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Skripal poisoning: Time for an information arbiter?

15 Mar

One of the most notable aspects of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal poisoning case is that hard information is restricted to a very small group of professionals and elites. The list of people who know what actually happened is small. Most of these people probably only know part of the story. The exact identity of the chemical involved, for example, will be privy only to a small group of scientists with the skills and equipment to conduct an analysis. They will know that part of the story but probably not much else. Similarly the police and intelligence services, and some in the media, will know part of the story. A small circle of political figures might try to piece together the available evidence but their information is imperfect.

A near constant thread through many conflict, and the decision-making processes that lead to and maintain conflicts, is imperfect knowledge. Much conflict is based on miscommunication and poor signalling. The ‘security dilemma’ (or the vicious circle of security precautions that spark security precautions by the other side) is based on a misreading of signals. There are strong pre-existing biases between Russia and the UK (and Russian has ‘form’ on this issue through the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko) so the misreading of signals is likely to expect the worst from the other side. Moreover, as we know many actors work hard to engage in disinformation (‘fake news’ is by no means a new phenomena).

What seems to be missing from all of this is an information arbiter – a neutral body that can look at evidence and adjudicate on what happened and who might be responsible. At the moment information is held, withheld and sought by interested parties who are necessarily political. Moreover, this issue has turned into one of national bravado – with the UK under pressure to look tough and Russia compelled to deny responsibility but – at the same time – remind the world that it is a sovereign nation that won’t be pushed around. The domestic ‘predicaments’ of both governments are important here too. Russia has an election and the UK … well … anything that helps Theresa May look tough (or even competent) in the Brexit morass is a bonus.

The lack of an information arbiter – perhaps some truly independent international and transnational body that has full cooperation from governments – means that what we see is a speculation bonanza. I have lost count of the number of radio interviews I have heard from people who don’t know what happened. Instead most of them recycle bias and assumptions.

There might be good reason why some authorities don’t want to share information (it may prejudice a trial or jeopardise informants) but that would not prevent an information arbiter that works on the basis of confidentiality. At the moment we have one government’s word against that or another. And we are left to fill in the blanks with our biases rather than evidence.


Fox News and the permanent election

28 Dec

It is not enough to rail against Trump’s America. It is better to understand it, or to try to understand it. As an analytical tool, I cannot recommend highly enough a daily look at Fox News. Three tropes shine through from my daily browsing and they tell us a lot about what brought Trump to power – and his prospects for re-election.

The first trope is that there is a sense of a permanent campaign by Trump, Republicans and the American Right. Rather than portraying Trump as a governing incumbent, he is depicted as an outsider, with his back to the wall. Central to this permanent electioneering (a campaign mightily endorsed by Fox) is a strategy to keep former President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton in the news. On many days, Obama and Clinton are the top news story on Fox, and they are rarely out of the top three news stories. They are never portrayed in a flattering way and the photo editors must work hard to find such poor pictures of their subjects. The strategy, one presumes, is to give the impression that Obama and Clinton are still in power and Trump is an outsider fighting the good fight from beyond Washington. The sense of a permanent campaign is aided by the US political system in which there are multiple elections (primaries and multi-party elections). Yet even local elections receive national prominence.

A second trope that is a permanent fixture on the Fox News website can be described as ‘culture war’. In particular this takes the form of “outrage” at a perceived chipping away at mainstream American values (for mainstream American values read: “white nominally Christian values”). Much of the outrage is, presumably, manufactured by editors and sub-editors as it would seem difficult to maintain such a level of outrage over the longer term. One of the bogeymen (and women) of the culture war are academics – usually those in the humanities who are portrayed as being disrespectful and un-American. In UK terms, US academics are guilty of “political correctness gone mad”. Thus, we have stories like ‘Professor claims “jingle bells” is rooted in racism’ or opinion pieces (by a “Conservative Patriot” columnist ) decrying a college course on “Queering God”.

The third trope in the Fox news cycle is unwavering support for the US military and ‘law enforcement’. Indeed, a number of tricky news issues (most notably structural racism in the US as manifested police killings and victimisation of African Americans) are often reported through a national security/law and order lens. So, for example, rather than reporting an issue in terms of race and racism, it might be reported in terms of endangering police officers.

The effect of this management (indeed manufacture) of the news is that it does much to set the tone for political debates. Opponents are classified and categorised. This terms such as ‘liberals’, ‘the left’, and ‘Dems’ are used in relation to a very wide range of individuals and groups – many of which would not necessarily identify with those labels.

