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Cyber Warfare and Theories of IR: Cyber Anarchy

By Reza Majd, on 4 July 2018

Written by: Alexander Lee

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

A new age of technology has begun; we are experiencing a cyber revolution. This virtual phenomenon has influenced our society unlike anything before, and has entered the arena of security and warfare, as we are now faced with a new threat: the virtual weapon. Who is ‘we’? According to Dr. Lucas Kello (2017a,) the international order is facing varying degrees of threats – ranging from international system disruption, to revision, to change (p. 85-95). The international order can be defined as “…a pattern of activity that sustains the elementary or primary goals of the society of states, or international society” (Bull, 1997, p. 8). Kello belongs to a group of theorists who argue against cyber war skeptics, such as Rid (2013), who calls for us leave the realm of (p. 174) “myth and fairytale – to a degree”, as politically motivated cyber attacks are simply forms of sabotage, espionage or subversion (2011). Skeptics like Rid, are motivated by the Clausewitzian school of war, who claim that cyber operations are not directly violent (Kello, 2017a, p. 31), as Rid states that (2011, p. 6) “Not one single past cyber offense, neither a minor nor a major one, constitutes an act of war on its own”. Is the idea of cyber anarchy a sci-fi fantasy, or is the international order truly being threatened by cyber warfare? Will there be cyber order or could anarchy lead to chaos?

International Anarchy

There was a time when thermonuclear extinction obsessed political scientists (Kaplan, 2001, p, 129). ‘Nuclearmituphobia’ was a rampant topic, igniting key debates within the scholarship of International Relations (IR) theory revolving around international anarchy. War, power, and self-interest are elements of international anarchy which date back to Thucydides’s writing of the Peloponnesian War, a key historiographic account of Ancient Greek interstate conflict between Athens and Sparta (Connor, 1984); to the works of Machiavelli’s Prince, emphasizing self interest over morality and virtue (1961); and epitomized by the Hobbesian state of nature, being war against all (Hobbes, 1651). These accounts showcase the classical realist tradition of state interaction being a “…game that is wholly distributive or zero-sum” (Bull, 1997, p.24-25). This was further developed by the Neorealists, who believed that the main goal of states in an international system of self-help, was survival (Waltz, 1979, p. 105). The school of Neoliberalism, believe cooperation would be achievable under anarchic conditions (Keohane and Martin, 1995; Fukuyama 1992, p. 255). Structural liberals, who describe themselves as ‘strong liberals’, expanded on this believing that international anarchy can be transcended, with anarchy being replaced with hierarchy, emphasizing an international order based on extensive interdependence and shared governance arrangements (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 36) providing us perhaps with a potential to reach Fukuyama’s (1992) end of history, and Kant’s (1985) perpetual peace.

Arguably, we have moved beyond realism. In terms of security, NATO has proved to be more than an ad hoc defense alliance, drawing states into joint force planning, international military command structures and established transgovernmental processes for political and military decision making, promoting security interdependence (Deudney and Ikenberry, 1999, p. 183; Ikenberry, 2011, p. 351). Current developments within the international arena, such as new initiatives of global governance (Hurrell, 2007, p. 2-3), perhaps explain why Westphalian sovereignty, which was how sovereignty was understood by realists (Waltz, 1979, p. 96; Deudney and Ikenberry, 1999, p. 187), has experienced disaggregation (Slaughter, 2004, p. 266) and transformation (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 239), towards more “world” and “global” politics emphasized by convergence and interdependence (Waltz, 2000, p.5-6).

Cyber Anarchy

However, the cyberspace is a domain, in which “we have yet to master” (Kello, 2017a, p. 1). Currently, we do not have any clear indications of what structural liberalists Deudney and Ikenberry (1999) describe as consensus building, cooperation and reciprocity, when seeking to address cyber security dilemmas. The divided consensus around cyber warfare regulation, is more prominent than ever, emphasized by a lack of agreement and cooperation between states, international law, and institutions on global cyber governance (Kello, 2017b, p.212-219). A lack of institutions (especially with regards to cyber conflict), with states maintaining the role of key actor in the cyberspace (Drezner, 2004) suggests that we can apply Waltz’s (2001, p.159) notion of a war bound international system of sovereign states, with no higher governing authority to dictate relations amongst nations to the current state of cyber governance, translating therefore into cyber anarchy.

