Notes from the so-called Real World

goings on in international law & politics


Panama, papers, pirates, politics

The outcry over the disclosures in the Panama Papers brings us, yet again, to Pirates!

You might think that’s about stateless treasure buried in Panama and elsewhere around the Caribbean. But the connection I’m thinking of is farther north in the colder climes of Iceland.

Iceland (source: map by KTG)

Iceland has been front and center in the developing Panama Papers scandals.

Iceland has a population of 325,000, which puts it a little above the city of Corpus Christi in Texas, and just below Santa Ana, California. Still, it is an independent state, which carries certain advantages. It also makes it newsworthy when the prime minister is found with his hand in the off-shore cookie jar.

Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson resigned after the news broke that his wife had helped him skirt Iceland’s political transparency laws by shielding his beneficial interest in an offshore account. Icelanders have a strong allergy to bank manipulations and off-shore shenanigans following the grief they endured from their own short-lived experiment as a haven for off-shore banking. In the 2008 meltdown, Iceland’s banks and its bubble stock market completely collapsed over the course of just three days.

Interestingly, Iceland has largely recovered from that catastrophe, but that is a story for another time. Today’s story is about pirates, political pirates: Iceland’s up-and-coming Pirate Party (that’s the real name, I’m not making this up!).

The Icelandic Pirate Party is an offshoot of an international movement started in Sweden that took its name from its opposition to the international copyright regime. In addition to its desire to free information, it has a set of core values that revolve around ideals for participatory democracy, privacy, and civil rights. There are about sixty Pirate Parties around the world, including in the U.S. In Iceland, the Pirate Party has emerged as a serious political force and has received a huge boost from the latest scandal. Icelandic support for the Pirate Party now stands at forty percent, and they are expected to become the governing party after elections coming up this autumn!

The sudden rise of the Icelandic Pirate Party comes along at a time when anti-establishment parties and candidates from both the left and the right are making significant inroads around the globe. It would be an interesting research question to try to measure whether this is a new thing or comes in predictable waves. But, regardless, this trend points to two big interesting and important questions. First, how important is political experience? And second, particularly for international relations, can politics be radically different?

We’ll take a look at those two questions in the next couple of posts. Stay tuned…


Hacking jurisdiction

Jurisdiction is a critical issue in international law and has been the subject of a number of posts here.

The brave new world of cyber crime and computer hacking raises a number of interesting challenges for traditional views of jurisdiction. But news from the Washington Post today shows that the old forms of jurisdictional confusion are still in play as well. A Post article tells the story of ‘Guccifer’, the notorious Romanian hacker who tormented celebrities for sport, and who started the Clinton email scandal when his hacking exposed the fact that she was using a private email server for official business (He also broke the news of the infamous George W. Bush shower paintings).

Guccifer’s real name is Marcel Lehel Lazar. He was arrested in Romania for hacking and was then extradited to the United States, where he made his first court appearance this week. Jurisdiction in this case really isn’t hard. The place of the criminal activity itself was Romania, so Romania would certainly have jurisdiction. But, the illegal effects of Lazar’s activities were clearly felt in U.S. territory, so the U.S. would have jurisdiction as well, under the effects doctrine.

Here is Judge Learned Hand’s famous articulation of the effects doctrine from the 1945 anti-trust case U.S. v. The Aluminum Corporation of America (ALCOA):

any state may impose liabilities, even upon persons not within its allegiance, for conduct outside its borders that has consequences within its borders which the state reprehends (148 F2.d 416)

In the current case, Romania was willing to extradite Lazar for U.S. trial. That probably makes sense since it would be easier to show the harm here.

