The Picket Line at Elmfield – 2018. “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”

It looks almost certain now that I will be on strike along with colleagues across sixty UK Higher Education Institutes for eight days between Monday Nov 25th and Wednesday Dec 4th. It’s stressful and depressing that so many of my colleagues and I feel compelled to take this action.

I don’t want to strike. I want to teach and research. But I am prepared to strike again for the second time since February 2018. Below is my rationale for why I struck in 2018. Alas most of it still applies today. I may yet post my thoughts on 2019…depending on whether I get the time.

23 February 2018.

A rare return to FaceBook <note for 2019 students – Facebook was a popular social media website> in solidarity with colleagues across 64 Higher Education Institutions along with whom I am striking over the ‘USS Pension Scheme’, which btw one tweet referred to as the ‘worst starship name ever’.

At first, I simply assumed the USS pension scheme was suffering the same demographic issues troubling society more generally. I.e. that fewer workers were paying in whilst ever more long living retirees were taking out.

Even I, a mere qualitative scholar in the humanities could see the maths here was problematic and so, to paraphrase one of Jack Nicholson’s lesser films – ‘something’s gotta give’ (Meyers, 2004). That something being the shift from a Defined Benefits to Defined Contributions pension scheme.

Yes, like the polar ice caps, European Integration and audio cassettes, such generous pension entitlement was something from a bygone era destined only for the history books. But cursory discussion with colleagues, attending a couple of UCU meetings, reading the news and some of the twitter revealed this not to be the case. As such, I’m on strike because I am outraged by (in no particular order):

1. The myth of the supposed £6bn deficit and dubious logic of the valuation underpinning the changes being imposed on us by UUK on the casting vote of the JNC’s independent chair.

2. The UUK leaked papers showing key figures were pushing to change the scheme in advance of the valuation suggesting its’s a pretext.

3. The ridiculous modelling of risk/stress test which is predicated on the entire UK HE Sector simultaneously going bust.

4. The opaque nature of the UUK consultation that overcounted Oxbridge colleges, whose own staff reject the way their institutions voted.

5. The loss of up to £10k a year in my pension just as I start contributing to a pension – cuts so bad and unnecessary that the Financial Times criticised them, as has Essex’s Pro Vice Chancellor whilst at Newcastle, their Pro Vice Chancellor ‘absolutely supports’ the Strike Action.

6. UUK already took a pensions holiday which cost £7billion > does that number sound familiar?

7. USS already took cuts compared to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme in the ’92 institutions, so where next if we give in/lose here?

8. The high salaries at the top tier of university management and also USS itself where the boss got an £82k pay rise for a total annual remuneration of £566k

9. The never-ending capital expenditure programmes when in reality without our (indebted) students and staff (in that order btw) there are no universities. See here > neoliberalization, marketisation and/or commodification of Higher Education.

Contrary to (some of) the press my academic starting salary was not £34k. I spent four years variously as a Student Support, Admin, Teaching Assistant and Invigilator. Often, I combined various roles at the same time, whilst doing full time research, trying to complete in 3 years, network and publish – still trying that last one btw.

I earned approx. £13 an hour but often only getting paid for 6-15 hours a week term time, ALWAYS IN ARREARS, without full employment rights and without having a pension.

And I was/am and recognise myself to be one of the lucky ones. Lucky because I had these roles plus stipend, fee waiver and the support of my amazing partner and so made it from PhD to Early Career Researcher. Too many cannot, and do not > see here the explosion in mental health problems across all levels of academia.

Yes, this was all my choice. This is my vocation, and yes, I am now on a very good salary as a University Teacher in International Politics and Security Studies at the fabulous Dept. of Politics at University of Sheffield. But this role is a fixed term 10-month contract, the one before was 3-months and if I’m lucky the next one will be anywhere from 6-18months. I honestly don’t know when or where I will get a permanent job and when I do my probation could be in excess of 3 years.

Like many academics I have moved twice for work/study, commute between cities and am prepared to move around the UK for work. And if I don’t publish and jump through the REF hoop then my career will likely never progress > see here 125 applicants per lectureship. Yet the reality of most ECR teaching heavy roles is that you have precious little time to write/publish.

So yes, after the two years of low paid work pre-PhD, the 4 years of my PhD and approx. 1 year into who knows how many potentially precarious years of ECR life I feel like I have earned my income and the pension plan I was promised. And which is still sustainable/ financial viable.

In amongst all this I would like to emphasise that my point here is not that academics are ‘victims’ who ‘suffer’ or are ‘worse off’ than others in society to the point where we deserve special consideration. Times are and have been tough for a lot of people for a long time. My point is that our career is deliberately a challenging one but we’d quite like to focus on the challenges we (and our students) set ourselves rather than the one being imposed upon us presently.

I don’t want special consideration. I loathe race to the bottom rhetoric and the pitting of public/private sector employees against one another. I want fair pay, terms & conditions and a decent pension for all ( ‘many not the few’), and in this case that means UUK doing something about bullet points 1-9.

I regret the disruption this action is causing my students but as the saying goes > ‘Lecturer Working Conditions are Student Learning Conditions’. Being on strike means forfeiting up to 14 days-pay, something few of us enter into lightly and many at great cost > see here casualisation, zero hours contracts, precarious short-term contracts.

Our intention is to get UUK back to the negotiating table – something 17 University Pro Vice Chancellors are also calling for – to respond to our concerns and do a better, fairer deal. We might not win the fight with this strike but if we do not strike we will definitely lose.

