Center Spotlight | Idean Salehyan

Tower Center Associate Idean Salehyan has several research interests, all centered around domestic political conflict. The Tower Center sat down with him to talk with him about his latest projects and goals. Salehyan is Associate Professor of Political Science  at the University of North Texas and the co-Director of the Social Conflict Analysis Database project (SCAD).

What have you been working on most recently?

Center spotlight Idean Salehyan

Tower Center Associate Idean Salehyan
on a hike outside of Oslo, Norway.

Most recently I’ve been looking at protests and repression dynamics. I’m part of a project called the Social Conflict Analysis database. We look at Africa, North Africa, and parts of Latin America to understand when protests turn violent and when the government decides to step in and repress protesters, and so I have a couple of papers along those lines. One is focused on when and under what conditions governments repress nonviolent protesters. When is nonviolent protest met with lethal force? And another paper is looking at electoral protests and which elections are more likely to lead to mass protests and violent contestation of the outcome.

I’ve had this longstanding interest in forced migration and refugee studies, so I am also in the process of guest editing a special issue of the Journal of Peace Research on the global migration crisis focusing on Syria and the Middle East refugee crisis.

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TC Associate’s Book Wins Rosenberg Prize

Congratulations to Tower Center Associate Erin Hochman! Her latest book, “Imagining a Greater Germany” (Cornell University Press, 2016), won the Hans Rosenberg Book Prize. The award was presented by the Central European History Society for the best book published in 2016. Hochman is a historian of Modern Germany and Austria and is an associate professor at SMU.

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Event Recap | The Impact of the U.S. Leaving the Paris Agreement

US leaving Paris Agreement

Jonah Busch, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, gives a lecture at the SMU Tower Center Dec. 8.

Jonah Busch, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, gave a lecture at the SMU Tower Center on the impact of the U.S. leaving the Paris Climate Agreement Dec. 8.

The Paris Agreement is a universal global climate deal that allows each country to determine its own pledge to reduce carbon emissions, with the goal to limit climate change to below 2 degrees Celsius. The agreement, first established at the Paris climate conference in 2015 and ratified in 2016, is now signed by every country (except for the United States) and has been ratified by 170 countries. President Trump announced the United States withdrawl from the agreement in June.

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Scholar Spotlight | Getting Students Involved in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

The Tower Center interviewed HCM Tower Scholar Isabelle Gwozdz about her senior year practicum as an intern with the Embrey Human Rights Program and her involvement in establishing the SMU Chapter of the Student Alliance Against Human Trafficking. Gwozdz is majoring in political science with minors in history, French and English, and will graduate in May.

Tell us about your experience with the Embrey Human Rights Program.

It’s been pretty awesome. I’m not a human rights major or minor, but it’s something I’ve been interested in and so I thought it would be cool to have that experience for my practicum placement. I’ve been focusing on human trafficking because the Human Rights Symposium in September featured people from the Dallas area who had been trafficked. Because that was my first big event with the Program, I continued to focus on that issue for my practicum.

What are some of your responsibilities?

My efforts are focused on how to connect with the student body. Usually the only involvement the Human Rights Program sees is from students majoring or minoring in human rights, so it’s been hard for them to break into different groups.

We also founded the SMU Chapter of the McCain Institute’s initiative to end domestic human trafficking. They have chapters on college campuses nationwide. It’s been really exciting and also a lot of work to get off the ground.

What about that first event drew you into the issue of human trafficking?

I attended the survivors panel. They had four local women come speak about their experience with human trafficking and it was really interesting to hear them. One of the women, which is what really hit the issue home from me, was trafficked to college campuses. She was trafficked for fraternities, which is so terrible. That’s when I realized that this happens on campuses so it needs to be my focus: How to get the campus involved in anti-human trafficking. That was the “aha moment” for me.

What do you hope to accomplish with the SMU Student Alliance?

The goal is to create a lasting presence on campus. This semester we are trying to secure our status on campus and expand our membership.  Next semester we are going to start having events. We will have a Human Trafficking Week and we’re going to invite survivors to come back and talk specifically to the student body. We want to do an action like visit a women’s shelter or make blankets or something, and we also might screen a documentary. I’m excited because even though my placement is almost over, I’ll get to be a part of that next semester.

What was your favorite part of the Tower Scholars Program?

Scholar Spotlight Isabelle Gwozdz

HCM Tower Scholar Isabelle Gwozdz with Texas Rep. Kevin Brady.

I really enjoyed our trip to D.C. That’s when I feel like my cohort really bonded. Before I felt like we were class friends, but after that trip and this semester, even without a class, I see them more because we go out of our way to see each other. That trip was an incredible experience — and it was my first exposure to that world. We sat down with Congressmen Pete Sessions and John Ratcliffe, and then I ended up going back and interning on the Hill that summer. It inspired me to apply for internships.

