President Trump and Russia with SMU’s Daniel Orlovsky

SMU history Professor and Russia expert Daniel Orlovsky visited the Tower Center to give the final monthly seminar looking at the new Trump administration April 26.

Orlovsky is an expert in the 1917 revolution, which ended imperial Russia, ushered in the new age of communism, and created the Soviet Union. President Putin, he says, is against this revolution since it suggests a violent overthrow of a regime; he blames the revolution on intellectuals, liberals and Western ideals.

While Putin’s approval rating remains strong, Orlovsky said his position is becoming precarious. The sanctions the U.S. imposed on Russia after Putin’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 have had an affect: oil prices have dropped along with the value of the Ruble. If Russia’s economy collapses, so too will Putin’s regime.

Orlovsky says that U.S.-Russia relations are confused, as usual, increasingly confrontational, and that there is talk of a new Cold War. He advises the two countries to try harder to work together.

“You can’t assume diplomacy is dead just because the ideologies are different,” Orlovsky said. He calls for the U.S. to not foolishly demonize Russia since there is plenty that the U.S. has done to anger Russia, such as our “triumphism” after the fall of the Soviet Union and our position in Kosovo.

“In an odd way [President Trump] was right in trying to suggest better relations,” he said. Orlovsky argues we need to have relations with Russia, as Trump has said, but that relationship must take into account certain realities. For example, we cannot blindly support any future Ukrainian state. We must build up Ukraine as a viable state and not tolerate corruption.

“It’s sad Russia is seen as the biggest problem in public opinion,” he said. “We’ve got to get over this fixation of Russia as the cause of everything.”

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Recap | Is Cyberwar Coming?

Is cyberwar coming? One expert argues no, while another says it is already here — but it’s not what we should be worried about.

The Tower Center held a seminar looking at the potential of cyberwar featuring experts Jon Lindsay from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Jackie Schneider from the Naval War College April 24. The seminar comes more than 20 years after RAND introduced the notion of cyberwar in its famous study titled “Cyberwar is Coming!

Jon Lindsay spoke first answering the question if cyberwar is coming directly: “No*.” The asterisk here, however, is key. Lindsay said it is important to distinguish cyber capabilities from nuclear weapons. While nuclear weapons are a clearly-defined, devastating weapon, cyber capabilities are ambiguous. He examined cyberspace and nuclear weapons through the lens of the TV series Battlestar Galactica. The two takeaways, he said, are that cyber is not scary on its own, but that technology connected to weapons produces a real threat.

The first cyber failure

Lindsay told the story of the alleged Stuxnet attack that targeted Iran’s Natanz Fuel Enrichment facility in 2010. The attack, which was carried out by the United States and Israel, took years of intelligence gathering and preparation and yet it ended up increasing the efficiency of uranium enrichment by only disabling the spare centrifuges. Covert action took years of careful planning, but didn’t amass to any significant victory.

“Diplomacy, not covert action, is what ultimately halted Iran’s nuclear program,” Lindsay said.

Left of launch and North Korea

Lindsay then moved the discussion to the antimissile defense strategy known as “left of launch,” which has been the strategy that the United States has used to prevent North Korea from developing more advanced nuclear capabilities. The New York Times explains this strategy: “The idea is to strike an enemy missile before liftoff or during the first seconds of flight,” whereas typical missile defense focuses on striking the missile in later stages of launch.

Left of launch attacks are preferred because they can be used as a preemptive measure, i.e., they can be used when there is incontrovertible evidence of a coming attack. This is considered better than a preventive measure, like the Stuxnet attack, which is used to eliminate an ambiguous, but still imminent threat.

A final, distinguishing characteristic of cyber technologies as opposed to conventional weapons, and especially nuclear weapons, is that in order to be effective cyber attacks must be covert. This means they can’t function as a deterrent. Nuclear weapons can be paraded around and bragged about, as North Korea has shown which each advancement in their military. However, a regime can’t be intimidated by something that it doesn’t know exists.

Cyberwar is already here

Jackie Schneider took a slightly opposing view, opening her argument by claiming that cyberwar is already here and has been for quite some time. Thousands of cyberattacks are initiated around the world every day. She argues that the real question is whether or not the use of cyberweapons will lead to conventional conflict.

In her research, Schneider found that decision makers are more likely to use conventional weapons, such as bombs, in response to threats before resorting to cyber efforts. On the flip side, decision makers almost never responded to cyberattacks initiated against them, but almost always responded to conventional attacks. She says this is because the consequences and repercussions of using cyber are largely unknown. Leaders fear the use of cyberattacks could lead to inadvertent escalation, or that the response could even be nuclear.

