everyday Pity

He had been married eleven weeks and kept a keen awareness for the Greater Good and the Bigger Picture. These were the linchpins of his 30-week Life Plan 20/20 Workbook he had been following near-verbatim since August. He had insisted on taking his marriage seriously, and this constituted the first in what he thought would be a series of adult decisions.

His deep-down predilections were that of a boy’s, however, and his curiosity for the more illicit side of temptation ended up toying with lesser motivations.

Later that week he decided to stow away his half-smoked pack of cigarettes under his box spring before driving to the local hardware store. It was there, in the parking lot, where he subdued his lungs with the smoke and sediment of what he decided would be his very last non-emergency cig.

He had kicked the idea of such a sacrament around for twenty or thirty seconds in his head while tying his boots, in his coat room, minutes earlier. He enjoyed the cigarette and, feeling satisfied with the ritual, ashed the remains atop the potted plant, frozen, on display outside the automatic doors.

Tapping the slush from his boots, he wove through the columns of clearance shelves and display pyramids that lined the entrance, only stopping once to check the expiration date of the deceptively priced Value brand Small Dog: Complete Nutrition Dog Food formula which boasted a product code linked to a printable coupon that, to his limited knowledge, was uncalled for given its reduction to a seven kilo zipper bag.

Seeing as there was, in fact, no posted expiration date, he carried on toward the back where they housed the electronic equipment.

He realized he was still carrying the bag of dog food. Embarrassed, he put it down deviously among the swimming pool chemicals. For a moment, his cunning redeemed him.

He turned back around to grab a cart, then thought better of it. He didn’t need one, he thought.

At the rear of the store he found a cabinet wedged between two tables. Each table held transparent gallon jugs with a generic white label spelling out its viscous fillings and its expiration.


The wall unit had pristine glass doors whose sheen was telling of the contents’ newness. The doors were padlocked, and an emboldened sign above the handles pictured a smiling sales rep.

A visibly pubescent sales rep came over and unlocked it after checking his ID. He helped him pick out a marked down Chinese device and a doubly more expensive kit of required ancillaries which included e-juices, replacement coils, a sub-ohm tank, a regular tank intended for what he described as “throat hits”, and two jugs of vegetable glycerin.

He went back for the shopping cart. He used the self-service checkout and left.

A smoker was idling outside. The cherry burning between her middle and forefinger dour like a candlelight vigil for his own, most desirable companion.

The pavement was freshly salted on Monday morning but the smell of it lingered even in the car, even in his driveway. It was there that he thought maybe it wasn’t the salt.

Lugging his things inside, he sat down on top the hood of his deep freezer. He kept it in the hallway because living space was sparse within his housing budget and its installation made for shorter grocery trips as the kitchen was still a-ways down the hall and carrying grocery bags becomes an odious experience when performed as drunk as he often liked to be when he bought groceries.

Even when he wasn’t drunk he found it made for a seat preferable even to the leather furniture his roommate’s parents had bought for the living room. He enjoyed the humming sound that it made, and how it would rattle against his hanging feet.

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everyday Pity

You can thank Russia for nuclear security in the Trump era

On the campaign trail, presidential candidate Donald Trump vowed to rescind the Iran nuclear deal once in office. But to the dismay of President-elect Donald Trump, the agreement is playing out exactly as planned.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) came into force in January. With the lifting of international sanctions, Tehran has a renewed spirit for enterprise, evidenced by their rapid global economic reintegration.

In September, the U.S. Treasury approved Boeing’s sale of 80 passenger jets to Iran’s national airline worth up to $25 billion. Earlier this month, French oil giant Total S.A. agreed to a gas development deal with Iran, who boasts the world’s largest natural gas reserves. French automaker PSA Peugot Citreon have come to terms to manufacture vehicles in Tehran. Today, Canada’s Bombardier Inc. are in talks with Iran Air, looking to compete with Boeing for additional contracts to replace Iran’s aging civil aviation fleet.

Perhaps more important to Trump’s incoming foreign policy team is Russia, who’ve sold their S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to the Islamic Republic’s Air Defense Force. The Kremlin has a billion-dollar energy deal to build offshore drilling rigs in the Persian Gulf. As a part of their nascent 5-year strategic cooperation agreement, they’ve formed a Joint Economic Commission to work toward free trade and energy partnership.