Current developments in cyber warfare highlight the anarchic nature of this domain. States have looked to enhance their offensive cyber capabilities, showcased by the US’s Stuxnet attack, carried out on Iran’s nuclear facility, and Russian involvement in the Estonian attack and the US elections (however this has yet to be officially confirmed that it was the Russian state itself) (Kello, 2017b, p.211; 2017a, p. 36 & p. 221-228).

This emphasizes the increasing cyber arms race that is occurring (Kello, 2017a, p.212-214), because great powers are aware of the increased militarization of cyberspace (Craig & Valeriano, 2018, p. 88).

Increasing cyber arms could also be a response to the uncertainty element of cyber warfare. This is showcased by zero-day vulnerabilities, which is when computer vulnerability is unknown to anyone but the researcher (and most of the time – hacker) who identifies it, leaving no time to prepare for a suitable defense Gjelten, 2013, p. 39, Kello, 2017a, p. 48).

Such developments fall in line with Mearsheimer’s (2001, p. 30-32) five bedrock assumptions of offensive realism: (1) system is anarchic with no central authority above states; (2) great powers possess offensive military capabilities; (3) states can never be certain about other states intentions; (4) survival is the primary goal of states; (5) great powers are rational actors and think strategically about survival. Arquilla and Ronfeldt (1993) were among the first scholars to argue that cyber war is coming, and realists would agree with such a notion, as an example of unavoidable anarchy.

However, states are currently losing their place in being the key threat to national security, the primary provider of national security, and being able to maintain full control over the dynamics of conflict among them (Kello, 2017a, p. 162), due to the emergence of nontraditional actors: political hacktivists, private firms, militant groups and criminal syndicates (Kello, 2017b, p. 217-219), who have the means and capabilities to carry out cyber attacks at the same level as states, especially with exposing zero-day vulnerabilities. This emphasizes what Kello (2017a, p. 190) describes as the sovereignty gap of cyberspace, as “states are no longer the unquestioned masters of the international system”. This challenges the realists’ assumption that states are the primary actors of the international arena (Waltz, 2001, p. 177-178), emphasizing Kello’s (2017a, p. 92-95) highest degree of cyber revolution: systemic change of the international order. Perhaps the virtual weapon will prove to be even more anarchic – and potentially chaotic.

Beyond Cyber Anarchy?

Can liberal theories of IR provide us with a pathway to tackle cyber anarchy? Kello (2017b, p,219-226) argues that there are prospects for cyber security interdependence, through what he calls “prospective pathways through cyber gridlock”, in which states abandon a Westphalian governance approach in cyberspace, towards more convergence (p.228), through a global governance approach. One of these pathways includes the need to manage the “power diffusion” (p. 207) that these alien players in cyberspace are accumulating. This calls for the fostering of closer ties between the public and private sector, which can be done through states working along actors such as: proxy militia groups, technology firms, and specialized bodies (p. 225). Realism does not account for non-state actors perhaps the way liberal theories do, and therefore a realist approach towards cyberspace would not be an ideal approach, compared to one of cooperation, convergence and order. An approach where states take on the role of being a cooperative actor, among a vast majority of others that participate in a broader social and legal process (Hurrell, 2015, p.4), to generate effective collective problem solving.

The very nature of this virtual weapon, such as the inability to identify the attacker, its location, and even prepare for a cyber attack (Kello 2017a, p. 199 & p. 48) represents a domain in which anarchy doesn’t appear to possess much potential in being transcended. However, we must consider if the threat of the system in which states are operating in, will call upon collective effort to tackle this growing phenomenon, or will states look towards stemming their loss of power by enhancing their cyber capabilities, in Machiavellian fashion of self-interest over morality (Vasquez, 1995, p. 27-32), in the face of such uncertainty in cyberspace. Without any clear enforcement mechanisms in place at the moment, cyber chaos seems to be where we are at – for now. More needs to be done, with regards to creation of treaties, generating regimes of international law and newly formed norms (Sinopoli, 2012), if we are to tackle cyber anarchy. However, Neoliberals such as Axelrod and Keohane (1985, p. 226) recognized that anarchy has varying degrees, and since total cyber arms deterrence is currently unlikely (Kello, 2017a, p. 197-205), we may find a way to assure that, despite the anarchical nature of the virtual weapon, a cyber war does not occur, and threaten the international order.


