U.S. Alliance Credibility after the 2021 Afghanistan Withdrawal

In late 2021, numerous commentators feared that America’s dramatic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would hurt its credibility as a great-power security patron among onlookers in key allied and adversarial countries. A new article by D.G. Kim, Joshua Byun, and Jiyoung Ko shows why such fears are likely overblown. 

The Joe Biden administration’s highly publicized military pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021 evoked widespread fears that the credibility of U.S. security commitments around the world would be ineluctably damaged. “[E]very enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power,” one commentator wrote in the New York Times, “[a]nd every ally—Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Israel, Japan—will draw the lesson that it is on its own in the face of its enemies.” 

Such arguments were hugely popular and intuitive, but we found them puzzling for several reasons. To begin with, Afghanistan was not a formal ally of the United States by the time of the 2021 troop withdrawal, since the legal framework for security cooperation between the two countries had been terminated with the signing of the Doha Agreement by the Donald J. Trump administration and the Taliban in February 2020. Would onlookers in countries that are formal treaty allies of the United States—as well as those among the adversaries that confront such allies—really jump to the conclusion that U.S. behavior toward such “informal” security partners is likely to be replicated in their own neighborhood? 

Moreover, while many Americans apparently feared that their country’s reputation as a great-power ally in vital regions will be fatally undermined if it fails to defend any individual security partner, recent works drawing on qualitative case studies suggested that foreign audiences do not necessarily evaluate U.S. credibility in such terms. Indeed, such works seemed to hint at the possibility that allied and adversarial audiences might draw the opposite inference under certain conditions. If these onlookers understand U.S. military capabilities and attention as finite resources that must be competitively allocated across different regions, the American decision to abandon a security partner in one region might not necessarily hurt the perceived trustworthiness of its security commitments in another; in fact, such decisions might help improve widespread perceptions of U.S. credibility. 

To test these competing intuitions, we deployed parallel survey experiments in the United States, South Korea, and China—the latter two respectively representing a key ally and adversary for the United States in the strategically vital region of East Asia—approximately five months following the dramatic Afghanistan withdrawal. The idea was to randomly treat ordinary members of the public in each country with a vivid reminder about the U.S. decision to abandon its decades-long military commitment to Afghanistan, including the fact that “the Taliban took control of Afghanistan amidst the ensuing chaos.” 

 After assigning the treatment, we would ask our U.S. respondents to give us their best guess about the level of confidence people in South Korea and China would have in America’s support for its South Korean ally should a militarized conflict arise between the two East Asian powers. We would then compare the American guesses with actual perceptions reported by the publics of these two states when asked about how credible they would deem U.S. military support for South Korea in the same hypothetical clash. 

Our findings were unequivocal. While Americans who were reminded of the Afghanistan pullout tended to become more pessimistic that key audiences in East Asia will view the U.S. security commitment to South Korea as credible, their pessimism was not corroborated by foreign views. Neither the South Korean nor Chinese respondents significantly revised their confidence in America’s regional alliance commitment when presented with the Afghanistan withdrawal reminder. 

More importantly, the results suggested that appropriate diplomatic messaging can help strengthen the credibility of U.S. security commitments among foreign publics in the wake of events like the Afghanistan pullout. When given a short additional message that the United States might henceforth be able to further prioritize East Asia when allocating military resources abroad, the South Korean and Chinese respondents who had been reminded of the Afghanistan withdrawal became significantly more confident that the United States would follow through on its commitment to defend South Korea in the event of a local military conflict. The upshot was that the impact of the Afghanistan withdrawal reminder is channeled through the information observers have about their local strategic context, such that its implications for perceptions of American credibility could be diametrically opposed to those feared by U.S. analysts. 

These findings offer clear takeaways for how to think about U.S. alliance credibility in the wake of decisions like the Afghanistan withdrawal. Policymakers, for one, should be more willing to consider extricating the United States from costly military commitments in strategically peripheral areas without fearing the loss of a “reputation for resolve” and the widespread erosion of credibility in more important regions. Indeed, by foregrounding the potential for a favorable reallocation of strategic resources, they might be able to turn such events into an asset in the campaign to enhance the credibility of their country’s alliance commitments in key regions, rather than a liability. 

More broadly, concerned Americans should be mindful of research findings such as ours when observing doomsaying about their country’s broader credibility that typically follows decisions to retrench from—or not become more forcefully involved in—distant regions where the United States harbors only limited strategic interests and informal defense obligations. By and large, audiences among critical strategic interlocutors like South Korea and China do not distrust America’s willingness and ability to defend its alliance commitments in their own region just because it has failed to stand up for an informal protégé half a world away. They understand that the two are different places. 

D.G. Kim, Joshua Byun, and Jiyoung Ko are the authors of “Remember Kabul? Reputation, Strategic Contexts, and American Credibility after the Afghanistan Withdrawal”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here. 

Privatizing security and authoritarian adaptation in the Arab region since the 2010–2011 uprisings

In a new article, Engy Moussa studies the rise of private security companies in the Arab region since the 2010-2011 uprisings. She finds that this development offer new venues to enrich and strengthen the ruling elites.

Regardless of where you look in the Arab region, the uprisings didn’t lead to democratization. Instead, authoritarian systems prevailed through enhanced strategies of public security, political co-optation and social control. This ongoing authoritarian adaptation features considered input from private security actors amid intense security market diversification and considerable outsourcing of domestic security and guarding services.

Addressing ‘how privatizing security contributes to perpetuating authoritarian practices post-2010,’ my recent article argues that contemporary security privatization and outsourcing provide alternative agents and strategies for social control, while offering new venues to enrich and strengthen ruling elites. Supplementing the continuous dominance of repressive state security forces, privatizing and outsourcing security essentially support practices of authoritarian adaptation by cultivating networks of patronage; diversifying ruling elites’ bases of security; and curbing constant sources of unrest.

