Monthly Archives: June 2011

Floating Voters, “Couch Rebels,” and Political Participation

By Elena Johnson, Research Intern, University of Virginia, VA


Each evolution of communication in history has always been followed by a hoard of skeptics and optimists, from Socrates lamenting the advent of writing, to Nicholas Carr questioning centuries later: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

While it is unclear whether writing has made us unable to recall things from memory, or Google is making us dumber, there are skeptics who argue that the rapid advances in media are making us less politically active and knowledgeable.

One outspoken author is Markus Prior, who wrote “Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections.” He claims that due to the wide range of media options available today more people are opting to ignore politics, leaving only partisan voters and an increasingly polarized system.

The argument hinges around the idea of a “floating voter” or those voters who are not strongly affiliated or persuaded by a particular party and “seldom approach an election with a firm sense of whom to vote for and do not always vote for the same party.” Some argue that it was the “floating” youth votes which swept Obama into office in 2008, but returned to their traditionally low participation rates during the 2010 elections when the Republican’s took back the House. 

The rise of new media sources allows people to selectively consume news that interests them or not watch news at all. In recent years the number of people tuning into the nightly news has declined greatly.

Figure 1: A decline in news consumption with the rise of internet sources allows people to selectively consume news that interests them or not watch news at all.

Prior explains that these voters tend to be less politically aware than their partisan peers, and as such they can be strongly influenced by elements like “candidate images or the controversy of the day.” Knowing about these controversies and seeing the images was inescapable back when a nation tuned into watch to the same newscast by Walter Cronkite each night. However, today we have a variety of options to distract ourselves from the news, be it a rerun of “Two and a Half Men” or the Facebook’s status updates on the daily trials and tribulations of your closest 423 friends.

Prior’s Washington Post article points out how “today’s media users seek out the content they really like. Unfortunately… few people really like the news.” This means that those uninformed citizens who are not invested in politics can remain removed from the political sphere. Prior argues that this detracts from the overall participation in an election— Why move your attention away from the most recent American Idol episode or your Twitter if you don’t really care about the elections at all?

This may not be a uniquely American phenomenon: a Washington Post article from June 13th reports that the media freedoms we’ve become so distracted by in the United States may be just as distracting in countries like Iran.

Thomas Erdbrink’s “In Iran, ‘couch rebels’ prefer Facebook” describes how the same people who led the infamous ‘Twitter’ Revolution in 2009 are now “playing internet games such as FarmVille, [and] peeking at remarkably candid photographs posted online by friends.” The YouTube video “Tehran Persian Nights” is a compilation of these photos, and illustrates the glamorous lives of this younger generation, with blonde women without headscarves shopping in high end boutiques, and young men and women going night-clubbing in high heels and fancy jeans.

Jinoos, a 39 year old Iranian artist, described her generation as “couch rebels,” and told Erdbrink that “our world online is like an endless party with no rules, and that keeps us very busy.” Some of  the reluctance to participate openly in politics may be attributed to the “ferocity of the government crackdown that followed the protests of 2009” which has had long standing effects, including curbing any real outcry from Iran during the recent wave of revolutions in the Middle East. Facebook continues to be the tool of distraction, despite the restrictions implemented by the Irani regime.

On a more positive note, there are many ‘techno-optimists’ today, especially on the tail end of the Arab Spring where social networks are given a lot of credit for organizing protests against authoritarian regimes. Undoubtedly, the tweets which organized protests and found their way to Al Jazeera, and to an even wider audience internationally, played a key role in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.

Studies in the United States are finding that social networks may even be improving our political activism. Pew Internet recently released a report on “Social Networking and Our Lives”, and discovered that Internet users on the whole are more politically engaged than similar demographics that did not use the internet. Beyond internet usage, they also found that using Facebook specifically increased political participation, concluding that:

“A Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day was an additional two and half times more likely to attend a political rally or meeting, 57% more likely to persuade someone on their vote, and an additional 43% more likely to have said they would vote.”

Perhaps the future of society with social media isn’t quite as bleak as we pictured it. People are rioting for freedom and democracy, and the youth of the United States has proven that they can and will mobilize for a candidate and cause they believe in. All good things, right? Maybe not. Voting and protesting are inherently different elements of political participation, and some wonder if perhaps social media is simply good for revolution, but bad for democracy.

