“European Military Transformation in Comparative Perspective”

Venus in Arms has recentely devoted a lot of attention to a relevant issue: the military transformation. In a  previous post, we have presented our forthcoming book on the argument. The book is about the change in Italian Armed Forces since 2001. The manuscript focuses on new empirical evidence on how the Italian forces, compared and contrasted with the French and the British ones, have devised their doctrines, their force structures and their budgets.

If you are interested in the topic we suggest the following event. On February 11th, one of the ViA’s editor, Fabrizio Coticchia, (Jean Monnet Fellow at the EUI) will give the seminar: “European Military Transformation in Comparative Perspective”. This is a Joint Seminar: Europe in the World Research Seminar Series & RSCAS Seminar Series, European University Institute – EUI.

The event will take place at Villa Malafrasca (4.30pm), via Boccaccio 151, Florence.

Also Sandra Destradi and Philip Schleifer will present their research. Prof. Ulrich Krotz will be the chair of the seminar.

Here below the abstract of the presentation:

The project aims to analyze the transformation of European armed forces in comparative perspective. The focus of the research is the organizational dimension of the restructuring  of armed forces through three different lenses: doctrine and strategic framework, budget and resource  allocation, and force structure and deployment (ISAF operation in Afghanistan, 2001-2014). The project examines the evolution of armed forces occurred in several European countries: Italy, UK, France, Germany,  Denmark and the Netherlands. Supported by an  extensive use of primary and secondary sources the research aims to provide an innovative contribution to  the current debate on military transformation.

See you soon in Florence.


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The imitation of intelligence

Venus in Arms launches the section “ViA films review”, where the movies are analyzed through the lenses of IR, international security and geopolitics. Here below a guest post by Davide Barbieri*.


“Can machines think?” This was the first question the detective asked Alan Turing in the film directed by Morten Tyldum The Imitation Game, an adaptation of Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges (published by Vintage, 2012), which tells the story of the British genius, of his tragic life and great achievements. The father of computer science – and a military intelligence analyst during WWII – in the early 50s was being investigated by the police for “indecency”. Turing was homosexual, a crime at the time in the UK. The persecution eventually led to his suicide, in 1954.

The imitation game is also the title of the first section of his most famous paper, Computing machinery and intelligence, which was published in Mind in 1950 (a scanned pdf copy of the original paper can be found at Oxford Journals here). In that section, the author addressed the question directly. In the film, Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, at ease with computer geek sort of characters (he played the role of Julian Assange in The fifth estate, on the WikiLeaks case).

Cumberbatch’s Turing explains to the detective that machines can think, but not the way humans do (here he lays the distinction between “strong” and “weak” artificial intelligence). Therefore, we should rather consider the following question: What is humanity? This question has been puzzling philosophers at least since Plato’s time. To answer this question, the British scientist devised a test which bears his name: the Turing test, that is the imitation game. In this game, a computer and a human are hidden in a separate room from the investigator. The three subjects involved in the experiment can only communicate by means of a keyboard and a monitor: the investigator can ask questions, while the computer and the human can reply. As in a modern chat room on the Internet, you never know who is on the other side.

Computers can be extremely good at answering questions. In fact, if we had to tell apart a human who is playing the role of a computer, we could simply ask the result of a complicated mathematical operation (we know the result in advance because we have used an electronic calculator to get it). The human would take a long time to answer, and possibly make some mistake. The computer would immediately tell the right result.

A different challenge is to identify a computer which is trying to imitate a human (give the test a try using CleverBot for example). Test of accuracy and speed will not work. Detective Rick Deckard had a similar problem in 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film was an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the famous novel by P. K. Dick. Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, had the task to terminate “replicants”, androids which were almost undistinguishable from humans. Since he did not want to kill real people, he adopted a modified version of the Turing test. Obviously, it did not take into consideration the accuracy of answers, but rather empathy, emotions etc. The universal idea of “what humanity is” still challenges our intellectual faculties. The answer of Dick is that it is in the blink of an eye (God, like the devil, is in the details). Turing did not want to define humanity, but rather to devise a test to recognize it.