We met with so many people and they were on all different sides of the policy. It was so cool to see how many people are involved in the policy-making world  and we didn’t just have one perspective, we got to have all of their perspectives, and we were actually there with them.

What do you hope to take with you from the program?

Already it’s taught me so much. It’s a general life skill to take what you learn in a classroom and actually apply it. The Tower Scholars Program has really taught me how to use everything we learn in the classroom and apply it in real life situations. Even if I don’t go into policy, that set of skills I can use in whatever field I go into.

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Jeff Engel weighs in on tax reform and Flynn’s guilty plea

Tower Center Senior Fellow Jeff Engel was interviewed on Fox 4 about what the future holds for the recently passed tax reform bill, and for the Trump administration dealing with the newest advancement in the Russian investigations: Flynn’s guilty plea.

“It’s not only about who doesn’t like a tax cut, it’s who really wants to keep talking about scandal when of course the American people want the country moving forward with legislation,” Engel said.

Watch the interview here.

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Event Recap | Explaining Russia’s Contradictory Policies Toward the U.S.

Russia's contradictory policies toward the U.S.

Kimberly Marten speaks at the Tower Center Nov. 28.

Russia proved it understands American politics through its successful election interference campaign in 2016. Russia also proved it has a sophisticated knowledge of U.S. public opinion through its carefully disguised, yet effective, social media posts that have both Facebook and Google scrambling for solutions to fake news. However, Russia has also made moves suggesting it’s clueless to American interests and motives. Kimberly Marten, director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, visited the SMU Tower Center Nov. 28 to explain why Russia is so inconsistent. She has four theories.

To help understand the theories, Marten laid out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two goals. To maintain power for as long as possible, and to go down in history for making Russia great again.

Theory one: Putin has psychological biases and makes all of the decisions.

Marten argues that Putin’s background in the KGB enforces his view of the U.S. as an adversary, and fuels his fear of internal revolt. As a judo black belt and hockey player his style of fighting is tactical rather than strategic. This means he wants immediate success and doesn’t necessarily consider the long view. In this theory, Putin’s spontaneity is what leads to some of Russia’s spot-on decisions, as well as to others, as Marten said, that appear utterly “bone-headed.”

Theory two: Nobody dares contradict Putin.

For this theory, Marten referenced Saddam Hussein’s leadership in Iraq leading up to the U.S. invasion in 2003. It is now clear that Hussein’s advisers warned him to give up the rouse of possessing weapons of mass destruction. They told him the U.S. would invade, but he refused to listen. She argues the same situation could now be true of Putin and his advisers. While Putin isn’t known to murder dissidents as Hussein was, he does have the ability to exclude them from the patron-client system he controls. This power could leader to a culture of non-dissent.

Theory three: There are internal rivalries in Putin’s network.

This theory suggests Putin is influenced by those in his inner circle. Groups such as those responsible for arms sales, like Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov, stand to benefit from foreign conflict. Chemezov has financial interest in supplying weapons to Syria, Iran and Turkey. These arms deals have increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Conflict also gives the siloviki (high-ranking politicians who were KGB men or military officers) an expanded mission and keeps the Russian military distracted from domestic politics. However, on the other side, the finance and commerce sectors benefit from international cooperation. These conflicting interests result in a push-pull effect that could be causing Russia’s fluctuating actions.

Theory four: Russian intelligence officers have gone rogue.

There is a blurred line between Russia’s intelligence and politics, unlike in the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, money was in short supply from the government. Russia’s intelligence merged with private commerce in order to make up the difference, and the merging never went away. This suggests, Russian intelligence officers could be working to please the highest bidder rather than serving the nation’s interest.

An upsetting conclusion

Marten left the audience with an upsetting conclusion: U.S. policies have no effect on Russia’s actions. She argued everything in Russia happens internally, behind closed doors, without consideration of research or expert analysis.

For further reading, take a look at Marten’s latest article in New Republic.

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TC Experts Discuss Viability of Austerity Politics in UK

Tower Center affiliates Harold D. Clarke and Marianne Stewart authored an article for the London School of Economics and Political Science blog about the viability of austerity-based politics in British general elections. They argue the rhetoric isn’t attractive to important young voters.

Read the article here.

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Event Recap | Legacies of the First World War in the Middle East

Event Recap Middle EastMichael Provence, historian and expert on Syria, gave a lecture at the SMU Tower Center with Aimee Genell, assistant professor of history at the University of West Georgia, about the impact the resolution of the World War I had on the Middle East. Provence and Genell argue the source of the instability in the region today dates back 100 years, to the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the League of Nations mandate system. (The Sykes-Picot agreement was secretly reached between Great Britain and France in 1916 to define their spheres of influence in their newly conquered lands, which are now the Middle East.) Provence’s lecture focused on the mandate system designed by the Great Powers (Great Britain, France and Russia) at the close of the war to replace the authority of the Ottoman Empire. Genell looked at the Ottoman perspective, and how their proposed solution — developed out of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s 12th point — could have been more in line with Western promises.

