Research in the archives: Considering a key historical practice in the pandemic world

One of the most important experiences in the process of historical research is archival work. Working in the archives can be painstaking and cumbersome work, sometimes bordering on the endless. It is not difficult to become bogged down by the enormity of the experience and the sheer vastness of available resources. In these instances, it is important to take a step back and take in all of what the archives have to offer.

Let’s take a step back. Picture Rome and its tourist-filled restaurants. Picture the age-old cobblestone paths and bustling piazzas. These sites date back centuries—older parts, millennia. It is among the oldest continually inhabited places in continental Europe, an ancient city of rich and storied history.

As much as Rome proper is worth discussion, for sake of arguments, let’s look south.

South of the bustling, center of Rome is a quieter city district called EUR, acronymized from Esposizione Universale Roma, originally intended for the 1942 World’s Fair that would never take place. EUR is a district marked with several fascist-era landmarks as well as contemporary architecture markedly different from that of the older, tighter, storied, and romantic districts of Rome to its north.

This Roman district, founded on fascist ideals and architecture, still thrives today and remains a site of international interest. On the corner of the Via Cristoforo Colombo, the main thoroughfare of the district, and the Viale Europa sits the convention center that served as the site of 2021’s G20 Rome Summit.

Turning left on the Viale Europa from the Via Cristoforo Colombo, one becomes immediately aware that the road hits a dead end. An imposing complex grows ever closer as the road nears its end. That complex is the Archivio Centrale dello Stato, or the Central Archives of the State (ACS), a commanding edifice that stands out even among the many landmarks of EUR. It is, of course, a site of paramount importance to scholars of Italian history far and wide.

During the first week of November 2021, I found myself on the Via Cristoforo Colombo for the first time, on my way to the ACS on a research visit in service to my master’s dissertation at the London School of Economics. It was just days after the end of the 2021 G20; the conference center on the corner of the Via Cristoforo Colombo and the Viale Europa was still clad in G20 advertisement. I was behind the wheel of a Toyota CH-R, somewhat hobbled by a bout of tendonitis in my foot brought on by an exhausting weekend at an academic retreat at Cumberland Lodge. It was not my first trip to an archive, but with it being my first time in Rome I had very little off which to base my expectations. What I encountered there was very much beyond any expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, the ACS is a complicated place. In more recent years, the archive has moved toward online tracking systems and attempted to reign in what appears to have been a rather unruly and disorganized collection. To some extent it remains so, with some documents randomly scattered in the wrong collections or missing altogether (probably scattered in more obscure collections). As imperfect as the ACS is, though, researching there is a one-of-a-kind experience.

The ACS was the first large-scale archive I’d ever visited. I had perused smaller and virtual archives previously, self-contained collections whose size limited the possibility of becoming unruly and disorganized (by archival standards). To sit with ACS documents was sobering, exhilarating, and fear-inducing all at the same time. It is easy to get lost in the perusing and scanning of such documents and, indeed, I did find myself lost in the text frequently. Moreover, working constantly in a KN95 mask provided its own difficulties. Conducting such research in the pandemic era is challenging and makes an already exhausting process seem even more so.

In times such as these, I found it necessary to maintain a sense of perspective. No matter how much time is spent in the archives, it is important to keep in mind that one will never leave the archives with the documents they expect to find. Working in the archives is a dynamic rather than a static process; one will find documents they are looking for, and even helpful documents they did not intend to find. Keeping an open mind about such documents can and will serve as inspiration for future research projects. It is also likely some documents will never be found, no matter how hard one tries—understanding this provides a sorely needed sense of peace in the tumultuous flood of papers.

It is also important to maintain a sense of appreciation for the effort that goes into collecting and maintaining archival collections. Archivists go to great lengths to ensure that the vast majority of documents remain where they are supposed to be while also ensuring that they are not subject to degradation in their day-to-day storage and use by sometimes careless patrons. To expect an archive to be 100% complete or 100% accurate would be beyond unrealistic, and researchers can be further at peace recognizing this and acknowledging the painstaking and mostly behind-the-scenes work of their archivists.

Working in the archives in the pandemic era is a sometimes more difficult analog of archives in regular times, and even then archives can be difficult beasts to reckon with. Keeping an open mind while in such spaces is paramount, as is the importance of taking breaks and time outside of the structures themselves to reflect on the documents that have already been unearthed.

