Category Archives: Theory

A Realistic Assessment of Nuclear Disarmament

This essay focuses on three main criteria/assumptions in order to evaluate whether abolition is a desirable policy goal for the international community: the capacity of nuclear weapons to deter external threats, the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and the prospect of intensified worldwide proliferation.




[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith the nuclear disarmament agenda being increasingly brought to the fore of world politics, firmly supported, at least in rhetoric, by prominent individuals and states, it is essential that a consideration of the issue be based on the clarification of the theoretical ambiguities pertaining to the attributes nuclear weapons have been customarily ascribed with. This essay focuses on three main criteria/assumptions in order to evaluate whether abolition is a desirable policy goal for the international community: the capacity of nuclear weapons to deter external threats, the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and the prospect of intensified worldwide proliferation. It adopts a primarily logical and secondarily factual approach – since history does not provide us with an adequately solid ground for predictions – and argues that the risk involved in a highly nuclearised world outweighs the purported benefits of nuclear weapons.

Deterrent and stabilizing power

One of the main attributes of nuclear weapons is their perceived deterrent power, which minimises external threats to the state that possesses them, reduces the possibility of war, and thus contributes to international stability and security. The Cold War has been the primary historical precedent which seemingly supports this notion, demonstrating that it is highly unlikely for two nuclear-armed rivals with second-strike capabilities to be engaged in a nuclear war. The US and the Soviet Union were both well aware of the catastrophic consequences of a possible nuclear escalation, so they refrained from using them. The idea here is that the certainty of mutual annihilation which accompanies a nuclear war – in contrast to conventional ones, where uncertainty and misperceptions cloud all subjective considerations regarding military capabilities, strategies and potential outcomes – ensures that political leaders will refrain from initiating full-scale nuclear confrontations and bestows deterrence with a level of credibility which is absent in a conventional world.[1]

This credibility, however, is not necessarily unquestionable. As Michael Quinlan correctly points out, the argument that nuclear deterrence has contributed to post-WWII stability and peace may be valid, yet practically impossible to prove.[2] Other factors may have played an equally important role in preventing the Cold War from turning onto a ‘hot’ one. The real intentions of the Soviet leaders, for example, may never be revealed, and we cannot undoubtedly claim that they would have invaded Western Europe in the absence of the US nuclear umbrella. The hypothetical nature of all possible alternative scenarios to the actual historical experience does not allow us to contrast what happened to what could have happened in a meaningful and useful way, yet the fact remains that there can be multiple explanations as to why the US-USSR rivalry did not lead to another world war, and nuclear deterrence is just one among them. Rather than being a factor for peace, nuclear weapons may have actually created or aggravated tensions and crises during the Cold War by minimizing the role of alternative forms of state power such as diplomacy and economic strength, by elevating the appeal of preemption and first-strike capability in military considerations thus promoting more precarious strategies and policies, and by shifting the emphasis from pragmatic to psychological calculations, from balance of power to show of resolve, as risk taking and demonstration of commitment became the recipe for success in the nuclear age, increasing the possibility of miscalculation and escalation.[3]

What is more, nuclear deterrence seems to have no considerable effect on the possibility of nuclear states being drawn into limited, peripheral wars, as the Korea and Vietnam wars have shown. Between roughly equally powerful rivals, the mutually assured destruction concept can nullify their nuclear capabilities, and their conventional forces return to the fore, while ‘small’, often politically convenient wars where the stakes are not so high as to threaten their very survival remain in the repertoire of policy options of democratic and authoritarian regimes alike. India and Pakistan have engaged in several such confrontations – the last one in 1999, when they were both nuclearised – without the nuclear arsenal of one or the other practically posing any convincing obstacle to full-scale military escalation. Similarly, it is perhaps unrealistic to assert that Egypt was completely unaware of Israel’s nuclear capabilities when it launched its surprise attack in the 1973 war, no matter how limited the scope of the Egyptian military objectives may had been at the time. Furthermore, in the absence of nuclear parity, or even between a nuclear and a non-nuclear state, deterrence can be just as problematic when it comes to low-intensity crises or non-vital interests: Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982 apparently confident that the UK’s nuclear weapons would remain out of the military and political equation of the conflict, acknowledging the fact that they would represent, on the part of Britain, an overly disproportionate response to the invasion, even if they were invoked only in the context of a threat of use.

With the credibility of nuclear deterrence proving dubious in various cases, it is important to examine whether this is an indication that the deterrent power of nuclear weapons is generally decreasing, reinforcing the calls for their abolition.[4] Despite the aforementioned cases, a nuclear arsenal can still be seen as the most effective and efficient means of deterring external aggression, especially as a last-resort option in the face of imminent conquest by hostile armies. It is difficult to imagine an aggressor willing to push for total victory on the battlefield or complete occupation of another state when threatened by nuclear retaliation on its own troops concentrations or population centres. North Korea’s nuclear capability, for example, obviously decreases the possibility of the US undertaking large-scale military action against it, while an Iranian pursuit of the bomb would certainly be based primarily on a firm belief that the development of a nuclear deterrent can prevent the country from following the fate of its neighbouring Iraq. Especially democracies, with their traditionally low casualty tolerance, can be very effectively deterred by the prospect of even a single nuclear bomb hitting one of their cities. Furthermore, there seems to be no indication that we will be seeing a radically different international structure any time soon, one in which cooperation will have replaced competition and diplomacy will have eliminated the utility of war as a means to political ends. Rather, the system remains anarchical, states are still the primary actors, and survival and security are their main preoccupation. External threats to their existence or vital interests will continue to exist and any strategy or weapon that helps protect against those threats cannot be easily refrained from.

Nuclear terrorism and rogue states

Currently, the most frightening prospect associated with nuclear weapons is their potential acquisition by a terrorist organisation and their use against civilian populations. This danger has been customarily invoked to support the abolition of nuclear weapons, with the whole notion of a nuclear terrorist attack being based on a certain view of terrorists as irrational actors who would use any means in their disposal in order to achieve their goals with no consideration of the consequences. Against the multitude of political statements, scholarly studies and intelligence reports warning about the apocalyptic agenda of groups like Al Qaida – with the obvious expediency of the former and questionable credibility of the latter – one can juxtapose a logical evaluation of the problem which would be seeing terrorist aspirations as being governed by the same rational and pragmatic considerations and limits as those of state actors, in as much as there are clear and realistic political objectives behind any strategy or declaration. Given the US response to the 9/11 hit, i.e. the invasion and occupation of two sovereign states on the other side of the globe, it would perhaps seem unrealistic to assume that Al Qaida would be willing to provoke a much more furious reaction from the US, let alone a certainly more substantiated condemnation by and determined mobilisation of the international community against them, by detonating a nuclear device on American soil, in addition to actually giving unprecedented justification to the policies of its very enemy. Also, terrorists aspire to some widespread public support, or at least recognition for their cause, and it is doubtful if even the most fanatical among them seriously believe that the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of innocents would win them the hearts and minds of the masses, especially given the instinctive abhorrence of nuclear weapons people everywhere share. It should then come as no surprise that a 2008 study examining Al Qaida’s statements and internal debate over the possible use of unconventional means revealed that the organisation’s interest in them has been much lower than generally feared: in its deliberations of the issue during the 90’s, views were conflicting and even the proponents of acquiring a bomb mainly sought to prevent a US attack on their bases in Afghanistan; in any case, CBRN capabilities were apparently never central in Al Qaida’s strategy[5]

But even if we assume that there is real intent by terrorist groups to acquire a nuclear bomb, the practicalities of the whole project can seem to pose insurmountable challenges. There have been states, with all their technological, economic and logistical capacities, that have failed in this task after investing valuable time and resources, or struggled for decades before succeeding in their efforts. From a technical perspective, it would be extremely difficult and expensive for even the largest and wealthiest terrorist organisation to develop a nuclear weapon of its own, in terms of the required fissile material, technological know-how and laboratory infrastructure, while the acquisition of an already functional nuclear weapon is perhaps impossible, as the security measures protecting state arsenals are extremely sophisticated, and no nuclear state would seem prepared to sell one of its weapons to a largely uncontrolled terrorist group, given the possibility of facing severe reprisals if the weapon’s origin was traced.[6] Even if these obstacles were to be overcome, transporting and successfully detonating a bomb against a target in the US or elsewhere is a process highly prone to failure at every stage of the way, which can be made even more precarious for terrorists by effective security defences and precautions.[7]

When it comes to nuclear weapons, so-called rogue states, like North Korea and Iran, are often considered being as dangerous for international security as terrorist organisations. Irrationality is here, too, assumed, combined with the specifics of their political regimes, their purported sponsoring of terrorist groups, and their portrayal as inconsiderate of human rights and international law. These states are seen as unpredictable, irresponsible, lacking nuclear security safeguards and, in any case, as potentially capable and willing of either using nuclear weapons for their own aggrandizement or handing them over to terrorists. To begin with, the issue of what ‘rogue’ state means is highly controversial as it is ideologically charged. By today’s standards, both China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War were essentially ‘rogue’ states, following highly repressive, even murderous policies domestically, and aggressive internationally, yet they displayed rational self-restraint in their nuclear military posture and tensions in their foreign relations gradually eased.[8] In international affairs, tabs like ally, strategic partner, friend, enemy, rogue state and so on can replace each other very easily. Historical experience indicates that no state is likely to treat nuclear weapons lightly, let alone transferring nuclear technology or a functioning weapon to a group or organisation not operating under its direct command. Furthermore, the arsenals of such states would be quite small, and hence every single weapon would be too precious to be sold or not tightly protected from theft. Is it realistic to assume that the weapons even the existence of which the intelligence agencies of the most advanced states cannot confirm can be actually accessible to a terrorist group? In the case of the Iranian program, it is also evident that security concerns are the primary, perhaps the only motivation for the pursuit of the bomb, and not some notion of fundamentalist grandeur, as the country faces challenges coming from multiple directions, from nuclearised neighbours and potential proliferators, to the military presence of a hostile US right at its borders. Finally, regime type does not seem to have any practical effect in determining the maturity of a state’s nuclear posture, as democratic, dictatorial, totalitarian and even an apartheid state have all come to possess nuclear weapons, with seemingly no discernible difference in the degree to which this has affected the orientation of their external behaviour. An Iranian nuclear arsenal is bound to cause proliferation pressures and undermine international stability no more than a Japanese, a South Korean or a Brazilian one.

