary security policy rests on understanding what drives threat narratives, how and why those particular ones are introduced publicly, and how contestation of threat narratives takes place in the public sphere. 

In a recent article for Contemporary Security Policy, I focus on this second phase of public attribution, namely, what happens after a government goes public about a cyber incident. Understanding this phase is important, as public attributions of cyber incidents are one of the main sources from which the public learns about who is attacking whom in cyberspace, thereby shaping the threat perception of the general public. Most attribution judgements are published by governments, the private sector, and a small number of civil society actors. To situate the knowledge space, in which attribution claims are introduced to, I reflect on this source of knowledge about cyber conflict by identifying how it structurally shapes our understanding of cyber conflict, in particular due to operational and (political, commercial, and legal) structural factors. In short, due to the commercial incentives on the private sector side and the political bias on the government side, the public data about cyber conflict structurally induces distrust into the representativeness of the public attribution statements.

I then focus on the contestation of public attribution claims in democracies and the consequences such contestation brings. Contestation is fundamental to democratic politics. The open debate, the ability of everyone to freely voice opinions, and the emergence of truth trough democratic discourse is foundational to the public sphere of democratic polities. Thus, the ability to contest is a sign of healthy democratic politics. However, as I show in the article, this openness to contestation, coupled with the information poor environment, creates particular problems in the area of cybersecurity. 

Attribution claims are introduced, contested, and even the possibility to do attribution is put into question. Disinformation tactics are used to muddy specific attribution claims, leaving an electorate exposed to the coexistence of multiple “truths” and a fractured narrative of the past. Due to the secrecy attached surrounding the attribution processes by governments, particularly due to concerns of intelligence agencies about sources and methods, governments are often reluctant to reveal the evidence underlying the attribution judgments. These are ideal enabling conditions for other actors to contest governmental claims. 

In a series of empirical examples (Sony, DNC, NotPetya), I reflect on the drivers of contestation after an incident is publicly attributed and show how attackers and other constituencies with various political and economic motivations purport particular narratives. The Sony incident highlights the difficulty a government can have in convincing an electorate of its claims, when there is no record of accomplishment in making attribution claims in public. The DNC intrusion shows how the attacker can take part in the meaning-making activities, actively trying to dispel the notion that the government knows who is behind a cyber incident. Finally, the NotPetya incident illustrates how actors seemed to have learned from the contested cases. In particular, the coordination of attribution claims across different countries and entities was specifically designed to bolster the legitimacy and credibility of the attribution claims at the international level.

Finally, I reflect on how academia could be a partial remedy to this situation. Academia, so far, has not been a strong participant in the discursive space around particular attributions. This is despite its commitment to transparency and independence theoretically making it a well-placed actor to contribute an independent interdisciplinary contribution on the state of cyber conflict. Thus, I argue for an increasing need for academic interventions in the area of attribution. This includes interdisciplinary research on all aspects of attribution (not just in cybersecurity), and conducting independent research on the state of cyber conflict historically and contemporarily. One of the main implications of this research on contestation of attribution claims for democracies are to be more transparent about how attribution is performed, to enable other civilian actors to study cyber conflict, and to thereby broaden the discourse on what is one of the main national security challenges of today. 

Florian J. Egloff is a Senior Researcher in Cybersecurity at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich. He is the author of “Contested public attributions of cyber incidents and the role of academia”, Contemporary Security Policy, Advance Online Publication, available here. A shorter policy analysis on the subject can be found here.

Resentful Reliance: Why Myanmar and North Korea pursue different strategies to limit Chinese influence

In a recent article in Contemporary Security Policy, Jonathan T. Chow and Leif-Eric Easley explain why, despite comparable international pariah status and heavy dependence on China, Myanmar sought diplomatic diversification through reform and opening while North Korea doubled down on pariahdom by further developing nuclear weapons and missiles.

