The University of Calgary Wins the ISA

In April of last year, the students of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies and the students of the Political Science department met with a mission in mind. The idea was to get as many quality representatives from the University of Calgary as possible into the most prestigious conference in the International Relations world: the annual International Studies Association Convention. The students, with the help of the faculty, met several times in the boardroom at CMSS in order to painstakingly analyze each abstract. The atmosphere was candid, and ego had to be put aside, as each abstract was exposed to criticism both constructive and otherwise.

The end results were quite impressive. All told, 9 University of Calgary graduate students got 11 abstracts accepted to the prestigious conference. Not all of the students could make it and some double acceptances were declined, and in the end 8 students presented at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto between March 26-29, 2014.

The first to present was Shaiel Ben-Ephraim, a fourth year PhD candidate from CMSS as part of a panel on “Ethnicity, Authority, and Violence”. Shaiel presented on civil war conflict termination. His major thesis was that civil wars cannot be terminated in a stable long-term manner through political compromise. Instead, stable post conflict outcomes occur either when one side wins clearly or when both sides have an interest in presenting the appearance of compromise to international and domestic audiences. In order to measure which side has won, Shaiel introduced the measure of the “pivotal contested good”, the allocation of which determines the winners and losers in the conflict. The chair and discussant of the panel, Nikolaos Biziouras of the United States Naval Academy was impressed and said that the “pivotal contested good” measure was a “great idea.”

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim presents on civil war termination.

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim presents on civil war termination.

The next to present was Saira Bano, a third year PhD candidate from CMSS. Saira presented on a panel focusing on “New Directions for Constructivist Theorizing in IR” in front of a huge crowd. People were literally turned away as spectators poured out into the hall. Her presentation, entitled “Norms Competition in Constructivist Theory” tries to pinpoint exactly when contested norms are stable and when they are flexible. One of the great puzzles of constructivist theory is how norms can be simultaneously fluid enough to change over time and yet stable enough to influence political outcomes. In order to shed some light on this vexing problem, Saira imports Margaret Archer’s complex yet elegant Morphogenesis theory from the sociological sphere. In this theory, structure and agent work in sequence rather than simultaneously.  One of the discussants told the up and coming constructivist that “this is the most sophisticated paper in this panel”.

Katie Domansky showed incredible poise during her presentation entitled “Innovation and Military Culture: The Civilian Shaping Military Change.” Katie, a fourth year PhD candidate at CMSS fit in perfectly with the theme of her panel: “A Changing Armed Forces?” She utilized the Canadian case of military reform, to argue that substantive changes in military culture should be guided by external civil oversight. She traced the process by which the Canadian Forces, an organization traditionally resistant to change underwent substantial reforms in the aftermath of the “Somalia Affair.” What is so striking about the Canadian case is that the civilian Minister’s Monitoring Committee on Change in the Canadian Forces managed to oversee successful reforms in the CF. Even more striking, is how deeply these changes were internalized by the military brass. One of the audience members told Katie she had come to the panel specifically to see her, and complimented the budding scholar on her performance.

Tim Choi was next to represent with a particularly timely and relevant presentation entitled “Whither the Seas? The Influence of New Manufacturing Methods on Seaborne Trade”. The paper addresses the long-term implications of the development of upcoming manufacturing technologies (for example the “3-D printer) and their influence on seaborne trade. In theory, rapid manufacturing technology could greatly reduce the volume of traditional trade by allowing the creation of those same goods on the spot. In order to demonstrate the advantages of rapid manufacturing over traditional manufacturing, Tim surprised everyone by pulling a fork out of his suit pocket. He said “this might look simple but in fact it requires a specific mold to make each type of fork”, he exclaimed while waving the utensil for dramatic effect. Rapid manufacturing technology meanwhile can be adjusted to make just about anything.

However, opinions differ as to the influence this will have on the international trade system. Tim painted three possible scenarios for international trade: in one scenario trade remains much as it was, in a second scenario anything can be produced at home and seaborne trade becomes completely outdated. However, Choi believes that most -likely basic products will be produced at home, complex products will be purchased online, while some “need it right now” products will be available at stores. Not surprisingly, the naval oriented scholar concluded that “seaborne trade is here to stay.” Discussant Margaret Kossal of the Georgia Institute of Technology praised Choi for approaching the issue in a “novel way.”

Tim Choi presents on rapid manufacturing. Too bad we did not get a shot of him with the fork.

Tim Choi presents on rapid manufacturing. Too bad we did not get a shot of him with the fork.

Next to present was Brice Coates, former CMSS Masters student and current Political Science PhD student. Coates utilized the formative years of the CIA in order to ascertain the factors which shape intelligence agency culture. Utilizing the insights of historical institutionalism, he traced the culture to the early turf wars the CIA was forced into in order to establish its role and later to defend that role. Brice explained that the CIA grew by taking the “path of least resistance”, and the role thus assumed constrained and shaped cultural development through a path dependent process. The characteristics thus developed became what is referred to by members as “agency gospel.” Discussant Thomas Mahnken of the US Naval War College gave excellent comments and noted that Brice delivered a “great paper on the origins of the CIA.”

David Torre, fourth year PhD candidate at the Political Science Department (and as far as we are concerned an honorary CMSS’er) had the ambition and gall to present two papers at the conference. The first, entitled “A Nuclear Rethink: Making Sense of the Nuclear Renaissance in the Developing World” tries to answer the puzzle of why nuclear energy continues to be popular in the developing world, while the developed world seems to be phasing it out. David questioned the assumptions behind the turn the developed world had taken against nuclear energy. There is an erroneous tendency to see the use of nuclear energy as an either/or proposition: when in fact it can be complementary. He also believes that the capacity of developed states to transition renewable energy sources is seriously hampered by the lack of relevant infrastructure.

In his second paper, titled “Some Assembly Required: The Role of the ‘Rogue State’ within the American National Security Debate”, David took on the concept of rogue states. His paper fit in perfectly with an excellent panel on “Discourses of Security”. He argued that the propagation of the concept of of rogue states, which the United States created in order to label states which do not conform to its conception of international norms, was an act of securitization with unintended consequences on an unintended audience. In order to demonstrate this dynamic, David asked the audience to “imagine we are out on a dinner date.” He went on to illustrate that while we tend to think of a date as occurring between the two people directly involved, there may be other people listening to the date and in a very real sense they are part of the date as well and a relevant audience. In the same way, Torre introduced the novel concept of the “secondary audience” in securitization theory. He argued that the US had classified certain states as rogue states in order to appeal to domestic audiences while neglecting whether or not that message was appropriate for secondary audiences such as Western European states. He ably demonstrated that the attempt to label Iraq as a rogue state was counterproductive in garnering support for the Second Iraq War.

The contingent of University of Calgary students did a tremendous job of representing the university and furthering scholarship in fields as diverse as intelligence studies, international political economy, critical security studies, energy security studies, civil war studies and constructivist theory. The students were exposed to the best and most cutting edge research in the field and correspondingly benefitted those around them by contributing to a fertile academic dialogue and process. The contingent is currently working on the abstracts for the 2015 convention in New Orleans, where they hope to go on to even greater success.

The gang celebrates after their presentations.

The gang celebrates after their presentations.


One thought on “The University of Calgary Wins the ISA

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