Ongoing security privatization across the region is multifaced, with notable variation among cases, particularly privatizing security in conflict zones versus under relatively stable regimes. Alongside the military facet of the private security industry (PSI), widespread in conflict zones as in Libya and Syria, the steady rise of private security, rather than military, companies (PSCs) across the region is remarkable. From an international perspective, the PSI development in the region, starting in the 1980s, follows the global move toward neo-liberal governance, which advocates replacing public provision of welfare and social security with notions of privately purchased security.

While predating the uprisings, the latter hastened PSCs’ growth in terms of profit-making, scope of activities, suppliers and clients, among other factors. On one level, the contemporary heightened resort to PSCs within the private sector responds to turbulent security environments shaped by post-uprisings developments. Immune to the general decline in domestic economies, PSI has thus steadily expanded to meet increasing demands from different social sectors, being simultaneously boosted by growing outsourcing of public security functions. As it continuously prospers, PSI opens wide venues for employment and business growth; thus, indirectly enhancing some authoritarian systems’ economic viability by helping to alleviate widespread economic hardships.

Amidst the patrimonial networks within the post-2010 security markets, PSCs’ status is noteworthy. While attracting many newcomers, and enabling old players to flourish, a close look at PSI’s structure and members suggests a considerable share of the industry belongs to already powerful actors: state personnel and institutions alongside established businessmen. Yet, the dominant position occupied within the expanding PSI by security personnel alongside different state institutions and business elite is not what makes Arab states distinct. Across cases, private security actors are well-connected with state actors, with PSCs commonly owned or run by ruling elite members or state institutionsand ex-security officers working as private guards.

Instead, it is the role these actors have played, before and after 2010, in perpetuating authoritarianism and preserving ruling elites’ security that raises concerns about their prevalence over the mounting provision of private security. In this light, including PSCs in networks of patronage and entrusting private security provision to business and security elites, who are loyal to and dependent on autocratic ruling elites, provide the latter with substantial influence over private security and diffuse the distinction between public and private security agents as the latter become closely linked to ruling elites and potentially implicated in authoritarian strategies and policies.

Beyond nurturing networks of patronage, outsourcing security mirrors the tense relationship between ruling elites and state security institutions. The uprisings’ early phase severely shook the mutual dependency between some Arab ruling elites and their coercive institutions. After all, the police forces’ retreat from the streets, as in Egypt and Tunisia, alongside the military leadership’s decision to abandon the presidents, gave substantive ground to the uprisings and marked a reshuffle of power relations among ruling elites. In this regard, state preference to employ PSCs, instead of police or armed forces, to fulfil certain public security functions, arguably implies a diversification of the ruling elites’ coercive allies and an attempt to decrease dependence on state forces.

With many PSCs closely linked to ruling elites, they exhibit great loyalty to them and consider the authoritarian system’s security and stability among their main priorities. Compared to a recurrently inefficient police force, internally fragmented and whose loyalty is considerably uncertain in some Arab states, PSCs arguably represent more secure and reliable agents for selected public security tasks. Moreover, PSCs’ competitive nature and private dynamics of operation offer an advantage with respect to their performance: being presumably more professional, effective and cost-efficient; while the need to regularly renew contracts with the state boosts their incentive to enhance performance and reassert loyalty to secure new contracts and remain strong in the market.

Ultimately, privatizing and outsourcing security in some Arab countries reflect broad transformations in governance where public and private sectors are continuously reconfigured. Outsourcing security is profoundly shaped by domestic politics, especially the impact of authoritarianism on state security forces and the damaged state-society relationship it produces. Particularly, mistrust in the state’s ability or willingness to provide protection alongside public fear from the state’s abusive and arbitrary power are central to examining PSCs expansion in the Arab region amid a lack of serious public debates on the repercussions of growing privatized violence.

Engy Moussa is Teaching Associate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and James Buchanan Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. She lectures on Middle East Politics and pursues a multi-disciplinary research agenda covering the politics and economics of authoritarian systems, critical security studies, and international relations. She is the author of “Privatizing security and authoritarian adaptation in the Arab region since the 2010–2011 uprisings”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Zero-day vulnerabilities are powerful cyber weapons: Use them or patch them?

The U.S. government faces a dilemma regarding zero-day vulnerabilities: it can either stockpile or disclose them. In a new article, Marcelo M. Leal and Paul Musgrave show that Americans overwhelmingly support the disclosure of information about zero-day vulnerabilities to vendors.

In 2017, the WannaCry and NotPetya malware exploited a vulnerability in the Windows operating system, causing widespread havoc. Ironically, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had been aware of this vulnerability for about five years. Instead of disclosing the vulnerability to Microsoft, however, NSA held on to the knowledge—until the vulnerability was leaked in public forums.

This case illustrates a dilemma that the United States government faces when it discovers zero-day vulnerabilities. Zero-day vulnerabilites are software and hardware flaws that are unknown to computer vendors. As a result, they are enormously valuable to attackers since there is no defense against them. Intelligence agencies such as the NSA and CIA—as well as other governments and even some private firms—work hard to develop such zero-day exploits because of the advantages they afford the attackers.

Once a vulnerability is discovered, an agency can either disclose information about it to vendors so that it can be patched or withhold it so that it can add the vulnerability to its stockpile of cyber weapons. By withholding information, U.S. national security agencies can exploit zero days to penetrate the computer systems of its adversaries—yet doing so also leaves U.S. and allied entities vulnerable should an adversary independently discover these flaws and use them against the United States. By disclosing information to vendors, the U.S. government allows vendors to fix the vulnerability and secure their systems in a timely manner—but it also denies the use of such attack vectors against adversaries by U.S. national security agencies.

Debates about how and where to draw the line between disclosure and stockpiling are a staple of cyber policy discourse. This is less of a dilemma for the U.S. public. Results from a survey experiment we conducted in late 2021 show that it’s likely that respondents are squarely in favor of disclosing information to vendors, even when informed that withholding this information could save many Americans lives in a future conflict. Our results also demonstrate that the likelier it is that an adversary could use a given zero day, the more Americans favor disclosing the vulnerability to a vendor.

