All posts by Giuseppe Paparella

Editor of the Italian version of The Risky Shift and writer on IR theory, Islam and security issues, Giuseppe is currently working as teacher in Italy. He holds academic degrees in International Relations and Political Science from LSE, University of Bologna and University of Bari. Follow him on Twitter @josephierre

The Hard Promise of China’s Peaceful Rise

The analysis below confirms an on-going change in the distribution of power in the Asia-Pacific. This shift not only discourages any optimistic expectations on China’s peaceful rise but is helpful in explaining the new American Strategy for the area, based on a massive redeployment of both US military forces and financial resources in order to contain China’s rising assertiveness.

{Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science}





The debate over the Chinese economic and international rise in world politics in the last two decades has been characterized by growing concerns about the nature of its peaceful purposes. In particular, with the deepening of the world economic crisis since 2008, several military and diplomatic operations have been aiming at containing the rise of Chinese assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific area, such as the strengthening of the American commitment to Japan’s defense, formation of Japan-South Korea alignment, the redeployment of Japanese forces, naval cooperation between the United States and the Vietnamese and Philippines forces, and, finally, the Asia-Pacific Security Strategy announced by President Obama and the former Secretary of State Clinton in the last weeks of 2011.[1]

At first sight, these concerns could seem exaggerated, given that on the 9th of December 2003 Chinese premier Wen Jiabao reiterated the concept of a new phase in China’s approach toward its neighboring countries, pointing out the peaceful nature of Chinese rise and the developing status of its economy, adding that hegemony and expansion never would have been pursued in the area, even with the full development of the country.[2]  Despite the attempt of reassuring further their neighbors and the United States by substituting the term “rise” with the more neutral “development” only a year later, several questions about the new role of China in world politics have emerged in the political and academic debate. In fact, according to Zheng, both “rise” and “development”  “were attempts to counter the ‘China threat’ theories by emphasizing the peaceful way in which China could emerge as a world power[3]: however, the sole fact of the emergence of China as a world power has been sufficient to raise relevant points about its political effects.

From a theoretical point of view, international relations theory provides some helpful insights in order to understand whether the growing power of the Asian giant is able to affect the current international system and US interests in the Pacific region in the foreseeable future. Power transition theory, elaborated by AFK Organski in 1958, accounts for the existence of four different kinds of state-units, organized according to a hierarchal distribution of power: on the top stands the dominant nation, followed by great, middle and small powers. However, this distribution of power is not unchangeable and those states not completely satisfied with the status quo are willing to modify the hierarchy: “peace is threatened when challengers seek to establish a new place for themselves in the international order, a place to which they believe their increasing power entitles them.[4] In addition, Gilpin offers a more precise definition of revisionist and status quo orientations, by identifying some crucial components such as the distribution of power, the hierarchy of prestige and those “rights and rules that govern or at least influence the interactions among states[5]. Finally, according to Mearsheimer, all great powers are intrinsically revisionists because the anarchical system compels them to maximize their own power in order to achieve security.[6]

Within these conceptual frameworks, and in the light of the increase in international tension in the Asia-Pacific region in the last years, in this essay I will be presenting the two main academic positions about the evaluation of the Chinese role: can China be considered as a status quo power or, rather, as a major threat by virtue of being just a great power, and therefore revisionist, dissatisfied with the current American-dominated international system?

China as a status quo power: the importance of economic growth

In 2003, an article by Johnston clearly addressed the question about China’s role in the international system, stating its basic status quo character by underlying Chinese pro-globalisation attitude (given its priority in economic development and the growing economic interdependence) and by recalling Chinese increasing interest in joining regional institutions such as APEC, ARF, SCO, WTO through a comprehensive acceptation of their working rules.[7] Furthermore, China is more concerned about its domestic problems and, according to its own strategic plans, until 2050 its ruling class will be facing three big challenges on the road of state modernization, in order to become a medium-level developed country. Accordingly, the most compelling issues on the Chinese agenda are the shortage of natural resources, the environmental pollution and a lack of coordination between economic and social development.[8]

As a matter of fact, China’s primary objective is to avoid a confrontational foreign policy because it could threat its economic growth, the stability of the Communist Party and the country’s path to modernization: “China’s leadership appears rational, calculating, and conscious not only of China’s rise but also of its continued weakness”, finding more convenient a whole assimilation into the international system than being its worst challenger.[9] This wise and prudent behaviour is confirmed by the Chinese effort into developing friendly relations with the major states on its periphery (Russia, Japan, India, and the Central and Southeast Asian states) also for securing stable energy sources. In addition, Chinese leaders have become aware of the importance to promote China’s values and culture abroad in order to benefit from soft power’s advantages.[10]

Considering China as a status quo power contrasts with the theoretical frameworks previously mentioned. Those who apply power transition theory to evaluate contemporary China’s rise as a potential challenger to the US, rely on flawed historical analogies based on power relations between Germany and Britain in the early twentieth century.[11] According to Ikenberry, China will not “repeat the experience of post-Bismarck Germany” as it faces “a very different type of status quo international order than that faced by previous rising powers[12]: for such a reason, China will continue to work within the rules and multilateral institutions of the current international order. Along with the liberal idea on the Chinese role in international relations, Overholt and Shambaugh sustain that China does not represent a threat to their neighbours nor to the United States: on the contrary, it is the most supportive and helpful country for both of them, because China assures stability in the Asia-Pacific area and can represent a good ally for the US in facing the big regional political and economic issues.[13]

Against this backdrop, Kang, according to constructivist arguments, claims that a neo-structural perspective is too static and does not adequately depict the realities of Asia, where states do not seek hegemony or expansionist policies, even when they achieve great economic power and have the capabilities to expand. His main argument is that Chinese power created a degree of stability, and conflict has only resulted when China began losing power rather than when it was gaining power.[14]

To draw a first conclusion, the thesis that asserts future optimistic expectations on the Chinese peaceful rise lies to its economic growth, as Bijian bears out affirming that “China’s emergence has been driven by capital, technology and resources acquired by peaceful means[15]: but what if peaceful means are no longer sufficient to guarantee such resources? What could be the effects if the Chinese growth, so decisive in maintaining domestic and regional stability and cohesion and so interdependent with the international economic and political order now in crisis, comes to an unexpected slowdown after 30 years of uninterrupted rise?

The economic crisis and the role of Chinese nationalism

According to Buzan, the next 30 years of China’s peaceful rise have no likelihood to look like the past thirty, because the international order that China has joined so far has been deeply affected by the economic crisis in 2008. Such a crisis has been having a huge impact on Chinese strategy of export-led growth while the advanced capitalist economies are “no longer be able to sustain … their previous levels of imports from China”.[16] Chinese economic growth, so necessary to maintain its socio-political stability, commercial openness and the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, has revealed to be little sustainable.[17] As a matter of fact, Yue underlines three major factors which have characterized China’s peaceful rise in the last ten years: accession to the WTO in November 2001 (thanks to which its international trade volume ranked the third and foreign exchange reserve overtook Japan’s to be the largest by the end of 2006); Chinese massive investments in resource-rich countries located in Central Asia, Latin America and Africa, where China’s political influence in those areas is rising as well; spillover effect in East Asia generated by China’s globalizing economy that drew China and ASEAN countries closer in geo-economic terms.[18] Having revealed the rhetoric on peaceful rise its dependence on the US-dominated international system and given that most of the resources imperative to China’s economic growth are distributed in areas under US domination[19], Yue does not deny that the competition for securing them could “heighten tensions and even increase the likelihood of conflicts between China and the developed world which would in turn be destabilizing to the international system.”[20] As a result, the new economic challenge has pushed China to turn toward a neo-mercantilist position: massive intervention in its economy through a deeper state control on critical industries, by building corporations like PetroChina[21] and increasing Chinese military expenditures in the last years to an impressive 1,97% of its GDP in 2009.[22]

Chinese more assertive approach to foreign policy, recently reiterated by warning the US to stay out of any disputes about the South China Sea, coincides with the emergence of the so-called geopolitik nationalism since 2008. Hughes, by analysing a number of popular Chinese texts all published in the last few years and after the deepening of the economic crisis in the US, such as Wolf Totem, Unhappy China, China’s Maritime Rights and China Dream, has discovered how concepts of lebensraum, ’maritime interests’, ‘sphere of influence’ underpin and foster Chinese domestic discourse on foreign policy.[23] As PLA Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu’s 2010 China Dream asserts, the Chinese national “grand goal” will be “to become number one in the world” by displacing the declining United States. Liu rejects the concept of a “peaceful rise” “arguing that China cannot rely solely on its traditional virtues of harmony to secure the new international order. Therefore, China needs a “military rise” in addition to its economic rise”.[24]

In substance, the rise of China is unquestionable and, as Buzan sustains, is necessarily transitional.[25] For such a reason, China can be at best defined as a reformist revisionist country[26]  whose major aim will be to continue its peaceful rise in the next thirty years, international economic restraints and the onset of nationalistic ideologies notwithstanding, reshaping the Asia-Pacific without provoking a Gilpinian hegemonic war in order to re-establish a new hierarchy of power and prestige.


The Chinese awareness of being militarily weaker than the US on the one hand, and the need to harness external threat and nationalistic ideologies in order to obtain domestic cohesion and reinforce the Party legitimacy undermined by the economic crisis on the other[27], have caused increasing concerns and serious doubts about the peacefulness of China’s rise. Indeed, as the 2011 Global Military Balance reported for the first time, the shift in economic power is already beginning to have a real military effect: while Western states’ defense budgets are under pressure and their military procurement is constrained, Asian Pacific nations and particularly China, are increasing defense spending by double digits annually. According to the report, “combined with its more muscular regional diplomacy, China’s increased defence budget has continued to provoke concern over the implications of its defence modernisation.[28] Furthermore, IISS Director General John Chipman echoes Mearsheimer’s temporal and theoretical predictions[29] when states that  “if current trends were continued it would still take 15-20 years for China to achieve military parity with the U.S.[30]

In conclusion, these data seem to confirm an on-going change of distribution of power in the Asia-Pacific and, accordingly, they not only discourage any optimistic expectations on China’s peaceful rise but are helpful in explaining the new American Strategy for the area, based on a massive redeployment of both US military forces and financial resources in order to contain China’s rising assertiveness.


Photo Credit: Pan-African News Wire File Photos

[toggle title= “Footnotes and Bibliography”]



[1] Hughes, Christopher. Class Lecture. East Asia: Primed for Rivalry?, LSE, London, 6 February 2012.

[2] Bijian, Zheng, “Globalization and The Emergence of China”, opening remarks at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., 13 November 2003.

[3] Zheng, Yongnian, “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’: Concept and Practice”, China Discussion Paper – Issue 1, Nottingham: China Policy Institute, November 2005, p. 3.

[4] Kugler, Jacek, and A.F.K. Organski . 1993. “The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation.” In Handbook of War Studies, edited by Manus I. Midlarsky, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 174.

[5] Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge, CUP, 1981, p. 34.

[6] Mearsheimer, John, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York, W.W. Norton, 2001, p. 29.

[7] Johnston, Alastair Ian, “Is China a Status Quo Power?”, International Security, 27/4, Spring 2003, pp. 5-56.

[8] Bijian, Zheng, China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great-Power Status”, Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 2005, Vol. 84, Issue 5, pp. 18-24.

[9] Brzezinski, Zbigniew, “Make Money, Not War”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005, p. 47.

[10] Tellis, Ashley J., “A Grand Chessboard”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005, pp. 53-54.

[11] Jeffery, Renée, “Evaluating the ‘China threat’: power transition theory, the successor-state image and the dangers of historical analogies”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 63:2, 2009, p. 314.

[12] Ikenberry, G. John, 2008, “The Rise of China: Power, Institutions, and the Western Order”, cited in Jeffery, ibidem, p. 316.

[13] Jeffery, Renée, ibidem, pp. 318-319.

[14] Kang, David C., China Rising – Peace, Power and Order in East Asia, New York, CUP, 2010, pp. 198-202.

[15] Bijian, Zheng, ibidem.

[16] Buzan, Barry, “China in International Society: Is ‘Peaceful Rise’ Possible?”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, 2010, pp. 19 – 21.

[17] As Cox predicted just two years ago: “The present Chinese model, with its severe inequalities, regional disparities, environmental problems and unsustainable growth, could itself easily become fairly unsustainable”, in Michael Cox, “Power Shift? Not Yet”, World Today, 66 (8/9) 2010, p. 22.

[18] Yue, Jianyong, “Peaceful Rise of China: Myth or Reality?”, International Politics, 2008, 45, p. 442.

[19] Yue, Jianyong, ibidem, p. 450.

[20] Yue, Jianyong, ibidem, p. 439.

[21] Kurlantzick, Joshua, “The Asian Century? Not Quite Yet”,  Current History, 110 (732) 2011, p. 27

[22] The Military Balance 2011, London, IISS, p. 198.

[23] Hughes, C., “Reclassifying Chinese Nationalism: the geopolitik turn”, Journal of Contemporary China, 20 (71) 2011, pp.601-620.

[24] Kissinger, Henry, On China, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2011, p. 507.

[25] Buzan, Barry, ibidem, p. 32.

[26] Buzan, Barry, ibidem, p. 29.

[27] Levy, Jack S., “Domestic Politics and War”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 18, No. 4, Spring, 1988, pp. 653-673.

[28] The Military Balance 2011, London, IISS, p. 195.

[29] Mearsheimer, John, “Showing the United States the Door”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005, p. 49. The scholar, in responding to Brzezinski, asserts that “it is true that China does not have the military wherewithal to take on the United States. That’s absolutely correct – for now. But again, what we are talking about is the situation in 2025 or 2030, when China has the military muscle to take on the United States.”

[30] Apps, Peter, “East-West military gap rapidly shrinking: report”, Reuters, 8 March 2011,



– Apps, Peter, “East-West military gap rapidly shrinking: report”, Reuters, 8 March 2011,

– Bijian, Zheng, “Globalization and The Emergence of China”, opening remarks at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., 13 November 2003.

– Bijian, Zheng, China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great-Power Status”, Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 2005, Vol. 84, Issue 5.

– Brzezinski, Zbigniew, “Make Money, Not War”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005.

– Buzan, Barry, “China in International Society: Is ‘Peaceful Rise’ Possible?”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, 2010.

– Cox, Michael, “Power Shift? Not Yet”, World Today, 66 (8/9) 2010, p. 22.

– Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge, CUP, 1981.

– Hughes, Christopher., “Reclassifying Chinese Nationalism: the geopolitik turn”, Journal of Contemporary China, 20 (71) 2011.

