Cross-national partisan effects on agenda stability

This post originally appeared on JEPP Online, The Official Blog of the Journal of European Public Policy)

Shaun Bevan

National and international attention devoted to the German coalition talks earlier this year offers anecdotal evidence of the importance political parties and electorates place on governments’ legislative agendas. But once in office, can political parties actually exert control over legislative agendas in a fast-paced political and economic environment?

In their article “Cross-national partisan effects on agenda stability” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Shaun Bevan and Zachary Greene investigate parties’ effects on agenda stability in six industrialised democracies over time. Shaun and Zachary argue that the stability of legislative agendas is subject to the state of the economy, transitions in government as well as the number of parties in a coalition government and the share of seats it controls in parliament. Their results suggest that parties tend to have strong effects on the stability of legislative agendas, yet constraints and incentives linked to the state of the economy, seat shares and number of coalition parties are particularly prevalent in the aftermath of partisan transitions in government. In light of their findings, Shaun and Zachary argue that even if voters are “unaware of parties’ detailed policy goals, using simple heuristics such as party labels and economic conditions, [their] perspective suggests that citizens can form relatively sound expectations on parties’ behaviors in office.”



How a prime minister’s leadership style affects their parliament’s role in security decisions

by Professor Julie Kaarbo

(This post originally appeared on London School of Economics and Political Science)

Julie Kaarbo

Parliaments sometimes get to influence security policy, but not always. Juliet Kaarbo draws on Leadership Trait Analysis to argue that prime ministerial leadership style is a critical factor in determining the role of parliaments in foreign affairs. She demonstrates the plausibility of this argument by comparing how Turkish and UK prime ministers’ orientations towards parliament influenced key security policies.

The long-held view that parliaments are insignificant players in security policy is coming under considerable challenge by recent research demonstrating that parliaments can and have played a critical role in key security decisions. Parliaments, of course, are not always influential or even involved in security policy and contemporary scholarship identifies a number of factors that affect parliamentary influence, including the particular powers held by parliaments, intraparty divisions, and the context of the security mission. Missing from this laundry list is the prime minister, the most important political agent in parliamentary systems. In my research, I explore how differences in PMs’ leadership styles enhance or minimize parliamentary influence in security policy.

PMs’ orientations to parliaments’ role are important because parliamentary authority in security matters is often constitutionally and politically ambiguous. Even in the American system, in which the legislative role is constitutionally prescribed and further codified in the War Powers Resolution, presidents sometimes seek Congressional approval for troop deployment; at other times they do not.

The ambiguity of a legislative role in security is also present in many parliamentary systems and even when parliamentary approval is legally required, there is often disagreement about when and how parliamentary involvement is to be triggered. When there is no constitutional basis for such involvement, as in the UK tradition of the Royal Prerogative, there is considerable scope for PMs to decide if and when to involve parliament.

Parliamentary involvement in UK security policy may have become political convention, as James Strong and others have argued, but this convention is a product of successive decisions by PMs to allow the House of Commons to have a say. When parliaments are asked to (or themselves initiate) a debate and vote on a matter of foreign affairs, PMs also vary in the way they manage the parliamentary process. PMs, for example, may play a lead in disciplining their party, delegate discipline to others, or choose to remain above the political fray.

Prime ministers’ orientations to parliaments are undoubtedly influenced by many factors, including their personal leadership style. PMs, for example, may differ in their overall involvement with parliament and they may differ in how they react to intraparty politics. They may also vary in the extent to which they engage in denial of opposition or wishful thinking that the vote will be in their favour. These differences are affected by basic personality traits.

I argue that the seven personality traits captured in Margaret Hermann’s Leadership Trait Analysis framework – belief in ability to control events; conceptual complexity; need for power; distrust of others; in-group bias; self-confidence; and task orientation – affect PMs’ leadership styles and how they deal with parliament. Research has demonstrated that these seven traits systematically link to leaders’ propensity to challenge or respect constraints, their openness to information and advice, the structure of their advisory systems, the quality of decision-making processes, and the policies leaders choose for their country or organization. From this research, I derive expectations about PM orientations toward parliamentary influence in security policies.

These involve three questions. First, which PMs are most likely to fight against parliamentary involvement? I argue that PMs who have a high need for power, and high levels of distrust, are likely to challenge or circumscribe any parliamentary role.  Second, which PMs will actively engage in the management of the parliamentary process? Research suggests that PMs who have a strong belief in their ability to control events and high conceptual complexity will be more involved. Third, how effective are PMs in the management of that process? From work on leaders and policy mistakes, we would expect leaders who are low in complexity and high in self-confidence to blunder the process through mismanagement and underestimate the degree of opposition in parliament. This type of PM ineffectively opens the door for greater parliamentary influence.

Turkish politics provides one example of how different PM leadership styles influence PMs’ orientations to parliaments and their role in foreign and security policy. In my study with Çuhadar, Kesgin, and Özkeçeci-Taner, we argue that the surprise Turkish parliament vote in 2003 to decline the American request to use Turkey as a base for operations in the Iraq War was a result of the PM’s bungling the management of the vote. In stark contrast was the Turkish parliament’s approval of the deployment of troops in the 1991 Gulf War, which, we argue, came about from a very forceful leadership dictating its terms to parliament. The key differences in the personality traits for the leaders in these cases were their self-confidence and complexity.

