Yes, some things are worth dying for

“Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?”

David Foster Wallace, “Just Asking”


External sponsor cooperation and Syria’s civil war

The Syrian civil war has proven nothing short of confounding. Its complexity is a function of intervention by the major regional actors in the Middle East and as well as other great powers. The Assad regime is supported by Iran and Russia while Turkey and the Arab states led by Saudi Arabia support the rebels. Yet cooperation among Assad’s patrons is more robust compared to those of Syrian’s rebels, which have been limited among Sunni regional powers. And then there’s the United States, which wants to support someone as an adversary of ISIS but cannot find Sunni proxies with an interest in the same threat.

Given the wide range of perspectives of how the war might progress and the appropriate US policy (much of which the war has proven wrong), studying these relationships between actors inside and outside Syria might offer a better way to think about its trajectory and potential outcomes. And lots of recent research in IR on imperial structures and insurgent organization does this, especially Daniel Nexon and Paul Staniland, which they call a relational-institutional or social-institutional approach that studies social ties and broader network structures. In particular, this approach would suggest that properties of network configurations might determine who is winning and losing in different phases of the war. A grain of salt: what follows below is a speculative and informal application of one particular network concept, certainly a real historical analysis would be much more rigorous (and hey, this is a blog, so here goes).

One important property is network density, a concept which refers to the ratio of the number of possible ties between different actors and the number actual ties. Depending on this ratio, a network will be either sparse (few ties) or dense (many or all ties). Network density in the Syrian civil war would refer to all the possible ties spanning external sponsors and domestic combatants. Density is theoretically relevant because actors define themselves and represent their own boundaries in relation to others. When those relations are mutually congruent among all actors, each has a more stable identity that serves as a basis for stronger organizational capabilities. If all actors have strong relations with each other, each has a stronger identity. Domestic combatants embedded in cliques of cooperative external sponsors, a structure in which where each actor has ties to others in the network, will be stronger because that network has a higher density. In other words, combatant cohesion and coordination depends on the degree of cooperation among its external sponsors, and density is how we can conceptualize that structure of cooperation.

If true, then the network density of great power sponsors should be a major factor in driving the trajectory of the Syrian civil war. We can make a crude representation of this by charting some relationships among actors in the war. People like to make charts like this to illustrate the complexity of ties between relevant actors, but these don’t let us see how the particular configuration of ties can condition the organizational and military capacities of different combatants. I gave it a shot below.

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 7.22.26 PMSolid lines are formal ties, while dotted are informal. Ties among sponsors and combatants are those of facilitation or direct support, while those among sponsors are of interstate cooperation, and those among combatants are military and political coordination. All reflect mutual recognition of the boundaries and roles of each actor involved in a tie.

This basic representation of ties suggests that Assad’s external patrons have a more dense network: Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias all form a dense clique – cooperative ties are shared by all actors and make possible collective agreement about regional order and the roles each actor in the clique.  They form a counterhegemonic bloc to rival the mostly status quo powers, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf States, and the United States as the hegemonic guarantor of regional security. Yet the density of that latter network has fluctuated over time due to changing ideological, sectarian, and geopolitical interests. Sunni external powers states support rebels that want to overthrow the regime, but their own rivalries have previously limited support. Since the start of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been rivals since the latter supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its affiliates across the region in challenging the old order, which the Saudis sought to uphold. At the same time, while the United States supports regime change in Syria, its primary threat is ISIS and seeks to develop proxies oriented toward that adversary, not Assad. Thus, in the most bitter conflict in the region, the United States and Sunni states are pursuing different foreign policies – their interests in Syria effectively promote non-cooperation and result in a more sparse external sponsor network for Sunni rebels.

With no shared vision of how Syrian rebels fit into a restored regional order, external powers mostly refrained by coordinating their support for rebels from 2012 through 2014, and Assad recovered after appearing to fall in 2011. Since each external power pursued its interests through its own proxies, there was simply more of them with independent sources of support. The result as a more fractured opposition vulnerable to infighting among its factions. Although the absence of external cooperation limited over rebel coordination and cohesion, this context was best exploited by ISIS, which grew in strength based on informal ties to Sunni states and ties to non-state actors around the region (no, these are not pictured but are relevant). Meanwhile, Assad consolidated his position while backed by his more dense external sponsor network.

But rebel cohesion and coordination does improve as those same external sponsors engage in cooperation. Turkey and Saudi Arabia put aside their differences once it appeared Assad might be victorious and collaborated on rebel support. Their new cooperation led to the formation of a rebel operations room known as Jaish al-Fatah, which all major rebel groups except for ISIS and the Kurds. Jaish al-Fatah successfully executed a coordinated campaign against the regime in Idlib province throughout most of this year. This campaign was the main military shift that again led to observations that Assad’s position was weakening, especially as the rebels began to threaten Assad’s main base of Alawite support in Latakia.

