Strategic cooptation and India as nuclear power

Patrick Frankenbach, Andreas Kruck, and Bernhard Zangl show how India was strategically coopted into the existing non-proliferation regime. Their recent article in CSP holds lessons for all international institutions that need to adjust to changes in the global order.

Shifts in the global distribution of power put the international order and its underpinning institutions under stress. As powers such as China and India rise and powers such as the US or the UK decline, international institutions such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or the World Trade Organization (WTO) come under pressure to adapt to new power realities.

The prevailing view is that the adjustment of international institutions to a changing distribution of power is a highly conflictual process of power bargaining. (So far) dominant preservers of the status quo wrestle with rising revisionists, exchanging threats and trying to force the other side to give in. If anything, this power game is assumed to be particularly conflictual in security (institutions).

Our recent article on India’s inclusion into the nuclear non-proliferation regime belies this conventional narrative. Instead, it underlines the relevance of a different mode of institutional adaptation, namely strategic cooptation. In 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a major component of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, terminated the three-decades-long embargo on nuclear trade, which it had imposed after India’s nuclear tests in 1974. India turned from a nuclear pariah of the international community into a de facto recognized nuclear power.

The NSG waiver constitutes a cooptation deal in which NSG member states – led by the US, but supported by other nuclear powers – traded institutional privileges in return for India’s increased institutional support of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The US and the other nuclear powers offered India the privilege of being recognized as nuclear power and taking part in international nuclear trade. In return, India promised to support the nuclear non-proliferation regime by shoring up its nuclear export controls and making the majority of its nuclear sites subject to IAEA safeguards.

India’s cooptation into the nuclear non-proliferation regime reflects a mode of institutional adaptation that is more cooperative than the prevailing narrative of the highly conflictive power-bargaining between rising revisionists and declining preservationists would have it. Cooptors actively pursue limited institutional adaptation desired by cooptees to keep the institutional core intact.

Strategic cooptation is a mutually beneficial mode of cooperation among unequal actors that exchange institutional privileges for institutional support. Cooptation is common and widely studied in domestic political settings, but it is also relevant for institutional adaptation to global power shifts, even in the realm of security. It is particularly relevant for international (security) institutions which provide institutional privileges to some states, while denying them to others.

The general focus in academia and among many policy-makers on conflictive great-power bargaining obscures the importance of strategic cooptation. This is problematic because it comes with the neglect of three important features of institutional adjustments to global power shifts:

First, for some challengers of the institutional status quo, who are willing and able to provide needed institutional support, relying on strategic cooptation (making promises) may be a superior strategy compared to power bargaining (issuing threats). Sometimes strategic cooptation is not only better suited to attain institutional adjustment; it is also less conflictive and allows to nurture cooperative relationships. On the other hand, defenders of the institutional status quo should not simply assume that challengers will engage in power bargaining. After all, policy responses that are adequate for addressing power bargaining are often counterproductive in dealing with strategic cooptation. Starting negotiations with promises rather than threats often leads to better outcomes. The negotiations between the US and India about the latter’s integration into the nuclear non-proliferation regime are a case in point.

Second, a strategic cooptation approach sensitizes observers and policy-makers to important conditions for achieving institutional change that are overlooked in the power bargaining account, namely third-party resistance to power-sharing deals between emerging and established powers as well as institutional opportunities for overcoming it. The nonproliferation regime–India case underlines that it is often third parties that put up strong resistance against cooptation agreements. When the US announced in 2005 its intention to lift the embargo on trade with nuclear material, resistance from non-nuclear “middle powers” was massive: A group of “like-minded states” comprising Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand formed to stop India’s recognition as nuclear power, with New Zealand taking the lead. This group – rather than the nuclear great powers – rejected India’s recognition as nuclear power. For the deal to materialize, it was crucial that proponents could strike the deal within the more exclusive NSG rather than the more encompassing NPT context, thus managing to circumvent the third-party resistance typical of any cooptation deal. More generally, policy-makers should take into consideration the potentially fierce resistance (middle or even minor) third parties might put up against any great power bargain and they should weigh the institutional opportunities for overcoming this resistance.

Third, even then cooptation is not a panacea for stabilizing troubled institutions. The story of India’s cooptation suggests we should not take for granted the medium- and longer-turn effectiveness of cooptation as a means of stabilizing international institutions. The cooptation of India did not silence other critics of the NPT among the “nuclear have-nots” nor did it stabilize the status quo of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Quite the opposite: India’s cooptation further alienated dissatisfied non-nuclear weapons states under the NPT, thus widening the gap between nuclear powers and non-nuclear weapon states. Criticizing the nuclear deal with India at NPT Review Conferences, several non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT (but not the NSG) took offense with the privileges granted to India. If anything, India’s cooptation created growing resentment and increased criticism of the regime centered around the NPT, which ultimately contributed to the quest for the new Nuclear Ban Treaty.

Thus, academics and policy-makers alike should more seriously consider the option of cooptation as a mode of institutional adaptation. However, they should not simply equate agreement on a cooptation deal with longer-term stability for the institution in question. Expected contributions to institutional stability may not fully materialize or they may provoke unintended consequences – often precisely due to lasting third-party resistance.

Patrick Frankenbach, Andreas Kruck, and Bernhard Zangl are researchers at the Geschwister-Scholl-Institute for Political Science, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany. They are the authors of “India’s recognition as a nuclear power: A case of strategic cooptation”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Ambiguity of hybrid warfare

Understanding what hybrid warfare means to political and military representatives allows us to correctly interpret country’s policies and countermeasures. In a recent article, Silvie Janičatová and Petra Mlejnková analyze the British political-military discourse on Russia’s hostile activities, and the role of defense policy in countering it. This gives us a bottom up understanding of hybrid warfare.