Cyber cases can be tricky for jurisdiction because while the physical act of working a computer takes place in one location, the principal harms may be felt elsewhere. The hacking likely moves across servers in many countries and can easily have widespread impact. That, however, is not the cause of the confusion here. The interesting confusion in this case is on the part of the U.S. Attorney, Dana Boente. According to the Post he released a statement which included the following:

“Mr. Lazar violated the privacy of his victims and thought he could hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. No matter where they are in the world, those who commit crimes against U.S. citizens will be held accountable for their actions, pursued by our investigators and prosecutors, and brought to justice.”
(Washington Post – 2 April 2016)

This is where the confusion comes in. It is true that the U.S. appropriately asserts jurisdiction for crimes that have effects on U.S. territory. And, it is likely that a case could be made under the protective principle that these were essentially attacks on the basic security interests of the U.S. government, which also creates jurisdiction. But the United States has consistently rejected the principle of passive-personality, which is the attempt to assert jurisdiction based on the nationality of the victim. I don’t mean to diminish the value of your passport, but it is not the case that “No matter where they are in the world, those who commit crimes against U.S. citizens will be held accountable for their actions, pursued by our investigators and prosecutors, and brought to justice.”

The U.S. has begun to assert the the passive personality principle for a few very high level crimes, most notably terrorism. Violation of privacy is not one of those high level crimes. The jurisdiction for crimes that take place against American citizens abroad rests with the country in which the crime takes place. If the United States believes that one of its citizens is not being treated fairly, it can make it a diplomatic issue and apply political pressure. But the citizenship of the victim does not give legal jurisdiction.

The U.S. has a strong case for its jurisdiction to prosecute Guccifer, but it is based on the place of the effects, rather than on the nationality of the victims.

One other odd note here: When confronted with the possibility of extradition to the U.S., Mr. Lazar reportedly responded that he welcomed extradition: “I’ll plead guilty, no problem.” He seems a bit confused on the concept as well. Perhaps he is thinking ahead to the movie rights…

That Guccifer Guy

That Guccifer Guy, Incarnate
(source: YouTube Still-cc license)

Quantifying the Qualitative

A while back, I noted that my next big thing would be a book on information theory and case study analysis. I am pleased to announce that Quantifying the Qualitative: Information Theory for Comparative Case Analysis (SAGE 2016) is now available from fine booksellers everywhere.

In this book, my co-author, Katya Drozdova, and I present a new approach to making comparative small-n analysis more systematic.

Information theory is a branch of applied mathematics that grew out of Claude Shannon’s groundbreaking insights about quantifying information. Shannon’s landmark “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” I’ve previously described the importance of Shannon’s work, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Our approach uses these insights to build a simple metric for understanding how much information about a dependent variable is contained in the variation of an independent variable across a small set of cases. The important thing is that this information theoretic approach is not subject to the same limitations as classical statistics in the small-n context (although it is still critical to be careful and intentional in drawing inferences from small numbers of cases).

Quantifying the Qualitative is for anyone who wants to do comparative case study work with between 5 and 50 cases. It can be used for larger sample sizes as well, but by that point more traditional statistics can come into play (there are also some larger-N information theoretic statistics that are really interesting and very cutting-edge, but we don’t get into those.)

The book is particularly oriented towards those who are nervous about the increasingly esoteric world of quantitative methods. Our approach requires only minimal quantitative skills. It basically starts from simply counting up the number of times each variable combination occurs and can be easily done on an Excel spreadsheet.

We have provided both a sample Excel spreadsheet and a macro-enabled version that will do the calculations automatically. Of course, there is also an R version, if you are up for that. You can get these resources at the SAGE website.


Polish posturing

Poland is a country that knows from being gobbled up by ambitious neighbors. So, we are inclined to cut them some slack if they appear more than a little rattled by the latest round of Russian revanchism.

Strengthening the European economies and institutions would be a good start on responding to Putin’s expansive notion of great power perogatives. Decreasing dependence on Russian oil and gas will be particularly critical.

Russian football fans fly a banner for the 2012 Russia/Poland game in Warsaw
source: Piotr Drabik via Wikimedia/Flickr(cc license)

But Poland’s ambitions apparently tend towards the UN and the world stage. Poland has proposed enhancing the ability of the UN to respond to Russian behavior by taking away Russia’s veto:

“My main message will be that perhaps the United Nations should be reformed to make the institution capable of addressing the threats that really exist today,” [Polish President] Komorowski said in an interview this week at the presidential palace here in advance of his visit to the United Nations in New York next week.
Source: NYTimes

Great Idea! That’ll show Putin who has real power! All we have to do is get the UN Security Council to sign on, starting with the Permanent Five: China, France, the UK, the US, and … oh yeah, Russia.