Back to The Imitation Game, the film gives many other interesting insights. It explains clearly that, even if a mathematical problem can be solved (a question that Turing addressed in another paper On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungs problem, published in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, November 1936), it does not mean it can be done in a reasonable amount of time. Most problems are essentially a matter of time (and Kant would agree on this). Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park during WWII had the task to decrypt Germany’s best kept secret: Enigma, a cipher machine used to encrypt all the messages of Nazi armed forces. An original version of the machine can be seen at Palazzo Esposizioni in Rome until May 2015, within the exhibition on Numbers. It was designed in the early 20s by German engineer Scherbius, who implemented an idea of Italian Renaissance genius Leon Battista Alberti: a “scrambler” which turned each letter into another one, for example A into C. Knowing the key A→C is sufficient to decipher the code (B would be D in the ciphertext, C would be E etc., a simple two position-shift). Thus Alberti suggested to use a polyalphabetic cipher, that is a keyword, instead of a single letter key. For example, the keyword LEON would encrypt A as L the first time, then as E the second and so on. The others letter are encrypted accordingly: B as the letter following L, i.e. M, the first time, then as the letter following E, i.e. F, the second time and so on.

Scherbius made his machine even more complicated adding more scramblers: the second would turn automatically after the first had completed a round. Thus, three 26 letter-scramblers can create 26 x 26 x 26 = 17,576 combinations. The initial setting (i.e. the key) of all the scramblers determines how the text will be encrypted. This solution significantly reduced the possibility of repetitions, which weakens the cipher. Enigma is a symmetric cipher: knowing the encryption key is sufficient to reverse it and break the code. A brute force attack (an attempt to break the cipher trying all the possible arrangements) would take a very long time. Enigma is well described by Simon Singh in his Code Book (published by Anchor Books, 1999).

Luckily, a German traitor sold the schema of Enigma to the French, who still thought it would be unbreakable. In fact, they could build a machine like the German one, but they still lacked the key, that is the proper configuration of the scramblers. France had signed a collaboration agreement with Poland, and gave the schema of the machine to the Polish Cipher Biuro. The fear of being invaded worked as an excellent Darwinian selective pressure for the Poles, who succeeded in breaking Enigma. Marian Rejewski, a talented statistician, relied on frequency, the enemy of ciphering, to break the code. Even if he knew how the Enigma machine worked, the Germans used to change the key every day. To check all the possible scramblers’ combinations (the “program” of the machine) by means of brute force would require longer than that. Therefore, he devised a machine code-named Bomba, which could quickly check all the keys. More Bombas were actually working in parallel to speed up the deciphering process.

When the war began, Germans had become smarter and Enigma was so complicated that the number of possible keys raised to 159 millions of millions of millions. Way too many for Rejewski’s machine. The film properly describes how, in agreement with Popper’s thought, new ideas emerge in the mind of scientists when facing a problem, and pressure or stress select the fittest to solve it, by means of trial and error. But when a solution is found, sooner or later a new problem, possibly more complicated, usually arises, requiring a more creative tentative solution. The Polish Biuro offered the British an Enigma machine and the blueprints of Bomba. And this is when Turing came in.

Turing had already devised the idea of a “universal machine”, which could solve all solvable mathematical or logical problems, a digital computer, having what it took to give the solution in a short time: processing power. In the film it was nicknamed Christopher, as Turing’s first love at school. He could obtain from the government the £ 100,000 needed to build it, and in 1940 the first prototype was at work at Bletchley. When the scientist realized his thinking machine could break Enigma, he decided not to reveal it, so that the Germans did not know they were being tapped. I think in reality this decision was taken by sir Winston Churchill himself, sacrificing hundreds of civilians, a tragedy which could actually be avoided, since the MI6 was aware of Germany’s imminent attack.

I think computer geeks and Internet enthusiasts will like the film, in which they will also see Turing while training. He was in fact a world class long distance runner, his personal best in the marathon being 2 hrs 46’, only 11 minutes slower than the winner in the 1948 Olympics (as mentioned by his memorial web site). One of his team mates once asked him how he could train so hard. The scientist replied intriguingly: “I have such a stressful job that running hard is the only way I can get it out of my mind”.



