Why September 11 and drones don’t tell the whole story about targeted killings

Mathias_Grossklaus

To understand the proliferation of target killing as a new method of warfare, we have to look beyond events like 9/11 or the emergence of new technology.

For centuries, assassination was an accepted instrument of foreign policy and considered a normal practice. During the early modern period, however, resorting to assassination gradually became a taboo, something modern states would not do because of their self-perception as modern. Today we observe a weakening of this taboo. Reframed as “targeted killing,” assassination seems to move towards normalization, as more states engage in the practice and, instead of denying it, openly justify targeted killing strategies. “The gloves are off,” a senior CIA official stated mere weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, “[l]ethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway.”

Scholarly attempts at making sense of this normative change sometimes seem to implicitly share this assessment. They tend to overemphasize the role of September 11, 2001 and the ensuing “War on Terror” as turning points. Similarly, scholars have argued that the anti-assassination norm has been eroding because of the development and availability of drone technology. Consequentially, the vast majority of studies concerned with such normative change only look at post-9/11 cases. In my article, I seek to shift the focus. Rather than concentrating on major events or technology, I highlight the pivotal importance of two meta-norms, sovereignty and liberal thought, in the transformation of assassination norms prior to the War on Terror.

It has often been argued that historical state-sponsored assassination and present-day targeted killing constitute two completely different subjects, since the targeted killing of terror suspects seems so different from headline-grabbing assassinations of state leaders during the 19th and 20th century. Yet those share a common normative realm. When the term “targeted killing” was coined in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, it represented a deliberate attempt to render some forms of killing permissible precisely by uncoupling them from their restrictive historical assassination context. Indeed, today’s targeted killing programs largely rest on similar logics, on the assumption that terrorist networks are centralized enough to allow attackers to degrade enemy functioning through killing leadership.

It is beyond doubt that 9/11 marked a severe turning point in security practices, and my article does not seek to refute its general importance. However, the normative underpinnings of those shifts were subject to much slower change–not as rapid as cursory accounts of the history of assassination might suggest. This transformation started not only before 9/11 but also well before the end of the Cold War.

During the early modern period, state-sponsored assassination became increasingly rejected due to the emergence of sovereign statehood and liberal thought. Those are reflected in debates about assassination as a specific (and from a liberal perspective deplorable) nature of killing as well as debates about the special protection of specific persons from being targets of assassination due to their status as representatives of sovereign statehood. This distinguishes assassination from many other changing international norms.

Liberal norms and the sovereignty norms have frequently collided, as the case of humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect” exemplifies: Here, a liberal responsibility collides with sovereignty rights of nation states. The same is true for most norms rooted in human rights discourse, since the mere existence of such a norm means that it is universal enough to have some effect on the behavior of states, which is then by definition generates a tension with state sovereignty. It can be argued that the tension between the two meta norms of sovereignty and liberal thought constitute the core of most instances of norm contestation.

In this sense, assassination norms are peculiar. Rather than being in tension with one meta-norm and shielded by the other, they are rooted in both discourses. At the very core of the assassination/targeted killing normative realm lies an incentive to protect the long-term stability of sovereign states and a state-based order and a liberal impetus to avoid harm to human beings.

As I maintain in my article, this connection also helps understand the weakening of the norm, as they can be invoked by actors in order to reinterpret it. On a grand scale, the second half of the 20th century saw an overall strengthening of liberal values at the expense of state sovereignty. During the same period however, actors began emphasizing assassination’s sovereignty implications at the expense of its connection to liberal meta-norms.

Over time, the condemnation of state-sponsored assassination had become a mere subset of sovereignty, no longer shielded by its original powerful liberal underpinnings. Hence, when states began to openly advocate targeted killing policies in the early 21st century, precisely on the ground of liberal values and in spite of sovereignty during the War on Terror, the normative ground had already been prepared.

Mathias Großklaus is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. He is the author of “Friction, not erosion: assassination norms at the fault line between sovereignty and liberal values”, Contemporary Security Policy, 38(2), 260-280. It is available here.

The precarious China-Russia partnership erodes security in East Asia

CSP_Blog_16_06_BaevThe real progress in building partnership is far weaker than Moscow and Beijing try to demonstrate, but this is worrisome news for their East Asian neighbors.

With the explosion of the Ukraine crisis in spring 2014, Russia made a determined effort to upgrade its strategic partnership with China and achieved instant success. Large-scale economic contracts were signed in a matter of a few months, and the military parades in Moscow and Beijing in respectively May and September 2015, in which the two leaders stood shoulder to shoulder, were supposed to show the readiness of two world powers to combine their military might. In fact, however, the partnership has encountered serious setbacks and as of spring 2016, is significantly off-track.