Systemic pressures

Besides the individual impact of each existing or potential nuclear arsenal on world politics, there is also a cumulative and compounding effect that stems from the characteristics of an international system facing widespread nuclear proliferation. According to Benjamin Frankel, the end of the bipolar, Cold War systemic structure and the potential shift towards multipolarity will intensify proliferation, as the diffusion of power to various centres will create a new and expanded set of security interactions and relationships, as well as challenges, which the weakened security guarantees of the superpower(s) will not be able to check effectively, reinforcing self-help tendencies; consequently, the increased complexity of the system in terms of possible rivalries and alliances translates into a greater probability of miscalculation, escalation and war.[9] As more and more states are considering or already moving towards nuclearization, the above systemic context will apparently be combined with growing arsenals, an abundance of available nuclear material and expertise that can be easily used for military purposes, new arms races and intensified competition in missile defence and high military technology, as well as the promotion of preemption and prevention in strategic thinking and planning, creating a setting in which even minor disputes or incidents could induce some form of nuclear response ranging from precautionary or symbolic deployment to actual weapons use.[10]

In evaluating these concerns, it is first essential to establish whether we are indeed moving towards a multipolar international system. The Cold War certainly ended with an undisputed winner, who could dictate policies and impose its will across the globe to a significant, perhaps unprecedented extent. Since then, however, we have seen the gradual revival of the Russian economic and political strength, the emergence of China as a potential superpower, and regional challenges to US’s political influence or military reach in South America, East Asia and the Middle East. It should be noted that in the case of Iran and North Korea this undermining of US predominance is actually linked to the issue of nuclear weapons, providing some confirmation that the relationship between systemic structure and state power can have two dimensions when it comes to nuclear capabilities: not only does the character of the international system affect a state’s nuclear choices based on the balancing options available, but the nuclearisation of one or more states might augment their own power while diminishing that of others to a degree that it can contribute to a considerably altered distribution of power and, ultimately, the creation of new poles. North Korea’s nuclear weapons, for example, have complicated the regional security status quo, increased South Korea’s and Japan’s motivation to emancipate themselves militarily from the US, limiting the latter’s strategic options and ability to control developments while enhancing the influence of China and Russia both bilaterally and in the context of the UN Security Council. Even if the current situation does not yet justify the term ‘multipolar’, the overall trend seems perhaps unambiguously set towards that direction.

What also requires examination is the effect that the possible break-up of the US’s global hegemony can have on nuclear proliferation and, hence, on the system’s stability. It is perhaps not so clear whether the proliferation pressures of the last 20 years have been indeed fuelled by the gradually declining American power. Strong security concerns have been central in the case of Pakistan, North Korea and in the initial deliberations in the Indian case, while security seems to be the principal consideration in Iran’s stance as well. Of course, it would be a valid assumption that an Iran, for example, that could enjoy the protection of a Russian extended deterrence would have no reason to seek nuclear weapons of its own, but this might not apply to a revisionist state like North Korea, who seeks not only to deter rivals but also to force upon them its political will and change the status quo. In any case, it does seem that the more dispersed power is in the international system, the more probable it gets that states, especially expansionist ones, will feel free to pursue self-aggrandizement through possession of nuclear weapons. Even if historical experience does not provide us with sufficient evidence that as the number of weapons increases so does the chance of their use, it can be logically argued that the risks imaginably associated with a potential plethora of nuclear states competing in a multipolar anarchical world are such that perhaps do not allow humanity the luxury of waiting for factual confirmation to its fears.


Overriding the natural apprehension of nuclear weapons in order to conduct a logical assessment of the desirability of nuclear disarmament is necessary if this goal is to be pursued successfully and for the right reasons. The three criteria analysed unfortunately provide conflicting suggestions regarding the issue at hand, which is already highly speculative, since it essentially involves the comparison of two hypothetical situations, on one hand a world with 20 or even more nuclear powers and on the other a global zero; pressures apparently point towards the two extremes and the current status is seemingly bound to change.[11] Firstly, nuclear deterrence, although occasionally problematic, does seem to minimise the possibility of a major war between nuclear states, providing a psychological barrier to escalation, and generally contributing to an effective and cost-efficient defence; in its absence, states would have to commit significant additional resources to achieve the same degree of security, and, thus, arms races are likely to intensify, while the prospect of conventional wars will possibly increase. Secondly, the danger of nuclear terrorism seems unrealistic at this point, as there are no clear indications that terrorists might be capable of acquiring a nuclear weapon, or willing to pursue such an objective in the first place; if we assume even a minimal level of rationality on their behalf (that is, excluding apocalyptic cults like Aum Shinrikyo), there seems to be no scenario in which terrorists would conceivably decide on a nuclear hit against civilians with a firm belief that this would actually work to their benefit. On the other hand, intensified proliferation would logically mean increased chances that something does go wrong, while the costs of such an eventuality can be as high as our complete extinction as a species. Weighing these three factors can be highly subjective, but I would argue, that with nuclear disarmament, we will not have really lost anything – as instability and conventional wars have accompanied us throughout the millennia – but we will have eliminated a literally mortal, even if remote, danger for humanity. A volatile nuclear weapons-free world is a much lesser evil than having no world at all.


Photo Credit: shadamai

[toggle title= “Citations and Bibliography”]



[1] Waltz (1990), pp. 733-7

[2] Quinlan (2009), pp. 159

[3] Gavin (2009-10), pp. 23-27

[4] Shultz et al (2007) claim that although deterrence is still a valid concept in relations between states, “reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”; Wilson (2008) questions even the military utility of city bombing, on the threat of which nuclear deterrence is based, claiming that “it is difficult to argue that a threat of a non-decisive action is likely to coerce.”, p. 435

[5] Gavin, p. 20-1

[6] Frost (2005), pp. 69-70

[7] Gavin, p. 20

[8] Gavin, pp. 15-6

[9] Frankel (1993), pp. 37, 40-44

[10] Sokolski (2009), pp. 207-8

[11] What testifies to this trend is the 2014 US federal budget recently proposed by the Obama administration, which involves a 9% increase in funding for the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons activities, and a parallel cut to non-proliferation programmes, including counter-nuclear terrorism projects. Guarino (2013); Schneidmiller (2013).



Frankel, Benjamin (1993), ‘The Brooding Shadow: Systemic Incentives and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation’, Security Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 37-78

Frost, Robin M. (2005), ‘Nuclear Terrorism after 9/11’, IISS Adelphi Papers, Vol. 45, No. 378.

Gavin, Francis J. (2009-10). ‘Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War’, International Security, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 7-37.

Guarino, Douglas P. (2013). ‘Obama Seeks Boost in DOE Nuclear Weapons Spending, Cut to Nonproliferation’, Global Security Newswire, April 10, 2013.

Quinlan, Michael (2009), Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Oxford Scholarship Online.

Schneidmiller, Chris (2013), ‘Obama Budget Cuts deeply from Threat Reduction Accounts’, Global Security Newswire, April 18, 2013.

Shultz, George P. Et al. (2007), ‘A World Free of Nuclear Weapons’, The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15

Sokolski, Henry (2009), ‘Nuclear Abolition and the Next Arms Race’, in Taylor Bolz, ed., In the Eyes of the Experts: Analysis and Comments on America’s Strategic Posture, (United States Institute of Peace) pp. 201-216.

Waltz, Kenneth N. (1990), ‘Nuclear Myths and Political Realities’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, pp. 731-745.

Wilson, Ward (2008), ‘The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence’, Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 421-439.