(A little more consequentially, perhaps, Poland, a member of NATO, announced today a new joint military unit with Ukraine and Lithuania)


The next big thing

Well, it’s the next big thing for me, anyway.

I have a new contract with SAGE for a book on information theory and comparative case studies.

This is a project with Katya Drozdova, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, and an affiliate of the Stanford-Princeton Empirical Studies of Conflict project.

The new book is an extension of our forthcoming ISQ article, which advocates and demonstrates the use of information theory to improve on comparative case studies in international relations. This is a very simple approach that makes comparative case studies more rigorous, systematic, and replicable, by providing a measure of how much information about an outcome is contained in the explanatory factors of a comparative case study. The book generalizes the methodology, provides a lot more step-by-step detail, and applies it across a broad range of fields.

Two notable dimensions of the project:

Alexander L. George

First, this project fits into a certain generational story for me. My dissertation committee chair was Alexander L. George. One of his seminal contributions was the articulation of the structured, focused comparison method for comparative case studies. This methodology is set out most extensively in his book with Andrew Bennett on Case Studies and Theory Development for the Social Sciences. It is demonstrated most famously in his book on The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

Meanwhile, Katya was a standout student in my international law class when she was an undergraduate at Stanford. She went on to do her PhD in information systems at NYU, where she worked with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who had also been a member of my dissertation committee.

I reconnected with Katya at a small Washington conference on mathematical modeling for counter terrorism. Drawing from some material in her dissertation we’ve worked together to set out information theory as a way to make structured, focused comparisons more informative and effective.

Second, along with my new book on the statistical programming language, R,, this points to something of a recent focus on making quantitative methods more accessible. The central point of the R book was to separate the process of learning R from the already difficult process of learning statistics and to make R something people without a background in computer programming could manage. The purpose of the new book on information theory is to provide a simple tool for students, scholars, and policy analysts who are unenthused about the increasingly esoteric nature of contemporary statistics.

Information theory: what.

For the wonderers among you, here’s some information theory information.

Science writer James Gleick writes of two world-changing innovations from the Bell Labs in 1948. The lesser of these, he asserts, was the transistor. The more critical was a paper by mathematician Claude Shannon titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Shannon’s paper has been called ‘The Magna Carta of the Information Age.” In it, he shows that we can mathematically characterize information and measure the minimum space required for its transmission. The paper included the first published use of the term “bit” to describe a unit of information. It was the foundation for everything digital that has followed.

Claude E. Shannon

Shannon’s information theory provides a measure of uncertainty in the process of communication. The revolutionary element of Shannon’s theory was the notion that you could measure how much bandwidth would be required, even in the presence of noise, to reduce uncertainty to zero, and thus to communicate information without error. This was critical to building computers that could reliably store and transmit information.

In our project, we make use of Shannon’s information metrics to measure how much the uncertainty in a dependent variable can be reduced by knowledge of an independent variable. This is an exceedingly easy calculation. If you can count, you can do it!

Admittedly, not as broadly revolutionary as Shannon; but, we think a pretty big deal for policy analysis or for any of the many disciplines that use small-n studies to understand the connection between a set of explanatory factors and an outcome of interest.

Look for it in on the shelves in early Fall, 2015Spring 2016.


The law merchants

We’ve looked much here at the importance of commitment in international relations. Making commitments across time and space in the anarchic international system is exceedingly difficult. Trade is particularly dependent on the ability to enforce contracts and payments across borders. In medieval Europe, commerce was facilitated by the lex mercatoria, the law merchant. This was a system of customary law articulated and enforced by the traders themselves. It involved a set of courts along major trade routes that were largely independent of the civil authorities.

In a famous and influential 1990 article, Milgrom, North, and Weingast use the Law Merchant phenomenon to demonstrate the ways in which institutions can emerge to solve reputation and commitment problems even without explicit enforcement powers.

