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Interests of states: insight into global politics

All players on the world stage operate strategically in order to safeguard their interests. Political scientists at Leiden University cast light on this volatile interplay of forces. Their research helps voters, NGOs, governments and international organizations make smart choices in this complex and rapidly changing world.

States in a globalizing world

How can human rights and human dignity be protected in a world so often plagued by violence and intolerance ? Are authoritarian regimes regaining the initiative? Will the European Union overcome the multiple challenges of economic change, human migration, geopolitical turmoil and voter discontent? How can interconnected societies deal with violent extremism? What factors shape the foreign policies of rising democratic powers like Brazil and India? These are just some of the critical questions being addressed by political scientists at Leiden University. Their research helps voters, NGOs, governments and international organizations make smart choices in this complex and rapidly changing world.

Eleanor Roosevelt showing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Wikipedia Commons)

How to promote respect for human rights?

Since the Holocaust and the end of the Second World War, governments have negotiated and signed many treaties committing them to treat all people humanely. Leiden political scientist Daniel Thomas has conducted ground-breaking research on how these treaties empower activists and social movements pressing for change by authoritarian states. Focusing on the contribution of the 1975 Helsinki Accords to the demise of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union,  Thomas found that international human rights norms provide a language of reform that is accessible to a wide range of societal actors and a legal justification for their reform efforts that is difficult for the state to repudiate, even when its rulers prefer to maintain the status quo. This ‘Helsinki-effect’ explains that even though international law provides no quick-fix for the problem of repressive rule, it can transform the terms of debate between state and society and thereby lay the groundwork for enduring political change.

Authoritarian regimes are however not passive and Thomas is now examining their efforts to reverse the Helsinki effect by reclaiming the agenda in international law and institutions.

Can the Responsibility to Protect be regarded as an international norm?

Where human rights treaties are binding, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is not the governing principle. Nonetheless, R2P makes a real contribution to making the world a fairer place by defining what ‘should’ happen. A state is expected to protect its inhabitants against mass genocide and war crimes, for instance. University lecturer Theresa Reinold studies the role of influential states, such as America, in promoting R2P as an international norm and the implications of this standard for state sovereignty and international legislation. According to Reinold, R2P cannot yet be regarded as an international norm because it is not clear what such a norm should comprise of. Nor is it clear whether the international community bears the same responsibility as the host country and exactly what powers are needed  to protect citizens. In spite of this lack of clarity, Reinold believes that R2P has ensured that it is difficult for the international community to ignore humanitarian crises when they occur.  Similarly, states that violate human rights cannot assume that they will not be subject to intervention from outside.

Will the EU survive?

Long considered a bulwark of peace and prosperity in Europe, the European Union (EU) is now wracked by multiple and seemingly intractable crisis. Leiden political scientist Hans Vollaard is examining whether and how the EU might collapse. His conclusion is clear: most member states will stay in the EU, as they do not see a proper alternative outside it, however critical they are about the present EU. On the other hand, member states might cut their financial contribution to the EU or refuse to comply with EU principles and legislation. So while Vollaard expects the EU will muddle through its current difficulties, it could emerge as a less tightly integrated union.

What is the threat posed by violent extremism and how can inter-connected societies protect themselves?

Almost every day we hear reports in the media on the threat to individual security and social stability posed by violent extremists in Europe. “Radicalisation” and “violent extremism” are new ways to label the old phenomenon of political violence, says Leiden political scientist Francesco Ragazzi, who studies whether counter-terrorism policies may have unintended and undesirable effects. Recent policy responses to terrorism in Europe have tended to focus on one specific group of the population, which exacerbates polarization, exclusion and marginalization, and may thereby reinforce the problem of violent extremism. Furthermore,  as these policies increasingly reach beyond the traditional scope of law enforcement to involve teachers, doctors, social workers, and religious leaders, they pose serious questions about how violent groups’ activities can be disrupted while preserving the freedom of expression, education and religion that are the basis of democratic societies.

What factors shape the foreign policies of rising democratic powers like Brazil and India?

Though most observers agree that emerging powers will play a major role in the twenty-first century, the fact that Brazil and India are democracies has been overlooked in the rush to study China. Leiden political scientists Nicolas Blarel and Niels van Willigen are studying how regional parties use their leverage in political coalitions to shape the country’s foreign policy orientation, resulting in policy outcomes that are difficult to predict. Insights from the Indian experience could help understand the foreign policy choices of other states that emerged from authoritarian rule (Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan) or that transitioned to coalition government after a long period of democratic but single party rule (Japan, Mexico).

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