In his recent article in Security Studies, Yuan-kang Wang tackles a vitally important question in international relations: is unipolarity durable?[1] Two opposing views can be derived from the extant literature. Declinists posit that unipolarity is doomed due to the formation of counter-unipolar balancing coalitions, the unipole’s imperial overstretch, and the uneven growth rate between the unipole and the potential challenger.[2] Primacists generally focus on the case of the United States and postulate that American unipolarity will endure because balancing under unipolarity is too costly to be considered as a viable option.[3] While much of this literature has approached the question through the use of theoretical frameworks that privilege structure over agency, Wang offers something novel.

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In this article Wyn Bown, Jeffrey Knopf, and Matthew Moran examine Syria’s possession and use of chemical weapons (CW) and third-party response.  In this context, they assess how compellence succeeded in Syria when deterrent efforts had initially failed.  President Barack Obama had set a ‘red line’ that signaled U.S. commitment to punish the Syrian regime if it used CW.  Although the president did not follow through on his deterrence approach, the Syrian regime agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) after its attack on Ghouta in August 2013 that killed hundreds of people.[1] The destruction of a sizable portion of its CW stockpile followed.  However, the Bashar al-Assad regime ordered additional CW attacks that included the use of chlorine and sarin agents from 2014-2018, some of them on a large scale.  The authors ask why compellence succeeded after the easier task of deterrence had failed?  Based on the case study and existing literature,[2] the authors identify conditions of effective and ineffective coercion.

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States in competition with each other have powerful incentives to engage in deception.  Adversaries use deception to convince each other that their resolve is high and that they possess powerful military capabilities.[1] More puzzling is why states that are aligned with each other—which is understood as “a set of mutual expectations between two or more states that they will have each other’s support in disputes or wars with particular other states”[2]—engage in deception.  Aligned states would seem, at first glance, to have good reasons to share information about their intentions and plans with each other comprehensively.  This sharing facilitates coordination policies towards a common foe and makes joint action more effective.  Such comprehensive sharing of information does occur, but on some occasions aligned states withhold valuable information from each other or deliberately lie about their intentions and capabilities.  Perhaps the most notorious recent example is the George W. Bush administration’s exaggeration of claims that Iraq possessed a weapons of mass destruction program, which had the goal of persuading aligned states such as Britain, France, and Saudi Arabia to support military action against the country.[3]

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The November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in myriad discussions about German reunification.  In addition to questions about the domestic future of Germany, concerns over who would be responsible for Germany’s security and stability and with whom the new German state would ally persisted.  Marc Trachtenberg revisits the February 1990 meeting wherein United States Secretary of State James Baker assured the Soviet Union that the U.S. would not support NATO’s eastward expansion if Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would accept its presence in a newly reunified Germany.  While both the Soviet Union and the United States expressed an understanding of the consequences of leaving Germany to unilaterally reestablish its own security, Baker’s statement was remarkable.  Perhaps even more remarkable, though, was the Soviet Union’s willingness to accept this condition knowing that it would likely alter the global balance of power, at least in the short term.  Thirty years later, Germany remains a successful example of reunification as a democratic state reintegrated into the international system.  A key exception from what was envisioned in that February meeting, however, is that in the same thirty-year period NATO grew from sixteen to thirty member states – it expanded significantly further than Baker’s “one inch” east promise.[1] The United States’ ultimate decision to support and advocate in favor of NATO expansion post-Cold War was met with Russian condemnation which persists to this day.

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In America’s Mission, Tony Smith contends that the “central ambition of American foreign policy” since the Spanish-American war has been centered on promoting democracy, or in President Woodrow Wilson’s formulation, “making the world safe for democracy.”[1] Challenging this narrative, Arman Grigoryan argues in “Selective Wilsonianism,” that this ‘Kantian narrative’ that originates in liberal theory does little to explain glaring differences in Western support for various democratic movements in the post-Soviet space. Further, he argues that the overall history of U.S. democracy promotion shows American interest in it to be largely instrumental instead of based on ideological commitments.  Grigoryan argues that this Kantian narrative of the West relentlessly supporting democracy across the world is more a story that believers in liberal theory tell themselves rather than one which is based in reality.[2] Instead, he convincingly argues that the U.S. has shown significant variation when and how it promotes democracy across time, using democracy promotion instrumentally to achieve its national goals.