With a Republican Congress and Trump in the White House, all signs point to a toughened strategy of resolve with Iran. And as the world broods over the potential security implications, many are amiss in their assessment of Russia’s role as a key attenuating force.

If President Trump wants to maintain cool heads between Washington and the Kremlin, this will require his acquiescence to Russian demands on Iran, who is lining up to be a strong potential defense and energy partner.

On Monday, Trump spoke with Putin and agreed to a joint effort to combat international terrorism and end the conflict in Syria. Trump has announced he will withdraw support for the Syrian rebel groups once gaining office, in a move sympathetic to the Kremlin-backed Bashar al-Assad regime. If he truly wants to cooperate on mutual ground with Putin on Syria, Trump will have to concede his hardline stance on Iran.

Mr. Trump knows how to negotiate, and renegotiate, trade agreements but he doesn’t know the more complicated world of international politics. Now is the time for him to stop blowing smoke and start doubling back on hyperbolic campaign promises.

Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2016 Policy Conference in March, Trump promised to scrap the deal and “hold Iran totally accountable” for their links to designated terrorist organizations. Israel has rallied behind Trump’s calls for renegotiating but one should hope that Trump’s sensibilities for business and security ought to have greater effect on his policy.

During the first presidential debate, Trump was pressed on what strategy could substitute the JCPOA. He couldn’t answer. There is simply no viable alternative short of regional instability and severed relations with major global powers. Trump does not want to invade Iran. Neither does he want to ruin his opportunity for a detente with Russia, and an expedient end to the crisis in Syria.

Even if he does intend to throw out the deal he likely won’t be able to get away with it on his own. The JCPOA was negotiated and framed as a political agreement between Iran, Germany, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This doesn’t leave room for Trump to unilaterally reimpose sanctions without being subject to a potential veto by other signatories like Russia or France, who have clear material interests in keeping the deal alive.

The largely ignored player in this discussion is Russia. This is because even if the reasons for keeping trade channels open with Iran are insufficient, keeping diplomatic ties with Moscow is too strategically compelling with respect to Syria and regional security interests. The imminent threat of Putin’s veto wouldn’t help either.

The picture will become more clear as Trump announces his foreign policy team in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, any attempt to wrap your head around a coherent Trump foreign policy doctrine is difficult until then.

Though suffice it to say, we can expect a moderate Trump foreign policy with respect to Iran.

It’s becoming redundant to say that we can’t trust Donald Trump’s campaign promises. They are ignorant to the complex realities of international security, and ripe with the hyperbole of a seasoned politician. The greatest trick Trump played was convincing us he wasn’t one.

You can thank Russia for nuclear security in the Trump era

What Samuel Barkin got wrong about structuration in realism


Samuel Barkin’s “Realism, Prediction, and Foreign Policy” (2009) makes an honest attempt at deriding contemporary political realism. In it, Barkin makes a clear case that modern realism is essentially overreaching, moving too far beyond the classical realist’s original positions on normativity, subjectivity, and policy prescription. Rather, realism as it currently stands is concerned primarily with the opposite: the deduction of objective laws and observing the deterministic nature of international structures.

At its core, Barkin’s argument asserts that there is an internal contradiction found in the neo-realist doctrine; that is, that international politics is both predictable, given the causal power of structure, and prescriptible, given the relevancy of the agent. In order to be ontologically consistent he contends that realism must respect the foremost insight of classical realism: an embracing of realism’s original reflexivity and, ultimately, using it to guide foreign policy, rather than predicting the outcome of international relations. To do both, according to Barkin, would result in doing neither very well.

Early on Barkin makes the assumption that Morgenthau’s original position recognised the complexities of the world insomuch as they interfere with the accuracy of policy prediction. This required attention to be paid to the specific context in which the actor found themselves; this lends itself directly to the practice of policy prescription, and the contours of social scientific traditionalism more broadly.