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.


turkey 1


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

Some Theoretical Concerns on Nuclear Disarmament

Further nuclear proliferation increases the risks associated with nuclear weapons, and at the same time, total nuclear disarmament might cause regional tensions and global instability. There is a need to establish those conditions which will ensure that nuclear disarmament will lead to a more peaceful world

Nuclear bomb


The nuclear disarmament agenda may seem to be based, at least in declaratory terms among politicians, on a wide consensus that humanity should actively seek the end of nuclear weapons. Even the objections raised by the dismissive realists mainly pertain to the feasibility of the task at hand, and much less to the desirability of the ultimate goal. Focusing on the latter issue, and from a largely theoretical perspective, I would argue that it is not yet clear, let alone self-evident, as many think, whether nuclear disarmament will lead us to a less violent, much safer world.

In retrospect, few would now disagree that man should have never had invented nuclear weapons in the first place. That being said, the argument that it was nuclear weapons which prevented another world war in the second half of the 20th century is difficult to refute. There are dimensions to this issue that merit some reflection. First, the US-Soviet Cold War rivalry provides considerable empirical indications that between more or less equally strong nuclear powers, mutually assured destruction (MAD) ensures that all-out war is consciously avoided by state leaders as a policy option. The general assertion that nuclear weapons have contributed to peace since 1945 seems valid even if its truthfulness is considered theoretically impossible to prove. Furthermore, at the present state of affairs the claim that the abolition of nuclear weapons will increase international security has not been adequately supported. It seems preconditioned on a radically different, almost utopian(?), international system than the one we have now, in which serious disputes that fuel proliferation are non-existent, and states have attained a maturity and wisdom one can barely imagine at the moment. Even if the ‘global zero’ is at some point achieved, in an anarchical international setting of sovereign states – which is historically in constant flux – nothing can preclude new rivalries emerging that might induce nuclear rearmament. Moreover, nuclear deterrence seems anything but losing its efficacy. It can be argued that it is exactly North Korea’s nuclear capabilities that deter the US from seriously considering any military actions against it, which is perhaps a valuable example and lesson convincing the Iranian leadership that nuclear weapons are the only credible defence against another Iraq-type American campaign in the region, this time aimed at their country.

In addition, it generally seems to be implied that the certain annihilation entailed by a nuclear war must somehow automatically convince all states to either abandon the option of possessing them. But in a MAD scenario, the fact that the use of nuclear weapons on a large scale is practically ruled out can induce only a potential aggressor to agree on a global zero, on the grounds that he cannot use them anyway. On the contrary, a nuclear state of purely defensive posture is actually benefiting from MAD, because that is exactly what deters external threats, and thus would have no strategic/military reason to change this balance. The US, for example, would have never considered nuclear disarmament in the early 50’s, given the perceived aggressiveness and conventional superiority of the Soviet Union, and regardless of how pointless a nuclear confrontation might be at the time.

The above issue of balancing power might seem too theoretical, but has important practical implications, especially when it comes to non-nuclear states’ willingness to commit to non-proliferation, or that of weaker nuclear states to disarm. For such states, the global zero environment could be seen as a situation in which they have lost perhaps the only possible means of defending against a much stronger opponent, should a rivalry occur. While a major power would relinquish only one of its assets of superiority, the weaker state, whether currently nuclear or not, would be required to forego perhaps the most effective possible way of deterring a potential aggressor. In the absence of nuclear weapons, what options would India have in defending against a much stronger and expansionist China, or, similarly, Pakistan against India? How could Israel engage in a conventional arms race with a hypothetical belligerent coalition of Egypt and Syria, without the balancing effect of its nuclear arsenal? Or, why should current Russia, now that the tables are turned, strip itself of the ability to counter Western conventional predominance? With disarmament, the relative position of states to each other clearly changes to the disadvantage of the weaker ones.

Apparently we have reached a dangerous point where, on one hand, further proliferation considerably increases the risks associated with nuclear weapons, given the specifics of the cases of North Korea and Iran – especially the problematic character of their political regimes – as well as the threat of nuclear terrorism, and on the other, total nuclear disarmament, besides being practically very difficult to implement, might regionally cause power imbalances, increased tensions, renewed arms races, as well as further global instability. The nightmarish prospect of widespread nuclear proliferation notwithstanding, the disarmament agenda can also be considered ethically problematic. After decades of advanced and powerful states having enjoyed the benefits of nuclear weapons in terms of security and international position and leverage, now that the oligopoly threatens to collapse, a total ban is being promoted by, one might say, those who do not need them anymore or don’t want to see others ‘catching up’. In any case, there seems to be a need for a deeper theoretical exploration of the issue, in order to establish those conditions and parameters which will ensure that nuclear disarmament will lead to a more, not less peaceful world.


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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

Multiculturalism In Modern Discourse

The theory of multiculturalism, societal multiculturalism and state multiculturalism: what is the difference?




The Multiculturalism of Theory

Multiculturalism is a concept that, much like terrorism, has consistently been rendered undefinable. Its underlying facets emerged from a speech by former Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in 1966, who described it as “equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”.[1] Unlike assimilation, where the existence of minority cultures is viewed as a barrier to a harmonious society, multiculturalism views cultural difference to be positive – it explicitly recognises and values cultural diversity – whilst maintaining the need for a dynamic, fluid national identity.[2] It argues for the recognition that different individuals and communities will have different requirements, and as such if integration policy is to be truly equal it must take account of these different needs. In short, equality must be “applied in a discriminating but not discriminatory manner”.[3]

As such we can understand multiculturalism, the theory, as a combination of three key constituents: a) two-way integration involving both groups and individuals; b) policies of equality being applied in a discriminating but not a discriminatory way, and; c) seeking to create a dynamic national identity.[4]

Societal Multiculturalism

One topic worthy of clarification is the assertion that multiculturalism has never been an official state policy;[5] the claim that multiculturalism is but “a simple description of the character of our society”.[6] The Parekh Report labels the transformation of Britain into a multicultural society as multicultural ‘drift’ – meaning multiculturalism ‘just happened’ as opposed to it being a “concerted decision”.[7] To be sure, the multicultural, multi-ethnic characteristics of modern Britain are the result of immigration and globalisation throughout the last century. It did, to an extent, ‘just happen’ (though it was never intended to catalyse a long-term multi-ethnic, multicultural society).[8] Using ‘multiculturalism’ as a descriptor of British society today, however, is a separate concept to both multiculturalism as a theory, and as a description of multicultural policies (‘state multiculturalism’). For example, take the variety of cuisine available in London – it would not be far off to suggest that you can source food from every part of the world. This would lend itself to describing the city as truly multicultural. In other words, it possesses elements of many cultures. This would not change even if the government were to introduce an assimilationist integration policy; even if multiculturalism were rejected as an integration policy, we could still describe much of the United Kingdom as multicultural.

State Multiculturalism

Consider the following passage from Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence:

If a young girl in a conservative immigrant family wants to go out on a date with an English boy, that would certainly be a multicultural initiative. In contrast, the attempts by her guardians to stop her from doing this… is hardly a multicultural move, since it seeks to keep the cultures sequestered. And yet it is the parents’ prohibition, which contributes to plural multiculturalism, that seems to get most of the vocal and loud defence from alleged multiculturalists… as if the distinct cultures must somehow remain in secluded boxes.[9]

What Sen labels ‘plural multiculturalism’ can be likened to those British multicultural policies – ‘state multiculturalism’ – that are viewed by critics as consolidating cultural divisions and separate identities. The differentiation between ‘state multiculturalism’ and the theory of multiculturalism, however, is key. To make that distinction we must firstly recognise that the UK has implemented policies that follow the dogma of multiculturalism. For examples we can look to the increasing support of faith schools, or to the funding of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). But, secondly, we must also note the extent to which multiculturalism has been employed as an integration policy: it has not been implemented ‘properly’. We can take the example of the MCB again to demonstrate this. By choosing to place emphasis on the Muslim identity of British Muslims through an organisation which suffers from Lilliputian-like recognition by the Muslim community, the government failed to recognise the differing needs of the individuals within that group (may I refer the reader back to the definition of the theory for clarity on this matter). It sought to deal with all Muslims as one rather than acknowledging the different variants of Islam (Sunni, Shia etc.), or the different ethnicities encompassed in the British Muslim contingent, or the many other identities that British Muslims have.[10] Resultantly, whilst the funding of the MCB was something of a multicultural policy, it was not multicultural enough. Therefore it would be incorrect to assert that multiculturalism – the theory – has completely reared its head, and therefore we must make the distinction between the theory and the practice.

The debate over multiculturalism is very rarely an affront to a multi-ethnic society bringing together cultures from around the world. Its critics would argue it is over the inegalitarian nature of the theory and, in practice, its pointed partitioning of society. The point to be made is that there are multiple understandings of the word ‘multiculturalism’. It can be a description of society, it is the name of a theory, and it can be the name applied to policies used in furtherance of that theory, to whatever extent. Discourse should distinguish between these three interpretations of the word in order to avoid miscommunication.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

[1] Manning (2011)

[2] Mason (2000), p. 69; Modood (2011), p. 63

[3] CMEB (2000), p. ix

[4] Based on definitions provided by Modood (2011), p. 66 & CMEB(2000), p. ix

[5] Galloway (2012); Mahamdallie (2011), p.21

[6] Livingtone (2011), p. 29

[7] CMEB (2000), p. 14

[8] Leiken (2012), p. 97

[9] Sen (2006), p. 157

[10] A good parallel being Kissinger’s purported desire for a single phone number for Europe.


