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.

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

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.

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Australia remains a close ally despite Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How should we use cyber weapons?

cyberIn a recent article in Contemporary Security Policy, Forrest Hare argues that we should shift the cyber conflict debate from the “Can we?” question to the “How should we?” question.

The recent release of the United States Department of Defense’s 2018 Cyber Strategy timed closely with National Security Advisor John Bolton’s declaration that the White House has authorized offensive cyber operations suggests that the United States intends to take a much more aggressive approach to combatting perceived threats in the domain.

However, these developments generate as many questions as answers. For example, is the U.S. military prepared with the capabilities required to make good on the National Security Advisor’s declaration? How should the US Department of Defense even structure its military capabilities to combat the threats it faces in the domain?

In my recent CSP article, I hope to spur the cyber conflict debate forward in a productive direction, and away from a focus on strategic alarms, so we can get at answers to these questions. In other words, we must acknowledge that military conflicts have now expanded to cyberspace and it is time to start focusing on ensuring that its conduct is carried out in a professional manner that address all the valid concerns and implications of conflict in the domain.

With this backdrop, I argue in my article that developing precision cyber weapon systems, to be used during a lawful conflict, can be an important part of a responsible national security strategy to reduce the amount of violence and physical destruction in conflicts. To make this argument, I first describe a precision cyber weapon system in a military context. I then present three compelling rationales for the development of precision cyber weapon systems based on ethical, operational, and financial considerations.

For many years now, we have been engaged in debates about the potential for acts of “mass disruption” in cyberspace and the possible legal, moral, and other implications of such strategic incidents. Many writers and popular media have raised the alarm about the dangers that will confront us as a result of an all-out cyber conflagration. Is it possible that this resistance to accepting the usefulness of cyber capabilities has actually led to more death and destruction in conflicts?

Detractors may not consider that an unintended consequence of their conflation of issues, and a singular focus on potential strategic effects, may be creating greater risk to the warfighter, civilian populations, and even the taxpayer. Arguments against the use of any cyber weapon capabilities may put militaries and civilians on both sides of a conflict at unnecessary risk when kinetic weapons may be preferred unnecessarily.

To be clear, I do not argue that precision cyber weapons will be a panacea. We should never expect cyber weapons to replace other weapons in conflict. There will always be a requirement for a spectrum of capabilities to defend a nation in all domains. However, I look forward to the day when there is a broad acknowledgement by military and academic professionals to consider precision cyber weapons an important force multiplier and component of a responsible national security strategy.

Forrest Hare is a retired Colonel in the United States Air Force having served most recently at the Defense Intelligence Agency. His recent article “Precision cyber weapon systems: An important component of a responsible national security strategy?”, Contemporary Security Policy, Advance online publication, is available here

U.S. troops abroad lower allies’ will to fight for their own country

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2-L), Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (C), US President Donald Trump (2-R) look on as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a working dinner meeting at the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) headquarters in Brussels on May 25, 2017 during a NATO summit. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Matt Dunham (Photo credit should read MATT DUNHAM/AFP/Getty Images)U.S. President Donald Trump has consistently criticized allies for their lack of contributions to common security and defense efforts. A new article in Contemporary Security Policy shows he is partially right: The presence of U.S. military personnel abroad, while bolstering U.S global influence, also lowers the willingness of the host states’ citizens to fight for their own country.

U.S. President Donald Trump is clear in his demand that allies must contribute far more to common defense efforts. Even before becoming president, he claimed that allies “are not paying their fair share” and that they “must contribute toward their financial, political, and human costs … of our tremendous security burden”; and that if they do not, “the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”

In short, the message is that defense burdens are unequally shared, and that allies unfairly free-ride on The United States’s military might. The United States’s military might, for its part, is unprecedented and unrivaled. The U.S. military budget exceeds 600 billion dollars, accounting for over one-third of world total military spending. The U.S. also has a vast, globally-spanning network of military bases, which no other country comes close to equaling.

These overseas military facilities have many noteworthy effects. One is that they significantly augment U.S. influence abroad and contribute to upholding U.S. hegemony – or Pax Americana. Another is that forward-deployed U.S. troops provide a “tripwire” that credibly conveys to any enemy of the ally that an attack on the latter will most likely draw in the United States. The tripwire function served by U.S. soldiers was brilliantly described by Thomas Schelling at the height of the Cold War; the same rationale still underlies much of U.S. base policies, including in states such as Japan, South Korea, and recently Poland as well. When U.S. troops are placed “in harm’s way,” deterrence is markedly strengthened. But so, too, is the ally’s knowledge that their patron cannot realistically abandon them. The ally’s scope for free-riding is therefore inevitably linked to the tripwire mechanism.