Another example comes from the UK. In my article with Daniel Kenealy, we note that in the highly unusual House of Commons defeat of David Cameron’s preference to attack Syria in 2013, the PM was criticised for recalling Parliament in a haphazard manner, not doing enough to secure support from wavering backbenchers, being overconfident, and underestimating the opposition. Cameron’s call for parliamentary support can be contrasted with Blair’s reluctance to go to the House of Commons in the 2003 Iraq war; and Cameron’s mismanagement of the process can be contrasted with Blair effectively turning the Iraq vote into a confidence motion and passionately delivering an impressive rhetorical case.

Can the differences between these two PMs’ orientations toward parliament’s role in security policy be captured by Leadership Trait Analysis? Blair’s higher belief in his ability to control events and his higher need for power may explain his lower openness to parliamentary involvement and his higher level of active involvement. Cameron’s comparatively higher complexity may explain his greater openness to parliamentary involvement and his higher self-confidence may explain his ineffective management.

The examples of Turkish and UK security policy demonstrate plausibility for my argument that PMs’ orientations are part of the picture in parliamentary involvement in security affairs. If the role of parliaments in security policy is increasing in significance, and if the relationship between executives and legislatures is being recalibrated in modern parliamentary democracies, the executive, led by the PM, has considerable authority to interpret, manage, and even manipulate this relationship.

Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations.


2018 PIR Dissertation Retreat

by Elizabeth Bomberg (Head of PIR)

During the Festival of Creative Learning (Feb 2018) several dozen PIR dissertation students*, accompanied by seven staff headed to Perthshire for an overnight Dissertation Retreat.  Arriving at the sunny (really!) Comrie Croft, we settled in, enjoyed our packed lunches outside before getting down to work.  Following introductions we began three parallel workshops on topics nominated by students and staff (research question and structure; argument and analysis; writing survival strategies). The workshops – each of which featured a small group of students and two academics –  were highly interactive and gave us a chance to learn about all the fascinating topics PIR students are exploring. Staff ran their sessions several times so that students could visit all three (or go back to the same one if they were keen).  Between workshops we had wonderful tea breaks and ‘open surgeries’ so students could ask staff individual questions and – crucially- share their ideas with other students.


We formed task groups to set up rooms (students converted a cow shed into a dissertation workshop lab!) or prepare meals. Our awe inspiring cooking team did a fantastic job preparing curries to suit all tastes. The Croft offered a perfect dining space with common dining area, as well as niches for quiet study or smaller discussion groups. After tidying up (yes everyone pitched in – impressive) students and staff relaxed, took part in a multinational marshmallow roast, or competed in an improvised Articulate board game (which demonstrated again that students know more interesting stuff than do staff).

file4Day 2 started with fresh air and gorgeous hikes. Marc, Johanna, Josefine and others headed out for a run at an ungodly hour; Andy Thompson led troopers to climb the Deil’s Cauldron while others strolled to a nearby waterfall, led by student Fidra who knows the Croft extremely well and provided tons of local knowledge.  Suitably refreshed we headed  back  for a final workshop and highly successful peer-to-peer session in which students shared with each other their questions, methods, and challenges. Staff were amazed by the insights and support students provided for each other. Then time to tidy, lunch, and a wrap up session so students could share what they got out of the Retreat (‘I’m feeling much more upbeat.’ ‘I’ve nailed my research question’; ‘I loved getting to know students and staff’) and staff could share their top tips (e.g. set aside dedicated writing time; don’t neglect the conclusion; write with the reader in mind).

Upon our return to Edinburgh Elizabeth will hold a session for all PIR Dissertation students, drawing out some of the key tips and themes from the Retreat. We’re definitely looking forward to running similar retreats in subsequent years.  Students in Years 1-3: you’ve got a (re)treat in store!


JosefinePic 1IMG_0648IMG_0652

*The students who made this an amazing experience were:  Addi Bowden-Doyle, Alex Mcateer, Alice Grierson, Alicia Clark,  Amy Younger,  Andrew Bailie,  Bloom Segun-Toluhi,  Catriona Millar,  Edie Marriner,  Emma Grace,  Fidra Sym, Jo Dodd, Johanna Tiippana, Josefine Lynggaard, Lily Settari, Molly Griffiths, Phoebe Hanson-Lowe, Rebecca Drummond, Sam Taylor and Sarah Dunn.  Staff offering sessions, advice  and support were:  Elizabeth Bomberg, Julia Calvert, Marc Geddes, Stephen Hill, Cora Lacatus, Sophie Sheerin and Andy Thompson

We are grateful to the University’s Festival of Creative Learning for helping us fund this event.

Letter to my younger self – How to survive and thrive in MA dissertation

A series written for students by students in collaboration with PIR and the Edinburgh Political Union

Dear 4th year Liam,

It’s January. It’s dark outside, and cold. You’re probably tucked away in the basement of the CMB, pondering the meaning of life, wondering if you should get another meal deal or a Nile valley wrap right about now… I am writing to you to let you know I’m in a better place now, I’ve completed 4th year. You don’t need to worry about me, everything turned out great. There’s no need to panic, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel (although it probably seems quite far away for you at the moment).