“Hybrid warfare” and “Russia” have become connectively used words in political, military, academic, or even public spheres almost on daily basis since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Still, there is a fair amount of ambiguity in describing what hybrid warfare means, let alone the correct use of the term itself, which is further reinforced by conflicting arguments about the novelty of this concept. Such lack of clarity raises the question of how a particular country and its leaders understand hybrid warfare, which has important implications for formulating respective policies and countermeasures.

This article focuses on the British political-military discourse on hybrid warfare in the context of Russia’s hostile activities and the role of defense policy in the period 2014-2019. However, rather than examining this issue solely by applying the concept itself, as compared to other studies, a bottom-up approach, qualitative content analysis with quantitative aspects in particular, is used to obtain results from 68 primary sources of various actors relevant to British defense. The analysis itself aims at three areas: terms used to describe Russia’s hostile activities; Russia’s hostile activities abroad and their perception including corresponding tools and methods; and UK’s response to Russia’s hostile activities.

The results provide number of interesting insights and allow to indicate further implications. For example, the representatives not only used a wide range of different terms to describe Russia’s hostile activities, which corresponds with the overall ambiguity of hybrid warfare and its conceptualization and which tends to approach this issue in a further context, but the quantitative perspective further showed that they highlighted information and cyber warfare more often in comparison to other particular components of hybrid warfare definitions.

In the context of the UK, this calls for a more unified understanding of the issue, whether it could be in the form of adopting NATO’s approach to hybrid threats or formulating UK’s own perspective, for example, within the MCDC Countering Hybrid Warfare Project which the UK is a member of. And since there is naturally a risk of creating more ambiguity than there already is, it is crucial to base such an approach on facts and proper understanding of Russia’s aims, tools and methods, since it would have additional implications for response measures.

Similarly, while keeping in mind the limits of generalization of one case study, these results also deserve some attention in regard to the hybrid warfare debate since they raise the question whether hybrid warfare is not really just a label primarily used for political purposes and it is really more suitable to research the particular components – an approach already held in academic circles.

Another example is the role of defense policy in countering hybrid warfare in the context of Russia, which was undoubtedly recognized in the British political-military discourse, although its engagement was considered being ultimately dependent on the nature of a particular hybrid threat that Russia poses. The results and their analysis may represent a helping tool in interpreting British strategic documents (including the potential differences between the political-military discourse and the documents), decisions made in relation to defense (such as preferences in development of particular capabilities or support of certain propositions at NATO level), or related countermeasures. And if additional data and governmental actors were added to the analysis, this approach could also be adopted towards other British policies which are impacted by the same threat.

Last but not least, the article shows that focusing on hybrid warfare within a particular discourse can provide interesting insights into particular country’s understanding of the concept as well as respective policies and countermeasures. The case study of the UK could thus serve as an example for researching political-military discourses in other countries/institutions that also have to deal with such a threat, in order to generate more data and even provide some comparisons, and the applied bottom-up approach, which proved its usefulness in analyzing such discourse, may represent a way how to achieve it.

Silvie Janičatová and Petra Mlejková are researchers at the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, the Czech Republic. They are the authors of “The Ambiguity of Hybrid Warfare: A Qualitative Content Analysis of the United Kingdom’s Political-Military Discourse on Russia’s Hostile Activities and the Role of Defense”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

 

 

UN Peace Operations Will Evolve, Not Disappear

The United Nations currently deploys nearly 95,000 uniformed and civilian peacekeepers in a dozen active operations, at an annual cost of approximately $6.6 billion. Its worldwide deployment of uniformed personnel is second only to the United States. And yet considerable uncertainty surrounds the future of UN peacekeeping. So much so, that last year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres established the “Future of Peacekeeping” project to imagine what future peace operations might look like. In a new article, Katharina P. Coleman and Paul D. Williams argue that future evolution is more likely than extinction.

Compared to 2015, there’s been a 24 percent reduction in peacekeeping personnel and a 23 percent reduction in spending. Peacekeeping missions have closed in Côte d’Ivoire (2017), Haiti (2017), and Liberia (2018), while the hybrid mission in Darfur has ceased operations, and the mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to downsize. The UN has not established a new multidimensional peace operation since 2014, and Secretary-General Guterres prefers focusing on preventive initiatives and special political and peacebuilding missions with “light footprints.”

The UN’s missions have also come under financial pressure. The United States under former president Trump and some European countries have sought drastic cost reductions, which the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to intensify. Escalating tensions among the permanent members of the UN Security Council also risk undermining cooperation on peace operations more broadly. Taken together, some observers think UN peacekeeping is in crisis.

These trends and challenges are real, but we shouldn’t write off UN peacekeeping. Peace operations are a highly resilient international institution for managing armed conflict. Their resilience derives from “collective intentionality” and “constitutive rules.” Collective intentionality means that peace operations exist as a distinctive form of international activity because international actors have agreed to recognize them as such. Consequently, peace operations will only become extinct if international actors become convinced that this type of activity (should) no longer exist. Constitutive rules are the set of commonly understood principles that define what counts as a particular socially recognized activity. Constitutive rules are malleable but cannot be changed unilaterally—at least a critical mass of those holding these understandings must be persuaded (or induced) to alter them.