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Contested freedom of navigation, welcome back.  Absent from mainstream debates about the relevance of military power in international politics since the end of the Cold War, until recently naval power had come to embody the linear progression underwriting Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history.’[1] Since the United States had no major enemy left to fight as the Soviet navy faded into the twilight of history, freedom of navigation stood without threats.  The ocean had become the staging platform for the uncontested projection of power of the U.S. and its allies.  Exploiting command of the sea in support of expeditionary campaigns from the Balkans to the Middle East replaced Cold War concerns over securing sea control in the North Atlantic or the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.  Reflecting upon this doctrinal transformation in the mid-1990s, Geoffrey Till remarked that the emergence of requirements for ‘“good order at sea” to manage resource depletion and environmental challenges further added a new dimension to an overall ‘post-modern’ shift in naval affairs.[2]

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It is a very common belief to perceive women as more peaceful than men.  Female stereotypes are connected to care, communication, tolerance and compassion.  The first wave of feminists promoted this ideal of not only peace loving but peace bringing women.[1]  These very traditional attributes of the female role model became even more politically relevant during the current COVID-19 crisis.  Female heads of state were commended for their female crisis management, for showing compassion and extraordinary sympathy with their people while managing the pandemic.  The media described German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other female leaders as caring and motherly, wondering whether women are the better leaders and crisis managers.[2]  The connection of women to everything peaceful and pacifying has long prevailed.

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Unfamiliar with sanctions issues, and accustomed to their capitals’ discreet use of this foreign policy tool, the European public follows sanctions-related headlines with some puzzlement.  If the United Nations (UN) lifted sanctions on Tehran following the conclusion of the nuclear deal, why was it necessary to create a special vehicle for trade with Iran, the Instrument for Trade Exchanges (INSTEX)?  If sanctions regimes are invariably endowed with provisions for humanitarian exemptions, why do humanitarian agencies struggle to get aid to places like Iran and Syria?  Why are European banks like BNP Paribas fined with exorbitant penalties?[1]  As it turns out, these are manifestations of the same phenomenon, and Bryan Early and Keith Preble have the answer to these questions in the article under discussion here.

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The next election looms over nearly all decisions democratic leaders make.  Choices about military strategy are no exception.  Whatever the merits of a particular policy, it could well be overturned, along with the rest of a leader’s agenda, if it prompts voters to remove him or her from office.  Some observers have long worried that electoral pressures give rise to short-term thinking and other pathologies in foreign policy decisionmaking.[1]  Others have argued, on the contrary, that electoral accountability leads to greater caution and prudence about war and peace.[2]  Andrew Payne’s article addresses the important question of how electoral pressures actually worked in an important recent conflict. Its case studies of decisionmaking under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama during the latter stages of the Iraq War are detailed and compelling.  The evidence reviewed in the article could also speak to alternative theoretical mechanisms that the article does not consider in detail.

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Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Austin Long dispute what they regard as conventional wisdom about the benefits and drawbacks of disclosing clandestine weapons, sensors, or associated hardware or software.  Past international relations scholarship, contend Green and Long, dwelt to excess on the tradeoffs between concealing and revealing elements of military power during times of crisis or war, when political and military leaders issue threats to use force or actually order the sword drawn for battle.  In such cases secrecy is at a premium lest the armed forces forfeit some combat advantage to a watchful, adaptive foe.  The balance between political and military interests tilts toward concealment.  Hence the conventional wisdom among scholars who study intelligence and national security[1]

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