I’ve reflected on my final year dissertation at Edinburgh University and I’m here to give you a couple of pieces of advice for the coming months. Listen up:

  • Okay, fun time is over. You should probably start working on your dissertation (seriously). It’s time to embark on this new journey of yours. As long as you just take a deep breath and start, everything is going to be fine. From experience, slow and steady wins the race and hands it in on time… The second semester flies by, so if you make steady progress of your work, everything will be fine.
  • Don’t worry about where others are at, there’s no point. Concentrate on nothing but your work. Don’t compare your progress to that of your peers. Every dissertation is unique and the same is true for people’s working habits. Although, some of your friends may work 16 hours a day, that doesn’t mean it has to be the norm. Comparing yourself to others will only stress you out and there’s no point in stressing out. Stress won’t write your dissertation for you! Stress is a waste of time. As I’ve said at the start, everything is going to be okay.
  • That said, get through it together. No one likes to suffer alone. Writing a dissertation is a long process so find yourself some friends or classmates or even strangers who are going through the same process. You’ll find it to be much more manageable on a daily basis and it’ll give you someone to take lunch/coffee breaks with, which is always nice J.
  • Also, be compassionate with your friends. This may seem mundane, and I know I just said everything will be fine—but that doesn’t mean you won’t need to lean on each other along the way. Hear them out, re-assure them. Having them explain things to you works wonders. It allows for them to clarify a lot of things. Plus, if you’re there for them, they’ll be there for you if you come across emotional hiccups along the way. Yay friendship! :3


  • Back your work and your data up! You don’t want to be that person sobbing in the corner alone. Do yourself a favour, download google drive or dropbox right now and set it up so that your ‘Dissertation’ folder is continuously backed up online. Losing work you did for your dissertation is everyone’s nightmare. Don’t let it happen to you.
  • Do something else. Enjoy your final months at Edinburgh Uni. Life goes on after the dissertation. Make the most of your time in Edinburgh. Do some sports, grab a pint with friends, go out clubbing! It’s sad to say, but it might be the last moments you get with all your friends in the same place, so enjoy it. Plus, it’ll give your friends and you something to talk about. The ‘’how’s the dissertation?’’ chat gets old very quickly. You’ll see what I’m talking about in a few weeks’ time…
  • Make use of your dissertation supervisor. They’re there to assist you. They know what they’re expecting from you, it’s up to you to figure it out and deliver the goods. If you need to meet them go ahead, do it—especially if you use their office hours! They’re there to help and guide you through the process and they want you to succeed.
  • The outline is key. I would almost start with this. Having a clear outline will help you define what needs to be written, where and how. Elaborate your ideas and explore various frameworks. The more detailed it is, the easier it’ll be down the line.
  • Split up the work into easily defined parts. If you’ve done the outline (see #8) properly, it’ll be much easier for you see how your workload will be split up into clearly defined tasks with specific word counts. If you think of it, the all-mighty dissertation really boils down to just a few thousand-word essays. No sweat, you’ve done that plenty over the past four years. You’ll quickly come to realise 10,000 words isn’t really enough for everything you’d like to say. For a comparable piece of writing from your coursework, think of the journal articles you read (these come in around 8-11,000 words), NOT whole books, massive textbook chapters, or commissioned reports.
  • Enjoy it. This is your project, have fun with it. Write about what passions you. Learn something new. Be creative. This may all sound cheesy, but it’s true.

As a final note, don’t let your friend(s) try to convince you graduation is a waste of time. Although admittedly the gown is expensive to rent, it’s truly a special event you won’t want to miss.


Liam Stock-Rabbat






Does Catalonia Have a Right to Secede?

SBA71Photo: SBA73

by Kieran Oberman, Lecturer | PIR

(This post originally appeared on openDemocracy)

Catalonia’s October 1st referendum produced some shocking images: polling stations stormed, elderly voters with bloodied faces, fire fighters (of all people) beaten by police. Coverage in the press and widespread sharing on social media ensured a PR disaster for Spain. Catalonia’s separatists, for a moment at least, have gained the world’s attention and a share of its sympathy. But how far should that sympathy extend?

One can condemn the violence and leave it there (as, for instance, Belgium did). But the more fundamental question is whether Catalonia has a right to secession. That is not just a question about the recent poll. Even if one rejects the legitimacy of that poll, one still faces the question of whether another should be held. There is no reason why Catalonia could not hold an orderly referendum of the Quebec and Scotland kind. What has been stopping it so far is Spanish opposition. So, must Spain give way?

That is not an easy question to answer because it is far from clear what would give any region a right to secede. The public debate – in Catalonia, Spain and elsewhere – is not much help. People tend to decide these issues on grounds of loyalty and emotion. There is a lot flag waving; much less reasoned argument.

For my own part, I have wrestled with the question of secession for many years. I have taught the topic at universities around the world: in the US, Bangladesh, Ireland and Scotland. Secession has played a critical role in the history of all those countries and students have had valuable points to make. But even after my debates with students, I have struggled to resolve matters in my own mind.