Despite a range of current constraints, challenges, and crises, UN peace operations are unlikely to become extinct unless a critical mass of states consistently withdraw material support for them and explicitly denigrate the concept of peace operations itself. We see little evidence that both these things are likely to occur. However, the constitutive rules guiding UN missions and peace operations more generally are likely to continue to evolve due to ideational and material changes. While the proliferation of actors and mission types makes precise predictions impossible, we expect an evolution in both how various actors define their own peace operations and how these actors relate to each other.

There are four main reasons why continued evolution of UN peacekeeping is more likely than extinction. First, the central problems UN missions are intended to help tackle are unlikely to disappear and ignoring those problems will prove difficult. Limiting war and the threat of war, particularly those that might involve or draw in the great powers, remains an urgent need.

Second, there is robust empirical evidence that UN peace operations work. They are effective at preventing armed conflict, reducing violence against civilians and battle deaths once armed conflict has started, helping belligerents achieve peace, and preventing organized violence from recurring once wars have ended. Moreover, UN peace operations are highly cost-effective both as investments for conflict management and in terms of deployment costs. UN member states are unlikely to reject them indefinitely, though peace operations might become less frequent and more constrained in the absence of great power cooperation.

Third, expressed more negatively, there is no better alternative tool for managing armed conflicts. The comparison between wars where significant peace operations were deployed and wars without such deployments is suggestive, despite the difficulty of comparing conflicts and assessing counterfactuals. To take some recent examples, peace operations have certainly struggled to contain organized violence in several theaters, notably Mali, DRC, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Somalia. However, without peace operations the levels of casualties in these conflicts would probably have been much higher and they do not compare unfavorably with war zones that have not witnessed the deployment of major peace operations, such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, and Myanmar.

Fourth, historically, peace operations have persisted through considerable variation in the levels of interest states and organizations have shown in deploying them—especially larger operations with more robust mandates—and rebounded after periods of relative disinterest. The current period of challenges is thus not unprecedented. Indeed, in broad terms, the history of UN peace operations can be depicted as a series of retreats, reflections, and renaissances. The current contraction is no more likely to be permanent than previous ones, given the factors noted above.

Of course, UN peace operations operate within the constraints set by geopolitics. Great powers will remain unlikely to accept peace operations led by other actors in their own conflicts. Diminished great power leadership may reduce the resources available for peace operations. Increased contestation among great powers may further reduce the number of missions, restricting them to areas where there is great power consensus or at least acquiescence. Nevertheless, UN peace operations remain a potentially useful tool for great powers to manage (or appear to manage) a wide range of conflicts. As a result, there is no reason for great powers to make general arguments for abolishing peace operations—and to date, no great power has done so.

Katharina P. Coleman is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. She tweets @KPColeman. Paul D. Williams is Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He tweets  @PDWilliamsGWU. They are the authors of “Peace operations are what states make of them: Why future evolution is more likely than extinction”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

This blog post first appeared on the website of the IPI Global Observatory.

Private Sector Contribution to National Strategies of Cyber Deterrence

More often than not, the delegation of national security responsibilities to private actors has generated controversy. Notable cases include the United States’ reliance on private military contractors in the recent conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq. Hence, it may come as a surprise that the current debate around private sector contribution to national strategies of cyber deterrence has been largely exempt from such controversies.

On the contrary, a steady consensus has grown around the idea that national strategies of cyber deterrence would benefit significantly from the direct participation of actors in the private sector. In particular, there have been repeated calls for tech companies, cyber-security firms, and owners and operators of critical infrastructure to bring their vast resources to the table in order to boost governments’ ability to fend off malicious cyber activity.

Without dismissing the opportunities originating from the contributions of the private sector, a new article written by Eugenio Lilli highlights how such private contributions could also pose significant security, legal, and moral challenges.

The first step to assess the desirability or not of private sector contribution to national strategies of cyber deterrence is to define the concept of deterrence in cyber space. As it is the case with many neologisms containing the prefix “cyber”, cyber deterrence also lacks a universally agreed upon definition. In the article, cyber deterrence is defined as the deterrence of malicious activity occurring within or through cyber space. It is also argued that deterrence in cyber space should be

  •  Restrictive. It should seek to shape and limit the overall frequency and severity of malicious activity rather than aiming at dissuading all attacks from occurring at all times.
  • Comprehensive. It should encompass deterrence by denial, punishment, entanglement, and norms; it should rely on deterrent measures taken in the other operational domains of land, sea, air, and space; it should include the whole range of instruments of national power including diplomatic, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement (aka DIMEFIL) instruments.
  • Dynamic. In response to rapid technological innovation, it should constantly monitor systems and networks, update defenses, improve intelligence sharing, patch vulnerabilities, and renew contingency plans; in response to change in cyber norms, it should implement measures aimed at actively shaping the evolution of norms in cyber space.
  • Complemental. It should not be expected to work best as a separate tool in an actor’s toolbox but rather, as complemental to other forms of coercive and non-coercive strategic interaction.

By relying on the RCDC (Restrictive, Comprehensive, Dynamic, Complemental) conceptualization of cyber deterrence, the article identifies specific areas where private sector contribution can be especially beneficial to national strategies of cyber deterrence. For example, there is evidence to support the argument that private actors can be instrumental to hardening cyber defenses and enhancing resilience, to sharing information, to imposing costs to adversaries, to attributing cyber incidents, to creating strategic interdependencies, and to advancing norms of appropriate behavior in cyber space.

Some important benefits of private sector contribution appear to be common to all areas. To begin with, the private sector can offer unique state-of-art-technologies, highly skilled human capital, and critical funding to compensate for a national government’s limited resources. Moreover, while government authority is often geographically limited, private actors’ visibility and reach can extend beyond national borders. In addition, compared to the somewhat cumbersome processes of policymaking characteristic of state bureaucracies, private sector processes of policymaking give these actors more flexibility and speed; key abilities given the fast-changing nature of threats in cyber space.