The dangers of digital dominance

Schneider claims that the greatest danger brought about by accelerations in cyberspace and technology is the military’s dependence on digitalized weapons and launch programs. “The U.S. can’t launch an airstrike without a computer,” she said. “Now computers are vital to win a war.”

She believes that digital dependence presents a two sided problem, the capability-vulnerability paradox: “1) because of the current offensive balance in cyberspace, the proliferation of digital technologies creates more cyber terrain to defend than may be technically possible, and 2) the infrastructure-like quality of cyberspace (as opposed to a weapons platform) means that digital vulnerabilities are both exponential and networked making entire operations vulnerable instead of particular weapons.”

Because digitally dependent states know that they are vulnerable to a debilitating first strike cyberattack that could wipe out most of their weapons systems, Schneider thinks that those states may be more likely to strike first themselves in order to avoid losing their capabilities. 

The solution, Schneider argues, is to develop military tactics that are not dependent on technology and are therefore less vulnerable. Digitalized weapons may be more effective now, but the U.S. must be ready to react to situations in which cyber is not an option.

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Meeting Basic Health Needs in a Venezuela in Crisis

Dr. Katherine Bliss

In a new report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Tower Center senior fellow Katherine Bliss examines the deteriorating health situation in Venezuela, where the administration of President Nicolás Maduro has been reluctant to seek external assistance to address the resurgence of malaria, a rise in maternal and infant mortality, and a lack of availability of essential medicines following the collapse in international oil prices and a deepening economic crisis.

With the government’s insistence that there is no humanitarian emergency in Venezuela, and with diplomatic relations between the United States and Venezuela strained, the options for direct U.S. engagement on health are limited. However, Bliss identifies opportunities for the U.S. and other countries in the region to work through the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to encourage the Maduro government to fulfill its obligations to provide health services to the Venezuelan people and with Venezuelan civil society organizations, as well as Venezuelan health care providers living outside the country, to develop proposals for health sector reform, should there be a political opening to introduce them.

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Q&A | A Scholar’s Life in Buenos Aires

Kelsey Shipman in Uyuni, Bolivia on one of her weekend excursions from Buenos Aires.

The Tower Center talked with HCM Tower Scholar Kelsey Shipman about her experience studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Shipman is a sophomore studying economics, public policy and foreign language. While in Buenos Aires she is interning with CIPPEC (Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento) and attending classes.


Describe your life in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The past few months, I have been living with a host family in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. We have breakfast and dinner together each weekday, which has given me ample opportunities to practice my Spanish. Many of our meals consist of beef, as beef is the most popular meat in the country. The unofficial national drink of Argentina is a type of tea called maté. Maté is prepared in a special gourd-like cup with a straw that filters out the leaves of the tea. The leaves of the tea are poured directly into the cup and sometimes sugar is added as well, although the traditional way of consuming the tea is without any sweetener added. Many people bring a thermos and a bag of maté with them to work to drink throughout the day, and it is very common to see maté drinkers hanging out in parks or other public areas.

On the weekends, I often attend cultural shows and festivals in the city, such as tango expositions and musical performances, while many other weekends I have traveled to other areas of the country and continent, ranging from locations such as Mendoza, Argentina to the Brazilian Amazon. These experiences have given me insight into what life is like not only in other regions of Argentina but in other regions of South America as well.

What was a typical day like for you?

Each morning, I walk to school along one of the main streets of Buenos Aires, Sante Fe. My classes are taught all in Spanish by local professors. I am taking courses in Argentina’s history, poetry, and literature, as well as Spanish language courses. The classroom setting is much more casual than at SMU, with a large component of the courses consisting of discussion between the professor and students. We also have no class on Friday, which gives me additional time to travel to other areas or to explore the city.

Outside of class, I spend 8-12 hours each week working at CIPPEC, a local public policy think tank. I have been specifically working in their Economic Development department on several projects related to the Argentine economy. The goal of the department is to support economic transparency, efficiency, and equity while promoting fiscal solvency and democratization of budget decisions. On a day-to-day basis I work with a small group of Argentines conducting research and translating documents. I have also prepared presentations regarding the research we have been doing in order to share our findings with the greater community. I have had the opportunity to read primary and secondary sources regarding the economic and political system of Argentina, which have greatly increased my understanding of the current state of the nation.

What is one lesson you took away from your time there?