We see this same trend – rebel military effectiveness increasing as cooperation among external powers – in the war’s current stage involving Russia’s intervention on behalf of Assad, which appears to be a temporary deepening of ties within that clique. Despite claiming to target ISIS in Syria’s eastern provinces of Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor, the offensive has targeted the Jaish al-Fatah coalition in Idlib and rebel controlled areas in neighboring Aleppo. Russian airstrikes combined with the deployment of Syrian forces supported by Hezbollah and Iraqi militias (and all coordinated by the Iranian Quds Force) are intended to drive the rebels out of those areas and provide breathing space for the regime.

Yet this increase in the robustness of external power cooperation has also occurred for the rebels, who have mostly held their own in the face of regime counteroffensives supported by Russian airpower and intelligence. Part of their battlefield success is attributed to the deployment of TOW anti-tank missiles which have been used with great success in Idlib and around Hama. Those TOW missiles are evident of increasing cooperation between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Only the United States can provide TOW missiles and previously refrained by supplying them because of fears that Nusra or ISIS would then obtain American arms (which has already happened). Those risks are now less relevant in a context of Russian intervention and Assad’s growing strength. The United States can’t accept a stronger Assad as an outcome of Russian intervention, and so its interest in denying Russia regional influence has finally led to covert cooperation with the nascent clique of Sunni external sponsors.

In each of the conflicts phases (Assad’s stabilization, the formation of Jaish al-Fatah, and the Russian intervention), changing levels of network density among external powers appears to drive the conflict’s trajectory. Given the number of players and possible relationships, its hard to see how network density can get stronger on either side, and perhaps this suggests that the conflict is heading toward a mutually hurting stalemate.

Overall, thinking about the conflict in terms of network configurations thus might tell us a lot about it. And certainly there is more to studying relationships than simply density – other properties like centrality and the presence or absence of social mechanisms like brokerage and yoking are especially relevant since they bring ideology into our explanation in a worthy way. Research that continues this relational focus will be especially insightful.

Columbus Day and the Whiteness of Italian-Americans

It’s Columbus Day, which has many people wondering why the United States has a national holiday for someone who initiated a half millennia of ethnic cleansing, a passive kind of genocide. What’s interesting is how Columbus day is about recognizing Italian-Americans as ‘white’, but simultaneously reinforces dominant racial categories that devalue non-white ethnicities of indigenous culture. Italian-Americans are recognized as ‘civilized’ alongside Anglo-Saxons, yet this narrative simultaneously represents ethnicities of color as the ‘uncivilized’ recipients of Eurocentric culture, provided by those same Italian-Americans.

Columbus Day celebrations began in New York City around 1792 and were very popular with immigrant Italian-Americans, millions of whom arrived between 1890 and 1920. The symbolism of Columbus for this group is what matters here: Columbus helped define the Italian diaspora’s identity by confirming their connection to their homeland and also their identity as Americans. In this way, the Columbus narrative discursively assmiliates Italian-Americans as an equal part into ‘white’ American society, initially established by Anglo-Saxon Protestants who otherwise looked down on the ‘ethnics’ of Italy and Ireland. The integration of previously ‘non-white’ Italians becomes complete with their successful promotion of Columbus Day as a national holiday, which is recognized by Roosevelt in 1937.

The problem with Columbus Day is that many people recognize him as an aggressor, one who begins a new historical era defined by the subjugation of entire swaths of non-European populations from around the world. Columbus is associated with the near genocide and domination of indigenous peoples, who are alternatively displaced and cleansed from their existing territory in North America or pressed into indentured servitude in Latin America. Among peoples of African descent, Columbus opens the ‘New World’ to slavery as an institution of labor exploitation. Both these groups are represented throughout the history of the Americas as being ‘non-white’ and ‘uncivilized’ as compared to the ‘white’ and ‘civilized’ European settlers who govern colonial societies.

Colombus is the historical actor who lays the foundation for these racial categories and institutions that we generally understand as white supremacy. His great ‘discovery’ is also a claim toward expropriation and the denial of indigenous claims toward not just land but status as members of a common humanity who must also be treated as equal persons.