Given the above, it is not surprising that the number of those people calling for more private participation in national cyber deterrence is steadily increasing. However, as it is often the case, the devil is in the details. The opportunities originating from private sector contributions are apparent, yet these same contributions also have the potential to raise serious security, legal, and moral challenges that need to be thoroughly understood.

For example, contracting a private company to host classified military information can give fast-track access to the latest technologies but it could also endanger national security if the private company is successfully breached by a hostile actor. Similarly, private companies, especially big tech companies, usually employ people from the world over. Where would these employees’ loyalty lie in case of heighten international tensions or an open confrontation? With the country which contracted them or with their country of origin?

Moreover, legal considerations could limit the willingness of the private sector to contribute to activities of intelligence sharing and active cyber defense. In the context of the United States both types of deterrence activities, while beneficial, may in some cases violate domestic law.

There are also instances of contributions which raise moral issues. For example, private sector’s access to government’s sensitive information could lead to the abuse of such information for private gain. Private companies are ultimately responsible to shareholders rather than to the citizenry. How can they be held accountable to the nation’s interest? With regard to attribution of cyber incidents, commercial interests could make private actors somewhat biased in their public attributions. In particular, they could refrain from publicly attributing incidents to specific governments because they do not want to jeopardize their access to these countries’ profitable contracts and markets.

To conclude, these few examples show the need for starting a more nuanced debate on the nature and desirability of private sector contribution to national strategies of cyber deterrence which is not limited to highlighting the opportunities deriving from it but that also considers the related challenges.

Eugenio Lilli is a lecturer at University College Dublin. He is the author of “Redefining deterrence in cyberspace: Private sector contribution to national strategies of cyber deterrence”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

Unity among al-Qaeda groups in the Sahel

In September 2017, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda declared that the unity of effort of al-Qaeda groups in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger was as “an example, worthy of emulation, for … Mujahid brothers and Muslims the world over.” Despite many centrifugal forces, the al-Qaeda groups have since then maintained alliance cohesion. As argued by Troels Burchall Henningsen in a recent article, this is largely the outcome of the multi-pronged strategy of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups that shapes local communities and reduces the tension created by communal cleavages. In order to avoid a quagmire, international counter-terrorism and peacekeeping missions need to break the ties among the al-Qaeda groups and their ties to the local population.

In 2017, al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the Sahel region formed a new alliance under the name Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). Afterwards JNIM has often reached international headlines through a spectacular and brutal use of violence. Behind the headlines lies a multi-dimensional irregular strategy that often gets lost in the policy debate when groups are labelled as terrorists. The strategy makes it possible for JNIM to retain alliance cohesion among groups that recruit from different ethnic and social powerbases. The alliance’s political and informational campaigns promote a common Islamist framework for understanding conflicts and social changes. To this end, JNIM draws on an international repertoire of symbols and narratives developed by al-Qaeda. JNIM is at once a conservative alliance firmly placed in traditional social networks and a revolutionary force that transcends established social boundaries.

The comprehensive campaigns to establish alternative governance may appear rudimentary, but must be compared to the low standards of governance in the impoverished and marginalized regions of Burkina Faso and Mali. Hospitals, Sharia courts, or enforcement of land rights contribute to the everyday welfare and safety of local communities. The fact that militant Islamists live among the local community give them an understanding and motivation to deal with local governance issues. Violence and information campaigns contribute to the establishment of alternative governance. Attacks on security forces and assassinations of state officials and local dignitaries go hand in hand with subtle influencing and intimidation of those responsible for everyday governance, such as schoolteachers or mayors. As a result, diverse communities now gets a more homogeneous governance structure, although it might be covert and violent.

Normally, cohesion among insurgent groups is associated with strong organizations, patient indoctrination of rank-and-file members, or the prospect of winning a war. None of these factors reinforces unity within JNIM. Moreover, the implementation of JNIM’s comprehensive strategy has not been a neat and linear process. Burkina Faso and Mali have witnessed a sharp increase in self-defense militias and criminal groups, many of those challenging JNIM’s bid to govern marginalized regions. In 2020, fights with Islamic State affiliates added to the woes of JNIM. However, the strategy of JNIM situates them at the grass root level of local politics. Their ability to influence or coerce local power brokers across ethnic communities sets them apart from other militant groups, and provides them with a unifying approach.

Now the international military interventions in Mali and the wider Sahel face a familiar, but unsettling situation. The French counter-terrorism operation Barkhane has killed a number of the senior al-Qaeda commanders. The EU training missions have trained an impressive number of soldiers and paramilitary forces. Yet, JNIM maintains a high operational tempo and escalates violence. The first problem is well known from other counter-insurgency operations, namely that JNIM operatives live among the people in marginalized areas, whereas national and international security forces are most often strangers in these regions. The second problem is a lack of consensus about how to tackle JNIM. The military coup in Mali in August 2020 was the culmination of a simmering disaffection with the government, including its inability to curb militant Islamism. However, the political elites in Mali disagree on whether (parts) of JNIM should be included in a reconciliation process. International powers view JNIM in the lens of international Jihadist terrorism and oppose dialogue.

