Thursday, August 25, 2016

Welcome to the Fall 2016 Semester

Welcome to the revived IR Blog! I hope the Fall 2016 semester is starting out well for everyone.

My name is Professor Lai and I am the Director of Undergraduate Studies for this academic year and I look forward to working with all of you. Please contact me if you have any questions about the major, Department, careers, etc.

In the coming weeks, faculty from the Political Science Department, Martha Kirby, and our undergraduate organizations will be blogging on here about a variety of topics. We will announce when blog posts are made by email and on our Facebook page.

If you have not already, please 

If you have not already done so, please take the survey of our majors at

Completing the survey enters you into a drawing to win one of two $30 Chipotle gift cards. We will hold the drawing on September 2nd.

Finally, I just wanted to let you know what career workshops we are going to do this semester.

Participants will include:

Collins Byrd, Assistant Dean of Enrollment Management

Professor Tim Hagle, Associate Professor in the Political Science Department

Alexandra Stecker, BA Political Science 2016, 1L at Iowa Law School

Elaine Luthens, BA Political Science 2014, 3L at Iowa Law School, Senior Administrative Editor Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice

Abigail Molitor, BA Political Science 2012, JD 2016 University of Chicago, Law Clerk US Court of Appeals, Associate at Sidley Austin LLP

If you have not already, RSVP for this workshop here

The second is

Participants will include

Ambassador Ron McMullen, Lecturer Political Science Department

Jeff Kueter, President UI Alumni Association and Former President George C Marshall Institute

Mackenzie Borders, Associate Intelligence Analyst, Principal Financial Group

Please RSVP for this workshop here

More information TBA


Thursday, May 23, 2013

New Course for Fall 2013

We have just added a new course for Fall 2013. It is 30:145 War in the Muslim World

Here is a brief course description:
"The course explores the origins and the evolution of wars in the Muslim World with primary focus on the current wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Iraq. Topics include ethnic and religious conflicts; strategies and ideologies of insurgent groups; military tactics; international intervention; the economics of war; shadow governments; and institutions of governance."

The class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:30-1:45 pm in E105 AJB.

It can meet the requirements of both the Conflict and Foreign Policy and Regional Politics and Relationships Tracks.

It is taught by Professor Vicki Hesli

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What should we do about China?

In the great economic super bowl, China and the United States are competing. The Chinese team is lined up and ready to charge. The U.S. teammates are fighting with each other. This is the story told by the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-Winning Cartoonist Matt Wuerker (POLITICO).


Currently, the U.S. is the largest economy in the world, followed by China. If the size of the U.S. economy is 100, China’s is at 53 in 2012.

It is common knowledge that Chinese economy has been growing fast in the past three decades. So the question is whether and when China will surpass the U.S. and become the largest economy.

In 2012, the U.S. economy grew 2.2% and China grew 7.8%. If one overestimates the U.S. growth and underestimates Chinese growth and sets the future rates at 3% for the U.S. and 6% for China, China will overtake the U.S. as the number one economy around 2035. Note that this is a conservative estimate and it can happen sooner.

 The above political cartoon suggests that there is also a systemic reason for China to outdo the U.S. China’s authoritarian political system makes its leadership possible to focus on economic development, even at the cost of the environment, income inequality, and human rights. In the U.S., democracy can mean slow and inefficient decision making.

Of course, China’s per capita GDP is only at 1/10 of the U.S. and it will take China forever to catch up.

But if national power can be measured at least in part by total GDP, China will become an even more significant player in international politics, both substantively and psychologically.

There are two ways to face China’s rise: prevention or integration. Preventing China’s rise by political name calling, economic sanctions and military power will backfire because it will trigger Chinese ultra-nationalism, make China feel insecure, and focus on growth even more.

Accepting China as a legitimate player in world politics will be a better approach, even it means China may not always play the game by our rules.

