Strategic narratives in the Sino-American COVID-19 “blame game”

In a recent article, Linus Hagström and Karl Gustafsson analyze the Sino-American narrative struggle over the meaning of COVID-19. They argue that the limited success of Chinese and U.S. efforts to gain support for their strategic narratives about the pandemic illustrates the limitations of strategic narratives as both concept and political practice.

“Strategic narratives” has become a popular concept in International Relations research and foreign policy practice alike. Scholars and practitioners have increasingly accepted that narratives matter and can affect world politics by attracting or even fooling global audiences into acquiring a particular understanding of reality. Many states currently spend huge resources on projecting their own stories to the world. Hence, much like discussions on “disinformation,” “propaganda,” “information warfare,” “sharp power,” and “fake news,” current commentary often seems to assume that international actors are able to control narratives and use them strategically.

One issue over which much ink has recently been spilled is the COVID-19 pandemic. After the pandemic hit the world in the spring of 2020, it did not take long until scholars and pundits began to comment on how the world’s two most powerful states—the United States and China—were seeking to construct and propagate strategic narratives about events as they were unfolding. They suggested that the narrative power struggle over the meaning of the pandemic could have implications for the future of world order and the ostensibly ongoing power shift from the United States to China. Some suggested that China’s strategic narratives were superior to that of the United States, and that this could even be a harbinger of China’s emergence as a global leader.

In our article, we examined the construction, dissemination and reception of Sino-American strategic narratives about the pandemic, as well as whether or how they invoked more deeply institutionalized, pre-existing master narratives and with what effects. We also explored to what extent and how those narratives were referenced and reproduced by decision makers in Australia, India, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom—five regional states seen as vital to the future of the current U.S.-led world order.

We found that both China and the United States sought to use narratives strategically. The United States projected two main strategic narratives: (1) COVID-19 originated in China, the country tried its best to hide the outbreak and refused to cooperate with investigations, and China duped the WHO, which is pro-China; and (2) the United States has taken a proactive approach to COVID-19 that is better than anywhere else in the world and the Trump administration has been highly successful.

China also promoted two main narratives: (1) China is the champion of the international system because its domestic crisis management is resolute and effective, and because internationally it is based on multilateralism and assisting other countries by providing medical aid; and (2) the United States engages in politicization and stigmatization, such as the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory, which is more dangerous than COVID-19 itself, and it wasted the time that Chinese sacrifice had given it.

However, we found that all of these narrative were largely unsuccessful. While elements of the U.S. narratives were referenced and reproduced in Australia and to some extent in the United Kingdom, the number of such references was very limited. Indian, South Korean, and Turkish statements praised cooperation with the United States, but did not reproduce U.S. narrative content. Similarly, key elements of the Chinese narratives appeared in statements from all five states, but China was only explicitly mentioned when cooperation with the country was praised. China did not figure at all when support for multilateralism, international cooperation and the WHO was discussed, or when stigmatization of Asians was criticized. Officials in Australia, India, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom primarily emphasized their own efforts and successes in fighting COVID-19, seeking to present themselves in a positive light. Instead of supporting either the United States or China, they had their own agendas and agency.

Based on our findings, we argue that there is reason for caution about the usefulness of strategic narratives as a policy tool. In addition, we argue that the analysis and use of strategic narratives cannot just take narratives about specific issues, such as COVID-19, into account, but must also pay attention to more deeply institutionalized, pre-existing master narratives. Not all Chinese narrative elements originated in China, and some of them—especially the emphasis on multilateralism and international cooperation—were quite general.

Hence, to the extent that Chinese narratives gained some international traction, they did not do so by spreading falsehoods, but rather by appealing to master narratives that are widely shared throughout the world. This demonstrates the limitations strategic narratives, as China’s narrative entrepreneurship around COVID-19 both appealed to and seemed constrained by pre-existing master narratives integral to the current U.S.-led world order.

Our findings suggest that the most significant narrative power resides not with particular states, but with influential master narratives. Therefore, when exploring the possibilities for changing global narrative power dynamics, we should analyze not only the diffusion and reception of strategic narratives, or even just changing master narratives, but also how key actors situate themselves in relation to existing master narratives. With the Biden administration more intent than the previous Trump administration on upholding and strengthening the current U.S.-led liberal world order with its emphasis on multilateralism and international cooperation, it may become more difficult for China, or any other state, to take control of or use these global master narratives for their own strategic purposes.

Linus Hagström is a Professor of Political Science at the Swedish Defence University. Karl Gustafsson is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Stockholm University. He tweets at @KarlGustafsson5. They are the authors of the article “The limitations of strategic narratives: The Sino-American struggle over the meaning of COVID-19,” Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming, which can be accessed here.

Global Britain in the grey zone

In a recent article, Vladimir Rauta and Sean Monaghan analyze the new UK Integrated Review to understand how the United Kingdom attempts to grapple with its hybrid policy. They argue that this presents a good blueprint for thinking about some of the questions grey zone poses, not just for the UK but for all Western allies.

Over the past decade, trans-Atlantic and European security and defense policy have tried to make sense of the grey zone challenge. It framed this debate using a range of monikers: hybrid warfare/threats/interference, sub-threshold/hostile/malign activity, subversion and political warfare. What started with a discussion on combined modes of operations by supposedly weaker non-state armed actors such as Hezbollah took a life of its own in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia.