For U.S. allies, then, butter can to an extent be substituted for guns. This lies at the core of President Trump’s admonitions about allies’ purported free-riding: Their military spending usually make up only a meager share of total national income. On the other hand, it is quite common for allies of the United States to reciprocate by contributing in other ways; they often make other important policy concessions – such as providing access or basing rights, making financial contributions to the alliance, or, more generally, aligning their foreign policies closer to the United States.

This also means that it is not a straightforward exercise to measure whether allies “free-ride” on the United States. Still, the problem is more salient when burden-sharing and free-riding are conceived of as material – that is, as highly tangible – concepts (such as defense spending as a share of GDP). These are eminently measurable factors that the United States can influence quite directly. Things differ, however, when we consider the attitudes, norms, and values of the allies’ populace, such as the willingness to fight for their own country. The U.S. can certainly not have any direct power over the sentiments of people, which are exclusively intangible factors. This implies that, if the deployment of U.S. troops causes a lowering of citizens’ willingness to fight for their own country, the latter cannot as easily be compensated by policy concessions in other areas. Free-riding might therefore be more prevalent in its non-material version.

In our empirical analysis, which covers the period 1989–2014, we rely on global survey data that draw on the responses of over 200,000 people in about 100 countries. Our results show that citizens’ willingness to fight for their own country drops markedly if U.S. troops are stationed on their soil. Even when we control for a number of other relevant factors that can impact willingness to fight, U.S. overseas military bases remain a potent predictor. The forward-deployment of U.S. troops seems – as an unintended consequence – to contribute significantly to non-material free-riding by allies of the United States.

The results also indicate the existence of a tripwire- or free-riding threshold. One hundred U.S. troops, for example, are largely insufficient for purposes of creating a tripwire effect. A few hundred troops, however, may well be enough. And once U.S. troops numbers pass 500, and in particular 1000, it seems that the host state’s citizens become firmer still in their belief that their state’s defense has been credibly outsourced to the United States. These numbers approximate the size of a battalion – that is to say, an independently-functioning military unit. A battalion-sized U.S. force is a fully-working tripwire. But a battalion-sized U.S. force thereby also signals that the United States is providing for the defense of its ally – which essentially means that less is required by the ally itself.

The empirical evidence of non-material free-riding means that President Trump (and the many who share his opinion) is not necessarily in the wrong when he claims that allies free-ride. However, it is also true that U.S. alliances and forward-deployed troops are not acts of charity. They are, in fact, key ingredients of a long-standing grand strategy that stresses the centrality of a global presence; vital U.S. security and economic goals are served by the network of bases. Both the United States and its allies gain much and lose a bit from such relationships. For that reason alone, we can surely expect that the debates and bargaining about defense burdens and free-riding will continue for a long time.

Jo Jakobsen is a professor in political science at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Department of Sociology and Political Science. Tor G. Jakobsen is a professor in political science at NTNU Business School. They are authors of “Tripwires and free-riders: Do forward-deployed U.S. troops reduce the willingness of host-country citizens to fight for their country?”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming.

War as violent politics: A proposed framework for irregular and non-traditional strategies

size0David H. Ucko and Thomas A. Marks propose, in their new article, a theoretical framework that places military tasks in their proper supporting relation vis-à-vis the political and which identifies and explores the interaction of military tasks with other, non-military lines of effort.

Despite its efforts to conceptualize present challenges through concepts such as “hybrid war” and “the gray zone,” the United States remains overly reliant on the strategic utility of military force and has struggled to translate such martial abilities into political progress. Ironically, these shortcomings were also found in abundance in the U.S. effort to counter insurgency. At heart lies an understanding of war replete with theoretical barriers and unfounded presumptions, constituting an up-stream source of analytical friction with real implications for how strategy is conceived and implemented.

The foundational premise of our study of war should emphasize its political nature: war is not just political violence, but more accurately, violent politics and as such a subset of contentious politics. This placement of politics as the central engine of action, both violent and non-violent, is in line with the manner in which the American Revolution was waged by the Patriots but also Mao Tse-tung’s approach to strategy, as well as that of the Vietnamese.