– Hughes, Christopher. Class Lecture. East Asia: Primed for Rivalry?, LSE, London, 6 February 2012.

– Jeffery, Renée, “Evaluating the ‘China threat’: power transition theory, the successor-state image and the dangers of historical analogies”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 63:2, 2009.

– Johnston, Alastair Ian, “Is China a Status Quo Power?”, International Security, 27/4, Spring 2003.

– Kang, David C., China Rising – Peace, Power and Order in East Asia, New York, CUP, 2010.

– Kissinger, Henry, On China, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2011.

– Kugler, Jacek, and A.F.K. Organski . 1993. “The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation.” In Handbook of War Studies, edited by Manus I. Midlarsky, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

– Kurlantzick, Joshua, “The Asian Century? Not Quite Yet”,  Current History, 110 (732) 2011.

– Levy, Jack S., “Domestic Politics and War”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 18, No. 4, Spring, 1988.

– Mearsheimer, John, “Showing the United States the Door”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005.

– Mearsheimer, John, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York, W.W. Norton, 2001.

– Tellis, Ashley J., “A Grand Chessboard”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005.

– The Military Balance 2011, London, IISS.

– Yue, Jianyong, “Peaceful Rise of China: Myth or Reality?”, International Politics, 2008, 45.

– Zheng, Yongnian, “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’: Concept and Practice”, China Discussion Paper – Issue 1, Nottingham: China Policy Institute, November 2005.


Iran And The Bomb: Coercive Diplomacy In, Arms Race Out

Talk delivered at A Nuclear Iran: The Start of a Middle Eastern Arms Race?, Public Conference, King’s College London, February 12, 2013, London, United Kingdom.



In order to address to the talk’s question, I will try to present the Iranian issue from a systemic point of view, framing it in the broader context of the international system and assuming Iran as one of the many actors belonging to it.

According to Matthew Kroenig and other strategic advisers such as Dov Zakheim, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nuclear Iran would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, as a product of the security dilemma put in place.

The security dilemma asserts that both strength and weakness in national security can be provocative to other nations. If a nation is too strong, this can be provocative since most means of self-protection simultaneously menace others.” On the other hand, if a nation is too weak, “great dangers arise if an aggressor believes that the status quo powers are weak in capability or resolve.”

A frequently cited example of the security dilemma is the beginning of the World War I. Supporters of this viewpoint argue that the European powers felt forced to go to war by feelings of insecurity, despite not actually desiring the war. However, the only case in which an arms race could occur is the so called “first world”, a theoretical place formulated by Robert Jervis in his seminal article “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma”, published in 1978. In defining the security dilemma, two variables are pillar: on the one hand, offensive weapons and policies; on the other hand, defensive weapons and policies.

In the aforementioned first world, offensive and defensive behaviour are not distinguishable, but offense, conceived as the situation in which it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than defending its own, has an advantage: in this hypothesis, the security dilemma is “very intense”. The environment is “doubly dangerous” because even status quo states will behave in an aggressive manner and there will arise the possibility of an arms race. Consequently, chances of cooperation between states are low.

Iran, differently, is already seen as the threat by the whole region and from external actors, so its behaviour and weapons are very distinguishable: for that this case does not fall within the first, rather in the third case stipulated by Jervis. In the latter one, no arms race should occur: offensive and defensive behaviour are distinguishable but offense has an advantage. In this third world, the security dilemma is “not intense”, even if security issues do exist and an aggression might take place at some future time. As a result, status quo states are free to follow different policy than aggressor.

Accordingly, the inherent peril of a nuclear arms race in the region seems to be, from a theoretical point of view, quite unlikely. Adding the presence of the US as the hegemonic power in the region, capable to guarantee a good degree of security to Saudi Arabia and its other satellites, such a possibility is completely out of question. In addition, Israel already holds the nuclear bomb since 1979, and despite the perception of threat that its presence caused in the region, an arms race has never occurred as well.

As Hobbs and Moran have recently argued, Saudi Arabia’s political and strategic context does not favour the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, from a security perspective, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States based on the “oil-for-arms” commitment continues to be well-working since the 1940s. On the other hand, the US strategic umbrella over this country has been reinforced after the events of the last years, such as the fall of the pro-Saudi Mubarak regime in Egypt; protests and instability in Bahrain and Yemen; the collapse of the pro-Saudi government in Lebanon; and civil war in Syria, which have made Riyadh one of the pillar allies of the US in the region.

By this token, justifying a preventive attack against Iran as the only way to stop the possibility of an arms race would be a strategic mistake, since it is not necessary and, additionally, it would bring more instability to the area. Given this explanation, two other policy choices remain on the table: allowing Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions, and then deter it; conversely, forcing Iran to dismiss any pretension over the nuclear, through the so-called coercive diplomacy.

Rational Deterrence Theory

First and foremost, it is worth recalling that the debate over the possibility of nuclear proliferation and the related threat to regional stability has already been discussed by Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan in 1981, and renewed by the same scholars in 2002.

Waltz has always sustained the idea that nuclear proliferation should guarantee peace and stability, basing this assumption on the historical record of the Cold War confrontation and the following nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan. As a result, in the last article by Waltz published on Foreign Affairs last year, nuclear asymmetry is conceived as destabilizing given the objective gap in military power and capabilities between Iran and Israel. In addition, such a strategic shortcoming is worsened by the ideological rivalry, that’s an irrational aspect that could be worked out only by the logic of deterrence. In fact, following this argument, once Iran obtains its own nuclear weapons, itself and Israel shall be strategically balanced, and no other country in the region should have the incentive to acquire further nuclear capability, leaving the region more stable than today.

If a first sight the rational logic suggested by Waltz seems to be correct and attractive, it is worth considering that the realm of international politics is quite complex and security concerns are not the only characteristic that states are affected by. As Sagan pointed out as early as 1981, states pursue nuclear weapons building because of three major considerations: security, domestic dynamics and international norms.

Aside from the security concerns already discussed, domestic considerations such as the existence of parochial but powerful political groups or individuals (such as the nuclear energy establishment, the military complex and populist politicians), and the concurrent influence of international norms and shared beliefs on national leaders (such as the Iranian establishment pretension to be a regional power with global aspirations), are not elements of the Waltzian equation and as such they alter the balance with unpredictable consequences.

Indeed, as Sagan himself recalled, the Cold War’s “nuclear peace” should not be deduced as the general rule or as an excuse for inaction with either arms control or non-proliferation; instead it remains an exception to celebrate and wonder about, given that even the World War II ended up with a nuclear bombing. Furthermore, considering the nuclear bomb inherently peaceful weapons since their possessors have never fought against each other, as Waltz and John Mearsheimer assert, represents a historical mistake.

In fact, Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons has facilitated its strategy of engaging in low-intensity conflict against India, making the subcontinent more crisis-prone. As the political scientist Paul Kapur has shown, as Islamabad’s nuclear capabilities have increased, so has the volatility of the Indian-Pakistani rivalry. For example, in 1999 Pakistan sent conventional forces disguised as insurgents across the Line of Control in the Kargil district of Kashmir, triggering a limited war with India.

The historical record suggests that competition between a nuclear-armed Iran and its principal adversaries would likely follow the pattern known as “the stability-instability paradox”, in which the supposed stability created by mutually assured destruction generates greater instability by making provocations, disputes, and conflict below the nuclear threshold seem safe.

Finally, critiques against Waltz’s argument come from Stephen Walt, a neo-realist scholar labelled as “defensive” (as Waltz itself is): he doubts the contemporary validity and workability of deterrence because such a strategy could work well once both sides are endowed with survivable forces – namely, the second strike capabilities – that make each of them unwilling to launch the first attack for strategic calculations.

Coercive diplomacy

If deterrence and containment seem to be infeasible and probably unsuccessful, while allowing Iran to acquire its nuclear arsenal too risky a move, the last resort in the hands of the United States, in order to maintain stability in the Middle East is coercive diplomacy.

Despite the choice of attacking Iran is strategically flawed, ruling out any possibility of deterrence, it remains the last resort that President Obama currently takes in consideration. To date the only peaceful way to deal with Iran’s advancing nuclear program is called coercive diplomacy, also known as the diplomacy of threats. The theory of coercive diplomacy, elaborated by the political scientist Alexander George, aims at getting a target, a state, a group (or groups) within a state, or a non-state actor – to change its behaviour through either the threat to use force or the actual use of limited force.

Coercive diplomacy is a diplomatic strategy, that relies on the threat of force rather than the use of it. Force must be used to make diplomatic efforts at persuasion more effective, in order to demonstrate resolution and willingness to escalate to high levels of military action if necessary. There are five types of coercive diplomacy and the so-called “carrot and stick approach” seems to be the most useful.

In fact, such a strategic choice is based upon a twofold requirement: making both credible promises and credible threats simultaneously. In this case, the difficulty is heightened by several other factors: the long history of intense mutual mistrust between Iran and the United States; the U.S. alliance with Iran’s archenemy, Israel; and the opacity of Iranian decision-making.

In order to make credible threats, the US should voice them publicly and unambiguously, while U.S. policymakers should emphasize that an attack on Iran would benefit greatly the United States. Still, American policymakers could stress that a strike would severely affect Iran’s nuclear effort, serving as a powerful warning to other potential proliferators, strengthening the United States’ global reputation for resolve, and possibly even triggering an Iranian revolution. Finally, if threats are dispatched confidentially by third parties close to Tehran, such as China and Russia, might have more credibility.

Conversely, making credible promises would need a deal proposal, according to which Iran would agree to stop building warheads and to refrain from enriching uranium above the 20 percent level, and allowing  inspections of its nuclear facilities. In return, the United States would accept a limited Iranian enrichment program, promise not to try to overthrow the regime, and suspend sanctions imposed in response to the nuclear program. Ideally, the United States might also restore normal diplomatic relations with Iran.

History and Coercive diplomacy: the case of the Cuban missile crisis

The strategy of coercive diplomacy has been successful applied in history, namely in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Indeed, by considering the current situation like a Cuban missile crisis in “slow motion”, Graham Allison has figured out a showdown in which the current US president will be forced to choose between ordering a military attack or allowing a nuclearized Iran, as happened to Kennedy in the final Saturday. Then, the US President chose for a third way, a secret promise to withdraw US missiles from Turkey within six months after the crisis was resolved.

According to Alexander George, three factors contributed to preventing escalation. First, Kennedy limited his demands to removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba, while further demands would have increased Soviet resistance. Second, Kennedy limited the initial means of coercion to a blockade. The blockade did not involve the use of force, and bought Kennedy time to try persuasion with the Soviets. Finally, both Khrushchev and Kennedy followed important operational principles of crisis management. Kennedy in particular sent clear and consistent signals to the Soviets, acting to slow the pace of the crisis, and signaling his strong preference for a peaceful resolution.

Unfortunately, today the situation is much more complicated given the presence of a third nuclear party, Israel, and its domestic perception of threat. Accordingly, the key is the Israel behaviour. If Israel will contribute to reduce the likelihood of a unilateral attack, then U.S. policymakers will be able to implement a successful strategy of coercive diplomacy.


Photo Credit: Luciapro

L’Iran e il nucleare: nessuna corsa al riarmo, ma diplomazia coercitiva

Il seguente intervento è stato presentato al dibattito intitolato: A Nuclear Iran: The Start of a Middle Eastern Arms Race?, tenutosi presso il King’s College di Londra il 12 febbraio 2013. 




[dropcap]I[/dropcap]l miglior modo per rispondere al quesito posto dal titolo dell’evento di questa sera, è quello di presentare la questione del nucleare iraniano attraverso un punto di vista sistemico, che inquadri l’oggetto del dibattito nel contesto internazionale, e che presupponga l’Iran come uno degli innumerevoli attori del sistema internazionale.

Secondo l’opinione di Matthew Kroenig, e di altri consiglieri strategici come Dov Zakheim, in attività presso il Center for Strategic and International Studies, un Iran dotato di armi nucleari scatenerebbe una corsa al riarmo in tutto il Medio Oriente, a causa del dilemma della sicurezza che inevitabilmente si verrebbe a creare.

Il dilemma della sicurezza sostiene che sia le caratteristiche di forza, che quelle di debolezza insite negli approcci e nelle politiche di sicurezza dei singoli Stati, possano innescare una spirale di insicurezza reciproca che conduce al conflitto. Infatti, se uno Stato è già molto forte, gli strumenti impiegati da esso per accrescere la propria sicurezza provocheranno una riduzione, anche non intenzionale, della sicurezza di altri Stati. Al contrario, se uno Stato dedito al mantenimento dello status quo è percepito come debole o scarsamente risoluto, la pace sarà messa a repentaglio da potenze aggressive e revisioniste.

Un noto esempio del dilemma della sicurezza è quello relativo allo scoppio della Prima Guerra Mondiale. Difatti, i sostenitori di tale interpretazione ribadiscono che le potenze europee furono indotte a partecipare al conflitto a causa dell’insicurezza generalizzata a livello internazionale, nonostante queste non desiderassero affatto un tale esito. Tuttavia, l’unico contesto in cui una corsa al riarmo potrebbe aver luogo è quello del cosiddetto “primo mondo”, un concetto teorico elaborato da Robert Jervis nel 1978 in “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma”. Definendo il dilemma della sicurezza, Jervis sottolinea l’importanza di due variabili distinte: da una parte, politiche e strumenti militari di tipo offensivo; dall’altra, politiche e strumenti militari di tipo difensivo.

Pertanto, all’interno del summenzionato “primo mondo”, i comportamenti di tipo offensivo e difensivo non risultano tra loro distinguibili, ma la circostanza offensiva (la situazione in cui risulterebbe più vantaggioso, per uno Stato, attaccare e distruggere l’esercito avverso e impossessarsi del relativo territorio, piuttosto che limitarsi a difendere il proprio),  godrebbe di un vantaggio strategico: in tale ipotesi, il dilemma della sicurezza sarebbe molto intenso, e l’ambiente internazionale doppiamente pericoloso e instabile. Infatti, in tale circostanza persino gli Stati interessati a mantenere lo status quo si comporterebbero in maniera risoluta e aggressiva, innescando la possibilità di una corsa al riarmo. Ne conseguirebbe una drastica diminuzione delle possibilità di cooperazione tra Stati.