To break the deadlock, one policy approach would be to target the alliance cohesion of JNIM. Many of the current efforts aim at breaking the links between JNIM groups and the local population. Reconciliation initiatives or reforms of local state institutions aim to build the legitimacy of the state, or at least improve its cooperation with local elites who resist JNIM presence. These initiatives are steps in the right direction, but the poor security situation means that military solutions play an outsized role. A comprehensive civilian effort that takes into account local and national political interests would improve this line of effort. A second, more controversial, line of effort is to break the leadership cohesion within JNIM by including parts of the alliance in a national dialogue. Both JNIM and prominent opposition politicians have expressed interest in negotiations. This would be akin to the peace process in Afghanistan, where Taliban formally had to break with al-Qaeda before the negotiations. Maybe the current unity of JNIM requires that international interveners discuss whether al-Qaeda affiliated groups can be part of a political process.

Troels Burchall Henningsen is an assistant professor at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College, Copenhagen. He is the author of “The crafting of alliance cohesion among insurgents: The case of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the Sahel region”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

Who wants to ban killer robots?

Despite much talk about a killer robots, few states support a ban. In a new article, Ondřej Rosendorf shows that states lacking capacities to pursue killer robots are most in favour of a ban in addition to states with a strong humanitarian orientation.

The advent of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), also known as “killer robots,” presents one of the most significant developments in current military affairs. The possibility of delegating decisions to use force to machines promises to revolutionize warfare, yet, it also raises serious ethical, legal, and security challenges.

Since 2012, a group of NGOs organized under the umbrella of “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots” (CSKR) has been advocating for a preventive prohibition of these systems. Much like previous humanitarian disarmament campaigns against anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, and blinding lasers, the principal justification for the ban on LAWS lies in the potentially adverse impact of their use for the protection of civilians during times of war.

National delegations are currently discussing LAWS in the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) within the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which allows imposing prohibitions or restrictions on weapons deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects.

While the initial focus of the GGE was open-ended, discussions quickly gravitated to possible regulatory options, including moratoria, codes of conduct, or a positive obligation to maintain “meaningful human control” over weapon systems. Partly due to active advocacy efforts of the CSKR, the call for a preventive prohibition received the most attention, even though the full potential of the technology is unknown, and there is no universally accepted definition of LAWS.

To date, some thirty countries, including Austria and members of the Global South, have aligned themselves with the view of the CSKR, demanding a ban to address the potentially adverse humanitarian implications of weapon autonomy. The composition of this group is peculiar at first glance since – except for Austria – it does not include any Wester-liberal democracies, traditionally associated with the advocacy of humanitarian norms.

Why have the former leaders of campaigns against anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, such as Canada and Norway, not (yet) expressed their support for the call to prohibit LAWS when their potential use threatens to violate fundamental humanitarian norms? Which countries, if not Western-liberal democracies, are likely to join the group of ban supporters?

The main problem with enlisting additional supporters for CSKR’s cause relates to states’ perceptions of the costs and benefits from agreeing to the prospective prohibition and, effectively, foregoing military innovation in LAWS.

For laggards in technological research and development, a total ban presents an intuitively attractive option because it would preclude the widening of the gap in capabilities vis-à-vis those at the frontier of military innovation. They would benefit from prohibition while giving up little to nothing in return (at least in the short term). Conversely, those capable and interested in exploring military applications of autonomy would pay a disproportionately higher price from foregoing the innovation relative to laggards.

To identify the likely and unlikely supporters of the ban, it is therefore imperative to understand the factors that might motivate states to develop or acquire LAWS in the first place.

  • First and foremost, financial and technological capacities constrain states’ innovative potential. In the immediate future, only the most technologically advanced countries would be able to leverage the potential of weapon autonomy effectively.
  • Second, security threats might motivate states to pursue LAWS to gain an advantage over adversaries. Trends in the use of weapon autonomy indicate that these systems could be especially useful for border protection purposes or counterterrorism operations.
  • Third, the nature of domestic-political structures might generate interest in LAWS. Casualty-averse democracies, and control-seeking autocracies, in particular, could derive specific benefits from weapon autonomy. Yet, certain normative beliefs might also dissuade countries from exploring these benefits.

Accordingly, when we look at the group of ban supporters, what characterizes these states is an interplay of lacking capacities and incentives to pursue innovation in LAWS, on the one hand, combined with stronger humanitarian orientation, on the other hand. An exemplary ban supporter is a country with limited financial and technological capacity, neither established democracy nor autocracy, which actively advocates for the protection of civilians in armed conflicts, with deep socialization within the existing arms control and disarmament regimes.

The reluctance of Western-liberal democracies and many other states to endorse the ban partly lies in the potential for leveraging the benefits of LAWS. This does not necessarily mean they are currently developing these systems. However, the increased receptiveness towards such benefits dissuades countries from committing to a preventive prohibition.

The GGE process will continue until the next Review Conference of the CCW in December 2021, but its outcome remains uncertain at this point. To increase their chances for success, campaigners must expand their supporter base exponentially. The easiest way forward would be to focus on countries from the Global South, rather than attempting to enlist the one “champion state” from among Western-liberal democracies.

Although the unregulated development and use of LAWS are not inevitable, the feasibility of preventive prohibition seems dubious if the CSKR expects militarily significant states to accede. If a regulatory framework is to be effective, it must be perceived as fair by all parties. Reaching agreement on the lowest common denominator – potentially a political declaration – constitutes a more realistic (and much needed) outcome in the immediate future.

Ondřej Rosendorf works at the Institue of Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, Czechia. He is the author of “Predictors of support for a ban on killer robots: Preventive arms control as an anticipatory response to military innovation”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Adolescent Girls in Protracted Crises: Promoting Inclusion and Advancing Peace

In protracted conflicts and crises, adolescent girls experience physical and sexual gender-based violence — as well as structural violence — in a manner that can be substantially different from women and boys, and unique to their demographic.  Unsurprisingly, these experiences of violence often beget further insecurity, rendering girls more vulnerable across a range of issues.