It is not that I don’t have an intuitive judgement about the issue. As I indicated in a piece I wrote during the Scottish referendum, I do think regions like Scotland and Catalonia should be allowed to secede. What I have struggled with is locating an adequate justification for that position. In the literature in political philosophy (my field) there are some fascinating books and articles, but few arguments I find convincing. It is only now, in reaction to Catalonia, that I finally have a better sense of what is grounding my pro-secessionist stance. I return to that grounding below, but first let me review what I regard as some common false starts.

First, democracy. This is the ‘go to’ argument of many Catalan secessionists. According to Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, a vote on independence is simply an “expression of a free democracy”. On this view, Catalans have a right to decide whether Catalonia is independent just as they have a right to decide on any other issue affecting them. The problem with this argument is that it assumes what is precisely at issue: that Catalonia represents the appropriate constituency to make this decision. Another plausible constituency would be Spain itself. For it is not just Catalonia that is affected by the issue of independence. Catalan independence would have significant repercussions for Spain’s economy and identity. It would also have ripple effects on other regions, including the Basque country which has only recently escaped the violence of its own secessionist conflict.

In short, the democracy argument fails to overcome what we might term the ‘symmetry problem’. Democracy can be advanced both as an argument for secession and an argument against it. To justify secession, we need to justify ‘asymmetry’: to explain why it is Catalonia, not Spain as a whole, that has a right to decide.

Democracy is not the only argument that suffers from the symmetry problem. Another is national self-determination. The idea that a nation has a right to determine its own future is fine as far as it goes. The problem arises when there is more than one nation in play. Catalan national self-determination butts up against Spanish national self-determination. One cannot give full expression to the one without limiting the other. Some will stamp their feet at this and proclaim that “Catalonia is not Spain”. If there were two discreet nations then Spain would be other-determining not self-determining when it takes part in Catalan affairs. But the very fact people proclaim this slogan demonstrates how controversial it is. National identity is not physics. Nations exist, split or overlap depending on inter-subjective beliefs. As long as there are people inside Catalonia and the rest of Spain who believe in an over-arching Spanish nation, the concept of national self-determination can be invoked by both sides. It offers no firm ground for secession.


Photo: Generalitat de Catalunya

Are there no arguments that avoid the symmetry problem? Yes, at least two. One is self-defence: the idea that group of people can have a right to secede when threatened by some profound injustice. Such an argument can prove compelling. Having recently survived Saddam and ISIS, and with the future still so uncertain, Kurdish Iraq can plausibly make an argument of this sort. Catalonia, however, is different. It did experience severe repression under Franco but modern Spain, whatever its faults, is a peaceful liberal democracy. In terms of wealth, security and freedom, it is among the most successful countries on Earth. Catalan secessionists complain that, as a richer region, they pay more into central government than they get out. But this complaint should not arouse much sympathy. Indeed, for those on the left, with their concern for equality and redistribution, it should be treated with particular disgust. There might be more nuanced complaints to be made against Spain’s fiscal arrangement, but even if we accept them, they do not amount to profound injustices of the ISIS or Franco kind. Admittedly, things could get worse. If the state violence we witnessed on Sunday were to become routine, then a self-defence argument would become more convincing. Let us hope, for everyone’s sake, that that is not where we are heading.

The other argument that avoids the symmetry argument is freedom of association. This the kind of argument that it takes a philosopher to come up with. The argument likens states to clubs. Just as you and your friends don’t need anyone’s approval to set up a new club or split from an old one, so regions don’t need their state’s approval to secede. The problem with the argument is quite simple: the analogy fails. States are not like clubs. People do not voluntarily join states for the sake of their hobby or passion; they are forced into states for the sake of justice and peace. States set the background rules; clubs and other associations offer peoplegood the opportunity to pursue particular interests. If Catalans want to form associations, they can do so. Catalonia already has all kinds of clubs and associations, including many operating across the region (the Catalan Football Federation, the Catalan Association for Science Communication and so on and so forth). They don’t need a state to be their club, nor should they want it to be. A state that tries to be a club is like a parent who tries to be a friend. We need states. We need parents. But if we are to maintain our individual autonomy, these unchosen authorities in our lives must assume their proper roles and not pretend to be something they are not.

Those are the arguments that I find unconvincing. So why do I favour independence referendums? For a while I thought the best argument was merely pragmatic; the ‘let-insiders-vote rule’ is, among the alternatives, the best means to minimise conflict. But now I think there is more to be said. It is important that we, as citizens, feel some kind of connection to our state; that we see it as legitimate or at least not as wholly illegitimate. This is not because states are like clubs, but precisely because they are so different. States coerce us. They tell us to do certain things and punish us if we disobey. Such coercion can be justified. Everyone except anarchists accepts that. But it is important that when they coerce us, we have some sense that they are not merely coercing us. We need to be able to look at the state and think that, in some sense, it is our own. The state institutions we interact with and the laws we live under should feel familiar and benign; like they are there for us and our society, not some outside power. When instead the state seems foreign or hostile, it is hard to feel at home in the world.

Teresa Grau Ross

Photo: Teresa Grau Ross

As events have proceeded, I think more and more Catalans are experiencing a sense of alienation from the Spanish state. The spectacle of Spanish police being shipped in (quite literally) from other areas of Spain, has not helped matters, evoking, as it does, parallels with foreign occupation. Of course, not everyone in Catalonia feels alienated. The thousands who protested in Barcelona’s unity rally on Sunday clearly believe in the legitimacy of Spain. That is why it is crucial that the matter is settled by a free and fair referendum in which everyone in Catalonia is given a say.