The League of Nations mandate system explained

The First World War, according to Provence, was not just a European war. It was designed in part with the hope of colonizing the lands dominated by the Ottoman Empire. The Great Powers used the “mission of civilization” as a cover to expand imperialism. This self-deception on behalf of the Europeans gave the Middle East the institutions it has today.

At the close of the war, the League of Nations created a mandate system for territories that were no longer under control of the same leader as before the war. The league decided that the people in these lands were incapable of governing themselves, and therefore required foreign assistance. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, were all declared mandates in 1919-1920. The people in these mandates were not asked to give consent to this new order, and they were not permitted to represent themselves in Geneva. But they all desired independence.

The British and French faced a crisis of legitimacy in these mandates because they were so unpopular. The people repeatedly claimed rule under the Ottoman Empire had been more just. The response to the legitimacy crisis was mass violence, under the facade of attempts at liberalization.

“The mandates regimes undermined the appeal and credibility of civilian leadership,” Provence said. He argues the institutions developed during this period were not meant to function properly, by delivering justice and order, but rather to be a facade for control of the region.

“The Middle East needs institutions citizens can trust, and the reason that it doesn’t have them, is because they were designed not to be trustworthy,” he said.

What the Ottoman Empire Wanted

Aimee Genell followed Provence’s lecture by looking at what the Ottoman Empire wanted at the conclusion of the war. They clung to Wilson’s 12th point, which outlined autonomous control for the Turkish part of the Ottoman Empire. Under their interpretation, the Ottomans would keep their empire and develop autonomous regions within it, using the United States as an example. The Great Powers rejected this proposal, however, saying that the Ottomans were unfit for an empire.

The mandate solution that was instead implemented, the Turks argued, went against Wilson’s promises and provided a legal basis for the expansion of imperialism.

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Center Spotlight | In the Weeds of Criminal Justice

SMU Tower Center Associate Jenia Turner is a law professor at SMU’s Dedman School of Law. For this month’s Center Spotlight we decided to get to know Jenia and ask her about her research and goals.

A lot of your research focuses around plea bargaining. Why did you decide to focus in on this aspect of the criminal justice system?

Center Spotlight Jenia Turner

Jenia Turner teaches a class at SMU Dedman School of Law.

My first law review article argued that the jury should be more involved in sentencing than it currently is in most U.S. states. I believed that because of its deliberative democratic character, the jury is often better positioned than judges to decide questions of punishment. One of the questions people asked when I presented the paper was, why should we even care about jury sentencing when the vast majority of our cases are plea bargained? And indeed, over 95% of convictions in state and federal cases are the product of guilty pleas, not jury trials. So this led me to focus on plea bargaining and whether there are aspects of that process that can be improved to make it fairer and more accurate.

What has been your biggest takeaway so far?

I strongly believe that our plea bargaining process needs to be better regulated. Courts and legislatures should enact reforms to make the practice more transparent and more likely to produce accurate and just results. Some of the necessary reforms are relatively minor and quite feasible, like requiring that plea bargains be in writing. Others are more ambitious and more difficult, but important—for example, regulating the sentencing discounts that defendants receive for pleading guilty or requiring that prosecutors disclose all relevant evidence before a guilty plea.

Do you have a favorite case you have studied or that you teach? What makes it interesting?

Currently, my favorite case to teach is United States v. Jones. In it, the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether a month-long GPS tracking of an individual’s car, while traveling on public roads, is a search requiring a warrant under the Fourth Amendment. The court held that the GPS tracking was a search, but three groups of justices offered three different rationales for the holding. These three rationales have different implications for how we regulate law enforcement’s use of new technologies, and these are fascinating to explore with students. I am increasingly interested in these types of questions—how the law weighs privacy interests against law enforcement interests in the context of emerging technologies and mass surveillance. Next semester, I will be teaching a new seminar on that topic, entitled Criminal Procedure in the Digital Age.

You have also focused your scholarship on comparative law. What do you find most striking about US law? Is there something that stands out to you as different from most of the world?

One striking difference is how much more prominent democratic principles are in our criminal justice system. We use juries to decide guilt or innocence in criminal cases, and our judges and prosecutors are often elected.  In most other countries, this is not the case. This has important implications for how our criminal justice system functions.

What do you think the most effective avenue is for changing the criminal justice system? What changes would you like to see as a result of your research?