It is most definitely counterintuitive to believe and expect archives to hold all the answers before arrival, and such thoughts represent a great recipe for disappointment and frustration. In the pandemic era, as with before, it is especially important to keep a level head and a sense of perspective about the work one does and the work that goes into making it possible.

After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

On Approaching the Practice of History: Reflections on Dialogue from Project Edinburgh Co-Founder Zach Phil Schwartz

It was late 1944. Allied forces had landed on France’s shores and begun a cascading series of operations that would ultimately spell the end of the Third Reich and its Axis partners. While partisans engaged Nazi occupiers in Paris as the Allies steamed toward the city, political figures from the alliance met in Washington, D.C., to discuss what would come next. The conferences that would follow at Dumbarton Oaks, the Harvard institute and former home of benefactors Robert and Mildred Bliss (who gifted the property to the university four years earlier) would eventually give rise to the United Nations.

Even in times of war can we see the human spirit, stubborn in its pursuit for peace, justice, and progress, peek through. In the decades that followed those discussions at Dumbarton Oaks, dialogues within international networks have been instrumental in maintaining global peace and security, particularly behind the scenes.

It is with this in mind that I have embarked on my path as a historian, researching international networks in the modern era, both overt and covert, to better understand how and why important political actors exerted influence in their respective states, for better or for worse. This has taken me from the monumental 1873 visit of Shah Naser al-Din to Europe to 1940s/1950s attempts to build an International Penal Court at the Long Island (and later New York) home of the United Nations.

Much of this research has involved investigations into interwar fascist networks with Italy at their core, in efforts to better understand how mid- to low-level bureaucrats exerted influence within the fascist party structure. To research this becomes all the more important given the resurgence of the global right and the unfortunate reappearance of the fascist scourge.


As the study of history moves forward, it remains important to understand how the events of the past may be studied to better understand what is happening today. This is one of the principal ideas motivating my work and that of Project Edinburgh.

We began Project Edinburgh as an endeavor in writing to find and workshop novel approaches to the practice of history. On this website you will find pieces commentating on history as it pertains to current events. You will find research proposals seeking to advance the way we approach and frame our craft. You will find ideas and commentary on the practice of writing in history itself.

You may encounter thoughts you find insightful and conceptions you disagree with. You may even encounter both things in the same piece. This is, I believe, the true essence of the historical craft. In taking this approach to the writing and framing of history I hope to channel this essence into the same type of dialogue that is embodied in the human spirit and to contribute to the development of our craft as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. Perhaps through this dialogue we can build upon old ideas and construct new methods for working with and writing on history, and perhaps through this dialogue we can promote a more equitable and just field of study.

Welcome to the continuing conversation on writing in history. Welcome to Project Edinburgh.

The Beginning of History: Russia, Ukraine, and the Global Order

This piece first appeared in The Webster Blog (from The Webster Review of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science) – 9 March 2022


Featured Image: Anti-War Protest in Support of Ukraine, 10 Downing St, London
Taken by author on site, February 2022

On 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, promising to “de-nazify” and “de-militarize” a country (with a Jewish president, no less) that it claimed was a threat to Russian interests and to Russian-speaking communities within. This escalated an eight-year-old conflict within eastern Ukraine that had recently boiled over into Russian recognition of separatist governments within Luhansk and Donetsk. President Putin had, just days prior, made the case that Ukraine had no claim to sovereignty. 

Ukraine, of course, has full claim to sovereignty and should enjoy the freedom to chart its own future. As in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia has directly infringed upon all Ukrainians’ collective right to enjoy this sovereignty as well as to live in peace. Ukrainian society has all but come to a screeching halt in the face of the Russian invasion force, terrorized by incessant shelling and urban warfare. 

Although Ukrainian forces have, to this date, managed to resist the Russian onslaught, the situation continues to deteriorate. Hundreds of non-combatants have died, including 38 Ukrainian children (as of 6 March 2022). The continued shelling of Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, Sumy, and others, which has leveled numerous businesses and homes, is shaking the foundations of Ukrainian society. Evidence mounts by the day that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine as a refugee crisis mounts, in which over two million people have fled the country.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is part of a broader quest for power, ongoing for most of his time in the Kremlin. Despite a weak economy largely reliant upon a single commodity (oil), he remains emboldened by the veto that Russia’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) delegation has on top of the massive nuclear stockpile inherited from the Soviet Union. The events of the past week have captured international attention as well as NATO concern. However, NATO is as paralyzed to stop Russia from committing atrocities as the organization had been to stop the Soviet Union from its Cold War aggressions.