Arquilla, J. and Ronfeldt, D. (1993). Cyberwar is Coming!. Santa Monica, CA: RAND https://www.rand.org/pubs/reprints/RP223.html.

Axelrod, Robert, and Robert O. Keohane. (1985). ‘Achieving cooperation under anarchy: Strategies and institutions’. World Politics 38(1): 226-54.

Bull, H. (1977). The Anarchical Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

Connor, W. (1984). Thucydides. Princeton University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46n426

Craig, A. & Valeriano, B. (2018). ‘Realism and Cyber Conflict: Security in the Digital Age’, in: Orsi, D., Avgustin, J. R., & Nurnus, M. (eds) Realism in Practice: An Appraisal. [ebook] Bristol: E-International Relations. Available at: http://www.e-ir.info/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Realism-in-Practice-E-IR.pdf. [Accessed: 19th February 2018] pp. 85-102.

Deudney, D., Ikenberry, G. (1999). The nature and sources of liberal international order. Review of International Studies, 25(2), 179-196

Drezner, D. W. (2004) ‘The Global Governance of the Internet: Bringing the State Back In’, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 119, no. 3, pp. 477-498.

Fukuyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press.

Gjelten, T. (2013). FIRST STRIKE: US Cyber Warriors Seize the Offensive. World Affairs, 175(5), 33-43. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43554737

Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. London: Andrew Cooke

Ikenberry, G. (2011). Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order. Princeton University Press.

Hurrell, A. (2007) On Global Order: Power, Values and Constitution of International Society. Oxford: Oxford University.

Hurrell, A. (2015). Can the Study of Global Order be De-centred? PRIMO Working Paper No. 2/2015. Available at: http://www.primo-itn.eu/PRIMO/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/WorkingPaper-2_AndrewHurrell.pdf.

Kant, I. (1985). To Perpetual Peace A Philosophical Sketch. Perpetual Peace and other essays on Politics, History, and Morals. Translated by T. Humphrey. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company. p. 107-143.

Kello, L. (2017a). The Virtual Weapon and International Order. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kello, L. (2017b), ‘Cyber Security: Gridlock and Innovation’, in: Hale T. and Held, D. (eds.), Beyond Gridlock. UK:Polity Press.

Keohane, R., & Martin, L. (1995). The Promise of Institutionalist Theory. International Security, 20(1), 39-51. doi:10.2307/2539214

Machiavelli, N. 1961. The Prince. Translated by G. Bull. New York: Penguin Books

Mearsheimer, J. (2001) The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Rid, T. (2011). “Cyber War Will Not Take Place”, Journal of Strategic Studies. Vol 35: p. 5-32. doi:10.1080/01402390.2011.608939

Rid, T. (2013). Cyber War Will Not Take Place. London: Hurst & Company.

Sinopoli, A. F., “Cyberwar and International Law: An English School Perspective” (2012). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. Retrieved from: http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/4404

Vasquez, J. (1986). Classics of International Relations. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. Inc.

Waltz, K. N., (1979). Theory of International Politics. Reading, Mass, Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Waltz, K. (2000). Structural Realism after the Cold War. International Security, 25(1), 5-41. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2626772

Waltz, K. (2001). Man, the state, and war. New York: Columbia University Press.

Can computers understand human emotions? A sentiment analysis of economic news

By Reza Majd, on 4 July 2018

Written by: Nicole Watson and Henry Naish

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Can a computer be taught to understand human emotions? Proponents of sentiment analysis would argue that they most certainly can. Put simply, sentiment analysis is the use of algorithms to extract emotional meaning from a large number of texts. From its roots in market research, sentiment analysis is emerging as a promising technique in fields ranging from social science to stock market analysis. It allows us to process the emotions expressed in vast amounts of text more quickly than a human ever could. That is, if it really works. To put sentiment analysis to the test, we investigated how the results of a sentiment analysis algorithm measured up to human judgements when ranking news articles about the US economy.