Per quanto riguarda l’Iran e il Medio Oriente, vige una situazione differente. Teheran, in virtù del proprio programma nucleare e della determinazione mostrata nel perseguirlo, è già percepita come una minaccia dalla comunità internazionale: per tale motivo, il caso in questione è ben rappresentato dalla terza tipologia teorica elaborata da Jervis. In quest’ultima, non è previsto alcun riarmo generalizzato: infatti, nonostante la circostanza offensiva risulti ancora vantaggiosa, i comportamenti offensivi o difensivi di uno Stato sono chiaramente distinguibili dagli attori esterni. In questo “terzo mondo”, il dilemma della sicurezza è piuttosto flebile, e anche se esiste la concreta possibilità che un’aggressione possa comunque verificarsi in futuro, gli Stati interessati a preservare lo status quo e la pace possono perseguire politiche diverse da quelle del potenziale aggressore.

Almeno da un punto di vista prettamente teorico, il pericolo che un riarmo nucleare possa verificarsi in Medio Oriente appare piuttosto inconsistente e infondato. Se poi si aggiunge, a tali considerazioni, la presenza degli Stati Uniti, che in quanto potenza egemonica nella regione è in grado di garantire un buon livello di sicurezza all’Arabia Saudita e agli altri suoi satelliti, tale ipotesi è completamente da scartare. Bisogna inoltre ricordare che, nonostante Israele detenga l’arma nucleare dal 1979, insieme alla percezione della minaccia che la sua presenza ha sempre causato nei vicini Stati arabi, non si è mai determinato un riarmo nucleare in Medio Oriente.

Come hanno recentemente scritto Hobbs e Moran, l’attuale contesto politico e strategico dell’Arabia Saudita non favorirebbe l’acquisizione della bomba nucleare. Infatti, da un punto di vista prettamente difensivo, la relazione speciale tra il paese arabo e gli Stati Uniti, sin dagli anni ’40 basata sull’interscambio energetico e militare, continua ad essere enormemente vantaggiosa per entrambi. D’altro canto, l’impegno strategico statunitense su questo Paese si è ulteriormente rafforzato in seguito agli eventi degli ultimi anni (la caduta del regime di Mubarak in Egitto, l’instabilità politica in Bahrain e Yemen, il collasso del governo filo-saudita in Libano e la guerra civile in Siria), che hanno reso Riad uno degli alleati principali nella regione.

Per tali motivi, giustificare un attacco preventivo contro l’Iran come l’unico modo per fermare un riarmo regionale sarebbe un errore strategico, un’operazione non necessaria ma che, al contrario, aumenterebbe l’instabilità dell’intera area. Scartata tale ipotesi, agli Stati Uniti rimarrebbero due alternative: la prima, sarebbe quella di permettere all’Iran di soddisfare le proprie ambizioni nucleari, e in seguito contenerle; la seconda, consisterebbe nel forzare l’Iran a tralasciare il programma di arricchimento nucleare attraverso la cosiddetta diplomazia coercitiva.

La teoria della deterrenza razionale

Innanzitutto, è opportuno sottolineare che il dibattito sul rapporto tra proliferazione nucleare e il pericolo di conflitti armati è stato affrontato, per la prima volta,  da Kenneth Waltz e Scott Sagan nel 1981, e poi successivamente rinnovato dagli stessi nel 2002.

Waltz ha sempre sostenuto che la proliferazione delle armi nucleari sia foriera di pace e stabilità, basandosi sulle conclusioni tratte dagli avvenimenti della Guerra Fredda e dalla successiva rivalità tra India e Pakistan. Pertanto, non sorprende come lo stesso Waltz, scrivendo su Foreign Affairs lo scorso anno, abbia ribadito che una situazione di asimmetria nucleare, come quella sussistente adesso in Medio Oriente tra Iran e Israele, sia destabilizzante. Il pre-esistente gap militare tra i due Stati è inoltre reso maggiormente problematico dalla rivalità ideologica, un aspetto irrazionale e ancor più dirompente che, a detta di Waltz, potrebbe essere superato dalla logica della deterrenza. Infatti, secondo la teoria della deterrenza razionale, non appena l’Iran avrà acquisito il proprio arsenale nucleare, bilanciando così la disparità militare con Israele, nessun’altra nazione avrebbe l’incentivo a nuclearizzare le rispettive capacità militari, rendendo il Medio Oriente ancor più sicuro e stabilizzato.

Se a prima vista la logica di una tale proposta appare stringente e convincente, è bene considerare la complessità delle relazioni internazionali, dove le preoccupazioni relative alla sicurezza non sono affatto le uniche a caratterizzare il comportamento degli Stati. Come lo stesso Sagan ha fatto notare già nel 1981, gli Stati cercano di appropriarsi delle armi nucleari per tre ragioni: sicurezza, dinamiche di politica interna, e norme internazionali.

Le dinamiche di politica interna, che afferiscono all’esistenza di gruppi politici, o individui, piuttosto influenti (come le lobby dell’energia nucleare, il complesso militare, e gli stessi politici populisti), e la contemporanea influenza delle norme internazionali e di valori e credi politici comuni (come la pretesa, da parte dell’establishment iraniano, di essere una potenza globale con aspirazioni di dominio regionale), non fanno parte dell’analisi di Waltz, e come tali possono modificarne la logica apportando conseguenze gravi e inaspettate.

A questo proposito, come Sagan ricorda, la pace nucleare della Guerra Fredda non dovrebbe essere presentata come l’esempio di una regola generale, o peggio come la scusa per non agire verso un possibile riarmo e una  proliferazione di tipo nucleare; la “pace” in questione rimane comunque un’eccezione, dato che persino la Seconda Guerra Mondiale si è conclusa con il tragico bombardamento su Hiroshima e Nagasaki. Inoltre, considerare la bomba nucleare un’arma intrinsecamente pacifica, dato che coloro che la possiedono non si sono mai scontrati militarmente, proprio come affermano Waltz e John Mearsheimer, è un errore storico.

Il Pakistan, in seguito allo sviluppo di armi nucleari, ha aumentato i conflitti a bassa intensità contro l’India, rendendo il subcontinente ancor più instabile. Come evidenziato dallo scienziato politico Paul Kapur, l’aumento della capacità nucleare di Islamabad è coinciso con una accresciuta volatilità del conflitto Indo-Pakistano. Ad esempio, nel 1999 il Pakistan inviò le proprie forze armate, camuffate da ribelli, lungo la linea di controllo del distretto di Kargil, nella regione contesa del Kashmir, innescando un conflitto limitato con l’India. La storia, quindi, suggerisce che tra un Iran così armato e i suoi vicini, come Israele, potrebbe determinarsi il “paradosso della stabilità-instabilità”, in cui ad una supposta stabilità creata dalla reciproca distruzione assicurata, seguirebbe una maggiore e inaspettata instabilità, laddove aumenterebbero le provocazioni, le dispute e i conflitti militari combattuti al di sotto di una, almeno apparente, rassicurante soglia nucleare.

Infine, critiche alla teoria di Waltz provengono anche da Stephen Walt, un accademico neo-realista di tipo “difensivo” (come pure lo stesso Waltz viene etichettato), il quale dubita fortemente sull’attuale validità della deterrenza. Secondo Walt, questa strategia funzionerebbe solo se entrambe le parti in questione possedessero la cosiddetta capacità di secondo colpo, che le frenerebbe dallo scagliare il primo attacco per calcoli meramente strategici.

La diplomazia coercitiva 

Se la deterrenza e il contenimento sembrano opzioni alquanto impraticabili e probabilmente fallimentari, mentre permettere all’Iran di costruire un arsenale nucleare una mossa fin troppo azzardata, l’ultima carta che gli Stati Uniti hanno a disposizione per garantire la stabilità in Medio Oriente è quella della diplomazia coercitiva.

Allo stato attuale, sebbene la scelta di attaccare preventivamente l’Iran sia razionalmente fallace, l’impossibilità di praticare una politica di deterrenza la rende un’opzione comunque valida, come dimostrano le recenti dichiarazioni del Presidente Obama. Per questa ragione l’unica via pacifica rimane quella della diplomazia coercitiva, nota anche come la diplomazia della minaccia. Alla base di questa teoria, proposta dallo scienziato politico  Alexander George, si punta a costringere un obiettivo, uno Stato, un gruppo (o gruppi) interni ad uno Stato, o persino attori non statali, a modificare il relativo comportamento attraverso la minaccia dell’uso della forza oppure uno suo utilizzo limitato. La forza, pertanto, è finalizzata a garantire maggiore efficacia agli sforzi diplomatici atti alla persuasione: la sua minaccia comunica in maniera inequivocabile la risolutezza e la volontà di chi utilizza tale strategia, che a sua volta si riserva di non escludere, se necessario, la possibilità di azioni militari. Ci sono cinque tipi di diplomazia coercitiva, e l’approccio “bastone e carota” sembrerebbe il più appropriato al caso in questione.

Il suddetto approccio si basa su un doppio e contemporaneo prerequisito: avanzare promesse e minacce credibili. Nel caso mediorientale, la difficoltà dell’impegno è accentuata da numerosi altri fattori, come la lunga storia di reciproca sfiducia tra Iran e Stati Uniti, l’alleanza di questi ultimi con Israele (da sempre grande nemico dell’Iran), e la mancanza di trasparenza dei processi di decision-making iraniani.

Al fine di elaborare minacce credibili, gli Stati Uniti dovrebbero innanzitutto esprimerle pubblicamente e in maniera inequivocabile, enfatizzando i relativi benefici che conseguirebbero da un attacco militare all’Iran. In più, i funzionari americani dovrebbero evidenziare il fatto che un attacco apporterebbe danni irreparabili al programma nucleare iraniano, sottolineando i relativi effetti collaterali: avvertimento verso altri potenziali proliferatori, quali la Corea del Nord; accresciuta credibilità alla risolutezza americana; possibilità di innescare una rivoluzione interna al Paese. Infine, l’uso strumentale e diplomatico delle minacce sarebbe rafforzato nel caso in cui queste fossero inviate in via  confidenziale da attori terzi vicini a Teheran, come Russia e Cina.

Una proposta d’accordo, d’altro canto, sarebbe il requisito fondamentale per promesse perlomeno plausibili. Il negoziato, così, dovrebbe poggiarsi sulla disponibilità dell’Iran a fermare la costruzione di missili e testate, evitando al contempo di arricchire l’uranio al di sopra della soglia del 20%, e permettere ispezioni ai propri impianti nucleari. Gli Stati Uniti, poi, dovrebbero accettare un programma di arricchimento limitato, promettere di non rovesciare il regime iraniano, e sospendere le sanzioni imposte a causa della questione nucleare. Sarebbe inoltre perfetto se Washington  e Teheran ripristinassero regolari relazioni diplomatiche.

Storia e diplomazia coercitiva: il caso della crisi dei missili di Cuba 

La strategia della diplomazia coercitiva è stata applicata con successo durante la crisi dei missili di Cuba nel 1962. In effetti, considerando la situazione in analisi alla stregua di una crisi cubana in “slow motion”, Graham Allison prefigura una resa dei conti, in cui l’attuale Presidente americano, proprio come avvenuto per Kennedy, sarà costretto a scegliere tra un attacco militare alle installazioni iraniane, oppure a dare il proprio beneplacito alla militarizzazione nucleare del Paese. Nel 1962, però, il Presidente optò per una terza via, promettendo segretamente ai sovietici di ritirare i missili NATO dalla Turchia entro i sei mesi successivi dalla risoluzione pacifica della crisi.

Secondo Alexander George, nel 1962 l’escalation militare è stata evitata in virtù di tre fattori. Primo, Kennedy limitò le proprie richieste alla rimozione dei missili sovietici da Cuba, poiché ulteriori condizioni avrebbero solamente accresciuto la resistenza di Mosca. Secondo, Kennedy si limitò ad ordinare un blocco navale. Questa misura non presupponeva l’impiego della forza, e permise al Presidente di guadagnare tempo per cercare di indurre i sovietici ad un accordo. Infine, sia Krusciov che Kennedy rispettarono alcuni importanti principi operativi di gestione delle crisi. In particolare, Kennedy fu sempre attento a inviare segnali chiari e coerenti ai sovietici, agendo per rallentare l’esacerbarsi della situazione, e indicando la sua assoluta preferenza per una sua risoluzione pacifica.

Oggi, purtroppo, il contesto politico appare più complesso a causa della presenza di un terzo attore nucleare, Israele, e delle implicazioni connesse alla relativa percezione della minaccia. Di conseguenza, Israele si configura imprescindibile alla risoluzione pacifica della crisi: se Gerusalemme deciderà di ridurre le probabilità di un attacco unilaterale, allora anche Washington sarà in grado di elaborare e attuare la migliore e più fruttuosa strategia diplomatica possibile.


Qui la versione inglese.


Photo Credit: Luciapro

La geopolitica e il futuro della stabilità globale

Lungi dall’essere una scienza meramente deterministica, la geopolitica continua ad offrire, da una parte, evidenti limiti analitici; dall’altra, lo studio della stessa rappresenta un’opportunità che leader, politici e burocrati dovrebbero essere in grado di interpretare e comprendere.




[dropcap]L'[/dropcap]ultimo contributo in materia di geopolitica offerto da Ian Bremmer, presidente e co-fondatore di una delle più importanti agenzie di valutazione di rischio politico, si basa sul cosiddetto “nuovo pensiero geopolitico” e, per certi versi, la sua teoria, denominata “G-zero” rappresenta l’idealtipica evoluzione dello stesso.

Dalla caduta dell’Unione Sovietica, e la conseguente scomparsa delle più importanti minacce alla società e alla stabilità occidentale mossa da quest’ultima, numerosi studiosi hanno immediatamente supportato il paradigma della “fine della storia”: il ritratto della vittoria trionfale e definitiva del modello politico, economico e sociale di tipo liberale su quello socialista. Secondo altri, tra cui, ad esempio, Samuel Huntington, la minaccia successiva sarebbe stata rappresentata da divisioni di tipo religioso, esacerbate dall’insorgenza di fondamentalismi anti-occidentali e anti-cristiani. Tali previsioni, sebbene in alcun casi siano state accertate, hanno avuto a che fare con attori, ideologie e modelli politici ben identificabili, e con la plausibile eventualità di nuove minacce internazionali a questi collegate.

Infatti, dal crollo dell’Unione Sovietica la stabilità internazionale non è stata ulteriormente intaccata, considerata l’assenza di attori palesemente ostili e dotati di un hard power tale da mettere a repentaglio la sicurezza di altri soggetti internazionali. Al contrario, si è gradualmente formato un complesso scenario di rischio, caratterizzato da fattori imprevedibili, non intenzionali e incontrollabili. Di conseguenza, le formulazioni di politica estera hanno prestato sempre più attenzione alle implicazioni degli sviluppi tecno-scientifici, e la relativa applicazione al settore militare e cibernetico. Tra questi, è possibile annoverare: la proliferazione di armi di distruzione di massa; il mutamento climatico, i disastri ambientali e la necessità di sviluppare una geopolitica della sostenibilità; la crescente competizione per l’accaparramento delle risorse naturali tra attori statali e non in Asia centrale e in Africa; la diffusione del terrorismo religioso e fondamentalista.