The war in Ukraine is a symptom of wider trends within international history that further indicates an urgent need to reform global institutions and power structures to ensure that crises like this can be prevented or stopped before becoming full-blown calamities. 

The Nineties in International Relations

Our postwar order was strong enough to hold through the Cold War and into what Francis Fukuyama once called “the end of history,” an idea and article namesake adapted in the dying days of the Soviet Union to herald the global adoption of liberal democracy. Liberal values championed by an increasingly unipolar world—led by the triumphant United States—appeared to be victorious. Soon-to-be ex-Soviet satellites democratized, reorganized, and internationalized. NATO expanded and the European Union formally came into being. The Berlin Wall fell and, soon after, so did the Soviet state. 

Not all was as peaceful as Czechoslovakia’s and Poland’s 1989 revolutions, though. The nineties also brought the collapse of federated Yugoslavia, which devolved into ethnic conflict, bloodshed, and genocide. International criminal law, no longer bound by stalwart opposition in the UNSC, was able to emerge and prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. In 1998, the Rome Statute was adopted, paving the way for the International Criminal Court’s functional beginning in 2002.

Indeed, the international political landscape of the 1990s lent no lack of plausible evidence to assert a final political victory for the liberal internationalist world. And while Fukuyama’s assessment of contemporary China underestimated the eventual political ability of the CCP to remain in place given increased market liberalization and global integration, at the time further liberalization could have been a plausible projection: especially so given the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre occurring just as his article was published. 

These projections did prove, though, to be inaccurate. History would continue. 

Putin in the World

Putin’s rise to power and ability to maintain power was not foreseeable at Fukuyama’s “end of history.” It has, however, shown that liberal democracy and the international order is not the end stage of political history. Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy with himself in the center, supported by a billionaire class (commonly referred to as “oligarchs”) that he enriches. Political freedom is sparse and viable opponents oftentimes find themselves targets of the regime.

He has long sought to destabilize both his neighbors and members of NATO. Tales of coup attempts and political interference typify his strategy, which has normally been one of subterfuge and disinformation. 

The American intelligence community concluded that Russia was behind attempts to interfere in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, as part of a broader campaign to sow discord in the society of Russia’s main Cold War foe. President  Trump (as a candidate and then in office) showed great deference to Russia, and his own brash style only further fomented societal fissures in the United States. By 6 January 2021, political rancor spilled over into violence as Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol complex, which resulted in several casualties. The United States today is arguably as divided politically as it has ever been since its Civil War.

British intelligence has also concluded that there was likely Russian involvement in pushing disinformation in the leadup to the 2016 Brexit referendum. Regardless of whether this disinformation was effective enough to sway the vote in one direction or the other, it still occurred. Political divisions in the UK still widened. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, which left Europe divided and arguably weakened. 

Across the European continent, Putin has engaged Russia with far-right, populist, and Eurosceptic parties and politicians that turn inward with nationalistic rhetoric that further harms the “end of history” European alliance. He has been linked with, to name a few, the Italian far-right leader of the Lega party Matteo Salvini, the French nationalist (and one-time ‘Frexit’ supporter) Marine Le Pen, and the “illiberal democrat” Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. Each has contributed to a respective turn away from either liberal democracy or from internationalism, or both, which—just like political divisions in the United States and United Kingdom—serve Putin’s goals. 

Even wackier stories still percolate about more overt interference in the global order. Also in 2016, Russia was accused of orchestrating a coup attempt in Montenegro on the eve of a vote on NATO accession, which would eventually occur early in 2017. Russia, against all NATO expansion, stood to gain from a successful coup, which did not occur.

This is not to say that Putin is behind every event that has proven to undermine NATO and its allies. He did not invent populism, Euroscepticism, and nationalism. But he did stand to gain from all that has occurred in the last few years, from divisions in the U.S. and UK to growing tensions in the European Union to restrictions on NATO expansion. Russia’s covert involvement only served to Putin’s benefit, with the added bonus of increased plausible deniability.