To read the thoughts of those more eloquent than I you could do worse than…

Graham Harrison (09/03/2018).  A tale of two univer(cities)

Catherine Pope (05/01/2018) Why pensions matter (and why you really must vote to save USS)

Waseem Yaqoob (16/02/2018) Why we strike

Anon. (19/02/2018) Why I don’t want to go on strike

Sam Marsh (22/02/2018) USS strike: staff walkout is only way left to stop unnecessary pension cuts

David Huyssen (22/02/2018) Twelve Tweet Take Down


In June 2016 I wrote up my reflections on the then state of the race to become the ninth UN Secretary General, having attending a civic society hustings with three of the candidates in London. 

Fast forward to October 6th 2016, and following a series of straw polls the Security Council voted by acclamation to recommend António Guterres as their choice to the General Assembly in Security Council Resolution 2311. On 13 October 2016, the seventy-first session of the United Nations General Assembly ratified the Security Council’s choice by acclamation, formally appointing Guterres as the next Secretary-General for a five-year term beginning on 1 January 2017.

Such are the vagaries of  academia (polite way of saying I submitted it to some blogs who passed) I put it aside and have only just gotten round to sharing it just now…

My piece discusses the SG’s unique role, the appointment process and includes at the very end some recent links to report cards of Guterres’s performance in office to date.

London the latest leg of race for UNSG

On June 3rd in London a public meeting was held with three of the eleven declared candidates to succeed Ban Ki Moon as the next and ninth United Nations Secretary General. This was only the second time such a public event has been held (see here for details of the earlier April 14th event in New York), and its organisation owes much to the combined efforts of the current President of the UN General Assembly Moggens Lykketoft, the 1 for 7billion campaign and various NGOs such as UNA-UK and FUNDS who have all campaigned for a more transparent and inclusive appointment process. By arriving not just on time but early, I was able to secure a seat in the front row, meanwhile some 35,000 people had submitted questions online. So what is at stake and why are so many so interested?

Trygve Lie (Secretary General 1946-1952) famously called it “the most impossible job in the world”. Of his successor – Dag Hammarskjold (SG 1953-1961) – no less a personage than JFK reflected I realise now that in comparison to him, I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century” Kofi Annan (1997-2006) remarked that “SG” stood for “scape goat” rather than Secretary General, a joke Ban Ki Moon himself told me (and two thousand others) when he spoke in London earlier this year at UNA-UK’s impressive UN@70 anniversary event. Elsewhere Simon Chesterman has elegantly surmised that there is a fundamental tension as to whether the office holder is more “secretary” than “general”, that is an administrator of policy or global leader who will make policy by giving rather than simply taking orders. Whereas other political offices are perhaps up to the holder what they choose to make of them, the role of UN Secretary General is almost uniquely circumscribed as the recent dispute between Ban Ki Moon and Saudi Arabia illustrates.

Whilst the UN Charter is concise when it comes to the appointment process, role and powers of the Secretary General, the (harsh) realities, (ingrained) traditions and (competing) expectations of international society are such that one could be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want the job. Yet there are currently eleven officially declared candidates and several more names in the mix. Therefore it follows that at least eleven people think the job of Secretary General does indeed matter and judging by the tug of war (or should that be “peace”?) within the UN membership over the appointment process they are not alone. To be blunt here, if the role didn’t matter then the P5 (permanent five members of the Security Council – China, France, Russia, UK, USA) wouldn’t care so much about who gets the job. What influence have they been able to bring to bear on the appointment process in the past?

Current practice (stemming from Article 97 of the UN Charter and subsequent Resolutions) has been for the 15 strong Security Council to recommend one name to the 193 member General Assembly, and that name has emerged from a series of straw polls conducted in closed meetings with the P5 exercising their veto. Historically therefore the race has been run behind closed doors with few openly declared candidates, seemingly being won by the candidate least likely to offend the Great Powers rather than the one best placed to stand up to them on behalf of the UN’s 188 other member states or wider membership – that is “we the peoples”.

The opaque nature of such practice – often compared unfavourably to a Papal Conclave – has seen the P5 free to frame their choice of candidate in terms of their national rather than the global common interest, “discouraging” or “vetoing candidates as they see fit. Such politics continue once the SG is in office, where as history shows, the USSR tried to sack holder (Dag Hammarskjold in 1960) and replace the office completely, whilst the USA successfully vetoed the reappointment of another (Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1996). Furthermore unwritten convention would have it that SG9 should come from Eastern Europe (due to geographic rotation) not be a national of the P5 (although they divvy up other key posts) and come from one of the UN’s smaller members states. Previous SGs coming from Norway, Sweden, Burma, Austria, Peru, Egypt, Ghana and South Korea.

June’s public meeting held in London was the latest part of a push for “inclusivity” and “transparency” from global civil society and concerned UN member states. They had earlier achieved a significant victory with the September 2015 adoption of General Assembly Resolution 69/321 outlining the appointment process. Subsequently a letter soliciting candidates was addressed openly to all member states on December 15th, an important implication of this being that candidates must have the support of their member state and cannot otherwise self-refer.  A commitment was made to keep an updated list of declared candidates and their CVs in the public domain (see here), with the first candidate to declare being Srgian Kerim (Macedonia) on December 30th. It was stressed that attention be paid to “gender and geographical balance” (in that order) and decided;

“Without prejudice to the role of the principal organs as enshrined in Article 97 of the Charter, to conduct informal dialogues or meetings with candidates for the position of Secretary-General, without any prejudice to any candidate who does not participate, thus contributing to the transparency and inclusivity of the process”.