Sebbene la geografia rimanga il fattore più pertinente in materia di politica estera, la consapevolezza di vivere in una società del rischio globale, vale a dire dove il rischio trascende i confini territoriali e politici, ha influenzato profondamente il pensiero geopolitico, che storicamente si è sviluppato all’interno della tradizione realista delle relazioni internazionali. Gerard Tuathail ha identificato questo nuovo ambito di ricerca come “geopolitica critica”, insistendo sulla necessità di adottare un approccio nuovo e deterritorializzato per analizzare le questioni relative alla sicurezza.

Sulla scia di questa precedente teorizzazione, la teoria G-Zero di Bremmer afferma che l’epoca attuale richiede più cooperazione sotto l’ombrello di una leadership forte, al fine di affrontare con successo le sfide transnazionali. Ciò nonostante, né le singole potenze come gli Stati Uniti, la Cina o gli altri paesi BRIC, né il G20 o altri soggetti più istituzionalizzati (quali il Fondo Monetario Internazionale, la Banca Mondiale e l’ONU) sono in grado di garantire una leadership internazionale coerente ed efficace, a causa di vari fattori: il relativo e temporaneo declino in termini di credibilità; poco potere decisionale a disposizione; scarsa influenza in ambito economico su scala globale.

Come risultato dell’instabile vuoto politico al quale assistiamo ormai da qualche tempo, vi sono quattro plausibili scenari geopolitici, tutti incentrati sulla relazione tra Stati Uniti e Cina: un improbabile “G2 informale” che prevede una forma di bipolarismo cristallizzato e cooperativo eretto su due sistemi politici ed economici agli antipodi; un concerto globale di stati, sebbene caratterizzato da interessi diversi in materia di economia e sicurezza, data la contemporanea presenza di potenze emergenti e già consolidate; la Guerra Fredda 2.0, conseguente alla competizione globale tra Stati Uniti e Cina, e imperniata su divergenze economiche e ideologiche, e alla scarsità di risorse energetiche; un mondo frammentato in regioni, dove la cooperazione multilaterale sarebbe ulteriormente indebolita e i problemi di natura transnazionale non potrebbero essere affrontati in maniera appropriata.

Infine, si potrebbe considerare l’evoluzione di un ulteriore scenario, il cosiddetto G-Subzero, nel quale questioni di ordine globale potrebbero tramutarsi in emergenze di carattere locale, con conseguenze catastrofiche per la stabilità dei singoli stati. Infatti, secondo tale prospettiva, ogni nazione sarebbe interamente impegnata a gestire crisi interne causate da rivolte di carattere sociale, crolli economico-finanziari, disordini politici innescati da movimenti separatisti ed estremisti. Di conseguenza, lo stesso concetto di globalizzazione verrebbe compromesso, e ogni nazione sarebbe chiamata a impegnarsi autonomamente per trovare soluzioni efficaci.

È inutile aggiungere che una tale prospettiva, così pessimista, non si realizzerà in maniera altrettanto deterministica, anche se va presa comunque in considerazione dopo mezzo secolo di stabilità bipolare e unipolare. Inoltre, le questioni transnazionali fanno sì che l’attuale configurazione del contesto politico sia la più rischiosa e imprevedibile sin dalla creazione del sistema di Westphalia. Per questo, appaiono impraticabili soluzioni come quella proposta da Robert Cooper: infatti, non è ponendo le basi per una nuova egemonia occidentale che il processo di frammentazione degli stati-nazione sarebbe evitato. Una ricetta simile appare, più che altro, un’anacronistica rielaborazione del messaggio imperialista lanciato da Mackinder nel 1904, utile allora solo per prevenire il crollo dell’Impero Britannico.

Lungi dall’essere una scienza meramente deterministica, la geopolitica continua ad offrire, da una parte, evidenti limiti analitici; dall’altra, lo studio della stessa rappresenta un’opportunità che leader, politici e burocrati dovrebbero essere in grado di interpretare e comprendere.


Articolo tradotto da: Valentina Mecca

Articolo originale: Geopolitics & Future World Stability

Photo credit: Peter Bo Rappmund

Neo-Realism & Virtuosity: The Rise of Turkey

Josef Joffe’s analysis centered upon the concept of two distinct geopolitical Belts is fascinating. However, it fails to consider the bridge between the two most relevant macro-groups: Turkey. In the last decade Turkey has radically changed and has strategically implemented its previous relationships with the Western and the Eastern belts, giving itself a new and crucial place on the geopolitical chessboard.


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In the conference held at the Johns Hopkins University in Bologna on the 20th of December, Josef Joffe, publisher and editor of Die Zeit, and Senior Fellow of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, delivered a lecture about the uses and limits of realism in international affairs. After a short introduction illustrating the landscape of contemporary IR theories, Joffe focused his analysis on the most compelling issues currently at stake, such as the Iranian bomb and the U.S.-Chinese rivalry in the Western Pacific.

Structure as Destiny

Joffe’s theoretical background privileges structural realism as the key through which international relations are explained. Against this backdrop, Joffe asserted that ‘structure is destiny’. Examining the relationship between U.S. and Europe, for instance, he states that their power and position in the international system affect their behaviour. Indeed, if in the post-WWII period the U.S. has gone to war more than any other nation, Europe, on the other hand, has only fought symbolically against Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and was led by the U.S. in three of those conflicts.

If applied to a broader context, Joffe, suggesting again the thesis contained in his Überpower, stated that the world could be divided into the Berlin-Berkeley Belt and Baghdad-Beijing Belt. The first one is the blessed, pacified, prosperous, stable, democratic, liberal West, where some given basic rules of international politics have been unhinged, above all the security dilemma that drove many conflicts in the past. Conversely, the second belt is depicted as Hobbesian, competitive and fear- and ambition-driven: in this realm, international politics’ rules keep on working as usual. For instance, the Middle East, where there have been the most, and the most dangerous, wars in the post-war period, provides a fitting example. In addition, it is worth recalling the nuclear competition between Pakistan and India, and the Chinese rising-power phenomenon, which is characterizing the relationship between Beijing and Tokyo in adversarial terms, mostly due to dispute over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands.

Theoretically speaking, Joffe’s analysis is fascinating and seems to be straightforward as well. However, it fails to consider the bridge between the two most relevant macro-groups: Turkey. As a matter of fact, in the last decade Turkey has radically changed, and strategically implemented its previous relationships with the Western and the Eastern belts, giving itself a new and crucial place on the geopolitical chessboard. Indeed Turkey, slipping away from inclusion within either the one or the other belt, and not exclusively belonging to the Middle Eastern region in purely geographical terms, deserves a closer attention. As a matter of fact, this country is domestically pacified, prosperous, stable, democratic-liking; at the same time, however, Turkey is still involved in potentially lethal security issues, and its ruling class does not hide anymore geopolitical ambitions over the Greater Middle East. Given its expanding soft and economic powers, and the massive investments in military expenditures (14th worldwide), a legitimate question arises: would Turkey aim at connecting the Western and the Eastern belts by becoming the next regional hegemon in that geopolitical vacuum?

The Turkish-Belts Relations

To provide a satisfactory answer to this theoretical and political question, a brief but compelling screening on the relationships between Turkey and the most relevant actors of each “Belt” will be enlightening.

First of all, Turkish-Iranian relationships are characterized by Ankara’s twofold balancing attempt at preventing military conflict as well as minimising Iranian hostility. Nevertheless, the nuclear issue has allowed Ankara to gain the Iranian goodwill on bilateral issues, such as the opposition to Kurdish militancy and the completion of favorable energy deals that should enable Turkey to increase its dependency on Iranian hydrocarbon resources and to become a key energy transit corridor. Lastly, as Elliot Hentov has remarked, accepting Turkish mediation on the nuclear file, and by virtue of the Turkish vote against the US in the UN Security Council, Iran has reluctantly promoted Turkey’s role as the leading regional power. As a result, Turkey looks at Iran as a regional partner.

Secondly, if balancing is the strategic rule in the Turkish-Iranian relations, Beijing, as the last part of the Eastern Belt, is seen through a different perspective, possibly based on a more competitive approach. Indeed, attempts toward a strategic partnership, either commercial and political, have often resulted in substantial disagreements over security issues in the Middle East, the fate of the Arab Spring, the protection of the political and cultural rights of the Turkic-Muslim people residing in Xinjiang, and the Chinese interference over the Turkish attempt at improving economic relations with Taiwan. Lacking any bases to develop better relationships, Turkey resistance to Chinese warnings witnesses for a clear independent position from the Eastern Belt, whereas the major political objective lies, and is limited to,  mutual recognition, commercial ties and balancing policies.

On the other hand, Turkey maintains closer relations with the Western Belt, even though a greater degree of strategic detachment is coming out. After having enjoyed challenging and intricate relations with the European Union for over half a century, Turkey is progressively stepping aside from its own historical dream of EU membership. If, on the one hand, commitment over the membership is seriously lacking by both sides, on the other the EU-Turkey relationship is losing its historical fascination. The response of Europe to the financial crisis, the emerging multipolarity, new security challenges, and questions of European identity and human rights have come under scrutiny. As a result, since a complete diplomatic severance between them is out of the question, for Turkey is currently more convenient to deal individually, rather than multilaterally, with each of the EU countries. As for the Iranian case, Turkey seems pursuing balancing and pacific relationships with its Western closest neighbour.

The United States, differently, represents a more challenging partner for Turkey. Indeed, in the last years several contradictions and frictions have emerged between Washington and Ankara. First of all, the fraying and tense relationships between Turkey and Israel, in conjunction with the increasing cooperation of the former with Iran; secondly, different positions over the Arab Spring and the military intervention against Libya; thirdly, and more importantly, the contrasting strategic view over the Middle East. If the Obama administration has unsuccessfully tried to implement the policy of “offshore balancing” by embedding Turkey as one of its most loyal NATO-ally, Ankara has rejected the plan, claiming for a re-balancing of the relationship between the American superpower and its allies so as to accommodate the new geo-economic and geopolitical landscape. Despite that, Emiliano Alessandri underscores how Ankara’s activism in the most recent years has been directed “at carving out a space for itself more than at seriously developing a new idea of international engagement agreeable also to Washington”.

A Conclusion

Which conclusion can be drawn from this analysis? As recently stated by Abdullah Gul, Turkish President since 2007, Turkey aims at becoming a soft power with a substantial role in the Middle East as a good and successful model for Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to follow. In doing so, according to Gul, Turkey should increase its international role by assuming the feature of a “virtuous power”:

A virtuous power is a power that is not ambitious or expansionist in any sense. On the contrary, it is a power where the priority lies with safeguarding the human rights and interests of all human beings in a manner that also entails the provision of aid to those in need without expecting anything in return. That’s what I mean by a virtuous power: a power that knows what’s wrong and what’s right and that is also powerful enough to stand behind what’s right. (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013, Vol. 92, No. 1, p. 7).

What these vague words mean is still unclear for the future of the region: by all means, and beyond any rhetoric, Turkey wants international recognition as a great power in a multipolar world, and the politics of “zero problems with neighbours pursued by its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, a professor of international relations, captures well his country’s regional and global vision. By confirming the neo-realist assumption that “structure is destiny”, Turkey, by relying on its large population and dynamic economy aims to become the political and economic hegemon at the crossroads of the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Just a huge and hegemon-free regional room between the two Belts.


Photo credit: Christopher Frank /

Monotheism’s Importance To International Relations

Christianity, Islam and Judaism, along with their own institutions, have contributed to the shape of many vital political concepts.


Corner of church and state street


The relationship between religion and international politics has been often characterized by mutual suspicion and conceptual misunderstandings as a result of unsuccessful and flawed analyses about their interaction. However, accounting for religion as an intervening variable in world politics can not be entirely dismissed: from a sociological and constructivist standpoint, the field of faith can provide us with relevant and helpful insights for explaining the evolution of some political concepts.

As far as the three Abrahamic religions are concerned (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), historical and comparative analyses show us how religion might be a useful explanatory tool for grasping complex structural phenomena. In fact, far from suggesting any pretentious and inconsistent theory of “religion in world politics”, I will be focusing on monotheism as the basis for the exercise and theorization of sovereignty, social mobilization and civil society.

To begin with, according to Daniel Philpott, the so-called ‘Westphalian System’ of modern states, based in the modern conception of state sovereignty, was built on religious grounds in Europe. Before 1648, political Europe was characterized by deeply fragmented forms of sovereignty, although transcontinental institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, ruled this broad geopolitical arena through what John Sidel has called the interwoven area between “non-territorial” and material power (powers over land, taxation, and local officials). As a result, the Christian authority represented the embryonic stage of a complex state system, which was later institutionalized through the thirty-year experience of inter-religious conflicts, ending with the Treaty of Westphalia.

Previously, the 16th century had marked the rise of the Protestant Reformation within the Christian world. Calvinism, in association with the structural consequences unleashed by the interaction between transcontinental institutions and pre-existing and scattered forms of sovereignty, played a meaningful role in determining the rise of the state. As Philip Gorski cleverly points out, the Protestant Reformation laid the foundations of a “disciplinary revolution”, which made available the necessary discipline for political control. More importantly, in addition to this cultural feature, the Calvinist church provided the modern state thanks to its own power relation with local communities and government.

If Christianity, and related institutions, have played a substantial role within the development of sovereignty and the modern state-system, Islam has to be mentioned as mobilizing factors in world politics. Islam laid down its bases during the 18th and 19th century. Indeed, European colonialism stretched its arms over Muslim lands, such as in the Indian Ocean where the Portuguese, Dutch and British powers intensified forms of imperial and colonial control. In these lands, the aforementioned imperial powers applied the same political and organizational tenet: the extension of Christian extra-territorial sovereignty founded on the basis of religion.

In the 20th century two remarkable occurrences took place: the creation of new networks of Islamic intellectuals and activists on one hand; and the instrumental use of Islam in domestic and foreign policy against the colonial encroachment on the other. The interaction between these two political and social consequences strengthened the rally ‘round effect of religion in the international realm, especially since the rise of new media and the improvement of communication among Muslims. As a matter of fact, both the rise of Al Qa’ida in the last thirty years (as a counter-hegemonic force against the Soviet Union during the Cold war, and more recently the United States), and the state sponsorship of Islamic movements by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, confirm the political clout of Islam in international affairs.