And so today, when Colombus is celebrated with a national holiday that implies the assimilation of Italian-Americans as Americans, his image serves to remind non-white groups of their continued exclusion and subjugation, especially among Native Americans who have been confined to reservations. This is the paradox of Italian-American whiteness – we become American while reminding others that they are not. Becoming part of civilized society requires reproducing categories of racial dominance by displacing them onto indigenous and African peoples. Terms like ‘dago’ and ‘wop’ may have gone out of style, Italian-Americans should remember that they too once lived under such conditions and relationships relative to dominant whites.

The question for Italian-Americans then becomes: how can we celebrate our heritage without reproducing white supremacy? Ditching Columbus as the symbolic figure of Italian-Americans would be a big start, and certainly there are more impressive figures than he. Why not Fiorello LaGuardia, the Italian-American mayor of New York who led the city through World War II and is known as one of the most important city mayors in US history?

Even better – Italians-Americans should recall when they too were defined as ‘ethnics’ and stand in solidarity with peoples who continue to be subject to racial domination. Recognizing holidays like Indigenous Peoples Day alongside Italian-American celebrations would demonstrate mutual respect of each group’s history in the United States and promote equality instead of perpetuating white supremacy. More simply, we should stop just trying to be white.

A flashback to 1990s constructivism

Reading the news on Iran gives me flashbacks to reading Alexander Wendt in grad school and social constructivists popular in the 1990s. These scholars popularized an optimistic approach of international relations that suggested cultural change in world politics could promote cooperation and multilateral global governance. While today’s relational constructivism has largely moved toward studying social ties rather than ideas, social constructivism can still be useful in explaining the relationship between diplomacy, national identity, and future cooperation. It can certainly be applied to the current relationship between United States and Iran, one defined by new diplomatic engagement and has challenged Iran’s perception of the United States and its own identity within world politics.

Back in the 1990s, social constructivists made the progressive claims that anarchy was only what states make of it. They assumed that states were not predisposed toward competition solely because of anarchy. Instead, the effects of anarchy on competition and cooperation depended on what states thought of each other. If states spread new ideas about each other’s identities and associated norms about how states ought to behave based on those identities, they could engage in peaceful interaction as members of a common international society (Wendt basically is extending the English School). Anarchy itself is an “empty structure”, and changes in the meaning of anarchy correspond to changes in what states thought of each other, namely their identities and the perceived identities of others.

A key mechanism in constructivist theorizing is known as reflexivity, whereby individual actors engage in a critical reflection on their relationship to the world around them and realize how their actions reproduce conflict. When states think and act reflexively in relation to other hostile states, they present a cooperative identity to enemies to falsify their expectations of hostility, thereby causing both to change how define themselves in relation to each other.

These constructivist assumptions about ideas and social interaction go a long way toward explaining the current disagreements in Iran regarding its own identity and that of the United States. Since the 1979 revolution, Islamic Republic has always defined itself in opposition to the threat of American imperialism. Based on American support for the Shah as a regional client of the post-war international order, the Islamic Republic sees the United States as a constant threat to Iranian sovereignty. This assumption serves as the basis for Iran’s revolutionary identity and the perception that it must challenge the United States across the Middle East or risk domination.

However, the successful conclusion of negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and end of punishing sanctions against Iran is a major problem for its historical identity. According to Joost Hilterman, the nuclear deal is a signal to Iran that the United States no longer is pursuing a policy of regime change, in which the United States would seek to overthrow the regime and establish a new one consistent with American interests and values. By signaling the absence of such threat, Iranian elites have to reconceptualize American identity based on unexpected cooperation:

Iran’s favorite scapegoat can no longer plausibly be regarded as the root of all evil in the world…’Our Great Satan without sanctions is just not the same anymore,’ said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and supporter of Mr. Rouhani. ‘Perhaps we should use ‘lesser Satan’ now or something like that.’

Tonight on 60 Minutes, President Rouhani will reciprocate this reduction of hostilities when he says that the phrase “Death to America” – a staple of Iranian anti-Americanism – does not refer to the American people but American policies. Rouhani is signaling that the Iranian regime no longer views the United States as an existential threat and accepts its sovereign autonomy and right to make decisions about world politics along with Iran. Iran’s Foreign Minister has said much of the same.   Apparently lesser Satans can be tolerated in world politics, and even be a negotiating partner in dealing with the regions many other issues.

The downgrading of hostilities between the United States and Iran is a major challenge for hard-liners in the regime who rationalize a hawkish foreign policy based on hostility to the existing order. Certainly Ayatollah Khamenei wants to retain the existing Iranian sense of self, and has sought to reinforce it by stating that there will be no future cooperation with the United States.

