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.

The concept of resilience and critiques of international intervention

International interventions are often criticized by scholars for not doing enough, including not enough local ownership. The newly emerging concept of resilience also falls victim to these critiques. In a new article, Pol Bargués-Pedreny warns that this may lead to a dangerous nihilism in processes of international intervention: the acceptance of a permanent failure.

International policymakers assisting disaster and conflict-affected societies often appear confused. While overwhelmed by implementation dilemmas, they continue working nevertheless. Their policies are riddled with inconsistencies that regularly fail or lead to unanticipated consequences, and yet they learn and try again.

A commentator captures this well, when he writes: “policymaking has found its ways of living with affirmation. It has developed concepts of peace governance ambiguous enough to conceptually work even when failing in practice.” Why is it that policies to enhance resilience suffer from a chronic deficiency, which needs to be made good? 

Nowhere is the perception of deficit clearer than in accounts that promote “local ownership.” Drawing on the poor track record of international interventions designed from the “top-down,” the underlying assumption is that interventions should be locally-driven and context specific. Yet the policy of “local ownership” never seems to work out in practice. Sometimes local actors appear incapable of taking the lead, some other times interests of different groups conflict with one another. Thus the preferences of international interveners end up imposing themselves.

Today, the key concern is how to bridge the gap between discourse and practice of local ownership; how to fulfill the commitment to transferring competences satisfactorily, in every context and policy area, so that local actors are more than mere implementers of an external agenda. Critical scholars have insisted on the need to push the policy further. For them, as for policymakers, more resources and efforts are required to make local ownership real, meaningful. As one scholar notes, “[The international community must] rely more on the very people it is ostensibly trying to protect.” 

The perception of deficit can also be seen when looking at the new technologies that enhance humanitarian interventions. The bond between technology and innovation for humanitarian purposes started a decade ago and reached its climax in May 2016, in the firstever World Humanitarian Summit. The Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation was created to bring the aid industry, governments, private sector partners, and hubs together to scale innovation. New technologies are at the core of innovation ventures and bring the promise of “finding needles in haystacks,” penetrating up to the most isolated areas and leaving no one behind. Yet there are always biasis, deficiencies, glitches, that need to be corrected. 

For instance, digital maps collect large amounts of diverse information at unprecedented speeds with the promise that the information that is updated and verified by local actors could help practitioners understand, be attentive and respond to the everyday needs and concerns of the people affected by conflict or disaster. However, the conclusion seems to be that information given by crisis mapping projects is incomplete, distorted, tinged with power biases and false representations of space.  Thus, the demand is that more (and better) data should be gathered to meet expectations. Innovation always requires new and better maps and gadgets.

The third example where the perception of deficit energizes international intervention can be seen in accounts that demand longer missions and operations. International policymakers that  seek immediate results provide reductionist and simplistic analyses, neglecting several unforeseen effects. Instead, prolonged engagements offer the opportunity to build contacts and strengthen alliances; make insightful observations and conduct more accurate, context-specific and in-depth analyses; also, they increase the likelihood of witnessing the evolution of events and allowing serendipitous discoveries.

Although current international missions and operations are already committed to long-term conflict prevention (before conflict starts) and peace consolidation strategies (after conflict ends), “more” is always better. A generalised feeling is that implementation programs are still dominated by short-term concerns and are not open enough to unpredictability and change. They operate with too much haste. Therefore, long-term perspectives are always necessary to be able to foster resilience and adapt to uncertainty. There is never an end-state called resilience, where peace and harmony could settle: no mission, initiative or policy seems to get us close enough to finally achieve resilience. 

What are the consequences of thinking that policies are always in the wrong? On the one hand, by identifying a “lack” in processes of promoting resilience (something was absent, someone was omitted, something else could be done) may be liberating and useful, giving another chance of genuine improvement. On the other hand, however, it is important to relate this perception of deficit to contemporary forms of neoliberal governance that continually expand. A sense of “deficit” sustains “the economic logic of late-capitalism”: “the endless willingness to happily fail-forward into the future.” By “governing through failure and denial” and interpreting crises and past failures as new opportunities, measures for further monitoring and control are legitimized, while critiques and challenges to broader structures are deemed impossible.

The feeling that resilience is “always more” also leads to a dangerous nihilism in processes of international intervention: the acceptance of a permanent failure. As Jessica Schmidt puts it, resilience approaches today accept the problem of “never getting it right” and, in consequence, translate it into a virtue: “always having to adapt.” As practitioners are in awe with resilience, skepticism about programs and policies spreads. Results seem impossible to achieve and the end appears remote. The general direction is towards accepting idleness and despair.