It is the economic content of bi-lateral cooperation that has registered the most obvious decline. The volume of trade, which the officials promised to double in just a few years, actually contracted in 2015 by about a third comparing with 2014. The economic crisis in Russia and the sharp decline in purchasing power were the main reasons for this setback, and there are no reasons to expect an improvement in 2016 or in the years to come. The dramatic drop of oil prices in 2015 has not only devalued the much-trumpeted “400 billion dollars” gas contract signed in May 2014. It has also destroyed the economic foundation of the partnership because the development of “green fields” in East Siberia and construction of pipelines to China has become entirely cost-inefficient.

President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping have tried to downplay this weakening of economic ties by emphasizing their perfect rapport. But in fact this “beautiful friendship” is also far from sincere. Putin understands perfectly well the desire to strengthen personal power but the struggle against corruption, which is Xi Jinping’s method of choice in asserting his control, is for him a perilous path. Xi Jinping approves Putin’s boldness in challenging the US “hegemony” but is highly suspicious about his inability to ensure a smooth transition of power, which in China is a firm rule of the political game. The cultural gap between the elites in two states remains vast, and this guarantees the profound lack of trust between the leadership.

Beijing has no reasons to worry about this derailed partnership, but Moscow – engaged in a dangerous and costly confrontation with the West – most certainly has plenty of worries. Attending the September parade in Beijing, Putin quite possibly understood the need to prove Russia’s value as a strategic partner to the mighty neighbor. The effectively executed intervention in Syria was one way to do it, and Xi Jinping was probably impressed with this boldness in projecting power. Yet in the six months since September that impression has gradually paled as the limits of Russian reach have become clear and the risks have accumulated. Fundamentally, China is not interested in Russia’s attempts at manipulating conflicts in the Middle East. After all, its core interests are in ensuring the stable flow of oil, which is not necessarily what Moscow wants to see.

Russia cannot interfere with China’s expansion in Central Asia in the framework of the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, and has very little to offer in terms of networks or influence in Africa or Latin America. The only region where it can do something that would be useful for China is, by default, the East Asia. Moscow may feel compelled to abandon its position of benevolent neutrality in various maritime disputes there and provide unambiguous support for China’s stance, which could make a difference in Beijing’s eyes.

Russia may be reluctant to execute such a political maneuver in the South China Sea as it would ruin its relations with Vietnam – an old ally and one of the few states that remain positively inclined toward Russia. It would have fewer if any reservations in coming to China’s side in the East China Sea disputes, where Japan is the key party. Russia has its own territorial issues with Japan and the recently demonstrated readiness to escalate tensions by staging high-level official visits to the South Kuril Islands may be an indication of the possibility to support China in the next round of quarrels about the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

China’s is certainly far more cautious than Russia in projecting military power for political purposes, but it monitors Russian experiments with great interest. The price for these experiments might appear prohibitively high as economic sanctions add to the decline of industrial production and set Russia on the rack of de-modernization. What makes this balance sheet less convincing is the fact that Russian economy had entered into the phase of protracted stagnation before the introduction of sanctions and the fall of oil prices. The political turn to the extensive use of military instruments was therefore aimed at launching a “patriotic” mobilization that would negate the impact of economic downturn.

Had China’s economy continued on the trajectory of strong growth, no need in such risky experiments would have emerged for its leadership. The phenomenon of China’s uninterrupted growth might, however, arrive to an end, and the spasms in its stock market might be a symptom of deeper troubles. In the unfamiliar and disturbing situation of an economic crisis, Beijing may very well take a leaf out of Putin’s book on wielding military instruments for boosting domestic support. Moscow then will be only too happy to provide support for its mighty neighbor and thus escape from the position of the main challenger of the international order.

Until recently, East Asian states, and first of all Japan, worried about the possibility of an alliance between Russia and China as the two rising powers. Now they have more reasons to worry about the maverick behavior of declining Russia and wavering China. Both have failed to build a solid economic foundation for their partnership but may find it opportune to back one another in using military power as an effective instrument of revisionist policy.

Pavel K. Baev is is a Research Director and Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in Norway. He is the author of “Russia’s pivot to China goes astray: the impact on the Asia-Pacific security architecture”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.37, No.1, pp.89-110. It is available via Open Access here.