For this project, we used a dataset provided by the platform Crowdflower, consisting of thousands of articles about the US economy. Human contributors ranked each article on a scale of 1-9, 1 being the most negative and 9 being the most positive.

Before we look at some findings, we should remind ourselves of an important point when using computers to do our reading for us. When it comes to text, humans are always right. Words have meaning for us, not computers, and these techniques are a shortcut to understanding a large volume of documents that we might not have time to read properly ourselves.

We found that even when instructed to rank articles on a scale of 1 to 9, humans still tend to see sentiment in binary terms: optimistic and pessimistic. The red plot shows human responses: the two peaks cluster around moderately pessimistic and optimistic sentiment. Humans don’t like extremes – we’re always thinking the next article could be even better or even worse than the last.

By contrast, our algorithm clusters articles around a moderately pessimistic level. Working off a ‘sentiment lexicon’ – a dictionary mapping words to scores based on how positive or negative they are – it scores each word and aggregates the results to determine how positive the article is overall. It produces a distribution of articles around the most frequent level of optimism. In other words, computers think in distributions while we think about how an article makes us feel.

When comparing how the algorithm and humans scored each article, we found that for positive articles, the computer was more often wrong than right. The graph below shows the accuracy of the computer’s scores: blue for agreement with human judgment and red for disagreement. Whilst the blue streak down the middle shows some agreement between human and machine, the red in the top left indicates that the algorithm struggles to pick up positivity. Clearly, humans communicate optimism in ways that can’t be captured through analysis of single words.


Whilst the power of sentiment analysis cannot be dismissed on the basis of our simplistic model, it’s clear that there’s a long way to go before our computers are doing our reading for us. By focusing solely on the use of specific words, the computer misses nuance that humans understand effortlessly. Although computers will always surpass us when it comes to reading speed, what is this worth when they just don’t get it?



Machiavellian Middle East: Shifting Alliances

By Reza Majd, on 23 April 2018

Written by: Andreas Beckwith

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

 Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances

 The recent proxy wars and geopolitical games the two biggest Middle Eastern powers have been engaging in have involved shifting alliances, as states seek to bandwagon with the two regional powers. Egypt is a case in point. Egypt was a firm enemy of Iran under Mubarak, yet this changed under the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammed Morsi seemed to open up to Iran. The overthrow of Morsi and the instalment of Al Sisi, and the bankrolling of Egypt by Saudi Arabia seemed to return Egypt into the Saudi fold, yet tensions between Egypt and Saudi brought Iran and Egypt close again, with Iran even lobbying for Egypt to get a place at the Syrian peace talks. Then only a year later, Egypt was back in Saudi’s corner, backing its Sunni ally in its hostile stance with Iran. Iran also lost long-time ally Sudan over their Saudi feud, after Iran’s takeover of the Saudi embassy, Sudan cut ties with its former patron.

There is of course the case of Qatar, which was long hostile towards Iran, and along with Saudi Arabia, helped arm Syrian rebels, including terrorists to fight against the Iranian ally Bashar Al Assad, hoping Assad’s fall would weaken Iran. Yet, in 2017 there was a diplomatic spat between Saudi and Qatar due in a large part to the latter’s relations with Iran, and Saudi Arabia led a blockade of its former ally on the GCC, pushing Qatar closer to Iran. The situation with Qatar also is closely related to that of Turkey, who, seemed to join an alliance of Sunni states seeking the overthrow of Assad, and Turkey even sent troops into Syria for a while. Yet Turkey’s enduring alliance with Qatar, and the fallout between Qatar and Saudi Arabia brought Turkey down firmly on Qatar’s side, and thus an improvement of relations with Syria and Iran, in part due to a concern about their respective Kurdish populations.