Pol Bargués-Pedreny is a researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and the author of “Resilience is ‘always more’ than our practices: Limits, critiques, and skepticism about international intervention”, Contemporary Security Policy, 41(2), pp. 263-286. The article is available here.

Shaping Public Risk Tolerance During Deterrence Crises

In a recent article, Jeffrey Berejikian and Zachary Zwald use seven survey experiments to analyse how the general public evaluates the risk of military options, such as the number of potential casualties, during an imminent deterrence crisis. Informed by prospect theory, they demonstrate that by simply reframing the language used to describe the possible outcome of military options, the public’s willingness to accept risks changes.

The manipulation of public opinion can determine the likelihood of deterrence success in myriad ways. Surprisingly, neither the academic nor policy communities fully appreciate the importance of domestic politics in shaping deterrence bargaining dynamics—let alone how the public processes risks during immediate deterrence.

To the extent that scholars focus their attention on domestic politics during deterrence crises, they usually depict public opinion as a constraint that can either enhance or undermine deterrence stability—depending upon one’s orientation. Consider, for instance, decades of research on “audience costs,” which highlights the presumed difficulty of committing to escalatory military actions because such commitments may carry domestic political costs if they fail.

In the context of deterrence, we see a similar concern among some policymakers; that public opinion may constrain U.S. leaders at critical junctures during a crisis and subsequently prevent them from communicating credible threats to an adversary. However, the concept of domestically-imposed constraint also suggests that the public will serve as a check on the worst impulses of political leaders. Since the prospect of electoral punishment constrains elites if they fail—in democracies, at least—we may hope that the public serves as a mechanism to prevent our leaders from engaging long-shot gambles, escalating conflicts, or straying too far from the national interest.

By contrast, our research shows that the choice of language alone can shift the public’s preferences in favor of risky military escalation during the opening stage of a deterrence crisis. It follows, therefore, that neither of these views on how the public affect bargaining dynamics is wholly correct.

In our study, we conducted seven survey experiments covering a range of potential deterrence crises, including when the stakes are high and nuclear use is on the table. In each experiment, we presented subjects with a vignette that describes a bourgeoning crisis where an adversary has taken some action that challenges a long-standing U.S. extended deterrent commitment to an ally. Each scenario contained a degree of uncertainty and risk–i.e., the adversary may be preparing to launch a military attack that results in the loss of American and allied lives, or it could be that they are posturing in an attempt to probe the strength of the U.S. commitment.

We utilized a Prospect Theory framework to evaluate how the language used to frame the potential outcome of two military options—one defensive and the other offensive—affects the public’s willingness to support a risky offensive act that escalates the crisis.

We asked participants to choose between a conservative defensive course of action (e.g., bolster air and missile defenses in the region) and a riskier pre-emptive military escalation (e.g., deploying special forces to eliminate the specific military capability the adversary threatens to use). Each participant randomly received either the “gains frame” or “loss frame” treatment that only varied the language used to describe the potential outcomes from the two military options. For example, we presented a “Nuclear Blackmail” scenario by framing the possible deaths that may result in terms of either the number of “lives saved” or “lives lost.”

Consistently, we found that simply reframing the exact same “facts on the ground” produces statistically and substantively significant shifts in favor of a riskier military escalation option as a preferred response to a deterrence crisis.

Going forward, these results raise concerns that have not yet received the serious consideration they deserve. First, over the last few years, commentators have downplayed President Trump’s aggressive language toward North Korea as just “loose talk” with little, if any, real effect on the actual course of the crisis at hand. Yet, our research demonstrates how language alone can itself cause deterrence failure—even when a nuclear response by the adversary is on the table. A leader’s bellicose rhetoric may inadvertently produce a loss frame for the public and, thus, create the domestic political incentives for unnecessary, or harmful, military escalation.

Second, U.S. policymakers must now consider the challenge posed by the vulnerability of the public’s risk preferences to manipulation by an adversary in the lead up to, and during, a deterrence crisis. The growing trend towards employing cyber operations to weaponize information, in conjunction with our finding demonstrating the malleability of the public’s risk preferences during a deterrence crisis, suggests that an adversary can manipulate the public’s risk tolerance during immediate deterrence to create political incentives that dictate which options democratically elected leaders support. An effective 21st century U.S. deterrence strategy, therefore, must be able to identify points of public vulnerability and develop counter-framing strategies that stand to prevent foreign manipulation.

Jeffrey D. Berejikian is a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia. Zachary Zwald is in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston. They are the authors of “Why language matters: Shaping public risk tolerance during deterrence crises”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

THAAD and South Korea’s alliance dilemma

The July 2016 decision of South Korea to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) triggered unprecedented retaliation from China even though Seoul and Washington conceded that THAAD could not protect the capital region of Republic of Korea (ROK). In a recent article, Yong Sub Choi analyses why the South Korean government decided to deploy THAAD anyway. 