There are two observations to make at this point. You may well be wondering how on earth the steps just outlined mark an innovation when all they amount to are publicly advertising the post, and requiring candidates to provide CVs and submit themselves to interview. Secondly and more damning may well be your observation that nothing essential has changed. General Assembly resolutions are in any case non-binding, and A/RES/69/321 above makes clear that Article 97 of the Charter remains in force. Meaning it is still for the Security Council to make a recommendation to the General Assembly and the Council is not obliged to change its previous practice in light of the announced process or the push for “transparency” and “inclusivity”. Instead these are but “contributions” which do not even prejudice against any candidate who has not participated.

Seemingly therefore the new process does not change who makes the appointment, nor necessarily the calculus underlying their decision. Nor does it limit those eligible to only those who have publicly declared. That said, it is difficult to envision a set of circumstances where the Council do not reflect on the candidates public performances and platforms and thus whether they will hold the confidence of the bulk of the membership. Likewise one can scarcely imagine the appointment of a candidate who opted not to undergo the public scrutiny of their peers. Bearing all this in mind, what is the state of the race and how did it all play out in London, June 3rd?

Presently eight of the eleven declared candidates are indeed from Eastern Europe, but the key selection criteria being discussed this year is gender – SGs 1 through 8 have all been male. It was a little disappointing therefore that in London we were treated only to three of the male candidates, H.E. António Guterres, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees and former Prime Minister, (Portugal) H.E. Vuk Jeremić, Former President of the UN General Assembly and former Foreign Minister, (Serbia) and H.E. Dr. Igor Lukšić, Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration (Montenegro).

This gender framing of the race was raised in the Q&A with the question “are you a feminist?” (all responded yes) and picked up on again in unfavourable audience reaction when one candidate spoke of having “a couple of guys in mind” for a key new post. One suspects the rest of the field are reserving their time for canvassing more influential constituencies in what is after all an intergovernmental selection rather than democratic election process. Video and a rundown of who said what can be found elsewhere. Whilst there were no outright surprises – peacekeeper sexual abuse, treatment of UN whistle blowers, feminism, human rights advocacy, the nightmare in Syria and both squaring and squaring up to the Great Powers all came up – there were a some rather telling moments.

For the most part of the hour long event in their interactions with one another and references to the incumbent, all three candidates were diplomatic, absent of any outright disagreements. Notable however was Vuk Jeremić, whose politicking (he deliberately and continually referenced his candidacy) climaxed with him directly admonishing Igor Lukšić’s suggestion for budget reform speaking as “the only guy here who has chaired” the General Assembly’s budget committee. By his own account Vuk has a 53 point manifesto and a very busy first day in office planned, something which raised a few eyebrows on social media and groans in the room the more he mentioned it. Overall here’s my own reflections on how all three came across.

António Guterres

A quietly confident diplomat who openly reflected on rather than simply trotting out his extensive first-hand experience at UNHCR as well as what he saw as the fundamentals of the Sec Gen role. António portrayed that role as one of a “convenor” or “catalyst” rather than “lever” whose focus should be on marshalling states big and small in favour of their common interest in maintaining international peace and security through the prevention of armed conflict. The nuance here was in his observations that the UN can bring together those who can bring their influence to bear on situations – tacitly admitting the UN itself often lacks this influence itself – and that prevention was broader than diplomacy alone.

Vuk Jeremić

A politician supremely confident in his own proposals (e.g. increasing OHCHR budget by 50%, convening a monthly meeting of a taskforce on genocide and mass atrocities prevention) and his ability to enact them. Vuk emphasised his specific plans and his will to achieve them. He explicitly addressed Chesterman’s tension when he argued the next Secretary General should not just be a Chief Administrator who does what the P5 instruct but rather should be a political operator “with a spine”. A seemingly implicit rebuke of the incumbent.  Staking out a detailed platform in advance – remember his has 53 points – would he argued, give the next Secretary General a mandate to overcome political opposition, vested interests or bureaucratic inertia. Where the others variously reflected on the office and its possibilities, it’s fair to say Vuk was the one who campaigned for the office most openly.

Igor Lukšić

In contrast to the clarity of Guterres’s deliberate reflections and the campaigning combined with proposals of Jeremic, Lukšić came across variously as a talented technocrat and optimistic idealist – quite the combination. Ultimately he had a lot to say and a command of his stats, but was lacking in clarity or sound bites. Whilst the latter is no bad thing, the former stood out in comparison to the other two, although in a sense this came across as someone comfortable with sharing their thinking on the issues rather than just pivoting to specific positions. Two points of note were his identification of under-development, pandemics and the challenges of globalisation as the biggest threat in the next ten years and his suggestions for UN budget reform, the latter being a perfect example of the kind of unglamorous institutional reform that would have far reaching consequences if executed successfully.