In a new article, Eleanor Gordon and Katrina Lee-Koo report the findings of their research with adolescent girls aged between 10 and 19, and their communities across four protracted crisis contexts: Lake Chad Basin (Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon), South Sudan and Uganda, as well as crises facing displaced communities in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and Beirut, Lebanon. In their article, they reveal the breadth and complexity of the security threats facing adolescent girls in protracted crisis contexts, highlighting the roles that the intersection of age and gender has in shaping girls’ experiences of violence. 

Adolescent girls spoke of their exposure to a broad spectrum of violence, across all aspects of their lives. This included physical violence, conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, harassment and threats, and early and forced marriage. They reported experiencing this violence in their homes, at school, in public spaces and in transit. In many cases the ways in which this violence manifested and the impact it had upon their lives was unique from women and adolescent boys. For example, the increase — in all four crisis contexts — or early and forced marriage is a form of violence uniquely experienced by adolescent girls. While the triggers were slightly different in each context (and included issues such as the family’s economic insecurity, concerns about girls’ physical insecurity, experiences of sexual violence and pre-existing local customs), in all contexts both their age, and their gender made them vulnerable.

Alternatively, girls reported that in issues that might impact all members of the community — such as food insecurity, limited access to healthcare, and changes in access to education and patterns of paid and unpaid labour — it manifests uniquely for adolescent girls. For example, in South Sudan girls reported being more likely to be taken out of school to contribute unpaid labour in the home; in Cox’s Bazar there was little support among adult populations to educate girls beyond primary school. Again, these patterns of behaviour draw upon attitudes to girls that are based upon their age and gender. 

With the experiences of crisis were quite unique for adolescent girls, our research revealed that their voices and experiences rarely inform programmes aimed at improving the security and well-being of people caught in these crisis contexts. The consequences of this are that girls’ security concerns are not adequately addressed.  This reality is in sharp contrast to policy guidance and research in the peacebuilding and humanitarian response sectors which underscore the importance of inclusion to the development of responsive and, ultimately, effective programming. We found that the ‘inclusivity norm’ has skipped over adolescent girls. We argue that it is the combination of the complexity and specificity of adolescent girls’ experiences of violence in crisis contexts, coupled with marginalisation of adolescent girls in responses to such violence, that so significantly compromises their security.

We argue that in order to address the security needs of adolescent girls, programmes need to be informed by their lived experiences as the girls themselves articulate them. Adolescent girls are experts in their own lives – capable of identifying the threats to their security, in some cases navigating them, but also conveying what their needs and priorities are.  Importantly, their agenda can be different from those set by their parents, community representatives or external actors.  This advances the case that adolescent girls need to be meaningfully included in programme development, implementation and evaluation, and have the ability to influence decisions and affect change.  

There are undeniably barriers to including adolescent girls in crisis response programming. These include security, logistical, financial, linguistic, cultural and attitudinal barriers. Furthermore, measures need to be taken to ensure inclusion doesn’t further compromise the security of girls or expose them to further threat. Furthermore, it needs to be recognised that adolescent girls are not a homogenous group and it is, therefore, important to avoid tokenistic engagement. Instead, we promote genuine partnerships with adolescent girls that include diverse groups. 

While these challenges have stymied inclusive and responsive programming, we argue that they are not insurmountable. Overcoming these challenges will, however, require recognition from external actors and communities that violence against adolescent girls is not just a threat to the girls themselves but also a threat to the overall fabric of peace, and that adolescent girls are well-placed to inform approaches to addressing the threats that face them. Such an approach will capitalise upon the knowledge and skills that adolescent girls have developed, and employ their will and capacity to inform effective ways of addressing insecurity.

Eleanor Gordon and Katrina Lee-Koo work at the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Australia. They are the authors of “Addressing the security needs of adolescent girls in protracted crises: Inclusive, responsive, and effective?”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Three generations of proxy war research

In a recent article, Vladimir Rauta evaluates the progress of the proxy wars debate. He finds that there are three different generations of scholars: the founders, framers, and reformers. This conceptualization is helpful in thinking how to take research on proxy wars forward.

In the first half of 2020, the Syrian civil war entered its tenth year, while the Libyan civil war became the Middle East’s most important proxy war. Iraq is turning into a battleground for foreigners once again, still scarred by its civil war and the international efforts against ISIS. At the same time, the latter’s factions are quickly adapting to regional proxy games, with the Islamic State in Yemen, for example, transforming into an entity resembling a proxy or a tool in a broader conflict between regional players.

What is more, the renewed prospect of ethnic strife in Ethiopia comes only a year after the momentous awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to its Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. The award was in recognition of Ahmed’s efforts to normalize its relationship with neighbouring Eritrea, ending a decades-long cycle of proxy wars. That Ethiopia faces the prospects of proxy wars once more is testimony to the enduring appeal of wars on the cheap and the frailty of agreements designed to end them. As such, proxy wars are neither new nor rare, and the same can be said about their study.

Over the last decade, proxy war research has matured in recognition of the multiple problems proxy wars pose to the international system. This presents an opportunity to take stock of the proxy war debate in order to understand its past, present, and future. Two questions are relevant here: First, how has proxy war literature evolved? And, second, how has proxy wars research added up? 

In answering the first question, we can think about the debate as evolving across three “generations”: (1) founders, (2) framers, and (3) reformers. The founders refers to a generation of scholarship emerging during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. This identifies the pioneering work on proxy wars as a point of reference to theoretical and conceptual accounts emerging in the distinct socio-political context of the Cold War and its aftermath.