While resident techno-optimist Clay Shirky certainly sees the benefit of social media for both, saying that social media tools overall “probably do not hurt in the short run, and might help in the long run,” there are a fair few skeptics who feel otherwise. Prior clearly outlines the potential drawbacks of new media for politics, and pundits like Dave Parry point out  that while social media can enable revolutions it “doesn’t necessarily mean that they enable the installation of stable power structure.” He also looks at how social networks are by nature unorganized and without a hierarchy and a clear leader there may be issues post-revolution with a power vacuum. Parry uses Egypt as an example of this, where citizens were concerned with the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could come into power in the event of a quick election after Mubarak’s departure.

Overall, it remains to be seen what role social media is going to play in our lives. Some dispute the role it played in the Arab Spring; some argue that it caused the world to change with a hashtag. Whether or not you see it as a way for people to simply socialize or organize for lasting change, new media has had a lasting impact on the way people have come to communicate.

The trick is to sift through all the #nowplaying’s and #justinbeiber’s for the salient, world altering patterns and information.  No one saw the rise of Facebook, many still do not understand the nature of Twitter, and few could truly say how it will impact our lives in the years to come, but with the most recent events there may be hope for those techno-optimists yet. 

Elena Johnson is studying American Government and Media at the University of Virginia. She is currently researching social media and regimes at INSS and is also working for the Executive Office of the President. Last summer she worked at Women and the Environment Organization (WATEO) helping to organize educational programs for women in rural Iraq.


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South Korean Cybersecurity: Three Questions

By Brett Young, Research Assistant, American University, DC
Center for Technology and National Security Policy


The mid-April paralysis of the National Agricultural Cooperatives Federation (Nonghyup), South Korea’s fourth-largest retail bank, seemed to be another routine cyber incident in the same vein as recent, high-profile intrusions carried out against Sony (where attacks resulted in the breach of 100 million customers’ personal information) and Hyundai Capital (where hackers demanded a ransom for not releasing stolen information.) Preliminary investigations, however, showed that this was not the work of ordinary hackers. In early May, the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office announced that the culprit was North Korea.

A network breach of the financial systems that underpin a vibrant modern economy, particularly one conducted not by a group of profit-seeking hacker-criminals, but by a sovereign nation-state with hostile intentions, raises a number of questions.

How should this alleged incident impact diplomatic relations with North Korea? After a bloody 2010, this year has seen a North Korean “charm offensive” with an emphasis on improving relations between the two Koreas. The North may be seeking food aid to stave off famine conditions, or may want a more stable situation for the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birthday in 2012. At the negotiating table, President Lee Myung-bak’s default position has been to seek apologies for the deaths of 50 citizens at the hands of the North in 2010. Yet any discussion of the Cheonan corvette sinking or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island is met with vigorous denials and can lead to immediate termination of any talks by the North.

Nonghyup’s security breach was considerably more than a nuisance; since April 12, the bank has spent over $400 million on measures to prevent the loss of customer confidence. When the South sits down at the table with the North, should Nonghyup be on the agenda? Or is silence (or covert retaliation) best?

The North has shown the ability to change their diplomatic posture overnight; their “charm offensive” posture may not last. When dealing with a regime that specializes in provocation, South Korea needs to define what manner of cyber incidents will be permitted to derail ongoing negotiations.

At the national level, how should South Korea pursue cybersecurity down the road? The security team at Nonghyup ignored financial sector regulations regarding strength of passwords, and internally permitted use of passwords that were deemed too weak to be used by their own customers.

Previous cyber intrusions in the ROK were enabled by the malware spread through popular peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing websites. In the past, South Korea has tried to combat cyber intrusions by increasing public awareness through mass and social media. But the economic motivation to use P2P websites—and get goods for free—will remain, despite government campaigns. South Korea can create more vigorous laws regarding network protection, but must do so in a fashion that will not create a counterproductive environment where reluctance to cooperate is the preferred corporate response to a network breach.

Internationally, the Nonghyup case will never end up before the United Nations. Last year’s sinking of the Cheonan resulted in a UN Presidential Statement condemning the attack. But in cyberspace, attribution—being able to directly attribute an intrusion to a source—remains the thorniest in a thicket of issues. North Korea’s involvement has been alleged, not proven—as with two other previous cyber incidents in the South. Some experts and media outlets disagreed, noting that technical evidence cited by the National Police Agency can be manipulated by competent hackers. As a state with one of the highest broadband connectivity rates in the world, South Korea is better off continuing to bolster its defenses: it has both a Cyber Warfare Command and Cyber Terror Response Center, and roughly doubled funding for the former in April. 