Then of course, there is the special case of Israel, and its relations in the region. Due to their joint concern on the perceived threat of Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia have moved closer together in cooperation. While historical precedent doesn’t tell us everything, there is perhaps precedent in the Saudi-Israeli alliance vis-a-vie the French-Ottoman alliance, two peoples ideologically opposed as can be, yet working together against a powerful common enemy, a Machiavellian move on both their parts, more so on Israel’s. Israel already had warming contacts with the UAE as they begin to see each other, if not as allies, then at least sharing a common foe, Prime Minister Netenyahu admitted as much. There is also the Machiavellian alliance between the Saudis, the puritanical Wahhabi Muslims intolerant of other faiths, with US president Donald Trump who has often shown hostility towards Muslims in general.

In the modern Middle East, one can of course not overlook the role of non-state actors, rebel groups like the FSA, the Houthis and most notoriously of all, terrorist groups. Al Qaeda and Al Nusra have been used as proxies in these wars, especially by Saudi Arabia who has a notorious Machiavellian history of funding terrorism, including backing the MKO an anti-Iranian government terroist organisation. The creation of ISIS was a symptom of state support for a non-state actor going too far, empowering it to stand alone, claim territory and challenge its former benefactors legitimacy while spouting their ideology. The evocation of the non-state actor Hezbollah in the conflict was a reaction to ISIS on the side of Iran.

Despite this being labelled as a Sunni-Shia conflict, and while there are clear signs of alliances based on religious reasons, like Bahrain’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Syria’s alliance with Iran, the reasons are more nuanced. It is textbook case of Realism and Realpolitik triumphing over the Constructivism of religious identity, as was the case in the Middle Ages with Francis I and his rivalry with Charles V. Both rulers were Catholics, yet both often were on opposite sides, as is the case in the modern Middle East. Political calculations are more important that religious identity and the conflict is far more about the struggle for power, and each state considers its own interests political interests, and chooses its alliances primarily on that basis. This is why there is back-and-forth bandwagoning between Iran and Saudi Arabia.





Machiavellian Middle East: A Review of Recent International Relations

By Reza Majd, on 11 April 2018

Written by: Andreas Beckwith

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Subtitle explainer: Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances


Photo Source

In the middle ages, King Francis I of France embodied the architype Prince that Machiavelli envisaged when he wrote his pièce de résistance the Prince. King Francis was shrewd, cunning and utterly ruthless. As Niccolo Machiavelli said “Men rise from one ambition to another: first, they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others.” King Francis was an expert at this, surrounded by the powerful Hapsburg empire of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, he was utterly ruthless in making alliances to undermine the Holy Roman Emperor, he continued the wars of Italy, aiding Lutheran German princes, particularly the Duke of Wurttemberg in the budding protestant movement against the Catholic Charles V, and most devilishly of all, making an alliance with the Ottoman Turks to destabilise the Holy Roman Empire. While Francis aided protestants abroad, his policy at home was of staunch Catholicism and Protestants were treated as heretics and at times burned at the stake, the Muslim Ottoman Empire was officially even worse than the Protestants as they were not Christian. And yet, Francis was able to forge these alliances with the Protestant and Muslims to undermine Charles V, his fellow Catholic.

The modern Middle East bears many similarities in the ways that alliances change, strange alliances formed based only the balance of power, where ideological enmity is cast aside for strategic gain. One of the similarities with Middle-age Europe is how often alliances change. Francis I would sometimes make peace with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and then the Protestant Lutheran princes would be his enemies, and then they would fall out and he would be back to aiding them. And so it is with the modern Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and Iran being pitted against each other. In the tragic ongoing war in Syria, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, alliances change rapidly with states between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the ongoing proxy wars between them. Religious divides of Sunni and Shia, are not the simple demarcation of alliances and there is often divergence between the two. I will explore this relationship in detail in my next publication, Shifting Alliances, where few alliances are set in stone, and there are constant shifts and changes that take place that distort the balance of the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia.