Myanmar and North Korea were long known as Asia’s “pariah states,” internationally sanctioned and ostracized for human rights violations, authoritarian repression and, in the case of North Korea, persistent efforts to develop nuclear weapons. In 2011, however, Myanmar’s repressive ruling junta surprised many observers by making a strategic decision to reform and open, stepping aside from power and ushering in a quasi-civilian government. Meanwhile, North Korea has pressed ahead with its nuclear weapons program, hardening its pariah status.

With relatively few international partners willing to cooperate with them, Myanmar and North Korea relied heavily on China for trade, investment, diplomatic support, and military assistance. However, citizens in both countries objected to China’s growing economic and political influence. In Myanmar, concerns centered on China’s ties to ethnic armed groups fighting against the central government and the environmental and social effects of Chinese-led infrastructure projects like the Myitsone Dam. Consequently, Myanmar used liberalizing reforms to signal its willingness to adhere to international norms and attract new diplomatic partners.

North Korea relies even more heavily on China than Myanmar did, and resents Beijing’s willingness to endorse United Nations sanctions regarding its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Yet, North Korea eschewed reform and opening and instead doubled down on its pariah status by racing to advance its nuclear and missile programs before pursuing diplomatic engagement. Our research identifies three factors behind Myanmar and North Korea’s different approaches to mitigating pariahdom and reliance on China.

Not All Authoritarians are Alike

First, North Korea and junta-era Myanmar differed in how well their leaders could protect themselves from retaliation after giving up control. Myanmar’s military junta could allow liberalizing reforms and relinquish day-to-day governing responsibilities while retaining its arms and the ability to usurp power. Myanmar’s new constitution grants the military broad autonomy from the civilian government and sweeping emergency powers, as well as immunity from prosecution for actions committed under the junta.

In contrast, North Korea’s ruling Kim family exercises control through a pervasive political ideology centered on “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un. The leader employs brutal repression and the dispensing of luxury items and social privileges to co-opt North Korean elites. There is little room for the Kims to pursue liberalization if reforms would undermine the regime’s legitimizing mythology, reduce the Kims’ monopoly on favors, and allow the emergence of rival factions that might seek to replace the regime.

Reducing Risks of Partnership with a Pariah State

Second, Myanmar and North Korea differed in their ability to credibly signal to potential diplomatic partners that liberalizing reforms are genuine and not merely tactical. Such signals are important in mitigating the reputational risks that new partners might incur in engaging a pariah state.    

In Myanmar, Nobel Peace Laureate, long-time political prisoner and pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi served as a credible signaler of the junta’s reformist intentions. Before her image was tarnished by Myanmar’s human rights violations during her current tenure in government under a power-sharing arrangement with the military, Aung San Suu Kyi’s endorsement of the junta’s reforms was vital to persuading Washington to reduce sanctions. Her endorsement reduced the political risks that US leaders faced in pursuing engagement with a pariah state. Myanmar’s military leaders understood Aung San Suu Kyi’s crucial signaling role, giving them confidence that their reforms would yield a positive response from Washington.

North Korea, by contrast, lacks credible signalers. The regime so thoroughly suppresses political opposition that virtually none exists. Defectors typically keep a low profile to avoid retaliation against their families still living in North Korea, while those who are vocal tend to be very critical of the regime. This would make it more difficult for North Korea to demonstrate to other countries that any political reforms it adopts are genuine. Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s propaganda maintains that its efforts at engagement are not recognized by the international community.

Weighing the Security Implications of Engagement

Third, Myanmar and North Korea differ in how diplomatic engagement with new partners relates to their security. Myanmar’s leaders perceived their chief security threat to emanate from the numerous ethnic armed groups around the country. Before pursuing reforms, the junta established a series of ceasefires with the majority of these groups, allowing it to concentrate force on the remaining holdouts. By the time reforms were underway, diplomatic engagement did not entail a significant security risk to Myanmar’s ruling regime.

