Welcome to IR Theory and Practice!



This blog is intended primarily for my students, though all are welcome.The material posted here is chosen because it provides more information about issues being discussed in class and/or illustrates theoretical arguments. In addition to being tagged by subject, posts are also therefore tagged by course number. The blog also provides links to other web sites (blogs, news magazines and think-tanks) that may be of interest. The last group of links, “Perspectives: Left Right and In-Between” are for web sites that take a clear ideological stand. No source is completely “neutral” or “objective”. However, these sites self-identify as promoting a particular political or ideological agenda. Whether you agree or disagree with their particular point of view, read them critically but also generously.
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What American Credibility Myth? How and Why Reputation Matters -War on the Rocks


The concept of reputation is central to classical realist thought. States are not just judged by their capabilities but also their willingness to use them. Demonstrating resolve was therefore considered to be a key part of deterrence during the Cold War, for example. The threat of using nuclear weapons was only credible if the state and its leaders had a reputation for keeping their word. Similarly, alliances only worked, it was believed, if a state’s promise to protect its friends was reliable. If not, one’s allies would quickly look for new friends.

The issue of cost is also something to be considered when discussing reputation. Reputation was particularly important when it came to making costly or unpopular decisions. It is one thing to keep your word when it does not cost anything or if its the popular thing to do, but what about when it is not. Will a leader walk the walk when the price is “blood and treasure”?

The reputation question has been raised several times under the Obama presidency. First, he drew a line in the sand, so to speak, in Syria. He promised to intervene if the Syrian government used chemical weapons. When they did, Obama did not follow through. He allowed the Russians to broker a deal in which the chemical weapons were removed from Syria, but no punishment was levied against that Assad regime. Second, Obama struck a deal with Iran concerning the latter’s nuclear program. The problem here, Obama’s critics claim, is that undermined the US’ reputation among its allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Neither state feels it can continue to trust Washington, and the Saudi’s in particular have builyt up their military and become much more assertive in the region. Clearly they are no longer willing to trust the US to bail them out, or at least, so its argued.

The reputation argument however, is more complex. This article argues that reputation is often overstated and used for partisan rhetorical purposes, such as the criticisms levied at Obama. However it also argues that reputation should not be dismissed. Rather, context needs to be considered.

  • “…..the idea that Americans can safely discount reputation remains equally problematic. The importance of reputation varies for different countries and is most important for those that possess widespread commitments and interests, such as the United States. American leaders must worry about potential challenges in multiple theaters: Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe. Like Britain before it, the United States has the ability to concentrate its military at many points to deter aggression by, for example, Russia against the Baltics, North Korea against South Korea, China against Japan, and Iran against Israel. It cannot concentrate forces everywhere simultaneously, however. A strong reputation that deters initial challenges thus reduces the probability that the United States ends up confronting more simultaneous challenges than it can hope to manage, as Britain did as its empire dissolved.”
  • “At the same time, this conclusion implies that we should expect to see leaders vary in the importance that they attach to reputations for resolve. In an ongoing research effort, one of us found significant variations among American presidents in their concern about reputation for resolve. While President Carter resisted repeated calls from National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to fight for reputation, President Clinton repeatedly invoked reputational considerations in his decision-making during crises. In contrast, President Obama said that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.” To explain this variation in leaders’ concern for reputation for resolve, one must look beyond situational or strategic factors to focus instead on the psychological dispositions and beliefs of national leaders.”


What American Credibility Myth? How and Why Reputation Matters

Rapid Increase of Diabetes Strains Middle East’s Health Agencies -New York Times


With all of the violence and ideological strife, issues of health and poverty are often overlooked in the Middle East. They may seem mundane in comparison, but they are no less important. Thanks to Shaelee M. for pointing this article out to me.