In all that has been going on in the U.S. and Europe, it is easy for Ukraine to get lost in the fray, when it has been a primary objective of Putin’s for years.

Russia and Ukraine

Ukraine declared independence—supported by overwhelming margins of the populace—in 1991, just two years after Fukuyama’s article. It has since maintained a complicated relationship within the global theater of international relations, moving back and forth between European and Russian influences. Revolutions in 2004 and 2014 followed by the Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea as well as the proceeding war in Donbas set the stage for the late-2021 and early-2022 events that culminated in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The 2004 Orange Revolution represented a bloodless political shockwave in Ukraine in opposition to political corruption and election rigging. Pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych’s initial win, annulled by the country’s supreme court after allegations of falsified results, was turned into a loss to Viktor Yushchenko, a more pro-European politician who had survived a dioxin poisoning under mysterious circumstances.

In 2010, Yanukovych managed to secure the presidency after defeating pro-Europe Yulia Tymoshenko in a free and fair election, only to be ejected in 2014 by a Ukrainian population angered at the former’s deference for Russia and hesitancy to sign an EU-Ukraine Association pact. The Euromaidan Revolution (or Revolution of Dignity) expelled Yanukovych from the presidency, which ended up in the hands of Petro Poroshenko, a pro-European billionaire who was in power when the Russians occupied Crimea and Russian-supported separatist movements broke out in the east of the country.

Current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former actor and comedian, took power in 2019 on an anti-corruption and pro-European platform. He has emerged as a firebrand for his country and is, right now, an international hero for his bravery and leadership in today’s crisis. 

The Return of the End of History?

The story of Ukraine as we know it is a story of a tug of war between European and Russian influences, and the national ethos of Ukraine has drifted significantly towards Europe. 

Ukraine’s continued drift towards the EU and the majority’s clear aspiration to become members of the European Union (and even NATO) is unacceptable to Putin, whose grand vision to restore Russian power relies on Ukraine’s alignment with Moscow, just as it does with Putin-aligned dictator Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.

Having undermined the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe, Putin calculated that now—when the liberal internationalist states are distracted and divided—is as good a time as ever to move forward on that plan. Had his calculations been correct, and had the Ukrainian resistance been scant and divided, perhaps Putin’s invasion would have had a more successful start. 

His calculations, though, were not correct. The invasion has galvanized a Ukrainian nation he grossly misunderstands, pushing it directly into the arms of the European Union and to NATO’s doorstep—exactly the opposite of what he wanted. European nations—even the Eurosceptic ones (and most Putin-affiliated politicians)—have largely come together in the face of Russian aggression. The United States and the United Kingdom, putting aside the partisan divides that still afflict them, have again taken leading roles in addressing the crisis and shoring up NATO defenses. 

It hasn’t been enough, though. NATO’s response is a testament to its overall resiliency, but this is not further evidence of Fukuyama’s conceptualization of the “end of history.”

The Beginning of History

Russian aggression continues still. The shelling of civilians—war crimes—continues. Most of the world is united in the face of aggression, to a point. Allied nations have levied crippling economic sanctions, more so than ever before. And while the sanctions have an important role to play in grinding the Russian war machine to a halt, they still reflect the physical powerlessness of Ukraine’s friends. 

There have been calls for the United States, which has the most powerful military of the NATO alliance, to establish a no-fly zone over the skies of Ukraine in a bid to keep Russian aircraft out of its airspace. The US and NATO have been reluctant to take such measures because they may result in physical altercations with Russian forces and a possible invocation of NATO’s collective defense provision, Article 5. In such an event, Russia (and probably Belarus, and perhaps other actors friendly to Russia/unfriendly to NATO) could find itself in a full-blown war with the entire alliance. 

We all know a full-blown war would not end well; it’s quite possible it would be a short affair involving nuclear weaponry that would quickly wipe out both sides—and with them, complex life on this planet for centuries. We here fall into a classic tenet of international relations in the nuclear age, mutually assured destruction (MAD), which has so far stopped one nation from launching such weaponry for fear that the chain of responses would simply destroy everything. 

No one can guarantee, though, that MAD will always hold.

