[Health warning: very long post with extensive quotes, on issues likely to be of primary concern to IR scholars and foreign policy wonks. Also, that owes a substantial intellectual debt to joint work with Cosma Shalizi, without in any way implicating him in its arguments]
There’s an interesting debate between Anne-Marie Slaughter and Dan Drezner over whether realism or networked internationalism best describes the basic contours of international politics.
Traditional foreign policy continues to assume the world of World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the first and second Gulf Wars—an international system in which a limited number of states pursue their largely power-based interests in bargaining situations that are often zero-sum and in which the line between international and domestic politics is still discernible and defensible. … But Clinton herself insists that 21st century diplomacy must not only be government to government, but also government to society and society to society, in a process facilitated and legitimated by government. That much broader concept opens the door to a do-it-yourself foreign policy, in which individuals and groups can invent and execute an idea—for good or ill—that can affect their own and other countries in ways that once only governments could. … conference sponsored by Google Ideas, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Tribeca Film Festival that brought together more than 80 former gang members, violent religious extremists, violent nationalist extremists, and violent white supremacists from 19 countries across six continents. … conference grew out of a vision developed by Jared Cohen, the head of Google Ideas, when he served in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Policy Planning … Personal Democracy Forum, a bottom-up gathering of digital activists from the U.S. and across the Middle East, including bloggers and organizers at the center of the Arab Spring. Other participants again included government officials, corporate executives, and the civic sector. … need for a framework that moves beyond states and addresses both governments and societies. Here complexity theory and network theory offer more answers than game theory; neuroscience, psychology, and sociology often provide better insights and solutions than political science and economics.
actual great power foreign policies bear no resemblance whatsoever to that description of “traditional foreign policy.” Slaughter knows this very well, given that she was Clinton’s first director of policy planning. … much of her writing in international relations is about the ways in which traditional governments are becoming more networked and adaptive to emergent foreign policy concerns. … weakness as an international relations theorist is to uncritically observe phenomena like the Summit Against Violent Extremism and then inductively generalize from them to extrapolate the future of world politics. Slaughter believes that these “bottom-up” movements represent the future of world politics—and she may well be right. My own inclination is that DIY foreign policy represents a poor and underprovided substitute for effective state action global governance.
Anne-Marie again :
as realists/traditionalists never tire of repeating, the U.S.-China relationship is the most important global relationship of the 21st century: what matters most is ensuring that as both nations pursue their power-based interests they do not collide catastrophically. Never mind that an avian flu virus that is both fatal and aerosol-borne arising anywhere in Asia could do far more damage to global security and the economy than China ever could—just see the forthcoming movie Contagion. … The second approach tends to make our heads hurt; it often seems like a hopelessly complex system that is impossible to influence or shape. Waltz, rather than pushing us to develop workable models and policy prescriptions based on that complexity, says it’s okay just to white it all out.
many more concrete examples in the coming months, beginning with my next post, in which I will also answer Dan’s charge … that the rapidly increasing examples of social actors coming together, often with governments, to address foreign policy issues are bound to remain peripheral and ineffective.
Anne-Marie places great faith in the ability of transnational, networked, non-state actors to bend the policy agenda to their preferred sets of solutions. I think that these groups can try to voice their demands for particular policy problems to be addressed. I think, at the national level, that social movements can force even recalcitrant politicians to alter their policy agenda (see: Party, Tea). Where Slaughter’s optimism runs into my skepticism is the ability of these movements to a) go transnational; and b) supply rather than demand global solutions. I’m skeptical about the viability of transnational interests to effectively pressure multiple governments to adopt a common policy solution, and I’m super-skeptical that these groups can supply broad-based solutions independently of national governments.
This is a useful debate – but one where I think both sides are wrong. Anne-Marie is right to argue that the world is becoming a more complex and messy place, in a way that makes realists’ heads explode. She depicts the world as one where networked relationships are replacing traditional forms of inter-state diplomacy, and argues (to my mind, entirely correctly) that network theory, the cognitive sciences etc can tell us more about what is happening than Waltzian realism.
I think though, that she goes astray in identifying the transition to a more networked world with a transition to a world with less zero-sum interactions. This is because Anne-Marie tends to see these networks in largely functionalist terms. Her previous – and highly influential work – on trans-governmental networks of cooperation between bureaucrats within national administration is an excellent example of this. She talks about the ways in which bureaucrats work across borders to achieve valuable policy goals. She worries about the ways in which this might weaken democratic legitimacy. But she doesn’t really ask whether bureaucrats might be motivated less by efficiency concerns than by power considerations.
