Caveat EmptorCharles Mahoney sets out to answer the question “why do some markets for private defense services function efficiently while others are characterized by companies that regularly underperform and shirk their obligations?” (31) This is a puzzle with clear policy implications for governments around the world who may want to efficiently utilize private military and security companies (PMSCs).

More than just answering that question, Mahoney is interested in building theoretical explanations that serve as the basis for future academic work on PMSCs. To do this he uses the building blocks of market structure and a principal-agent framework. His central argument is that…

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MOAB

Inter arma…

One of the most common words associated with the candidacy and then presidency of Donald Trump has been ‘unprecedented.’ The President himself has even tweeted it, although his spelling (“unpresidented”[2]) occasioned some ridicule. We hear that Trump has an unprecedented amount of billionaires in his cabinet, an unprecedented number of business conflicts of interest, an unprecedentedly long list of unfilled government positions so far into his term, an unprecedentedly high security budget to cover his weekend trips to Mar-a-Lago, and so forth. Commentary on Trump’s approach to international law has been no exception, stressing its unprecedented or at least highly unusual character. Candidate Trump threatened to “cancel” the Paris climate change accord, “break” the North American Free Trade Agreement, and defy international and domestic legal prohibitions on torture “in a heartbeat.” [3]

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Polarity marking center negativeA refreshing look at re-conceptualizing the concept of polarity, Benjamin Zala’s “Polarity Analysis and Collective Perceptions of Power: The Need for a New Approach” attempts to offer a new approach in bypassing the definitional, conceptual, and measurement confusions plaguing research on polarity. Seeking to methodologically distance itself from the traditional scholarship on polarity, which revolves around distribution of resources/material capabilities, positional analysis, and hegemonic behavior, Zala proposes an approach that concentrates on perception, agency, and performativity. The author’s proposal, to a strong extent, contrasts the body of literature produced after the end of the Cold War, which brought about the expansive debate over unipolarity, with the debate ranging from modes of counterbalancing, to traditional considerations,[1] to soft-balancing,[2] to scholarly disputes over durability/stability,[3] to the peacefulness[4] and structural coherence of the new unipolar system[5]. Zala’s concern is to provide the theoretical justification for a shift in the operationalization of polarity from explanatory and positional considerations based on capabilities and resources to an ordering concept where status is privileged over capabilities. The author’s attempt at such theory-development revolves around two general approaches: 1) utilizing the notion of perception to qualify status and polar ordering, and 2) offering a case study from the Cold War when the U.S. attempted to restructure the bipolar system into a tripolar configuration by elevating China to polar status.

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A U.S. Air Force A-10A Warthog in flight during a NATO Operation Allied Force (Kosovo) combat mission, Apr. 22, 1999.

A U.S. Air Force A-10A Warthog in flight during a NATO Operation Allied Force (Kosovo) combat mission, Apr. 22, 1999.

Philip Haun’s Coercion, Survival and War: Why Weak States Resist the United States is a much-needed book. After over a decade where the struggle against terrorism dominated policy, conflicts among states—such as the tension between China and Japan over disputed islands or European and U.S. efforts to push back against Russia’s attempts to expand its sphere of influence—are now at the front and center of policymakers’ concerns and may prove the most important security issues for the Trump administration.

Haun’s work presents a general theory of coercive failure, arguing that too often coercers insist on too much—in particular demands for regime change and surrendering territory. Such demands are…

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In “Covert Communication: The Intelligibility and Credibility of Signaling in Secret,” Austin Carson and Keren Yarhi-Milo introduce a theoretical framework to illustrate how leaders can use covert action to signal their state’s resolve to local allies and strategic adversaries. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that states intervene covertly to conceal their role in military operations and minimize the amount of information they reveal to third parties, the authors argue—and demonstrate empirically via case studies of Soviet and American interventions in Angola and Afghanistan during the Cold War—that states can and do use covert action to send intelligible and credible messages regarding their intentions. These actions take place on an international political “backstage” wherein “states share a basic communicative grammar regarding activity in the covert realm that allows leaders to send targeted messages to external actors” (125). Overall, the article is persuasive, clear, and makes a new and important contribution to the bourgeoning literature on covert action. The case studies are intriguing and incorporate a variety of recently declassified documents. As a foundational piece on covert signaling, the article raises three important questions that could pose fruitful avenues for future research.

