Yes, Anne-Marie, there is a subtle realist

Anne-Marie Slaughter has responded to my musings about her new foreign policy frontier with a potent combination of vigor and logic, topped off with just a dollop of guile.  I am happy to see that we share some vital zones of agreement -- namely, continued hegemony for the Boston Red Sox

About lesser issues like the contours of world politics, we have some respectful disagreements.  This is a fun debate, to have, so let's dive right in!

To summarize the gist of Slaughter's latest post:  she argues that realists think of the world through a states-only, security-first, billiard-ball approach: 

[T]he whole point of realism, as every first year IR student knows, is that structural realism (the school that holds as its bible Kenneth Waltz's Man, the State, and War) says that international relations analysts can treat the world as if it were composed only of states pursuing their power-based interests. 

In constrast, Slaughter advocates a "modern/liberal-social" because such an approach will: 

[factor in] all the important social actors, from tribes to democracy activists, focus on the relationship between those social actors and their governments, then assess interests relative to other governments that are themselves enmeshed in domestic and transnational social networks. 

Slaughter asserts that the second perspective is the superior approach despite its greater complexity, because it permits a greater focus on the "social and developmental issues" that Slaughter believes will the the primary drivers of world politics over the next decade.  As evidence for her more enlightened perspective, Slaughter compares her Twitter stream with my Twitter stream and concludes:

Going through these tweets actually offered an even more succinct contrast between how Dan and I think about foreign policy. Dan asked last week, addressed to all "IR tweeps": "Is there a better international relations song than Tears for Fears 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World?'" He got some great responses, but for me, his choice says it all about how, his protests notwithstanding, he sees the world. (Many a truth is spoken in jest.) By contrast (and again, with much less humor!), I tweeted a link on Monday to a in the Financial Times by the Israeli novelist Etgar Keret on the J14 protests and quoted the following passage: "In our current reality, the political cannot be separated from the social." The new foreign policy frontier is deeply social, as messy and unsatisfactory as that may be.

Slaughter's historiography of realism is a touch problematic, but also a bit of a distraction, so I'll leave it to others to address that question.  Instead, let's start with the Twitter evidence. 

Slaughter is clearly a huge fan of microblogging (despite its negative externalities) and its social networking capabilities.  As an earlier adopter of these technologies, I'm a fan too.  I do think there's a danger of reading too much into this kind of data, however.  If I really didn't care about the kind of social and economic issues that Slaughter embraces... well, I wouldn't be following her.  Like any curious IR scholar, however, I do follow her.  Just because I don't tweet/re-tweet about these things all that much doesn't mean I don't read/blog/write about them in other venues.  Slaughter assumes that I manage my Twitter feed the same way she does, as a natural extension of her research interests.  Trust me when I say that I value Twitter somewhat differently

This might be a trivial issue, but it gets at a point I hinted at in my last post:  there's a difference between what's visible and what's significant in world politics.  Twitter is highly visible, for example, but I think it's significance might be exaggerated -- or, rather, online networks merely replicate offline power structures.  The threat of coercion is often invisible -- but it's effects can be quite significant

Slaughter's more substantive point is her contrast between old-school realpolitik and new-school modern social-liberal foreign policy approach.  On this distincton, let me start by observing that another important modern strategy in world politics is the notion of issue-framing.  If they're good, policy entrepreneurs will be able to take their issue and frame it in a manner most favorable to their preferred policy solution.   When their policy problem is pushed to the front of the queue, they are therefore likely to win the argument. 

I bring this up by noting that I don't accept Slaughter's framing of our dispute.  She posits that only by adopting her international relations worldview is it possible to recognize the social and developmental issues that are bubbling under the surface in world politics.  Because realists primarily care about guns, bomb, and interstate security, they ostensibly will miss these problems. 

Now, I know a lot of realists, and I can kinda sorta understand how Slaughter arrived at this caricatured version of realism.  Nevertheless, Slaughter conflates subject matter with how one models the dynamics of the subject matter.   In his last memoir, even über-classical-realist Henry Kissinger acknowledged the importance of human rights issues in modern diplomacy and staecraft.  I certainly agree that the economic, social and developmental issues that are near and dear to Slaughter's heart are matters of import for world politics -- indeed, this is a theme I've written and rambled spoken about for quite some time.  I suspect most realist IPE scholars believe these issues are important... or they wouldn't be studying IPE in the first place. 

Just because I agree with the importance of these issue areas, however, does not mean that I agree with Slaughter's implicit model of how these issues get addressed.  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. 

There's a "two-step" approach to world politics with which Slaughter is intimately familiar:  it posits that interest groups and social movements can influence national policy preferences, but that outcomes in world politics are driven by the distribution of power and preferences among national governments.  In her embrace of a new foreign policy frontier, Slaughter embraces the first step and mostly rejects the second. 

That second step is really important, however, as most social movements are keenly aware.  Indeed, most of the protests that Slaughter keeps identifying on Twitter are not about solving problems on their own, but demanding that governments address or ameliorate their needs. 