The Vulnerabilities Equities Process

Since 2010, the U.S. government has a policy in place to address this dilemma. The vulnerabilities equities process, or VEP, guides executive branch officials in their decision to disclose or to retain publicly unknown vulnerabilities. Official documents released to the public in recent years show that officials are believed to take several factors into consideration when they discover a zero-day vulnerability, like the consequences of an adversary exploitation and how quickly an exploit could be patched. Nonetheless, analysts have singled out two factors that are critical for decisionmakers: how long a vendor will remain unaware about the flaw (longevity of a zero day) and the likelihood that an adversary will independently discover it (its collision rate).

Those who think that vulnerabilities need to be patched to protect American interests from adversaries think the VEP is too weak. Those who think that a strong cyber offense is more important think that it is (or could become) too strong. Understanding how this debate will resolve requires researching many topics, such as the influence of different agencies and interest groups, but it also requires investigating public opinion. Even though cybersecurity is a technical field, and even though zero-day vulnerabilities are among the U.S. government’s most prized secrets, the public’s views on the issue could shape how politicians and officials craft policy—particularly if there’s another major incident involving zero-day flaws known to the U.S. government.

To explore how the American public thinks, we conducted a survey experiment testing whether different levels of longevity and collision rates influence respondents support for disclosing or withholding zero-day vulnerabilities. Respondents read a scenario that pitted retaining a vulnerability for use in a potential attack against Iran (saving many American servicemembers’ lives) against the possibility that it could be independently discovered by an adversary and used against the United States. We manipulated this collision rate to specify that there could be a high, low, or medium chance that an adversary could acquire the zero day. Separately, we also manipulated whether the vulnerability would be likely to exist for a few months, a year, or several years.

The results were unequivocal. We found that the longevity of a vulnerability does not make respondents more or less likely to support disclosure. On the other hand, collision rates do influence respondents’ evaluations. As the likelihood that an adversary could independently discover a vulnerability goes up, support for informing the vendor about the vulnerability also increases.

Policy implications

There may be a substantial disconnect between the preferences of the public and those of the U.S. government regarding zero-day disclosure policy. Even though U.S. officials hint that disclosure is the default option in the vulnerabilities equities process, recent studies show that this might not be true in practice. Some research also suggests that the interests of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies are more represented in the VEP than those of the public and technology firms, suggesting a bias toward stockpiling zero days.

This public-government disconnect could lead to policy changes. Previous leaks showing that U.S. intelligence agencies failed to disclose zero-day vulnerabilities to vendors have already led the federal government to disclose information about the vulnerabilities equities process several times. Congress has also reacted to these cases. In recent years, lawmakers have introduced two bills that aimed to codify the VEP and could make disclosure the default option by law. None, however, advanced in their legislature. Given our findings, it is possible that agency policies may be subject to correction should policy windows open for a long enough period.

Marcelo M. Leal and Paul Musgrave are the authors of “Backwards from zero: How the U.S. public evaluates the use of zero-day vulnerabilities in cybersecurity”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here

What drives states to join universal WMD treaties

Our understanding of WMD treaties is largely based on what we know about the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In a new article, Jan Karlas studies state participation in all 10 universal treaties. He finds that states ratify those treaties for a variety of reasons.

Currently, there are 10 universal treaties that were adopted since the end of the Second World War and regulate weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These treaties limit the possession or testing of nuclear weapons (nuclear weapons treaties), prohibit chemical and biological weapons (CBW treaties), and ban the deployment of WMD in Antarctica and outer space, and on the seabed (zonal treaties). Almost all of them came into being during the second half of the 20th century as a result of the convergence in the interests of the two nuclear superpowers, represented by the USA and the USSR, and the majority of the other states.

To be effective and legitimate, WMD treaties need be truly universal and involve ideally all sovereign states. However, they only hardly manage to reach this goal. Typically, a certain number of countries ratify a WMD treaty relatively quickly, others wait to ratify for a longer time, and some even do not become parties to it. For the example, the Biological Weapons Convention joined together more than 75% states only 31 years after its adoption, and at this moment, only 41% of states ratified the Seabed Treaty.

It is important to understand when states enter WMD treaties, and when they do so only with a considerable delay, or even stay outside a treaty. The neorealist theory of international relations would, in this regard, differentiate states on the basis of their security situations and capabilities. Those that face security threats and have the necessary capabilities to develop WMD should be more likely to keep their autonomy and postpone the ratification of WMD treaties. Those that are not confronted with security threats, or do not have the necessary capabilities, are more likely to join these treaties quickly. Several scholars used these ideas to explain the ratification of the most prominent WMD treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In my paper, I go beyond the NPT, seeking to explain what drives ratification decisions generally, in relation to all the categories of WMD treaties. I reconsider the costs and benefits from participation in the different categories of treaties, and formulate a new explanation for this participation. A statistical analysis that maps the ratification behaviour of 204 states during the years 1960-2022 confirms this explanation.

The findings of the paper show that there are four specific factors that determine propensity of states to commit to WMD treaties. First, the possession/pursuit of WMD delays participation in treaties that completely ban these weapons, or they testing (CBW treaties and the majority of nuclear weapons treaties). This finding has two non-trivial implications. The first of them is that by far not all states that live in insecure environments necessarily postpone the ratification of WMD treaties. At the same time, the majority of states that possess or pursue WMD do not immediately destroy them, or stop the effort to acquire them, once there is a new treaty that calls for it. They sometimes join such a treaty, but after a relatively long time.

Second, the attitudes of countries to the US-led, liberal hegemonic order influences their decisions on participation in nuclear weapons treaties. My findings show that when countries are satisfied with this order, they generally join nuclear weapons treaties quickly. This can be explained by the fact that the nuclear order, which most of these treaties support, is closely linked to the liberal hegemonic order. The preliminary data also shows that the countries that have critical views of the US-built order have been entering the recently adopted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which, unlike other nuclear weapons treaties, challenges the hegemonic nuclear order, considerably more quickly than the states that are content with this order.