Saudi Arabia, Iran, proxy wars, Machiavelli, Machiavellian Middle East, Realism, Realpolitik, Middle East, changing alliances, Sunni, Shia


Machiavellian Middle East: The great losers of geopolitics in the Middle East

By Reza Majd, on 4 April 2018

Written by: Andreas Beckwith

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Subtitle explainer: Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances

Photo Source

            As with any protracted conflict, there are the region’s greatest losers, caught in the crossfire of the proxy war, which is principally Syria with its long-standing civil war. Caught not only in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Russia and the US, Syria has been torn apart and the Syrian people have been the tragic losers in the machinations of geopolitical rivalries. Syria is one battlefield that has gone out of control, with so many outside powers having interests and troops in the mix, from state actors like the US, Russia, Iran, to non-state actors like Hezbollah, ISIS, Al Nusra to states with no official ground presence but with a firm interest in the outcome like Israel and Turkey, and international groups like the EU and the UN. While Syria as whole has lost out in these power games, another group that could well lose out are the Kurds, who aided the US by fighting back ISIS, are viewed by Turkey as a national threat. In the aftermath of the war, they could become one of the bitterest losers of the conflict as Turkey moves in to stifle them.

Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in 2017 and continues on into 2018 thanks to the Saudi bombing campaign and blockade against Houthi rebels against the Saudi-installed government of Hadi. Though not conclusive, it is alleged that the Houthis are backed by Iran. And of course, while not directly affected, the long-suffering Palestinians are neglected by the Arab world as countries in the region focus on their national interests in the proxy war.

Cunning and deceit will every time serve a man better than force to rise from a base condition to great fortune” – Machiavelli, Discourses on Ivy. It would seem that the Saudis and the Iranians, as well as other states, are following his playbook. While the Syrian war appears to be winding down at the time of writing, the proxy wars between the two dominant Middle Eastern powers continue, Lebanon sometimes appears like it could be the next battleground. Alliances may change as states calculate their own interest, and nothing should be taken for granted. The alliance of Saudi Arabia and Israel is one to watch, with potentially explosive consequences wherever one looks, the stability of Syria is still questionable, and the role of non-state actors, while right now in decline, could soon return. Each turn and twist the Middle East takes is studied by the Realist states, both in the region and outside, as they try to understand how they can manipulate the outcomes to their own benefits. Alliances are fickle, religion is secondary, self-interest above all guides the way.


Region: MENA



A Dangerous Result: How Italy’s New Government may Threaten Migrants’ Human Rights

By Reza Majd, on 30 March 2018

Written by: Serena Cavasin

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

A boat with immigrants aboard arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa | Credit: ANSA


In line with poll predictions, on March 4th, the recent Italian general election delivered a hung parliament. Although no absolute winners emerged, Italian voters flocked to anti-establishment M5S and anti-immigration Northern League, which secured respectively a record 32.5% and 17% of the vote (the highest percentage among the three-party centre-right coalition led by Berlusconi, which secured a total 36%), as Renzi’s centre-left coalition gathered the lowest support ever gained by the left since 1913.


An election dominated by the topic of migration:

Both the M5S and the centre-right coalition ran on manifestos pledging to stop boats landing on Italian shores, and in the case of the Northern League – rebranded ‘League’ before the election in a bid to increase support amongst Southern Italians, once demonised by the party – to put an end to the migrant “invasion” through a combination of systematic deportations and policies shaped to put “Italians first”.

The M5S and centre-right also offered as part of their programmes fiscal measures, such as the roll-out of a universal basic income (M5S) and a flat income tax of 15% (centre-right), of unquestionable appeal to a country with some of the highest level of youth unemployment and taxation in the European Union. And currently, the latter appears to be the decisive factor to whether the two forces will be able to reach the agreement necessary to form a new government.

In light of this last point, it may seem excessively reductive to consider migration as the issue central to the election’s results. However, it is precisely when the record number of migrant arrivals Italy has experienced in the last three years is understood in context with the other challenges and problems the country faces, that we can see how the migration was able to act as such a significant pull factor shifting consensus towards Eurosceptic and sovereigntist forces.

In fact, these forces were particularly effective at bolstering support for their once derided proposals by capitalising on the deep disillusionment felt by Italians towards European neighbours who closed their borders, leaving Italy to perform the lion’s share of rescue, identification, and accommodation operations largely on its own, thus putting at further strain the already over-stretched resources of a debt-stricken country with a fragile economy barely recovering after suffering half a decade of austerity measures.

