The 'too hard' box

You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever.   Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.

What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.

#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.

#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.

#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?

#4.  Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.

#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.

#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.

#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.  

#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."

#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.

#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.

And now for your quiz.

First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)

Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?


Stephen M. Walt

A tribute to Glenn Snyder

I had planned to write about something else today, but instead I want to acknowledge the recent passing of Glenn Snyder, an important international relations theorist. I didn't know him well -- indeed, I think we met on only one occasion -- but I read a lot of his work over the years and admired both his intellectual ambition and the clarity of his thinking.

Snyder's scholarly career spanned more than four decades and he made contributions in several areas. He was a co-author of Strategy, Politics and Defense Budgets (1962) an important account of U.S. national security policymaking in the 1950s, contributing a lengthy study of Eisenhower's "New Look" in nuclear strategy. His 1961 book Deterrence or Defense: Toward a Theory of National Security was an early refinement of classical deterrence theory and one of the first applications of game theory to international affairs. In the 1970s, he and co-author Paul Diesing published Conflict among Nations: Bargaining, Decisionmaking and System Structure in International Crises, an ambitious attempt to integrate structural realism, game theory, and theories of decision-making to understand crisis outcomes. I pored over this book in graduate school and learned an enormous amount from Snyder's careful analysis; I must have read chapter 6 of that book ("Crises and International Systems") dozens of times. His 1984 World Politics article "The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics" was another classic, and especially his elaboration of the reciprocal risks of "abandonment" versus "entrapment" (concepts first proposed by Michael Mandelbaum). This last line of work culminated in his magisterial book Alliance Politics, which combined careful deductive analysis with a series of deeply research case studies. 

Snyder was primarily a theorist, although he was also clearly  comfortable doing careful qualitative/historical research. And, like John Herz, he strikes me as someone who deserved a higher reputation in the field than he had. I think this may be due to the nature of his later work: Instead of picking a single big idea and promoting it incessantly,  both Conflict among Nations and Alliance Politics contained a lot of different ideas and came at their subjects from several angles at once. This comprehensive approach had a great deal of scholarly integrity to it, but it also made his works harder to pigeonhole. They were also too long to put on most graduate course syllabi, which meant that over time fewer graduate students were exposed to his work.  

In this way, the practical sociology of the IR business may have cost Snyder some recognition. Nonetheless, he was the author of not one but several classic books and articles, works that still reward a careful reading today. How many IR scholars can say the same? 

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