On the other hand, North Korea faces a dilemma wherein diplomatic diversification requires putting its claimed nuclear deterrent on the negotiating table. The Kim regime has long pursued nuclear weapons to protect against invasion and overthrow. While such capabilities somewhat reduce Pyongyang’s reliance on Beijing in terms of security, they are a major source of North Korea’s pariah status and hence increase economic dependence on China. Potential economic partners like the United States, South Korea and Japan demand that North Korea take steps toward denuclearization to earn sanctions relief, but the Kim regime believes that doing so would put its security at risk. Hence, unlike Myanmar, North Korea is caught between its security priorities and its desire to reduce reliance on China.

Escaping the Pariahdom Trap    

Our research demonstrates that overreliance on another country is not sufficient to trigger reform in pariah states. Regime type, the presence of credible signalers, and the relationship between security and diplomatic diversification all shape the costs and incentives that pariah state regimes face in determining whether or not to liberalize and open up.

Pariah states want to pursue reforms from a position of strength, whether that means ensuring protections for regime leaders after they step down, creating mechanisms to seize back power, or building a nuclear deterrent. Myanmar was able to attain a position from which to launch reforms and begin to reduce reliance on China. For the Kim regime, however, the price of shedding pariah status and attracting new diplomatic partners appears too high to risk. Hence, for the foreseeable future, North Korea will continue to depend heavily on China.

Jonathan T. Chow is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, USA; Leif-Eric Easley is an Associate Professor in the Division of International Studies at Ewha University in Seoul, Korea. They recently published “Renegotiating pariah state partnerships: Why Myanmar and North Korea respond differently to Chinese influence,” Contemporary Security Policy, 40:4, 502-525, available here

Cyber-noir: Popular cultural influences on cybersecurity experts

In a recent article in Contemporary Security Policy, James Shires draws on film noir to discuss portrayals of cyber in popular culture.

In his testimony to the House of Representatives sub-committee on cybersecurity in 2013, Kevin Mandia, a cybersecurity CEO and former U.S. government official, emphasized that “cyber remains the one area where if there is a dead body on the ground, there is no police you call who will run to you and do the forensics and all that”. This was of course a metaphor, as there was no literal dead body in the Chinese cyber-espionage cases his company were known for. Nonetheless, he portrayed his role exactly like the start of a film noir: an absent police presence, a violent act and a dead body, and a self-reliant private investigator. Was this just a figure of speech? Or is there something else going on–something more fundamental to cybersecurity itself? 

A foundational problem in cybersecurity is drawing a clear dividing line between legitimate and malicious activity. This is difficult because cybersecurity is an environment swamped with data, where identical tools and tactics are used for different ends, and where social and economic structures linking offensive and defensive action compound technical similarities. These obstacles to distinguishing between legitimate and malicious cyber activity are well recognized by both practitioners and scholars.

In a recent article for Contemporary Security Policy, I highlight another factor that is rarely discussed but no less important: popular cultural influences on cybersecurity experts. Cybersecurity expert practices are infused with visual and textual influences from broader discourses of noir in popular culture, including dystopian science fiction, fantasy, and cyber-punk: a phenomenon I call “cyber-noir”. These influences produce cybersecurity identities that are liminal and transgressive, moving fluidly between legitimate and malicious activity. To paraphrase a neat description of film noir leads, cybersecurity experts see themselves as “seeming black and then seeming white, and being both all along”.

In the article, I examine two forms of popular cultural influences on expert practices: visual styles and naming conventions. I suggest that these influences create a morally ambiguous expert identity, which in turn perpetuates practices that blur the legitimate/malicious boundary.

First, due to its relative novelty and digital basis, many concepts and objects in cybersecurity have no obvious visual association. This gap means that, as Hall, Heath, and Coles-Kemp suggest, many techniques of cybersecurity visualization deserve further critical scrutiny. Through code images signifying illegibility and technical sophistication, and pseudo-geographic “attack maps” emphasizing constant threat, cybersecurity is portrayed as a dark and uncertain world where simulation slips easily into reality and reality into simulation. A range of threatening identities using images of noir characters, various coloured hats, and hooded hackers add to this atmosphere. These images and visual styles use noir aesthetics and palettes to convey transgression, danger and moral ambiguity. Although light and dark shades are classically associated with good and evil, in cybersecurity–as in noir–both “good” and “bad” entities occupy the same place in the visual spectrum.