Yet, not only did the M5S and centre-right coalition channel the rancour harboured by large parts of the Italian population, but they often actively worked towards fuelling it. This is most evident in the hostile, graphic, aggressively racist and xenophobic rhetoric employed during the campaign by the leaders, as well as supporters, of the League and of fellow centre-right coalition member Brothers of Italy, a far-right party with ties to neo-fascist movements. A toxic use of language that Amnesty International’s annual rapport, in February, marked to be deeply pervasive on social media, with damning figures indicating 95% of discriminatory and racist hate speech as coming from right wing accounts, and over 50% from League leader Matteo Salvini.


The Increased Risk of Human Rights Violations against Migrants:

Amnesty’s warning that this anti-migrant sentiment if left uncurbed may turn Italy into a country steeped in racism, was unfortunately followed by shocking episodes of racist violence, including the deliberate targeting and wounding of 6 African migrants in a shooting by a neo-Nazi former member of the League and the killing of two Senegalese street traders in Florence.

While the attacks prompted a series of protests and displays of solidarity across the country, condemnation from the centre-right was lukewarm at best and victim-blaming at worst. As a result, many migrants living in the country, as well as minority ethnic Italians and Italy-born children of immigrants, have reported fearing for their safety and their ability to remain in the country. In interviews gathered by mainstream national and international news outlets, they cite as the main reason for these feelings the hostile social climate, the record rise in hate crimes reported since the beginning of Summer 2017, as well as the increased delays of processes attributing citizenship and residence permits, and the deferral of the vote on the ius soli bill set to extend Italian citizenship to non-Italian children born and educated in the country.

In terms of the latter, campaigners now despair that a bill that took years to even be drafted and introduced will be one of the first items to be struck down by a potential M5S – centre-right coalition, thus leaving many children and young adults potentially at risk of deportation and at significant disadvantage with regards to access to services and opportunities.

While this is certainly likely to happen given the opposition to the bill openly declared by both forces, other concerning aspects of the migration policy advocated by the M5S and the League (who now leads the centre-right coalition) may not that easily materialise, regardless of the two parties’ hell-bent alignment on curbing migration.

For instance, the League’s plan to remove 600,000 undocumented immigrants living in the country, while not in contrast with the law (which prohibits clandestine migration), would still prove to be a logistic nightmare and an incredibly expensive endeavour that a flat tax of 15% would by no means be able to subsidise. On the other hand, the plan to close ports and trigger forced returns of ships crossing the Mediterranean is a much more worrying possibility, despite the illegality of similar practices under International Law which maintains the principle of non-refoulment.

However, should a potential coalition government choose to go down this path (as the Berlusconi government did in 2009, violating European Human Rights Law as found by the Strasbourg Court in Hirsi v Italy) they would likely risk incurring into sanctions. So, they may instead choose to continue following the route set by former Democratic minister Minniti of engaging in bilateral agreements, such as the infamous deal reached with Libya, with the states where flows originate from and traffickers operate.


A Ray of Hope within the Bleakness of the Picture:


Fortunately, the League and M5S, like other populist movements, have a history of ‘sloppy’ politics and scarce competence which may lead to a failure to implement their manifesto pledges and even produce opposite results, as seen in 2003 when the League’s General Secretary and then Minister for Social Policy Roberto Maroni signed the Dublin Agreement (thus accepting that all undocumented migrants arriving on Italian shores would have to petition for asylum in Italy and remain in the country until the end of the process).

Moreover, considering that negotiations for a coalition are still being undertaken, anything could happen – and a government may not be formed at all. Or, Italy may live up to its reputation of the country with 63 governments in 70 years and any newly formed executive may collapse in a matter of months.

So, perhaps, as famously said by writer Ennio Flaiano: “the political situation in Italy is grave, but not serious”.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the hateful xenophobic rhetoric of the campaign has worked to deeply damage the social tissue of the country, legitimising dangerously violent racist attitudes and behaviours that will not disappear quickly nor easily. And thus, for migrants and their rights, the situation in Italy is certainly both grave and serious.