Professor Tang will be teaching 30:148 Government and Politics of China this Fall 2013 

Monday, April 29, 2013

One Toe over the Red Line? Why Assad is (probably) using chemical weapons in Syria

Posted by Assistant Professor Alyssa Prorok

Two weeks ago, Britain and France sent letters to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, claiming to have credible evidence that the Syrian regime, led by President Bashir al-Assad, has used small amounts of chemical weapons multiple times since December in its fight against rebel groups in the country.  The British and French governments say soil samples smuggled out of the country, as well as witness accounts and opposition sources, indicate that the Assad regime has used a nerve agent – possibly sarin gas – in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus.  

The U.S. response to these charges has been measured.  Last Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said “suspicions are one thing; evidence is another”, while director of national intelligence James Clapper indicated that allegations of chemical weapons use were still being evaluated.  By Thursday, however, a White House letter to Congressional leaders indicated that US intelligence agencies believe, with varying degrees of certainty, that the Assad government has used chemical weapons on a limited scale.

This latest development in the two-year-old Syrian civil war, which has claimed at least 70,000 lives and threatens to destabilize the region, is significant because of its potential international consequences.  Last August, President Obama called the potential use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime a ‘game changer’, indicating that the deployment of these substances, banned by international law, could prompt more active U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict.  This warning to the Assad regime not to cross the chemical weapons ‘red line’ was repeated by the U.S. and several allies in early December, when the Syrian military began moving weapons stockpiles, possibly in preparation for their use. 

Given these repeated warnings by the U.S. and her allies, recent evidence suggesting that Assad has, in fact, deployed chemical weapons against civilian populations in Syria is surprising.  Why would Assad use chemical weapons, knowing that such tactics may galvanize international opponents of his regime and, in particular, spur American intervention?

While much has been made in the media of American and international pressures on the Assad regime, the domestic situation in Syria is likely the embattled leader’s most immediate concern.  The government’s position is tenuous.  Rebel forces have slowly gained control over large swaths of Syrian territory, particularly in and around Aleppo, and are challenging government forces near Damascus.  In addition, greater flows of arms, equipment, and training to rebel fighters from some Arab governments and Turkey ensure that rebel forces will not be easily defeated.  Finally, only a minority of the Syrian population supports the regime, ensuring that Assad will need to maintain a strong, authoritarian hold on power and cannot risk political liberalization.

These factors, taken together, may explain Assad’s use of chemical attacks.  In my own research, I find that leaders’ fear of punishment (i.e. loss of political power, exile, imprisonment, or even death) influences their wartime decisions.  Assad, facing a largely hostile domestic populace, needs a decisive victory not only to maintain political power, but, more importantly, to ensure his own and his family’s physical security.  And Assad may have determined that resorting to extreme measures, such as the use of chemical weapons, is his best shot at quelling the rebellion and bringing contested territory back under his control.  Research by Stathis Kalyvas suggests that indiscriminate violence is most likely to be used by combatant groups in contested areas, where government forces have little means of gathering high quality intelligence about where opposition forces are located.  Evidence of potential chemical weapons use in Homs, Aleppo, and the outskirts of Damascus may represent an escalation of tactics in an already brutal regime’s attempt to push back against rebel forces and regain control over Syrian territory.

Finally, Assad may have calculated, rightfully, that Obama’s deterrent threat is non-credible.  Scholars have long noted the difficulties in achieving effective deterrence, and this situation is particularly rife with pitfalls and complications.  Obama provided no technical definition of his red line, stating simply that movement or use of a ‘whole bunch’ of chemical weapons would be a game changer.  Assad, therefore, may be testing the waters, deploying a small amount of his arsenal as a way to gauge international reactions.  Additionally, Assad may have calculated that Obama wants to stay out of Syria as much as Assad wants him to stay out.  The administration has been hesitant to arm rebels, out of fear that weapons will end up in the hands of extremist elements linked to al-Qaida within the factionalized opposition movement.  The strengthening of these elements over recent months compounds this fear for the Obama administration.  Obama is also highly sensitive to the idea of another Iraq.  The administration is treading carefully at this point, making clear that while there is evidence suggestive of chemical weapons use, there must be clear evidence of where and when they were used, and most importantly, by who.  As analysts note, these determinations may be nearly impossible to make, a fact which is likely not lost on Assad.   