Third, economically developed states commit more quickly than less developed states to CBW treaties and zonal treaties. These treaties stipulate that states take necessary domestic legal and policy measures to regulate the use of biological and chemical materials, or set-up the basic rules for economic, scientific, and other activities taking place in Antarctica and outer space. The large biotechnological and chemical industries, and the resources needed for the exploration and exploitation of remote international spaces, increase the stakes that developed states have in the CBW and zonal treaties.

Fourth, the probability that a state will ratify any of the three categories of WMD treaties raises when a certain number of its regional peers joined it. When observing the positive ratification decisions of their peers, state representatives become more convinced that a given treaty represents a useful policy tool to strengthen national and international security. And they also react to the ratification decisions of their peers to act in line with the dominant preferences within their regional political community.

All these findings also imply that WMD treaties do not perform particularly well at identifying the states that comply with their provisions, simply because many countries join them with delays, or stay out of them, unless they have some benefits from participation. Due to this, these treaties do not work as ideal screening devices that would provide accurate information about states complying with the international rules on WMD. The lack of universal membership also limits their authority to provide legitimization to these rules.

Scholars suggested several ways that can ensure the widespread participation of states in WMD treaties and regimes. They argue that the most powerful states must act as leaders and provide incentives to smaller states, or that strong verification mechanisms must support treaties so that the participating states have information about the (non-)compliant behaviour. My paper identifies two additional important aspects. First, WMD treaties have a greater chance to reach a widespread membership if their functions provide substantial benefits to the different groups of states. Second, the existence of certain minimal numbers of states that support a WMD treaty in the individual world regions is another crucial precondition for its widespread ratification.

Jan Karlas is the author of “Explaining state participation in ten universal WMD treaties: A survival analysis of ratification decisions”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Promoting the “Rules-Based Order” through strategic narratives

In a new article, Rebecca Strating studies strategic narratives around the “Rules-Based Order” (RBO) in Asia-Specific. She studies three asymmetrical bilateral maritime disputes that involve the UK, India and Australia, and finds that RBO narratives constrained the behaviours of the states that adopt the term.

In November 2022 the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced that the UK would open negotiations with the Republic of Mauritius on the sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago, a small group of atolls claimed by both states in the Indian Ocean.

This announcement indicated a reversal of UK policy. London had previously rejected Mauritian sovereignty claims and expressing its commitment to ceding sovereignty only when the Chagos islands were no longer required for its defence purposes. In 1966, the UK leased the biggest island – Diego Garcia – to the United States, where it set up its key military base in the Indian Ocean that was subsequently used in major US military operations. As the Indian Ocean is increasingly subject to strategic contestation, both the UK and US has viewed UK’s continuing sovereignty of Chagos Archipelago as important to countering the regional presence of the People’s Republic of China.

Given the strategic value of Diego Garcia to the UK and its relationship with the US, what explains the new government’s approach?

Mauritius and its supporters have engaged in a campaign based on strategic litigation and public diplomacy to put reputational pressure on the UK both domestically and internationally. This campaign has emphasised how the UK – by refusing to deal with the legacy of colonialisation in the Indian Ocean – was actively undermining the international ‘rules-based order’ (RBO) that it has sought to defend in its own strategic narratives.

This campaign has been long-running. In 2010, Mauritius initiated an arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) protesting the UK’s declaration of a Marine Protected Area around Chagos islands. The UK initially responded by disputing the tribunal’s jurisdiction to hear the case. When the ruling largely fell in Mauritius’ favour, the UK interpreted its newly-defined legal responsibilities in a minimalist way.

In 2019, Mauritius asked the UN General Assembly to request an International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion on Chagos sovereignty in 2019, which UK narratives cast Mauritius as inappropriately ‘internationalising’ the bilateral dispute. The resultant ICJ advisory opinion rejected UK sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago on the grounds that Mauritius’ decolonisation was not lawfully completed. The same year, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of strongly condemning British occupation of Chagos Islands, calling for complete decolonisation. In 2021, a Special Chamber in the Mauritius-Maldives maritime boundary dispute re-affirmed the ICJ’s advisory opinion as having legal effect.

Cumulatively, these legal rulings and the associated discourses around them has made it more difficult for the UK to defend its sovereign and maritime claims around the Chagos archipelago to an international audience, especially in light of its own RBO narratives.

This article uses the Chagos example as one case study to demonstrate how states can become ensnared in their own strategic narratives that are designed to compel emerging great powers to abide by existing norms and international law.

In the context of dramatic power shifts in Asia, regional allies and partners of the US such as the UK, Australia, Japan, and India, have adopted new ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategic narratives to stabilise, promote and defend their preferred vision of an RBO, one in which ostensibly all states – even global and authoritarian powers – comply with existing and commonly agreed upon standards of behaviour.

‘Indo-Pacific powers’ are particularly concerned about the revisionist intentions of China. Beijing’s maritime assertions in the South China Sea are the key example used to argue that China desires to ‘re-order the region’ by ‘bullying’ its smaller neighbours in maritime disputes and pursuing ‘unilateral changes to the status quo’ through coercive activities that violate or ignoring UNCLOS. Beijing’s rejection of the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal ruling in the case initiated by Philippines – which found China’s ‘historic rights’ claim in the South China Sea inconsistent with international law – as a challenge to the prevailing RBO.

Yet, as these states encourage emerging powers to abide by the ‘rules’ in their strategic narratives, they can be held to the same standard in their own asymmetrical disputes. RBO narratives can promote greater state compliance with international law and norms, but this tends to be among states who adopt the narrative rather than its targets: emerging revisionist powers who violate, ignore, or seek to re-write international law.

The article compares the rhetoric and actions of three Indo-Pacific powers in asymmetrical bilateral maritime disputes: the Timor Sea United Nations Compulsory Conciliation between Australia and Timor-Leste, the Bay of Bengal Maritime Boundary Arbitration between India and Bangladesh, and the Chagos Island Marine Protected Area Arbitration between the UK and Mauritius.