Barkin’s positive contribution relies largely on his criticism of Kenneth Waltz’ structural realism. Waltz’ neorealism is said to adopt the power politics of classical realism and apply it within a systems-theoretic framework that is, apparently, more likened to liberalism than realism due to its reliance on the logic of the “ultimate liberal institution”: the market (p. 240). Waltz denounces realism’s foundation as a theory of foreign policy, and instead considers it a theory of systemic constraints, thus endowing realism with a deterministic—and predictable—set of general expectations that undermine the value of agency and the idiosyncrasies of the state (p. 242). Barkin calls for reflexivity—or introspection—in order to reaffirm realism’s original favouring of agency over structure, judgment over determinism, and cautioned prudence over pre-calculated politics.

It is important, however, to redirect this very prudence on itself. We should be skeptical of Barkin’s narrow interpretation of structural determination. Although Barkin rests on fair assumptions in explicating the social scientific turn of classical realism, one has to consider the possibility of a compatibilist ontology within the structuralist’s framework. To that end, Barkin maintains firm opposition on the grounds that Waltz espouses a closed-off, recursive account of international systemic structures that overconfidently determines—that is, governs—state behavior. If this were true, what then, Barkin asks, is the point in making policy prescriptions?

In response, one should imagine that neorealists may in fact have good reasons for doing so, because, perhaps, structure is not the only operative factor. Waltz and Mearsheimer certainly do not dismiss the relevancy of agents. More precisely, they support a system of constraints and motivations that allow for predictions according to those “general expectations”. They do not, however, make claims to their sacrosanct application nor their causal power vis-a-vis state behavior.

This gives rise to questions regarding whether a more lenient interpretation of the role of systemic structures is actually incompatible with the classical realist ideals of reflexivity and policy prescription. Conveniently for him, Barkin has left these questions unanswered.

Reopening the struture-agency debate is a tired pseudo-metaphysical discussion that has little usefulness as a heuristic in IR. As long as international relations are the domain of human beings with material interests and material foreign policy instruments, we will continue to see agency co-determine structure. As outsiders, our job isn’t to discern these dividing lines but to colour between them.



What Samuel Barkin got wrong about structuration in realism

A Review of Shannon & Kowert (2012): Political Psychology as “Ideational Ally” of Constructivism in IR Theory

In Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance, Shannon and Kowert (2012) present a convincing case in defense of theoretical ‘cross-fertilization’ in international relations theory. The editors reject disciplinary isolation by advocating for an embrace of psychological considerations within the methodological context of constructivism, which they contend make mutually enriching contributions to the international relations literature. In making the argument that constructivism’s material basis for identity and interest formation is essentially an incomplete model for assessing choice behavior, it follows that we must then extend our consideration to the cognitive biases, errors, and processes of the agent to come to a fuller understanding. Where constructivism is seen as a potentially useful methodological framework, political psychology can be built on top to create a synthesized, interdisciplinary approach that carefully examines not only the macro-level social structure of norms, identities, and interests, but also the micro-foundations of behavior offered by psychology. This affords us a complete package for making inferences that go beyond the limits of a stand-alone theoretical explanation.

Making the case for a “psychological-constructivism” provides a degree of usefulness with respect to descriptive mid and lower-range explanations that create space for international relations theory to take on a larger heuristic role in political studies. Constructivist methodology as espoused by Wendt (1992), for instance, makes room for the development of mid-range theories of European integration such as neofunctionalism, which holds that transfers in some domestic allegiances to a supranational entity will trigger a “spillover” effect in which state actors realize that cooperation in one industrial sector contains economic inertia for material gains in other sectors. This level of abstraction is only made possible by rejecting a steadfast commitment to the self-help doctrines and formal modelling of rationalists and instead paying greater attention to process and the “inter-subjective” experiences of state interaction (e.g. trust building). This is the contribution of Wendt’s constructivist methodology. From there, political psychology requires us to turn our attention to cognitive elements at the agent-level that may interfere with standard accounts of rational choice decision-making. These include processes internal to the decision-maker, such as emotional motivations to regionally integrate in a post-war political climate, potential linguistic and cultural impediments to multinationalism, and simple normative beliefs that may interfere with collective identity formation. This presents an additional layer of complexity for the researcher to explore if standard systems-level accounts of decision-making are proven insufficient. Indeed, they are also worth investigating in their own right.