Will one of these three men be the next holder of “the most impossible job on earth”? The short answer is that we’ll have to wait and see. Commentators seem to agree that whilst the convention on geographic rotation (i.e. that it’s Eastern Europe’s turn) has probably been breached. Touted front runners such as Helen Clark and António Guterres originating from New Zealand and Portugal respectively. It also seems that the push for a female appointment is still strong.  Attention has shifted back to New York where further public informal dialogues with diplomats may well be held as other candidacy declarations emerge before the action shifts from the public deliberations thus far to those of the Security Council at the end of July. As for the timing of the final decision, it is expected between one to three months before the expiration of the incumbent’s term, therefore between September and November at the latest.

Whilst expectations remain high that the Council will select a woman from the list of publicly declared and vetted candidates, there is little to no expectation that they will go further in recommending two names to the General Assembly (thus giving them the choice), proposing a single lengthened term of office (thus freeing SG9 from the shadow of reappointment) or polling the General Assembly let alone global civic society. For whilst the UN Secretary General surely belongs to us all, the appointment itself still belongs by and large to the P5 members of the Security Council.

What happened next?

PassBlue, February 2017 on his first month in the job 

ECFR, July 2017 commentary on how its lonely at the top for the UN Chief

PassBlue, September 2017 assess his reform agenda

devex, January 2018 report on the International Center for Research on Women’s C+ Report Card rating

PassBlue, January 2018 look back on his first year with the Trump Administration

Diplomatic Academy on Vienna , March 2018 with a year in review


So have said many a twitter wag since the British electorate’s decision to leave the European Union was announced on the morning of June 24th – but for the record I give credit to @JamieDalton82. Fast forward to today (has it only been twenty odd days?) and as many a twitter wag surmised – “Friend woken from a year coma? Ease them in with the relatively plausible Leicester romping the league by 10 points, then work up from there”

So we live in interesting times, that much is clear. So interesting in fact that according to Matthew Goodwin:

But as interesting as Stock Market volatility, Article 50, a possible second Scottish independence referendum, mooted attempts to annul the June 23rd referendum, the leadership contests for the Conservative, Labour and UKIP and the publication of the Chilcot Report (!?) have been, it’s fair to say people have been somewhat astonished by the new Prime Minister’s appointment this evening of the Member for Uxbridge & South Ruislip as Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs.


New Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson welcomed to the Foreign Office by @SMcDonaldFCO (official photo) – Not pictured @DiploMog

At this point I am tempted to say that there has been a firestorm on twitter, or that it is having a field day, but when is it not? Clearly though in amongst the myriad references to Foreign Secretary Johnson’s legion gaffes and activities, some comic, others as dark as they are revealing, the prevailing view was that such an appointment was ridiculous and as such must have been forced on Theresa May.

Now full credit here to the more learned people that I follow on twitter as from them a contrary view soon emerged which I summarise below. *Remember it wasn’t me that spotted this* but rather I’m channeling @Peston and @FraserNelson – click their handles for their own analysis.

So Theresa May is keenest to immediately balance out the Brexit/Remain camps since she a Remainer (albeit quiet) is now leading Brexit Britain and there’s a clamour to ensure “Brexit means Brexit” and maybe even trigger Article 50 ASAP.

To wit of the Great Offices of state she’s got in place; Philip Hammond (Chancellor), Amber Rudd (Home) and herself (PM) i.e. three remainers. So she needs to keep Brexiters happy which she has done by giving top jobs to Liam Fox (International Post EU trade deals), David Davis (Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) and Boris Johnson (FCO is the last of the four Great Offices).

Away from this balancing act there is the “house of cards” politics of it all. Except here the view is not that Johnson has somehow dictated the terms of a deal with May. Recall that the evening of her appointment, Theresa May is at the height of her powers – just look what happened to George Osborne.

Instead there, consider May’s position. Appointing Johnson as Foreign Secretary will keep him out the country and overseas i.e. away from the grass roots (where he is famously/allegedly feted) as well as any plots. Then there’s the fact he’ll be jet lagged when he’s actually here. Although I suppose Whatsapp could be a way around this…

Some (Peston) have noted the similarities to Barack Obama making Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State in 2009 – this was a convenient/respectful way to deal with a vanquished rival. For all Johnson’s political capital seemingly collapsed with Michael Gove’s betrayal, as others have noted, his supposed idol, Winston Churchill also bounced back after a prolonged spell in the political wilderness albeit thanks to a particularly ugly gathering storm.

Lastly and most importantly there is the  role of Foreign Secretary  itself. The actual Brexit negotiations will be led by the new Government Dept. headed by David Davis (who was Europe Minister for three years under John Major) whilst the key EU summits (remember the UK is still a member) will be at a Prime Ministerial level where May herself represents the UK.

More broadly in terms of UK foreign policy it’s Downing Street and the PM who lead in a crisis. Otherwise, and although it’s not my own area of expertise (see my friends and colleagues Victoria Honeyman, Stuart McAnulla, James Strong, Tim Oliver for more) it’s a fair observation that strong Prime Ministers run their own foreign policy rather than leaving it to their Secretary of State.

So this leaves the Foreign Secretary as a sort of showman to talk up Brexit Britain and show Brexit was a positive choice where we turn away from the EU institutions rather than the continent and instead towards the wider world. The point here being (made most eloquently by Nelson) that this ideally needs someone who supported Brexit to sell it to the world. Even if the rumours abound as to whether Johnson actually truly supported Brexit.

So yes, being Foreign Secretary is an important job, but perhaps it’s more prominent than it is powerful in its own right. And of course with every gaffe Mr Johnson makes he becomes less of a threat to her leadership, and if he really screws up, well she could always sack him?