In each case study, there is evidence that reputational concerns became as important – if not more so – than material considerations, although this played out in different ways across the case studies.

The bigger powers – Australia, India and the UK – came to interpret the disputes in the context of their overarching strategic interests and concerns about great power revisionism, particularly in maritime domains.

Ultimately, RBO narratives constrained the behaviours of the states that adopt the term. Adopters were compelled to take different approaches in their own maritime disputes with smaller powers to reduce the perceived inconsistencies between their RBO rhetoric and their actions. For states, this suggests that there are risks involved in invoking the RBO in their strategic narratives. In an increasingly contested region, reputation and credibility can play an important role in regional diplomacy as Indo-Pacific powers seek to persuade other states that the existing order is preferable to authoritarian alternatives. This produces positive affects for the legitimacy of international regimes such as UNCLOS even though it is not necessarily the intended outcome of Indo-Pacific states’ rhetorical strategies. The RBO, however, is less effective in changing the approaches of the primary disrupters, including authoritarian powers such as China and Russia.

Rebecca Strating is the author of “The rules-based order as rhetorical entrapment: Comparing maritime dispute resolution in the Indo-Pacific”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

The EU’s PESCO initiative and differentiated cooperation in security and defence

In a recent article, Benjamin Martill and Carmen Gebhard seek to clarify the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative in security and defence. They show that PESCO has been designed, through flexible forms of differentiated cooperation, to work around some of the perennial challenges of European defence. 

European security and defence issues have dominated the headlines of late, with Russia’s war in Ukraine having re-energised talk of Europe’s position in the global order and its actorness in the security domain.

But European security collaboration suffers from some perennial challenges that have yet to be overcome, even amidst the current conflict.

Member states hold different views on how best to respond to the crisis, and whether or not to prioritise negotiation and diplomacy (like France) or more active containment (such as Poland).

The EU’s institutional structures can work to exacerbate the impact of minor differences, because the unanimity requirement allows any individual member state to veto a common EU position or operation.

And the institutional architecture is complex, with a multitude of bilateral and multilateral initiatives and actors, overlap between the EU and NATO, and significant gaps in the membership of both organisations.

How can the EU become a more active security and defence player against this backdrop of institutional complexity and member state divergence? Given the current stakes, the question is an important one.

PESCO and the principle of differentiation

One solution can be found in the recent Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative, launched in 2017 as a way of allowing smaller groupings of member states to move forwards in security and defence initiatives.

Initially built into the Lisbon Treaty, PESCO remained dormant until the Brexit vote in June 2016 spurred soul searching in Brussels on Europe’s actorness and enabled further movement in the defence domain.

At the heart of PESCO is the idea of differentiation, the variegated application of Union policies across countries. While the selective membership aspect of PESCO received the most attention, differentiation in PESCO operates on multiple levels.

While previous examples of differentiation in security and defence, like the Danish opt-out, arguably rendered the policy area more complex, differentiation in PESCO – as we show in a recent study – has been shaped by the member states to adapt the initiative for the complex political and institutional environment of European defence.

Selectivity in membership

Initial designs on PESCO imagined a ‘vanguardist’ concept in which a small number of major defence players could agree on ambitious defence-industrial initiatives and establish a platform for joint operations. But this Anglo-French model was seen as problematic by some member states, especially Germany, which preferred a more inclusive design.

When PESCO launched in 2017 the agreed format was closer to Berlin’s preferences for an ‘inclusive’ design, with a far broader membership envisaged. In the end, 25 of the EU’s then 28 states signed up to PESCO, with neutral Malta, the soon-to-be departing UK and opt-out possessing Denmark the only countries not participating.

French designs on a more effective operational platform did not disappear, but were arguably resurrected in President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘European Intervention Initiative’ (EI2), which was sold as a more exclusive platform for major European defence actors.

Project-based clustering

One consequence of the move towards a more inclusive format was that PESCO was re-imagined as process rather than an end-point. Given the disparities between countries as defence actors, this motivated the adoption of a modular framework in which countries would participate in individual projects, each of which comprised clusters of member states.

The benefit of the modular approach was that it could calibrate the appropriate contributions of states and bring about (it was hoped) a productive division-of-labour based around individual specialisations, although it was acknowledged that modularity also risked a lowest common denominator outcome.

Since the first wave of projects was announced in March 2018, there have been a total of 60 projects in four rounds, covering a wide range of different defence sectors and activities, and varying in their intensity. Generally speaking, the fewer participants involved the more onerous the requirements, suggesting the modular format is providing for differentiation in the level of commitment.

Relationship with NATO

Concern existed among some Atlanticist member states, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, that PESCO would present a challenge to NATO’s defence role, since it represented an initial European incursion into the defence domain. Poland and Lithuania, both, expressed these fears in 2017 as discussions of PESCO were underway.

In response, those member states leading on the initiative – France, Germany, Italy, Spain – sought to reassure would-be participants both that PESCO projects would contribute to the Atlantic alliance through the development of member state capabilities, and that they would be put in service of the full spectrum of force.

Their ability to pledge underlying compatibility with NATO – thus ensuring a broad membership – was aided by the project-based approach, since projects like the Dutch-organised ‘Military Mobility’ promised to be of as much value to NATO as to the EU.

Third Country Participation

Whether or not non-EU countries could participate in PESCO projects was a major area of discussion in the years since its launch. With major defence actors like the US, UK and Norway outside the tent, some member states were concerned PESCO would lack credibility, or would risk becoming a protectionist measure for Franco-German defence-industrial interests.

On the other hand, external participation risked the autonomy of the EU initiative and raised the prospect of participation by Turkey and China, which some member states objected to.

The solution, agreed in October 2020, was to open PESCO for third country participation, on the basis of conformity with EU values, thus excluding countries of concern but allowing others to join projects where they could add significant value. The decision paved the way for the US, Canada and Norway to join the Military Mobility project in 2021, with UK accession agreed the following year.