Strikingly, a similarly supporting (rather than supported) function of military force is found in the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine. Though the Gerasimov Doctrine is neither doctrine nor the intellectual creation only of General Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, the former Russian chief of general staff, it does provide the main coherent theorization of the shadowy, gradualist approach used by Putin in the Near Abroad—in Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, and elsewhere. In contrast, despite the West’s tireless invocation of Clausewitz, its discourse and conduct of war fall short of treating it as “a continuation of politics by other means.”

To encourage the necessary type of thinking about war, we propose a theoretical framework that places military tasks in their proper supporting relation vis-à-vis the political and which identifies and explores its interaction with other, non-military lines of effort. Such a framework can be constructed by interrogating the irregular conflicts of the past to derive a guide, or blueprint, for analysis and action.

“People’s war,” whether of the variety utilized by the American Patriots or by the Chinese and Vietnamese, all in their respective revolutions, has left a substantial body of material that has been used to operationalize a truly political strategy of warfighting. As the Chinese noted at the time in their communications with Che Guevara, the revolutionary’s construction of a new world is best achieved by a symbiosis of “kinetic” and “nonkinetic” approaches, something Che’s foco theory fatefully failed to grasp, relying instead on the use of violence to inspire spontaneous mass mobilization (and leading to Che’s death in Bolivia in 1967).

As an insurgent, Mao chastised those of “the purely military viewpoint,” those who “think the task of the Red Army … is merely to fight. They do not understand that the Chinese Red Army is an armed body for carrying out the political tasks of the revolution … Without these objectives, fighting loses its meaning and the Red Army loses the reason for its existence.”

What unites Mao’s “non-state” approach to strategy with Russia’s, or China’s, “state-based” version of the same is the blending of disparate lines of effort into a coherent whole—a political center that other efforts, to include the use of force, support. To mobilize people and resources politically, find the issues to which they will rally. Simultaneously, win over domestic allies who will back the cause on tactical issues even if they hesitate to do so strategically. Use violence only as appropriate to the situation to enable these two fundamentally political activities. Use non-violence, such as subversion, propaganda, offers of negotiations, or inducements, to coerce by other means than force; this is what Kennan meant by “political warfare.” And internationalize the struggle, making it difficult to contain or terminate within national borders.

The approach presented here offers an intellectual blueprint for the necessary type of analysis. Rather than front-load the analytical process with answers, it begins with five questions.

  1. What is the threat doing politically?
  2. How is it exploiting domestic alliances to better reach its objective?
  3. How is violence used in support of its political project?
  4. How is non-violence used?
  5. What is the role of internationalization in the struggle?

These questions, if used for careful interrogation of threat strategy, correct many of the cognitive shortcomings of present-day analysis and policy. Rather than detach military and security affairs from their political purpose, they force close consideration of their intimate relation. Rather than bifurcate artificially state and non-state uses of force, they anticipate a blending of styles and of modes of violence to achieve a political effect. Rather than let the use of violence, or of terrorism, eclipse the broader strategy at play, they compel a comprehensive analysis of wide-ranging lines of effort and their interaction. It is through careful engagement with these questions, and the construction of an effective counter-strategy, that we do better in the challenge at hand.

The approach serves to map both irregular strategy and operational art, whether violent or non-violent, by either state or non-state actors. Though the framework does not seek to comment specifically on traditional warfare, its treatment of irregular or non-traditional warfare informs, through its emphasis on politics and legitimacy, nearly all expressions of physical coercion. In effect, the manner of analyzing violence presented in this article opens a door to sorely needed theoretical insights into the nature of contention across the standard spectrums and dichotomies. By so doing, it also guides the construction of an effective response to the ambiguous threats of the 21st century.

David H. Ucko is an Associate Professor at the College of International Security Affairs (CISA) of the National Defense University (NDU). Thomas A. Marks is Distinguished Professor and the MG Edward Lansdale Chair of Irregular Warfighting Strategy at the College of International Security Affairs (CISA) of the National Defense University (NDU). They are authors of “Violence in context: Mapping the strategies and operational art of irregular warfare”, Contemporary Security Policy, 39(2), pp. 206-233. It is available here.

Alliance Entrapment and the Foreign Policy of Donald Trump

lanoszkaIn a new article in Contemporary Security Policy, Alexander Lanoszka provides a new conceptual framework to study how allies can entrap the United States in their conflicts. He argues that the Trump administration is actually attuned to those entrapment risks.