Finally, an overlooked case deserves to be taken into account: Judaism. In his latest book, Michael Walzer stresses the constraining role of Judaism in managing political power: drawing from the philosophical work of Nietzsche, even Walzer identifies the Hebrew Bible as a text against the will of power, as turned by humans against one another. Generally speaking, the Hebrew Bible is concerned with the use, abuse and justification of power by governments. Moreover, Walzer enriches the analysis of Judaism by underlying its role in elaborating a successfully theory of society, conceived as a self-help structure: indeed, the Jews have been able to survive as a society, and without formal political institutions, over the course of history. For such a reason, this religious text continues to be compelling and relevant, and further studies should be provided in order to understand evolution and interaction between civilizations.

Far from being thorough and exhaustive, this article aims at suggesting a more serious account of the role of religion in international relations. As these few words have witnessed, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, along with their own institutions, have contributed to the shape of some important political concepts. All of them, in particular, can serve as “autonomous public spaces and as a countervailing power to state power”, by creating a “particular kind of civil society and associational life.


Photo Credit: Ian Sane

Nationalism Rises: China, Japan & The Senkaku-Diaoyu Dispute

The assertive and single-minded Chinese approach to the Senkaku-Diaogu dispute is rationally explainable, not as a sophisticated or well-planned strategy, rather by considering the role of nationalism and its interplay with power politics concerns.


Nationalism in Japan and anti-China protests


The second of a two-part series looking at the rise of nationalism. View the first part here.


The Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu according to the Chinese transliteration) are a group of tiny and uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. These 7 square kilometres are currently the middle of one of the most worrisome confrontations in the region between China and Japan. Both of them claim sovereignty over the islands: in 1895 Imperial Japan conquered them after a war with China; then, after the Second World War the United States administered the archipelago until 1970s, when Japan regained possession and control through a private purchase. From 2009, Chinese officials and commentators referred to that area as a sovereign “core interest”, like Taiwan and Tibet, given the great deal of exploitable natural resources underneath the East China Sea.

Despite the Chinese diplomatic efforts at reassuring their neighbours about its economic and military growth, territorial disputes over the East and South China Sea are progressively capturing the weary attention of other Asian governments and public opinions. Such an assertive and single-minded Chinese approach is rationally explainable, not as a sophisticated or well-planned strategy, rather by considering the role of nationalism and its interplay with power politics concerns.

As previously seen, the interaction between nationalism and the realist theory of International Relations affects units’ behaviour (the State) and their search for survival. In addition, this interplay is conducive to making the likelihood of war higher and its character tougher.

With regard to the Senkaku-Diaoyu dispute, the behaviours of China and Japan are explainable by taking into account the role of nationalism: however, considering solely such variable might not be sufficient to provide a comprehensive perspective of what is actually at stake in the East China Sea. As a matter of fact, power politics plays a relevant role in shaping the Sino-Japanese confrontation, whereas survival, and the fear for security and national integrity are the issues that each national actor considers mostly.


The Senkaku-Diaoyu case is a matter of survival for both China and Japan. According to structural realism, maintaining a stable degree of relative power should guarantee security between two nations. As repeatedly noticed, the Chinese growth on military expenditures, economic performances and soft-power influence, has brought its neighbours to rely more extensively on the support of some external and counterbalancing actors, such as the United States, in order to keep the level of power not overwhelming and acceptable for their security. However, the aggressive behaviour of China, showed even on other territorial disputes involving the Philippines and Vietnam, has deeply changed the perception of Asian countries towards the Chinese growth as a regional power, no longer identified as a peaceful riser rather as an hegemonic one. As a result, the national survival of these countries is perceived in danger, and the related national communities and cultural identities as well.

For this reason, since the Chinese “rational patriotism” has been identified as the only workable antidote to avoid any return to an  “humiliating past” and defend its national interests and sovereignty, Japan is increasingly fearful of China’s rise and, as a consequence of this threatening feeling, nationalist movements and political parties are pushing the country to assert itself more boldly against China’s territorial ambitions.

The State

Theoretically speaking, once the nation-state is created, its efficiency and protection is ensured by homogenizing people’s level of literacy and cultural knowledge through the modern national educational system. Especially in China, since the establishment of the Communist regime patriotic propaganda and formal education have constantly fed anger and resentment against the old imperial conquerors, such as the United States, Europe and Japan. Accordingly, the massive popular demonstration against Japan in the last few days, made crueler by national-flag burning, showed how the process of brainwashing put in place by the Communist ruling class towards the Chinese youth is actually real and dangerous for international stability. As a recent paper published in September confirms, China records one of the highest levels of popular nationalism in the world: this nationalism, however, is highly instrumental to regime stability and legitimacy. According to Wenfang Tang and Benjamin Darr, authors of the afore-mentioned research, through the education system Chinese people are constantly reminded of the ruthless Western invasion of China in the nineteenth century and the violent suppression of the Boxer Rebellion, ended up with fuelling violent nationalistic reactions against the “strangers”.


In this climate of widespread confrontation, what can be said about the likelihood of war? According to theory, nationalism increases the warfare ability of states in three ways: it allows them to set up large and powerful armies; its citizens guarantee a steady, constant and longstanding flow of resources even in military efforts; soldiers and military forces are not affected by the problem of desertion, given the strong ties of loyalty and solidarity with their own national community.

It is too early to even infer the possibility of a bellicose confrontation between China and Japan. It is however worth underlying the growing muscular role of the Japan’s Self-Defense Forces as well as its new security priorities: in the next few years, Japan’s government has planned heavy investments in helicopters and airplanes, and by 2015 the country has programmed to deploy troops in the East China Sea, just near the Senkaku archipelago.

Luckily, theory-making is primarily concerned with understanding reality, not predicting the future. As a matter of fact, prior to speaking about the possibility of war it is essential to consider a number of variables not yet implemented by policy-makers and officials (cooperation, diplomacy, changing of perception). Hopefully, this is exactly what other powers, such as the United States, are expecting from China and Japan, the second and the third economies in the world respectively.


Photo credit: ehnmark

Nationalism Rises: Survival, the State, and War.

Nationalism shaped the Clausewitzian concept of “absolute war”: before nationalism had became a powerful ideology during the French Revolution, power wars were fought for limited objectives and with limited means.


Nationalism War Realism Peace


A growing number of authors have recently focused their attention over the role and political implications of nationalism in shaping the international system. Stephen Walt has warned about the perils of ignoring the “strongest force in the world” for scholars and policy-makers, while Sebastian Rosato has underlined the progressive renationalisation of the EU’s economic and foreign policy as a consequence of political fears and incompatible economic preferences on the part of its members. In addition, Christopher Hughes has discovered the resurgence of the so-called geopolitik nationalism in the Chinese political debate.

As commendably summarized by Van Evera (1994), nationalism may be conceived of as a political movement and ideology that pushes nations, namely groups of individuals with common ethnic ties and loyalty towards their own belonging community, to desire their own independent state.

John J. Mearsheimer in his Kissing Cousins: Nationalism and Realism, paper written for the Yale Workshop on International Relations last year, analyzed the interaction between nationalism and the realist theory of International Relations. According to Mearsheimer, nationalism and realism are two particularistic theories, both deeply different from liberalism and Marxism given their universalistic approach.

By this token, their particularistic perspective privileges two basic concepts, namely survival and the state, and both of them affect the role and the likelihood of war. In fact, states are the key actors in international politics given their nature as autonomous units and the most powerful political institution in the world.


For both nationalism and realism, survival is a core concept even if they deal with different realms. According to structural realism, states are obliged to pursue a certain degree of relative power because of the anarchical structure of the system, in which them have no guarantee to be secured from external attacks and preserve their security. Nationalism is related to survival in at least three fundamental aspects: preservation of the “nation” or a given community of people; protection and reproduction of a unique cultural identity; defence of sovereignty.

Firstly, according to Anderson (1991) the nation is defined as an imagined political community. “Imagined” because its fellow-members will never know or meet most of their peers; by imagining themselves as a particular community of people with strong bonds. This kind of identification as members of the same nation is “limited” and finite, given that even the greatest nation has boundaries. Finally, the nation is imagined as a “community”: Anderson defines it as a horizontal comradeship. From that, it follows that each nation is characterized by an exceptional history and culture that in turn can be perpetuated and handed down within a given community. As Gellner stated in 1983, it is nationalism that engenders nations. Indeed, the former is conceived of as the imposition of a particular totalizing culture on society through schools and academy. Van Evera underlines the role of such institutions, along with history and literature teaching, in determining national self-consciousness and chauvinist mythmaking, deemed as the hallmark of all nationalism.

Nationalism is not conceivable without the idea of popular sovereignty, given that the growth of the former is substantiated by the integration of the masses into a common political form: namely, the state as a unit (Kohn, 1944), considered as necessary and the guarantee of liberty for the national communities who inhabit it (Renan, 1939).

The state

The modern state system is the main product of the interaction between nationalism and political realism. In particular, nations push for obtaining the nation-state in order to ensure a satisfactory degree of protection and security. Aside from considerations of political nature, historically speaking the emergence of the nation-state, and the related ideology of modern nationalism, has been historically identified by E.H. Carr (1945) between the Napoleonic Wars and 1914, during which occurred the identification of the “nation” with the “people” and the rejection of its dynastic form. On these bases the French Revolution broke out and the modern state spread in Europe as a juristic and territorial concept. In addition, within the industrial society of the nineteenth century, the nation-state proved to be the most suitable institution for providing economic growth and efficiency, by homogenizing people’s level of literacy, technical competences and cultural knowledge through the modern national educational system.


Lastly, Mearsheimer underlines three main advantages that nationalism provides to increase the warfare ability of states: it allows them to set up large and powerful armies; its citizens guarantee a steady, constant and longstanding flow of resources even in military efforts; soldiers and military forces are not affected by the problem of desertion, given the strong ties of loyalty and solidarity with their own national community.

As a matter of fact, the levée en masse, introduced within the French Constitution as an emergency wartime measure in 1793, marked a turning point in the development of modern armies. As an agent of the national community, the rise of mass army saw the concurrent and definitive decline of mercenary forces, replaced by an extensive national conscription and financed through taxes extracted from the population itself. According to Paret (1993), between 1800 and 1815 Napoleon gathered over 2 million men. In effect, these large military bodies were created for national self-defence and they represented a successful practice soon imitated by other nation-states concerned with survival and sovereignty protection.

Nonetheless, a large army incapable of maintaining its size at war might be not so useful: for this reason a constant flow of resources was necessary, for instance to acquire and keep manpower, weapon and supplies working and efficient. Nationalism, in this case, plays a crucial role: the conviction to preserve sovereignty, independence and prestige of the national state, makes available the essential resources (general growth of population, commerce and wealth) for expanding and physically maintaining mass military forces.

A final advantage resulting from the relationship between nationalism and military power lies in the sense of solidarity and loyalty among soldiers and towards their own nation-state. As Haas pointed out in 1986, nationalism is “the convergence of territorial and political loyalty” irrespective of affiliation (kinship, profession, religion, economic interest, race) but centred upon the common historical and cultural identity of given national community’s members.

As a result, nationalism shaped the Clausewitzian concept of “absolute war”: before nationalism had became a powerful ideology during the French Revolution, great power wars were fought for limited objectives and with limited means, while its absoluteness emerged in Europe when nationalism “enlarged and motivated European armies” (Ferguson, 2002).

Might this first analysis be applied to contemporary “nationalistic” disputes, such as those concerning East Asia, in order to understand and forecast eventual developments? To what extent is it possible to frame the the so-called “Asian Nationalism at Sea” through the aforementioned analysis? A further step in this direction will be delivered in my next article.


Photo Credit: Durhamskywriter

Pan-Islamism & The Interwar Period

Islam, international politics & mass mobilization: an analysis over the interwar period.
{Department of International Relations, London School of Economics & Political Science}


World Muslim Population


The interwar era, namely the period between 1919 and 1938, showed impressive and large-scale forms of Islamic mass mobilization, along with the strengthening and consolidation of Islamic movements and congresses. These unprecedented kinds of mass mobilization manifestations were prompted “by broader developments in world politics and in the world economy” and, as a result, today they still represent an “enduring infrastructure for Muslim politics”[1] for millions of Muslim scattered across the world.

In this essay, I would like to describe and to analyze rise and decline of the above-mentioned forms of collective action, explaining why some of them declined promptly after a few years, for example the transnational Khilafat movement in India, while other national movements continued to grow up and to play a central role in shaping political and institutional transformations which occurred in the countries where they flourished, as in the case of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Sarekat in Indonesia.

First of all, would be useful to underscore the significance of the first political ideas connected with the Pan-Islamism ideology, which has been identified as a relevant driver for Muslim unity calls during the late 19th century. Coined in Europe in the 1870s in order to connote anti-modernism movements and Islamic fanaticism, according to Khalid the term of Pan-Islamism was deeply characterized by a “series of local, territorially defined, Muslim nationalisms with anti-colonial agendas” and, in opposition to the cultural definition provided by Landau, Pan-Islamism is “better located in the realm of nationalism than of religion”[2], by re-affirming the author a strong political connotation to such a phenomenon. Furthermore, Pan-Islamism was defined by an external threat, as for several nationalist movements, and it involved different national groups with their own political instances, as well as a diverse spectrum of participants, from religious leaders to travellers, most of them were modernists, deeply influenced by Western political and social values but seriously motivated in changing the status quo of their societies.[3] In this last category Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1838 – 1897) was the most prominent architect of the alliance between religious and radical thinkers. His great commitment in feeding and spreading and conveying the Pan-Islam ideology across the Ottoman Empire and in the Western colonies of the Middle East and Central Asia during the late 19th century, was a powerful and ideal model in the subsequent period of political mass mobilization.[4]

As a matter of fact, as of 1919 the disciples of al-Afghani like Rashid Rida and Ibn Sa’ud recalled for a new Muslim unity having the same political objectives of the Pan-Islam ideology but set in a more complex social backdrop (primarily the First World War, followed by the “secularization” of Islamic authority by the Ottoman Empire, unprecedented forms of Islamic schooling, recent weakening of the most powerful imperial countries like Great Britain and France because of their impressive war efforts) that, according to Sidel, provided the ideal conditions for a revival of the Muslim mobilization in at least five ways[5]:

  • As suggested by the German government in the years that preceded the Great War there was the promotion of an instrumental use of Islam for warfare purposes by the Ottoman leaders in order to mobilize Muslims against British and French colonial rulers;
  • Social disorders and de-mobilization in the colonial territories during the war and in its aftermath created windows of opportunity in terms of political reforms;
  • End of aristocratic hegemony not only in Europe but also in the Ottoman Empire, Persia and China and consequent replacement with republican regimes;
  • Foundation of Muslim organizations in Russia after the Revolutions in 1917 and 1918: Muskom and Narkomnats, headed by Sultangaliev and Stalin respectively, with the former that elaborated a “Muslim national communism” vision;
  • End of the Ottoman Empire, abolition of Sultanate in 1922 and Caliphate in 1924: thrust to reorganize the Islamic identity, community and ideology.

