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New International Relations Professor Investigates Big Questions

September 29, 2017

Professor Tanisha Fazal

Professor Tanisha Fazal
Professor Tanisha Fazal

Tanisha Fazal is an associate professor who joined the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota in fall 2017. She is very excited to join a new crop of professors in the international relations subfield. 

Fazal is attracted to big, unanswered questions that cover large spans of history. For example, why have some states disappeared from the map of the world? How does the development of humanitarian law impact wars between states versus wars within states? How do improvements in military medicine affected the downstream costs of war and our concepts of the cost of war?

When Nations Live in a Bad Neighborhood

Her first book, State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Annexation, and Occupation, examined why certain nations disappear from the map. After finding the standard list of states to be too Eurocentric, Fazal “spent hours sneezing through archives” constructing a more accurate list that included nations later colonized by imperial powers. Then through conducting statistical tests and case studies Fazal was able to isolate which states were in a particularly high risk group for death.

Fazal explains, “States that were located in bad neighborhoods, and by bad neighborhood I mean specifically between two other states engaged in a rivalry,” are the ones most likely to die. One particularly interesting case was Poland, as it was conquered and then reborn several times throughout its history. But this changed after the end of World War II. “While there were still bad neighborhoods for states,” says Fazal, “it was no longer acceptable to take territory in the way that it had been in the past before the UN Charter required that members respect the political independence and territorial integrity of states. So instead of suffering state ‘death,’ buffer states today are much more vulnerable to interference in their domestic politics by the states that would have taken their territory in the past.”

All the sneezing was worth it. State Death made a significant impact on the field of international relations, winning the 2008 Best Book Award in the Conflict Processes Section of the American Political Science Association.

Wars of Law: Unintended Consequences in the Regulation of Armed Conflict, Fazal’s forthcoming book, looks at how the development of international humanitarian law or the laws of war governing belligerent conduct during an armed conflict, like the Geneva Conventions, has had very different implications for wars between states versus wars within states. Now that international humanitarian law has proliferated Fazal says, “I found that as the laws of war have proliferated over time, states increasingly want to create ambiguity as to whether these laws apply to their wars with each other. Thus, we’ve seen a real decrease in formal declarations of war to begin interstate wars, and also peace treaties to end them.”

However, specific groups engaged in civil war, secessionists, are particularly likely to engage with the laws of war. Secessionists, groups that want to have their own independent state, are less likely to target civilians. Strong secessionist groups are also especially likely to make public commitments not to use landmines. “There’s a catch, though,” according to Fazal, “in that secessionists are expecting rewards from the international community for this kind of good behavior. But the fact is that the international community rarely gives out the most important reward – recognition of a new state.”

The High Costs of Casualties

Currently Fazal is focused on researching military medicine and the changing costs of war. This topic became prominent in Fazal’s thoughts after reading research that claimed war was on the decline based on war becoming less fatal. As a percentage of those deployed, more US military personnel are returning home from wars than ever before. What is more, they are returning home with injuries they would not have survived in the past. However, Fazal claims, “Our conceptions of the costs of war are stuck in the past, and tend to focus on the in-theater budget outlays and fatalities as the main costs of war.”

Given the state of military medicine today it is critical to think about the costs of caring for the returned wounded. “Ignoring these costs makes it too easy to go to war in the first place.” Even though war has become less fatal, that in itself doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s less frequent or costly.

Fazal’s research into military medicine has increasingly brought her outside of the archives and classroom. “These recent projects have led me to engage increasingly with the policy world, Fazal says. “I’ve given briefings at the UN in both Geneva and New York, and am also working with some of the US military academies on the military medicine project. It’s been both illuminating and a lot of fun to stretch myself in these ways, and I look forward to continuing this kind of outreach. I want to make sure policy makers have a clearer understanding of the long-term costs of war.”

In addition to standard classes in international relations, Fazal plans to develop a new class, Medicine and War, that addresses issues such as the often-deadly interplay between disease and war – “think here about the possible relationship between the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia and the deadliness of the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa” – as well as how children are affected by war-induced trauma. This class will be of interest to students across the university, not just political science students, including pre-med and public health students.