When Donald J. Trump became U.S. President in January 2017, many observers feared that he would abandon U.S. deterrence and defense measures in Europe in favor of rapprochement with Russia. After all, during his campaign he strongly criticized fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as having suckered the United States into shouldering their defense burdens and even bearing the risk of their foreign policies. Yet almost one year into office the Trump administration has seen Montenegro join NATO, signaled strong support to Poland, contemplated selling lethal arms to Ukraine, and even approved of Georgia’s stance in its territorial disputes with Russia.

Foreign policy experts might be forgiven for thinking that Trump plays fast and loose with the so-called alliance dilemma. This alliance dilemma arises when a defender calibrates its security commitments to its ally. If the ally is confident that the defender will rescue it, then that ally might take undesirable risks. The defender thus worries of entrapment—that is, of being dragged into unwanted wars. However, if that ally doubts that it can truly rely on its defender in a future crisis, then it fears abandonment. Whereas Trump generated abandonment fears as presidential candidate, his actions as president might be seen as being blind to entrapment risks.

Are they really so blind, though? In a new Contemporary Security Policy article, I argue that international relations scholars have postulated different accounts of what shapes entrapment risks, often advancing theoretically incomplete arguments and contradictory policy prescriptions when taken together. Moreover, scholars often have overlooked how an underlying conflict makes both alliance formation and war more likely, making it empirically difficult to tease out an underlying entrapment risk from confounding factors. Leaders might even discount entrapment risks in pursuing their international strategies.

Four factors allegedly drive entrapment risks. One is institutional: by giving carte blanche to an ally, the defender emboldens that ally to adopt a risky foreign policy that raises the likelihood of water. Another is systemic: the number of major powers in the international system (i.e. system polarity) and whether attacking is easier than defending. If attack is easy and at least three great powers exist, then entrapment is likely because the defender will see the ally as necessary for maintaining a favorable balance of power. The third factor is reputation. An ally might believe that it will receive the support of a defender eager to preserve its commitments just for the sake of appearing reliable.

The final factor is transnational ideological. In the case of NATO, the alliance evolved from securing members against the Soviet threat to defending liberal democratic values. Accordingly, states that appeal to those values can maximize their likelihood in gaining support from that alliance, especially if they can also leverage elite networks.

Some critics argue that Georgia tailored its institutions to extract U.S. and NATO support in the years leading up to the August 2008 war with Russia. Indeed, those critics contend that Georgian leaders came to believe that alliance support was forthcoming even though their country failed in its application for the Membership Action Plan (MAP) earlier that same year. Their confidence made Georgian leaders more aggressive towards Russia than what was rationally justifiable, thereby creating the danger for that local conflict to spiral out of control.

These four accounts are compelling, but they do not square with other observations about international politics and even imply contradictory policy prescriptions. States can use institutional mechanisms—such as treaty precision and conditionality—to attenuate entrapment risks. Yet systemic drivers leave states powerless to formulate policies that would minimize entrapment risks. Moreover, defenders also wish to have reputations for not being reckless with their alliance commitments.

Arguments emphasizing transnational ideological networks need to explain why a pro-ally lobby should succeed in influencing the foreign policy of a defender over other competing interests. Indeed, in the Georgian case, such arguments need to explain why Georgia succeeded in eliciting support from the United States, Poland, and the Baltic countries but not from Western European allies. They also need to explain why Georgia still felt emboldened to behave aggressively towards Russia despite its rejected MAP application. Perhaps Georgian leaders like then President Mikheil Saakashvili were prone to misperceptions, hot-headedness, and other decision-making biases that would have raised the likelihood of war even in the absence of NATO.

What do these observations mean for comprehending Trump’s policy towards Europe and Russia? One take-away is that the Trump administration is not only attuned to entrapment risks, but even accepts them so as to place further pressure on Russia. By having allies become stronger vis-à-vis Russia, the Trump administration may believe that it is enhancing deterrence.

Indeed, many of the accounts of entrapment described above overlook a basic analytical issue—that is, conflict drives both alliance formation and the war. More conflict means a great acceptance of alliance entanglements and higher likelihood of war breaking out. The Trump administration may not want war with Russia, but it nevertheless believes that peace is best achieved through strength.

Alexander Lanoszka is lecturer in the Department of International Politics at City, University of London. His new Contemporary Security Policy article may be accessed here. For more on his research, please visit his website at www.alexlanoszka.com. You may also follow him on Twitter.