In the next paragraphs will be analyzed the historical and political patterns that led to the foundation of three significant Islamic mass movements, namely Khilafat in India, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Sarekat in Indonesia, and how such organizations gained popularity and later lost their own political relevance.

Khilafat between transnational aims and political misunderstandings 

The end of the Ottoman Empire was ratified with the armistice of Mundros on 30 October 1918 in which the Ottoman Sultan gave his total and unconditional surrender and allowed the military occupation of Istanbul by the Allied forces. Later, the Treaty of Sevres that came out from the peace settlements in Paris in 1920 reduced the Empire to Turkey, even if its full implementation was avoided by the growing national resistance led by Mustafa Kemal, who started his campaign for Turkish independence on 19 May 1919 in the city of Samsun in the North of Anatolia.[6]

On the background of these events, Indian Pan-Islamic movements recorded an increase in popularity and interest in the years following the end of the Great War, due to a number of factors: a better off and more educated India’s Muslim middle class; an unprecedented public role of Ulemas who got involved in the Pan-Islamic politics and in recruiting support; a growing awareness among Muslims in India that an international and strong political and religious centre abroad could guarantee their own life as a minority group.[7] Such cultural and political considerations, along with the contemporary historical events in the former Ottoman Empire, were on the basis of the foundation of the Khilafat Movement by December 1918, whose political programme envisaged the salvation of the Ottoman integrity and sovereignty. In fact, as effectively summarized by Alavi, the demand of the Indian Khilafatists for a preserved and protected Caliphate was based on three main claims: comparison of the Ottoman Caliph with the “Universal Caliph” which deserved allegiance from all Muslims; ongoing religious war between Christianity and Islam; expulsion of Great Britain from the Middle East because it was deemed to threat the Caliphate and its colonies.[8]

The Khilafat movement fulfilled a twofold political activity. First of all, its Central Committee fostered a continuous propaganda by the publishing of two periodicals, in English and Urdu, and it was also busy in organizing mass meetings in order to collect funds as much as possible. Secondly, the Movement accomplished to an external activity, creating offices and dispatching delegations abroad to promote its political aims. Actually, this second operation was less successful than the internal one and revealed to Indian Muslims a shocking and meaningless lack of interest by European governments and their public opinions toward their claims.[9]  However, while the secular republicanism emerged as an alternative political way for the national renaissance of Turkey, the Khilafat movement was about to be stricken by a more destabilizing shock, resulted in the separation of the sultanate and caliphate in November 1922, given that this division meant the permanent separation between spiritual and temporal powers, embodied in the Sultan and the Caliph respectively. Suddenly, one of the most important claim of the movement was nullified by the supposed protector of spiritual Islam, Mustafa Kemal. The process of secularization in Turkey was completed with the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924, which provoked a sense of confusion and furore in the Khilafatists. According to Ozcan, Kemal, that was previously and publicly urged by the Indian Muslims to restore the Sultanate, approved this measure for five political reasons: refusal to share its authority with a Caliph; the Caliph could become the principal political antagonist of Kemal because of the resistance showed by pro-Caliph people to his secular policies; clear incompatibility between secular reforms and a powerful religious authority; avoiding to be identified as a Pan-Islamist supporter by the Christian Europe; diplomatic measure that hopefully would influence the British about the question of Mosul.[10]

In the wake of secularization, the Khilafat Movement lost its political force and failed in preserving the Caliphate. Reasons for explaining the unsuccessful attempt to revive a more organized and ambitious Pan-Islamism were not solely linked to external factors, such as the rise of Mustafa Kemal but they were also intertwined with internal misperceptions and more crucial misunderstandings that ratified its own death: “In accusing Britain of being hostile to the Caliph, the Khilafatists were fighting an imaginary enemy. The real threat came from the Turkish Republican Nationalism … The Khilafatists proved to be quite incapable of perceiving the nature and significance of that historic conflict between the monarchical rule of the Caliph and the democratic aspirations of the Republican Nationalists. Paradoxically they glorified the arc-adversary of the Caliphate, Mustafa Kemal, while at the same time they also glorified their venerated Caliph.”[11]

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Sarekat in Indonesia

The Indian Khilafat didn’t represent the only example of Islamic mass-movement during the interwar period, although it was certainly the most popular and modern transnational expression of the Pan-Islamic ideology in those years. As a matter of fact, even if it tried to merge a universalist cause with the Indian Muslims’ nationalist interest in preserving their minority identity in the country, the Khilafat was also deeply concerned with Islamic affairs in Iran, Iraq, Libya and Marocco.[12] This sensitiveness toward the whole Islamic world wasn’t shared in the same way by other Islamic organizations. Nonetheless, historically speaking two more Islamic mass-movements emerged soon after the defeat of the Central Powers: Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Sarekat in Indonesia.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, has been one of the most influential Islamic movements in the history of modern Egypt, bringing about a radical transformation in that society. The relationship between nationalist instances, the need for a deep social change and Islam was originally re-elaborated by al-Banna. He initially rejected the Western model of political participation and liberal nationalism in order to provide political Islam with a new and independent narration, through the ambitious effort to make it an “all-encompassing religion”.[13] As Lia underlines, “writing [of Hasan al-Banna] marked a watershed in modern Islamic discourse by making the successful transition of Islam into an ideology, thus providing an ideological map of ‘what is’ in society and a ‘report’ of how it is working”.[14] For this reason, Islam was conceived more as an ideological framework than just a parochial religion, as an useful interpretative paradigm for changing Egypt society and a guide in the formulation of reform programmes.[15] However, even the Muslim Brotherhood movement was not an isolated outgrowth  of Islam politics, but another example of the process of gradual secularization of Islam that in this case meant its own politicization. In fact, its ideology was greatly affected by the need for social justice, political, social and economic reforms and, last but not least, it reflected the interests of the lower and well-educated classes. Accordingly, this secular and Western-rooted feature, along with the conceptual shift of Islam  “from the sentimental enthusiasm of purely inert admirers… into an operative force actively [and instrumentally] actively at work on modern problems”[16], assigned to the Muslim Brotherhood a pillar role in democratizing the Egyptian society in the late 1930s. The military coup of 1952 by Nassir confirms such a view: after having overthrown the monarchy and multiparty system, Nassir banned the Muslim Brotherhood that, as an autonomous movement, was identified as a danger for his regime.[17] This Islamic mass-movement, reached an estimated total membership of 500.000 after the Second World War but most importantly the al-Banna’s “political reinterpretation” of Islam remained the most influential in the 20th century, capable to merge the idea of Islam as an all-inclusive societal system with its later politicization in 1938 which became the core of the Society’s ideology.[18]

The Sarekat Islam was founded in Indonesia on 11 November 1911 basically for facing domestic and commercial competition issues involving China.  In its peak period, namely between 1916 and 1921, Sarekat summoned a number of ‘national’ congresses in the attempt to spread the idea of nationalism and the struggle for independence against the Dutch rule. In the mind of its founding fathers, Islam as a religious belief played a pedagogical role as the “preacher of democratic ideas” and the “religion for the spiritual education of the people”. Sarekat had a liberal approach to religious and political matters: promotion of civil rights, separation between state and religious matters, rejection of racial domination, freedoms and equal rights of all citizens, need for social and educational reforms.[19] On the one hand, this political programme, largely influenced by  European socialist ideas, gained popular support even outside the Islam community and it was on the basis of several strikes and boycotts.[20]  On the other hand, penetration of Communist ideas represented a destabilizing element within a party which had adopted Islam as its main basis for unity. This change brought about a split of the Sarekat Islam in 1921 in two smaller groups, the pro-Communist and the anti-Communist.[21]

As a result, the Islamic branch adopted in the same year the so-called ‘Basic Principles of the Sarekat Islam’, which emphasized Islam as the unique source and inspiration for its policies and activities, without losing neither the major objective of national independence nor its original egalitarian vocation: “Complete national independence [was] a condition for the full realization of Islamic ideals, assuming that power is in the hands of the Muslims”. In addition, the party “aimed at the creation of a democratic government … in an Islamic state”, and it recognized and guaranteed “individual initiative in the economic field” and “the equality of (Muslim) men and women and the equality of husband and wife”[22] In comparison with other Islamic political parties working in those years, the above-mentioned principles and the role of the Quran as its main conceptual framework, make the Sarekat party one of the most astounding example of the large diversity of Islamic mass-movements existing in the interwar period, which were all deeply affected by the spread of new ideologies (such as Socialism and Communism) and by the resilience of older and unresolved colonial issues.


The Pan-Islamic mass-movements so far analyzed show a great deal of different features while threads which connect them together are the call to Islam as a universal religion and the need for national independences. Interwar years were undoubtedly characterized by social tensions, turmoil, revolutions and political unrests all over the world but, according to the religious and peculiar political issues, such revolts took different shapes. The recovery of the Pan-Islam ideology by mass-movements’ leaders was a political choice rather than a religious one, promoted in order to claim their instances against colonial rulers more effectively. In addition, calling for an Islamic unity helped these leaders to obtain a massive and unprecedented popular support. Finally, the declining trajectory of such movements could be explained looking at basic misunderstandings, as for the Khilafat movement, or just by political repressions, as in the cases of Muslim Brotherhood and Serakat: all the movements taken into account weren’t able to pursue their original political aims because they lacked real and effective political power to impose their willingness in the contest in which they operated.

Conversely, each of them was able to promote unprecedented political awareness and participation among their supporters and to recognize and using Islam as a powerful driver in international politics: all elements that would be extremely useful to the next generations of Islamic leaders.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

[1] Sidel, John. Class Lecture. Pan-Islamism, the Caliphate, and New Islamic Movements, LSE, London, 3 November 2011.

[2] Adeeb Khalid, “Pan-Islamism in Pratice: The Rhetoric of Muslim Unity and its Uses,” in Elizabeth Özdalga (ed.), Late Ottoman Society: The Intellectual Legacy (London: Routledge Curzon, 2005), pp. 202 and 207.

[3] As Moaddel reports, the most affected countries by the expansion of Islamic modernism were under the direct colonial rule of Great Britain (a Western power): namely Egypt and India. Mansoor Moaddel, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse (Chicago University Press, 2005), p. 27.

[4] Nikki R. Keddie, “The Origins of the Religious-Radical Alliance in Iran,” Past and Present 34 (July 1966), p. 75.

[5] Sidel, John. Class Lecture. Pan-Islamism, the Caliphate, and New Islamic Movements, LSE, London, 3 November 2011.

[6] Azmi Ozcan, Pan-Islamism: Indian Muslims, the Ottomans and Britain, 1877 – 1924 (Leiden: Brill, 1997), p. 186.

[7] Jacob Landau, “Turkey Opts Out, while India’s Muslims Get Involved”, in The Politics of Pan-Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 203.

[8] Hamza Alavi, “Ironies of History: Contradictions of the Khilafat Movement”, Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Volume 17, Number 1 (1997), p. 1.

[9] Azmi Ozcan, p. 191.

[10] Azmi Ozcan, p. 202.

[11] Hamza Alavi, p. 11.

[12] Jacob Landau, p. 213.

[13] Mansoor Moaddel, p. 197.

[14] Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement, 1928 – 1982 (Reading: Ithaca Press, 1998), p. 72.

[15] Lia describes this new approach in referring to an idea of “Islam applied”, p. 74.

[16] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History, (Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 157

[17] Mansoor Moaddel, p. 216.

[18] Brynjar Lia, p. 286.

[19] Deliar Noer, The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900 – 1942 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 113.

[20] Sidel, John. Class Lecture. Pan-Islamism, the Caliphate, and New Islamic Movements, LSE, London, 3 November 2011.

[21] Deliar Noer, p. 126.

[22] Deliar Noer, pp. 140 – 141.


Adeeb Khalid, “Pan-Islamism in Pratice: The Rhetoric of Muslim Unity and its Uses,” in Elizabeth Özdalga (ed.), Late Ottoman Society: The Intellectual Legacy (London: Routledge Curzon, 2005)

Azmi Ozcan, Pan-Islamism: Indian Muslims, the Ottomans and Britain, 1877 – 1924 (Leiden: Brill, 1997)

Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement, 1928 – 1982 (Reading: Ithaca Press, 1998)

Deliar Noer, The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900 – 1942 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1973)

Hamza Alavi, “Ironies of History: Contradictions of the Khilafat Movement”, Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Volume 17, Number 1 (1997)

Jacob Landau, “Turkey Opts Out, while India’s Muslims Get Involved”, in The Politics of Pan-Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Mansoor Moaddel, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse (Chicago University Press, 2005)

Nikki R. Keddie, “The Origins of the Religious-Radical Alliance in Iran,” Past and Present 34 (July 1966)

Sidel, John. Class Lecture. Pan-Islamism, the Caliphate, and New Islamic Movements, LSE, London, 3 November 2011.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History, (Princeton University Press, 1957)

Iran & The Bomb: When Theory Is Not Enough

If the Cold War peace was only an exceptional case, thus allowing Iran to build its own nuclear capabilities would not be the best option for the United States and Israel, which kind of theoretical contribution is useful for policymakers today?


nuclear missile launch


During the past months a great deal of attention has been paid to Iranian nuclear activities, especially with regard to the best measures for the United States and Israel to adopt in order to tackle the threat of the theocratic regime acquiring nuclear weapons.

Although the United States and the European Union have applied diplomatic and economic sanctions with growing harshness in order to oblige Iran to withdraw, or at least to negotiate, its nuclear purposes, no decisive step towards a peaceful solution has been achieved. While on the political level the situation is stagnant, the theoretical debate, centred upon the so-called theory of nuclear deterrence, could provide useful hints and strategic suggestions for policy-makers.

First and foremost, it is worth remembering that the debate over the possibility of nuclear proliferation and the related threat to regional stability has already been discussed by Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan in 1981, and renewed in 2002 by the same scholars.

Waltz has always welcomed and sustained the idea that nuclear proliferation should guarantee peace and stability, basing this assumption on the historical record of the Cold War confrontation and the following nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan. As a result, in the last article published by Waltz in Foreign Affairs, nuclear asymmetry is conceived of as destabilizing given the objective gap in military power and capabilities between Iran and Israel. In addition, such a strategic shortcoming is worsened by the pre-existing ideological rivalry, an irrational aspect that could be worked out only by the logic of deterrence, deemed by Waltz as the most suitable option for assuring stability in the Middle East. In fact, following this reasoning, once Iran obtains its own nuclear weapons, itself and Israel shall be strategically balanced, and no other country in the region should have the incentive to acquire further nuclear capability, leaving the region more stable than today.