CMEB (2000), The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain: The Parekh Report (London: Profile Books)

Galloway, G. (2012), ‘The Dis-united Kingdom’, The Cafe, Al-Jazeera, [online] Available at:

Leiken, S. (2012), Europe’s Angry Muslims: The Revolt of the Second Generation (New York: Oxford University Press)

Livingstone, K. (2011), ‘In praise of multicultural London’, in Mahamdallie, H., ed., Defending Multiculturalism: A Guide for the Movement (London: Bookmarks Publications), pp. 26-37

Mahamdallie, H. (2011), ‘Introduction: Defending Multiculturalism’, in Mahamdallie, H., ed., Defending Multiculturalism: A Guide for the Movement (London: Bookmarks Publications), pp. 15-25

Manning, A. (2011), The evidence shows that multiculturalism in the UK has succeeded in fostering a sense of belonging among minorities, but it has paid too little attention to how to sustain support among parts of the white population, [online] Available at:

Mason, D. (2000), Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Modood, T. (2011), ‘Multiculturalism and integration: struggling with confusions’, in Mahamdallie, H., ed., Defending Multiculturalism: A Guide for the Movement (London: Bookmarks Publications), pp. 61-76

Sen, A. (2006), Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (London: Penguin)


An Introduction To Terrorist Organisational Structures

An introduction to conventional hierarchy, cells, networks and leaderless resistance.



[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is generally considered that there are four forms of structure employed by terrorist groups: conventional hierarchy, cellular, network & leaderless resistance. The decision to employ one of these formats is grounded in the security/efficiency trade-off of each; conventional hierarchy providing the most efficient and least secure, leaderless resistance the opposite: highest security, least efficiency. It is worth stating in advance that certain terrorist groups prohibit us from placing them into just one category; the term ‘fuzzy boundaries’ is used to describe those organisations that transgress the stated demarcations. For example, Hezbollah utilize a conventional hierarchy in Lebanon whilst maintaining networks in the West. It is the purpose of this piece to briefly explain these structures and provide some examples of how they have been implemented by various groups (N.B. the security/efficiency numerals presented after each variant are purely indicative).

Conventional Hierarchy (Security: 1, Efficiency: 4)

Audrey Cronin has argued that all terrorist groups would, in an ideal world, utilize the conventional hierarchical structure, thus attempting to cross the border into full-blown insurgency. Such a structure equates to the mimicking of the hierarchy employed by modern-day military forces: the pyramid shape is populated at the bottom by footsoldiers (privates), managed by their officer (corporals) and so on until the top of the pyramid and the high command (generals).

Employing such a structure provides an organisation with the greatest efficiency (this format aids the specialization of units in, for example, intelligence, recruitment, finance and support), ease of information transfer, and allows it to enforce a coherent long-term strategy. With regard to ideology-based organisations, it aids ideological unity among its members – an important issue given the need to maintain such unity within these groups. The weaknesses of this structure have been ably discussed by Beam (an American white nationalist), albeit with reference to the subversion of the American State. Beam argues that such a system is extremely dangerous when utilized against a state, especially in this era of electronic surveillance: should the state infiltrate or otherwise compromise the organisation at the higher echelons of command, the whole entity is compromised. Similarly, should the high command be killed or captured, there is a very real possibility of the group disintegrating. Thus, a more subversive organisational construct is of greater use for a terrorist group that seeks to remain in existence in the face of the “War on Terror”. The early Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) provide good examples of the use of this structure.

Cellular (Security: 2, Efficiency: 3)

The cell structure incorporates a network within a hierarchy. Each cell (generally comprising three to ten individuals) possesses one member (‘X’) – usually the leader – who maintains contact with the organisation’s high command. Often only one element of the command will have contact with X, and X will generally have no knowledge of other cells, or other members of the high command. Should X be compromised, the information that she is able to provide is distinctly limited: whilst her cell will likely be rendered inoperable, she is unable to provide details of other cells, nor is she able to provide details of the high command other than the commander that she has dealt with. Similarly, if a member of X’s cell is compromised, the only information they can provide is that of their cell and X.

Whilst the high command is removed from contact with their footsoldiers, this structure suffers from the same problem with that of the conventional hierarchy: should the high command be compromised the entire organisation could topple. Beam writes that “the efficient and effective operation of a cell system … [is] dependent upon central direction, which means impressive organization, funding from the top, and outside support”. The central command must maintain their hold on each individual cell in order to maintain strategic unity and thus remove the possibility that cells will act alone, thus potentially damaging the organisation as a whole (for example, say that a renegade AQ cell was responsible for 9/11. The United States would likely still have responded with an attack against the entire AQ infrastructure, even if the attack had not been initiated by the high command).

Network (Security: 3, Efficiency: 2)

An organisational network structure comprises numerous nodes/cells connected/interconnected in differing ways. Variations of such a network, each with different levels of security & efficiency, can include:

1) Chain
A linear trail: A – B – C – D – E. For a message to get from A to E it must pass through B, C & D.

2) Hub
One node acts as the hub for all other nodes: A is connected to B, C, D & E. B through to E have no connection with each other. Should B wish to send a message to E, it must go through A. This does not equate to A being the lead cell, simply the hub cell.

3) Star
The same as for the hub network, but each cell has contact with its two neighbouring cells in addition to A (the central node). So, aside from A, B would connect with E & C; C with B & D; D with C & E, and; E with D & B.

4) All-Channel
Each node is connected to every other: A is connected to B, C, D & E; B to A, C, D, E; C to A, B, D, E; etc.

Such structures result in the decentralisation of decision-making, permitting initiative from each cell and thus making it impossible to topple the organisation in one go. As Arquilla, Ronfeldt & Zanini explain, such an organisational structure can appear to be acephalous (headless) & polycephalous (multi-headed) at the same time. The points of the network with greater connectedness indicate their importance (so, for example, if a hub network was in position as per the example above, targeting A would provide for the greatest effect on operational capability).

Network structures, whilst benefiting from far greater security than conventional hierarchy/cell structures, suffer from low efficiency given the difficulties in getting a message out to all members of the network, with clear implications for organisational unity and strategic coherence. This, however, does not detract from the danger that such a structure poses.

Leaderless Resistance (Security: 4, Efficiency: 1)

The last structure that this piece will analyse is the most secure and the least efficient. An Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) recruitment video describes it perfectly: “Remember, the ELF and each cell within it are anonymous not only to one another but to the general public”. In the truest form of leaderless resistance there is no contact between cells and/or the central command. However, given the spread of the internet and the ease of international communication, such a finite requisite has been watered down (see Pantucci’s lone wolf classifications).

Such a structure (or, more appropriately, a lack of) poses the greatest difficulties to counter-terrorist agencies given the minimal connection between the organisation (or the propagandist of the ideology), and the actor committing the terrorist act (the subscriber to the ideology). As with networks, this form of structure is incalculably aided by developments in information technology (the transformation of terrorism from ‘old’ to ‘new’, see Neumann).

Such a structure is highly secure; it is almost impossible to know which viewers of a website have been radicalised and whether they would ever come to commit an act. But the lack of control over such actors can be incredibly damaging. Should an act be committed by a member of an ideological network in the name of a specified group, resultantly negatively affecting said group’s public support, the group cannot disassociate itself from the act, regardless of its lack of participation in, or support for, the act. Further, given that the organisation propagating the ideology has no control over its ideological movement, such a movement may well disintegrate owing to a lack of developments: these sleeper cells may never wake from their slumber.

An example of leaderless resistance actor would be Roshonara Choudhry.

[toggle title=”Sources & Related Texts”]

Arquilla, J. & Ronfeldt, D. (2001), Networks and Netwars

Beam, L. (1983), Leaderless Resistance

Cronin, A. (2006), How al-Qaida Ends

Hoffman, B. (2006), Inside Terrorism

Neumann, P. (2009), Old and New Terrorism

Pantucci, R. (2011), A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists

Sageman, M. (2004), Understanding Terror Networks

An Introduction To Nationalism Theory

An introduction to modernism, primordialism and ethnosymbolism.




“A man must have a nationality as he must have a nose and two ears; a deficiency in any of these particulars is not inconceivable […], but only as a result of some disaster, and it is itself a disaster of a kind.”
Ernest Gellner


[dropcap]M[/dropcap]odernists see nations and nationalism as entirely modern phenomena, beginning predominantly in Europe at the advent of industrialization. Ethnic and cultural roots are irrelevant to this view because not all modern nations have them. According to prominent modernists, nationalism and its cultural symbols used in the construction of the nation are invented as a form of top-down control. This view has been frequently criticized by ethnosymbolists for giving no agency to the masses in a more bottom-up approach.

The foremost modernist is Ernest Gellner who hypothesized that the industrial age ushered in a need for new forms of identity to mend rifts in society brought about by major shifts in social mobility. According to Gellner, modern industrializing societies require cultural homogeneity to perpetuate economic success. The most prominent and entirely relevant critique of this view lies in its failure to account for the widespread popularity and virtual fanaticism that nationalisms frequently inspire. To this end, perhaps a review of the pre-modern roots and symbolic layering of such ties and identities can elucidate further.