Other than its sheer geographical size, Russia does not have very much going for it these days. It has a rather one-dimensional economy now on the verge of collapse due to mounting sanctions. It does, though, still have its nuclear weaponry, and it can continue to hold the world hostage through threats of nuclear war should they involve themselves in the current affair. It’s P-5 status at the UNSC (a permanent member holding veto power over all UNSC resolutions), inherited from the Soviet Union, further stymies any United Nations-based responses that could hold any sway. In this way Russia acts not too dissimilar from its predecessor. 

This is one of the fundamental issues of the current global order, and it is directly contributing to UN and NATO powerlessness to do anything about atrocities being committed daily by Russian forces in Ukraine. It also makes de-escalation that much harder, as Russia—despite quickly becoming an international pariah—still by UN Charter and by its nuclear status holds as much international power as does the United States, China, France, and the United Kingdom.

If this is how the “end of history” envisions global order, i.e., a perpetuation ad infinitum of a system built and concentrated amongst powers allied in 1945, then aggression, conflict, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide cannot be stopped. History since 1989 has shown time and again: a serious reconsideration of global order is required.

This reconsideration first relies upon a serious and sincere commitment to non-proliferation and full denuclearization. As long as a single nuclear weapon remains on this planet, peace cannot be assured. They are too powerful and too destructive for any one nation to hold, particularly one who uses them to scare adversaries into submission. 

The United Nations itself requires some commendation for having held up as long as it has, significantly longer than its predecessor. Its Charter, though, requires amendments. There are significant issues in concentrating the organization’s security power amongst five members that can individually torpedo any resolution. While the veto is an important piece of the UNSC, there are certainly ways it can be augmented that could mitigate usage with malicious intent, i.e., requiring multiple non-permanent members to sign off on one.

The UN Charter itself allows for amendments in Chapter XVIII, Articles 108 and 109. In frustrating irony, amendments require full agreement among the P-5 members and any one veto can end the process, and that’s that. 

It cannot hurt, though, to envision how to better perfect our international system. Perhaps one day soon there will be international consensus, forged in a realization of universal humanity or in the costly crucible of war, on doing so. For then we must be ready to act and provide these ideas. Then, perhaps, history can truly begin: of a truly global, peaceful, and united human experience.

A Concluding Prayer for Ukraine

For now, though, it is imperative to support the people of Ukraine in any way possible. Donate. Provide monetary support. Protest. Make your voice heard. May the people of Ukraine be safe and may its defenders succeed in their tough but righteous mission. May peace swiftly return to a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine.

Slava Ukraini.

Glory to Ukraine.


To donate, or find other ways to help the people of Ukraine, follow the links below:

BBC, Ukraine Help: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-60562260 

International Rescue Committee: https://www.rescue-uk.org/ 

Oxfam DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal: https://www.oxfam.org.uk/oxfam-in-action/current-emergencies/ukraine-crisis-appeal/

UNICEF, Children in Need: https://www.unicef.org.uk/donate/donate-now-to-protect-children-in-ukraine/ 

UK Government, Helping Ukraine: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ukraine-what-you-can-do-to-help 


Bibliography

Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The December 1, 1991 Referendum/Presidential Election in Ukraine. Washington, D.C., 1992.

Dixon, Robyn. “In Long Speech, Putin Recognizes Two Ukrainian  Regions as Independent, a Potential Pretext for War.” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), 21 February 2022, Europe. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/21/putin-speech-ukraine/.

Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?”. The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 3-18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184.

Herszenhorn, David M., and Lili Bayer. “Strongmen Strut Their Stuff as Orbán Visits Putin in Russia.” POLITICO, 1 February 2022. https://www.politico.eu/article/viktor-orban-vladimir-putin-hungary-russia-kremlin-meeting/.

Hopkins, Valerie. “Indictment Tells Murky Montenegrin Coup Tale.” POLITICO, 23 May 2017. https://www.politico.eu/article/montenegro-nato-milo-dukanovicmurky-coup-plot/.

The Kyiv Independent. Twitter post. 6 March, 2022, 11:41 a.m. GMT. https://twitter.com/KyivIndependent/status/1500436382807900162

Mueller, Robert S. III. Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2017 Presidential Election. Washington, D.C., 2019.

Nardelli, Alberto. “Revealed: The Explosive Secret Recording That Shows How Russia Tried to Funnel Millions to the “European Trump”.” BuzFeed News, 10 July 2019. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/albertonardelli/salvini-russia-oil-deal-secret-recording.