  • “Six countries in the region are among the top 10 globally with the highest prevalence of diabetes. They include the United Arab Emirates, showing the second-highest rate in the world — behind only the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru — followed by Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
  • The International Diabetes Foundation estimates that 26.6 million adults in the Middle East and North Africa currently have diabetes, accounting for 9.3 percent of the world’s adults with the disease. The region spends $5.5 billion annually on diabetes, accounting for 14 percent of its total health care expenditure. In Qatar, expenditure is as high as $2,960 per person.
  • The figures are already worrying, but the foundation predicts worse to come. It says that over the next 20 years the number of people with diabetes in the region will almost double, reaching 51.7 million by 2030.”

Eight unprecedented hours with “Mr. Everything,” Prince Mohammed bin Salman. -Bloomberg


Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has already been discussed here, see:


However, this article, based on a lengthy interview with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 31 year old Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, provides an unusually candid look at the Kingdom’s economic problems:

  • “Saudi Arabia’s economy will probably expand 1.5 percent in 2016, the slowest pace since the global financial crisis, according to a Bloomberg survey, as government spending—the engine that powers the economy—declines for the first time in more than a decade. The state still employs two-thirds of Saudi workers, while foreigners account for nearly 80 percent of the private-sector payroll.”
  • “During the oil boom from 2010 to 2014, Saudi spending went berserk. Prior requirements that the king approve all contracts over 100 million riyals ($26.7 million) got looser and looser—first to 200 million, then to 300 million, then to 500 million, and then, Al-Sheikh says, the government suspended the rule altogether.”
  • “there was roughly between 80 to 100 billion dollars of inefficient spending” every year, about a quarter of the entire Saudi budget.”
  • “Last year there was near-panic among the prince’s advisers as they discovered Saudi Arabia was burning through its foreign reserves faster than anyone knew, with insolvency only two years away. Plummeting oil revenue had resulted in an almost $200 billion budget shortfall—a preview of a future in which the Saudis’ only viable export can no longer pay the bills, whether because of shale oil flooding the market or climate change policies. Historically, the kingdom has relied on the petroleum sector for 90 percent of the state budget, almost all its export earnings, and more than half its gross domestic product.”


For more on the state of the Saudi economy, see: Can Saudi Arabia’s bold reforms cure growing financial woes? By Michael Stephens




Shimon Peres -Various


Shimon Peres died at age 93 this week. He was one of the founding fathers of the Israel state and held virtually every key government post at one time or another, President, Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Foreign Minister and the list goes on. There are links to two articles below, one positive from the Globe and Mail, and one negative written by Robert Fisk. They are not included in an effort to produce balance. More so, they are included to provide a glimpse into the man’s complex and at times contradictory career. He has been one of Israel’s most consistent advocates for a political solution to Israel’s conflict with the Arabs and the Palestinians. He is also widely praised for his role in the 1990s peace process and he was critical of the violence that followed its failure. However, his views were ‘hawkish’ when he was young and he supported the settlement project in the 1970s. He also ordered the 1996 invasion of Southern Lebanon (Operation Grapes of Wrath) and presided over the shelling of civilians in the UN compound of Qana. Observers tend to focus on on dimension of his career or the other, but both sides were integral to who he was.

Shimon Peres, guiding hand behind Israel-PLO peace pact, dies at 93

“…the middling politician and accidental prime minister was a true champion in another arena that shaped the history of modern Israel. Mr. Peres was the guiding hand behind the historic peace agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993. And while that agreement so far has failed to lead to an independent Palestinian state and a peace treaty between it and Israel, the Oslo Accords, as it is known, remains the starting point for any two-state solution to this long-standing conflict.”

“As early as 1980, his “Gaza first” solution proposed returning the Gaza Strip to Arab control. And he had conceived a grand outline that would see the Middle East remodelled on the European Community, complete with a common market.