The cloth merchants of Venice
source: Rembrandt via Google Art Project via Wikimedia

The law merchant system died out as states consolidated their authority and developed their own commercial codes and enforcement institutions. One hard thing remaining, though, was the challenge of contracting with states themselves (or their close friends and relatives). If you are going to build an airport or an electricity grid for some foreign potentate and you get into a dispute, you don’t want that dispute resolved by a bunch of judges who are in the potentate’s pocket.

You might think that states would like having the deck stacked this way. Of course they do. But, as in the time of the law merchant, it is hard to get people to make deals, let alone to build airports and electrical grids, if there isn’t a mechanism for fairly adjudicating disputes. The solution has been the creation of a set of institutions for international arbitration. Under the 1958 New York Arbitration Convention, which has about 150 parties, states are committed to accepting and abiding by arbitration, and arbitration awards can be enforced in any member country:

Article III

Each Contracting State shall recognize arbitral awards as binding and enforce them in accordance with the rules of procedure of the territory where the award is relied upon…

“the rules of procedure of the territory where the award is relied upon” means that aggrieved parties can look for enforcement in places that have effective legal institutions and where the opposing party has some assets that can be seized in lieu of payment. The United States often sits atop both of these categories: it has a strong legal system and most every plutocrat has some significant assets squirreled away here.

The U.S., then, is a popular place to pursue international arbitrations. When a big international arbitration happens, it requires armies of very highly paid lawyers renting office space, and hotel rooms, and cars, and photocopy machines, and buying rounds of golf, and champagne. This is a lucrative thing and U.S. cities are starting to compete for this business.

New York, of course, has the lead. But other cities are now getting into the act. Here is the locus of Atlanta’s effort:

If you visit the page you will see that Atlanta touts it’s 11th Circuit Federal Court as “the most international arbitration-friendly court in the United States and among the most arbitration-friendly courts in the world.”

Of course, Miami, “the undisputed hub of Latin American Arbitration” isn’t going to take this lying down:

Round one goes to Miami, which this year landed a huge arbitration battle about cost overruns pitting the global conglomerate of construction companies working on the Panama Canal widening against the Canal Authority.

Even with widening, there may not be room for two arbitration cities.
source: Biberbaer via Wikimedia (cc license)

Bottom line: As in the middle ages, there is money to be made providing the legal structure for international commitments. Law merchants indeed!


Hegemonic herpetology

Hegemonic Stability Theory (HST) argues that a leading power has both the incentives and capabilities to build institutions that benefit the international system as a whole.

A very interesting article in the usually lightweight NYTimes T magazine reports on the American forensic lab for wildlife crimes. This somewhat exotic operation run by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and based in Ashland, Oregon, works on evidence for crimes involving illegal hunting, smuggling, and other violations of wildlife and environmental laws. In addition to providing those services for American law enforcement, the lab is at the center of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The CITES  treaty has 180 signatories, including the U.S. When you think about the worldwide effort to limit elephant poaching or illegal logging, it is the Ashland lab that is often called on to process the evidence.  These are serious criminal issues that involve sophisticated criminal gangs and are estimated to account annually for some 19 billion dollars in illicit trade. The FWS lab has pioneered genetic techniques for solving a number of technical challenges, such as figuring out which caviar is legit and which has been harvested from endangered Russian sturgeon.

Whether American leadership generally helps or hurts the international system more broadly is a subject of a very interesting debate. I just attended a very spirited panel on this subject at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association this past week. There are several ongoing projects and important books in the works on both sides of this issue.

Wherever you come down on Hegemonic Stability Theory and on the net effects of America’s role in the world, if you like endangered species more than international criminal gangs, you’ll be glad of the American leadership for this effort.


Border disorder

Since the end of World War II, the international system has had a fairly robust borders regime. Of course, as with the case of the border between North and South Carolina, there have been some enduring ambiguities. But even the momentous process of decolonization has happened largely without undermining the basic principle of border sanctity. Likewise, the border order has largely withstood the tensions of seventy years of shifting balance among the great powers. Large powers have not seen it as their interest or their right to push border revisions.