Having regularly read the Fox News website for a number of years, it would seem as though the news is funneled into ready-made silos that keep alive particular narratives. It is not a case of events making the news. Rather, essentially nationalist, conservative and neo-liberal narratives use events as a cladding. A particularly worrying effect of the Fox News approach (and doubtless the approaches of other news outlets that are stridently ideological) is that there is very little room for dissent and debate. A real world of equivocation and ambivalence is morphed into a world of black and white and straight lines. A perusal of the comments on Fox News stories is often a frightening experience given the level of invective used against perceived opponents. Many of the comments are overtly racist and sectarian and apparently un-moderated by the news site.

These comments on Fox News hardly amount to a scientific analysis. It is worth noting that all media contains bias and that fox News is not alone on the right. But it is by far the most popular US news channel. It is also very profitable.

So Trump for 2020? Yep.

Brexit and Borders

28 Nov

There is a lot of noise about Brexit and the UK-Irish land border. It is not helped by injudicious comments by grand-standing politicians. Pro-Brexit Labour MP’s Kate Hoey’s Trumpian remark that the Irish government would have to pay for any border wall was probably the most injudicious of all. But if we stand back and take a look at the situation then a few things become clear.

The first is that this will be a hard Brexit. By its very nature the EU is a members’ only club. Forms of associate membership are available but the key dividing line is whether you are a member or not. The act of leaving the club, and of leaving a club whose fundamental aim is the standardisation of rules (and values) across member states, ensures a hard Brexit.

The second point that is emerging from behind the political noise is that the technical negotiations are a long way off finding viable solutions for the border issue. The UK-Ireland land border – like all borders – is a political creation. Crossing the border is an everyday activity for many people who live along the border (they cross to fill the car up with diesel, go to college, go to work, go to see their relatives). Many people cross the border multiple times a day. In order for that to continue to happen a seamless system has to be in place. Such a system will probably rely on technology (perhaps a smart pass system like in toll roads or London’s congestion zone). But the technical details, let along the infrastructure of cameras and the crucial detail of who pays for and polices this) have yet to reach the feasibility study phase. Quite simply a smart pass border relies on smart politicians to mandate very smart technocrats to work on this. So far, the politicians are still grandstanding.

The third point is that Northern Ireland will be different in terms of both the UK and EU contexts. The point is important and matters a great deal to Northern Ireland’s unionists. For them, it is crucial that Northern Ireland remains within the UK and its people have the same protections as everyone else in the UK. This is a bit of a fiction. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement already awarded Northern Ireland special status on top of its place in the UK. Citizens in Northern Ireland have the right to dual citizenship (British, Irish or both), and Northern Ireland’s position in the UK is conditional on people actually wanting it to remain in the UK. The 1998 Agreement authorises a referendum on the constitutional issue.

Whatever the outcome of the EU-Ireland-UK negotiations on the UK-Ireland land border it is clear that Northern Ireland will be different from other EU-non-EU land borders. We have never had a situation in which a member state leaves the EU – a member states that contains many citizens with everyday links across that border. That will require all sorts of deviations from the normal.

It is worth remembering that communities along the border have lived with political boundaries for generations. They have found ways to subvert political borders through everyday activities of trade, love, family and culture. Those ‘subversions’ will continue. At the height of the Troubles, the British military had a chain of watchtowers and checkpoints along the border. They also blew up many roads to make sure that people only crossed the border along designated routes. Communities made their own roads across the border in order to avoid the checkpoints and the hassle. It is a useful reminder that people can be ingenious in finding ways to subvert political boundaries.

A final point is that there are few countries that can match the UK-Irish inter-governmental relationship. Attempts to find a way out of the Troubles from the mid-1980s onwards have meant that generations of civil servants have developed close working relationships. These reached a zenith in the mid to late-1990s and early 2000s as the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated and bedded down. Many of the key players have retired and a few have died. But there is still a good institutional memory in permanent government to allow imaginative solutions to be found. The political timetable (possible election in Ireland and a precarious UK government) and grandstanding politicians don’t seem to help matters.

Just published. Email me if you would like a pdf copy

4 Oct

Pamina Firchow and Roger Mac Ginty, “Including hard-to-access populations using mobile phone surveys and participatory indicators’ Sociological Methods and Research

One of the main obstacles for survey researchers—especially those conducting surveys in difficult contexts such as postconflict areas—is accessing respondents. In order to address this problem, this article draws on an ongoing research project to reflect on the utility of mobile phones to connect with hard-to-access populations in conflict affected, low-income countries. It considers the strengths and weaknesses of a number of different mobile phone survey modes. The article goes a step further and discusses how (potential) survey respondents can be included in the survey design process thereby increasing the relevance of the research to them and hopefully encouraging them to participate. We conclude by considering the issue of “good enough” methodologies, or the need to balance methodological rigor with an understanding of the exigencies of suboptimal research contexts.