Davide Barbieri, PhD, is a Research Fellow  in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Surgical Specialties at the University of Ferrara, davide.barbieri@unife.it

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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – “the Night before Xmas” (week 35)

Nightmares before Christmas? Well, the massacre at the Pakistani school that left 141 victims and several wounded surely is the realization of a very bad one.  The Atlantic’s David Rohde’s wonders about the several billion dollars spent in Pakistan by the US, and what their real effects were.

Among the good news (but you never in international politics) there is the unfreezing of the relations between the US and Cuba. Ellery Biddle on Slate discusses the implications in Internet and mobile technologies of “normalization”, one of the hot topics in the island’s politics.

Israeli drones too celebrate Hanukkah. Of course, this gave birth to quite a debate on Twitter. Whatever the opinion on the unusual wishes, you can find the latest news on the growing importance of drones in Israel’s military doctrine here.

Back to the past, with the always brilliant narrative of Edward Luttwak on The London Review of Books. This time, the argument revolves on how to assess Napoleon’s deeds and legacy. A tyrant aspiring to control or Europe or the liberator from the Ancien Régime? Luttwak discusses it recalling a quarrel with his father driving through Europe.

Last but not least, what will we read for Christmas? Well, in preparation for the release of Clint Eastwood’s new movie – American Sniper – on January 1st (in Italy), why not starting from the book that inspired the story?


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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – Week 31

Hunting for a new SecDef in the US started as Chuck Hagel left his post on Monday. Failing, allegedly, to convince President Obama that the Pentagon has a coherent strategy to deal with ISIS. To fill the vacancy, someone should be very knowledgeable about Russia too.

Drone policy is one of the hottest issues for the CIA as well as the Pentagon, and it also plays an important role in the new season of Homeland. Debate rages on ethics and effectiveness, but it seems that in Iraq and Syria the largest problem for the US is drones’ scarcity.

Given that, how effective is “conventional” airpower in dealing with the issue? DefenseOne provides a calculation of “how many flying hours it takes to kill a terrorist”.

Always on robots, John Little of BlogsofWar discusses the implications of advancements in robotics in a podcast. The argument? Technological innovation might not favor the inventors but rather those who can exploit more fully because they have less ethical constraints.  

Food for thought (as usual) by Stephen Walt. In a list of the Top 5 Foreign Policy Lessons of the Past Twenty Years  you will find controversial and counterintuitive statements. Probably even something that stirs up rage. But it’s realism as it best.

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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 23

As news of the first case of Ebola outbreak on American soil (in Dallas) spread, some experts are evaluating if Ebola can be weaponized and used as a WMD. It seems that the recent discovery of files related to biological weapons development in an Islamic State’s recovered laptop brought attention back to WMD as a tool that can fall into the hands of “terror”.

Re-emerging threats might lead to further expansion of surveillance by security agencies. Activist and software geek Brad Templeton talks on a BigThink video interview about the NSA’s attempt to access to so-called quantum computer technology, which might expand the agency’s ability to break cryptography and manage big data.

Focus on the Middle East sometimes distracts from events happening elsewhere. “Close encounters” between Chinese and US aircrafts in the South China Sea are small but important hints that international politics is on the move in the Pacific.

Defense industry is always on the move, even with budget cuts affecting the several armed forces and leading to downsizing of programs (Italy to begin with). Still, the US military at least is always tuned to exploit new technologies, such as 3D printing, to improve the effectiveness and/or efficiency of some of its processes and programs.

Western prisoners in the hands of IS, not to forget other cases where kidnapping is a consolidated strategy for armed groups, are everyday news. Jumping back in history, it is insightful to read about the experience of the longest held American prisoner of war, John Downey, recluded in a Chinese prison for two decades after the Korean War.