But maintaining revisionism no longer make sense if the United States and other great power are willing to sit down and peacefully resolve disputes through reciprocal concessions. And neither does a national identity defined in terms of absolute rejection of the order in which Iran is now participating. Now that the Islamic Republic has taken its place within the broader ‘society of states’, a revolutionary identity is no longer consistent with the ideas about Iran held by other nations, and thus its ideas about itself must change as well.

Social constructivists can make a fairly strong claim here to explain the ongoing struggles about Iran’s identity using the concept of reflexivity. The cooperative actions of the United States and Iran – choosing to relax sanctions and commit not to use military force in exchange for Iranian cooperation – have established a new cultural context in international politics, and Iran’s identity is now adjusting accordingly. The Obama administration deserves a great deal of credit for triggering this change based on its persistent diplomatic engagement with Iran. Whether speaking to Rouhani on the phone, sending letters to Ayatollah Khamenei, or wishing Iran a happy new year on Nowruz, the administration has presented itself to Iran as a potential partner in cooperation and falsified expectations of hostility learned during the Bush administration. In this way, Obama and Rouhani are acting as reflexive partners who deliberately challenge existing beliefs about each other’s intentions to produce a new shared understanding about cooperation.

Relational constructivists would certainly oppose this explanation. They would argue that the United States and Iran engaged in bargaining over their identities using rhetorical commonplaces, which were always subject to definition and redefinition in the course of the negotiations. They would reject the idea that agent identities and structures are different kinds of things, and instead would point to the relational ties between the United States, Iran, and other actors that made such discourses of cooperation possible, namely the multilateral ties among the P5+1, which gave American promises of restraint more credibility and also denied Iran the opportunity to weaken the sanctions regime by fracturing P5 unity. Rhetorical and relational dynamics would explain cooperation, not reflexivity inside the minds of each actor.

These explanations are quite useful, and relational constructivism is a dramatic improvement on the social constructivism of the 1990s. But it is hard to think about how cooperation does emerge here without going back to the different approach toward Iran taken by the Obama administration. American identity does seem to change, going from unilateral neoconservatism to a more restrained multilateralism. As a concept, reflexivity does much of the work here, and it suggests that we shouldn’t so easily discard social constructivism as a theory of culture and identity in international relations. IR theorists might use this case as a point of departure to think about reflexivity in the context of relational constructivism. Yes, relationships matter as conduits for ideas and can’t spread without them, but those ideas have to originate somewhere.

Clinton and Obama: Two versions of liberal internationalism

Hillary Clinton made a major foreign policy statement yesterday offering her approval of the Iranian nuclear deal. However, her remarks were more interesting because they provide us an opportunity to understand her worldview and assumptions about foreign policy. While both Clinton and Obama share liberal internationalist strategies, both understand the role of the United States relative to other great powers differently, and thus make different assumptions about America’s role in world politics. Ikenberry’s recent work on American grand strategy provides a useful way to understand these different versions of liberal internationalist grand strategy.

Take Hillary’s discussion of how she would approach Iran if elected president. Her “distrust but verify” principle implies that Iranian commitments to the US are unlikely to be uphold in the absence of some coercive threat (snapback sanctions in this case). It also suggests that the US should be wary of making further commitments in Iran, an assumption reinforced by her proposal to confront Iranian influence across the region. This demonstrates a base belief that Iran’s emergent hegemony is entirely contrary to American interests in the region and that those interests must be forcefully reasserted. Her clear and unambiguous support of Israel is a major part of the restoration of an American-led regional order, despite the fact that the current Obama administration does not view Israel as a partner in regional stability.

In calling for a renewal of American regional hegemony, Clinton is articulating a liberal internationalist strategy consistent with what Ikenberry has described as liberal internationalism 2.5. Such a strategy attempts to renegotiate the terms of American leadership and preserve worldwide hegemony by making itself subject to some rules but not others. Hillary’s approach to the nuclear deal reflects this type of strategy – she accepts it as a temporary limit on American action with regard to Iran but reserves the right to unilaterally use military force while bolstering its relationship with Israel.

While Hillary tolerates some political openness by virtue of her acceptance of the nuclear deal, an American military capability is always at the ready to enforce that new global order. This is further evident in her discussion of Syria and Ukraine, two areas in which she believes the United States must act more forcefully to confront both Assad and Putin. These statements position Hillary as a hawkish liberal internationalist, one willing to flex American muscle to uphold American principles of liberal order.