I have learned to better adapt to cultural differences, as well as the different pace of life here in Argentina. For instance, each day at work, my coworkers tend to arrive anywhere from 9:10-9:30, with the work day technically beginning at 9:00. In addition, I have learned a great deal about the Spanish language, particularly the ways in which it varies across regions and nations. The accent and pronunciation of Argentine Spanish was slightly difficult for me to understand at first, though now I have become much more confident in speaking and understanding a wide variety of Spanish accents.

How has this experience impacted your goals for the future?

The experience of interning at CIPPEC has reaffirmed my desire to work in international policy post-graduation. I hope to work in several different countries throughout my life, and the experience of working here in Argentina has been a wonderful opportunity to enter the workforce of another cultural and economic system. In addition, working in a bilingual environment has challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone by discussing complex ideas in a different language, something I hope to continue doing in my future career.

How has this experience enhanced your study of PPIA, or vice versa, how has PPIA enhanced your experience abroad?

I have really appreciated immersing myself in the professional world of Argentina, and I think that this hands-on experience working in public policy has enhanced my understanding of PPIA in a global sense. With my background in PPIA I came to Argentina eager to learn more about the ways in which current public policy endeavors are affecting the country’s citizens; having the chance to contribute to public policy-related research has been very fascinating for me. I have really enjoyed discussing political issues with members of the professional community, my host family, and my peers at local universities. It has been very impactful for me to have the opportunity to analyze ongoing public policy initiatives first-hand.

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Immigration and Refugee Policy in Donald Trump’s America

Tower Center Director James Hollifield wrote an essay on immigration and President Trump in a roundtable edited by Tower Chair Joshua Rovner. The roundtable explores the question of national security in regards to Trump’s proposals.

“This question is particularly important given that the president has explicitly framed his executive orders as necessary to preserve national security,” Rovner wrote in the introduction. “None of the participants agree.”

Hollifield’s essay, Back to the Future:  Trump’s Executive Orders on Migration and Refugees, looks at the pattern of waves of nativist politics in American history and compares them to Trump’s rhetoric today.

Read the roundtable here.

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Black and Hispanic students are less likely to graduate college, study finds

Tower Center Research Associate Dominique Baker published a paper, “The Racial College Completion Gap: Evidence From Texas” with Stella Flores and Toby Park in the Journal of Higher Education.

Baker found in her research that the college completion gap has more to do with precollege characteristics such as high school and other individual context factors, than post-secondary characteristics such as how colleges attribute funding.

The key factors driving the gap more specifically were poverty and attending high-minority high schools. The gap persists even while college enrollment is on the rise and even though the majority of students in public schools are non-white.

Follow the discussion of Baker’s study at SMU Research or read a review of the paper in the Houston Chronicle.

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WATCH: Josh Rovner on “mother of all bombs” dropped in Afghanistan

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Josh Rovner | “In Syria, where will U.S. intervention stop?”

President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on the Shayrat Airbase in Syria allegedly in response to the use of chemical weapons in an attack carried out by the Assad regime in the Idlib Province April 4.

Tower Chair and security studies expert Joshua Rovner wrote an opinion piece for the Dallas Morning News looking at the likelihood of and potential consequences of escalated U.S. involvement in the civil war.

“The United States is now in the odd position of launching air strikes against opposite sides in someone else’s civil war,” Rovner wrote.

He argues that in the past the U.S. has not been satisfied with a limited victory, such as deterring unfriendly regimes from the use of chemical weapons. Instead, as seen in Iraq, regime change becomes the goal — or total victory.

Read his full commentary here.

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Recap | There is no “After ISIS”

The Wilson Center’s Henri Barkey answers questions at the Tower Center event “After ISIS” April 6.

UCLA’s James Gelvin and the Wilson Center’s Henri Barkey came to the Tower Center April 6 to discuss what the Middle East might look like after the demise of ISIS. Sabri Ates, associate professor at SMU, opened the seminar with a look at ISIS’ demise since its peak in 2014. The group has lost almost a quarter of their territory in the last year, according to BBC.

Syria and the New Middle East

Gelvin, professor of modern Middle Eastern history, opened the seminar with a look at what is referred to as the “New Middle East,” a term invented by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The New Middle East refers to what arose out of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings in 2010-2011.

Syria came late to the uprisings and had a different experience for three reasons according to Gelvin. First, the Syrian uprising was highly militarized, and its was militarized early. Second, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made the fight sectarian by naming Sunnis the enemy of the ruling minority, the Alawites. He went as far as releasing jihadists from prison who had fought U.S. forces in Iraq. Third, it turned into a proxy war making it extremely difficult to resolve. When it seems one side is losing invested allies ramp up support in order to turn the tables. For example, in the spring of 2015 the U.S. and Saudi Arabia amped up opposition support, which then led Assad to turn to Russia for increased support as well.

