Politics Student Alex Blums Wins Prestigious V-Dem Competition for Best Student Paper

The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute presents the Best Student Paper Award to the “author/authors of a student essay that is outstanding for its theoretical and empirical contributions.” The winner receives $500 USD and is invited to present the paper at the annual V-Dem Conference, with travel and accommodation generously provided.

The 2017 award was won by Alexander Blums, a student in the department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. The theme for the competition call was “Causes and Effects of Democratization.” Blums won with his paper entitled, “Electoral Democracy and Corruption: A Cross-National Study,” based on his dissertation research at the University of Southampton. The paper was subsequently published as an official Working Paper in the V-Dem Working Paper Series.

We asked Alexander to tell us about how this played out:

I decided to do my dissertation on cross-national predictors of corruption because I thought it was an interesting subject and my dissertation supervisor Raimondas Ibenskas is an expert in comparative politics. My main thesis was that controlling for other variables, the quality of electoral democracy explains corruption in the long and short-term. For data on democracy, I chose to utilise the V-Dem dataset. After submitting my dissertation, Raimondas (my now former supervisor) noticed that V-Dem was running a student paper competition. I made some minor modifications to better fit the requirements of the competition and a few months later received the good news about the prize. My paper was published in the ‘Users Working Paper’ series, I was given a cash prize and invited to take part in an annual conference on Democracy in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Congratulations to Alexander Blums for this much-deserved award. The Department of Politics and International Relations is very proud!

Politics and IR Pub Quiz

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Politics students and lecturers recently got together for a rollicking pub quiz in the Nuffield Theatre cafe on campus. It was really a lot of fun, as you can see below. Many thanks to all the students who came out, and to Chris Armstrong and David Owen for writing the questions and hosting the quiz. This was our first time doing this but, given how well it went over, we’ll very likely do it again sometime! If you couldn’t make it, keep your eyes peeled for the next time we put on something like this.


Argentina’s Foreign Policy: In the Path to Change?

By Dr. Ana Margheritis, Reader in International Relations at University of Southampton (Twitter, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Ana here.

Next 1st December, Argentina is going to take over the presidency of the G-20. In late 2018, it will host the summit of the International Trade Organization. The Macri administration argues that this role is an ‘acknowledgment to the change’ the country is undergoing. How much changed has happened since Mauricio Macri took office in December 2015? The recent mid-term elections (on 22 October 2017) offer an opportunity to assess the records.

cumbre-del-g-20-2263999w620.jpgIn an effort to highlight contrasts with the predecessor and expand its base of support, change has been the key slogan of the coalition in government called, indeed, Cambiemos (let’s change). In foreign policy, two ideas summarised this proposal: ‘re-joining the international community’ (volver al mundo) and adopting pragmatism (des-ideologizar). In other words, Argentina now attempts to resume its historical goals, principles and roles, open and integrate itself to the world, and pursue what officials call an ‘intelligent’ and ‘mature’ positioning in world affairs. The underlying goal is to re-establish other countries’ confidence, presumably lost in the past decade due to a confrontational rhetoric and conflictive actions mostly inspired by economic and political nationalism.

Two years down the road, there are some signs of changes, although these are still a work in progress. First, efforts to mend relations with the US led to establishing a good rapport at the presidential level during the Obama administration. This continues under Trump’s term as trade negotiations progressed and changes in Argentina’s policy orientation and discourse are welcome in Washington.

Second, expanding and diversifying partnerships follows from an aggressive trade and investment strategy. These include reviving MERCOSUR (the regional trade bloc of which Argentina is founding member), pursuing trade agreements with the European Union, and joining as observer the Alliance of the Pacific in June last year (another regional organization formed by Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Chile). This last move is consistent with increasing economic links with China and Asia more broadly –where four of the ten main destinations of Argentina’s exports are (i.e., China, Vietnam, India and Indonesia, in that order). In other regions of the world, redefining relations has proved to be more controversial at the domestic level: the agreement with Iran (signed during the previous administration) has been declared non-constitutional. The President accepted this judicial decision and did not use his veto power in this case. Iranians have been linked to the 1990s terrorist attacks to Israeli institutions in Buenos Aires. Former president Cristina de Kirchner and other high officials were to be prosecuted when a federal judge died the day before presenting the evidence. Both legal cases are still open in the context of increasing efforts of the Judicial power to re-gain autonomy and enhance transparency.