Does this ‘alienation argument’ escape the symmetry problem? I believe so. If Catalonia were to secede, the Spanish economy would suffer and many Spanish people would be profoundly upset, but they would continue to live under a Spanish state that most recognise as their own. The same is not true of Catalans who are denied a referendum.

I realise the argument raises many questions. How many people need to feel alienated to demand a referendum? How alienated must they feel? What about the possible costs of secession, for those inside and outside the seceding region? There cannot be an absolute right to secede no matter how high the costs – that would be absurd. But how high must the costs before the right is defeated?

Perhaps the most difficult question is that of minorities within minorities. Consider, the case of the Val d’Aran, an area of Catalonia with its own fierce sense of independence. If Catalonia secedes, must the Val d’Aran be granted its own referendum? And if Val d’Aran, what about other unionist pockets within Catalonia, whether at the level towns, villages or even neighbourhoods? The alienation argument, as presented above, would seem to invite repeated secession, but many, including many Catalan separatists, would demur at this prospect. I cannot hope to settle these questions here. My thoughts are too tentative; these matters too complicated.

This brings me to a final point. Because secession is such a morally complicated issue, it is crucial that both sides show greater respect for each other. There is no black/white here. We are all in the grey zone of reasonable disagreement. Contrary to statements by leading politicians, the  Spanish government is not Franco and the Catalan government is not Hitler. The parties to the conflict need to stop waving flags and start making arguments. This point is perhaps particularly important for Spain since it is the Spanish government that has the tanks and riot squads at its disposal. With such power, it is much too tempting to use it. The recurrent theme of the Spanish government – and most recently, the king – is that the Catalonian crisis is first and foremost a criminal justice issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the referendum broke Spanish law, but it is perfectly evident by now, from the civil rights and other great movements of the past, that reasonable people sometimes do break laws for good reasons. They should not be dismissed as ordinary criminals. Indeed, when millions of your citizens engage in a referendum you have ruled illegal, it is a sure sign that you have a political, not a legal, problem on your hands.


A few notes by way of bibliography:

This article draws on a philosophical literature on secession that is by now quite extensive. Rather than attempt to provide a full list of sources, let me refer to a few works that might prove particularly helpful.

For an excellent introduction to the philosophy of secession see Allen Buchanan’s article in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

The problem I raise with the democracy argument relates to a much-discussed problem in democratic theory called the ‘boundary problem’. For a description of the problem, and one of many attempts to solve it, see David Miller’s article, “Democracy’s Domain”.

The freedom of association argument I referred to has been presented by a number of philosophers, including in Christopher Wellman in A Theory of Secession: The Case for Political Self-Determination.

The alienage argument I defended has some affinities to Annie Stilz’s “Decolonization and Self-Determination”.






The United States and China: Ruptures and Realignments in Trump’s First Six Months

by Oliver Turner, Lecturer in International Relations

This blog was commissioned and originally published by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (


Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States in late 2016 brought expectations of radical departures in US politics and foreign policy. Of all the candidates – Republican and Democrat – Trump was the most vocal on China during his campaign. His rhetoric swung from professing a ‘love’ for China to claiming that it is guilty of ‘raping’ the United States. Yet his unwavering appeal to right wing populism ensured that in the winner-take-all, zero-sum world he portrayed, Chinese gains were seen as the cause of American losses. Prior to the election it was widely expected that Hillary Clinton would come to occupy the White House, and that while her long-time political criticisms of China argued for modifications in Washington’s relations with Beijing, she would in all likelihood have sought to broadly follow the path trodden by Barrack Obama.  Where do we stand six months after the election of Trump? What has been President Trump’s early approach towards China and what has been the Chinese response? What do the politics and worldviews of the Trump administration reveal about the balance of US-China relations today? Who in the Trump administration has been influential in steering China policy? And what do Trump’s first six months in charge tell us about what the remainder of his tenure might hold for US-China relations? Ultimately, we find that within the bounds of US-China relations, Trump’s first six months as president have been simultaneously of note and entirely unremarkable. His extreme political naiveties and idiosyncrasies have produced ruptures in the relationship, while competing forces beyond his control have forced familiar realignments.

Turbulent beginnings

Throughout the modern history of US presidential campaigns, China has been utilised for short-term political gain. Ronald Reagan, George Bush Jr. and Barack Obama each pledged to toughen up on China before moderating their positions in office. To this extent, the China-bashing of the 2016 election was distinguishable, but only in its veracity and driven largely by Republican candidates seeking to out-Trump Trump on his hyperbole.[i] ‘They suck the blood out of us and we owe them money’, Trump once argued.[ii] Donald Trump eventually won the presidency on the platform of ‘Make America Great Again’, with its foreign policy tagline of ‘America First’. This came with such historically familiar commitments as labelling Beijing a currency manipulator and slowing the loss of manufacturing jobs to China. Trump’s proposal to impose tariffs of up to 45% on Chinese imports had less historical precedent.

