What does my research contribute to our understanding of the Hong Kong protests?

Did Xi Jinping miscalculate by not allowing free elections in Hong Kong? We cannot know whether the Chinese leadership expected protests of this magnitude, although a large pro-democracy demonstration prior to the controversial decision was a powerful warning. The authorities in Beijing may believe they have no choice other than to deny free elections in Hong Kong: the dictator of a divided country risks too much by allowing a democracy to thrive beside him, providing citizens with a stark contrast to his oppressive regime.

Read more of my argument on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

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Why Do the Troubles of Ukraine Continue?

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine shows no signs of ending. Today the Ukrainian army used limited force after pro-Russian separatist gunmen had seized control of administrative buildings in numerous cities. These local militiamen were in all likelihood aided materially and inspirationally by the Putin regime. Here is why according to Maria Snegovaya and me.

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Timothy Snyder on Ukraine

One puzzle about Moscow’s intervention in Crimea is how it helps Putin achieve whatever he wants to achieve. Yale historian Timothy Snyder argues that intervention would lead to a nationalist blacklash in Kiev, justifying Putin’s war as a result of that war:

Propaganda is thus not a flawed description, but a script for action. If we consider Putin’s propaganda in these Soviet terms, we see that the invasion of Crimea was not a reaction to an actual threat, but rather an attempt to activate a threat so that violence would erupt that would change the world. Propaganda is part of the action it is meant to justify. From this standpoint, an invasion from Russia would lead to a Ukrainian nationalist backlash that would make the Russian story about fascists, so to speak, retrospectively true. If Ukraine is unable to hold elections, it looks less like a democracy. Elections are scheduled, but cannot be held in regions occupied by a foreign power. In this way, military action can make propaganda seem true. Even the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe is unable to fulfill an observation mission.

How is this type of behavior related to Gibler and Tir’s argument that high levels of territorial threat inhibit democratization?

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Why Do Dictators Start Wars?

In the next class we will discuss how domestic political institutions (democracy/dictatorship) affect the propensity for war. The two papers on the syllabus try to explain why democratic countries rarely fight one another: Bueno de Mesquita et al (1999): An Institutional Explanation of Democratic Peace and Debs and Goemans (2010): Regime Type, the Fate of Leaders, and War. But what do these papers say about Putin’s military intervention in Crimea?

Bueno de Mesquita et al argue that dictators often start wars because they risk little if defeated. A dictator’s ability to stay in power depends more on his ability to provide private goods to key supporters than his/her ability to provide public goods. The authors argue that victory in war is a public good – it benefits the entire population. In this case, dictators’ survival in office depends little on whether they fight and win a war. So dictators put less effort into fighting war than their democratic counterparts because they have no big incentives to win. As a result, dictators rarely start conflicts against democracies. So why did Putin intervene in Ukraine, risking conflict with the democratic Western backers of the new regime in Kiev?

Putin’s actions are even more puzzling in light of Debs and Goemans’ research. In contrast to the previous paper, Debs and Goemans find empirically that defeat in a conflict is punitive for dictators: it makes dictators less likely to stay in power; furthermore almost half of ousted dictators face significant punishment (exile, jail or death). In this context, dictators tend to only gamble on war if peace would result in concessions which would diminish their ability to stay in power. But this theory does not fit Putin’s actions entirely. Putin was not facing a choice between costly concessions and war: he could have stayed out of Crimea and maintained peace without any concessions.

Together the two papers imply that Putin must have been confident of being successful in Crimea despite the likely opposition from democratic countries, and/or perceived a large benefit in terms of domestic survival from controlling Crimea. What is this benefit? Will his gamble pay off?

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My Research and Ukraine

Interested in what my research has to say about the Russian intervention in Ukraine? Check out my post on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

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Thoughts on Ukraine

We briefly talked in class about the disturbing violence in Ukraine. I would like to draw your attention to two aspects of the power struggle in Kiev: a cultural and an institutional one. Let me start on the cultural front. In his famous but controversial theory that the cultural landscape among nations would be the source of conflict in the Post-Cold War World, Samuel Huntington defined nine civilizations as the largest cultural entities encompassing the world. He argued conflict would be likeliest between countries belonging to different civilizations, although quantitative tests did not confirm his argument. But its weaknesses notwithstanding, Huntington’s work also had tremendous insight and foresight. He called Ukraine a cleft country: a country straddling civilizational faultlines, which he projected to be particularly war-prone. The country’s Western half belongs to the Western, while the Eastern half is part of the Orthodox Christian civilization. Recent elections in the country follow the civilizational faultline to a high degree. What we see today in Ukraine is escalating violence between representatives of two civilizations.

Yet, can we understand conflicts without bringing in political institutions? The Economist’s Blog rightly draws parallels between events in Ukraine and other countries slipping into a modern type of dictatorship, the ‘illiberal democracy’. These countries see democratically-elected Presidents or Prime Ministers dismantle the safeguards of democracy while in office. At the same time, they keep a fully-democratic facade, but cronyism, the muzzling of the media and the elimination of independent organs of state tilt the political playing field heavily in their favor. Unfortunately, political institutions are prone to diffusion and newly-minted dictators in the region may learn from and emulate each other. But let us hope that we will soon see democratic diffusion in the region rather than a dictatorial one.

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Is War on the Decline?

Is the world becoming more peaceful? Here is the video in which Goldstein and Pinker talk about their respective books on the decline of violence, while Toft and Walt explain their perspectives. Sarkees, Wayman and Singer analyze war data and argue the picture is more nuanced – a particularly interesting finding is the rise in internationalized civil wars (like this and this).

Do all these scholars disagree only about definitions and concepts, or also about deeper mechanisms at work? Do their views of human nature and the international system differ? Can you identify actors, interests and their interactional structure in the different scholars’ arguments?

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