Ripple Effect: Introduction

How does gerrymandering hurt Nigerian yam farmers? Why does Danish foreign aid weaken Bangladeshi industry? Why don’t democracies always do what their people want? These are just a few of the questions, big and small, that I’ll explore in this column.

I want to delve into contemporary political issues in a way that makes unconventional connections and questions the assumptions of traditional schools of thought in international relations. I believe our understanding of the world would benefit from removing the mental walls we have placed between the domestic and the international. All politics may be local, but its reverberations are global.

Even small changes and seemingly inconsequential decisions can have outsized impacts on the world we live in. These are ripple effects: the pervasive, continuous and often unintended consequences of our actions. From the cotton gin’s revival of slavery to the Marshall Plan’s eventual competitive boost to America’s economic rivals, history is riddled with inflection points whose effects went far beyond the ambits of our human intentions.

The world of today is no different. The policy decisions of politicians have consequences far beyond their own shores, and the ripple effects they send out shape the world as we know it. But politicians don’t act alone. They act on behalf of others, from ordinary voters to warlords to billionaires, and our collective voices can have global influence.

This column is inspired by the book “The Dictator’s Handbook” (2019) and owes an intellectual debt to the authors: political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith as well as their research partners, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow, who together developed the selectorate theory, which analyzes political decision making through the lens of political survival.

The basics of the theory are pretty straightforward — nearly everyone understands the core of politics intuitively: It is the rewarding of key supporters in return for power and political survival. In a democracy, this may mean healthcare funding, infrastructure development or tax credits. In a dictatorship, it might look like rewards for loyal army generals or personal benefits for key oligarchs. The number of necessary supporters and policy outcomes are vastly different, but the game is the same. After all, from Trump to Putin to Kim Jong Un, no ruler rules alone.

Each week I’ll be writing an article tackling a different head-scratcher in global politics, seeking an understanding of the motives behind policy decisions and the often wide-reaching and unexpected implications of those decisions.