Third, relations with regional partners deserved special attention in the last two years because of the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. In clear contrast with the Kirchners’ alliance with Chavez and Maduro, Macri forcefully requested the liberation of political prisoners, denounced violations to human rights, and was in favour of not allowing Venezuela to take over the pro-tempore presidency in July 2016. He was keen on ‘passing from rhetoric to action’ and even applying the Organization of American States’ Democratic Clause. This position finally prevailed within the bloc: on 5th August 2017 MERCOSUR finally applied the 1998 Ushuaia’s Protocol, suspending rights and obligations of Venezuela as member state for indefinite time (i.e., ‘until the democratic order is restored’).

Fourth, the bilateral relationship with the UK also shows some signs of change. Aware of the constrains posed by the long-standing dispute over the Malvinas/Falklands Islands, Argentina argued that this item should not be the focus of the relationship as it represents, at most, a figurative 20% of the links with the UK; instead, Macri’s government proposed to concentrate efforts on the remaining 80% which promises mutual benefits. This new approach led to a joint declaration in early 2016 and some progress afterwards. One of the goals in that document was achieved: clarifying the identity of Argentine soldiers who died during the war and were buried in the islands. The other two are still pending: resuming flights to/from the islands and ending sanctions to economic activities by islanders. Political, diplomatic and cultural relations improved and intensified in the last two years, in the spirit of ‘construction of empathy,’ as the British Ambassador to Buenos Aires called it, that is, setting a positive, mutually beneficial and long-term bilateral agenda.

These incipient changes are not exempt of pitfalls and criticisms. The 20/80 figure used to represent relations with the UK is questioned by the opposition, which also charges the government with a lukewarm approach in the defense of sovereign claims at international forums and an ambiguous approach to the case of Venezuela. Trade partnerships also represent a source of concern because of Argentina’s trade deficit and specialization in commodities. This is more of a continuity than a change between the current and the past administrations, and a pending issue in the governmental agenda. Another sign of continuity is to be found in the management of this area of public policy: as usual, presidential diplomacy is at the driver’s seat of most initiatives in foreign policy. Signs of dissent within the Cabinet (as the ones recorded between Macri and his former minister of Foreign Affairs over the issue of Venezuela) are seen as detrimental to the overall strategy. The replacement of Susana Malcorra by Jorge Faurie in that post (last June) was presented, in the official discourse, as a sign of ‘continuity and trust,’ presumably meaning that, from now on, no fundamental changes and disagreements in foreign policymaking are to be expected.

In sum, foreign policy might not have been a top consideration for voters in the recent mid-term elections, but it certainly contributed to construct a narrative about the identity of the coalition in power and to suggest a path to the future, a projection of national interests in a certain direction that seeks social support. Macri won the recent elections, defeating the dominant political force (Peronism, in its multiple forms). However, a narrative based on contrasts with the predecessor inevitable has limits in the long-run. Interest groups and society at large are eager to see, for instance, if Argentina has the capacity to resume steady economic growth, capture foreign investments, or play a leadership role at the regional level. In other words, the challenge is now to show if slogans translate into concrete changes at both the domestic and international level.

Anarchy and International Relations: A Reconsideration

By Jonathan Havercroft and Alex Prichard. Jonathan Havercroft is Associate Professor in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.

What is anarchy? Despite its centrality to the self-image of the discipline of International Relations, few have critically enquired into the essence of this concept.  Most still deploy textbook definitions, namely that anarchy is the absence of rulers, of a centralized authority, or a system of self-help. This basic understanding of anarchy is largely uncontested. However, by contrast, the study of the purported causal effects of anarchy, rather than the meaning of the concept itself, has arguably shaped the evolution of the discipline over the last fifty years at least. Debates between classical and neo-realists, and between neo-realists and neo-liberals, revolved around understanding ‘order without an orderer and organizational effects where formal organisation is lacking’.