Now all of this (which recall I got from elsewhere) comes with a huge caveat. A caveat  in fact perhaps worthy of Vote Leave or British Intelligence circa 2002-3. Namely that this is a blog about international society and all that I’ve written above pertains to how Johnson’s appointment fits with UK domestic politics and the machinery of the British government.

Simply put, yes some of us in Britain may express a weary sigh if not wry smile at Johnson’s Have I Got News For You persona. But how will the rest of international society react to Britain’s new chief diplomat? I’m thinking here (purely off the top of my head) of his remarks about US President Obama’s “part Kenyan heritage” and the poem he authored abour Turkish President Erdogan. For the avoidance of doubt, the UK’s relationship with these two countries is what we academics refer too as of strategic significance.

Again, this is perhaps more an issue of foreign policy analysis (not my expertise) or indeed one for colleagues who assess how personal relationships between leaders – the presence or absence of trust – affect their dealings.

Alternatively the rejoinder could be made that even phenomenally popular state leaders cannot translate international goodwill into their favoured outcomes (see President Obama at the failed 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit to pick but one example). At the very least therefore another blog post beckons if not quite a PostDoc (without the EU funding of course).

But what I will say in closing for now is that the UK’s image on the world stage, its place in international society is being very closely watched, and the perceptions of our international peers (not least the rest of the P5) are of great import.

As I wrote on the morning of Brexit, in my view, Britain’s post war history has been the story of collectively assuming rather than critically interrogating, the fact we’re still the Great Power we were before the war.

Like Dean Acheson said back in ’62 we lost an empire but were yet to find a role. We’ve leveraged some crucial but essentially limited capabilities to maintain an enlarged role for these islands in international society.

Our influence is not just a product of material might (such as we have it) but also the regard (rightly or wrongly) we are held in. We’ve talked the talk but otherwise it’s been the emperor’s new clothes.

As such, to my mind, we’ve not had a conversation about what our role should be in the world as it is now, and not as it once was. Something tells me we’re about to confront the reality we’ve been dodging all this time, and is reasonable to ask what sort of role Foreign Secretary Johnson, can, will or should play in this most complex, overdue and important of conversations.

When friends and colleagues ask me what I think about such matters I often begin with or indeed entirely focus on what I’ve read and what I’ve made of this. Ask me what I think and I’ll tell you who I’ve read. It’s surely up there with answering a question by critiquing the original question. Clearly my friends and colleagues are patient and forgiving people.

Implicitly of course my choice of who I’ve read and what I’ve taken from them, tells you what I think, but i rarely begin by explicitly setting out my stall. This could be why my university debating career stalled, but it is definitely a function of my abiding suspicion of claims to certainty in a world of complexity.

David Mitchell comments on this same point today and Bertrand Russell beat us both to it when he said; “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.” Matt Frei’s similar (and perhaps less elitist) conclusion in the  immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks was that “nuance dies on days like these. What course then for the wise or nuanced? Hedley Bull suggested that; “It is better to recognise that we are in darkness than to pretend that we can see the light.”

But to be fair to David Cameron, unlike me who can get away with reading, reflecting (and occasionally even writing) about Syria, he is expected to do something about it. Syria is a moral and yes an academic issue for me. For millions on the ground (or on boats to Europe) it is a living nightmare and for world leaders it is a problem which we expect them to practically address irrespective of all the light, darkness, (un)certainties, knowns and unknowns. I can critique the murky reality of foreign policy. David Cameron has to navigate it…against the clock.

So do I think Britain should bomb Syria? Or to put it in more deliberate and less emotive language – Should Britain extend its anti ISIS air campaign from Iraq into Syria? Sadly as with our politics generally, public discourse here is organised around simplistic to the point of false and also gendered dichotomies – doing something as opposed to nothing, taking “tough action” rather than “being weak”.

I supported the 1999 Kosovo intervention in spite of the fact it had no explicit UNSC sanction. Something I excoriated Tony Blair for four years later in Iraq 2003, and then was particularly impressed by come Libya in 2011. However I am acutely aware of the riposte that reliance on the UNSC means Britain’s foreign policy is outsourced too/held hostage by the veto wielding powers (i.e. China and Russia) dependent as it is on an alignment of national interests or otherwise polite indifference.

Yet Council authorisation – for so long so central to the response of international society to Syria – of a sort now exists (although S/RES 2249 (2015) doesn’t invoke Chapter VII). So a legal case and thus international legitimacy as with Libya 2011 (in the early stages) are less in question now. Although here it would be wise to note there remains (as Ian Clark points out) the issue of whether legitimacy is purely the outcome of the Council’s decisions or whether it informs them. I.e. Council action is always legitimate, or the Council acts only where it is legitimate.

But away from the international diplomacy and these questions of legitimacy, should *Britain bomb Syria*? The concerns I have – and which lead me to agree with those who say we should not – stem from efficacy. The lesson of Iraq 2003 is not never to use military force (and so here I probably part company with the certainties of Stop The War) but rather that before we do so we must consider carefully our end objectives, our means and whether these are appropriate and in alignment.

Essentially when we use military force, what are we trying to achieve, why are we doing it, are either of these appropriate, how are we going to do it, is there a reasonable prospect for success and in so much as we can determine, what are the forseeable consequences of action/inaction? There’s probably a separate blog post on this combination of realist and just war reasoning alone, but this is not it.