To answer this puzzle, it is necessary to connect the THAAD deployment in South Korea with the U.S. conception of a strategic rebalancing to Asia. Seoul’s THAAD decision was primarily intended to sustain and strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance amid escalating nuclear threats by North Korea and deepening Sino-American rivalry. Placing the current state of the alliance at the center of its investigation into this controversial issue, the article pays particular heed to the ongoing adjustments being made between the two powers to better cope with the rise of China. Thus, by examining the underlying causes of the THAAD decision, it can also contribute to an understanding of the reconfiguration of the alliance amid the growing rivalry between the United States and China.

Conceptually, this article links South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD with contemporary alliance politics in relation to extended deterrence and abandonment and entrapment risks. First, the deployment of THAAD on the peninsula itself may improve the security of South Korea by enhancing the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence through its contribution to the defense of U.S. territories and U.S. forces in East Asia and the western Pacific.

Second, the United States, following its rebalancing strategy, applied increasing pressure on South Korea to install THAAD on its soil, which decided to comply owing to much higher costs of abandonment of the alliance in the face of, most of all, possible nuclear attacks by North Korea. Technically, unlike what the South Korean government has publicly claimed, THAAD has only limited direct utility for the protection of South Koreans from North Korean missile. However, the THAAD deployment can contribute to its national security in a strategic way by reinforcing the U.S.-ROK alliance.  

Once deployed on the Korean peninsula, THAAD can substantially enhance the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence by providing an additional layer of defense for U.S. territories and U.S. forces in East Asia and the western Pacific. The credibility of extended deterrence is determined by a complex mix of factors, where what counts is the degree of contribution by the client state to the national interest of the patron state. The deployment of THAAD in South Korea provides significant benefits for the United States, such that the former offers strategically important advantages to the latter, including enhanced protection of U.S. territories from North Korean and Chinese ICBMs and containing China’s military expansion in the South and East China Seas amid growing tensions between the two superpowers. 

The wide gap in military capability between the United States and South Korea and the existence of North Korea have put the relationship between the two democracies on an asymmetrical footing, which required South Korea to adopt behaviors that were consistent with the former’s strategic interest, to a greater or lesser degree. The United States, following its rebalancing strategy, asked South Korea to side with it as it contained China’s military expansion with THAAD deployment as arguably the most important task for that ally at that moment. In the presence of escalating nuclear threats by North Korea, which heightened the costs of abandonment even further, South Korea decided to deploy THAAD, although it acknowledged that China would likely retaliate against South Korea for the decision. Seoul, showing a nuanced understanding of the alliance security dilemma, made this strategic choice because it believed that the costs of being abandoned by Washington surpassed those of being entrapped in conflicts with Beijing. 

The most important strategic considerations for the United States at the global level involve dealing with or balancing China. By strengthening the U.S.-ROK alliance and providing its assistance to the United States to contain China’s military expansion, South Korea can bolster its status as a reliable ally, which is vital for taking the initiative in settling North Korean nuclear issue peacefully.

The growing tensions between the United States and China can bring harm to many countries’ national interests across the world. Nevertheless, it is rare to find countries, such as South Korea, which would so severely suffer both militarily and economically in the event of discord or conflict between the two superpowers. South Korea can contribute to improving strained relations between them only to a limited extent, but it can still minimize them, at least as regards North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, by pursuing peace on the Korean peninsula in a manner that both sides can agree with. 

If ongoing international efforts to put an end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs go awry, the tensions between the United States and China could be exacerbated even further. In that case, in response to U.S. demands, South Korea would not be able to avoid risking entrapment again in strife with China because of the nuclear threat that North Korea poses. Then, the degree of retaliation from China would be more severe than the one it imposed in the wake of South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD in 2016.

Yong Sub Choi teaches at Seoul National University. He is the author of “Keeping the Americans in: The THAAD deployment on the Korean peninsula in the context of Sino-American rivalry”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

Stepping out of the comfort zone: Scenario Analysis in IR

Today’s international order is changing into a multi-order one and is characterized by a high degree of complexity and uncertainty. In a new article, Monika Sus and Marcel Hadeed argue that scenario analysis can be used as a complementary method to traditional IR methods.

To grapple with the “epochal shift” and “to develop strategies to deal with uncertainty, to be prepared for the unexpected”, an increasing number of actors in the realm of IR conduct foresight exercises. NATO’s Strategic Foresight Analysis, for example, forms a fundamental pillar for its defense planning process; the new European Commission features a portfolio for Inter-Institutional Relations and Foresight. Yet, the methodology has so far gained little traction among the academic community. Scenario analysis can nonetheless be used as a complementary method to traditional IR methods. It allows scholars to simultaneously remain rigorous and to provide policy-relevant input.