Finally, there is the broader question of the gradual increase in cyber intrusions against states, and what states are to do about them. Recent years have seen increasingly brazen network intrusions, threatening state secrets, which costs time and money. Intelligence agencies, military planners, and policymakers are grappling with the question of how exactly to respond to certain types of intrusions—and what, if any, level of a cyber incident would require the answer of a real-world, kinetic response.

An event which broke as this went to press will certainly have the attention of Seoul. The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Defense is soon to release its cybersecurity strategy, possibly containing precedent-setting answers to the question posed above.

All three questions bear close scrutiny not only by South Korean policymakers, but by those interested in shaping policy for effective cybersecurity around the world.

Brett Young is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service, where he focuses on security studies in East Asia. He is currently researching aspects of cybersecurity for NDU’s Center for Technology and National Security Policy. He previously interned at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, DC.

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Raising Russia’s National Happiness

By Michael Davies, MA – Research Assistant, Australian National University, AU

War. According to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, that is the best way to increase Russia’s national happiness. In August 2008, Russia and Georgia fought over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The conflict ended with Russia recognizing the independence of the two breakaway regions after pushing Georgian troops back into Georgia-proper. The situation has remained stable, but tense ever since. Both states are fighting internal problems, and neither can really afford to initiate hostilities again knowing both have much to lose. Nevertheless, President Medvedev declared during a press conferenceon 18 May 2011 that the 2008 conflict “was very important for the country…for making it feel strong.” Thus, if war against a tiny, weak state helps Russia to recover its sense of lost status, is it the harbinger of future conflicts?

The conflict began officially during the night of 07-08 August 2008 after Georgia launched a military offensive into South Ossetia. Georgia claimed it was responding to attacks on its soldiers and native Georgians within the territory. Russia responded by launching its own offensive into both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops came within only a few kilometers of entering the Georgian capital, Tibilsi as the Georgian military crumbled. On 12 August, President Medvedev declared he had ordered the end to all military operations. Two weeks later on 26 August, Russia officially recognized the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. Only Belarus, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru have recognized both states along with Russia, while Vanuatu recently recognized Abkhazia only, though clarification on this has been difficult.

Since the recognition, Russian security forces have remained in the two ‘countries.’ Russian soldiers patrol the administrative borders on Roman;”>land and sea, and maintain precision >weapons systems on ready alert. Because of the number and type of troops in both regions has led US Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) to define that presence as an occupation. Though her use of this term is primarily because of her pro-Georgian stance, it does provide an apt description of the Russian presence as neither state can stand by, nor protect itself.

The 2008 conflict is the first real successful use of Russian military power since the end of the Cold War. The decimation of the Soviet-era military machine holds much of the blame for this, as does the weakness of Russia’s political system. The Russian intervention in the Georgian civil war era after independence achieved little. The First Chechen War of 1994-1996 ended in an ignominious Russian retreat. The Second Chechen War that began in 1999 was only ‘successful’ after the puppet leader Ramzan Kadyrov used his fathers name to take the Presidency and rule at the behest of Russia. Even then, the insurgency in the North Caucasus is not based entirely in Chechnya. Dagestan and Ingushetia suffer daily attacks as well. The insurgency has penetrated so deeply into Kabardino-Balkaria, that political and military parity between the security services and the militants has likely been achieved. All this has occurred as Russian troop presence has increased in the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Strategically, Russia is doing just as poorly. Russia’s ally, Serbia, was forced to relinquish control of Kosovo to NATO peacekeepers in 1999, which led to its declaration of sovereignty in early 2008. The Baltic states joined NATO. Ukraine threw out its pro-Russian leader in the Orange Revolution, and even though the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych is currently President, a strong pro-EU, pro-NATO section still remains in the body politic. China is gaining influence in Central Asiaas its GDP grows ever larger, and as its political weight is used effectively through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Moreover, in an ironic twist of fate, as Russia and its leaders intend to promote the image of a strong Russia, to Western publics, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Medvedev are treated more as Internet memes or sources of humor. Putin is looked upon as the real-life version of a Bond villain. In turn, Medvedev is seen as Putin’s ‘Mini Me.’ Video of either man dancingor singingmakes greater headlines than a statement on the operation currently underway in Libya.

Chris Hedges says that “war is a force that gives us meaning.” His book by the same name stated that “even with its destruction and carnage [war] can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” Continuing on, Hedges notes that Manichean view created in battle: “[w]ar makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us.” Medvedev’s comments certainly correspond to Hedges’ analysis.