In a post-ISIS world Gelvin predicts the “Somalization of Syria,” meaning Syria would become like Somalia. There would be a formal government and UN membership, but the regime wouldn’t rule over the entire land and would face a long-term fight against the opposition backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The future of ISIS

ISIS is different from other jihadist groups for two reasons according to Gelvin: One, instead of fighting an insurgency they claimed territory and established a caliphate; and two, they practice takfir. Takfir is when one Muslim declares another Muslim an apostate, for which the penalty is death. ISIS not only fights against non-Muslims, but also Shia Muslims and others they perceive as non-believers. This is why the fight has been so bloody.

Gelvin concluded his talk with five possibilities for a post-caliphate ISIS. They could go underground and re-emerge, relocate, wage an insurgency on Iraq or Syria, give up and move on, or, what Gelvin identifies as the most likely scenario, freelancers or “flaming bananas” will continue to attack globally like the couple in San Bernardino, California.

There is no ‘After ISIS’

Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, opened his portion of the lecture with a dim outlook.

“I’m sorry to tell you, there isn’t going to be an after ISIS,” he said.  “Jihadism is alive and well and will continue.”

He partly blames the U.S. strategy for his prediction. While he doesn’t doubt the U.S. will take Mosul and Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, Barkey says there is no plan for the day after.

“We were surprised by Al Qaeda, we were surprised by ISIS, and we will be surprised again,” he said.

President Trump has already almost doubled the troop numbers in Syria, and his administration is working diligently to remove restrictions on the American military imposed by President Obama.

Barkey’s best case scenario is a Balkanized Syria with the regime in the west, Kurds in the north, and local forces filling in the gaps to create communities out of impossible circumstances.

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SMU Professors Awarded Colin Powell Fellowship

Three SMU professors Sabri Ates, Michael Lusztig, and Hiroki Takeuchi were awarded the Colin Powell Global Order and Foreign Policy Fellowship for 2017-2018. The award, designed to increase research and scholarship and to enhance teaching effectiveness, gives SMU faculty members up to $5,000 for their research, which contributes to what President Bush referred to as the New World Order.

Sabri Ates, associate professor of history, will use the award to finish writing his book Seyyid Abdulqadir Nehri’s Pursuit of an Independent Kurdistan. With the recent developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey the question of Kurdish statelessness is becoming more pressing. Ates explores what historical conditions account for how the Kurds became the largest ethnic group without its own nation. His book explores attempts at establishing a state going back to the 1870s, anchored in the biography of protagonist Seyyid Abdulqadir Nehri.

In particular, it focuses on the tumultuous period between 1880-1925, during which the creation of a Kurdish state emerged as a distinct possibility and then quickly unraveled. Ates studies the role the Kurds themselves play in making or unmaking a state of their own.

“My book will be part of an ongoing discussion about the Kurds in particular and the greater Middle East in general,” Ates wrote.

Michael Lusztig, professor of political science, will use the award to publish his new book titled The Culturalist Challenge to Liberal Republicanism, which was accepted for publishing by McGill-Queen University Press. In the book, Lusztig explores the risks multiculturalism poses to liberal democracy. His findings fall between Francis Fukuyama’s optimism put forth in his famous declaration of “the end of history” at the conclusion of the Cold War, and Samuel Huntington’s pessimism described in Who Are We, which explores the “identity crisis” and destabilization that comes with increased immigration.

He examines Mexican immigration to the U.S. and finds the risk to be negligible, as well as Islamic immigration to Europe, which he finds poses a greater concern. France and Germany in particular have failed to “bridge social capital” as Robert Putnam recommends, which would develop commonalities between dominant and heritage cultures. Instead, however, the cultures keep to themselves and resentment builds up followed by instability.

“My position is that cultural heterogeneity can be accommodated in different ways,” Lusztig wrote.

Hiroki Takeuchi, associate professor of political science, plans to investigate the security implications of global value chains in the Asia Pacific. It has become increasingly popular for multinational corporations to have different stages of production in different countries, thus creating global value chains. This is especially true in the auto industry.

Takeuchi will explore whether these cross-border relationships built off of trade contribute to peace and international cooperation.  According to liberal theories, economic integration should create common interests among states. He argues this research is increasingly pressing considering President Donald Trump’s America first rhetoric and free-trade bashing.

“The development of GVCs in the Asia-Pacific over the last two decades has brought a new international division of labor between developed and developing countries,” Takeuchi wrote.

The three professors will present the findings of their research at a Tower Center seminar in the fall of 2018.

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