Roth, Andrew, Shaun Walker, Jennifer Rankin, and Julian Borger. “Putin Signals Escalation as He Puts Russia’s Nuclear Force on High Alert.” The Guardian (London), 27 February 2022, Europe. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/27/vladimir-putin-puts-russia-nuclear-deterrence-forces-on-high-alert-ukraine.

Ruy, Donatienne, “Did Russia Influence Brexit?,” Brexit Bits, Bobs, and Blogs, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 21 July, 2020, https://www.csis.org/blogs/brexit-bits-bobs-and-blogs/did-russia-influence-brexit.

Sabbagh, Dan. “Researchers Gather Evidence of Possible Russian War Crimes in Ukraine.” The Guardian (London), 2 March 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/02/researchers-gather-evidence-of-possible-russian-war-crimes-in-ukraine.

Seddon, Max, and Michael Stothard. “Putin Awaits Return on Le Pen Investment.” Financial Times (London), 4 May 2017, French Politics. https://www.ft.com/content/010eec62-30b5-11e7-9555-23ef563ecf9a.

Swan, Jonathan, Zachary Basu, and Sophia Cai. “Scoop: Zelensky Pushes Biden on No-Fly Zone.” Axios, 28 February 2022, World. https://www.axios.com/ukraine-no-fly-zone-zelensky-biden-russia-851f0309-902c-4215-b993-70cb042bf948.html.

Timsit, Annabelle, Timothy Bella, Max Bearak, and Emily Rauhala. “In historic crisis, 2 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of Russian invasion, U.N. says.” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), 8 March 2022, Europe. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/08/ukraine-refugees-2-million-russia/.

Troinovski, Anton. “Putin Announces a ‘Military Operation’ in Ukraine as the U.N. Security Council Pleads with Him to Pull Back.” The New York Times (New York), 23 February 2022, Europe. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/world/europe/putin-announces-a-military-operation-in-ukraine-as-the-un-security-council-pleads-with-him-to-pull-back.html.

United Nations. Charter of the United Nations ch. XVIII art. 108-109, Codification Division Publications: Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs. United Nations. https://legal.un.org/repertory/art108_109.shtml#:~:text=%E2%80%9CAmendments%20to%20the%20present%20Charter,Members%20of%20the%20United%20Nations%2C

Threats to attack cultural sites undermine American values

Featured Image: International Criminal Court, The Hague, The Netherlands.
Taken by author on site, 2/1/17

On January 4th, President Trump tweeted that if Iran were to retaliate in response to the recent American elimination of Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, over 50 Iranian cultural sites would be targeted.[1] The prospective destruction of cultural history would be far more destructive than the attacks that caused them, as cultural sites represent invaluable symbols of our collective history. Cultural sites are not meant to be military targets; they are, rather, supposed to continually educate us about a human past that grows further by the day. Cultural sites are, further, recognized as important to us and are protected under international law.

If American forces were to target Iranian cultural sites, or any cultural site anywhere for that matter, they would be committing war crimes.

A great deal of my first master’s thesis focused on the successes and failures of international criminal law (ICL) and their impact on deterring further crimes prosecutable in international criminal institutions. To boil down a few central points of the thesis, the current iteration of ICL leaves much room for growth, but there have been noted successes in prosecuting war criminals on a variety of counts. Just a few years ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) successfully convicted an individual on charges of destruction of cultural sites in Mali.

That individual’s name is Ahmed Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi. He was an officer in an Islamist militia operating in Mali that targeted sites in the ancient city of Timbuktu. Mali referred the situation taking place within its borders to the International Criminal Court, and an indictment and arrest warrant was handed down on Al-Mahdi on September 18, 2015.[2] Following his arrest in Niger, Al-Mahdi was taken to The Hague, where he was put on trial for destruction of cultural property, specifically under Article 8(2) of the Rome Statute, a section of the ICC’s governing document that outlines war crimes.[3] He was found guilty of destruction of cultural property and sentenced to 9 years imprisonment.[4]

Long enshrined in international law (much of the Rome Statute is based on previous Geneva Conventions), targeting cultural heritage is not simply just a war crime. It is prosecutable.