Rising Bipolarity in the South China Sea

CSP_Blog_2016_05_Burgess_02Despite soft-balancing by the United States and its pivot to Asia, China is likely to continue its expansionist policies in the South China Sea.

The first four years of the US rebalance to Asia have witnessed increased US diplomatic, economic and military efforts, the strengthening of alliances and partnerships, and increased engagement with China. The rebalance and engagement with China have had episodically curbed Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea followed by new waves of Chinese expansion.

US diplomacy, including statements by President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, as well as support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Code of Conduct, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and a moratorium on construction have occasionally caused China to take “one step back” and make conciliatory gestures. But Beijing took “two steps forward” in 2013 and 2015 with accelerated outpost construction and militarization. This can be seen as a counter to the rebalance and as part of a strategy to change the status quo in the South China Sea.

Beijing has shown that it will surge, stop, and surge in its expanding construction activities. It will continue to issue warnings to military aircraft and ships from the United States and its partners from “intruding” into newly claimed territory.

The United States is currently counting on soft balancing. It employs multilateral diplomacy through ASEAN and a coalition with the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam and others to eventually bring China to negotiate a binding Code of Conduct and resolve the growing dispute. Soft balancing, backed by security cooperation and US military power, appears to be the optimal strategy in the short to medium term, given the weakness of allied and partner security forces.

Increased security cooperation, with joint exercises with Southeast Asian nations and Japan, Australia and India as well as the equipping and training of Southeast Asian security forces, is demonstrating growing resolve in the face of assertive actions by China’s security forces. Continuing cruises by the US Navy and overflight by US naval and air force planes are providing military backing to soft balancing. It is a signals to China and reassures allies and partners, which are trying to defend their exclusive economic zones.

As the cornerstone of the rebalance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership will increase US influence in the region and strengthen ties with Malaysia and Vietnam and eventually other states. Increased multilateral trade will enable these states to stand up to China and efforts at economic blackmail. The increasing free flow of goods and investment will encourage US companies to become more involved in the region and will increase US interests in the region. The invitation to China to join provides an incentive for cooperation on the South China Sea issue.

The trajectory of China’s behavior will determine if the soft balancing approach will be successful. Until recently, defensive realists have been correct in explaining China’s behavior and gauging its intentions. China had been driven both by the need to defend growing national security and economic interests, evidenced by the leadership’s statements on the South China Sea and incremental expansionist policy.

If China remains motivated mainly by defense of its interests, the reputational costs being imposed against expansion will eventually cause a recalculation of Beijing’s strategy. Soft-balancing by the United States and its partners would stand a good chance of working. A ruling in favor of the Philippines in the UNCLOS case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the International Court of Justice would add ammunition to the soft balancing strategy.

In recent years, however, the offensive realist perspective on China’s behavior and intentions has gained currency. If China is indeed assertively trying to change the status quo in the South China Sea, it will be more difficult for soft balancing to influence Beijing’s behavior. However, it is too early to definitively conclude that China has gone over to the offensive. President Xi Jin Ping may be using expansion in the South China Sea as a way of demonstrating his power as a leader. Alternatively, the economic slowdown in China combined with the US rebalance may cause the leadership to rethink the strategy. Also, the New Silk Road strategy of infrastructure investment may cause Beijing to become more cooperative with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

The constructivist perspective, which points to the leadership’s self-conceptualization as succeeding Imperial China in the Asian domain and as part of its strategic culture and appeals to Chinese nationalism, provides further insight into Beijing’s behavior and intentions. On the one hand, China’s strategic culture also includes confidence that patience will eventually bring rewards and that dominance will come sooner or later.

On the other hand, Xi appears to be offensively asserting China’s growing power and moving towards dominance before he is due to step down in 2023. He is also appealing to Chinese nationalism in forging ahead in the South China Sea. Nationalism is strong in China. It may lead to unintended escalation and other negative consequences in the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea against Japan.

In 2023, it is likely that Xi Jin Ping’s successor will continue the policy of expansion in the South China Sea. By that time, China may have been able to resolve its domestic problems and shifted to a consumer-driven economy. This could put it into a position where it is able to make international concessions. China also will strive to draw closer diplomatically, economically and militarily to ASEAN states. However, if China’s economy declines, the leadership could either focus inward and make concessions on the South China Sea or less likely stir up nationalist sentiments and initiate a diversionary conflict.

Stephen Burgess is a Professor at the Department of International Security Studies of the Air War College at the Maxwell Air Force Base in the United States. He is the author of “Rising Bipolarity in the South China Sea”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.37, No.1, pp.111-143. It is available here.