The value of differentiation

As the PESCO example shows, differentiation in its multiple guises can be an effective means of navigating the institutional and political complexities of the European security landscape.

By allowing for non-participation by member states, providing a modular platform, contributing to EU and NATO goals, and allowing access to select third countries, PESCO has been designed to work around some of the perennial challenges of European defence.

In this respect, it offers a helpful example of how differentiation can be productively applied to security and defence issues, and the multiple forms such differentiation may take.

Benjamin Martill and Carmen Gebhard are the authors of “Combined differentiation in European defense: tailoring Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to strategic and political complexity”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Ukraine forum: call for abstracts

When Russia started its war against Ukraine, almost one year ago, it took many observers by surprise. As an academic journal, which is committed to provide policy-relevant analysis of contemporary security issues, we felt it was our duty to make our pages available to cover the war in Ukraine. We did so in a special forum on “War in Ukraine”, published in our July 2022 issue, which we considered as a first attempt at understanding this war and its immediate consequences.

We are now almost one year further and the war rages on. While there is much analysis on the war, as editors of Contemporary Security Policy, we are still missing some introspection in the academy. The war in Ukraine has highlighted that we got many things spectacularly wrong. We are therefore planning a second special forum on how the war has changed our understanding of security studies.

This is an open call and we welcome abstracts on this broader theme including on topics such as:

  • The revolution in military affairs (drones, cyber, etc)
  • Hybrid warfare as the new normal
  • Strategic studies and battleground tactics
  • Changing alliances and international cooperation
  • Domestic politics and international security
  • Ukrainian agency and Westsplaining
  • Eurocentrism and the global south
  • Any other topic of interest

Please send your initial idea (150 word abstract) and paper title to csp@nullmaastrichtuniversity.nl by 10 February 2023. From these abstracts we will make an initial selection. We would expect full papers by 30 April 2023, which will then be subject to peer-review. Please note that articles published in our special forums are shorter at around 5000 words including references.

We expect that all special forum papers address three points:

  • What was the consensus in the academic literature on topic X prior to the war in Ukraine?
  • What precisely did we get wrong (with empirical illustrations from the war in Ukraine)?
  • Why were we wrong on topic X? Because of dominant perspectives, our own biases, limited data?

Please note that as editors we are interested in first-person analysis. We want to know what we as a discipline or field of study got wrong, not why other colleagues were wrong. So no strawmen or blaming others; introspection and revisiting your own work is much encouraged.

Informal Groupings in EU Approach to Conflicts and Crises

EU foreign and security policy is often made by informal groups of member states rather than the EU institutions. In a new article, which is part of a special issue on differentiated cooperation in EU foreign policy, Maria Giulia Amadio Viceré studies these informal groups with respect to the cases of Kosovo, Libya, and Syria.

Informal groupings of member states are not a novelty in EU foreign policy. In the past, these groupings were generally conceived as attempts to solve the shortcomings of the collective logic on which EC/EU foreign policy was based and the ensuing lack of unified leadership. After decades of progressive Europeanisation, the Lisbon Treaty should have not only further centralised member states’ foreign policies but also filled this leadership vacuum through the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Nevertheless, informal groupings continued to steer EU approach to conflicts and crises, often by interacting with non-EU actors in institutionalised international cooperation settings without receiving a formal mandate from EU institutions and/or the other member states. How can we explain their emergence and various types in EU foreign policy?

The informal groupings considered are phenomena typical of the EU. In federal regimes and in international organizations alike, it has become a common practice for ad hoc coalitions of states to informally engage in differentiated efforts in international affairs. Nevertheless, these subnational actors do not generally engage in international settings dealing with matters under the exclusive jurisdiction of central governments, namely security-related issues.

At the same time, these informal groupings do not simply derive from the existence of overlapping international organizations in international security arrangements. They have a level of embeddedness in the EU formal institutional framework which is unprecedented in the interaction between ad hoc military coalitions and international/regional organisations. Moreover, member states participating in these informal groupings generally commit time and effort to sustaining EU policies on specific foreign policy issues in addition to those already devised by other member states and the EU as a whole.

These groups are not simply implementing branches of pre-determined EU policies. They often support, if not lead, the preparation, drawing up and evaluation of relevant EU policies on specific dossiers. Lastly, while national governments generally use ad hoc military coalitions for their immediate responses to imminent conflicts and crises, the informal groupings considered are persistent over time, as is epitomised by the informal group which has been participating in the Quint ever since 1994.

Nonetheless, to date, there is no systematic knowledge about informal groupings in EU foreign policy. Understanding their emergence and significance for EU foreign policy is particularly relevant in an international system marred by hard security concerns. This is even more so if one considers that external crises and conflicts are becoming increasingly multifaceted and transnational, and hence less solvable by EU member states individually.

My article argues that the emergence of informal groupings can be ascribed to conflicts among EU member states and the weakness of EU capacity for responding to conflicts and crises. At the same time, the article claims that the combination between the level of conflict intensity among EU member states and the EU level of capacity over time and across policy issues determines the development of specific informal groupings, and hence of specific manifestations of differentiation in relation to EU foreign policy. Kosovo, Libya and Syria represent three typical cases of the emergence and various manifestations of informal groupings.

Indeed, the Western Balkans’ Berlin Process and the P3+2 format in Libya indicate that when the member states generally agreed on a collective effort but lacked the capacities to address a specific policy issue, informal groupings have complemented the EU activities in international cooperation settings. While generating instances of combinative differentiation, they tempered the lack of effective policy co-ordination marring EU foreign policy.

At the same time, the Quint, the Berlin Process on Libya, and the International Syria Support Group show that when a high level of conflict intensity within the EU coupled with a high level of capacity, informal groupings manifested themselves as instances of cooperative differentiation in EU foreign policy. Nonetheless, when high intensity conflicts among EU member states have occurred and the EU has lacked the capacities to address specific issues, informal groupings have essentially replaced EU formal institutions. The Contact Group, the Friends of Libya Group and the Friends of Syria Group demonstrate that these groupings gave rise to forms of competitive differentiation within EU foreign policy.