Given the Assad regime’s tenuous hold on power and the very real, very severe threat he faces should he lose power, Assad may have simply determined that sticking a toe over Obama’s ‘red line’ is his best option.  If it helps him push back rebel forces, regain territory, or reconsolidate control, its benefits may outweigh the relatively ambiguous threats issued by a U.S. administration facing a variety of incentives of its own to avoid direction involvement in the Syrian quagmire.
We’ll discuss the Syrian civil war in my Fall 2013 class 30:178 The Causes, Consequences, and Management of Civil War, and will examine this interplay between domestic and international influences on state behavior in my Fall 2013 course on 30:169:001 Domestic Politics and International Relations

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fall 2013 IR Major Courses

For Fall 2013, here are courses that are part of the IR major

Required Courses
30:060 Introduction to International Relations

30:165 International Conflict

016:003 Western Civilization III

030:100 Understanding Political Research

Conflict and Foreign Policy

Required of this Track
30:061 Introduction to American Foreign Policy

Other courses in the Track
30:146 Russian Foreign Policy
30:168 Politics of Terrorism
30:169:001 Problems in IR: Domestic Politics and IR
30:169:002 Problems in IR: National Security Policy
30:178 Causes, Consequences, Management of Civil War
16A:153 US in a World at War

International Business and Economic Relations
Two of Three Required
06e:001 Intro to Microeconomics
06e:002 Principles of Macroeconomics
044:030 The Global Economy

Other Courses in Track
030:167 Politics and the Multinational Enterprise
06e:125 Global Economics and Business
06e:129 Economic Growth and Development
06f:130 International Finance
06j:146 International Business Environment
06m:151 International Marketing

Regional Politics and Relationships
Required Course
030:045 Introduction to Comparative Politics

Other courses:
030:043 Intro to Politics in the Muslim World
030:144 Latin American Politics
030:146 Russian Foreign Policy
030:148 Government and Politics of China
30:183 Honors Seminar in Comparative Politics
016:005   (HIST:2602)    Civilizations of Asia: China (or 039:055)   
016:007   (HIST:2606)    Civilizations of Asia: South Asia (or 039:057) 
016:008   (HIST:2608)    Civilizations of Africa
016:023   (HIST:1008)    Issues in European Politics and Society
16E:152   (HIST:4486)   Modern Britain: 20th Century
16W:106  (HIST:4501)   Society and Revolution in Cuba
16W:153  (HIST:4815)   Topics in the Modern Middle East
16W:198  (HIST:4655)   China Since 1927 (or 039:196)

Transnational Politics
030:155  (POLI:3509)     International Courts: The Intersection of Law & Politics
044:003  (GEOG:1020)   Global Environment
044:019  (GEOG:1070)   Contemporary Environmental Issues
044:131  (GEOG:3110)   Geography of Health 152:131
044:177  (GEOG:4770)   Environmental Justice
06E:113  (ECON:3180)   Health Economics (Prereqs- 06E:001 & 06E:002)
152:111  (GHS:5210)     International Health (or 173:111 / 175:111)
152:120  (GHS:4600)     Global Health and Human Rights
152:138  (GHS:4162)     History of Global Health (or 16W:138) 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Boston Marathon Bombing and the Threat of Self-Starters

Posted by Lecturer Nicholas Grossman

Shortly after the explosions at the Boston Marathon, the question arose whether the bombings constituted terrorism.  This is not semantic.  To prevent something, it is essential to understand it, and accurately distinguishing terrorism from other types of violence aides the development of counter-strategies.  Additionally, defining a violent action as terrorism carries legal implications—the charges and associated penalties are harsher, the rules on interrogation looser—and leads to greater involvement from national agencies, such as the FBI and NSA.