The establishment of meaning and the effective use of military force is likely why Medvedev claimed the 2008 conflict “made the country feel strong.” It was the first time Russia had really defeated an enemy and forced its policy preferences on anyone since the end of the Cold War. The conflict also intended to show how far Russia was willing to go to protect its interests. A message that was clearly aimed at NATO and its expansion plans. This war gave Russia the ability to prove it was a Great Power once again.

It must also be acknowledged that this feeling is not unique to Russia. In the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, the same feelings were expressed within the United States. On 02 March, 1991, US President George H.W. Bush declared that“we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” The statement was an affirmation in support of renewed US engagement with the world. The comment was made to show that the ‘Ghost of Vietnam’ had been exercised for good, and that military force can be used effectively in support of US interests, and above all else, its values. In other words, the Gulf War, as declared by the sitting president, made the country feel good about itself once again.

Medvedev’s comments were not unique, nor surprising. Examples exist across generations of leaders making similar statements. War has always provided meaning to society. As the 2008 Georgian conflict was the first key victory against an ally of NATO and the US, a certain degree of pride would naturally be felt within Russia. What these comments offer is an insight into the nature of Russian foreign policy thinking at the current time. As the comments were made at a press conference, it also suggests that Medvedev wanted the international community to be plainly aware of Russia’s new sense of self. Therefore, if Russia does feel stronger and better about itself, and is already willing to use military power to ensure the security of its interests as well as regain the title of Great Power, it should not be surprising that they will engage in more military operations into the future to achieve that status once again.

Michael Davies is a Research Assistant for the Center for Strategic Research at INSS. He has been awarded a Master in Strategic Affairs from the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University, as well as a BA (International Relations/Political Science), also from ANU. He has previously worked as a media analyst at Media Monitors Australia, and as a Research Intern, Armed Conflict Database at The International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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Does Intervention in Cases of Revolution Serve to Minimize Civilian Casualties?

By Andrew Shaver, Research Assistant, Princeton University, NJ


When President Obama addressed the nation on March 28th of this year, he explained that he had authorized U.S. military action against Qaddafi’s regime “to stop the killing.” To underscore the urgency of U.S. intervention, he detailed the abuses committed by the regime against Libyan civilians.

“Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off. The water for hundreds of thousands of people in Misratah was shut off. Cities and towns were shelled, mosques destroyed and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assault from the air.”

Yet, does intervention in cases of revolution actually serve to minimize civilian casualties? Upon initial reflection, the answer seems obvious. The presence of foreign forces should serve to deter the killing of civilians by the host-nation government or its mercenary agents. Indeed, much of the literature that has been written on the subject has simply taken for granted ‘the fact’ that intervention in cases of expected mass atrocity serves to prevent such. Yet, trends are beginning to paint another picture, and, in late April, Obama Administration officials conceded that the death toll in Libya may approach 30,000.

So, it is worth asking: would mass slaughter of civilians actually have taken place had President Obama opted against intervention? Perhaps more importantly, even if Qaddafi had permitted his forces to continue to indiscriminately kill Libyan civilians, would a greater number of civilian lives have been lost than will ultimately occur over the course of the Libya conflict in spite of current NATO operations against Libyan forces?

Answers to such questions would be of significant importance as policy makers and politicians seek to determine just how effective NATO’s intervention in Libya is and whether similar such action might be applied in Syria and other epicenters of Arab Spring unrest.

Earlier academic research focused on determining why certain types of civil conflict result in greater bloodshed than others has found that those conflicts in which foreign assistance is available to combatants tend to be more severe. Other academic work has shown that revolutions, relative to other forms of civil conflict, tend to be short lived while civil conflict in which there exists a third-party backer tends to last longer than other types of civil conflict. Such findings provide reason to question whether it might actually be the case that foreign intervention in cases of revolution tends to transform them into longer-lasting conflicts with greater loss of civilian life, even when the intention and corresponding strategy of such intervention is prevention of civilian casualties.

Unfortunately, this question is a difficult one to address empirically. A comparison of numbers of civilian lives lost in cases of revolution in which no foreign power(s) intervenes against cases of revolution in which a foreign power(s) intervenes for the purpose of preventing casualties is likely to be confounded by the very fact that countries may tend to intervene in cases where there is reason to suspect greater loss of civilian lives. Put differently, even if it were demonstrated that foreign intervention in cases of revolution actually tend to result in greater loss of civilian lives, without an appropriate means of controlling for such, it would not be possible to determine whether the greater loss of life resulted from the intervention itself or because those conflicts that drew intervention were inherently more violent.

Then, again, do states actually ever intervene in the affairs of other states for the singular purpose of preventing civilian loss of life?