One may wonder whether over time member states’ preferences for informal groups might reverse the progressive trend of centralisation of their foreign policies in the European integration process. As the informal groupings considered are an unprecedented phenomenon in both federal regimes and international organization, they inevitably raise an important theoretical challenge for the European integration of core state powers.

At first sight, these groupings seem to be positive devices rendering EU foreign policy more efficient and hence strengthening the EU stance in the international arena. Indeed, these distinctive patterns of interaction among member states may make EU foreign policy decision-making processes quicker and increase the likelihood that member states will devote their resources to achieving EU objectives in international politics.

Nonetheless, they cannot be considered a panacea for the urgent need to reform EU governance. Not only can informal groupings as they stand serve only short-term purposes but they are likely to sustain governance action in multiple segmented patterns thus hampering the overall consistency of EU foreign policy. In addition,  informal groupings are likely to decrease the already limited legitimacy of EU foreign policy. In fact, although their activities also have externalities on member states that are excluded from them, informal groupings lack mechanisms to ensure their accountability.

Maria Giulia Amadio Viceré is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute (EUI). She is the author of ‘Informal groupings as types of differentiated cooperation in EU foreign policy: the cases of Kosovo, Libya, and Syria’, which is available here.

How Putin’s Increasingly Risky Decisions Shape Russia’s Wars

When invading Ukraine in early 2022, the Putin regime failed in its goals, predictably facing massive Ukrainian and Western resistance. Did the regime simply miscalculate or is it also becoming more accepting of risk? Confirming the latter, a recent article by Jonas J. Driedger shows how increasing risk acceptance has significantly shaped Russia’s offensive wars since the mid-2000s.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, it went up against a much more formidable opponent than in 2014, when Russia had annexed Crimea and started its semi-covert war in Donbass. Back then, Ukraine had been in political turmoil, its armed forces were poorly trained and ill-equipped, virtually nobody outside the Kremlin had expected the attack, and the West struggled to respond to the speed of events.

But in 2022, Ukrainian society was united and staunchly patriotic, its armed forces well-trained and ready, and the West had threatened massive retaliation months before the invasion took place. This different reality in 2022 was easily observable and could be corroborated by a wide array of publicly available information.

So why did the Putin regime decide to attack anyway?

In a recent article Jonas J. Driedger uncovers a key component of the Russian decision: By 2022, the Russian elite had become much more willing than it previously had to accept risks for itself, the Russian state, and for Russian society. In other words: Putin and those around him are observably becoming more reckless, and this process has been going on for a while.

For example, in 2022, Russia did not seek a credible pretext, broke international agreements and predictably faced a committed international backlash from the West.

Back in 2008, Russia also invaded another neighboring state, Georgia. But it only did so after Georgian troops had shelled secessionist territory. As there were Russian troops stationed there, Russia used this attack to claim both self-defense and humanitarian intervention, minimizing international backlash following the invasion.

The Russian regime also risked much more domestic backlash in 2022 than before.

In 2022, Russia unleashed an all-out invasion with massed troops, broadcasting the event to its own population, even though polling before the invasion had shown that Russians were worried about the fates of their loved ones in the case of a war with Ukraine.

This was not the case in 2014, where the regime denied use of Russian troops and annexed Crimea through an incremental operation, allowing the regime to avoid casualties and perceptions among Russians that it had tried and failed in a military operation.

Lastly, in 2022, the regime was also more willing to accept the risk of getting bogged down in the conflict, publicly announcing that the invasion would “de-militarize” and “de-nazify” Ukraine. Committing to the goal of all-out military victory, it became entangled in a grueling war of attrition.

In sharp contrast, in 2014 the regime undertook various measures so that it would not face exactly such a scenario during the Donbass War. By outright denying its role, using secret service personnel, mercenaries, criminals, and troops without uniforms, Russia was in a much better position to change plans if the situation called for it. In 2022, when facing staunch Ukrainian resistance, the regime did not double down. Rather, it wound down its goal of a pro-Russian “New Russia” (Новороссия) on Ukrainian territory, opting to exert influence through the much smaller pseudo-independent “People’s Republics” in Donbass and Luhansk.

All these findings flow from an analysis of all military operations that the Putin regime has undertaken against other states, zeroing in on observable trade-offs between risks and war-related goals using congruence and comparative analysis on policy documents, speeches, expert literature, and various interviews with Russian, Ukrainian, and Western policymakers. The article also checks for the role of miscalculation by juxtaposing relevant information available to Russian decisionmakers with the design of the operations, concluding that the finding of increased risk acceptance is robust.

The article also contributes to other areas of research. First, it provides a template to engage and measure risk acceptance in other cases, contributing to the explanation of other historically crucial cases and the further development of theories on the various interlinkages between risk acceptance and war onset. Second, the article questions the widely held assumption that risk acceptance is a historically rare and thus theoretically negligible factor. Third, the findings tentatively corroborate arguments based on prospect theory, which stipulate that leaders are biased toward recouping or avoiding perceived losses, driving both risk acceptance and war decisions. Indeed, the Putin regime waged all of its four offensive interstate operations against neighboring states that were seemingly shifting allegiances to the West.

Various findings of the article are relevant for policymaking vis-à-vis Russia. As the article finds that the regime’s risk acceptance has grown since the mid and late 2000s, the article cautions against a sole reliance on short-term, leader-specific factors and corroborates the significance of long-term developments, such as the role of increasingly autocratic institutions within Russia, or that of growing ties between Russia’s neighbors and US-led institutions, such as NATO.

However, on a cautiously optimistic note, the article also finds even the 2022 invasion still evinces limits of Russian risk acceptance. Albeit ineffectively, the Russian regime accepted trade-offs that jeopardized apparent war goals, for example, by using fewer troops than were warranted to placate anti-draft sentiments within Russian society. Additionally, while the regime has accepted further risks during the war through the unpopular partial mobilization of late-2022, the data suggests that the Russian regime can still be deterred or possibly also bargained with.