 Terrorism is political violence against non-combatants by relatively weak actors.  Government oppression and military action can be terrifying, and often kill far more people than any terrorist attack, but require more resources than any terrorist could hope to control.  Violence against active soldiers, such as an improvised explosive device targeting an American patrol in Afghanistan, is an act of war, and has a different effect on the public consciousness.  It's more expected, more “normal,” so it's less frightening to outside observers.  Criminal violence, such as a robbery or murder, is undertaken for personal reasons, including enrichment or revenge.  Gangsters consider themselves businessmen, but terrorists see themselves as “freedom fighters,” struggling against the odds on behalf of a noble cause, and they design their attacks to have an impact beyond the suffering of the immediate victims.

Even before the suspects were identified, the Boston bombing appeared political because of the choice to attack such a public target.  Police perform security sweeps before the start of public races, and maintain a large presence throughout, which means it would be easier to attack “softer” targets, such as train stations, shopping malls, or schools.  But that would garner less attention, provide fewer lasting images.  The Boston Marathon is one of the biggest in the world, and few places have more cameras trained on them than the finish line of a major global race.  The bombers surely knew that the world would be watching.

That also proved their undoing.  The area around the finish line was covered in cameras.  Media photographers, official race cameras, spectators' cell phones, and store security cameras provided hundreds of hours of videos to FBI and police investigators, who spotted two men that entered the area with large backpacks and left without them.  After accumulating more video evidence, the FBI released photographs of the two suspects, later identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, around 6:00PM on April 18th, three days after the attack.  This seems to have sent them into a panic.  In the next eight hours, the two suspects killed an MIT campus officer, carjacked an SUV, and engaged police in a firefight that killed 26-year old Tamerlan.  Around 8:45PM the next day, acting on a tip from a homeowner who noticed blood on his boat, police arrested 19-year old Dzhokar.  (See a timeline of events here).

This apparent lack of preparation for the possibility that law enforcement would identify them is not the only indication that the Tsarnaev brothers were amateurs.  No group claimed responsibility for the marathon bombing, and the Pakistani Taliban even issued a statement denying involvement.  Since terrorist groups believe their actions are justified, they often publicly admit responsibility for an attack, and use the ensuing attention to explain their grievances.  Osama bin Laden gave multiple speeches defending al Qaeda's attacks against the United States as self-defense responses to America's “injustices” in the Middle East and central Asia, asking in 2004 for the world to consider “why we didn't attack Sweden.” 

 The lack of any public claim of responsibility suggested that the Boston bombers were self-starters.  Rather than belonging to a terrorist group, which usually have media arms and public relations strategies, the Tsarnaevs sympathized with a cause, but took the initiative themselves.  In 2011, Russian intelligence warned the FBI that Tamerlan “was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010.”  The FBI, however, investigated the elder Tsarnaev, interviewed him and his family, and determined that he was not a member of a terrorist group and had not engaged in any terrorist activity.  More information may come to light revealing that Tamerlan was in contact with an extremist group, perhaps in Chechnya or Dagestan, but the currently available evidence strongly indicates that he and his brother did not act at the direction of others.

 This puts the Tsarnaevs in a category with Faisal Shahzad, who unsuccessfully attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, and Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 in the Fort Hood shooting in 2009.  These individuals belong to the small minority of the world's billion-plus Muslims who believe Islam is under attack by the West, and that violence against the United States and its allies is the proper response.  They often communicate online, discussing politics and religion, and sharing tactics.  For example, the pressure cooker bombs used by the Tsarnaevs followed a simple, commonly used design, which was featured in al Qaeda's Inspire magazine. 

Terrorist groups recruit, fund-raise, and spread propaganda semi-publicly, which helps intelligence agencies track their activity.  However, non-members who sympathize with their political positions are harder to monitor.  Most never commit violence, and the few who do are difficult to anticipate.

Unfortunately, it is likely that some self-starters will surprise us with attacks of similar scale in the future.

(We'll discuss self-starters and other issues pertaining to 21st century terrorism in The Politics of Terrorism class that I'll be teaching this fall).
** Nicholas Grossman will also be teaching a class on US National Security Policy in the Fall.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What to do about North Korea?