He also recognized that in the early 1990s, following the Gulf War, there was a real opening. In his book The New Middle East, he wrote: “We had reached one of those rare critical junctures that enable discerning statesmen to make a quantum leap in their thinking – and perhaps turn the tide of history.”…”



Shimon Peres was no peacemaker. I’ll never forget the sight of pouring blood and burning bodies at Qana

“When the world heard that Shimon Peres had died, it shouted “Peacemaker!” But when I heard that Peres was dead, I thought of blood and fire and slaughter.

I saw the results: babies torn apart, shrieking refugees, smouldering bodies. It was a place called Qana and most of the 106 bodies – half of them children – now lie beneath the UN camp where they were torn to pieces by Israeli shells in 1996. I had been on a UN aid convoy just outside the south Lebanese village. Those shells swished right over our heads and into the refugees packed below us. It lasted for 17 minutes.

Shimon Peres, standing for election as Israel’s prime minister – a post he inherited when his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated – decided to increase his military credentials before polling day by assaulting Lebanon. The joint Nobel Peace Prize holder used as an excuse the firing of Katyusha rockets over the Lebanese border by the Hezbollah. In fact, their rockets were retaliation for the killing of a small Lebanese boy by a booby-trap bomb they suspected had been left by an Israeli patrol. It mattered not.”


Syria ceasefire deal explained -al Jazeera


Here is a basic rundown of the September 2016 ceasefire deal in the Syrian conflict, courtesy of Al Jazeera:

  • “A nationwide ceasefire by Assad’s forces and the US-backed opposition is set to begin across Syria at sundown on Monday.
  • That sets off a seven-day period that will allow for humanitarian aid and civilian traffic into Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which has faced a recent onslaught.
  • Fighting forces are to also pull back from the Castello Road, a key thoroughfare and access route into Aleppo, and create a “demilitarised zone” around it.
  • Also on Monday, the US and Russia will begin preparations for the creation of a Joint Implementation Centre that will involve information sharing needed to define areas controlled by the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) and opposition groups in areas “of active hostilities”.
  • The centre is expected to be established a week later, and is to launch a broader effort towards delineating other territories in control of various groups.
  • As part of the arrangement, Russia is expected to keep Syrian air force planes from bombing areas controlled by the opposition. The US has committed to help weaken Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that has intermingled with the US-backed opposition in several places.
  • A resumption of political dialogue between the government and opposition under UN mediation, which was halted amid an upsurge in fighting in April, will be sought over the longer term.”

For more details on the deal see: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/syria-ceasefire-deal-explained-160910111132967.html

The Surprising Science of Cease-Fires: Even Failures Can Help Peace -1New York Times


No one expects the current ceasefire in Syria to last very long or provide a long-term solution to the conflict. However this article suggests that ceasefires agreements like the present one are still important:

  • “One of the best predictors of a peace agreement’s success is simply whether the parties had prior agreements, even if those earlier cease-fires failed. Not even a war’s duration or its intensity can so reliably predict a peace deal’s outcome. Neither does the poverty or ethnic diversity of the combatants.”

Ceasefires, even if they don’t last can create what the article refers to as “virtuous cycles”, wherein the parties build a degree of trust by making reciprocal concessions. If transgressions are also punished, they also learn that cheating on agreements is counter-productive. Together, these two dynamics shape the preferences of the parties making a lasting settlement more likely.

Of course, if handled poorly, the opposite lessons may be learned. If defection is widespread and inconsistently punished, then the parties learn that cooperation does not pay and cheating may actually pay-off. This result can be thought of as a “vicious cycle”.

Two points come to my while reading this article. First, the logic is very consistent with rational choice/game theory. The parties are rational actors responding to the contingencies in their environment and playing iterated games is extremely important. Second, There may be some issues with causality here. Perhaps settlements are not more likely because there are more ceasefire agreements, but instead ceasefire agreements are more likely because the conflict is winding down. If this argument is true, then it is the wider conditions in the conflict that are driving events, including the number of ceasefires and whether or not they create virtuous cycles or viscous cycles.