I would say that currently, state legislatures are where the most significant, comprehensive criminal justice reform can happen. For example, in Texas we have taken important steps to expand the kind of evidence that prosecutors must disclose to the defense, to regulate eyewitness identification procedures, and to limit the use of testimony given by jailhouse informants. But more needs to be done, particularly in the areas of sentencing and plea bargaining.

What advice would you give to young academics, and specifically young women, who want to follow in your footsteps?

I would encourage them to reach out to people in their field whom they admire and ask them for advice and mentorship. I know that I owe so much of what I accomplished in academia to scores of mentors, who read my drafts, collaborated with me on research projects, invited me to take part in conferences, and helped me with teaching advice. So, I would encourage young academics to look for such mentors, reach out to them, and learn from them.

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Event Recap | Why Russia interfered in the 2016 Presidential Election

Why Russia interfered

Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia.

A year later, the intelligence community has no doubt Russia did everything it could to interfere with the 2016 United States presidential election. Andrew Kuchins, senior fellow at the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, visited the SMU Tower Center to explain Russia’s motives and explore how successful its campaign was.

What did Russia hope to gain from its efforts? Russian President Vladimir Putin has hated Hillary Clinton since she was secretary of state under President Obama. From watching Trump on the campaign trail, it was easy to conclude Trump, who went as far as to praise Putin for his strong leadership, would be a softer opponent than Clinton. The Russians wanted to do more than help Donald Trump; they wanted to disrupt. Hackers backed by Russia targeted various election systems, and even though the intelligence community concluded that no votes were affected, Russia had succeeded in their real goal: decreasing Americans’ trust in the democratic process. According to Kuchins, Putin thought even if Clinton won, at least people would question the legitimacy of her election.

US-Russian Relations: A History Lesson

Why Russia interfered

Andrew Kuchins, research professor at Georgetown University, gives a lecture at the Tower Center on Russian motives to interfere with the election.

The United States and Russia are fundamentally different in every aspect. The U.S. is a classic sea power, while Russia is a continental power concerned with border security. “Centralized power is in Russian DNA,” Kuchins said. Russia values and promotes stability abroad, while the U.S. has decentralized power and believes in and promotes democracy abroad.

To understand why Russia launched this campaign in the first place, Kuchins went all the way back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Overnight Russia was no longer a super power; it was bankrupt, and forced to accept humanitarian aid. Putin still looks back on this as humiliating.  The Soviet Union believed if it disbanded, it was implicitly agreed that the U.S. would not take advantage of its geopolitical weakness. The United States, on the other hand, thought a victory  in the Cold War would mean a democratic, Westernized Russia. Both sides were unrealistic, Kuchins says, and both were disappointed. This mutual disappointment set the stage for sour contemporary American-Russian relations.

NATO Expands

Kuchins argues several moments gradually led to the ice-cold relations the U.S. now has with the Kremlin. The first, and maybe most notable, was the expansion of NATO in 1999 (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) and then again under George W. Bush in 2004 (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia). Even though the former Warsaw Pact countries were the ones to initiate and push for NATO membership, Kuchins argued the U.S. underestimated the consequences.

Libya: 2011

Putin was furious with the U.S.’s involvement in Libya and with the death of Muammar el-Qaddafi. In his view, the NATO airstrikes on the convoy of loyalists that eventually led to Qaddafi’s murder violated the UN security council resolutions. Putin saw that Qaddafi gave up his weapons of mass destruction and was then punished for it. He was further infuriated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s nonchalance in regard to the disaster in Libya, as she famously said “We came, we saw, he died!” after Qaddafi’s death was announced. Putin promised he would not let Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad meet the same fate. “Putin drew a red line,” Kuchins said.

Ukraine: 2014

Ukraine holds historic and strategic significance to Russia. In 2014, protesters filled the streets to voice grievances against Ukraine’s pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was overthrown by the uprising and fled to Russia. It looked bad that Putin’s candidate was forced out, and Putin still believes the U.S. was behind the coup. Putin responded by annexing the “least Ukrainian part of Ukraine,” the Crimea, Kuchins said. This move was widely supported by Russians. Kuchins even described it as “cathartic” for them.

All of these turning points, and more, led to today’s state of American-Russian relations. Russia interfered in the election with the hope of gaining a strategic advantage and compromising the United States’ status in the geopolitical sphere.

Did Russia get what it wanted?

According to Kuchins, yes and no. Yes, President Trump won. But, he is unpredictable, which goes against the stability Putin is known to favor. As Kuchins put it, only Putin is allowed to be spontaneous and unpredictable. Yes, the Russians were successful in creating disruption and mistrust in both mainstream media and mainstream politics.  However, there was a backlash to the election of Trump in Europe. Kuchins argues French President Emmanuel Macron and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel both would most likely have been less successful if it weren’t for a vehement European rejection of Trumpism and alt-right politics.

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