Benedict Anderson, another key modernist, evokes ‘imagined communities’ as an explanation for feelings of kinship amongst citizens who will never meet, expanding on Gellner’s thesis, with a focus on print capitalism as the lynchpin for the rise in national comradeship. This ‘fuzzy’ label, whilst taken to mean ‘created’ can be mistaken for ‘illusory’ and again fails to account for the sheer power behind nationalist sentiment and leaves little legroom for ethnic, religious and racial factors, falling rather too close to post-modern, single-factor constructionism.

Modernism, though an important contribution to the understanding nationalism de jour, tends to focus on single-factor hypotheses or broad explanations that cannot explain why its influence is just as strong in countries that experienced industrialization at a much later stage and more importantly, why it is almost non-existent in other, incredibly industrious countries. Symbols and ceremonies of nationalism are only important ‘insofar as they are able to mobilize, co-ordinate, and legitimize the various sub-elites who seek power through control of the modern state.’ [John Breuilly 1993 summarized by Anthony D. Smith 1999 p7]

One view that all agree on is that nationalism is not necessary but only appears so, thus reinforcing its existence as a self-referential and self-reinforcing concept.


Primordialism is the perspective that nationalism derives from the early, ‘primordial’ [fundamental], roots and sentiments such as being born into a particular religious community, speaking a certain language or having or taking part in certain traditions and rituals. This ‘cultural’ or ‘naturalist’ view implies that the nation, or some early form of nation, is ancient and thus a natural part of human experience. Primordialism is most often associated with ethnic attachments and thus predominantly ethnic nationalism. Place of birth is another characteristic ‘attachment’ used to emphasize the longevity of nationalism. These attachments are felt as natural for the individual, ‘spiritual’ in character, and provide a foundation for an early ‘affinity’ with others of same or similar backgrounds. [Paul R. Brass in Hutchinson & Smith (eds.) 1994 p83]

On the extreme end of primordialist thinking sits Pierre van den Berghe whose socio-biological perspective holds that nationalism is a product of ethnic and racial ties, described as an ‘extended and attenuated form of kin selection’. [van den Berghe in Hutchinson & Smith (eds.) 1994 p97] His theory of ‘inclusive fitness’ reduces behaviours and social structures both great and small to the basic fundamentals of resource competition and ‘adaptive evolution’. [ibid p99] In this subcategory, nationalism is one of many identities to which individuals adhere (both consciously and subconsciously) to manipulate the ‘cost/benefit ratio of [social] transactions’ to ones advantage. [ibid p97] This reduces the importance of language, race, religion and symbols to ‘myths of shared descent largely correspond[ing] to real biological ancestry’. [Smith 1999 p4 emphasis added]

The primordialist branch of nationalism is popular because it recognizes the need for identification with the familiar and meaningful, rather than ‘absorption into a culturally undifferentiated mass [or] domination by some other rival ethnic, racial, or linguistic community’. [Clifford Geertz in ibid. p30] However, few groups around the world would be able to posit a serious claim to a ‘known common origin’ and thus, as in the modernist viewpoint, the belief in a shared descent is more important than any proof of its existence.

Similar to primordialism, perennialists are of the opinion that nations have existed since time immemorial but that they are infrequent, unnatural developments, occurring in peaks and troughs.


Ethnosymbolism emphasizes the importance of symbols, traditions, values and myths in the creation and continuation of modern nations. Most scholars agree that the nation has taken on a particular form and prominence since the mid-eighteenth century, but prominent ethnosymbolists such as Anthony D. Smith argue that early memories, myths and symbols hold a continued importance in the understanding of nationalisms.

Smith’s distinction between ethnic or ethno-cultural communities – which he calls ethnies – and ‘nations’ is generally accepted as valid in the exploration of early civilizations such as medieval Islam and Christendom, which show that ‘ethnic belonging’ had very strong roots and contributed to nation-formation. [Smith citing Armstrong, 1986 p15, see Ch3]

In some ways, this approach has often been labelled a ‘middle-ground’ or compromise between the first two opposing views because Smith and others maintain that nations themselves are modern creatures (or that nations were ‘consolidated’ in the modern, industrial and post-industrial age), but that the pre-modern roots espoused by primordialism are also vital to understanding peoples’ relationships to the nation.

Potential nations needed to take on ethnic models and components in order to thrive but ethnies also adapt to territorial and civic models in the route towards ‘nationhood’. Nations have been described as ‘quasi-kinship groups, regulated by myths of common descent, a sense of shared history, and a distinctive culture.’ [Hutchinson in Guibernau & Hutchinson (eds.) 2001 p75]

The evocation of identity and history – the main concern of nations when considering nationalism according to this theoretical branch – as ‘culture’, to an ethnosymbolist, means more than symbols and rituals but ‘the meanings and orientations to collective action that these evoke.’

What International Relations Theory Means To Policy-Makers

International relations: balance of threat, soft power and the international political economy.



[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he study of IR as an academic subject cannot overlook the political implications of its own theoretical frameworks (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, English school) and, in so doing, it has to take account of the usability of such theories for policy-makers and those interested in applying them to the contemporary issues of international politics. For the purpose of this article, three main concepts belonging to the study of International Relations are going to be briefly depicted: the balance of threat, soft power and, that wide and fascinating subject commonly referred to as International Political Economy.

Balance of threat

Introduced during the last years of the Cold War by Stephen M. Walt, and firstly published in an article entitled Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power (1985), the balance of threat theory provides an original explanation for the balancing behaviours in the bipolar world. By refining and reformulating some classical assumptions about the central role of power, Walt makes a central contribution to the development of neorealist theories of international relations.

According to balance of threat theory, states choose allies in order to balance against the most serious threat perceived. In addition to the importance of aggregate power (comprised of territorial size, population and economic capabilities), the threat is also composed of geographical proximity, offensive (or military) capabilities and perceived intentions. As the state that poses the greatest threat is not the most endowed with military strength, Walt argues that the more a state perceives a rising state as possessing these qualities, the more likely it will be to deem it as a threat and balance against it accordingly. Admittedly, such a theory has been also inspired by a variety of studies carried out in those years by R. Jervis on the importance of psychological factors and it can be viewed as the first but unaccomplished attempt to introduce the role of ideas in IR within the realist framework.

Applied to the US-Soviet international confrontation, balance of threat theory explains why a more powerful coalition formed in response to a threatening coalition and why alliances form in response to regional threats still today. For instance, taking China as a potential threat for the US, the former currently lacks powerful offensive capabilities, although possesses a great deal of aggregate power, is relatively geographical proximate (the Pacific Ocean) and has enacted increasingly non-cooperative political actions since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008.

Soft power

What precisely does Joseph Nye mean by soft power? According to him, military and economic power are at odds with such a definition, as they are peculiar examples of hard power that can be used to induce others to change their decisions. As a result, soft power can be defined as an alternative source of indirect strength in world politics based on the attraction and admiration towards values, material and economic prosperity, and openness provoked by an external country.

Rather than threats, coercion or payments, a country’s soft power rests on its resources of culture, values, and policies as factors capable to influence states’ behaviours of the international system. One of the first thinker to have elaborated a similar theoretical perspective was Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s. Speaking about the process of Americanization in the Western world, he clearly understood that lifestyle, or even different industrial models of production (such as Fordism) and the consequent cultural reflections in structuring society, could play a relevant role in determining other state’s preferences and imitations. Political and social values, and culture in addition, are prominent elements, as lamented by the French Socialist politician Hubert Védrine, of the American power, because they can “inspire the dreams and desires of others, thanks to the mastery of global images through film and television and because, for these same reasons, large numbers of students from other countries come the United States to finish their studies”. Nye’s conviction is that the transformative character of power will, in this century, rest on a mix of military, economic and soft drivers.

As a matter of fact, the current struggle against international terrorism has increased the relevance of soft power. While the US is unrivalled militarily, it cannot monitor every corner on the globe and, for this reason, it has to appeal to a mutuality of interests with other states, creating an attraction of shared values and adopting the so-called “smart strategy” invoked and put in practice by the Secretary of State Clinton: indeed, a smart power strategy combines hard and soft power resources under the aegis of public diplomacy and multilateralism.

International Political Economy

International political economy (IPE) was developed as a significant subfield in the study of International Relations in the 1970s. At the beginning of that decade, the global economy suffered a period of turbulence following an unprecedented period of stable economic growth, which also benefited less developed countries. The unilateral choice of the Nixon administration to change the value of the dollar (expressed in terms of the price of gold), brought about the removal of the system of fixed exchange rates, starting the gradual loss in effectiveness of the Bretton Woods financial system.

Insofar as the IPE is focused on the interrelationships between public and private power in the allocation of scarce resources, Susan Strange described its method of analysis as concerned with the social, political and economic arrangements affecting the global systems of production, exchange and distribution, and the mix of values reflected therein. As an analytical method, political economy is based on the assumption that what occurs in the economy reflects, and affects, social power relations. According to Gilpin, there are three principal categories of theoretical approaches to IPE: liberalism, nationalism and Marxism.