For IR scholars, complexity and uncertainty constitute formidable challenges. Traditional IR methods examine present- and past patterns and cannot account for sudden changes or grasp potential future developments. They rarely question the assumptions underlying a particular line of reasoning and engage in interdisciplinary discourse only after the research phase. We suggest scenario analysis, as a systematic analytical process to create visions of alternative futures, can be a valuable additional tool in IR scholars’ toolkit to detect early signs of change and identify possible shifts in trajectories. 

In our article we introduce the Multiple Scenario Generation (MSG) as a robust foresight method.  It is multi-step process, centered around a structured exchange between experts, that produces a set of scenarios elucidating a plausible interplay of trends deemed likely to shape the future. The process can be summarized in three phases.

  1. In the preparatory phase, a common understanding of the world around us is established. A research question is defined, key assumptions tested (including against empirical data) the most important drivers of change identified and defined.
  2. In the developmental phase, these drivers are combined into sets and checked for internal consistency. Those combinations considered plausible are chosen as the kernels of the scenarios. Narratives are constructed around them, detailing the path from now to the timeframe in question. Once a scenario is completed, it is fed into a review process, where it is validated – commonly based on the criteria of plausibility, coherence, and innovation. Scenarios can also produce early indicators, allowing academics and practitioners to monitor the extent to which a scenario manifests itself and what indications of such a possible manifestation might occur.
  3. In the use phase, the scenarios serve as bases for innovative and relevant policy recommendations. They can also help draw attention to neglected, but potentially impactful trends. By elucidating blind spots in our thinking, scenario can increase policy-makers capacity for anticipatory governance.

But a crucial question for its admissibility into academic’s toolbox remains: Are scenario approaches academic enough? We argue that, if executed systematically, scenario analysis can satisfy the criteria of a social science methodology. In our paper, we tested scenario analysis against eleven criteria established by John Gerring. We found that it satisfies most of them as it can be considered a cumulative, evidence-based (empirical), generalizing, rigorous, skeptical, systematic, transparent and grounded in rational argument. 

Of course, since foresight deals with the future, its results are inherently not falsifiable. Moreover, its results are neither nonsubjective, nor replicable. As interactive group exercise, they are reliant on participants’ perspectives, interpretation of data, as well as the interaction between them. This disqualifies the method for ardent positivists. However, falsifiability is not always a prerequisite for acceptance of the IR community. Some of the discipline’s most fundamental theories, such as Weberianism, Marxism, or rational-choice theory are hard to falsify. Moreover, while we readily concede the approaches inability to test knowledge, to appraise other findings, it excels in the generation of new knowledge.

Furthermore, scenario analysis can enrich the IR discipline. Making the case here for the proliferation of this approach among IR scholarship, we found a fourfold added value it can bring to the discipline. 

  1. Confronting enduring assumptions: scenario analysis starts with participants revealing and challenging their own and others’ assumptions. This process uncovers and corrects enduring preconceptions and cognitive biases. The use of empirical data to justify assumptions ensures the eradication of false truths. 
  2. Bringing forward new research questions: scenario analysis challenges its participants to break out of linear thinking, challenge their deeply held beliefs and consider the possibility of sudden shifts in trajectories. This explorative process focuses on detecting weak signals of change and overlooked trends. Discovering them and their potential consequences can drive researchers into new fields. 
  3. Dealing with complexity and interdisciplinarity: scenario analysis allows for multicausal reasoning and nonlinear interaction between variables. The analysis is the result of an interdisciplinary exchange between participants. As opposed to more traditional academic exchange, this conversation takes place early in the research phase, and not ex post. Such multifaceted and dynamic analysis is suitable for the complex and changing nature of world affairs.
  4. Stepping out of the ivory tower: scenario analysis exercises are often centered around a workshop, at which practitioners and academics of different disciplines come together. The interactive exercise creates shared knowledge and understanding, and functions as a platform of exchange between the two worlds. Policy-makers get the opportunity to contemplate long-term trends, and scholars learn what issues drive politics. This enables them to check and ultimately enhance the relevance of their work.

The world of international relations is a complicated and messy one. The shift towards a multi-order world is accompanied by sudden shifts in trajectories and strategic surprises. We believe scenario analysis is a useful tool for IR scholars to confront the complexity of today´s world and – in the best-case scenario – inspire the policy world to be prepared to the unexpected.

Monika Sus is an assistant professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences and a fellow at the Center for International Security at the Hertie School. Marcel Hadeed was a research associate at the Dahrendorf Forum between 2017 and 2019. They are the author of “Theory-infused and policy-relevant: On the usefulness of scenario analysis for international relations”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.