Jonas J. Driedger is the author of “Risk acceptance and offensive war: The case of Russia under the Putin regime”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Public Use of Intelligence in Strategic Perspective

In a new article, Ofek Riemer and Daniel Sobelman study how the public use of intelligence increasingly serves strategic purposes. Disclosing intelligence poses a number of risks, which makes this trend all the more remarkable.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has been the systematic intelligence revelations of otherwise highly classified intelligence regarding Moscow’s military plans. Both in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in the months that followed, Western intelligence revelations have been unusual in their frequency, quantity and quality.

Thus, nearly two decades after the historic intelligence debacle in Iraq, the United States and Britain have been accurate in their intelligence assessments and data regarding Russia’s designs for Ukraine. The two countries have been remarkably open and specific in their intelligence revelations. These recent intelligence revelations received considerable international attention, in large part because unlike in Iraq, they actually proved to be accurate. While the scope and granularity of these intelligence revelations may have been unprecedented, the publicization of classified intelligence data is appears to be increasingly prevalent in international affairs.

This fact notwithstanding, the authorized disclosure of solid intelligence for strategic ends—as opposed to unauthorized leaks, the use of dubious intelligence, or intelligence revelation in the service of domestic-political purposes—remains understudied. The stream of Western intelligence exposures regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine is an opportunity to cast light on the “legitimate” employment of genuine and solid intelligence as a strategic instrument in international relations. When governments reveal, or threaten to reveal, intelligence in a purposeful effort to change the strategic calculations of other actors and make them act contrary to their original preferences, they engage in a strategy that we define and conceptualize as “coercive disclosure.”

The revelation of intelligence is counter-intuitive and often resented by intelligence practitioners. After all, intelligence is intuitively perceived as an asset that must be carefully guarded to provide its possessor with a comparative advantage if conflict breaks out. To make matters worse, intelligence disclosure runs the risk of compromising one’s resources and methods, potentially placing it at a disadvantage if conflict indeed breaks out. Yet intelligence disclosure is prevalent in international politics. For instance, for over a decade now, Israel has been almost systematically revealing top secret intelligence information about Hezbollah’s deployment in Lebanon. This would have been unthinkable in the past, but in today’s hyper-mediatized environment, the rules of the game seem to have changed.

The strategic use of intelligence ultimately represents actors’ perennial quest for leverage in international politics. In this respect, intelligence is essentially analogous to more traditional resources and assets that states employ to impact the strategic calculations of other actors. In other words, similar to the way in which a state can be vulnerable to another actor’s superior military or economic prowess, one can find itself vulnerable to another actor’s superior intelligence capabilities and penetration, and hence to strategic manipulation.

In this regard, it bears remembering that all actors have secrets: international politics entail compromises between one’s public image, commitments, and stated ideology, on the one hand, and one’s political interests and constraints, on the other hand. This basic feature of international politics renders actors vulnerable to manipulation. On top of that, some actors secretly engage in particularly egregious acts whose revelation could land them in serious trouble. In such cases, governments that have gained unique visibility into their opponents’ secrets can harness their intelligence in the service of influence and coercion.

Flowing from this, we argue that states can, and do, employ genuinely credible intelligence—as opposed to distorted, dubious, and erroneous intelligence—as a coercive weapon. That is, states employ their intelligence and visibility into others’ secrets in a deliberate effort to reshape their strategic calculations and constraints, without having to resort to armed force. Additionally, intelligence disclosure can be used to mobilize domestic and international audiences and make others align with a certain narrative and alter their policies accordingly. Put differently, the public revelation of intelligence could result in third-party pressure on the target of coercion.

Thus, intelligence disclosures carry the potential of preventing opponents from realizing strategic and operational goals, by disrupting their operations and by otherwise forcing them to divert resources and adjust to the fact that their secrets had been openly exposed. It can also bring indirect pressure on targets by mobilizing domestic constituencies, and it could enable the discloser to shape a coherent narrative and frame its opponents’ behavior in a certain manner.

To demonstrate the workings of coercive disclosure we investigated two recent cases in which governments purposefully leveraged solid intelligence in order to coerce opponents into shifting their policies. The first case was Saudi Arabia’s gruesome assassination of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi’s assassination made international headlines not because a journalist had been murdered in a premeditated fashion, but because the Turkish authorities possessed incriminating graphic intelligence, which, among other things, linked the Saudi Royal Court to the assassination. Such undeniable intelligence included visual evidence and audio recording of the preparations and actual implementation of the killing.

Absent such intelligence, Riyadh would have likely adhered to its initial claim that Khashoggi had left the consulate building unharmed—a claim that U.S. President Donald Trump seemed eager to accept. Leveraging its evidence, Ankara gradually coerced Saudi Arabia and President Trump to acknowledge (most of) the truth. By constantly signaling that it held further intelligence in reserve, Ankara gradually and repeatedly forced Riyadh to abandon its initial denials. Rather than simply revealing its intelligence, it turned it into coercive leverage, thereby bringing pressure on Saudi Arabia directly, but also indirectly through the United States, whose president sought to bring the affair to a quick closure.

The second episode involving coercive disclosure pertains to Israel’s still-ongoing efforts, which began in 2017, to force Hezbollah to abandon its efforts to manufacture precision-guided missiles in Lebanon. To bring international, but especially domestic pressure on Hezbollah, Israel repeatedly resorted to the publicization of high-resolution intelligence on the deployment of Hezbollah’s “precision project.” Israel used high-profile international forums, such as the United Nations General Assembly, to disclose the whereabouts of secret workshops and facilities, in an effort to bring third-party pressure on the group and disrupt its operations.

Ofek Riemer and Daniel Sobelman are the authors of “Coercive disclosure: The weaponization of public intelligence revelation in international relations”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.