The liberal approach to IPE, currently considered the mainstream among academics, goes back to Adam Smith’s thesis of the “invisible hand” of market competition. This approach emphasizes that   specialization and competition (as drivers for maximizing welfare) should be applied also at the international sphere,  through developing the notion of production according to comparative advantage. The win-win situation that results from countries specializing and trading according to their comparative advantage creates a harmonic and interdependent structure of international interactions, in which the role of the international institutions is essential in determining positive outcomes.

Modern economic nationalism, firstly developed by Hamilton in 1791 and List in 1844, conceives the world economy as a zero-sum game where the gains by one economy inevitably must come at the expense of another. According to such a vision, national governments should provide their national firms with a protected domestic market and by promoting their exports. State intervention, protectionist policies, application of tariffs should be theoretically removed once an industry could compete in the international market. Many contemporary theorists of the nationalist approach to IPE have underlined the importance of a dominant state that, in certain historical periods, such as during the Great Depression, could have avoided the collapse of the international financial system by ruling the same as an economic hegemon.

Finally, the Marxist or critical perspective is focused on distributional issues, the constraining effects of domestic and international structures and the social classes as the basic unit of analysis. Due to the instability and conflictual nature of the global capitalism, the international economic relations are seen as a zero-sum game where two prevalent forms of political clash occur: within the states between capitalists and workers, in the international arena between imperialists and exploited states. According to Lenin, the under-consumption capitalist states were compelled to wage external wars in order to expand their internal market, rendering international conflict an unavoidable result. Today, neo-Marxists look at globalization and its major institutions (WTO, IMF) as the elites’ attempt (wealthy and industrialized countries) to constitutionalize neo-liberal principles.


Although introductory, this piece has no pretension to be exhaustive. As a matter of fact, each of the issues briefly presented can rely on impressive lists of academic studies and on-going researches. For sure, balance of threat, the concept of soft power and IPE do not represent just useful tools for understanding current world politics, but also theoretical approaches which deserve more attention and purposeful contributions by policy-makers.

An Introduction To International Relations Theory

International relations: an introduction to realism, liberalism, constructivism and the English School.



[dropcap]O[/dropcap]fficially established in Aberystwyth after World War I with the ambitious aim of eradicating future conflicts, the discipline of International Relations (IR) is currently one of the youngest academic fields despite the occurrence of war between nations having existed for centuries. The effort of understanding how world politics works and which tenets shape its most visible outcomes – such as war, international crises, and revolutions – has underpinned several attempts in elaborating and debating interpretative frameworks capable of providing policy-makers, practitioners and Joe Bloggs with a useful and detailed set of theoretical and explanatory tools. In this article I will be presenting the main four theories of IR: realism, liberalism, constructivism and the English school.


The first assumptions on realism as a way of conducting state foreign policy were detailed by a series of writers who belonged to the group of classical thinkers of political realism. Political actions, historical and technical accounts provided by Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and E. H. Carr, to name but a few, are usually referred to as the most significant contributions to the development of a well-defined philosophical pattern connected with realism. As for its academic tradition, realism presents the international realm as an anarchic political arena characterized by a struggle for power among self-interested states: it is generally pessimistic about the prospects for eliminating conflict and war. Having been the dominant theory throughout the Cold War, its intellectual straightforwardness and logical linearity provide simple but powerful explanations for war, alliances, imperialism, and the many obstacles to cooperation between states, especially within the normative environment of international organizations. Against this backdrop, currently realism can rely on the work of a wide spectrum of insightful scholars such as Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, William Wholforth, Robert Jervis, Joseph Grieco and Marco Cesa, each of them depicting the different theoretical strands of realism (neo-classical realism, structural realism, offensive and defensive realism, and the theory of alliances).


Liberalism is as close to it gets as the complete opposite to realism. Frequently associated with the Kantian perspective of world politics and rooted in European Enlightenment thought, liberalism is firmly convinced about the possibility of achieving durable international peace through cooperation between states. At the core of this theory is the importance of rules and the formal and informal institutions in which such regulations are embedded. Liberalism is also differentiated in various theoretical strands. The first is concerned with the relevance of economic interdependence and prosperity as major tools for discouraging states from using force against each other (complex interdependence theory). The second approach (usually attributed to Woodrow Wilson – the American President of League of Nations fame) regards the spread of democracy – considered more peaceful than other forms of government – as the best antidote to the war (democratic peace theory). Finally, institutional theory, according to which the anarchy that affects the international arena can be successfully overcome thanks to the promotion of long-term state interests (such as security) in a shorter period of time through the use of international institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the United Nations (UN) (the so-called systems of collective security). Among its scholars, the most notable academic figures in liberalism are Robert Keohane, John Ikenberry, Michael Doyle, Bruce Russett, Inis Claude and Robert Axelrod.


Recently developed by the seminal work of Alexander Wendt, constructivism takes beliefs and values as crucial elements in determining a reality that is socially constructed – as supposed to liberalism and realism which take such things for granted. Thus, social practice, discourse and interaction among the participants of the international realm (both state and non-state actors) are the fundamental drivers of this ongoing and maieutic process in which the emerging norms and values shape their own interests and identities. Without offering any predictions, but focusing on an attempt to explain the reasons for political change, the constructivist perspective looks at power not as an irrelevancy but as a subjective product of ideas and identities. The definition of “power” – according to the constructivist interpretative framework – is influenced by the cultural and the historical context in which it is analysed. Similarly, Wendt argues that the realist conception of anarchy does not adequately explain why conflict occurs between states. The real issue, in fact, is how anarchy is perceived in Wendt’s words, “anarchy is what states make of it”.

The English School

“The English School” is a term coined in the 1970s to describe a group of British and British-inspired writers for whom international society is the primary object of analysis. According to this theoretical view, sovereign states form an international society, although framed within an anarchic context. The state of insecurity and violence which features this kind of “anarchical society” is to some extent mitigated by the role of international law and morality. As a matter of fact, English School’s members describe their theoretical membership as rationalist and related to the Grotian tradition: this approach concurrently considers elements of realism, such as power politics, balance of power and the state of anarchy, and liberalism (international institutions, morality and cooperation) as well. As a result, the English School maintains that the international political system is more civil and orderly than realists suggest. However, its vision, supported by the fact that violence is an inescapable characteristic of the international society, is largely differentiated from the utopian one, firmly rooted in the possibility of perpetual peace. Some of the most important scholars who developed and are currently embedded in this fourth and original IR thought include Hedley Bull, Martin Wight, Tim Dunne, Barry Buzan and Andrew Linklater.

The Importance of Being Eclectic

Going beyond this brief description and considering the wider spectrum of contemporary IR theories, it’s worth noticing how each of them gives an interpretative key for unlocking the issues of world politics. In order to thoroughly understand the complex and variegated field under question, it is important to take into account and debate all the aforementioned theoretical approaches. Each of them offers detailed and thoughtful contributions about the role of power, domestic forces, political change and thus the possibility for improving our current international society.

The Myth Of The ‘Clash of Civilizations’

Conflict, coexistence and clichés: the myth of the clash of civilizations.



[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he expression ‘Clash of Civilizations’ often crops up in political, academic, media and bar-stool debates. It did the other evening at my local. Whilst the phrase derives from colonial ‘clash of cultures’ terminology, its contemporary usage is widely understood to have emerged from the title of a 1993 Foreign Affairs paper which presented the thoughts of Samuel P Huntington. In his article, Huntington envisaged that future, post-Cold War conflicts would be fought, not along traditional lines of ideological and/or economic disputes, but would instead be characterised by cultural and religious hostilities.  Huntington argued that this new phase of civilisational conflict would be “particularly prevalent between Muslims and non-Muslims“, specifically along the “bloody borders” between Islamic and non-Islamic states. The initial logic appears self-evident enough; seemingly reinforced by modern history, apparently validated by current world conflicts and, arguably, a central premise of contemporary foreign policy and counter-terrorism thinking. Proponents of Huntington’s work hold him up as an almost latter-day soothsayer of world conflict, a political scientist clairvoyant of almost Nostradamian stature. But how accurate is Huntington’s hypothesis? Is it really as patently obvious has his advocates claim? In a devastatingly informed lecture entitled The Myth of The Clash of Civilizations delivered in 1996 at the University of Massachusetts, the late Edward Said concentrated his considerable intellectual attentions on the deconstruction of Huntington’s claims. The critique put forward by Said hits the nail squarely on the head.

Primarily, it is hard to overlook the unreliable sources Huntington utilises which are often based on the secondary and tertiary conjecture and opinion of very selective, politically right-leaning commentators who largely ignore wider anthropological advancements in our understanding of how civilisations actually operate. What’s more, the blinkered, Anglo-centric view his analysis takes is truly striking. As Said phrases it, for Huntington the West is the “locus” around which all other cultures ought to revolve, a framing starkly revealed in his West-vs-Rest strategic prescriptions;

The West must exploit differences and conflicts amongst Confucian and Islamic states to support, in other civilisations, groups sympathetic to Western values and interests, to strengthen international institutions that reflect and legitimate Western interests
Samuel P Huntington

A worryingly imperialist statement in itself, although perhaps more revealing still is the title of Huntington’s paper, for the term ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ is not his own but directly taken for Bernard Lewis’ 1990 Atlantic Monthly article The Roots of Muslim Rage which, in language eerily reminiscent of the most evangelical Bush administration rhetoric, claims all Muslims are infuriated by modernity and Western freedoms! This extremely offensive, stereotypical perspective is mirrored by Huntington’s extraordinarily simplistic tripartite typology of ‘Western’, ‘Confucian’ and ‘Islamic’ civilisations.