Second, naming conventions are infused with popular culture, through direct references and quotations and in their style, sound and visual aspect.  Many company names and analysis tools in cybersecurity evoke a popular culture crossover between noir, science fiction, fantasy and cyber punk. Vulnerabilities receive names that could be straight from dystopian fiction, like “Heartbleed,” “Spectre,” “Meltdown,” and “Rowhammer”, while others highlight a darker aesthetic, such as “Black Lambert” and “Eternal Blue”. Although these are clearly strategic decisions, they also shape the identity of the individuals who work in these organizations and the organizations themselves. Consequently, names with popular cultural influences and associations not only enliven the working day for cybersecurity experts, but constitute the moral orientation of their world.

In 2017, British youth Marcus Hutchins became well-known among cybersecurity experts, following his portrayal as the person who singlehandedly stopped the devastating WannaCry virus that affected the UK’s National Health Service. However, Hutchins’ fame enabled other cybersecurity experts and U.S. law enforcement to follow a trail of domain names, malware names, and handles on hacker forums, including “ghosthosting,” “hackblack,” “blackshades,” and “blackhole,” to the creation of an illegal banking virus named Kronos. Hutchins was arrested months after his public appearance and sentenced to time served in July 2019 for his role in distributing this virus. Hutchins’ case is an extreme example of the relationship between noir aesthetics and transgressive practices. As his story illustrates starkly, many cybersecurity expert identities are constituted in such a way that practices like hacking back, undercover intelligence collection and participation in “grey” or “black” hacking forums seem to be a normal, even necessary, set of activities.

The article concludes that the fragile distinction between legitimate and malicious activity in cybersecurity expert discourses is not merely a question of technological similarities, exacerbated by particular economic and institutional structures. Instead, experts themselves perpetuate uncertainty over what is legitimate and malicious in cybersecurity. Their adoption of popular culture adds to the explicit obstacles confronting cybersecurity experts, suggesting that the task of separating legitimate and malicious is much more challenging than commonly thought. Consequently, the deepest difficulty in maintaining the legitimate/malicious binary–and therefore constructing a stable foundation for cybersecurity itself–is not the range of technological, social, and economic pressures explicitly recognized by cybersecurity experts, but their implicit embrace of cyber-noir.

James Shires is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Security and Global Affairs, University of Leiden. He is the author of “Cyber-noir: Cybersecurity and popular culture”, Contemporary Security Policy, Advance Online Publication,  available here.

Call for the 2021 Special Issue

CSP CoverContemporary Security Policy is seeking proposals for a special issue to be published in 2021 (volume 42). The special issue should address a topic within the aims and scope of the journal. CSP has an impact factor of 1.574, which ranks the journal #33 out of 91 in the category International Relations.

One of the oldest peer reviewed journals in international conflict and security, CSP promotes theoretically-based research on policy problems of armed conflict, intervention and conflict resolution. Since it first appeared in 1980, CSP has established its unique place as a meeting ground for research at the nexus of theory and policy. Major fields of concern include:

  • War and armed conflict
  • Peacekeeping
  • Conflict resolution
  • Arms control and disarmament
  • Defense policy
  • Strategic culture
  • International institutions

CSP is committed to a broad range of intellectual perspectives. Articles promote new analytical approaches, iconoclastic interpretations and previously overlooked perspectives. Its pages encourage novel contributions and outlooks, not particular methodologies or policy goals. Its geographical scope is worldwide and includes security challenges in Europe, Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. Authors are encouraged to examine established priorities in innovative ways and to apply traditional methods to new problems.