If a first sight the rational logic suggested by Waltz seems to be correct and attractive, it is worth considering that the realm of international politics is quite complex and security concerns are not the only characteristic that states are affected by. As Sagan pointed out as early as 1981, states pursue nuclear weapons building because of three major considerations: security, domestic dynamics and international norms.

Aside from the security concerns already discussed, domestic considerations such as the existence of parochial but powerful political groups or individuals (the nuclear energy establishment, the military complex and populist politicians) and the concurrent influence of international norms and shared beliefs on national leaders (such as the Iranian establishment pretension to be a regional power with global aspirations), are not elements of the Waltzian equation and as such alter the balance, perhaps bringing unpredictable consequences.

Indeed, as Sagan himself recalled, Cold War’s “nuclear peace” should not be deduced as the general rule or as an excuse for inaction with either arms control or non-proliferation; instead it remains an exception to celebrate and wonder about.

By the same token, Colin Kahl posits that Waltz ignores other crucial findings, such as the Iranian sponsorship of terrorist groups and militants throughout the Middle East. In addition, given Iran is a revolutionary and by definition revisionist regime, its leadership is not only concerned about its own survival and security, but it is also committed in spreading anti-systemic support through offensive tools in order to expand Iran’s influence and advance its revisionist agenda and ideology in the Islamic world.

Furthermore, critiques against Waltz’s argument are strengthened when Stephen Walt, a neo-realist scholar labelled as “defensive” (as Waltz is), doubts the contemporary validity and workability of the logic deterrence. As a matter of fact, such a strategy could work well once both sides are endowed with survivable forces – second strike capability – that make each of them unwilling to launch the first attack for strategic calculations.

If the Cold War peace was only an exceptional case, thus allowing Iran to build its own nuclear capabilities would not be the best option for the United States and Israel, which kind of theoretical contribution is useful for policymakers today?

Ironically, a partial answer could lie in history. By considering the current situation like a Cuban missile crisis in “slow motion”: Graham Allison has prefigured an inexorable showdown in which the US president will be forced to choose between ordering a military attack or acquiescing to a nuclearized Iran, as happened to Kennedy in the final Saturday. Then, the US President chose for a third way, namely a secret promise to withdraw US missiles from Turkey within six months after the crisis was resolved. Today the situation is much more complicated given the presence of a third nuclear party, Israel, and its domestic perception of threat. According to Allison, only in the case of the domestic situation in Israel reducing the likelihood of a unilateral Israeli attack will American policymakers plan a more reasoned strategy.

In conclusion, even international relations theory admits that the best way to prevent Iranian nuclear weapon is diplomacy, by diminishing Tehran’s need for a deterrent and offering a diplomatic deal that allow Iranians to keep their right for nuclear energy and removes their perception of threat.

American Exceptionalism & The Shaping Of US Foreign Policy

The resort to the nationalist ideology of American Exceptionalism by both sides of the political spectrum is not just a temporary electoral trick, but a signal of a deeper state of uncertainty and concern rooted in the history of the American republic.


american exceptionalism


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he growing electoral debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney has been focusing on, among many other issues, the meaning of American Exceptionalism, after years of dismissal from the public arena. This comeback to an ideological lexicon, concurrent with an historical period marked by economic turmoil and political uncertainty about the predominant role of the United States in international relations, can be explained by digging into its own origin in order to get a better understanding of what is now at stake within the current debate over the American greatness.

The resurgence of American Exceptionalism should be framed into the historical evolution of the concept, in order to relate it to the relevant political backdrop. Indeed, although many commentators attribute the coining of the term to Joseph Stalin in 1929 – who’s condemnation of American Exceptionalism was based on capitalism being an exception to Marxism’s universal laws – the ideological roots are to be found in the famous puritan John Winthrop’s speech in 1630. Winthrop alluded to the Arabella’s passengers escaping England as the “city upon the hill” for future people: drawing upon Matthew 5:14–15, Winthrop articulated his vision of the forthcoming Puritan colony in New England as an example of a truly godly society to be admired and imitated by England and the world.

However, Thomas Paine made the greatest contribution to the definition of the American national ideology, when in his “Common Sense” pamphlet written in 1776 he described America as a the rampart of liberty for the world. In addition, the French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville confirmed such a self-perception of political uniqueness in 1840.

What is interesting, and worth noting, is that the ideology of exceptionalism, coupled with a keen interest in commercial trade, marked the first years of American independence with a new kind of foreign policy approach characterized by the intertwined relationship between interests, values and self-representation, by working as the mobilizing domestic driver of the American role in the world. As a matter of fact, as the Italian historian Mario Del Pero puts it, unilateralist foreign policies have been implemented every time national interest and international inspiration overlapped, by reflecting on international level the nationalist rhetoric (as occurred in 1898, 1914, 1941 and recently along with the neo-conservative political resurgence), in order to give Americans order to their vision of the world and defining their place within it.

Despite some prominent scholars (such as Stephen Walt) having tried to debunk the myth of American Exceptionalism and to rule it out from the possible explanatory variables of US foreign policy, stressing that its conduct has been determined firstly by the relative power and the competitive nature of international politics, contemporary debate has refocused its attention on this issue. This resurgence has come about in no small part due to some surveys carried out by Gallup, according to which American nationalism is booming within the United States: 80% of its population believes in the unique character of their country because of its history and possession of a constitution that make it a different, and the greatest nation in the world.

Indeed, nationalism is quite a common means for uniting divided populations and can act on two different levels: domestic and international. As for the former, nationalism comes out as unifying and mobilizing factor when economic difficulties and political challenges arise. For instance, national reaction and popular refusal to the “Malaise Speech” by President Carter in 1979, gave a big thrust to the Reaganian propaganda on international level: as a matter of fact, the 40th President of the United States based his electoral campaign on the saving role of the American leadership against the Evil Empire led by the Soviet Union.

Currently, given the end of the unipolar moment, the beleaguered state of American economy combined with its military troubles (with its expenditure being cut and it being overstretched from East Asia to Western Europe), as well as an increasing dysfunctional governance and the decline of American legitimacy abroad, the United States is in a very uncomfortable position. The resort to the nationalist ideology of American Exceptionalism by both sides of the political spectrum is not just a temporary electoral trick, but a signal of a deeper state of uncertainty and concern rooted in the history of the American republic.

The Sino-Russian Relationship: The Next Axis Of Power?

The fear for future joint military operations led by the Sino-Russian axis remains vivid, while the relevance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an alternative to the Western power alignment cannot be overlooked.


Russia and China


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation, signed by China and Russia, has thrust the two countries towards growing relationships and economic cooperation in the last ten years. As a matter of fact, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that followed just one month later, provided the general framework conducive to improve relations among its members (China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) on economic, security and energetic issues, while on the other hand the organization, by covering the 60% of the Eurasia landmass, posed itself as the political bulwark against further U.S. penetration in the region.

Political and economic ties between China and Russia, former Cold War rivals, have deepened steadily in the afore-mentioned fields, as the last SCO international meeting held in Beijing on the 6th and 7th June has confirmed. According to the Russian press agency Interfax, Sino-Russian bilateral trade approached $100 billion this year, backed by an impressive 40% annual rate in the past two years. In addition, the two partners have called to further stabilizing their economic ties, by signing a mutual fund of $4 billion worth, in order to develop reciprocal and broader investments in mining and consumer goods industries, infrastructure, agriculture and power plant construction, and to double trade figures to $200 billion by 2020.

Another relevant point discussed in Beijing has concerned military and security cooperation in the Asiatic area. The Chinese PLA relies massively on Russian military technologies purchasing, even though the higher devices are not being sold to Chinese anymore. Despite this partial refusal due to Russian security concerns, both the major Asiatic powers are willing to maintain naval joint exercises in the Yellow Sea, as opposed to the U.S.-Vietnamese ones which occurred in the last months. Indeed, by publicly promoting these operations as pillar in guaranteeing regional security on the bases of international law, the strategic non-declared objective is to limit the American influence in the region after the announced 60% redeployment of its naval forces in Asia.

Finally, both Russia and China, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, have stressed rejection of military intervention in the affairs of Syria, in order to halt all acts of violence on those territories and to respect comprehensive national dialogue on the basis of Syria’s unity, sovereignty and independence. The shady statement, adopted by the Organization’s six members of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, put together different and contradictory principles, on one hand by calling upon the international community to respect the principles and basics of the UN Charter and the rules of the international law, on the other by recalling the independent choices of the region’s peoples.

Alongside common strong economic, security and diplomatic positions, the relationship between Russia and China suffers from some minor disagreements, mostly due to disputes over Russian unwillingness to sell its fighter jets and other military hardware to China, and the longstanding wrangle between Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corp. about the price of gas to be delivered by two Siberian pipelines: Russia prefers to link gas prices to oil prices, as it does in Europe, while China wants a lower price.

Despite these marginal questions, the strategic and political alliance between Russia and China is improving day by day, partially disguised by the shroud of fog provided by the SCO. As a matter of fact, it’s clear how its two major powers and their respective national interests lead such a multilateral organization, whose most important concern is to promote a multipolar world and, accordingly, to limit the influence of the United States both in East and Central Asia. In fact, it’s no coincidence that in the last SCO summit the special guest was the Afghan President Hamid Karzai (along with the Iranian President Ahmadinejad): in order to secure Chinese and Russian energetic and geopolitical interests in the country after the first U.S. troops withdraws, Putin and Hu Jintao have both declared a desire to increase their military presence throughout Central and South Asia. In addition, this new alignment should be, according to the Chinese head of state, the regional tool of management in the foreseeable future.

In conclusion, the future alliance between Russia and China could be seen through two different perspectives: from a more naïve and cooperative standpoint, it should not be viewed as a threat to U.S. strategic national interests, rather as a new form of collective security concurrent with the American strategic and regional interests related to the prevention of terrorism in Central Asia (as a form of “thanksgiving” towards the U.S. and NATO after years of Russian and Chinese free-riding). Conversely, leaving the Eurasia heartland to Russia and China, along with the likely strengthening of the Chinese presence in East Asia, could be a risky bet to win for the U.S. Indeed, recent rumours by the Persian service of the Fars News Agency have revealed an imminent joint war game in Syria, according to which 90,000 forces will be involved, along with 400 warplanes, 1,000 tanks, plus several Russian and Iranian battleships, submarines and 12 Chinese warships (whose passage through the Suez Canal would be granted by Egypt). Even if Syrian and Russian officials have promptly denied the news (that has coincidentally come out with the worsening of the Syrian situation on international level), the fear for future joint military operations led by the Sino-Russian axis remains vivid, while the relevance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an alternative to the Western power alignment cannot be overlooked.

Geopolitics & Future World Stability

Geopolitics, while far from being a deterministic science, continues to offer constraints and opportunities for understanding the future that leaders, policy-makers and bureaucrats should seize in the next months and years.




[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he recent geopolitical contribution provided by Ian Bremmer, president and cofounder of one of the most relevant consulting firms in the field of political risk, has been grounded in the so-called “new geopolitical” thinking and, to some extent, his G-zero theory represents the ideal development of this.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the most severe threat against Western societies and the stability of their political regimes, several scholars hastily gave praise to the “end of history” paradigm: the depiction of the victory of the liberal Western-based model of political, social and economic order over the socialist one as triumphal and definitive. According to others, Samuel Huntington for example, the next dangerous challenges would come from religious cleavages combined with fundamentalism on the back of anti-Western and anti-Christian ideology. These predictions, though partially correct with regard to the temporary but delusional Western predominance and the violent uprising of religiously motivated international terrorism, dealt with the identification of well-identifiable actors, ideologies and political models and the related (and possible) re-emergence of international threats.

As a matter of fact, since the fall of the Soviet Union world politics has faced no more threats insofar as there has been no identifiable actor with hostile intentions and the material capability to jeopardize other international players (the crux of the matter being the crucial role of hard power). Instead a complex scenario of risks has presented itself, characterized by unpredictable, unintentional and uncontrollable factors. As a result, foreign policy formulation has paid progressive attention to the harmful consequences of techno-scientific developments and their applications to the military and cyber world. For example, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; climate change and environmental disasters and the necessity to develop geopolitics of sustainability; the increasing competition for natural resources between state and non-state actors in Central Asia and Africa, and the spread of religious and fanatic terrorism.

Despite the fact that geography is undoubtedly the most pertinent factor in foreign policy, the awareness of living within a globalized risk society, where risks transcend political and territorial boundaries, has deeply influenced geopolitical thought historically embedded into the realist tradition of international relations. Gerard Tuathail called this new field of inquiry “critical geopolitics”, insisting on the need to adopt a new and deterritorialized approach to security issues.

In the wake of this previous theorization, Bremmer G-Zero theory asserts that this current period requires more cooperation under strong leadership in order to overcome transnational challenges. However, neither single powers such as the United States, China or the other BRICS countries, nor the G-20 or other more institutionalized subjects (IMF, the World Bank, UN) can guarantee any consistent international leadership given their temporary relative decline, weak power and poor economic projection abroad.

As a result, from the current and instable political vacuum, four likely geopolitical scenarios could emerge in the next years, all of them centred upon the relationship between the US and China: an unlikely “informal G-2”, shaped as a crystallized and cooperative bipolar world peacefully managed by two antipodal political and economic systems; a global concert of nations, although characterized by different economic and security interests between emerging and established powers; the Cold War 2.0, as a consequence of the global competition between the US and China over economic issues, ideological alternatives and scarce world’s energy supplies; a fragmented world of regions, in which multilateral cooperation would be weakened and transnational problems not fully addressed.

Finally, a further scenario could be take into account, namely the G-Subzero, in which global problems would turn into local emergencies with catastrophic consequences for individual countries’ stability. In this fragmented world, every nation would be wholly committed to managing internal crisis caused by social unrest, economic/financial collapse, the emergence of separatist/extremist political movements, etc. Accordingly, the true conceptual and working basis of globalization would be jeopardized and every nation would have to provide effective solutions on its own.

Needless to say this gloomy perspective will not occur deterministically in the future, even if it has to be considered after more than half of century of bipolar and unipolar stability. In addition, transnational problems make the current political context riskier and more unpredictable as ever since the creation of the Westphalian System. For this reason, solutions à la Robert Cooper, according to whom the process of nation breaking should be addressed by shaping a new globalized Western hegemony would not work, given that it would be only an anachronistic re-elaboration of Mackinder’s imperialist message launched in 1904 in order to prevent the British Empire to fall apart.