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Despite its proximity and importance, Latin America usually does not receive a lot of attention in U.S. elections. After Donald Trump’s shocking and ultimately successful campaign for the presidency, the region may miss being out of the limelight. Somewhat atypically, many of Trump’s campaign promises related to Latin America. Mexico was, and remains, Trump’s villain of choice from the first day of his unlikely campaign. Mexico supposedly sent criminals as immigrants and bested the United States in the countries’ deep trade relationship; Trump granted the Mexican government a level of astuteness and competence that must have surprised many Mexican citizens. Central American migrants, whose remittances are more important to their home states in relative terms, also came under fire. In recent days, Trump has aimed his Twitter feed at transnational, and U.S.-born, street gangs, casting all the blame on neighbors to the south. Trump’s initially pacific tone toward Cuba soured as the campaign progressed. His anti-trade proposals go beyond renegotiating or threatening to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and abandonment of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), and would cut to the core many Latin American countries’ economic strategies, in which access to the U.S. market is the lynchpin.

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It is hard to recapture the confidence, indeed the hubris, which emerged in certain policy circles in 2002 and early 2003, after the United States successfully brought down the Taliban government in Afghanistan and was primed to overrun Iraq. It was not simply neoconservative officials from the George W. Bush administration possessed by delusional visions. As a young (ish) assistant professor in Austin, Texas in the winter of 2003, I vividly recall two prominent DC visitors—both hawkish Democrats—predicting that the inevitable toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Bagdad would be the first steps in a great American project to reconfigure the states of the greater Middle East. This would be accomplished not simply or even primarily by overwhelming military power, but instead by powerful historical forces that made the new universalistic, liberal political and economic order nearly inevitable. Global tyranny and authoritarianism would be put on the run. What seemed unhinged then—the idea that the United States could rebuild states in its own image—seems, fourteen years later, like the beginnings of a deeper tragedy whose effects we feel sharply today.

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Nearly twenty years ago, Robert Ross wrote an influential article on the sources of stability in East Asia. He argued that while the United States and China were destined to engage in great-power competition, geography and structural factors would lead to a stable regional bipolar balance. The United States would focus on maintaining its maritime position, and China would focus on securing its interests on land. Neither would find it useful or practical to attempt to change the regional order. “The U.S.-China conflict is a rivalry between a maritime power,” Ross concluded. “This dynamic reduces conflict over vital interests and mitigates the impact of the security dilemma, reducing the likelihood of protracted high-level tension, repeated crises, and arms races.”[1] Military leaders in both countries would have to indulge in heroic assumptions to convince themselves that they could seriously challenge their adversary on its domain. Political leaders in Beijing and Washington would benefit from competing – and cooperating on areas of mutual interest – in a relatively low-risk environment.

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European public opinion has a problem with U.S. Republican Presidents. Ronald Reagan was deeply mistrusted in his early years in power;[1] George W. Bush was regarded as a disaster and liability well before the crisis-scarred end of his term.[2] Barack Obama, meanwhile, continued to enjoy excellent approval ratings on this side of the Atlantic.[3] As such it is tempting to dismiss a great deal of the European anguish and anxiety at Donald Trump’s election victory as no more than a confirmation that European opinion – and particularly perhaps the opinion of that part of the European public which is informed about and interested in U.S. politics – is significantly to the left of U.S. opinion and hence bound to regard rather negatively the election and early policy decisions of the 45th President. That Trump’s lifestyle, both before his election and since, also plays into deeply rooted European stereotypes about crass and vulgar American materialism only makes unfavourable European reactions even more predictable.

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Donald Trump has never claimed to be a foreign policy expert.[1] He does not like in-depth reading, and prefers one-page policy option papers with “lots of graphics and maps.”[2] He claims to have a “very good brain,” and promises to be a strong leader who puts “America first” and makes it “great again.”[3] Should we believe him? His goals may well be laudable. But if my work on expertise and naïveté in foreign policy decision-making is any indication, President Trump, and his advisors, like other American and non-American leaders and their subordinates, will unconsciously follow a fundamentally biased judgment strategy. They will make the most important decisions of our time, those regarding choices of war and peace, by instinctively employing a “cognitive miser” or cognitive processing cost-minimizer strategy.[4] Whenever system or state conditions are fluid enough for American decision-makers to disagree, to debate the merits of potential foreign policy actions, President Trump will prefer military instruments of policy to non-military instruments of policy, as long as his military experts propose and support such options. Otherwise, he will accept non-military initiatives, if they are offered and endorsed by his non-military specialists. Certainly, Trump appears to have a unique decision-making style, personality, and character; and perhaps each of his advisors does too. This is often the case with foreign policy actors.

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