Here, the empirics are starting to tell a different story. Abe Newman at Georgetown has forthcoming research which examines how SEC initiatives to encourage international cooperation have quite a lot to do with the SEC’s wish to escape (and, ultimately, to remake) domestic strictures on its authority. Its motivation for international cooperation can be explained well by its domestic struggle with other organization for decision making power and resources. If the kinds of international networked cooperation we see are all about struggles for resources, rather than achieving functionalist imperatives, then we may expect a very different international networked society than if these forms of cooperation are aimed at pursuing functionalist goals and Pareto-improvements. To be specific: we cannot expect one that will be characterized by worthy initiatives aimed at decreasing violence, bringing together nice activists and so on. Nor can we expect (I develop this point below) that such worthy initiatives will have much change of succeeding, to the extent that they come into being through government sponsorship or otherwise.
Dan’s take is, as Anne-Marie says, a state centered one. He’s doing what I’ll describe, after his own post, as the ‘subtle realist two-step.’ First – unlike many realists – he acknowledges that other factors than the international system can shape state preferences. It is certainly possible in his world that networked organizations can shape these preferences so that states will do things that they would not otherwise do. Second – and here he continues to agree with realism – is that he sees states as the crucial chokepoints in the international system. Even if non-state actors may influence states’ initial preferences, states still get the final say over what does or does not happen in international politics. His position is thus rather closer to that of Andy Moravcsik, Anne-Marie’s spouse and a vehement critic of realists, than it is, say, to John Mearsheimer’s. The result is his argument that:
All of the social movements and all of the online networks can agitate for policy solutions, but they’re not going to be able to alter fierce distributional conflicts that exist when trying to address many of the topline issues in world politics show no signs of abating. The kind of non-state actors that Slaughter embraces have not been shy in engaging issues like climate change, Israel/Palestine or macroeconomic imbalances—but I haven’t seen any appreciable change in global public policies as a result.
This is true up to a point. States haven’t gone away, and remain highly important. But what it misses is two things. First that state actions are not the only important vectors of influence in world politics. Second (and here Anne-Marie’s earlier work is correct) that states themselves are not unitary actors, but instead micro-networks of bureaucratic sub-units, each with their own agenda.
Networks demonstrably matter in international politics in ways that are not connected to state actions. The Arab Spring is an obvious example. The Tunisian upheaval’s influence on Egyptian politics, on Bahraini politics, on Libyan politics, on Syrian politics etc was not mediated through the preferences and actions of the Tunisian state. Instead, it occurred through processes of cross-national social emulation – activists in Egypt who both learned from the Tunisian example, and were able to use it as a focal point for their own activities. Obviously, the success of activists (and other groups that may opportunistically have latched onto this political moment) in other countries was mixed, and depended on domestic configurations of state and society. But this doesn’t change the fact that if we are to understand what happened in these countries, we have to put away our state centric theories. Social movements learned from each other through international networks and media, which had demonstrably important political consequences, and states (which would obviously have liked other outcomes) had to run to catch up. Outcomes would have been very different if e.g. al Jazeera, blogs, YouTube and more humble forms of communication had not existed, so that the individual populations of these countries had no very reliable way of learning what was happening across their borders except what their state authorities allowed them to know.
Other examples can be found in Dan’s work on regulatory politics, which also adopts the subtle-realist two-step. His arguments have the advantage of simplifying a complicated international space, but by the same token obscure important causal relationships. For example – Dan argues that regulatory politics are set by great powers, and that when great powers disagree on regulations, the result will be either an effective stalemate, or rival standards, which win or lose depending on how many third party states decide to conform to them. But this fails to recognize e.g. the ways in which bureaucrats within one large state – when confronted with regulatory disagreements with another state that hamper their work but that cannot be forced to back down using power politics – use a variety of non-diplomatic tools (including the widening and exploitation of divisions within the other state’s government, efforts to influence self-regulatory standards, ‘trading up’ tools to reshape business preferences etc) in order to try to change politics within the target country. Nor does it acknowledge the key role of non-state actors in setting standards, which often have repercussions for state laws and domestic enforcement systems. The international order is far more complex than he suggests, offering a larger set of actors a larger set of tools.