The rejection of the terms of these two debates, including a rejection of anarchy, was central to the evolution of normative and critical IR theory. Anarchy was synonymous with statism, with the absence of morality, and what Jo Freeman called, in a different context, ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’, where hierarchies and domination proliferated in the absence of formal institutions. Elsewhere, the analytical virtue of anarchy was itself questioned, such that to focus on anarchy was itself a problematic collusion with the gendered and Eurocentric legacies of modernity. Barry Buzan and Richard Little (2001) argued that IR’s failure to speak beyond the confines of our own academic and intellectual silos was primarily a function of the discipline’s ‘anarchophilia’. IR has had little influence, they argued, because our core concept has had such little traction outside the neo-neo debates that have shaped so much of the discipline, but little else.

Yet despite this extensive debate, few have taken the time to interrogate the concept’s plural meanings, to see what the consequences might be if anarchy itself were defined differently. This paucity of critical conceptual analysis is surely a function of how uncontested the meaning of this concept has been, despite its centrality to the field.

In a recently published special issue of the Journal of International Political Theory we seek to puff at the glowing embers of this debate. Our aim is to take stock of, examine, and reconsider the concept of anarchy, and its place in the study and practice of international relations. We contest mainstream conceptualizations of anarchy by drawing upon original research in political philosophy, medieval history, pluralist theory, history of political thought, and of course, IR theory. The aim is to investigate how differing conceptions of anarchy can advance the study of world politics. Our conclusion is that there are a range of ways in which anarchy can be defined, deployed, and perhaps even appropriated by IR theorists, and that ‘the anarchy problématique’ has plenty of life in it yet.


Podcast on the Politics of Indignity and Refugees with David Owen

Here is a podcast of Dr. David Owen speaking at Oxford University, for the Refugee Studies Centre’s 2017 Public Seminar Series. His talk is entitled, “Refugees and the Politics of Indignity.” The series was convened by Matthew J. Gibney.


Despite Trump, the United States Is Probably More Socially Liberal Than Ever

By Justin Murphy (@jmrphy), Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton.

There is a lot of confusion about whether we’re seeing significant ideological change in the United States. With Trump and the re-appearance of white nationalism in the public spotlight, many people are wondering if conservative (right-wing) ideology is on the rise. One can find many influential outlets endorsing this notion. CBSBBCVox, and certainly others have all run articles suggesting this. On the other hand, many conservatives believe that “liberal” (left-wing in America) ideology is on the rise. There are good reasons for people to be confused, because the dynamics of ideology in the United States are confusing. To help clear up some of the confusion, I’ve written this guide to some of the basics of what political scientists know about the long-term historical dynamics of ideology in the United States. And how they shed light on what is happening, or not happening, right now.

If there is one substantial ideological shift in American public opinion in the post-war period, it is the dramatic and near-universal increase in social liberalism since the 1950s. There has not been a general shift to the left or right because economic conservatism has not changed much (although it has polarized on the left and right). There has been some cyclical, “thermostatic” movement in opinion (which is normal). There have been changes in symbolism (“liberalism” became stigmatized in the 1960s). And there have been some dramatic shifts in party identification (a pretty massive Republican resurgence with Reagan). Otherwise, one cannot say the American public has moved to the right or left as a whole, in any significant way, in the long-run or recently, except that it has become more socially liberal. There have been some interesting and substantial ideological shifts within groups, but that would need to be another post.

Racial Liberalism Data from Atkinson et al. (2011)
Racial Liberalism data from Atkinson et al. (2011) 

There is currently no good evidence I am aware of that overt racism or white nationalism is growing.1 It likely appears larger than it is, especially to progressives, precisely because it has never been less common in American history. This says nothing about how such stupid and malicious groups should be dealt with.

This is my interpretation based on what we know about long-term ideological dynamics in the United States. For a more detailed tour of that data, see the post on my personal blog, “Are Americans becoming more conservative or liberal (right or left)?”


  1. The only exception I have found is the data on the number of “hate groups” collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which reveals an upward climb since 1999. I am not going to say it’s wrong in a dismissive footnote, because it would deserve more attention than that. But I am excluding it from consideration here for a few reasons. First, it includes a wide variety of groups well beyond explicitly racist or white nationalist groups, including black separatist groups. So in this sense it does not reflect what I am considering in this post. But also the SPLC has come under fire for being increasingly politicized and untrustworthy as a data source. See this article from Politico, for instance. My personal view is that there has been a tendency in recent years for progressive groups to lower their bar for what counts as a hate group, and at least a few cases on the SPLC’s list suggest to me this has occurred there, at least to some degree.

