Brazil and populism

Few topics have attracted as much writing in recent years as the rise of populism and nationalism. I was interviewed recently by a student reporter at PSU, who wanted to talk to me about Jair Bolsanaro’s rise in Brazil. How does a politician -who served as an officer during the dictatorship, and has made offensive comments about many groups-  win the Brazilian presidency? Of course, Brazilians are exhausted by the endless political scandals, which have left one previous president impeached, and another in prison. Anyone who once promised to shut down Congress will attract votes in this context. The Worker’s Party failed to denounce its leaders for corruption, which cost them legitimacy. I quoted Bolsanaro in my book on military terror in Brazil, in which he said that 30,000 corrupt officials needed to be lined up and shot. He made that statement about twenty years ago. Brazilians have been so frustrated by the massive scandal involving Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras, that these and similar comments probably helped more than hurt him. …

Fighting Conspiracy Theories

“Witness Howard Brennan sitting in the identical spot across from the Texas School Book Depository four months after the assassination. Circle “A” indicates where he saw Oswald fire a rifle at the motorcade.” By Howard Leslie Brennan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Caption text from Wikimedia Commons also.
Apart from Murray in Stranger Things, and the Lone Gunmen in the X-files, most conspiracy theorists don’t have secret knowledge that the majority of humanity is unable to accept. Instead, people turn to conspiracy theories when they feel disempowered and desperate. Conspiracy theories thrive during times of crisis, such as a pandemic, or a profound political crisis. They also emerge at times when trust in government is low. I’ve done work (with my wonderful colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez) on a conspiracy theory in Argentina that focused on the death of government prosecutor Alberto Nisman. In the Argentine case, these conspiracy theories absorbed the news and attention of an entire nation. But during the 2009 influenza pandemic, conspiracy theories became truly global, as people told these narratives from Mexico to Europe. I studied this phenomenon in an article that is open access:

Shawn Smallman, “Whom Do You Trust? Doubt and Conspiracy Theories in the 2009 Influenza Pandemic” Journal of International and Global Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2: pp. 1-24. While its helpful to document instances of conspiracy theories, it’s more important to understand how to combat them when they can cause damage, particularly in the field of global health. How do health authorities fight conspiracy theories about vaccination, which are not only making it more difficult to eradicate polio, but also costing health workers their lives?

Globalization and Globalism

Last spring one of my students asked me to explain the difference between globalization and globalism. This is what I said, but I am curious to hear how other people would have answered the question:

“There are many different definitions of globalization, but it’s generally understood as the flows of people, ideas, culture, funds and biology at a global scale, which connects disparate parts of the globe. Globalism is often (not always) defined as the policy and ideas of those people/nations that support globalization, which is frequently equated with neoliberalism. Globalism is a sometimes politically loaded term, because it is frequently used by those who oppose globalization, to critique the policies of elites that favor financial and political globalization. It’s also a more complicated term to define, because different groups use the word in varied ways.” …

Peace Treaties and Ancient China

Map of the Chinese plain, 5 century BC. Start of the Warring States Period. By Yug [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Although we think of arms control and peace treaties as relatively modern concepts, they have ancient roots. I’ve been reading Richard Louis Walker’s book, The Multi-State System of Ancient China, which was published by Shoe String press in 1953. He describes major negotiations that followed a period of devastating warfare during the Spring and Autumn period, as contending states struggled for primacy in China. Interestingly, his description of how the ancient states of China interacted would be all too familiar to a scholar in the modern Realist School. The idea of a Balance of power dominated Chinese politics in this distant time period in the same manner that it did in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the sixth century BC a Sung statesman named Hsiang Shu (p. 56) lobbied the courts of multiple Chinese states, to try to reach an agreement to end the perpetual warfare. Even states that had little interest in negotiations found that they had no choice but to at least pretend to take part:

“The states had, of course, at least to pretend an interest in his idea. A Chin leader said, “War is destructive to the people, an insect that eats up the resources of a State, and the greatest calamity of all small States. If any one try to put an end to it, though we think it cannot be done, we must sanction his proposal. If we do not, Ch’u will do so, and proceed to call the States together, so that we shall lose the presidency of the covenants.” (Walker, 56).

As Walker describes (56-57) fourteen major states took part of in the discussion. Predictably, once an agreement was reached there was a dispute between the two most powerful states over who should sign first (57). The negotiations had gone so poorly that during the meetings “the Ch’u representatives even wore armor.” (57). In the end, even though an agreement was reached to end warfare, many states refused to sign, while the signatories ignored it (57).

As for statesman and peace-maker Hsian Shu, he sought a reward from the Prime Minister of Sung, to whom he presented a signed copy of the treaty. The Prime Minister responded with scorn, in a speech that deserves to be as frequently remembered in International Relations studies as the Melian Dialogue recorded by the Greek historian Thucydides. According to the Prime Minister of Sung, war was an inevitable tool of statecraft. To seek to abandon these tools was a delusion. He told Hsian Shu that he was lucky to have escaped without punishment, but now he was coming to him looking for a reward. The Prime Minister cut the copy of the treaty to pieces and threw it away (58).

Without the signature of all major states the peace treaty had no power, and the bitter wars continued.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Conspiracy Theories and Zika

Conspiracy theories have long fascinated me. I’ve published (with my colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez) on the death of Alberto Nisman in Argentina, and the conspiracy theories that tragedy spawned. I’ve also written about the conspiracy theories that circulated regarding the 2009 H1N1 influenza epidemic. More recently, I’ve been doing research on the Zika epidemic. I’ve just published an article, “Conspiracy Theories and the Zika epidemic,” which you can view in the open-access Journal of International and Global Studies. …

The Nisman Conspiracy Theories

In Argentina a judge has just ruled that the death of Alberto Nisman was a murder, not a suicide. One of Nisman’s old employees was also charged as an accessory to murder. Nisman’s death has been an ongoing mystery, after he was found dead with a bullet wound in his head, the day that he was supposed to testify to Congress regarding a potential government coverup in the 1994 AMIA bombing.

My colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez and I wrote an article on this topic, which was published at an open-source journal. The focus of our work was the competing conspiracy theories regarding the Nisman case, and how they reflected not only the nation’s political divisions but also its history. If you are interested in this topic, please read our article, which is freely available.

Rodriguez, L. and Smallman, S. (2016). Political Polarization and Nisman’s Death: Competing Conspiracy Theories in Argentina. Journal of International and Global Studies Volume 8, Number 1, p. 20-39.

The article ended with these sentences: “The best path forward would likely be for the Argentine state to ask for a panel of international experts to investigate both the AMIA bombing and Nisman’s death. This step is unlikely, given the interests of different political actors and the power of nationalism in Argentine political discourse. Nonetheless, only this step is likely to restore public trust and thereby weaken the power of conspiracy theories in Argentina.”

Are you interested in Latin America. You can find my own book on military terror in Brazilian history here.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Protest march in Buenos Aires 1 year death anniversary of Alberto Nisman. By Jaluj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Remembering Colonialism’s Horrors

Burning of a Village in Africa, and Capture of its Inhabitants (p.12, February 1859, XVI). By Wesleyan Juvenile Offering [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The human costs of colonialism were staggering. Slavery was integral to the political economy of imperial powers from the 16th to 19th century, because of the huge profits that it generated. At times France received more wealth from slave production on the small colony of Haiti than from any other of its colonies, including New France. In King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild has described how perhaps half the population of Congo -roughly 10 million people- died during Belgian rule in the 1880s.

From Australia to the Americas Indigenous Peoples were dispossessed of their lands, and confronted by a cultural genocide that lasted centuries. Some native peoples of the Caribbean nearly vanished during a horrific period of epidemic disease, land loss, and overwork. The experience of the Spanish conquest was so terrible that many Indigenous families in the Caribbean simply chose to stop having children after the Spanish arrived (or were unable to maintain families), so that their populations declined with stunning speed. In Potosí, Bolivia thousands of Indigenous Peoples and African slaves died mining the silver that funded Spanish wars and palaces. While epidemic diseases devastated Indigenous communities, so did the entire structure of colonialism, which led to a demographic collapse throughout the Americas. This was so extreme that it lasted for centuries. …

Conspiracy Theories and Murder

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina in her role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, carrying a Rechkemmer. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina in her role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, carrying a Rechkemmer. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
On January 18, 2015, Natalio Alberto Nisman was found dead with a single bullet shot to his right temple. Nisman was the lead investigator in a 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish Community Center in Argentina. He had been scheduled to address the Argentine Congress the following day, to denounce the President’s actions related to the investigation. His death unleashed a media firestorm, as opponents of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner argued that he had been assassinated, while her supporters advanced their own conspiracy theory, which pointed the blame for his death at the nation’s security services.

Academics dislike conspiracy theories, which are typically omitted in social science theory classes, even though they are far more influential than the theories of Gramsci, Weber and Durkheim. There are many reasons for academics’ distrust of these theories, not the least of which is their historical association with political and ethnic persecution. At the same time, conspiracy theories are true “theories,” in that they provide an overarching framework for understanding the world. While they don’t have foundational writers, they also have their texts. They also emerge from the folk and not from intellectuals, and accordingly provide insight into popular attitudes, beliefs and fears. …

Hate, loss and Neoliberalism

I’ve been teaching a “Foundations of Global Studies Theory” course for a few years. I begin the course with a section on classical and modern liberalism, before moving to neoliberalism, because liberalism is a foundational theory for most issues in Global Studies. What has struck me over the years is how little ideological attraction most students feel towards neoliberalism. Although I have taught the class multiple times, I have only ever had a single student who was an ardent proponent of neoliberalism. They also wrote one of the best papers that I’ve ever received, and are now working in an excellent job in the financial sector. Still, most of my students have an almost visceral distaste for neoliberalism, and this has strengthened over time. …

Thucydides, fear and China

Over the last 15 years a veritable cottage industry has arisen to describe similarities between 1) contemporary East Asia and Europe before World War One and 2) the potential for conflict between the United States and China, based on the work of Thucydides. Often scholars make both points, which is the case with Graham Allison’s recent article in the Atlantic. While the topic may not be new, it is no less significant for that reason. Allison makes this comparison based on a historical study done by his team for the Belfer Study at Harvard. I won’t summarize the results here, because I’d encourage you to view the presentation itself, but suffice it to say that there are reasons for serious concern. If Allison’s team is correct, the odds of war are higher than for peace, although conflict is not inevitable. For any nation in the region (see my book review of Malcom Fraser’s Dangerous Allies)  the current situation should be worrying. While the United States is currently preoccupied by Russia’s actions in Europe, Allison states that the greatest threat remains a conflict with China. The reason that so many authors write about the parallels with World War One is that conflict is likely to come about less from malice and planning than coincidence and misinterpretation. Scholars have often spoken about Europe “sleepwalking” into World War One. While it is easy to condemn that long-ago generation of statesman, diplomats and leaders, its more discomfiting to ask how current leaders would respond to a similar challenge. For all these reasons, I strongly recommend Allison’s piece in the Atlantic.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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