So what exactly is, say, the ‘Western culture’ when it’s at home? I’m sure I haven’t a clue! Surely considerable cultural diversity exists in Northern and Southern England alone, not to mention the variety found within those communities, and let alone between Western countries themselves. In much the same vein, are we really to believe that over one billion Muslims spread across the planet are in fact one monolithic, static and homogenous ‘Islamic culture’? Is this not a similar narrative to the one espoused by extremists themselves, and a generalisation of epic proportions? What of the intra-civilisational conflicts which perpetuate within such groupings? For example between South/North Korea, China/Tibet, India/Pakistan, if only to call out the most immediately obvious and skirt over the rife sectarian violence prevalent between Sunni and Shi’ite or Protestant and Catholic divisions (Iraq and Ireland being obvious examples).

What then, of the similarities that are readily identifiable between these purportedly clashing civilisations? What of the most overt connection between us all, that of free-market global capitalism? To my knowledge, Huntington conveniently skips any commentary on global economic collaboration. Indeed this, to my mind, is the crux of the crisis and the underlying question here; whether we, as humankind, wish to highlight our commonalities or differences, whether we want to emphasise conflict or co-operation, whether in the end, as Said asks;

…we want to work for civilizations that are separate, or whether we should be taking the more integrative, but perhaps more difficult path, which is to see them as making one vast whole, whose exact contours are impossible for any person to grasp, but whose certain existence we can intuit and feel and study.
Edward Said

I believe such questions of peaceful coexistence have far more import to real-world scenarios, such as the Israeli/Palestinian or Unionist/Republican conflicts for example, than inflammatory notions of an inevitable war between poorly conceptualised, yet vastly encompassing, antiquated colonial clichés. Huntington believes we are entering an age of cultural conflict, I believe this is a fallacy. Instead I am inclined to agree with Said’s position; that we in fact live in an age of cultural definitions. These can never do justice to the richness and diversity found in the singular world we live, nevertheless this mix should be cherished and nurtured, not stifled or feared.

Holy War

What are the chief factors responsible for the rise of Islamist terrorist groups & holy war?



[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was May 2011, and the world braced for another raw wave of global terror attacks. Al-Qaeda just publicly vowed to avenge the murder of their leader, Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man. The British and American authorities immediately declared a severe level of terrorist threat and scurried to increase their national security at airports and other transportation hubs. The police were placed on heightened alert on the bustling city streets to look out for any suspicious activity at the ground level. Anjem Choudary, the former leader of the banned UK-based al-Muhajirun Islamist group, eerily warned the West of upcoming fatal attacks of the likes of 7/7. Prominent leaders of the West – Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, William Hague, David Cameron – simultaneously announced to their citizens the importance of continued vigilance and that ‘the battle goes on.’ But what exactly is al-Qaeda? How did it become so influential to resonate such a deadly tune throughout the world? And why has Islamist terrorism increased so rapidly in recent decades?

To a well-informed Westerner, al-Qaeda is an international terrorist organization that assimilated over two decades ago by a wealthy Saudi Arabian Wahhabist, Osama bin Laden. It is a fantastically powerful network with a defined ideology and personnel that operate globally under his order. This organization is comprised of thousands of driven fanatics that are trained to kill in deadly terrorist tactics for their cause. They are planted in different countries, on every continent, waiting as they lead ordinary lives for the orders to come from above to strike the unexpecting society. It is good news, then, that this type of a tight-knit, ‘octopus’ organization does not truly exist. In fact, when American forces managed to seize the camp base in Afghanistan in 2001, al-Qaeda was just five years old.

Upon the catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, investigators were diligent to name the group responsible for the invasive aggression. Within days of the fatal attack, ‘al-Qaeda’ – roughly translated as ‘the base’ from Arabic – had been painted in the Western public discourse as an ‘all-encompassing terror network’ that is headed by bin Laden at his headquarters in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. This is not to imply that al-Qaeda does not exist, but point out that such ill-defined labeling misconstrues bin Laden’s group into something that it is truly not. To see al-Qaeda in such a narrow light leads to misunderstandings with the nature of Islamic radicalism then and now.
Before we describe and attempt to understand al-Qaeda in the present, we have to look back to its origin. It is true that the word ‘al-Qaeda’ – which can also mean foundation, principle, maxim, model, and rule – was used in the mid-eighties by Islamic radicals during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But it was to mundanely describe the literal base from which they operated in during the war. Nearing the end of the war, an early spiritual role model to bin Laden, Abdallah Azzam, was enthused by this mujahideen – struggle – and creatively expanded the meaning of ‘al-Qaeda’ to a ‘mode of activism,’ a tactic, in 1987. He was not referring to the idea of creating an actual extant organization, but a foundation composed of dedicated Muslims from around the world, from which they can instigate active revolutionary change, past their geographical borders, and onto a global scale. Bin Laden and some of his close associates took Azzam’s conception, and by 1988, had set up a militant base comprising of a dozen men in Peshawar, Pakistan. But it was neither referred to as ‘al-Qaeda’ in an organizational fashion nor operative as a network group until the late nineties.

Such emergence of a group should not be considered a new phenomenon. Bin Laden’s group was one of many other similar groups of enthused militants in other parts of the Muslim world. Islamic militancy pre-dates the war in Afghanistan by a couple of thousands of years; since the first recorded jihad – defensive war – by the Prophet Mohammad during the earliest strands of Islam faith. There were already thousands of militants, calloused and radicalized by their victory against the Soviets that eventually created or were already part of other Islamic radical groups, headed by leaders with funds, charm, knowledge, and skills as bin Laden. Bin Laden’s activism is nothing bigger than a part of an early modern Islamic militant history as a whole. The few times that the word ‘al-Qaeda’ or the name ‘Osama bin Laden’ was ever mentioned in the early 1990’s was when the Encyclopedia of Jihad, an eleven-volume summary of modern terrorist tactics and strategies of warfare produced in Pakistan, acknowledged Azzam and bin Laden as credible contributors. A few months before the 1993 World Trade Center bomb plot, a militant was caught in JFK carrying a manual called al-Qaeda, correctly translated at the time as ‘the basics.’ When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden spent most of his energy on protecting his native land, Saudi Arabia, and eventually fled to Sudan until 1996. The start up of al-Qaeda in this period remained a standstill.

Between the years 1996 and 2001, al-Qaeda gradually matured. By mid-1996, bin Laden officially declared a jihad against the US for their invasive military presence in Saudi Arabia, just as the Arabs had previously done with the Soviet Union. Religious scholars consented with this declaration, and al-Qaeda steadily gained influential power as inspired Arabs – mostly Saudis and Yemenis – travelled to bin Laden’s training camps now stationed in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was able to centralize modern Islamic militancy and provide tools in terms of resources and facilities. Training, finances, arms, supplies, expertise, and a safe haven were provided for the voluntary militants, scarce resources that individuals or external groups have been trying to obtain in the past.

Al-Qaeda’s rise during this period is threefold: the heart, body, and mind. The first thing is the heart, al-Qaeda’s solid infrastructure in a convenient location. Any functional group needs a strong framework in a workable environment. After his fatwa against the West, bin Laden charismatically attracted many active experienced militants from all over the world to join his small group. This formed the core of al-Qaeda’s capability, the heart pumping life into the body. In the Al-Sharq al-Awsat (2002), it revealed a letter that was recovered at the base on a computer. The letter was shrewdly coded to make the base seem like an innocent start-up business. In reality, it explained the importance of gathering skilled Islamic militants under one congregation and the critical use of Afghanistan as a safe haven, using the words ‘profitable trade’ for terrorist operations, threat of ‘international monopoly companies’ for Western governments, and ‘traders’ for militants.

Afghanistan was an excellent place to mobilize, specifically designed and available for Islamic militants. After years of struggling to fight for their cause in their own countries under domestic security surveillance and pressure from international intelligence agencies and forces, everything was suddenly available to them with no distractions or concerns. A majority of these men that pledged loyalty to bin Laden in return for his services were former soldiers that took part in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Egypt, and Algeria. Others have been fighting for the Islamic cause for nearly a decade. And the rest are complete neophytes to Islamic militancy. By 2001, al-Qaeda, a group that started out with a dozen or so associates, became a hardcore that brimmed over a hundred highly driven trained members from all parts of the Islamic world, pooling their talents to seek out the same agenda.