Geopolitics, while far from being a deterministic science, continues to offer constraints and opportunities for understanding the future that leaders, policy-makers and bureaucrats should seize in the next months and years.

Risk Society & War

What does the risk society tell us about war?
{Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science}



[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the last two decades, security studies have been characterized by a new form of analysis, concerning the concepts of risk, risk-management, precaution and prevention, which have gradually replaced the old logic of threat, deterrence and defence. According to Williams, risk society represents the focus of the international realm’s politics, given the debate on international affairs is no longer centered upon power politics and balance of power dynamics rather more about the management of uncertainty. Accordingly, the conceptualization of a world risk society provided by Beck, for whom the world after the Cold war exists within a system of “late modern risks” , refers to a renowned international environment or new world, which underlines the existence of a new stage of modernity. This international risk society can be described through a constructivist perspective, according to political practices of its main actors are underpinned by a kind of reflexive rationality. In such a way, reflexive rationality, has emerged as distinctive feature of risk society, “preoccupied with averting an array of possible adverse undesirable consequences that may or not may materialize” and in sharp contrast with the traditional “means-ends” rationality defined by Weber, assumed as the only way for understanding the actions of social agents.

In the first book by Beck on risk society, three major global threats to security were identified: the environmental challenge, global poverty and its side effects, the existence and potential proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction by terrorists organizations. However, in the last decade, new security challenges have come out, such as international terrorism, and great powers have rediscovered war as an instrument for coping with them.
As the war on terrorism has shown, strategic thought has been deeply influenced by the afore mentioned concept of reflexive rationality. On the one hand, in this essay I will be presenting the main characteristics of this reflexive modernity as they emerge from the risk society while, on the other hand, I will draw the relation between strategy and war, and risk society, by wondering to what extent the latter has modeled the formers in their own practices and logics, in particular by focusing on the factors of anxiety and uncertainty.

War and risk management

According to Beck, the end of the bipolar system has caused the disappearance of a world of enemies but the emergence of dangers and risks. Risks, in these terms, are conceived as the “modern approach to foresee and control the future consequences of human action, the various unintended consequences of radicalized modernization”. The new or “reflexive” rationality needed to overcome and manage these environment is shaped by three points that Rasmussen frames under the label of “desire for control” : management, the presence of the future and the boomerang effect. The first point refers to the effort of managing risks effectively within a context of “political wilderness”, through a set of recognized rules different from the “old” ones and adapted to the world risk society. The “presence of the future” looks at the process of risk management as concerned with the possible events in the future, by analyzing the potential tendency of risk. In this light, society must take actions today for preventing the problems of tomorrow: in so doing, “society must act on the knowledge of its lack of security to prevent possible destruction”. Uncontrollability and uncertainty of risk mark the reflexive era, that is affected by a two-fold “boomerang effect” which arise when policy-makers try to manage both of them: on the one hand the paradoxical effect of increasing anxiety about risk; on the other, by assuming risky behaviour. As Williams reports, “in attempting to control the future, to manage the risk, risk itself eludes our control as the side effect of risk management is the proliferation of risk.”
Against this backdrop, according to Coker even the role of war has changed, becoming an activity of “risk management in all but name”. As a matter of fact, great powers like Great Britain and the US “talk the language of risks and ‘do’ risk management against” the actors of international realm that pose no more threats to their interests or security rather risks, such as terrorist networks, rogue and failed states, proliferation of and clandestine WMD programmes. For this reason, war is seen as the best instrument for coping with current risks and, at the same time, war itself has been reformulated and “re-grounded in terms of managing risks”. Theoretically speaking, this assumption is based on the same Clausewitzian thought: given the inescapable trinity of violence, chance and instrumental use of wars which shapes the “concrete totality” of war, Clausewitz is well aware that “every age [has] its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions and its own peculiar preconceptions. It follows that the events of every age must be judged in the light of its own peculiarities”. Indeed, Aron underlines this aspect by stressing that “war possesses not a logic, but a grammar of its own” , which is shaped and substantiated by the political logic of the moment. By this token, issues such as proliferation and terrorism, already present during the Cold War, have gained priority in the security agenda, by virtue of the new globalized and strategic context.

In order to clarify war as a risk management activity, Heng has identified three major features or ‘operational indicators’ strictly intertwined with the points grasped by Rasmussen in defining the concept of reflexive security. War, in these terms, is reconsidered in light of: the significance of risk’s probabilities and consequences as relevant components to security management; the role of precautionary principle and surveillance as tools to manage the future according to the concepts of ‘active anticipation’ and ‘reflexive’ considerations; above all, the objective of war, no more focused on providing the perfect solutions or “decisive victories”, regards a more modest aim: “to reduce risks and prevent hypothesized future harm”, paying particular attention in not creating ‘boomerang effects’.

As Coker remarks, this ‘new security paradigm’ has been adopted by the US in addressing three different challenges emerged in the first years of this century: the rise of terrorism, the rise of China and the growing anarchy provoked by a deterritorialized and de-bounded world, where even the concept of geopolitics goes through an ontological change given the fact that “risk has replaced threat as the centre of security studies”. As a matter of fact, this conceptual shift is reflected in the US Quadrennial Defense Review (2001), which describes risk as “the single most important strategic tenet” of national security thinking and in NATO’s Strategic Concepts of 1991, 1999 and 2010, where the management of risk is supposed to be the Alliance’s most important strategic purpose.

Despite the gloomy strategic landscape just depicted, the world risk society is not more dangerous than previous era, instead it is one of the safest in history. However, what makes this temporal and spatial frame darker is the awareness to be subjected on future risks at any time. The “uncertainty of what to expect and the nature of the system makes today’s society feel less secure” , characterizing the contemporary world as blocked and barricaded into the anxiety of risk, and no more concerned with the fear provoked by a visible, bounded and paradoxically reassuring, threat.

War and the risk society: anxiety and complexity

The distinction between threat and risk is a central feature for understanding the role of war within the risk society. As Heng underlines, during the Cold war assessment of threat depended on two components: intentions of the Soviet Union and the count of its military capabilities, tanks and military hardware. According to the means-end rationality, threat was objective, material, estimable and it could be contained through the rules of deterrence. Risk, conversely, is a socially and culturally constructed term: on the one hand, a “risk” occurs after having located a potential danger and the countermeasures for mitigating and preventing its effects in the future; on the other hand, the inherent uncertainty of risk could cause different assessments on its dangerousness and, therefore, it can be risky to a country but not to another one. The character of subjectivity that underpins risk explain why Iraq has been “a perfect case for constructivism”, in which, as Solana stated, there were different perceptions of risk between the US and the EU foreign policy. Furthermore, the Iraqi case and the strategy adopted by the American policy-makers within the War on Terror, are suitable examples of war meant as a risk management activity. Is a fact that by the Afghan campaign in 2001, former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “was advocating a paradigm shift in conceptualizing a new type of war” . Since the War on Terror is a “war against an abstract noun” , the orientation to prevent and to adopt proactive policies against hypothesised future harm is at the core of war as a risk management activity, because it deals with risk defined according to the famous ‘unknown unknowns’ theorized by Rumsfeld: “there are risks we know about, and risks we don’t know we are running, and finally there are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Shifting from the systemic to the agent level of risk analysis, Coker affirms that the subjective and cultural nature of risks affects people imagination: in fact, anxiety and apprehension, the most representative features of risk society, are rooted in what we imagine, in what might happen rather than in some well defined threat. In addition the increasingly complexity of world connected with globalisation, has ripened this feeling of insecurity and the degree of self-reflexivity, the latter conceived as a fundamental trait of modernity and contemporary meaning of war: “war has become increasingly complex and as a result increasingly indecisive”, as the Afghan and the Iraqi wars have shown.
By stressing the ‘post-heroic’ character of war, where decisive battles and results are out of the current strategic understanding, Luttwak adds that warfare has radically changed toward a new concept more attentive to “a patient and modest strategic outlook able to appreciate partial results”. Being war a risk management instrument, it should adapt itself in a complex globalised interconnected world, looking for a balance between “doing too much, which might be costly and disruptive, and simply wringing one’s hands, which could impair global stability.”

Finally, the aim of such a post-modern kind of war should be to reduce uncertainty and anxiety and try to eliminate the most pressing dangers to international society, such as terrorism. In other words, war should manage effectively the Global complex disorder by changing radically and dialectically its function. In so doing, war strengthens its human character and remains an instrument that “cannot be divorced from individuals and the society, which perceives the threats, prepares for conflict and wages war”.


In conclusion, currently contemporary warfare faces a challenge, that is neither a risk nor a threat: namely, war has to adapt itself to the peculiarities, perceptions and conditions of this very historical period characterized by risk, anxiety and global complexity, in order to fulfill its own functions. From a theoretical standpoint, constructivist approaches could be useful guides for this task, but the presence of the future in assessing contemporary dangers, means that the role of the strategists is changing too. According to Rasmussen, risk strategy does not necessarily lead to war, given the possibility of unpleasant boomerang effects and the emergence of strategic quagmires as has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, there are several possibilities to implement strategically the use of war: as a matter of fact, conceiving of war as a risk management activity whose decisiveness is no longer the main concern for resulting effective, strategy has become more flexible and presents policy-makers with more and more choices for using armed force with different degrees of engagement and relying on a wider spectrum of technological developments.

[toggle title=”Bibliography”]
Aron, Raymond, ‘Reason, Passion, and Power in the Thought of Clausewitz’ Social Research – An International Quarterly of the Social Sciences 39 (4), 1972.
Beck, Ulrich, World Risk Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.
Clausewitz, Carl Von, On War, Edited and translated by M. Howard and P. Paret, Princeton University Press, 2008.
Coker, Christopher, Globalisation and Insecurity in the C21st: NATO and the management of Risk, Adelphi Paper 345, London: International Institute of Strategic Studies, 2002.
Coker, Christopher, War in an Age of Risk, Polity Press, 2009.
Coker, Christopher. Class Lecture. The Risk Society at War, LSE, London, 18 November 2011.
David Macdonald, Book Review: Christopher Coker, War in an Age of Risk (Cambridge: Polity 2009, 188 pp.) Millennium – Journal of International Studies 2010 38.
Heng, Yee-Kuang, War as Risk Management: Strategy and Conflict in an age of globalised risks, Routledge, 2006.
Rasmussen, M.V., ‘Reflexive Security: NATO and International Risk Society’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30 (2), 2001.
Rasmussen, Mikkel, The Risk Society at War, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Tuathail, G.O., ‘Understanding Critical Geopolitics: Geopolitics and Risk Society’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, 22 (2/3), 1999.
Williams, Michael J., NATO, security and risk management : from Kosovo to Khandahar. Abingdon ; New York : Routledge, 2009.


China: Domestic Pitfalls & Incoherent Foreign Policy

China does not represent a danger to the international community over the next 10 years but its new leaders must combat the prospect of an economic downturn.



[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the most demanding tasks today is to provide a detailed depiction of China’s current social and political complexities, a mission that probably even George Kennan, the famous author of the X article about the sources of the Soviet conduct, would be able to accomplish systematically.

Indeed, despite the massive bulk of social, cultural and militarily analysis on China and its history, making precise predictions about the trajectory of China as a global actor can result in fragmented and scattered intellectual efforts without any general evidence or visible trends to compare with.

By approaching such a fascinating and hard question with the greatest humbleness, I will try to trace a general trend explaining the current situation of China.

Broadly summarizing, today China presents a couple of relevant problems: on the one hand a set of worrying domestic issues concerning the political and social plight of its ruling class and citizens; on the other hand, a series of contradicting steps in international politics that would scare even the most prudent and careful strategic thinker. As a result, to an external viewer, contemporary China seems to be a confusing giant in search for a new identity after 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth ended with the 2008 global economic meltdown.

After the death of Chairman Mao in 1976 and the reform package launched by Den Xiaoping soon after, the Chinese ruling party has assured a long period of economic rise and, in doing so, has strengthened its legitimacy as the only instrument capable of guaranteeing China’s stability, unity and security. In exchange for economic and physical protection, Chinese population has given up any claim about the liberalization of political and civil rights, by signing a sort of “gentle agreement” with its own rulers in order to achieve a common interest. After all, as China possesses neither a multiparty system nor a democracy, there was no need to be concerned with political representation, especially after decades of political weakness and the socially devastating effects of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Accordingly, the course of Chinese economic growth in the last years has deeply characterized its society and the nature of its foreign relationships.

On the domestic level, China is affected by an endless number of challenges, worsened further because of the scale of its population. First of all the environmental problem, caused by the massive industrial pollution and the process of desertification in the inland Chinese areas. Secondly, the relentless aging process of the Chinese population, as a result of the one-child policy promoted in 1978. According to recent estimates, by 2050 the largest part of the Chinese population will be formed by elderly, with significant impacts on productivity and social expenditures. This demographic decline is coupled with a growing regional disparity and imbalance between rich and poor areas, which compels massive migrations from the rural and less wealthy areas of the country to the seacoast, with increasing costs in terms of country-land’s de-urbanization. Lack of food safety, the bad quality of healthcare services, the Tibetan quest for self-determination and spreading corruption (not only among public officials but even among the common people – to such an extent that a six-year-old Chinese girl expressed the desire and the dream to become a corrupt agent in her future), provide for a very baffled, although not exhaustive, depiction of what Chinese society is today.

In addition, the logic of Chinese foreign policy is characterized by a substantial incoherence: on one hand their policy-makers clearly pursue politics of resource supplying through fertile-land purchases and investments in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia, for example; on the other hand, China purportedly doesn’t want to interfere in other countries’ affairs.

The ongoing international tensions in the South China Sea and the pressures by states such as Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and South Korea to keep the US military umbrella in the region, are the best example to describe such a costly paradox, given the longstanding Chinese diplomatic effort to reassure and tighten good relationships with its neighbours, for instance by promoting the concept of “peaceful rise”.

As partial explanation to this incoherence, is the involvement of an extensive range of political players in shaping foreign policy, such as the pragmatic Communist party, the growing assertive PLA and the profit-seeker industrial complex: the final outcome is an uncertain and ambiguous approach to international politics.

For the next ten years, by virtue of its domestic issues, China will be not representing a real danger for the international community. Nonetheless, a decrease of the employment rate to 5-6% could prompt a large scale of mass mobilization and jeopardize the stability of the country. The problem of a Chinese economic downturn, largely underestimated in the West, should be promptly faced through incisive economic and political reforms by the new class of political leader that are going to be elected next October.