The analysis I’ve read so far (including Stephen WaltDan Jarvis, Patrick Cockburn (here and here), Jason Ralph and Paul Rogers) suggests to me that the purported aims of British action (which Cameron has said must not be confined to just air strikes) are unfeasible, unrealistic and unclear if not counterproductive.

Unfeasible because the 70,000 coordinated  moderate ground forces who will take the fight to ISIS are proving elusive and somebody’s ground troops are needed yet none are forthcoming. As Rafael Behr writes this is “the weakest link in his [Cameron’s] chain – an expression of wishful thinking and heroic ambition as much as a credible argument.” Indeed the “global coalition” isn’t evenly sharing the burden of the existing air campaign as it is which is just one indicator of the vexing agency problem – who is acting in Syria and why?

Unrealistic as it speaks confidently of concrete signs of political progress at the Vienna talks to end the Syrian Civil War, yet for which there is precious little evidence. Some sort of compromise resolution of the Assad Question would do much to end a conflict which ISIS has been able to so effectively (and destructively) exploit, yet even where the West to amend its position, would the Syrian opposition?

Unclear if not counterproductive because there *a lot* of competing national, regional and sub national/sectarian interests at play in what is both an intra state and a proxy war. Beyond the usual “fog of war” (for which read Russian and Western air forces providing tactical support to opposing sides with all the risks this runs) are the multiple alliances of convenience which begs the question of what kind of Syria emerges and what will the consequences be for the region, its states, peoples and refugees.

Where does this leave us? Complexity is no friend of action but nor is it an excuse for inaction. I was struck by the comment in the days following the Aylan Kurdi tragedy that “we mustn’t do the wrong thing for the right reason”.

Likewise the Syrian Civil War and the threat posed by ISIS – both to The West but foremost Syrians and Iraqis – does mandate an international response but not I suspect this one.


Bitter truths on display at the Royal Armouries, Leeds

Recently I contributed to the rather excellent MUNPlanet blog where I wrote under the deliberately counterintuitive title: The United Nations: Where talking about the rules matters as much as enforcing them? This marked my second foray into *other* blogs after my April 2014 contribution to e-IR entitled Crimea: A problem of and for international society.

In response to my July 2015 UN piece, I was asked:

“What is your opinion on the veto-restraint and what could be a way forward in making a more prominent place for global interests in the narrow conceptions of national interests of the member states?” 

It’s a great question, and one I reflected on at length, engaging as it does what E.H Carr (provocatively) labelled the realist and utopian views of international politics, which the UN itself as a compact between power and ideals embodies…

Veto restraint is I feel superficially attractive and unlikely to occur. It is unlikely to occur because as I understand it only France of the P5 has adopted it and pushed it, notably in their 2013 General Assembly address. The UK position appears to be that we already do exercise veto restraint (last used in 1989) but in any case won’t sign up to the plans till the rest of the P5 do.

At the risk of undermining the piece, I don’t see the rest of the P5 – especially China, Russia and the USA – being sufficiently concerned about legitimacy costs to embrace restraint in principle let alone in practice. The P5 were very cool on the idea back in 2001 as part of original ICISS report, which is why it never made it to the relevant RtoP paragraphs of the 2005 World Summit.

That said however, as colleagues at the recent British International Studies Association conference speculated (particularly Benjamin Zala and Justin Morris) the disconnect between the rest of international society calling for restraint (led by the S5 and ACT) and the P5 refusing it, is a serious problem if we assume as I argue in my blog that international society is sustained by both axes of Clark’s consensus – that among the P5 but also that between the P5 and the rest.

I think veto restraint is superficially attractive because even were the P5 to agree to these proposals I fear that would simply shift their disagreements elsewhere; definition of mass atrocity and thus whether restraint applies, definition of their national interest and thus whether restraint applies. Thus, as with RtoP 2005, the creative ambiguities inherent in an agreement on restraint would become the new point of contestation. But then that’s *progress*.

Notwithstanding such implementation problems I fear that veto restraint in part at least assumes that with regards to RtoP/mass atrocities, more robust (i.e. Chapter 7) Security Council Resolutions  are the solution and that the obstacle to such a solution is the (P2) veto. Effectively this is the view that international society’s problem has been “in-humanitarian non-intervention” rather than the abuse of humanitarian intervention – which vetoes *supposedly* guard against.

Three problems in particular would be firstly how to successfully equip, deploy and sustain an intervention force (bear in mind the P5 not using their veto is not the same as their active support). In other words, more robust mandates could be included in resolutions but would they be enforced on the ground? Secondly there are limits to what interventions using force can achieve and thirdly there is the challenge of “after the intervention”. Whether you call this peacebuilding, nation building or the “responsibility to rebuild”, it would suggest international society having to exercise a trusteeship role in some cases in order to seek to prevent future violence, yet this is not a popular concept.

So whilst I am not quite engaging in a full throated defence of the veto I am warning that restraint raises as many questions as it may theoretically answer. The spate of Russian and Chinese vetoes of Syrian resolutions is somewhat exceptional and should be set against P5 cooperation on most other crises. So the use of the veto is perhaps less the root cause of problems and more the manifestation of them – restraint is unlikely to change this.