The Portuguese leave Goa
source: Frederick Noronha Frederick via Flickr(cc license)

India tried it once, asserting in their 1961 conquest of Portuguese Goa that the border was illegitimate because it had been created under colonialism. The next year, China attacked India asserting the same principle, that the border had been set by imperial Britain, and therefore could be redrawn.

Most of the decolonized African states applauded the original Indian assertion, but have remained remarkably committed to their own rather arbitrary colonial borders–most everyone recognizes the chaos likely to arise from throwing open the borders question.

It appears to me that all of this may be on the verge of unraveling. The creation of South Sudan in 2011 raised the issue in central Africa, and despite initial high hopes, the result so far has been civil war and 1.5 million displaced civilians.

Putin’s Russia, most egregiously, seems suddenly to view the issue as wide open. The Crimea was the first bite, and now Eastern Ukraine looks to be on the plate. This past Sunday, Israel annexed 1,000 acres of occupied West Bank territory near Bethlehem.

source: Philip Jagenstedt
via Flicker (cc license
ktg modifications

What could be next? With the world distracted, I would look for more mischief from a rising China in its several conflicts with neighbors over various islands and territorial seas. Chinese President Xi is reported to admire Putin’s “strong leadership style.” The Japanese are reportedly concerned by the relatively weak U.S. response to Crimea and its implications for the possibilities of U.S. action in the event of a Chinese move on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. (Although not so concerned so as to impose their own significant sanctions on Russia, which is increasingly viewed as a critical source for Japan’s voracious energy needs.)


“States” and “States”

Writing and teaching about international relations in the American context often bumps up against the confusion between talking about “states” and “states”: the domestic American version vs. the international version. The United States was, of course, formed out of a bunch of geographic units that thought of themselves as akin to international states. So that title stuck. Sometimes the problems of this confusion are balanced by the benefits of interesting comparisons.

This week, the New York Times reports on the ongoing boundary dispute between North Carolina and South Carolina. It turns out internal U.S. borders are sometimes as problematic as the international ones–consider in this regard the challenges of defining the border between the U.S. and Mexico as the Rio Grande shifts course over the years, or our discussion of the conflicts over border demarcation between Thailand and Cambodia.

South Carolina learned a hard lesson from the long dispute with Georgia over a few islands dotting the lower Savannah River. That disagreement took 26 years to resolve, ultimately involving the Congress, the Supreme Court, and some $10 million in legal fees.

Defining “South of the Border”
source: South Carolina Boundary Commission (Public Document–Fair Use)

The current fight involves 334 miles of border. The problem stems from some shoddy surveying work in the early 18th century. As with the U.S. Mexico border, the solution has been a Boundary Commission to look at all of the problems and negotiate it all out. They are just about done, save for a few pesky properties built across the new border, or where a business would have to shift states and face a significantly different regulatory or tax environment (for example, fireworks and alcoohol sales are legal in South Carolina but not North Carolina).

So, more similarity between “states” and “states” than you might have thought.


Things that R happening

The blog has been quiet, but I have been busy. My new book is just out, which is a big deal for me.

In addition to international law and more general international relations, a big part of my teaching work is in research methodology. There has been a sea change in this area over the past twenty years with the dramatic rise in computing power and the increasing availability of huge data sets. Computational statistics has moved to the fore. A central key to computational statistics has been the development of the computer language R. R is now an essential skill for anyone doing quantitative work in political science (and many other fields), which means you really can’t get a PhD from a top program without tackling R. The problem is that R has a notoriously steep learning curve.

For the past few years, I have been teaching our advanced PhD statistics class using R, and have myself been struggling to get a handle on R for my own work. To facilitate this process I’ve been at work on a book that separates the learning of R from the challenges of learning statistics. This book focuses on the many data management and graphics tasks for which R excels. Where most books focus on teaching statistics and have an appendix on R, my book focuses on teaching R and has an appendix on statistics. This allows me to set up the R learning process more systematically, and teaches some of the most critical quantitative skills–data management and graphical presentation–that often get short shrift in traditional statistics classes.

Anyway, the book, A Survivor’s Guide to R: An Introduction for the Uninitiated and the Unnerved, is now out from SAGE Press and is available wherever fine books, and even not-so-fine, books are sold.

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