Now, neither Iran nor the United States are ratifiers of the Rome Statute and thus neither of the two are members of the ICC. As such, unless Iran grants it, the ICC would not have nominal jurisdiction over any crimes enumerated in the Rome Statute, including the destruction of cultural sites. This, though is not the point. This should go without saying, but a lack of jurisdiction over war crimes does not under any circumstance make war crimes acceptable.

There is also much more to worry about if the U.S. targets Iranian cultural sites. For one, it would be in violation of American law (see: Title 18 U.S. Code § 2441), which also outlines a commitment to stand against war crimes as well as harsh penalties for those who commit war crimes.[5] Additionally, consider the far-reaching consequences of this course of action.

If the U.S. targets Iranian cultural sites, three consequences are all but certain:

  1. The cycle of escalation will continue; an attack on cultural sites on Iranian soil is more than a provocation. As it represents an attack a non-military target within Iran, it could very well be labeled an act of war. At that point, further escalation and retaliations would be likely.
  2. The Iranian government would use any attacks on Iranian soil—especially those that would amount to war crimes as defined by international law—to paint the United States as a regime that commits war crimes. This would feed anger and patriotism within Iran and dramatically increase already hostile public opinion of the United States there.
  3. It would paint the United States in a horrible light. How could the United States ever bill itself as a global protector of peace and an enemy of war if it openly commits recognized war crimes? The U.S. would find itself bombarded with almost universal condemnation for its state-sponsored war crimes.

If attacks against cultural sites did escalate into a wider conflict, it is likely that the United States will have a far more difficult time building a coalition to join its side compared to when it triggered Article 5 of NATO (the attack on one as an attack on all clause) when it began the War on Terror. After all, would traditional allies of the U.S.—states that also stand for international law—condone the commission of war crimes by joining the committing party in further hostilities?

The President has since softened his tone on the threats against Iranian cultural sites in the days since the he made his initial threats.[6] In his remarks to reporters, though, he belittled the idea of refraining from using cultural sites as military targets, though, saying:

“They are allowed to kill our people. They are allowed to maim our people, they’re allowed to blow up everything that we have and there’s nothing to stop them. We are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage. And you know what if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law.”[7]

Donald J. Trump, Twitter, 1/7/20 from Axios: Trump walks back targeting cultural sites: “I like to obey the law”, by Zachary Basu.

This is not the way the United States, a model of the rule of law and the “shining city on a hill,” is supposed to conduct itself. To threaten to commit war crimes and even to imply that it would not be that bad if one were to do it, simply does not reflect the United States in a good image.

The quagmire that we find ourselves in in the Middle East and especially most recently in Iran is, of course, difficult. In the wake of this most recent escalation, the U.S. has run into further issues as it pertains to remaining in Iraq. Iran retaliated to the killing of Soleimani and, thankfully, there were no casualties.

The way forward out of this mess, as it is with any tough issue in international affairs, is through efficient and effective diplomacy. Only through diplomacy, dialogue, and a shared commitment to peace, prosperity, and progress can we work through this most recent crisis and break the cycle of escalation and conflict.


[1] Donald J. Trump, “Donald J. Trump on Twitter: ‘….Targeted 52 Iranian Sites (Representing the 52 American Hostages Taken by Iran Many Years Ago)…’ / Twitter,” Twitter, January 4, 2020, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1213593975732527112.

[2] International Criminal Court, “Al Mahdi Case,” International Criminal Court, n.d., https://www.icc-cpi.int/CaseInformationSheets/Al-MahdiEng.pdf.

[3] Ibid; International Criminal Court, “The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court” (International Criminal Court, 2011), https://www.icc-cpi.int/NR/rdonlyres/ADD16852-AEE9-4757-ABE7-9CDC7CF02886/283503/RomeStatutEng1.pdf.

[4] International Criminal Court, “Al Mahdi Case,” International Criminal Court, n.d., https://www.icc-cpi.int/CaseInformationSheets/Al-MahdiEng.pdf.

[5] “18 U.S. Code § 2441 – War Crimes”, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2441.

[6] Quint Forgey, “‘I like to Obey the Law’: Trump Backs off Threat to Target Iranian Cultural Sites,” POLITICO, January 7, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/07/pompeo-us-abide-laws-of-war-targeting-cultural-sites-095525.

