For Alexander Cooley, a leading expert in post-Soviet Eurasia and U.S. foreign military bases, the past year has been a fascinating time, with events like last summer's Georgia-Russia conflict and the air force base dispute in Kyrgyzstan that erupted in February, dominating international headlines. An associate professor of international relations and foreign policy, Cooley joined Barnard's faculty in 2001, and has written and commented about current events for an array of prestigious global media, including The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal-Europe, NPR and The New York Times.
With a PhD from Columbia and a BA from Swarthmore College, Cooley explores power struggles among nations in his new book, Contracting States: Sovereign Transfers in International Politics (co-authored with Hendrik Spruyt), which came out in June. "A lot of scholars and analysts take it as a given that states control their own sovereignty," he says. "What the book explores is the way that states have frequently transferred sovereignty to each other, and the kinds of mixed arrangements." An example is the European Union, where one country has investments in another country in the form of oil wells or mines, or foreign military-base arrangements that underpin a lot of international relations.
Base arrangements are an area of particular interest for Cooley, who published the book Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas in 2008. "Bases are really interesting theoretical and practical issues, because the host country and the country that's sending its military get very different things [out of them]," he says. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, the United States' interest in having a military base to support its Afghan mission was precariously balanced with the interest of the Kyrgyz government, which was lending its territory to meet goals that were mostly financial. In this case, Cooley says, the U.S. was ultimately "played" by the Kyrgyz ruling party, which succeeded in demanding much higher rent from the U.S. for continued use of the base after an initial eviction.
Cooley says that in many places, base politics are only getting more volatile. "There's definitely been a more high profile set of political dynamics against U.S. bases worldwide that you haven't seen in a while," he says. "Countries that traditionally have been supportive of the U.S. military are seeing increasing protests and political campaigns—in places like Italy, Ecuador, South Korea, and Okinawa."
For the past several years, Cooley has taught Barnard's "Globalization and International Politics" course, which looks at the different economic, social, and security elements of globalization and how they affect international relations. "It's a fun class because it's quite dynamic," he says. "For example, three years ago the kinds of perceptions we'd have about the politics of financial markets would be very different than what we have now. It's not really a current events class, but it takes recent developments and puts them in a theoretical/historical context."
He also teaches classes on international organizations and, at the School of International Public Affairs, on sovereignty in post-communist states of the former USSR. "I've found that Barnard students are exceptionally bright and diligent," he says. "They like to make connections to other courses they've taken in political science or other disciplines. What I particularly enjoy is having students over and over, and seeing them progress."
This year, in addition to continuing research on ways out of the U.S.-Russia-Georgia stalemate, Cooley will be focusing on a new project studying the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a new regional group of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. "This is an attempt by the Central Asian countries to create regional cooperation without the input or assistance of any western countries, or any western types of international organizations," he says. "So I'm interested in what the dynamics of international cooperation look like when they don't involve Western input. What kind of values is this group premised on?"