The framers contributed to the scholarship emerging in the aftermath of 9/11 and around the time of the Arab Spring. Not only did they register the absence of a debate on proxy wars, but they set out the trajectory for their future study in a programmatic shift that drew on creativity, intuition, and intellectual vigor.

Finally, the reformers captured the rise of proxy wars as the Syrian, Yemeni, and Libyan civil wars collapsed under the external pressures of proxy dynamics. The Russian annexation of Crimea, the ensuing proxy war in the South-East of Ukraine, and the transformation of the so-called Obama Doctrine into a set of strategic responses through proxies added empirical weight.

Thinking about the debate through the lens of “generations” serves to show how much we actually know, how diverse research is (in terms of discipline, sub-fields, and methodologies and theories), and helps set a benchmark for where research might go.

The second question invites us to reconsider the assumptions informing each generation’s innovative research. One the one hand, the three generations show that we have come to know a lot about proxy wars. On the other hand, this is undermined by the debate’s insistence that proxy wars are still “under-analyzed”, “under-conceptualized”, or “under-theorised”.

To assess the tension between framing the debate as “under-researched” and its actual advancements, we should consider, first, the enhancement and expansion of the historical basis of proxy wars research, and, second, the development of theoretically rich accounts of the strategic interactions behind proxy relationships.

In short, we should assess the role of both history and strategy for the future development of proxy war research. Because proxy wars invite a narrow reading of history which locates them at the centre of the Cold War superpower competition, future research should consider a historiography of the idea of “proxy war”.

What we need a long term perspective that rethinks proxy war beyond the confines of the Cold War to show the trans-historical character of considerations and constraints over decisions to go wage war by proxy. A reappraisal proxy war against a wider historical background has the potential to minimize myth-making, errors in analogy, and provide insights serving as more than sources of data.

Similarly, strategy helps understand why proxy wars are now seen, as General Sir Richard Barrons put it, the most successful kind of political war being waged of our generation. The basic intellectual structure of strategy–ends, ways, means, and assumptions –serves because proxy wars are a set of choices: over whom, by whom, against whom, to what end, to what advantage to wage indirect war.

Strategy and strategic interaction are a productive framework allowing policy and scholarly debate to move forward by shifting the focus on strategic bargaining between actors. Through this, we can then appreciate the extent to which proxies are invested in warfighting, how other states might respond to proxy strategic environment, and how to balance escalation with inaction or retreat. 

Vladimir Rauta is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. He is the author of “Framers, founders, and reformers: Three generations of proxy war research”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here

Humanitarian space and peace negotiations in Syria

Can humanitarian principles be negotiated and be part of peace negotiations? Are humanitarians also  political actors? Debates on the nature of the relations between the political and humanitarian spaces have plagued the humanitarian community for decades and are still vivid today among by practitioners. While some humanitarian actors insist on the necessity to preserve the autonomy of humanitarian action, others defend the idea that humanitarian activities are inherently political. As analyzed by Milena Dieckhoff in a recent article, a dual process of politicization of humanitarian action and a “humanitarization” of political negotiations is at work in Syria, creating a complex interdependence between the humanitarian and political spaces.

In the Syrian conflict, the political and humanitarian spaces are under constant negotiation and renegotiation. First, humanitarian considerations have entered a politicized agenda of negotiations, as visible during the various rounds of Geneva negotiations, led by the Special Envoy of the United Nations (UN) or during the debates at the UN Security Council. For example, the issue of border-crossings, allowing for cross-border humanitarian operations inside Syria, was re-negotiated in December 2019, with discussions around two concurrent projects of resolution with variations in the number of border crossings to be allowed to operate and the length of their opening.

Second, Syria is charactezid by a fragmented and controversial humanitarian space, meaning that the parameters of aid delivery and humanitarian access are highly debated, leading to polarization and cleavages among actors. For example, some humanitarian organizations have been accused of being biased in a favor the Assad regime, contributing to the regime’s stability and legitimacy. Another delicate issue has been the extent to which inclusion of different actors into negotiations should be pursued. Questions on who represent the legitimate Syrian opposition or on the participation of Syrian Kurds have hindered the humanitarian and political negotiation process from the beginning. In addition, how to deal with terrorism and terrorist groups has certainly been one of the most controversial issue for humanitarian actors, for safety as well as political reasons. 

Third, a strategic politicization of humanitarian action is at work, as clearly highlighted during the Astana process, starting in 2017 and led by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Humanitarian arguments are mobilized during those negotiations and are used as a means to achieve political and even military goals, hence highlighting the interdependence between the humanitarian and political spaces. For example, the Memorandum on the creation of de-escalation areas in the Syrian Arab Republic in May 2017 officially aimed at “improving the humanitarian situation”, by guaranteeing humanitarian access and the rehabilitation of infrastructure. It also called for the cessation of hostilities between selected anti-government groups and governmental forces in de-escalation zones (DEZ) located in opposition-held areas of the country. However, while the Astana Memorandum uses the language of humanitarian access, it has subdued the proposed access to an overall military strategy aiming at a surrender of opposition forces who were not party to the ceasefire agreement. The DEZ have not led to less violence and more access for humanitarian assistance. Thus, as summed up by a humanitarian actor, Astana may have had a humanitarian agenda at the beginning but soon became “a political vehicle”. 

The complex interdependence between the humanitarian and political spaces shows that the necessity of a strict humanitarian/political separation, still defended by some humanitarian actors operating in Syria, is to be understood less as an objective need and reality than as a strategic positioning of humanitarian actors on the international stage. The willingness of some humanitarian actors to continue to present themselves as a-political can in fact be seen as a political act. Conversely, political actors can have an interest in officially putting to the fore humanitarian considerations, as they can be used as an asset during negotiations.