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International Cyber Security Conference, Tel Aviv, 14-15 settembre 2014

Dal nostro agente all’International Cyber Security Conference di Tel Aviv, Marco Mayer*

L’International Cyber Security Conference che si svolge in questi giorni a Tel Aviv e Beer Sheva conferma due evidenze empiriche:

a)     la tradizionale dicotomia tra mondo reale e mondo virtuale sta progressivamente  scomparendo.E’  in corso un processo di rapida confluenza tra cyberspace e gli altri domini. La societa’ contemporanea sara’ sempre piu “intrisa” e “dipendente” dal Cyber, basta pensare  alla sanita’;

b)     la prosperita’ economica, la competitivita  e la sicurezza dipendono dalla capacita’ dei governi di anticipare gli eventi e non subirli. A Tel Aviv ed a Beer Sheva Israele mostra di puntare a diventare un Global Cyber Power, come hanno ribadito i suoi leader a partire dal Premier Netanyahu.

La strategia, gli investimenti e l’organizzazione per raggiungere questo risultato ambizioso sono  stati definiti piu di tre anni fa. I risultati si vedono negli atenei, nei centri di ricerca, nelle forze di sicurezza, nelle aziende, negli ospedali  e soprattutto nella moltitudine di start-up efficienti e creative (sostenute da venture capital) nate nei dintorni delle aule universitarie. Il messaggio e chiaro: o l’ Italia (e i cervelli non mancano) si dà una smossa  (Governo, Università e Imprese)  per misurarsi con la nuova fase della rivoluzione digitale oppure ha poco senso parlare di ripresa economica: non basta un tweet per arrestare il declino.

* Adjunct Professor of “Cyberspace and International Relations” , PhD program, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pis


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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 16. Gaza (and the end of the World Cup)

Israel and Palestine, again. A mini-focus on the past week of conflict is in order. On the objectives of the conflict, given that is possible to find preferences that do not mutate very frequently as the conflict goes on, Nathan Sachs provides a convincing analysis dating to the first days of military confrontation.

A few days ago, as the death toll surpassed 100 among Palestinians in Gaza, Slate’s William Saletan wrote an interesting piece on how discriminate Israeli killings effectively are. While we know that any such attempt is bound to encounter stiff resistance from supporters of both sides, it is nonetheless a sobering read that lays the foundation of a sound debate.

There has been much talk about Israeli’s defense system, the so-called Iron Dome. In this article, the Atlantic’s James Fallows reviews such debate among those who argue that it is saving thousands of Israeli citizens’ lives and those who say that the system is overrated and often failing. In any case, the American Congress apparently does not buy the latter group’s worries and is ready to give more funding to the system.

Moving beyond Gaza, but keeping the focus on technology, MIT’s Technology Review features a company-sponsored piece on which cyber-threats are perceived as most serious in the business world. It is always good to read corporations’ perceptions of what security is for them, especially in a field where private-public cooperation is central. It also interesting that “bitcoin” is the first (though not surprising, the article is sponsored by Spanish bank BBVA).

Finally, well there is already more than 5 articles suggested this week. If you have spare time, a brilliant Cambridge politics Professor’s account of the World Cup that just ended. For those of you reading Italian, this is a short commentary by Pierluigi Pardo, one of the country foremost football commentators (among the most important jobs one can have in Italy).

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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – Week 13: Oh no, Iraq again

Difficult to stay away from what happens in Iraq. A lot of stuff posted these days on how effectively ISIS works, how badly al-Maliki manages the country and how blind the American intelligence process is. The Iraqi army has been also completely unprepared to face the challenge posed by ISIS, as Foreign Policy’s Gordon Lubold reports.

Among the narratives about ISIS, there is a widespread view of the inevitability of its successes, resembling very much the myth of invincible guerrillas that populated the 20th Century. William Saletan argues that current successes should not overshadow the ISIS is “breaking the rules” that should drive the conduct of such type of organizations. One might not agrees with on how Saletan’s argument runs, but it is at least a heterodox view.

What to do now? Hard to say. It is like suggesting a different line-up for teams after they lost the last game of the season. One of the solutions that are often voiced is the use of air power. This article of Erica Borghard and Costantino Pischedda cools off the enthusiasm for such a type of action. Where it was used, it did not achieve the desired end state and in this case it might actually “prevent the emergence of a stalemate in the battlefield, which could trigger the fragmentation of the insurgent coalition”. A thoughtful article in support of the “don’t do stupid sh*t” policy of the Obama Administration. The dangers of inaction are serious, but one should never underestimate the dangers of action.