On the one hand, with it came supposed Russian doctrines and repetitive claims that war and peace have merged into some strategic blur. On the other hand, it raised serious questions on security and defense policy, capability, and directions of military transformation and adaptation.

One such recent example is the United Kingdom’s (UK) review of national security, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (Integrated Review), published alongside a new Integrated Operating Concept 2025 (IOpC25) and the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) own contribution to the review, Defence in a Competitive Age. The review and its accompanying documents are part of a multi-level, multi-stakeholder conversation about how the UK should view and deal with the present and future security landscape, which for the Ministry of Defence will determine the shape of military capabilities and how they are employed in the years to come.

In our new article, we argue that this presents a good blueprint for thinking about some of the questions grey zone poses, especially as the UK has not the only nation to take a “hybrid-turn” in its security and defense policy in recent years. In fact, both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) have a strategy for countering hybrid threats—not to mention a dedicated institution in the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (NATO, 2017). Similarly, recent strategy documents published in the United States, Australia, France and Germany, all cite forms of hybrid or grey zone conflict as a primary challenge in the coming years.

Our argument invites scholars and policymakers alike to find utility in a simplified conceptual discussion based on distinguishing between threats and warfare. For better or worse, they are established policy terms which not only cement the idea that hybridity is a pervasive and constant feature of statecraft and warfare, but can help spark professional debates and public dialogue about evolving security threats in which both parties might play a part: Whether directly (e.g., cyber-security, disinformation, democratic interference, business resilience) or indirectly (e.g., in supporting government investment and the role of the Armed Forces in new security interventions, from NATO deployments to homeland resilience). Examples of the threat-warfare distinction currently in play include NATO’s policy and Counter Hybrid Threat Strategy, the EU’s “playbook” for countering hybrid threats, and the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats.

Against this background, we use the example of the UK’s attempts to grapple with its own hybrid policy as a national case study in closing the gap between rhetoric and practice which we call the stagecraft versus statecraft problem. There are two issues worth noting here. The first is the inconsistent and opaque language used by the UK government to describe a wide array of threats. The second problem is the need for concrete action to—in the words of Boris Johnson— “tackle hybrid warfare.”

The UK’s previous commitment to adapt to new hybrid realities also looked anemic when compared to the efforts of its allies and partners during the same period. Central European, Nordic, and Baltic nations revitalized Cold War “total defence” style strategies—complemented by highly visible strategic communications campaigns—while the United States Marine Corps spent a year experimenting to develop their new role in countering gray zone strategies and the Australian 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan offer significant detail on the changes to strategy, force structure, and capability.

In contrast to previous efforts, the Integrated Review sets out a clear strategic approach towards hybrid threats through “a force structure that principally deters through ‘persistent engagement’ below the threshold of war”. It also backs this up with a wide array of measures to deliver and enhance the capability required to deliver this vision. In doing so it builds on the UK’s conventional prowess as one of only two NATO allies capable of wielding nuclear, offensive cyber, precision strike weapons and fifth-generation strike aircraft—plus a carrier strike group and “Tier 1” Special Forces. These forces underpin existing contributions to NATO operations in the Baltics, high readiness forces and major multinational exercises—including framework nation leadership through the Joint Expeditionary Force, a multinational force comprising the UK, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, which “offers these countries flexible options for managing sub-threshold competition”.

These are much-welcomed developments on which we draw to outline some avenues—informally, through a series of questions, puzzles and lessons—designed to help international policy and research communities align their efforts to address their own stagecraft-statecraft dichotomies. In doing so, we hope to support international efforts to discover just what the fundamental transformation advocated by the UK establishment really means in practice. For hybrid threats, we highlight three key questions or puzzles that are raised through the UK’s review, but not quite answered: Tolerance, going beyond deterrence, and the role of defense. Taken together they are useful for those wishing to further develop policy and scholarship on countering hybrid threats.

For hybrid warfare, we argue the policy agenda has to be reset and reconfigured in three ways. First and foremost, around conventional war/warfare, understood primarily through the lens of inter-state war. Second, to conceptualize and engage with the “combination” problem: That future adversaries are likely to mix and match forms and modes of warfare to offset conventional battlefield strength. Third, to avoid “Next-War-itis” and instead seek to be prepared for a range of contingencies across conflict and actor spectra.

As such, our article has focused on two related—but distinct—challenges that emanate from this environment: hybrid threats and hybrid warfare. It used the UK’s review to reveal lessons and insights for international policymakers and scholars also grappling with these challenges, forming these into policy and research guidance for both. Yet a closer look reveals a series of lessons, questions, and puzzles on tackling hybrid challenges to which the UK does not provide such convincing answers. These were used to draw a tentative way forward for international scholars and policymakers, using our threats-warfare distinction to provide some structure.

Taken together, this series of questions left hanging by the UK’s review form a loose research agenda for those in the international community developing policy and scholarship on countering hybrid threats and dealing with hybrid warfare—and in so doing, take further steps on their own journeys from stagecraft to statecraft.

Vladimir Rauta and Sean Monaghan are the authors of the article “Global Britain in the grey zone: Between stagecraft and statecraft”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming, which can be accessed here

Ambiguity of hybrid warfare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Private Sector Contribution to National Strategies of Cyber Deterrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unity among al-Qaeda groups in the Sahel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.