Contagion in world politics

There's been some interesting blog commentary on my debate with Anne-Marie Slaughter, and I encourage international relations theory geeks to check it out.  Over at the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell makes an interesting intervention.  You should read the whole thing, but here's the part I found particularly provocative: 

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....

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 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.

I need to process Henry's arguments more before making a fully thought-out response.  This is a blog, a two half-assed thoughts should suffice for now.  First, Henry gets at something that was implicit in the exchange between Anne-Marie and myself:  the notion that powerful actors possess considerable agency in world politics.  Slaughter and I might disagree about who those actors are, but we assumed that power = agency.  Farrell's point about contagion is that this presumption does not necessarily hold.  And the policy implications of that suggestion are rather jarring, to say the least. 

Second, however, my own theoretical predilections lead me to wonder whether powerful agents can halt/regulate/control the spread of contagion more .  The Arab Spring suggests such possibilities.  So far, the general unrest in the region has toppled a regime in Tunisia, partially toppled regimes in Egypt and Yemen, led to a civil war in Libya, and led to... something in Syria. 

This is not insignificant, but it's worth remembering that the wave of unrest was much larger than those countries.  Early protests in Iran went nowhere -- in no small part because the Iraniann state has gotten very, very good at cracking down.  Led by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies have by and large kept populist demands at bay, going so far as to invite Jordan and Morocco to join the Gulf Cooperation Council. 

I'm not trying to pull a Kevin Bacon here; the Arab Spring is Big Earthshaking Stuff.  My point, rather, is that not every contagion proceeds unimpeded -- there are counter-contagions as well.  When and how those counterwaves happen is worthy of consideration. 

 What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner

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.