As president-elect in December 2016, Trump spoke to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, breaking decades of established protocol and challenging the stability of the so-called ‘One China Policy’. So too did he suggest that US commitment to the policy – the bedrock of US-China relations – was no longer unconditional. Accordingly, Trump’s entry into the White House brought an early stress test for US-China relations. Successive American presidents trod a path of cautious engagement with China[iii], but it seemed possible that Trump would carve serious ruptures into the relationship and steer them into unfamiliar terrain. Indeed, during the early weeks of his presidency Trump sustained unusually pointed rhetoric towards China. He criticised Beijing for not requesting permission to devalue its currency and pursue its island building programme in the South China Sea; for removing ‘massive amounts of money and wealth’ from the United States; and for doing ‘little to help’ on the security problems posed by North Korea.

Ordinarily, such unfiltered accusations from a sitting US president would be expected to provoke more bitter indignation. Yet already Trump’s controversial style had become routine. Foreign governments quickly recognised Trump’s crude and outspoken remarks as the articulations of a politically novice businessman and reality television star more concerned with delighting his loyal audience than transitioning to judicious statesman. Nowhere was this more evident than in Beijing, which responded to Trump’s rhetoric with palpable restraint; following Trump’s conversation with Tsai Ing-wen, Chinese state media explained, with a hint of condescension, that the call reflected his ‘inexperience in dealing with foreign affairs’.[iv]

The “China problem” of past presidential campaigns, along with its proposed solutions, was made simple to resonate with voters; the inconvenient truth that US-China relations are a complex web of myriad actors, institutions and forces over which Washington has limited control is not easily sold to the electorate. For Campaign Trump of 2016 however, the China Problem was simple because it conformed to a narrow and generally crude worldview in which the United States had long been exploited by others due to the failures of the Washington Establishment. For President Trump of 2017, the complexities of the relationship had not just to be repackaged to voters, but discovered for himself.

A reversal of history(?)

Trump’s pride in his ability to strike deals and accumulate wealth makes him less willing to understand how the world works beyond the comfort of his business empire. Yet his introduction to the One China policy highlights the point at which business ends and politics begins which he and his supporters so keenly deny. For Trump, the policy was there to be manipulated through bombast and intimidation to win the advantage over a rival. For the Chinese government it is much more. It is a function of history, culture, sovereignty and national pride. The policy has no profit motive. It is not defined by stock value, liquidity or even GDP. There is no real estate to sell off or snap up. To accept Taiwanese autonomy, according to this view, would be to accept a return to the so-called “Century of Humiliation” of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, during which China was exploited by foreigners under the watch of imperial leaders who refused to engage with an evolving world they did not fully comprehend.

Today, China and the United States are both led by administrations which draw strength from nationalist fervour. But while China’s (particularly economic) nationalism is often internationalist and outward-facing, creating and embracing global opportunities to further the cause at home, Trumpian nationalism is more insular, paranoid and defensive. It sees a world to be feared, defended against and kept out rather than grasped. Today’s technocratic Chinese leaders are also increasingly skilled in modern diplomacy, and in Donald Trump they see an opportunity.

In February 2017, Trump retracted the threat to reconsider the One China Policy during his first conversation with Chinese president Xi Jinping. After meeting with Xi in March at his Mar-a-Lago resort, Trump announced that he no longer considered China a currency manipulator. In short, Trump bluffed with China but his threats were hollow and unconvincing and, in a reversal of history, Beijing outmanoeuvred Washington with more sophisticated statecraft. In The Art of the Deal Trump writes that, ‘You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops’.[v] At Mar-a-Lago Xi quickly convinced Trump of the complexities surrounding North Korea to Beijing’s advantage. Trump’s famous praise for autocratic leaders like Xi with “strongmen” personas masks his own weaknesses; his unwillingness to operate within pre-defined structures and to look beyond the short term makes him unprincipled, manipulable, and liable to sudden shifts in attitude and behaviour. Trump admitted that ‘after listening for ten minutes’, he accepted that Beijing was not so easily blamed over North Korea.

Washington’s infighting

Trump’s aggressive but ineffectual posturing in the early weeks of his presidency revealed much to the Chinese leadership about how he might be managed over the next four years. It was also a demonstration that Trump’s unorthodox bluster can represent little more than foaming surface ripples, while deeper and more powerful undercurrents retain control over the direction of travel. Indeed, over the course of Trump’s first months in charge, US-China policy has increasingly aligned with the more traditional position carved out by the presidential predecessors Trump derides for failing to protect the interests of the United States. In part, this has been because Trump formed a basic understanding of how the China Issue and its “solutions” are not as straightforward as he once imagined. So too was it born from the structural constraints of office.

Trump brought into the White House two campaign supporters and China hawks: appointing Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro White House Chief Strategist and Director of Trade and Industrial Policy respectively. Yet both have struggled for influence after entering the combative Establishment of Washington DC that Bannon in particular has long denounced. As largely unwelcome interlopers in the halls of American politics, neither boasts expansive networks of friends or allies and have thus always been vulnerable to attack. Navarro’s trade prescriptions of heavily taxing Chinese imports and formally retaliating against Beijing’s supposed currency manipulation have so far been dismissed, while Bannon – who declared ‘no doubt’ that the US would soon go to war with China – was removed from the National Security Council in April before being marginalised from Trump’s notoriously defensive inner-circle.