Prepare for the Coming Multi-Order World

CSP_Blog_16_02_FlockhartThe international system is changing on a scale that is bigger than the end of the Cold War.

The international system is changing, while our institutions seem to be challenged by a long succession of crises. Policy makers have expressed the feelings that ‘the world is spinning out of control’ and that ‘order is collapsing’ and that we appear to be returning to a multipolar system.

A return to a multipolar system is, however, an overly simplistic reading of the current situation. Rather what appears on the horizon is a completely different international system, which is composed of different international orders rather than by different powerful sovereign states. The coming multi-order world will be characterized by very different dynamics and order-making practices. The current liberal order will continue to exist, but its global reach will be a thing of the past and it will be joined by other ‘orders’ based on different ideas and identities. Liberal order-making practices and values will no longer be universally shared.

The uncertainty about the apparent systemic change in the making is not surprising. Systemic change is a rare occurrence, which has only happened three times in the last 200 years – in 1815 after the Napoleonic wars, in the protracted and bloody process of collapsing order between 1914-1945 and finally in 1989 with the end of the Cold War. Moreover, systemic change is complex and likely to be a long process of subtle changes, whose significance may only be visible retrospectively. The question is therefore how we know if the international system is changing, and if it is changing, what kind of international system lies ahead?

Despite the rarity, complexity and subtlety of change in the international system, indicators of systemic change are all too apparent. They include shifting power, the appearance of new and re-emerging actors on the international scene, and challenges to established practices and ideas, all of which are expressed in the many ongoing crises facing decision-makers.

In addition, strategic foresight analyses point to changes in demographics, individual empowerment, technology and access to technology, resources, economics and the environment. These changes are likely to place increased demands on the institutional capacity and political structures of the current international order. Together these two forms of change add up to a murky picture of compounding complexity and add to the feelings of ‘collapsing order’.

To better understand the significance of the multi-order world, it is useful to compare this system with the three alternative arguments in the academic and policy literature on the kind of new international system in the making.

The first position is the most prevalent. Proponents argue that what lies ahead is a multipolar world in which several great powers will compete and use traditional balance of power politics to balance each other and to advance their own interests. It is anticipated that the international system will revert back to a past system of multipolarity much akin to what was in place during the 19th century. This position assumes continued primacy of the United States, although balancing may either be an active form primarily against China or it may be offshore with a retrenched America focusing on domestic American issues.

The second position is favored by liberal internationalists such as Hillary Clinton and John Ikenberry. Proponents argue that what lies ahead is a multi-partner world. This is essentially a continuation of the existing system in which the United States will attempt to maintain its leadership position. At the same time, it will enter into partnerships with new actors, which they assume can be coopted into a reformed version of the existing order. This position assumes a continued high level of American engagement in global affairs in partnership with allies and other stakeholders in the global order.

The third position emphasizes that the new international system will not only be characterized by a diffusion of power, but will also be characterized by diversity of ideas. The position argues that what lies ahead is a multi-culture world. The challenge will be to reach global consensus on collective security challenges whilst accepting diversity in domestic and regional affairs. The expectation is a new form of international system, which is de-centered and lacking any overall shared values and practices. The position of the United States will be to remain the leader of liberal states and to strengthen the core and the magnetism of the existing liberal order.

Although each of the three positions point to a plausible future, they do not fully capture what lies ahead. Rather, it is necessary to look more closely at the constituent elements of international orders and how the condition of order is constituted through different practices and resting on particular identities. By uncovering the different elements of international orders, it is possible to see how the three previous historical processes of systemic change have played out in very different ways on each occasion. Moreover, by focusing on the elements making up the current international order, it is revealed that the current changes taking place are deeper and perhaps more far-reaching than previous systemic change. The likely coming international system is a new form composed of several ‘international orders’ nested within an overall international system.

The challenge in a multi-order world will be to forge new forms of relationships between diverse actors. This requires convergence involving complex power relations, different partnerships and reformed institutions that are able to reach across dividing lines to forge cooperation between different cultures with different domestic governance structures. The coming multi-order world will be radically different and the changes that are currently taking place are every bit as far reaching as previous systemic changes. Given that it is likely to end 200 years of the expansion of the liberal order, the coming systemic change is likely to be experienced by the West as deeply unsettling.

Trine Flockhart is Professor of International Relations at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. She is the author of “The Coming Multi-Order World”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.37, No.1, 2016, pp.3-30. It is available via OpenAccess here.