Special Issue Information

Special issue proposals should contain (in one PDF document):

  • A short discussion of the rationale and contribution of the special issue (3 pages max). Please also state why the topic falls within the aims and scope of the journal and why the proposal would be of interest to a large audience.
  • Contact details, institutional affiliation, one paragraph biography of the special issue co-editors, and three recent publications of each of the co-editors. Feel free to include a link to the personal website of the co-editors. Do not submit full CVs.
  • A list of confirmed articles and authors. Please include for each article (a) the title; (b) 150 word abstract; (c) a very short statement how the article contributes to the special issue and why it needs to be included; (d) a one paragraph author biography; and (e) three recent publications of the author(s).
  • The current state of the special issue. Please describe the background (e.g. previous workshops and conferences) and the timeframe towards the submission deadline.

The special issue will consist of a substantive introduction and 6-7 articles. The introduction should stand on itself. It should serve as a state-of-the-art article and be a reference point for all the other articles in the special issue. It is recommended that special issue proposals include 9-10 articles. All articles will be sent by the journal for peer-review on an individual basis. It is unlikely that all articles will eventually make the cut.

Most articles in CSP are around 8,000-9,000 words (including notes and references). However, manuscripts up to 11,000 words are accepted, for example when they include multiple case studies or use mixed methods. Total word limits will be discussed in case of acceptance.

Please submit your application (one PDF file) to csp@nullmaastrichtuniversity.nl. The deadline for the special issue proposal is 15 November 2019. The decision will be announced soon afterwards. The decision by the editor is final. All articles, including the introduction, will have to be submitted by 15 March 2020.

The Afghanistan model for Somali peace negotiations

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis makes a case for peace talks with Al-Shabaab in Somalia on the model of the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. This blog post builds on an earlier article published in Contemporary Security Policy.

The ongoing talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan held in Doha and Moscow have generated some enthusiasm in Somalia, as many Somalis demand similar talks with Harakaat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujaahiduun (Al-Shabaab).

Al-Shabaab, Somalia’s Taliban, has evidently heard of the growing demands from the Somali public for United States to have direct negotiations with the insurgent movement, like the regime in Kabul. Thus far, nonetheless, there is no statement from the insurgency movement. Al-Shabaab’s silence can be interpreted both as an acceptance or a rejection of any talks. 

For many years, Al-Shabaab has insisted on not talking to the Western-backed ‘puppet’ regimes in Mogadishu. Yet privately some elements within the Al-Shabaab leadership contacted and told the current president of the regime in Mogadishu that they would be ready to talk to him.

Indeed, Al-Shabaab negotiated successfully in the past with some African governments like South Africa in 2010 for safety and security issues around the World Cup (see Stig Jarle Hansen’s, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2013). This is an indication that Al-Shabaab is open to negotiations, apparently when that benefit their politics.

The Legitimacy and Strategy

The strategy of Al-Shabaab is to gain a bigger bargain from the United States or other international community involving Somalia. For the calculative Al-Shabaab leadership, talking to the big powers is much more beneficial than talking to a dysfunctional failed state in Somalia.

In many ways, Al-Shabaab is similar to the Taliban, which has long refused to sit and negotiate with the regime in Kabul but accepted only negotiating with the United States, because – like Al-Shabaab leadership – the Taliban leadership see the Western-backed Afghan entity as a ‘puppet regime’.

Negotiations for talks with insurgency groups like Al-Shabaab or Taliban start with a tit-for-tat questions of legitimacy: who should talk to who, what, when and why. But the end goal is a political settlement to create peace among war-torn societies like Somalia and Afghanistan.

If one can draw a lesson from the Taliban manoeuvres, Al-Shabaab will at last come to the table with the regime in Mogadishu. In the third round of the negotiations between the regime in Kabul and the Taliban, the Afghan leadership came to the table, not as an official state government, but more or less as an observer entity.

A New American Approach?