[7] Zachary Basu, “Trump Walks Back Targeting Cultural Sites: ‘I like to Obey the Law’ – Axios,” January 7, 2020, https://www.axios.com/trump-cultural-sites-war-crime-laws-7731da30-e4cc-4981-9cc8-5b6214cd7378.html.

Managing democracy in the twenty-first century

Featured Image: Lech Wałęsa speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School
Taken by author on site, 11/18/19

On November 18, I had the pleasure of attending a forum at the Harvard Kennedy School featuring Lech Wałęsa, the first President of the Third Polish Republic. As the days of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe waned, Wałęsa’s Solidarity movement, which swelled into democratic revolution in Poland, set the stage for the collapse of the long-withering governments formerly under Soviet control. Thirty years later, at a critical juncture in both European and world politics, he was invited to address the crowd gathered at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.

After the scramble for limited seats quieted down in the packed Forum, the event began. He spoke on several topics, from his early life to his experience and struggle for freedom in the 1980s to modern issues. After all he has been through, it was reassuring to see that he retains a fierce sense of humor; it seemed at times that every other remark either poked fun at himself or the current state of world affairs. His discussion, however, had a more serious focus: the future of democracy in a new epoch of technological advancement and innovation.

The age of information we live in is, indeed, fickle. It allows me to share my thoughts and for you to read them on this digital media. At the same time, it saturates the collective attention of society with dizzyingly fast news cycles and leaves exposed network-accessible systems vulnerable to the will of malign actors. In Wałęsa’s view, it is vital that the United States maintain its place as the leader of the free world to counter such actors and guide the principles of democracy through this new age, just as it had through the Cold War.

In the last few years, however, the United States has seemingly abdicated its role as a global leader for democratic values in favor of nationalistic “America First” policy. As hard as it is to do, let’s set aside partisanship as well as the problems currently plaguing the Trump Administration; “America First” is perhaps most destructive when it comes to foreign affairs as it leaves geostrategic and moral vacuums in areas traditionally influenced by American values.

This abdication cannot come at a worse time; Russia continues its revanchist activities in Ukraine, an ally of the United States and recipient of critical military aid that has been swallowed up by domestic political squabbles. Populist movements championing nationalistic and sectarian ideologies have cropped up in other states with rich liberal histories. To invoke Wałęsa’s description of a new epoch, the world has entered uncharted waters; the traditional captain of the world “ship” is nowhere to be found, and the future of the global community is currently very much uncertain.

Obviously, the lack of American leadership on the international stage is not the cause of the issues that have characterized world affairs in the last few years. In fact it is itself a symptom of a greater set of issues that I seek to delve into in my own research and discussions. There is room for improvement and work we can do. Wałęsa ended his remarks with a call to service for those in the room to work toward the advancement of democracy, a cause he has been at the forefront of since founding Solidarty and one that he noted would be a focus for him for the rest of his life.

It is a cause that should be on the mind of all those invested in progress and democracy.

We have arrived in a breathtaking new era of development and advancement, where the future is very much unclear and there are many paths forward. It is my firm belief that a liberal and democratic order taking into account a number of themes, stated below, not usually considered is imperative to foster vibrant democracy at home and around the world.


To reach the goal, though, the following key themes must be taken into consideration:

  1. The democracy-building calculus must change as technology advances; in the ever-growing information-age, democratic movements and institutions must adapt;
  2. The role of international organizations must not be understated; a global community is best linked with existing and prospective global machinery for dialogue and action;
  3. Young people from all over the world must have a say in what our future world is going to look like; they are, after all, going to inherit this world;
  4. The climate change factor: democracy-building and stimulating the growth of a global community must be done acknowledging the impact any one choice may have on the environment;
  5. Building democracy must be an adaptive, localized endeavor; it is obvious that the style of democracy that has been predominant in the West can not be universally applied. The process of democracy-building must adapt to local political, social, and cultural traditions—a one-size-fits-all approach to democracy that ignores local tradition could be argued as imperial; and
  6. As Wałęsa said, American global leadership is vital; the United States must return to its traditional role as a world leader and fierce promoter of democratic values.

These themes are not exclusive, and, of course, are debatable. The idea of this blog is to explore these themes and more in relevant topics in foreign policy as well as in domestic and international politics to both discover trends and advocated for a closer-knit, more democratic world.