The second component to al-Qaeda’s rise is the body, the network of co-opted groups. With the increase of members, al-Qaeda had links to other militant Islamic groups around the world. To clarify, these groups were neither created by bin Laden, nor are directly part of an international network under a giant al-Qaeda umbrella. It is not unusual for groups with the similar objectives and beliefs to have some kind of associations with each other. In the ex-Soviet Central Asia, surrounding regions, and even overseas of the 1990’s, it was a scene of multiplication of independently coordinated Islamic movements – some interconnected with each other, some not – of various sizes, forms, and power. But not all groups agreed with each other, and their relationships with the members of al-Qaeda were often tenuous. Complex ethnic and inter-religion divisions, rivalries, interpersonal relations, differing strategies and methods obstructed any real unity.  Others were solely interested in the affairs within their own country. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) continuously rejected bin Laden’s co-opt attempts in 1993, as well as the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, in fear that being affiliated with a Saudi could taint their image in their native land. Despite this, most groups were willing to develop interpersonal relations with al-Qaeda and bin Laden.

Altogether, these links formed a loose set of complex and diverse networks, helping each other to develop bigger and stronger. Abu Doha in London, Abu Abdullah al-Shami in Jordan, and al-Nahiri in Yemen accepted missions or acted as recruiters for al-Qaeda and bin Laden in exchange for resources. Vice-versa, al-Qaeda often acted as a venture-capitalist firm, where groups would submit projects and plan proposals to be sponsored by al-Qaeda; al-Qaeda will then fund the plans that seemed the most ‘profitable,’ ranging from small amounts of cash to big-time investments. In 2000, a Saudi named Mohammad al-Tubaiti arrived to the camps of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and offered his services of martyrdom for any operation in the name of Islam. He was curtly denied, the senior associates instructing him to go back, formulate a plan, and ‘submit it for approval like everyone else.’ Djamel Beghal of France, Ahmed Ressam of Canada, Abu Hoshar of Jordan, and others were examples of links between al-Qaeda’s infrastructure and the ‘rest of the vast, amorphous movement of modern radical Islam, with its myriad cells, domestic groups, ‘groupuscules’ and splinters,’ all joining the ‘networks of networks.’ But, what compels these groups and individuals to willingly co-opt with bin Laden, just to commit horrific attacks that could potentially end their lives?

This leads us to the third element, the mind: ideology. It is the most essential factor that drives extremists to resort to terrorism. Islamic ideology is the worldview that Islamic militants believe to be true and only. It is the comprehensive vision that allows them to constitute their goals, expectations, and actions through terrorism. Generally, a majority of Westerners would accuse al-Qaeda and similar groups to be simple religious zealots, brainwashed by Islam, and completely ignorant of international politics, law and freedom. But if they take a closer look, there is more to it than simply Islam. Bin Laden’s agenda is actually considered very political, shrouded in religious terminology and imagery. Since 1996, his statements and demands have included the expulsion of American forces in Saudi Arabia, reformations in currency, sanitation and taxation, and the end of oppression of Muslim ethnic groups such as the Palestinians, Chechens, and Kashmiri people. He also condemned the sanctions imposed on Iraq, the nuclear weapons used during World War II and their continued development thereafter, the support for Israel, and human rights abuses, majorly blaming these events on the US. Al-Qaeda also expressed environment and climate change concerns when they posted a document titled, Letter to America, on their website, indicating the US to be the biggest contributor to pollution and industrial waste, evident when the US refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. As we can see, the ideology of al-Qaeda is based on the mixture of religious interpretation of Islamic history and the current social, economic and political problems of the Muslim world.

But before we indulge in Islamic ideology in relation to current events, we need to determine where this radical thought derived from. Throughout Islamic history, revivalism and reformation have always been a reoccurring phenomenon. There is the standard revivalist movement where it dictates for all Muslims to return to the fundamental principles of Islam, such as the teachings of Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism and arguably, Salafism. And then there is the modern movement, known as Islamic Modernism, that have similar implications declared by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto: ‘History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’; meaning to an Islamist that history is comprised of battles between good and evil, between the Muslims and non-Muslims.

Syed Abul A’ala Maududi and Sayyid Qutb were particular prominent figures of Islamic modern thought in the 20th century, and heavily influenced Islamic militancy today. Maududi is a Pakistani revivalist and founder of Jamaat-e-Islami that conceptualized an ‘Islamic state.’ He believed that Islam is all-encompassing, where Sharia – Islamic law – should be practiced beyond the ‘homeland of Islam,’ and establish a worldwide Islamic state. He encourages the use of jihad to eliminate the lands with un-Islamic rule. Maududi also placed emphasis on the word kafir, meaning ‘disbeliever,’ to be used for non-Muslims throughout the world. In his book, The Islamic Movement, he declares that the only way ‘left to please God’ is to struggle to remove ‘nonbelievers’ and leave a society consisted of ‘the righteous.’

Sayyid Qutb is an Egyptian theorist and took the adoptive parent role in the Muslim Brotherhood after the late Hasan al-Banna. Qutb was an ardent anti-West activist, radicalized by his experience in the US and in the Egyptian prisons under President Nasser in the 1950’s. He adapted to Maududi’s model of the ‘Islamic state,’ but developed it further. Maududi believed in gradualism, where Islamism gains power through parliamentary democracy, supportive military, and coercion with the West. However, Qutb declared that in order for world change, there needs to be an immediate all-out war.

Inspired by his inhumane and torturous experiences in prison and his resentment for faulty Muslim political leaders, he wrote his book, Milestones, claiming that the world was divided into two: Islam and jahiliyah – the ignorant. Qutb declared jihad directly against the jahiliya. After his execution in 1966, the Muslim Brotherhood coined the phrase, ‘Islam is the solution,’ to promote their campaign for worldly change in the name of Islam. These ideologues and many others incepted the idea of internationalizing Islam through the aggressive use of jihad. Their key message was that Islam is not simply a spiritual religion, but a political ideology that have to be acted upon in the name of God. In the words of Hasan al-Banna: ‘Allah is our Lord. Muhammad is our Leader. The Koran is our constitution. Jihad is our way. Martyrdom is our desire’.

This is the blueprint of al-Qaeda’s ideology. Bin Laden was impressed by Qutb’s form of direct ideology, and it particularly gained notoriety for inspiring jihadists, often found ‘citing Sayyid Qutb repeatedly and considering themselves his intellectual descendants.’ They follow a form of ‘jihadism,’ where it is characterized by the willingness to kill the kafir and an emphasis on jihad. With this extreme ideology instilled in modern Islamic militants, they see themselves as resistance fighters with a justifiable cause. Ed Husain, a British ex-radical Islamist activist, confessed that he unconsciously thought of those in opposition with Islam as ‘somehow less human and thus expendable in the Islamist pursuit of political dominion.’ Looking back, Husain mentioned he would often be left astounded on the influential powers of Islamism to the Muslim’s mind. Al-Qaeda and its networks and other international Islamist groups dispersed and caused significant radicalization throughout the world, either in radical mosques, religious meetings, or on the Internet. To them, the idea of global Islamism is a waiting reality to be materialized.

It would be quite difficult to also characterize this broad spectrum of Islamic militants in any analytic fashion. They all come from diverse and varied backgrounds in regards to education, experiences, professions, cultures, and societies. But, there are generally two distinct types of groups in this modern Islamic movement. The first group is regarded as the ‘intellectuals.’ This is the group that creates the alluring attraction to Islamism and militancy by dressing the package in fancy articulate religious snipping, usually taking up dominating leader roles and advocating for change. Resentful and angered, this change is to fight against what they perceive as ongoing injustice of political and socio-economic grievances: the rise in economic power by East Asia and the Jews compared to their region’s second rate status, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, and the military aggression and cultural indecency by the West. Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Doha, Omar Saeed Sheikh, Khalid Seikh Muhammad, and prominent others are considered to be part of this group.

The second group consists of the wave of Islamic extreme activists that gradually appeared throughout the past few decades. They are distinguished as marginalized, less educated, and more radical and violent, driven by bigotry and anti-Semitism. They are usually recruited by jihadi groups from the most destitute and brutal areas, ranging from Morocco to Southeast Asia, and coerced with fanatic Islamism. They are also more inclined to commit suicide bombings. The suicide bombers of the catastrophic 2002 Bali and the 2003 Casablanca bombings were largely uneducated and from poor slum communities. This plight has now shifted to the West, where you have the likes of Richard Reid, a British petty criminal that attempted to blow up a commercial aircraft in-flight in 2001, or Nizar Tribelsi, an unemployed drug addict and Tunisian refugee that attempted to attack a Belgian airbase of American soldiers. This brief dichotomy is not austere, and the groups do overlap. But it gives a sense of why Islamic militants choose a terrorist’s path.

In the past decade, there has been a progressive understanding of the true nature of al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups. Living in a post-9/11 world, previous counterterrorism tactics and strategies were updated to accommodate the new definition. Yet, the misconceptions of al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist organizations are still persistent in the public consciousness, and for good reason. It would be widely difficult to apprehend modern radical Islamic militancy – a continuous morphing historical and intricate phenomenon – and would be more convenient to condense it all into simple ideas. It is easier to think that one man is responsible for everything, summing the imminent terror threat under one super group. In essence, the word ‘al-Qaeda’ is a useful shorthand term. Although the recent bombing in Tora Bora by US forces made Afghanistan now an unfavorable destination for aspiring terrorists and severely weakened al-Qaeda’s infrastructure, it did nothing to expunge their Islamic ambitions, their mind, their ideology. Thus, the battle indeed goes on.