Although conventional wisdom would suggest that the constructivist may denounce the utility of political psychology as being too individualistic, a strong dialogue between the two schools has considerable potential for theoretical hole-patching. As “ideational allies”, these perspectives can work in tandem to offer deeper insights into political phenomena. However, it remains to be seen whether the editor’s narrow description of constructivism can extend beyond the positivism that Wendt’s constructivism is wedded to. Wendt’s typology assumes empirical observation can generate logical-causal links, but this largely ignores the post-positivist epistemology that underlies the critical schools of constructivism that are emerging in the literature. These include the Neo-Marxist, postcolonial, and feminist schools that posit an inextricable link between the processes of international relations and ideas of power, class, and gender. This postmodern variant of constructivism is not so concerned with extracting causal links and falsifiable explanations as much as they are with devising explanatory narratives and a grand social ontology to guide political behavior. How political psychology may overlap with this particular brand of constructivism is unexplored in Shannon and Kowert’s volume and thus we are left with an interesting frontier for further study: the intersection of individual agency and the identity politics of the critical school.

A Review of Shannon & Kowert (2012): Political Psychology as “Ideational Ally” of Constructivism in IR Theory

How to kill a nuclear arms deal

(Note: This article first appeared in The Chronicle Herald. Find it here.)

Ironically, the Iran nuclear agreement may fail for reasons unrelated to the procurement of nuclear weapons or fissile material.

On Jan. 16 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified Iran had implemented the measures under Annex V of the agreement and had begun to apply the Additional Protocol, a more comprehensive procedure for further inspections of nuclear facilities.

In response, executive orders have revoked five rounds of U.S. sanctions and United Nations and European Union resolutions have rolled back restrictions on trade and travel. Conventional wisdom would suggest the deal is playing out as planned.

The U.S. Treasury has issued a new, seemingly unrelated round of economic sanctions in response to Iran’s Oct. 10 and Nov. 21 ballistic missile tests. The executive action targets 11 individuals and entities found responsible for supplying or supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program.

It’s no accident these developments followed immediately after the release of four American nationals held captive by the Islamic Republic.

Iran is strictly barred from testing ballistic missiles in accordance with paragraph 9 of UN Security Council Resolution 1929. Following the tests, both Hillary Clinton and the Republican congressional caucus have called for additional unilateral sanctions against Iran.

Tehran officials deny their medium-range Emad missile-launch defied UN regulations, saying it was never designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

According to a confidential report by the Security Council’s panel of experts, the Emad missile, a variation of the Shahab-3, is fully capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

The Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), lifts all sanctions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for heavy restrictions on its enrichment infrastructure and stringent inspections by the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

Framed as a “political agreement”, the JCPOA is not a signed treaty and does not have force of law. This makes the JCPOA — an agreement closely tied to nuclear proliferation and international security— nothing more than a handshake deal at the mercy of the parties’ whims.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration’s landmark foreign policy achievement will come to fruition. The agreement was forged out of political convenience and can be broken the same way.

Iran perceives the new round of sanctions as a violation of the spirit of the agreement and as lacking legitimacy. If Iran responds by resuming enrichment of weapons-grade uranium, the entire diplomatic effort will fall through as UN sanctions snap back.

Before this happens, the claimant would have to refer the accusation to the joint commission, a dispute resolution body mandated with notifying the Security Council in cases of noncompliance within 30 days of a matter arising. The Security Council then has an additional 30 days to pass a resolution on the issue.

By the time the dust settles, Iran would have likely reaped a substantial economic injection from temporary access to foreign markets.

The fundamental difference in interpretation lies in the fact that the UNSC, composed of five of the seven JCPOA signatories, views development of Iran’s missile program as a basic element of the deal. From Iran’s perspective, they’re not connected.

Iran perceives the U.S. as failing to honour the obligation to keep sanctions withdrawn. The Iranian elite have a convenient opportunity to score domestic political sympathy by framing the narrative as American non-compliance.

Tehran has the option of reneging on its commitments in light of the new sanctions. The question is whether Iran has worthwhile motivation after the Rial booms and the Middle East is awash with Iranian oil.

How to kill a nuclear arms deal