Interview with Jay Ulfelder, Former Research Director at the Political Instability Task Force

by David Comley

Jay Ufelder is an American Political Scientist specialising in democratisation, civil unrest, state collapse and forecasting. Currently a Consulting Researcher, he was previously the Research Director at the Political Instability Task Force – a US government funded initiative to explore the causes of political instability and ‘state failure’.[1]

Jay Ulfelder (2008)
Jay Ulfelder (2008)

  David Comley: Could you tell me about your background and how you reached this stage in your career?

Jay Ulfelder: I did my undergraduate at Duke University in North Carolina and was particularly interested in ‘nuclear annihilation’. This led me to focus on Soviet area studies including some language study in the USSR and I graduated in spring of 1991 just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. This caused me to shift my attention towards more generic issues of political instability and popular mobilisation which were affecting the region at the time.

I then undertook my graduate studies in Political Science at Stanford, focussing on ethnic and nationalist mobilisation in the Baltic republics during the Gorbachev era. From this, my interests broadened into democratisation and social moments. It was this point that I started to mix qualitative and quantitative research methods in my work.

Following graduation in , I moved back to Washington, DC with my wife,  and found work with a small consultancy which did work on government contracts. A lot of this focused on intelligence work and attempted to forecast various forms of political instability.

In 2001, I became involved with the US government-funded Political Instability Task Force  who were looking for a part-time research director. The focus of the task force was on forecasting and explaining a variety of forms of political instability, primarily using statistical models. This often involved using cross-national time-series data to try to think about where instances of civil wars, state collapse and coups etc. were going to happen. Interstate war has never really been a focus because it is so rare, but numerous other forms of political instability have been of interest to the task force at one time or another. This meant digging into the literature, working with models to help forecast these events and working with a lot of very interesting people in academia and government.

In 2011 I left to become a private consultant and I’m currently working full time under contract for the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. We hope to soon be launching a public early-warning system for forecasting mass killing and genocide in countries around the world.

Does anything like this forecasting system already exist?

Although there are a few programs out there which generate warning reports, a lot of these are ad hoc and react mostly to incipient conflict. This new program will be more rigorous and systematic. It will also be public and freely available, unlike current programs which tend to be run internally by governments who do not make their findings available to the public or international organisations. It’s a very exciting project to be working on and I’m very much looking forward to having something to show for it! We’re looking at publicly launching the initial version in late March 2014.

I’d like to ask your insights on the challenging issues of political instability and state-building. Do you think academics and policy-makers have anything to gain by talking about ‘failed states’, and if not, why has the term become so pervasive in the academic and policy worlds?

I think the term ‘failed states’ has accumulated a lot of baggage which has made it less useful over time. It’s become associated with some specific ways of looking at political instability. In fact, the Political Instability Task Force used to be called the ‘State Failure Task Force’ and changed its name precisely for this reason. The value-laden connotations of what constituted ‘failure’ often got in the way of the substance of what the group was trying to work on. My view echoes that of Charles Call who talks about ‘state collapse’ rather than ‘state failure’, and specifically focuses on the collapse of an entity that is internationally recognised as a ‘sovereign government’. I think the term has stuck around because there are now various institutional investments in it. Although saying that, there are political ramifications if an ambassador were to say to president of another country ‘your state is about to fail’ due to the normative baggage that the term carries.

At the beginning of 2012 you wrote a blog post entitled ‘A Liberal Case Against Military Intervention’ which discussed the opportunity-cost of military intervention in Syria.[2] You argued that the resources required for a military intervention would save far more lives if used for humanitarian purposes. Was there ever a point in the conflict where a military intervention would have been preferable?

My starting point was, and still is, that Syria is an extremely difficult case to grapple with. There is huge uncertainty over what the consequences of various kinds of action would be. Therefore I realise that it is much easier to comment as a blogger then as the policymaker who has to make the decisions. However, in cases where you are not sure that the costly action you are taking will result in the beneficial actions that you are seeking there is a high chance that the intervention will have substantial negative consequences. In these cases the best course of action would be not to intervene, and I think this is the case in Syria. Historically, interventions of a similar to scale to what would have had to have taken place in Syria, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, have not stopped violence from occurring. These interventions have interacted with local actors who have their own interests. Therefore an intervention in Syria would probably have just caused the conflict to escalate in a different way. For this reason, I stand by my original recommendation for Syria. But in response to your question ‘do the potential costs of intervention always outweigh the benefits?’ – No, definitely not. I think Central African Republic is a very good example of this right now, as the CAR’s government isn’t opposing foreign intervention. In my mind, this is a case where the potential benefits of a military intervention almost certainly outweigh the consequences and that France is acting appropriately to the crisis. I think Libya is a bit more ambiguous.

Given that policymakers must be running similar cost-benefit analyses all the time, why do you think the executives in the UK and US were so enthusiastic to intervene in Syria in September, if those resources could have been used much more effectively for humanitarian rather than military purposes?

I truly can’t understand that. It seemed like a moment where everyone became caught up in a particular idea for the wrong reasons. It then became attached to other objectives such as ‘tipping the balance towards regime change’. My belief is that it wouldn’t have happened even if the Russians hadn’t offered their alternative deal involving chemical weapons disposal. In the event, this ended up being a nice face-saving opportunity for those who had been most enthusiastic in backing the strikes. It just goes to show that politics is not a contraption that produces optimal outcomes for the parties involved.

What advice would you give to students who are thinking about going into policymaking or academia? Broadly speaking, what should we bear in mind when approaching the study of ‘conflict’?

In a couple of words, I would say ‘humility’ and ‘curiosity’. The biggest problem in policymaking right now seems to be overconfidence in our ability to fix things. We need to get away from seeing state-building and nation-building as solutions to these kinds of problems and acknowledge where previous efforts have failed, but this doesn’t mean giving up. Recent work has showed how certain interventions can be hugely useful for some people, in some contexts, some of the time. We should therefore be looking for successes at the margins rather than big, grand solutions. However it’s important to remember that your work can still marginally improve our ability to understand these things and this has the potential to make the world marginally less-bad.


[1] Interview conducted 9th December 2013. Please note that this is an approximation of the interview rather than a transcript. Published with the kind permission of Jay Ulfelder.


David Comley is a postgraduate student at King’s College London, currently reading for the MA in Conflict, Security and Development.

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