Andrew Shaver is a graduate student in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and is presently engaged in independent research for NDU’s Center for Complex Operations. He served previously within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and for the Defense Secretary’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations.

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Review: Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel W. Drezner

By Michael Davies, MA –  Research Assistant, Australia National University, AU

Daniel W. Drezner, Theories of International Politics and Zombies, (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ), 2011

Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies is the latest example of the increasing fascination with zombies within the pop-culture arena. It is the first book to address the issue in a formal theoretical sense however. The genesis for the book began with a blog poston Drezner’s Foreign Policy blog in 2009. Drezner was one of the first academics and public intellectuals to enter the blogosphere, and since then his site has become one of the staples of the foreign affairs arena. As Professor in International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Drezner commands a certain expectation with his work. Nevertheless, while the book is enjoyable and a quick read, I was left with a single question in my mind after finishing it: why did I pay $15.00 for this?

Drezner begins by describing exactly why he decided to write the book. Simply, “the international relations community needs to digest the problem posed by flesh-eating ghouls in a more urgent manner.” The zombie apocalypse preparedness guidefrom the U.S. Center for Disease Control would suggest Drezner is not alone in this concern.

From this, a description of the various forms of zombies is provided – an essentially contested idea apparently – and a definition emerges: a “biologically definable, animated being occupying a human host, with a desire to eat human flesh.” The definition is referenced from the Zombie Research Society. (Yes, it actually exists.)

Drezner fully admits this book is part-prank, but it also serves as a platform to gain a greater understanding of international politics, and in particular, international relations theory. The fun side of the book comes from all the pop-culture references and evidence he uses come from books and movies. And obviously from the fact Zombies don’t actually exist – yet…. Videogames are mentioned, but as they are more activity driven than anything else, they struggle to provide the empirical analysis necessary.

The serious side resides in the notion that as cultural knowledge of zombies and zombie-related references increase so should the theory of the phenomena that surrounds it, and us. Regardless of the topic, certainly no policy wonk can argue against that reasoning.

The book traces through four specific international relations theories and how each of them would deal with a zombie apocalypse: Realpolitik; liberalism, of all varieties; Neoconservatism; and Constructivism. Max Brooks’ World War Z provides the core observations to these theories in action as the story narrates how the various states of the world deal with a zombie apocalypse originating in China. Other examples from the Resident Evil and 28 Days/Weeks franchises are repeatedly used as well.

The major problem with Drezner’s work is that the theoretical construct used is a basic caricature of the theories themselves. The descriptions of the theories are the bare-bones, un-nuanced versions. Even when variances are mentioned, they remain crudely drawn ones. Realism/Realpolitik will rely on the misinterpretations of Thucydides, and play Zombie and non-Zombie states off of one another. Liberalism would focus on creating an international consensus based on international law before acting. Neoconservatism is an insular, Manichean theory whose only purpose is to serve American interest. (Ok, that caricature is pretty close to reality.) While Constructivism would focus on preserving the social identity of zombies and might even embrace zombie “soft power.” International relations theory is a complex matrix of ideas, counter-ideas and historical examples, and any theorist would feel a little cheated by these parodies.

Nevertheless, Drezner makes excellent use of the literature to give the reader a swath of hilarious comments and one-liners. When Drezner wrote in a footnote as to why he left out Marxism and Feminism – “To Marxists, the undead symbolize the oppressed proletariat. Unless the zombies were all undead white males, feminists would likely welcome the posthuman smashing of existing patriarchal structures.” – I actually laughed out loud on the Metro, much to my embarrassment. Poking fun at Alexander Wendt’s famous quote, Drezner writes that, “Zombies are what humans make of them.” Robert Kagan is rewritten as “humans are from Earth, Zombies are from hell.” When Drezner notes that the use of nuclear weapons would be a catastrophic mistake because it would create a race of super-zombies, you cannot help but smile at the fact he actually spent time thinking about that.

For all the enjoyment the book offers, for the quick and easy read that it was, the book was underwhelming. It left me wondering why I spent $15 for it. That $15 could have been spent on another, more valuable and inherently more useful book. The theories were presented as basic caricatures of themselves. The lack of nuance makes the book read like an undergraduate essay. At an intellectual level I doubt many graduates would look back upon this as an example of strong scholarship.

But in the end, that’s who should purchase this book: Undergrads. It presents complex theories in a basic format, with references that are easily accessible and understandable to them. It will be far more useful than most international relations theory textbooks, initially at least. It is a quick primer that isn’t dry or boring. But that’s as far as this book should be used.

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