Slaughter can and will point to Very Important Initiatives like the Gates Foundation or the Summit Against Violent Extremism as examples of supplying such solutions.  These can matter at particular points in particular places, but I'll need to see some powerful evidence before I think that these transnational groups are as potent as, say, nationalism as political force in the world.  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. 

Now, it's possible that Slaughter will eventually be proven right.  That's the cool thing about studying international relations, we keep adding new data with every passing day.  So, here's my challenge to Anne-Marie -- name three significant issue areas in which these kinds of networked actors will significantly alter the status quo (and I look forward to Slaughter falsifying me to within an inch of my life.).  Because I can think of far too many issues -- including those listed above -- on which their impact will be negligible. 

One final point:  I agree with Slaughter that the issues she cares about are important, and attention must be paid to them.  That said, the realist in me is not quite ready to claim that the old security-focused approach to foreign policy is truly outdated.  Yes, traditional wars are much rarer than they used to be.  That said, we're just one unsteady power transition away in North Korea, China or Pakistan for traditional concerns about militarized great power combat to return to the main stage of foreign policy practitioners.  I really hope Anne-Marie is correct about these new issues being the important ones -- because that means the horrors of great power war continue to stay a distant memory. 

Daniel W. Drezner

Please come down off the ledge, dear readers


Note:  in my last blog post, I might have sounded juuuuust a wee bit pessimistic about the state of the global political economy.  That was my intent, but it wasn't necessarily how I actually felt.  My aim was to assemble as negative a brief as possible about the state of the global political economy.  The aim of this post is to argue that, despite all the recent bad news, the fundamentals of the global political economy are surprisingly sound.  I'm not actually as optimistic as the rest of this post suggests, either -- but I do lean more in this direction.  The fact that I'm blogging this from a zombie-proof vacation redoubt should in no way affect your evaluation of the following few paragraphs.  

So, when we last left off this debate, things were looking grim.  My concern in the last post was that the persistence of hard times would cause governments to take actions that would lead to a collapse of the open global economy, a spike in general riots and disturbances, and eerie echoes of the Great Depression.  Let's assume that the global economy persists in sputtering for a while, because that's what happens after major financial shocks.    Why won't these other bad things happen?  Why isn't it 1931? 

Let's start with the obvious -- it's not gonna be 1931 because there's some passing familiarity with how 1931 played out.  The Chairman of the Federal Reserve has devoted much of his academic career to studying the Great Depression.  I'm gonna go out on a limb therefore and assert that if the world plunges into a another severe downturn, it's not gonna be because central bank heads replay the same set of mistakes. 

The legacy of the Great Depression has also affected public attitudes and institutions that provide much stronger cement for the current system.  In terms of publuc attitudes, compare the results of this mid-2007 poll with this mid-2010 poll about which economic system is best.  I'll just reproduce the key charts below: 

2007 poll results

2010 poll results

The headline of the 2010 results is that there's eroding U.S. support for the global economy,  but a few other things stand out.  U.S. support has declined, but it's declined from a very high level.  In contrast, support for free markets has increased in other major powers, such as Germany and China.  On the whole, despite the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression, public attitudes have not changed all that much.  While there might be populist demands to "do something," that something is not a return to autarky or anything so drastc. 

Another big difference is that multilateral economic institutions are much more robust now than they were in 1931.  On trade matters, even if the Doha round is dead, the rest of the World Trade Organization's corpus of trade-liberalizing measures are still working quite well.  Even beyond the WTO, the complaint about trade is not the deficit of free-trade agreements but the surfeit of them.  The IMF's resources have been strengthened as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.  The Basle Committee on Banking Supervision has already promulgated a plan to strengthen capital requirements for banks.  True, it's a slow, weak-assed plan, but it would be an improvement over the status quo. 

As for the G-20, I've been pretty skeptical about that group's abilities to collectively address serious macroeconomic problems.  That is setting the bar rather high, however.  One could argue that the G-20's most useful function is reassurance.  Even if there are disagreements, communication can prevent them from growing into anything worse. 

Finally, a note about the possibility of riots and other general social unrest.  The working paper cited in my previous post noted the links between austerity measures and increases in disturbances.  However, that paper contains the following important paragraph on page 19: 

[I]n countries with better institutions, the responsiveness of unrest to budget cuts is generally lower. Where constraints on the executive are minimal, the coefficient on expenditure changes is strongly negative -- more spending buys a lot of social peace. In countries with Polity-2 scores above zero, the coefficient is about half in size, and less significant. As we limit the sample to ever more democratic countries, the size of the coefficient declines. For full democracies with a complete range of civil rights, the coefficient is still negative, but no longer significant.

This is good news!!  The world has a hell of a lot more democratic governments now than it did in 1931.  What happened in London, in other words, might prove to be the exception more than the rule. 

So yes, the recent economic news might seem grim.  Unless political institutions and public attitudes buckle, however, we're unlikely to repeat the mistakes of the 1930's.  And, based on the data we've got, that's not going to happen.