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

War and the limits of theory

Image of the Persian Gulf from the CIA World Factbook
Image of the Persian Gulf from the CIA World Factbook

This week an anonymous author wrote a brief article in the New York Review of Books that is attracting a lot of attention. All that we know about the writer is that they have worked as an official in a “NATO country” and that they have a great deal of experience in the Middle East. The central idea of the piece is that our current social science theories utterly fail to explain the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As the author argues, there is a rich literature on guerrilla warfare, which is based on more than a century of experience. ISIS has violated everyone of these rules -don’t engage in fixed position warfare; don’t violate the social norms in the communities in which you exist- and yet ISIS still moves from success to success against vastly greater forces.

Like most observers, the author of this piece has been stunned both by the sheer speed of ISIS’s success, and its ability to change the rules of the game. The author makes the point that observers often assume that what is needed is more information, but perhaps that is not the case. Maybe the real problem is our analytical frameworks. Maybe we don’t know what we thought we know. Certainly, the complete failure of U.S. policy in Iraq raises questions about every aspect of U.S. counter-insurgency doctrine. Of course, one could also point to the deeply flawed rationale for the invasion of Iraq in the first place. Still, perhaps the conceptual problem is even larger than this, and speaks to the overall weakness of social science theories as they are applied to the region. The author makes the point that to see an equally stunning success against all expectations you might have to look to the Vandal conquest of North Africa in the dying days of the Roman Empire. This is an engaging analogy, although historians might quibble with the need to reach so deeply into the past. Even so, the larger point is that our current social science models governing what are sometimes called “small wars” don’t seem to be working well to understand this current conflict.

One might question whether our understanding of small wars is to Eurocentric. Still, most of the authors of foundational texts -Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara- were not Western. A counter-argument might be that ISIS may yet collapse as quickly as it emerged on the scene. Perhaps ISIS appears to be rewriting the rules only because there has not been enough time for it to pay the price for violating them. Perhaps ISIS has not yet had enough time to fail, and its collapse will be as quick as its rise. Still, if ISIS continues to thrive over the next few years, then the author is correct that something fundamental is wrong with our understanding of these conflicts. In that case, theorists and strategists will need to fundamentally question everything about our current understanding of irregular warfare.

If you are interested in the theory of war, I strongly recommend Ann Hironaka’s Neverending WarsI used the book in my “Foundations of Global Studies Theory” class, as a key security studies text. I am often frustrated by much of the existing literature in security studies, which still overemphasizes conventional conflict, and relies too much on Realism as a theoretical approach. In an era of terrorist organizations, cyber-warfare, Anonymous, and drug cartels, much of this theoretical literature is in danger of becoming dusty. Hironaka’s work is interesting because it focuses on civil war, the dominant form of conflict in the world today, and draws on insights from Sociology. Her central argument is that the international community unintentionally propagates these conflicts, an idea that is relevant to many existing conflicts globally.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Conspiracy theories and the 2009 influenza pandemic

The Journal of International and Global Studies is an open access journal, which has just published my article: Whom do you trust: Doubt and Conspiracy theories in the 2009 Influenza Pandemic. The article examines how people in widely separated world regions responded to the pandemic with motifs based around trust and betrayal. While the article focuses on influenza, it also discusses other diseases such as polio and Ebola. Currently the Ebola in West Africa has been waning, and Liberia has finally been declared to be free of the disease. Even now, however, public health workers have to struggle against a powerful narrative of denial, which depicts Ebola as a tool created by the West to sell expensive medications. As I discuss in the article, such narratives have deep roots.

Shawn Smallman

Randall Munroe, XKCD Creative Commons Attribution and non-commercial use 2.5 license

South Africa and Nuclear Security

Image of South Africa taken by NASA. Source: CIA World Factbook, South Africa
Image of South Africa taken by NASA. Source: CIA World Factbook, South Africa

Terrified of outside intervention, the South African military created six atomic weapons, which were dismantled after the collapse of apartheid. The nuclear material, however, was preserved, despite requests (by the United States and others) that the South African government convert this material into a less-dangerous form. This material is stored at a site called Pelindaba, which is the country’s main nuclear research center. In 2007 two separate teams attacked the facility, and were defeated by sheer luck. A recent account of this event makes for terrifying reading, less because of how close the attackers came to succeeding than for the lackadaisical response of the South African government. According to this account, recently posted on African Defense magazine, President Obama has twice written private letters to President Jacob Zuma, to ask that South Africa convert the uranium into a form less readily converted into nuclear weapons. The South Africans have failed to respond. This article merits careful reading.

The concept of human security is currently gaining traction in International Relations theory. This paradigm defines security as those issues that threaten not only the state but also the population. This approach has many merits, particularly given the rise of non-state actors as threats, and the impact that climate change may have on entire populations. Advocates of a security paradigm known as realism, however, critique human security as being a “slippery slope.” If you adopt this approach to security, what problems are not security issues? While I believe that human security has many advantages over realism as a means to address global challenges, this particular critique by realists does give me pause. Events such as the attack on Pelindaba are particularly dangerous, in way that seems to merit a clearly defined theoretical approach. One can only hope that behind the scenes South Africa is taking more steps to ensure security at this site than seems to be the case based on this report.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Sumner and Tribe’s International Development Studies

"View Of Kaeng Krachan Dam,petchaburi Province,thailand" by cbenjasuwan at
“View Of Kaeng Krachan Dam, Petchaburi Province, Thailand” by cbenjasuwan at

Andy Sumner and Michael Tribe’s International Development Studies: Theories and Methods in Research and Practice is a brief overview of the field in a textbook format. The author’s intent is to introduce the reader to key ideas and debates in development studies. The study begins by asking what is the meaning of development, and then discusses the history of the term. Subsequent chapters are concerned with large questions, such as “What can we `Know’ in Development Studies?” Because the book has a focus on research and methods, the book includes a chapter on how we should define rigor, and how research should shape practice. The chapters follow a standard format, which includes numbered sub-headings and brief summaries at the end of every chapter. …

Kwame Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, A Book Review

"Glass Globe" by suphakit73 at
“Glass Globe” by suphakit73 at

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism is an engaging, well-written examination of the idea of cosmopolitanism, which will lead students to think deeply about the meaning of global citizenship. At the core of the book is Appiah’s question, what obligations do humans have to each other? I used the book last year in my “Foundations of Global Studies Theory” class, and had the opportunity to read my student’s reflections on the work in their book reviews, which has shaped this review. Based on their feedback and the class discussion, I think that this book would be an excellent choice for an “Introduction to International and Global Studies” course.

Appiah’s work is deeply shaped by his own bi-cultural upbringing, with roots in both Ghana and England. One of his strengths as an author is the ability to make students see how these issues apply to their own lives by relating philosophical questions to his own experience. He also frequently uses case studies or thought experiments to make his point. In both my student’s book reviews and the class discussion my students tended to refer to these examples, which led them to remember his arguments. Appiah’s writing style was clear, jargon-free and accessible, another boon in my class where students were reading authors such as Marx and Chakrabarty. …

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