What’s fascinating is that this position isn’t necessarily that far from that of some neoconservatives. Robert Kagan, who wants the US to avoid superpower retirement, is generally seen as supportive of Clinton and has made moves toward the political center, like working at Brookings rather than a standard right-wing think tank. Same for others like Max Boot. Both would approve Clinton’s past criticism of Obama on Syria, arguing that he has not done enough to support Syrian rebels. As for the US role in the world, she argues that the US can’t “hunker down”. The problem isn’t American leadership. Instead, it’s one of messaging: “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”

On the other hand, Obama’s foreign policy is edging away from liberal internationalism 2.5 and more toward 3.0. According to Ikenberry, version 3.0 would see the United States resolve global problems using highly multilateral and networked processes among many great powers, including potential adversaries. This is a post-hegemonic posture that seeks to maintain the liberal world order created by the United States through great power cooperation, including diplomacy with adversaries and rival hegemons.  The P5+1 diplomacy that led to the Iran deal is precisely the kind of engagement that would be pursued by a post-hegemon, and such a strategy would use this diplomatic success as a way to build consensus on solving other problems faced by all major powers.

What’s the difference between these two versions of internationalism? 3.0 would involve a much higher degree of strategic restraint and an acceptance of the limitations of American power. Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” principle is quite consistent with restraint and demonstrates a loss of faith in the use of unilateral military force. Given her assumption that the US must restore its hegemony, Clinton would have much fewer qualms regarding coercive activities.

Overall, these two different versions of liberal internationalism serve as the major grand strategic alternatives for foreign policy in the Democratic Party. Which makes one wonder: will other candidates (Sanders, O’Malley) articulate a foreign policy more consistent with Obama’s liberalism 3.0? Or, more interestingly, might it might possible to develop a strategy that even goes beyond 3.0, or for that matter, even beyond liberalism?

A wider window of opportunity for US-Iran cooperation

War on the Rocks has an interesting piece by Farzan Sabet throwing cold water on the possibility of future cooperation between the United States and Iran beyond the nuclear deal. Both states presumably have a shared interest in the defeat of a common enemy: the Islamic State. However, Sabet warns that Tehran will resist cooperation for two related reasons. The first is Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony, a strategy prosecuted by Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani and his support for proxy states and militias. The second is a network of rivalries between Iran and Sunni regional powers threatened by Iran’s bid for hegemony. This argument implicitly assumes that competition is rooted in the Iranian regime’s revisionist foreign policy posture – it seeks to dominate the region and rewrite the rules of regional order consistent with its own ideology.

However, there are developments out of Tehran that suggest Iran is adopting more restraint in its foreign policy. The conclusion of the nuclear negotiations has seen Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif open the door to cooperation on other issues with the United States, which presumably include ISIS and broader regional instability. Most recently, The Economist has reported that Suleimani’s activities are now under review by an external committee following criticisms regarding his proxy-oriented strategy. The same piece notes that Zarif has effectively stepped into Suleimani’s role, and is now seeking to “find an endgame in Syria that limits, rather than increases, Iran’s armed involvement in the civil war there.” Combined with the ascendence of the moderate president Hassan Rouhani, who initiated diplomatic outreach with the West that led to the nuclear deal, it seems that politics within the Iranian regime thus appear to be driving foreign policy change.

This bodes well for the prospects of a continuing rapproachement between the US and Iran, but it does not necessarily mean that cooperation is forthcoming. An undiscussed factor is domestic politics within the United States. While Rouhani and Zarif are especially secure in their position, no such uncertainty exists in the United States. This country itself is about to undergo a leadership transition with the 2016 election, and there are vastly different opinions on the nuclear deal and presumably future cooperation.

We can safely assume that a Republican candidate will tear up the nuclear deal and resume hostility towards Iran (although Donald Trump has given mixed signals on this). On the other hand, it’s not entirely clear how Hillary Clinton, the current front-runner, would approach Iran. While she is supporting the Iran deal, this appears to be more about avoiding the appearance of going against President Obama. She has been an Iran hawk in the past, and was Senator from a state who’s politicians fall all over themselves speaking against Iran as resolute defenders of Israel. Bernie Sanders would be most likely to support continued cooperation with Iran. Although he is rising in the polls, he remains an underdog.

If we consider the domestic politics of both Iran and the United States, the window of opportunity for further cooperation is wider than we think, especially on the Iranian side. But, the combination of uncertainty injected by the 2016 election and the highly partisan nature of the issue shows that the real obstacle is American domestic politics.


This is the personal website of Stephen Pampinella, assistant professor of political science and international relations at SUNY New Paltz. Within international relations, I study war and conflict, statebuilding interventions, and American foreign policy. I also am deeply interested in New York State politics, a product of growing up on Long Island and living in Albany for 11 years, where I did my undergraduate and graduate work.

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