As for how to make a more prominent place for global interests in the narrow conceptions of national interests of member states – I like the positive framing of broadening the national interest to include the global as it is more often perceived as restraining or even denying the national interest to appease others. It is of course the job of diplomats and statespeople but it would help if they were to conceive themselves as “good international citizens” and thus define their interests and choose their actions according to this identity and with reference to that framework. And here, in closing it should be noted that use of the veto is actually often justified in such terms, as checking irresponsible, precipitate or destabilising action which is not in the international interest.  

As a post script I would add it is worth considering how resolutions are drafted, which countries do most of the drafting, and that the tabling of resolutions is subject to agenda setting and pre vetoing. See Security Council Report, Whats in Blue and PassBlue for more. 

For a more informed view why not read…

Thomas Weiss from March 2014

Aidan Hehir from August 2014 

Oliver Stuenkel from January 2015 

Stewart M. Patrick from January 2015 

UNA-UK from February 2015

I guess it could come in handy as a queue skip?

So I managed eleven official meetings and hopefully have four more phone interviews in the pipeline. I have yet to type up all my notes but one estimate would be that they come to 30,000 words.

All told I met with academics, advocates, policy experts and diplomats. Especially interesting was the mixture of anecdote and analysis whereby personal reflections and recollections marry with or elucidate official positions.

More than one interviewee had studied to an advanced level themselves, so it’s always nice to see life after the PhD, but on a more serious note this added something to the discussions in that they could better see where I was coming from and perhaps even interpret the questions better than I could, given their dual perspective.

You definitely grow in confidence over the course of conducting such research, you get used to some nuances and come to recognise different types of interviewee. Besides the dual academic/diplomat are those who offer expansive and varied answers, those who tend to repeat or emphasise a single theme throughout and those who are too senior to interrupt.

Whilst I am still typing up all my notes, one immediate recollection is that every interview contained at least one nugget or specific insight. Whether it was about Council dynamics; keeping on side of the P5; problems of institutional memory; open secrets; flawed processes or frank disagreements. Some of this confirms or corroborates what I’ve read elsewhere, others were more surprising.

It was also terrific to visit the Dag Hammarskjold Library and thank those in person who I have been emailing all year. True to form having innocently discovered some digest documents on Security Council activity for 2013 at an info desk (perhaps the world’s most informative info desk?), colleagues there were able to show me where to find them online. Then in response to my vague question about any good books to read for more information on the Council or interpreting resolutions, they excelled themselves with their recommendations. In general the library really gives the impression of an official authoritative source, if it isn’t there not only does it not exist but it doesn’t matter.

People have asked what it’s like wandering about the UN itself in what with it being a landmark but also a working organisation. What struck me on my 2009 visit was just how low key it was in places, that it had the look of a 1960s office complex in places i.e. lots of wear and tear.

Whilst some of this remains despite a lot of extensive (and ongoing renovations) this time as a visiting researcher and not just someone on a tour, I was struck more by the sense of purpose around the building. This was most notable not in the official settings such as the Council or General Assembly, both of which appeared to me quite choreographed, but in the Delegates’ Lounge, canteen, library and foyers.

On one occasion in the canteen I overheard a particularly frank discussion out loud about the problems in Afghanistan, on another in the library I heard that “the Russians are very upset” but that someone is trying to “defuse” things, and in the Delegates Lounge I went to sit down only to have my chair taken thus nearly provoking a diplomatic incident.

There’s also something to be said for an organisation that manages to have Nobel Peace Prizes stashed away in obscure corners, an impressive array of murals and an exhibit on landmines which yes, I did accidentally stray into.

So going forward my immediate priorities are to contact all my participants as agreed in the consent process, hopefully get a few clarifications or additional questions answered (especially now that I have read all the participants responses); do some more research around the areas that cropped up and above all else get writing…

Day two of the interviews and if nothing else I seem to have got the hang of running between meetings. I am not using an audio recorder which is just as well given the security restrictions of some Mission premises, so am scribbling my notes as best as I can.

Today, before my twelve o’clock I figured I’d drop by the Security Council and have caught the start of 7314th meeting on “The situation concerning Iraq”

Having spent months of reading the transcripts of such meetings it’s certainly interesting to see one “as it happens” whilst in the room.

I’d take another picture of the full Council in session but there’s a guard standing next to me…


The UN Headquarters

Not the World Trade Center

It’s odd how famous places cease to be landmarks and end up places you navigate via as transit points. The World Trade Center is a case in point. Famous even before the tragedy of 9/11 but fixed in our generation’s imagination as our “where were you when you heard Kennedy had been shot?” , yesterday it wasn’t an iconic symbol that you deliberately visit but rather where I had to go to get somewhere else.

Today has been a day of phone calls (twenty two in total) contacting the Permanent Missions of the various states I’m looking to meet with during my trip. It’s an odd experience in that it is deceptively simple but the success of the trip lives or dies by who I speak too. All in all this is where you need the elevator pitch of academic lore. However, rather than trying to succinctly explain your thesis in less than three minutes, you’re trying to get the operator to connect you to the *right* person through a combination of clarity, kindness, seriousness and buzzwords.

The UN operates a directory called The Blue Book, it’s a phone book 394 pages in length produced by the heroic “protocol and liaison service” with all the contact information of accredited Permanent Mission staff. Whilst it tells you whether they work in the political or social section, and whether they are a Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Counsellor, Secretary or attache, it doesn’t tell you their brief. I’m looking for whoever deals with Protection of Civilians, Responsibility to Protect and/or humanitarian issues.