Donald Trump’s false proclamation of the end of liberal internationalism

23 Aug

Donald Trump’ s August 2017 speech on Afghan and South Asian policy was quite remarkable in its bellicose tone. In recent history at least, many foreign policy speeches are heavily coded with diplomatic phraseology in which threats and leverage are muted. As we have come to expect with Trump, the language was that of a barroom brawl. Whether ‘we know who we are and what we are fighting for’, or references to American ‘warriors’ and American ‘warfighters’, this was a speech that made explicit that the US would deploy military power to achieve its aims. It defined US foreign policy as ‘principled realism’, with the principle being (as far as I can work out) that the US is top-dog and fights to win.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable passages of the speech was its step back from liberal internationalism, or the notion that by spreading liberalism (democracy, trade, rule of law, rights) within and between states will decrease conflict. This notion of the liberal peace (sometimes called the democratic peace) has been a mainstay of peacebuilding and peace support interventions and policies for the last thirty years (although it has a much longer historical pedigree). The finest exposition of liberal internationalism was probably Tony Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech in which he extolled the virtues of righteous intervention against despots, of the liberating potential of trade, and of the need for a community of nations to intervene for the greater good. The ‘liberal peace’ has been manifest in dozens of countries (former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guatemala, Cambodia, Bougainville etc.) as international actors have introduced and supported good governance, democratisation and a host of reforms.

Crucially, the US – along with the UK, EU and major international institutions like the World Bank – have been mainstays of this liberal peace. Whether through military force, military advisers, and billions of dollars in assistance and loans, the US has played a key role in spreading the liberal peace and proselytising the virtues of democracy, accountability and liberalism. Obviously there have been bumps along the road, but there has been a good deal of consistency of messaging (if not practice). And then Trump comes along and signals a retreat from liberal internationalism:

“But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.”

“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

“I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”

According to these quotations, the US is no longer interested in democratisation and nation-building (more correctly statebuilding) – both key pillars of the liberal peace. The notion and practice of the liberal peace depends on viable and accountable institutions. Without them the liberal peace does not make sense.

Clearly Trump was speaking – in part – to a domestic audience, many of whom will lap up lines about tough love overseas and in order to protect the folks at home. But the idea that you can walk away from the liberal peace is crazy for a state like the US. Notions and practices of liberal internationalism are hard-wired into development and peacebuilding support. If the Trump White House wants any sensible engagement with the rest of the world it is going to have to follow a liberal internationalist path in some respects – otherwise international engagement grinds to a halt.

Trump’s speech demands or hints at the following expectations from overseas clients:

Accountable institutions (“not a blank check”)
Belief in individual rights (“it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership”)
Reform of institutions (“I am a problem-solver”, “we will learn from history”)
Free trade (lots of references to economic development and trade)
Liberal optimism (“allow our children to live better and safer lives”)

All of these are in the liberal internationalist playbook. They all can find intellectual routes in liberalism.

And the odd thing is, even Trump’s speech – for all of its talk about warfighting and realism – also mentions partnership and common interests. He knows – or more likely the more intelligent of his advisors know – that tough talk and military might can only go so far.

Even though Trump’s rhetoric disavows many of the key points of liberal internationalism, he will find that he cannot escape it.

New journal article from me. Email me if you would like a pdf copy

3 Aug

Roger Mac Ginty (2017) “Everyday Social Practices and Boundary-Making in Deeply Divided Societies”, Civil Wars


Based on empirical evidence and conceptual scoping, this article builds a typology of everyday social practices in a deeply divided society. The typology distinguishes between moderating and non-moderating practices relating to boundaries. Based on a case study of contemporary Lebanon, it describes how boundary making and maintaining are the stuff of everyday life in deeply divided societies. But it also describes how the society under study also contains much evidence of fluidity and permeability in relation to boundaries. Many of these instances of boundary crossing do not threaten the meta politico-religious boundary, but they do compel us to re-evaluate views of deeply divided societies as comprised of homogenous and uncompromising blocs.

The journal article here but it is hidden behind a paywall.


Two new additions to my Rethinking Political Violence book series.

4 Jul