American grand strategy on the Middle East is the subject of much debate these days (actually, it is always the case). William Polk, a distinguished American diplomat and scholar who spent a career working on the region, provides a sober assessment of what the US could do there, including some nostalgic comments about a time when it seemed possible to effectively achieve more long term results with foreign policy.

Finally, the Federation of American Scientists recently released the Spring issue of its Public Interest Report. It is a great read for anyone interested in the intersection between science, technology and society. For those who share Venus in Arms’ attention to drones, this a must-read piece on how Hezbollah flies drones into the Israeli air space.



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La rotta della Cina, tra l’Asia e il mondo

Guest post di Simone Dossi*

La cronaca della politica internazionale ci ha abituato a vedere nella Cina una nascente potenza navale. È questa la percezione che prevale se si guarda all’Asia orientale, dove Pechino appare sempre più intransigente nella difesa delle proprie rivendicazioni su isole e acque contese. Le tensioni hanno raggiunto livelli di guardia soprattutto con il Giappone, con le dure reazioni cinesi alla decisione assunta dal governo di Tokyo nel 2012 di nazionalizzare le isole Senkaku, rivendicate da Pechino con il nome di Diaoyu. A questa percepita intransigenza contribuiscono i progressi compiuti nella modernizzazione della Marina militare cinese, con la consegna di una prima portaerei nel 2012 e continue indiscrezioni di stampa sulla costruzione di una seconda e forse anche di una terza portaerei.

Se però si allarga l’orizzonte temporale, questo interesse della Cina per i mari appare in discontinuità con la tradizione di più lunga durata della politica di sicurezza del paese. Sin dalla fine del XVII secolo, infatti, la Cina ha attribuito agli spazi marittimi una valenza militare secondaria rispetto alle periferie continentali. Certo, storicamente i mari hanno giocato un ruolo decisivo nell’equazione della potenza cinese: il dominio esercitato dalla marina mercantile cinese sulle acque della regione ha contribuito significativamente alla prosperità economica del paese nella fase di maggior splendore della dinastia Qing. Dal punto di vista militare, tuttavia, questi stessi spazi marittimi presentavano agli occhi dei governanti cinesi un valore tutto sommato marginale. Prevaleva in questo senso un orientamento continentale, che sarebbe stato confermato anche nei primi tre decenni di vita della Repubblica popolare cinese – dominati appunto dal problema della sicurezza alle frontiere continentali.

Per comprendere le ragioni di questa recente discontinuità si deve guardare alle interazioni fra nuovi interessi regionali e nascenti interessi globali della Cina contemporanea. Più in particolare, si deve risalire ai primi anni Ottanta: fu infatti allora – sullo sfondo delle profonde trasformazioni economiche e politiche attraversate dal paese – che gli spazi marittimi dell’Asia orientale acquisirono per Pechino un valore strategico del tutto nuovo. Sin dal decennio precedente, rilevazioni compiute nei mari dell’Asia orientale avevano suggerito la presenza di considerevoli riserve di idrocarburi nel sottosuolo. Seguiva l’occupazione di isole e scogli da parte di taluni Stati della regione, in particolare le Filippine e l’allora Vietnam del sud. L’autorità della Cina su spazi marittimi formalmente rivendicati ma di fatto fuori dal controllo di Pechino veniva messa in discussione, proprio nel momento in cui la traiettoria della politica interna cinese – tutta orientata verso nuove priorità di sviluppo economico – caricava di un valore senza precedenti le risorse potenzialmente contenute nei mari contesi. Da qui un nuovo interesse per le acque regionali, cui corrispondeva un’espansione geografica del raggio d’azione della Marina militare, con il passaggio dalla dottrina della “difesa costiera” (jin’an fangyu, 近岸防御) a quella della “difesa nei mari vicini” (jinhai fangyu, 近海防御).

