International Relations Security Foreign policy

Playing Nuclear Chicken in the Middle East

Photo: rh2network/flickr

Because they raise the costs of war to almost unbearable levels, neo-realists have argued that nuclear weapons exert a stabilizing influence on the conduct of international relations. In practice, however, nuclear proliferation remains one of the major threats to international peace and security today. Specifically in the Middle East, one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world, the fear of a nuclear arms race has persisted for quite some time. Only last week, the United States and other Western governments have stepped up the pressure on Iran after the latest IAEA report on its allegedly peaceful nuclear activities.

Development Conflict

Inequality, Grievances and Civil War Workshop

Looking out across the bay at some of the most expensive land in the world. Photo: Shreyans Bhansali/flickr

The workshop Inequality, Grievances and Civil War took place on the 11th and 12th of November 2011 and was hosted by the Center for Comparative and International Studies (CIS) of the ETH and the University of Zurich. Bringing together some of the leading researchers on group equalities and civil war, the aim of the workshop was to present new research on the role of inequality, geography, mobilization and institutions in explaining conflict onset and termination. Highly anticipated amongst participants, however, was the unveiling of the new GROWup(Geographic Research on War: Unified Platform) data portal.

Friday’s first session addressed ‘Horizontal Inequalities’ and was kicked off by Dr. Frances Stewart of the University of Oxford, presenting her paper “Horizontal inequalities at a global level: the case of Muslims versus the rest”. By placing horizontal inequalities as inequalities in economic and political resources between culturally defined groups, Stewart argued that global horizontal inequalities have similar implications to national ones. Stewart stressed that existing inequalities are a source of insecurity and can raise the risk of conflict globally. Hence, horizontal inequalities, whether they are cultural, political or economic, need to be addressed both on the national and the international level.

International Relations

Geospatial Politics – A Philosophical Defense

Geopolitical Child Watches The Birth Of The New Human by Salvador Dali. Photo: Gigi Mazzarini/flickr

In a supposedly post-modern world geopolitics can seem passé.  With a dismissive wave of the paw, self-described progressives can (and do) condemn it as a pernicious remnant of a rapidly dying past.  Critics argue, for example, that classical geopolitics has always been suspect as an explanatory device.  It imposes a geographic determinism on international relations that is just too narrow in scope.  And by the way, critics ask, just what do we mean by “geography”?  Even if you believe that geographical factors deserve pride of place in transnational politics, don’t global politics increasingly play themselves out in at least five domains – on land, at sea, in the air, in space and ultimately in the protean world of cyberspace? And don’t the on-going interactions between these domains compound further the fluidity of events and their influences?

Second, critics are right to ask if geopolitics isn’t a self-justifying “language” of empire.  As a mode of political analysis and interpretation, wasn’t it first crafted by those who were prepared to rationalize empire – Friedrich Ratzel, with his not so implicit sympathy for lebensraum, and Halford MacKinder, with his Great Game-tainted focus on the Eurasian World Island?  And what about the prominent 19th century American navalist and geopolitician, Alfred Thayer Mahan; wasn’t there a self-serving circular logic at the core of his beliefs – e.g., large blue-water navies exist for the protection and destruction of foreign-based trade, but trade also seems to exist, at least in Mahan’s universe, to support the existence of battleship-centric navies?  These founding fathers of geopolitics were not only Westerners, but they were also very much creatures of their time – a time of Great Power colonial rivalries where “land grabs” were at the core of international relations. Their version of geopolitics was both an analysis and a justification for Western political behavior.  Where, therefore, is a geopolitics of the developing world, non-Western critics continue to ask.  Is such a construct even possible, or is it a contradiction in terms?

Social Media Internet Humanitarian Issues

The Development Impact of Information and Communication Technologies

Libya Crisis Map deployed by the Standby Task Force ( using the Ushahidi platform.

From mobile applications to improve the livelihoods of illiterate farmers to water-management and crisis mapping, the broad spectrum of research and projects presented at the ICT4D – The development impact of information and communication technologies conference on 10 November in Zurich was representative of the wide range of applications and impacts information and communication technologies (ICT) can have in the field of development. Organized by the ETH’s North-South Centre (which has repeatedly focused on the question of how ICT can best serve as a driver for development), the conference highlighted the need for a shift away from a technology-led approach towards one that emphasizes the creative use of already established technologies. Speakers included researchers and practitioners who were not only addressing classical development questions but also shedding light on the political dimensions of the use of ICT.

You’ll find a list of all speakers and their presentations at the end of this blog post. For now, let me pick out a few key themes and challenges that kept recurring throughout the discussion.

International Relations Government History

Jack Goldstone on Theories of Revolution and the Arab Revolutions of 2011

The game is over for Mr Mubarak and Mr Ben Ali. Photo: Wassim Ben Rhouma/flickr
On Thursday 10 November Ralph Stamm and I attended a CIS lecture by Jack A Goldstone, the Virginia E and John T Hazel Jr Professor at the George Mason School of Public Policy. Mr Goldstone has done extensive research on revolutions and social movements and has closely followed the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, which were at the center of his talk “Not 1848, Not 1989: Theories of Revolution and the Arab Revolutions of 2011.”
As the title suggests, Goldstone’s talk compared the revolutions of 1848, 1989, and 2011. At the outset, he gave his view of the likely outcome of the revolutionary processes in Tunisia and Egypt, both of which he identified as the clearest cases of genuinely revolutionary uprisings in 2011. While initially many people dreamed of creating perfectly functioning democracies and quite a few still fear the rise and dominance of radical Islamist movements, Mr Goldstone expects a middle ground: what he called “troubled democratic outcomes” in both countries.
He then compared the revolutionary periods of 1848 and 1989. In both of these cases, revolutions broke out in several countries in quick succession. While the uprisings were similar in many respects – in terms of mobilization tactics, for example – the outcomes differed. Why was this? Because revolutions never take place in a void: their social, political and economic context matters. In different contexts, we are likely to see different outcomes.