Decarbonisation and Poverty

By Chris Armstrong, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Southampton.

The spectre of dangerous climate change throws up many challenges. This post concentrates on just one of them – albeit one which has received too little attention. We know that if dangerous climate change is to be avoided, the majority of the world’s fossil fuel supplies cannot be burned. If we are committed to avoiding temperature rises in excess of 2ºC, for example, an estimated two thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves must go unused by 2050. To these reserves must be added all anticipated supplies which are not yet commercially available.

If there is widespread agreement that our dependence on the world’s most valuable commodity must be radically curtailed, this simple fact throws up a series of important questions. Politically, the most pressing question is how to ensure that the world adheres to the available ‘carbon budget’ by leaving most supplies unexploited. The earliest attempts to curtail fossil fuel use aimed to depress demand, for instance by way of carbon taxes, or compulsory cap-and-trade mechanisms. Increasingly, though, attention has shifted to measures which would restrict the supply of coal, gas and oil. In principle – since there are far fewer extractors of fossil fuels than there are consumers, and since extraction is immobile – supply ought to be easier to monitor and control than demand.

But an important moral question is how to manage any losses generated by the ‘decarbonisation’ of the global economy. Leaving the oil – and the gas, and the coal – in the soil will have major consequences for a number of actors. Unless they manage to diversify first, fossil fuel companies may have billions of dollars wiped off their stock market valuations. Thousands of people employed in the oil, gas and coal industries could lose their jobs. Indeed a whole series of people in peripheral industries – right down to people running cafes and general stores in mining towns – might do so too. Shareholders, and ordinary pension holders, might be exposed to significant losses, given that many investment funds maintain large holdings in fossil fuel industries.

Finally – and of particular interest from the point of view of debates on global justice – fossil-fuel exporting countries stand to lose out on a significant source of revenue. On one estimate, the overall revenues foregone when these assets are ‘stranded’ could total tens of trillions of dollars globally.  Moreover, some of the greatest losses are likely to occur in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and Latin America, since developing country exporters are particularly likely to have untapped – or even unexplored – supplies.  For instance, it has been calculated that 73% of the coal found in Central and South America, and 90% of African supplies, must go unexploited if we are to meet a 2ºC target. The countries of the Middle East and Africa, meanwhile, may have to leave their entire unconventional gas reserves underground.

The economic consequences could be dramatic. Consider a simple comparison. According to the OECD, annual oil revenues flowing to Nigeria alone are more than triple the Overseas Development Assistance flowing to the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. To be sure, fossil fuel wealth has often turned out to do disappointingly little for the ordinary citizens of developing countries, and in some cases it has locked countries into cycles of bad governance and civil strife. Nevertheless, it has also spurred periods of remarkable economic growth. For the taps to turn off now could generate an economic shock that poor countries are ill-equipped to weather.

The world has rightly focused on how the transition beyond carbon can be brought about. But we also need to make sure it is a just transition. It cannot be a transition which leaves some mired in poverty. As a result, we need to give serious attention to side-policies which would offset morally troubling losses of development opportunities. As well as being morally pressing, doing so will be politically important too. The chances of stabilising our climate are all the slimmer if parties to any agreement feel that their legitimate grievances are not being addressed. It is likely that ‘Only a global climate deal that compensates losers and is perceived as equitable by all participants can impose strict limits on the use of fossil fuels in the long term.’

The vitally important question to which we are only now shifting our attention is: what policies should accompany decarbonisation, so as to make the transition away from carbon a fair one? Assuming that these policies will have a cost, who should pick up the tab, and on what basis? These are important questions for both theorists and policy-makers. I was recently lucky enough to be involved in an excellent conference on just such questions, on the island of Lofoten in Norway – a country which famously relies on oil and gas sales for much of its wealth, but is now thinking seriously about the post-carbon future. It is to be hoped that this conference is a sign that the question about decarbonisation and poverty will be taken up much more widely.