In Somalia, the United States can certainly play the role of Russia is currently playing in Afghanistan. Historically, Washington has a history of violent engagement with Somalia in the 1990s, not much less than the Moscow’s violent engagement with Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The United States can now change the course by taking another route. It needs to engage with all Somali stakeholders including Al-Shabaab, regardless of their political or religious position. In this way, the United States can change the bad image held by many Somalis that Washington works against Somali interests both past and present times.

Today, there are many and multiple (internal and external) conflicts in Somalia, but the main contemporary critical conflict is the one between Al-Shabaab and the international community forces in Somalia. The regime in Mogadishu acts in this war as a rubber stamp for the United States to legitimise its operations in the form of drone attacks on the Al-Shabaab areas in southern Somalia.

The African Union Forces, funded by the Western countries, particularly the European Union, are seen by most Somalis as a mercenary forces for the United States. The AMISOM forces are doing a good job for the United States to protect Al-Shabaab from the corrupt regime in Mogadishu.

By sending drones from the air to Al-Shabaab, the United States continues to frustrate the capacity and capability of Al-Shabaab to conduct and carry out regular attacks outside Mogadishu, but Washington will hardly eliminate the capacity of Al-Shabaab to conduct usual attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere in East and Horn of Africa region.

Yet, during the course of my fieldwork research in Somalia over the last four years, many Somali elders and intellectuals in the Somali capital city of Mogadishu and elsewhere in southern Somalia would regularly express concern about the United States’s aggressive and uncompromising approach at Al-Shabaab, while negotiating with Taliban on the other hand.

“Why is the United States not positively engage with Al-Shabaab? Why is the United States constantly conducting airstrike against Al-Shabaab in Somalia, but not against the Taliban in Afghanistan?” These were some of the questions posed by local Somalis on the streets or sitting in Somalia cafes.

Recent research into the Taliban in Afghanistan revealed similarly that the Taliban is not that uniquely cruel and that compared to other 20th-century ideologies such as socialism and communism, they have killed less people and rarely been charged with genocide. This can also be applied to Al-Shabaab.

At a time Somalia celebrates more than three decades of an absence of functional governance in southern Somalia, there is no better time to directly talk to armed insurgency like Al-Shabaab posing threat to the external attempts to impose a type of suitable entity for Mogadishu.

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis is pursuing a doctoral degree at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford, the UK. He published “Building peace from the margins in Somalia: The case for political settlement with Al-Shabaab”, Contemporary Security Policy, 39(4), 2018, 512-536, available here.

Why Australia remains a close ally despite Donald Trump

In a new article, Mark Beeson and Alan Bloomfield show that it takes more than Donald Trump to upset American-Australian security relations. The alliance with the United States is deeply ingrained and institutionalized in Australian strategic culture.

To say that Donald Trump has had a big impact on international politics would be putting it mildly. Whether by design or accident his administration has managed to overturn many taken-for-granted verities of the international order that Trump’s predecessors fashioned after World War II. Even the future of pivotal Western institutions, such as NATO, is uncertain. Friends and foes alike are therefore reconsidering their relationships with Washington.

And yet for all the uncertainty and anxiety Trump’s unpredictable and ‘transactional’ approach to policy-making has created, some relationships and institutions are surprisingly durable. Our article focuses on Australia, but its findings suggest that while what we call the ‘Trump Effect’ has had a major impact on some of the more theatrical aspects of international politics, underneath the colour and movement some institutionally embedded alliance relationships are very resistant to change. 

We find that grand strategy is one policy area that is hard to change. Canadians may be highly offended by some of Trump’s antics, for example, but they do not consider the United States to be an enemy and the border will almost certainly remain undefended. Likewise, the deeply institutionalised intelligence sharing arrangements that distinguish the ‘Anglosphere’ nations – the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – also look likely to remain operative. 