Un secondo, decisivo fattore si sarebbe aggiunto negli anni Novanta: il manifestarsi di forti spinte indipendentiste sull’isola di Taiwan. Sin dal 1949 un tacito accordo aveva regolato le relazioni tra Pechino e Taipei, dietro lo scontro ideologico e oltre le ricorrenti crisi militari: l’esistenza di un’unica Cina, di cui tanto il continente quanto l’isola di Taiwan erano considerati parte. Ma il processo di democratizzazione vissuto da Taiwan tra fine anni Ottanta e inizio anni Novanta aveva aperto nuovi varchi per posizioni di aperto indipendentismo. Lo status quo che per quarant’anni aveva retto le pur burrascose relazioni tra le due sponde dello Stretto appariva a rischio come mai prima, e ancor di più l’obiettivo di una conclusiva riunificazione nazionale. Per Pechino si poneva quindi l’esigenza di mettere in atto un’efficace strategia di deterrenza, che prevenisse una formale dichiarazione d’indipendenza di Taipei con la minaccia di un inesorabile ricorso alla forza armata. Taiwan era dopo tutto un’isola, e la credibilità di questa strategia di deterrenza chiamava in causa le capacità navali della Repubblica popolare cinese: i mari divenivano così centrali nel calcolo di sicurezza nazionale.

Controllo sulle acque contese, riunificazione nazionale: a questi interessi regionali si sarebbe aggiunto – con l’inizio del nuovo secolo – anche un interesse marittimo potenzialmente globale. Sempre più integrata nel sistema economico internazionale, per il proprio sviluppo economico la Cina dipendeva ormai in modo cruciale dai commerci con l’estero, condotti prevalentemente via mare: nell’arco di 15 anni, dal 1992 al 2007, il valore del commercio estero via mare era passato da poco più del 20 a poco meno del 40 per cento del prodotto interno lordo cinese. Per la Cina diveniva quindi cruciale la sicurezza delle vie di comunicazione marittima internazionali: sorgeva cioè un nuovo interesse alla sicurezza marittima, non più circoscritto alle acque della regione bensì potenzialmente esteso ad acque globali. Ne derivava una nuova espansione del raggio d’azione della Marina militare, verso “mari lontani” (yuanhai, 远海). La partecipazione della Cina alle attività internazionali di contrasto della pirateria al largo della Somalia rappresenta la più chiara manifestazione di questo superamento dei confini dell’Asia orientale.

Dietro alla discontinuità si intravede così una complessa interazione fra interessi regionali e interessi globali: e a ben vedere proprio questa interazione offre un’efficace chiave di lettura dell’ascesa della Cina e del suo impatto sull’ordine internazionale a guida americana. In effetti la compresenza di regionale e globale è la cifra stessa dell’ascesa della Cina – potenza regionale con evidenti propensioni globali, ma tuttora incapace di compiere il salto verso lo status di potenza pienamente globale. D’altro canto, proprio all’intersezione di piano regionale e piano globale si gioca la partita delle relazioni tra la Cina in ascesa e l’egemone in carica, gli Stati Uniti: l’accesso militare all’Asia orientale resta un tassello fondamentale del potere globale degli Stati Uniti, ed è per questo che lo sviluppo di capacità di anti-access/area denial da parte cinese viene percepito a Washington come una sfida decisiva per il futuro dell’egemonia americana.

Simone Dossi, PhD, è Research Associate al Torino World Affairs Institute (T.WAI). Una versione di questo articolo è apparso di recente su OrizzonteCina

In libreria: Simone Dossi, Rotte cinesi. Teatri marittimi e dottrina militare, prefazione di Alessandro Colombo, Milano, Università Bocconi Editore, 2014.


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Call for Papers: ISA New Orleans 2015



The International Studies Association (ISA) has  announced the 56th Annual Convention, February 18th-21st 2015 in New Orleans. Proposal submissions deadline is June 1st, 2014.

Here the Proposal Guidelines

The Title of the 2015 ISA Conference will be: Global IR and Regional Worlds: A New Agenda for International Studies.

Here the Call for Papers

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