Bannon and Navarro ascribe to, and reinforce, some of the worst fears for the US-China relationship. Some observers argue that the two are destined to repeat history by falling victims to the realist-inspired ‘Thucydides Trap’, by which the anarchical structure of the international system perpetually incentivises material competition, leading so-called great powers into spirals of mistrust and conflict.[vi]

Yet the hyperbolic visions of Bannon and Navarro, along with those of their allies and followers, are additionally laced with neo-colonial rhetoric of the unacceptability and fundamental illegitimacy of China’s growth and modernisation—in contemporary parlance, it’s ‘rise’. The Chinese ‘come here to the United States in front of our face’, Bannon argues of China’s actions in the South China Sea which lies over 11,000 km from the mainland United States, but where the United States – by simple virtue of being the United States – is unproblematically imagined to hold a more justified and rightful presence.[vii] Bannon and Navarro may yet regain favour, but Trump values loyalty in others of the kind which can now be provided by influential others capable of winning his trust.

Trump’s Secretary of Defense, James Mattis and National Security Advisor, HR McMaster, for example, articulate assertive but more measured views on China which echo those of past administrations. Mattis dismisses the need ‘for dramatic military moves’ in response to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, emphasising diplomacy instead. McMaster presents China’s territorial expansion not as uniquely aggressive but as an example of historically-recurring global challenges for which the United States should prepare itself. The new US Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, is another foil to China’s fiercest and most anti-Establishment critics, as the longest serving governor in the US history with cross-party support and strong personal connections to President Xi.

Rupture and realignment

The election of Donald Trump always suited Beijing’s foreign policy aims more than would that of Hillary Clinton. For decades Clinton criticised China’s human rights record and, as Secretary of State in the Obama administration, she engineered the United States pivot/rebalance to Asia, a strategy interpreted in Beijing as a renewed effort to contain Chinese influence. China has recently indicated a willingness to provide global leadership if, as Trump has either indicated or declared, the United States withdraws from global commitments including the Paris Climate Agreement and free trade regimes.

This, more than simple military might or territorial conquest, is the type of great power status to which China aspires to consign its humiliations to the past: advanced, secure, and confident. Trump’s first six months as president have given Beijing reasons to feel vindicated that he was the preferable choice. Trump expresses little interest in policing international human rights, and upon becoming president he withdrew the US from the planned economic pillar of Obama’s rebalance from which China was excluded, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving space for future Chinese initiatives. Trump’s vulnerability to persuasion has brought additional rewards.

Nonetheless, commentators have recently begun to argue that the early “honeymoon” period between Trump and Xi may have ended. In June the Trump administration approved a multi-billion dollar sale of military equipment to Taiwan, shortly after imposing sanctions on a Chinese Bank with suspected financial ties to North Korea. In early July it became clear that Trump would also continue to permit freedom of navigation exercises by US vessels around Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea, to Beijing’s renewed protest. Following ballistic missile tests by North Korea around the same time, Trump publicly lamented a lack of consensus with Beijing over an appropriate policy response, later asserting: ‘So much for China working with us’.

Yet none of this should not come as a surprise. During his early years in office Obama cultivated increasingly positive ties with China’s political elite, before an almost identical collection of issues – each with deep historical roots – tempered his ambitions for more collegial relations. Trump’s approach towards North Korea in particular has quickly come to mirror that of Obama’s; hard, sanction-led economic diplomacy combined with a reliance on Beijing to pressure its authoritarian ally continues to fail in restraining Pyongyang, while generating further discord with China.

Ultimately, while Trump’s unorthodox style and worldview threatens to produce lasting ruptures in Washington’s relations with Beijing, his idiosyncrasies have been at least partially harnessed to bring his policies on China into some alignment with those of the recent past. Nevertheless, the next four years of US-China relations will bring more unexpected developments, and Trump is arguably the most unpredictable and capricious US president in modern history. His sporadic outbursts of opinion may be accepted as the new normal in foreign capitals, but his erratic tendencies will remain a potential source of instability. Indeed, Trump’s political inexperience and naiveties will mean that the Establishments of both Washington and Beijing will continue to play to his most prominent weaknesses, in pursuit of their own contrasting agendas. Combined with regular personnel changes in the White House and Trump’s as-yet unproven ability to respond effectively to real crises, the US-China relationship now stands on a far less predictable footing than it has been for much of the recent past, and one which brings the potential for further disruption.

[i] Turner, O. 2015. China and the 2016 US Presidential Debates: Curiosities and Contradictions. Swedish Institute of International Affairs, UI Brief no.3, November.

[ii] Baker, G. Lee, C. and Bender, M. 2017. “Trump Says He Offered China Better Trade Terms in Exchange for Help on North Korea”. Wall Street Journal, April 12.

[iii] Turner, O. 2016. “The US and China: Obama’s Cautious Engagement.” in The Obama Doctrine: A Legacy of Continuity in US Foreign Policy?, edited by Jack Holland and Michelle Bentley, 180-193. London: Routledge.

[iv] China Daily, December 3, 2016.

[v] Trump, D. 1987. The Art of the Deal. New York: Random House.