Posted by Professor John Conybeare

For weeks North Korea (NK) has been escalating its rhetoric of nuclear threats, but the world responds with mockery.  Even in China, blogs refer to Kim Jong Un as “King Fatty the 3rd.”  Yet we do not mock Iran, and take its nuclear ambitions far more seriously than we do NK’s threats to use the nuclear weapons it already has.  The US has even threatened war to prevent Iran acquiring the capabilities that NK currently possesses; and Professor Lai’s recent posting on this blog notes that Americans are more willing to accept the use of force against Iran than they are with respect to NK. Why the different views?  One difference is that NK’s threats are almost exclusively directed against the US, threats that we know NK is currently not capable of carrying out (e.g., turning Colorado Springs into a “sea of fire”).  Iran does not make such threats against the US, and indeed claims it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons.  We dismiss NK leaders as clownish purveyors of “cheap talk,” but when Iran does make threats (such as in response to a hypothetical Israeli attack), we take such threats very seriously.  Aside from NK’s inability to attack the US mainland (US bases in Asia are another matter), we assume China could and will restrain NK from instigating any action that would result in prolonged military hostilities.  Pretending to be “irrational” can bring some bargaining advantages, but only if you do not employ the tactic too often, as it depreciates rapidly.  NK leaders have used the tactic so frequently that it actually reduces their credibility and makes them objects of ridicule.

This crisis will end, like all the others.  NK will claim that a US invasion has been deterred, and life will go back to normal.  Yet NK is unlikely to get what it wants: one-on-one talks with the US as an “equal” (i.e., outside of the established five power framework of talks, the only forum within which the US says it will talk to NK) and a resumption of food aid.  Sooner or later, the NK leadership will feel compelled, for reasons of resource shortage or internal faction fighting, to start another confrontation with the claim that the US is (again!) about to attack NK.  It will once again demand “respect” and bribes.  Is there another path for the powers that must deal with NK, other than sighing and rolling the eyes?  Perhaps.

Although NK leaders are undoubtedly motivated primarily by the desire to remain in power, the claim of an imminent US attack is the public rationale for their periodic eruptions into blistering threats.  Why not just withdraw all US forces from South Korea?   Why are they still there six decades after the Korean War?   The South Korean (SK) military is perfectly capable of defending SK against a ground invasion by NK, and of responding to lesser conventional incursions.  What does the US military presence add? A nuclear retaliatory threat?  If that is the case, the US could carry out nuclear (and some conventional) retaliation without any deployment of forces within SK.  The functions served by US forces in SK are to provide NK with an excuse to have its tantrums, China an excuse to continue to keep the regime alive with resources, and a guarantee of US casualties if war breaks out (does SK distrust the US so much that it needs this assurance?).  Some observers believe that US forces are really in SK to contain China, a plausible conjecture, though it is unclear how US forces in SK could do this in the event of, for example, a China-Japan conflict over ocean resources.

Here is a proposal: the US should withdraw all of its forces from SK, and Secretary of State Kerry should negotiate an agreement with China whereby they would jointly guarantee NK and SK from invasion by the other.  Although there could be reliability issues in such an agreement (would China intervene to stop NK if it attacked SK?), it should be possible to frame an agreement that would work to assure both halves of Korea that their borders are secure.  Deprived of its claim of a US invasion threat, what would NK do? Would it escalate threats against SK, or Japan, or China, claiming they are acting on behalf of the US?  Such threats would lack credibility. NK is like a honey bee: it knows that it can sting once, and then it would die.  Its leaders do not appear to have a martyr syndrome, and despite their habitual “brinkmanship” tactics, they are not irrational.  The person who accosts you in the street, points a gun at his head and threatens to kill himself if he does not get a payment, is unlikely to get the outcome he desires.  Perhaps NK would then quietly go the way of East Germany, as its leaders discover that they are no longer able to hold the population in subjection with the rallying cry of a US attack.  Internal factions might become more politically important, some of these factions could perceive change to be in their long term interests, and the regime might crumble from within.  The ethnic homogeneity of Korea would make it hard for the regime to stay in power by pitting subsections of the population against each other, as is the case with Syria.