Opposing humanitarian negotiations, governed by universal principles, to unprincipled political negotiations can be strategically and usefully reaffirmed by humanitarian actors in some contexts, especially when the instrumentalization of aid is significant, as in Syria. However, reifying the humanitarian/political divide is not the best means to understand the diversity of negotiations taking place in violent conflicts nor does it encourage the development of fruitful relationships between all actors, yet necessary to encourage a more comprehensive understanding of the conflict and its possible resolution.

Milena Dieckhoff is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Clermont Auvergne University. She is the author of “Reconsidering the humanitarian space: Complex interdependence between humanitarian and peace negotiations in Syria”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

To ban killer robots, codify human control

The fourth industrial revolution – with automation as its key feature – is in full swing. Militaries around the globe intend to benefit from this development, and so called “autonomy” in weapons systems is on the rise. In a new article, Elvira Rosert and Frank Sauer compare the international humanitarian disarmament processes on blinding laser weapons, anti-personnel landmines and lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) aka “killer robots.” Emphasizing that weapon autonomy differs substantially from past issues, the authors argue that the international campaign against LAWS cannot rely on simply modeling their effort after past successes. Instead of aiming to define and ban LAWS as a category of weapons, the use of autonomy in weapons should be regulated through codifying a positive obligation to retain human control.

Since 2013, the international community has been discussing LAWS at the United Nations in Geneva. The main venue of this debate is the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), a framework convention tasked with restricting or prohibiting weapons deemed to have indiscriminate effects or to be excessively injurious. This diplomatic process is owed in large part to a global coalition of 160 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in 66 countries, coordinated in the joint “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots” (KRC), tirelessly raising awareness of the legal, ethical, and security concerns accompanying weapon autonomy.

In its effort, the campaign is employing tried-and-tested strategy elements successfully applied in previous humanitarian disarmament processes that resulted in the bans on blinding laser weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. This includes public awareness-raising, the dissemination of expertise to the general public as well as to the diplomats working on the issue, and building coalitions with powerful voices in the CCW such as, for instance, the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, while these strategy elements are indeed conducive to the campaign’s goal of creating new, binding international law on weapon autonomy, others are not. 

A key problem is the campaign’s framing of the issue as one of “killer robots”. For every successful humanitarian disarmament campaign, a simple, powerful and dramatic message (like “blinding is cruel” or “landmines maim civilians”) is indispensable. By invoking pictures of the Terminator, the “killer robots” label resonates well with the public and conveys an existential threat – however, it also inevitably renders the issue futuristic and thus much less urgent. This “sci-fi-feel” stifles progress in the CCW, where ban opponents use it to declare the negotiations a premature, speculative discussion about future military technologies.

More importantly, the “killer robots” frame obscures the complex and polymorphous nature of weapon autonomy that sets the issue apart from both blinding lasers and landmines, creating several challenges. First, the variations of what “killer robots” might look like are endless. Every conceivable future tank, plane, boat, submarine, or swarm of such systems could potentially be deemed a lethal autonomous weapons system. Second, no system would even be discernible as autonomous by looking at it – in fact, whether a weapons system is remotely piloted, and thus under human control while in operation, or whether it is autonomous, that is, finding, fixing, tracking, selecting, and engaging targets without human intervention, is impossible to know from the outside. The difference will eventually be nothing but a checkbox in its software’s user interface. Third, future weapons systems will increasingly be spatially distributed, raising the tricky question, “where and when [a LAWS] begins and ends”, as Maya Brehm puts it.

Consequently, LAWS, in contrast to other weapons like blinding lasers or landmines, do not constitute a clearly definable category, or at least not one that is inclusive and exclusive. Stigmatizing LAWS is thus much harder and, in addition, complicated by the fact that some applications of weapon autonomy, for instance in terminal defense systems against incoming munitions, are protecting human life and barely raising any humanitarian concerns.

Nevertheless, the legal, ethical, and security concerns raised by campaigners are valid – but finding some common “definition of LAWS” that aims at categorically separating them from “non-LAWS” is not the way to go. Instead, to get a regulatory grasp on weapon autonomy, campaigners and the international community are challenged to collectively stipulate how future targeting processes should be designed so that the use of military force remains under human control that is meaningful, as in, not just a mindless pushing of buttons. 

It is therefore encouraging that the CCW deliberations have begun shifting from the futile search for a categorical definition of LAWS toward gauging the role of the “human element,” that is, the creation of conditions to retain meaningful human control over weapons systems. One of our suggestions to the campaign is to explicitly acknowledge this shift and adjust its messaging accordingly, away from “banning killer robots” and towards “codifying meaningful human control” as a principle requirement in international humanitarian law. The goal is to regulate when a machine and when a human is deciding what, that is, performing which function in the decision-making cycle of finding, fixing, tracking, selecting, and engaging a target. The answers undoubtedly will differ – depending on the operational context and the target (that for instance, might be an incoming missile or a human being). But while banning killer robots this way is tricky, it at least is feasible.

Elvira Rosert is a Junior Professor for International Relations at Universität Hamburg and the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg. Frank Sauer is a Senior Researcher at Bundeswehr University Munich. They are the authors of “How (not) to stop the killer robots: A comparative analysis of humanitarian disarmament campaign strategies”, Contemporary Security Policy, and of “Prohibiting Autonomous Weapons: Put Human Dignity First”, Global Policy 10: 3, 370-375.