[vi] Allison, G. 2017. Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydide’s Trap? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[vii] Turner, O. 2016. “The US and China: Obama’s Cautious Engagement.” in The Obama Doctrine: A Legacy of Continuity in US Foreign Policy?, edited by Jack Holland and Michelle Bentley, 180-193. London: Routledge.





New Handbook on Gender and the Military

By Claire Duncanson, Senior Lecturer in International Relations

Gender issues in the military have hit the headlines this summer. Whether it’s the celebrations of one hundred years of women in the British military, President Trump’s ban on transgender personnel serving in the US military, or the ‘cultural wars’ – or lack thereof – over the absence of diversity in the big movie release of the summer, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the intersection of gender and the military is clearly a subject of popular interest.

If you want to go beyond the headlines and really understand the issues raised by this summer’s events, and many more gender and military debates, you need look no further than The Palgrave International Handbook of Gender and the Military, edited by Rachel Woodward and myself, hot off the press and ready for you to order here:


It provides the context, concepts, historical perspective and geographical scope to help readers make sense of and engage with the fascinating intersections of gender and the military. Taken together, the Handbook’s chapters extend debates about the place, utility and contribution of feminist scholarship pertaining to gender and the military, and to military-related issues more broadly. They present in some ways a broadly progressive narrative over time in terms of expanding possibilities for women, changing demands on men, and developing awareness of the centrality of gender within military institutions, all of which reflect the substantial contributions of feminist scholarship and activism. However, as many chapters also show, this narrative of progress is not absolute and must be seen in the context of ongoing violence and insecurity in many areas of the world. Militaries may be changing in their steady inclusion of women, shifting masculinities, and changing gendered cultures, but for many, especially women and other marginalized groups, security seems as remote a reality and problematic a concept as ever. Furthermore, we are not complacent about the power of regressive politics to roll back positive changes around gender issues in military settings. To counter a regressive politics, we must remember that relationships between gender and the military are an issue for everyone.  As such, we invite you to delve deep into the pages of the Handbook and to engage in conversations about the militaries we wish to see (or challenge) in the contemporary world.

Comprised of 33 chapters, the Handbook features lively engagement from different perspectives about key issues pertaining to the gender–military nexus.  As an International Handbook, it is cross-disciplinary, and will be of particular interest to people who study gender and military issues within political science, gender and women’s studies, international relations, human geography, sociology, the humanities and anthropology. It will also be of key interest to military personnel themselves, especially those developing policy around gender issues, including the Women, Peace and Security Agenda and Equality and Diversity Issues, in the UK, and beyond.

Part I explains and explores the most significant theoretical, conceptual and methodological approaches through which the relationships between gender and the military have been studied. With chapters on liberal feminist, anti-militarist feminist, critical military studies and organisational perspectives, as well as qualitative and quantitative methods and approaches, the first part offers both a guide to the rest of the book and an important collection of intellectual engagement in its own right.

Part II, exploring state militaries, sets out in detail how a range of social constructs shape the experience of participating in state militaries and influence state militaries’ responses to the challenges they pose. Authors examine how identity, ethnicity, sexuality and (dis)ability help theorise and understand gender and military connections, while also posing important practical issues for state militaries and their personnel. These chapters demonstrate that gender is crucial to fully comprehending the factors and forces that shape people’s experiences in and of state military institutions and modes of organisation. These chapters tie earlier discussions of conceptual approaches to illustrative empirical examples.

In Part III, we consider state militaries in action. Chapters in this section draw on many of the issues introduced earlier to consider how gender intersects with different operational contexts and transformations. Whether direct combat, counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, humanitarianism, or the roles militaries play in political transformations, gender can be seen as a profound influence on the goals and practice of military operations.

Part IV draws together engagements with gender in non-state military contexts. Covering private military and security companies, NATO, the UN, terrorist and other non-state armed groups, our authors explore gendered dynamics from a variety of theoretical perspectives. Here too, it is clear that to fully understand the rise of privatised security, what motivates terrorists, or the dynamics of rebel groups, gendered analysis is crucial.

The final section of the Handbook examines a range of ways in which different cultural forms represent gender in the military. It provides a novel take on the topic, as few social science books venture into the terrain of popular culture, and thus moves the Handbook into more groundbreaking interdisciplinary territory. Focusing on cultural representation reminds us that the relationships between gender and the military play out not only within military institutions and through the bodies and experiences of military personnel but also through popular culture and mass consumption. Our contributors in this section engage with a variety of forms of representation, including visual, cinematic and textual.

The Palgrave International Handbook of Gender and the Military has been published as part of Palgrave’s Handbooks series, and you can encourage your university library to order a copy by forwarding your subject librarian a copy of this flyer [link to flyer].

Here at The University of Edinburgh, copies will soon be available at the main library. Students across SPS will find it a great resource for courses such as Understanding Gender in the Contemporary World, Global Security (UG) and International Security (PG), Global Politics of Sex and Gender, and Armed Force and Society. It should also provide a great starting point for those students interested in undertaking a dissertation related to the gender-military nexus, as each chapter provides both a sense of the ‘hot topics’ and debates relating to the issues and a guide to the key literature.

Flyer 2_Page_1

Flyer 2_Page_2