The idea of coming to New York came about after discussions with colleagues revealed the drawbacks of visiting embassies in London. The simple truth being that if your research is about discussions among states at the UN, and your documentary source material is the records of resolutions, statements and debates at the UN, then well you go and visit the UN.

I began emailing the Missions in September and yes you may well be surprised at how many use gmail (I remain a hotmail man myself). Delicate chase up emails followed, as did some communication with the London embassies asking for their assistance. Between all this and some academic colleagues I have a number of interviews penciled in already with the hope being that “snowballing” (getting recommended and vouched for by those you meet and interview in a chain reaction minus the explosion) and my phone calls today will get me more.

The countries I’m targetting selecting were picked for the following reasons

  • Have been, are currently or have just been elected to the Council 2010 – 2014
  • The Permanent Members – “five to rule them all” in the words of David Bosco
  • States bordering my notional case studies; Cote d’ivoire, Libya, Syria, for the regional perspective
  • Hmm maybe my case studies, why didn’t I think of that before?
  • States who have been vocal in open thematic debates or participate in informal working groups on relevant topics
  • South Sudan as the UN’s newest member (2011) and given their diplomatic input to RtoP as a concept in the mid 90s.

So between twenty odd phone calls (made from a discreet corner of the UN canteen) and dozens of emails sent over three months what have a I learned?

  1. These people are *busy*
  2. These people are *really busy*
  3. They all seem to be based in a tight radius of The UN Plaza, so I will probably be doing laps.
  4. Some of them have been seconded to The Ebola Task force – “who ya gonna call?”
  5. “Violent extremism, foreign fighters and international terrorism” have somewhat muddled my trip by changing the topic of the open Security Council debate I was organizing things around when back in my “ivory tower”
  6. Some missions are very small, like two or three people only
  7. Staff turnover is a challenging reality – “I’d love to talk but I will be gone by then”
  8. It’s alarmingly easy to be confused for someone from the British/Scottish government
  9. A poppy is a good conversation opener
  10. When calling someone because you haven’t had a reply to an email, 80% of the time you will be told to send another email
  11. It’s probably not a good sign when their voice mail inbox is full.
  12. When attempting to phone the five newly elected non permanent members of the Security Council it is probably not a good idea to call them whilst they’re all away attending a handover workshop together. Whilst this may work wonders for global governance and represents a welcome improvement in Council working methods it was *not ideal* from my perspective.
  13. In the process of writing up this blog I’ve realised I was using the March Blue Book and there’s a November one out now..
The Secretary General's Bulletin (ST/SGB/259) requires that bearers must wear their ID cards visibly while on United Nations premises

“The Secretary General’s Bulletin (ST/SGB/259) requires that bearers must wear their ID cards visibly while on United Nations premises”

It’s been five years since my first and last trip to New York where i visited the United Nations for a guided tour.

This morning I came to begin research interviews for my PhD with staff from the Permanent Missions complete with (temporary) security pass.

I am conducting 15-30 semi structured elite interviews, or informal guided conversations. The people I intend to talk with are insiders with knowledge and whilst they may not be decision makers, they are a defined elite who “do” and “see” the day to day practices of international society. In speaking to them I want to check/corroborate/falsify my understandings, allow for any bias on my part and check their “internal understandings” of my research i.e. what do they think about what I think.

Given that I am already reflecting on the reflections of others through document analysis, in asking them what they think of my reflections I appear to have entered the film Inception.

Essentially I am researching norms – intersubjective shared understandings – and these are the people who share them/contest them/deliberate with them on behalf of the society of states, so who better to talk to?

In our shared office we have a whiteboard which operates under the assumption that the best way to author a journal article is to begin with the title and work backwards. Make of this what you will, meanwhile of course events in Crimea are not remotely funny at all if you live there, or as it turns out now anywhere in Eastern Ukraine if not the rest of the country.

The Baltic states are concerned that the fates of Crimea,Transdniestria, Abkhazi and South Ossetia may soon be theirs. Commentators if not scholars are musing over a new era, the end of one, or whether the previous 20 years were an illusion. Ukraine has been compared to Finland, Austria and Georgia and has managed to put Czechoslovakia back on the map (literally). NATO is either struggling or revitalised. Russia is either reacting to Western strength or Western weakness.

Economic interdependence is either already working its magic and applying pressure on Russia, or preventing meaningful sanctions from being enacted, and that’s assuming you think sanctions should be applied. The EU is either an inspiration or to paraphrase the U.S Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, a cack handed foreign policy actor unable to apply its vaunted soft power.  Elsewhere China is twisting its principles, playing realpolitik, noting the precedent or maybe even doing all three. And The UN, well The General Assembly said one thing and The Security Council said nothing.

This is just a selection of some of the commentary that has been available since November last year, but what is the discerning IR scholar to make of it all?

  1. Don’t get caught up in the hype of the moment, or as it it better known as, 24/7 media
  2. Don’t forget that there will be a lot going on behind the scenes that we mere mortals aren’t privy too.
  3. Don’t reach immediately for the most convenient event from history aka “The Sudetenland Syndrome”
  4. Remember that sovereignty matters in International Relations but probably not in the way that you think it does…
  5. Apply a theory rather than picking some facts to back up your world view – those alleging the crisis is a product of American weakness are particularly egregious offenders here, picking a series of otherwise disparate events to suit their narrative, which is of course set to war drums…

You’ll get no predictions from me, if only because I remember opining that Libya would be largely unaffected by the Arab Spring…