So if Anne-Marie depicts the world as one where networked relations are overtaking traditional power maneuvering between states, and argues for a problem-solving networked approach to US public policy. Dan argues that the traditional power politics approach still works just fine with a bit of tweaking. If Anne-Marie gets it wrong on the ‘networks as self-starting problem solvers’ bit, and Dan gets it wrong on the ‘networks don’t count, except insofar as they fit into traditional inter-state politics’ bit, is there a better alternative?
I think there is. Rather than seeing the international sphere as a space for inter-state power politics, or as a space for networked common action, we can think of it as a space for contagion. That is, think of it as a space where ever-multiplying and ever-ramifying sets of networked relationships across border serve not to enable problem-solving DIY diplomatists, but instead to transmit social influences in ways that are difficult to predict ex ante. This would mean taking seriously the kinds of complexity theory and network theory arguments that Anne-Marie mentions, but following them to a quite different set of conclusions than she does.
The world that complexity theory and network theory depicts is one where actions have highly unpredictable consequences. This follows both from theoretical arguments about processes of contagion across large scale networks, and from empirical research conducted via e.g. experiments.
The theoretical work has straightforward implications that are largely unappealing to policy makers. One can draw some useful conclusions about how network topology (the shape of the overall network) makes processes of contagion more or less likely. One can identify nodes that play a much more significant role than others in determining when contagion succeeds or fails (the degree of influence within a network will likely correlate well with more traditional indices of power). However, one cannot come up with anything that even begins to approximate a useful guide to liberal internationalist policy makers about which innovative actions are likely to succeed, and which to fail, or about how to set up or encourage networks that will help carry out useful social tasks. The work of Duncan Watts on music taste formation provides some empirical evidence to back this up (his recent book is highly recommended and very accessible). Watts finds that socially networked processes massively magnify the influence of early ‘chance’ events, in ways that make it very hard to predict which cultural trends will take off, and which will wither on the vine, and which also deviate from what one might think would be the ‘right’ outcome.
This suggests a story something like the following. Thanks to both the Internet and more traditional forms of information diffusion, the world is becoming more interconnected. Cross-national networks play a much more important role in conveying information, and in allowing some forms of social coordination to take place, than they used to. This means that states – although their power has surely not withered – find themselves in a much more complex environment than they used to, where they are far less able to serve as gatekeepers between their domestic space and the world of international and cross-national politics. In particular, this world is much more likely to be subject to contagion, in which political ideas, forms of organizing, and other social influences cross national borders with consequences that may (a) sometimes be substantial, but (b) are extremely difficult to predict in advance.
Such contagion may, or may not, lead to actors actively coordinating across borders, pursuing international goals etc. But coordinated action is not a necessary condition for causal efficacy – even when actors pursue purely domestic goals, their actions may have international repercussions, thanks to cross-national forms of communication and interaction.
Just because the world has become more networked, it does not mean that states can either (a) easily use networks to pursue their policy goals, or (b) turn over responsibilities to networks that will self-organize around socially useful tasks and responsibilities. To the extent that networks’ politics are predictable, they will conform to the same kinds of (frequently unpleasant) politics as do states. That is, they will be characterized by power inequalities (sometimes gross), actors pursuing their self-interest while entirely blind to the needs of others, and the rest of the shebang. To the extent that networks’ politics are unpredictable, they will be unlikely to be useful tools of policy.
This is a story with far fewer helpful policy lessons than either Dan’s or Anne-Marie’s. It points to plausible developments in world politics, without providing any very obvious tools to deal with them. It suggests that states are likely to get less good at managing things because of networked politics, but that networked politics itself offers no very obvious substitute, without far-reaching social and political changes (e.g. in addressing fundamental power imbalances) that networked politics itself is unlikely to achieve.
I think that it’s a story that captures the world that we live in better than either Dan or Anne-Marie’s. But it’s one where the increasing difficulty of of bold, structuring policy measures with predictable results is baked into the underlying theory. This is, perhaps the crucial distinction between it and both Dan and Anne-Marie’s accounts, which together presuppose that IR scholars should help the US government shape the world in ways that are congenial to US interests and/or international wellbeing (the two are usually indistinguishable in DC policy discussions). Both are focused on the purported solution providers – states (in particular the US) or networks – rather than the problems. I think that the interesting and important changes are happening in the set of problems, rather than the set of solutions.