Australia provides a compelling illustration of just how entrenched grand-strategic ‘truths’ can become. We argue that despite the fact the Trump Effect negatively impacts on Australia’s interests, it is highly unlikely that Canberra would distance itself significantly from Washington in the foreseeable future; indeed, it is unlikely Australian policy-makers would even consider doing so given how deeply they have been socialised to view the relationship as ‘indispensable.’

This rigid thinking may surprise observers unfamiliar with Australian grand-strategic discourse. Australia enjoys unique natural defensive advantages given it shares no land borders with other states and its distance from potentially threatening great powers. It is also very wealthy: Australia’s 25 million people live in the 14th largest economy in the world (and their taxes pay for the 13th largest defense budget). Objectively, Australia seems especially secure. Consequently, the pervasive sense of anxiety that has pervaded Australian strategic planning for a century now takes some explaining. 

In Australia’s case, relative isolation from the Anglo great powers has always been seen as a source of vulnerability and insecurity. This made more sense a century ago: for example, on the eve of World War I the enormous continent was inhabited by only 4 million people. But as noted just above, Australia is a powerful state in its own right now. So why, even though the impact of the Trump Effect is clearly negative, are Australian policy-makers seemingly unable to even begin thinking about distancing themselves from the source of these disturbances? 

We found that it required a major external shock in World War II to bring about the first significant grand-strategic change in Australia’s history, the shift of allegiance from Britain to the US. In other words, only the credible threat of invasion by a hostile great power, Japan, which was conquering – and savagely exploiting – most of Asia, proved a sufficiently compelling ‘critical juncture’ to cause substantial change.

Another less-radical but still significant grand-strategic shift occurred around 1970 when Australians believed that they had been abandoned by London, and that Washington’s commitment to Asia had weakened substantially. This second shock was sufficient to cause a critical juncture leading to the dethronement of ‘forward defence’ doctrine and the rise of ‘continental defence’ logic. But Canberra’s commitment to the US alliance hardly wavered. 

We find the Trump Effect comes nowhere close to delivering the same sort of exogenous shocks; consequently, we advise observers to expect ‘no change’ in Australia’s grand strategy. Accordingly, we submit that to account for the way policy-making elites in different countries calculate their different national interests, scholars must consider the role that their distinctive strategic cultures play in shaping policy outcomes.

In Australia’s case, it is not just sense of inherent vulnerability that accounts for the surprising durability of its alliance relationship with the US. What makes Australia’s ties to the US relatively impervious even to the Trump Effect, we suggest, is the way the bilateral relationship has been institutionalised over the decades – in treaties (most notably ANZUS), at the executive level but also at lower-bureaucratic levels, through multiple avenues of ‘Track 2’ diplomacy, etc. – which goes a long way to explaining why, over 70 years of public opinion surveys, support for the alliance averages in the high-70s percent and has never fallen below 63 percent.

Indeed, it is striking that policy-makers from both major political parties almost never criticise the alliance; only after leaving office do (a very few) retired senior politicians rediscover their critical, independent faculties. By this stage, of course, it’s too late to make much difference.

It is also worth noting that the rise of China as a regional economic powerhouse and strategic rival has reinforced rather than undermined the centrality of ANZUS. Given its economic importance to Australia, no one talks openly about ‘containing’ China; but Australia is about to spend a lot money on re-armament to ensure it can play its customary role in supporting Washington’s strategic ambitions, including (by implication) those directed against Beijing. Indeed, the idea that Australia might bandwagon with a rising China is virtually unthinkable, and those who dare to suggest Australia should work hard to upgrade its relationship with China run the real risk of being publicly pilloried.

In short, Australia’s supportive, strategically-dependent role is deeply ingrained and institutionalised as part of its distinctive strategic culture; and it is likely to withstand even the mercurially-disruptive presence of Mr Trump too.

Mark Beeson and Alan Bloomfield work at the University of Western Australia. They recently published “The Trump effect downunder: U.S. allies, Australian strategic culture, and the politics of path dependence”, Contemporary Security Policy, Advance online publication, available here.