Voice

Do networks transform the democratic political process?

Nicholas Kulish has a New York Times front-pager on the rise of networked protest movements in consolidated democracies like India, Israel, and Greece. I hereby officially accuse Anne-Marie Slaughter of hacking into the NYT website and writing these paragraphs:

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.

In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.

The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”

Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.

As a social scientist, I must acknowledge that this is a powerful prima facie data point in favor of Slaughter.

And yet, it's worth pushing the NYT thesis a bit. What happens when the coalition of like-minded individuals stop being of like mind? These sorts of protests can be very powerful on single-issue questions where a single policy change is desired. Maintaining this level of activism to affect the ongoing quotidian grubbiness of politics, however, is a far more difficult undertaking. Even if people can be mobilized behind the concept of "Policy X is Stupid!" getting the same consensus on "Policy Y is the Answer!" is harder. Over time, these kind of mass movements have an excellent chance of withering away or fracturing from within. See, for example, the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt.

Another thing, and this is important: unless the people in these movements actually vote in elections, then their agenda will be thwarted in the long run. Even if these kinds of networked movements are new, the political imperative to get elected and re-elected is not. If they don't vote, then officials have a pretty powerful incentive to curry favor with the people who do vote, don't take to the streets and don't like these young whippersnappers with their interwebs have different policy preferences.

This gets to a point that I have been fumbling trying to make in the Great and All Powerful Slaughter-Drezner Debate: that at times we might be debating past each other because we have different time horizons. Anne-Marie can point to networked social movements that have an immediate impact on conventional politics. For foreign policymakers, the here and now is what matters. What I want to see is whether these movements can sustain themselves over time. For international relations theorists, the persistence of trends matters too.

Daniel W. Drezner

The end of American client states?

Over at The Atlantic, Max Fisher argues that the age of American client states is coming to an end:

The fall of easily controlled dictators across the region (the U.S. has already given up on its man in Yemen) comes at the same time as U.S.-allied democracies and autocracies alike seem increasingly willing to buck Washington's wishes. Last week alone, the U.S. clashed with some of its most important client states. Maybe that's because of America's habit of picking the most troubled states in the most troubled regions as clients (where they're perceived as the most needed), maybe it's because democratic movements are pressuring client states to follow popular domestic will rather than foreign guidance, and maybe it's because the idea of clientalism was doomed from the start....

Whatever the reasons, U.S. client states have been causing Washington more headaches than normal this year, and particularly over the past week. Here are ten of the most closely held U.S. clients, measured in part by foreign assistance (scheduled for fiscal year 2012) and by number of U.S. troops stationed there (according to Department of Defense statistics). Each is labeled with the reason for their strategic importance and with a rough gauge of how much trouble it's been causing the U.S., rated on a scale from "Zero Problems" to "Migraines in Washington." The most extreme cases are labeled "Client Relationship at Risk." Looking over the list of troubled client relationships, it's easy to wonder if the entire Cold War-inspired enterprise could be nearing its end. Maybe Egypt, just as it helped end the centuries of European imperialism in 1956, could make 2011 the year that began the end of clientalism.

Fisher makes an interesting point, but if you look at his list, there's a pretty obvious pattern: the client states causing actual headaches in Washington are in the Greater Middle East. Fisher's examples from Latin America and the Pacific Rim -- Colombia, South Korea and Taiwan -- are relationships that are actually deepening rather than fraying. These also happen to be the most democratic countries on Fisher's list.

The deeper question is whether the trouble with clients is a uniquely American problem, a uniquely Middle East problem, or a more general phenomenon of client-patron relationships. This is really the bailiwick of Dan Nexon, and I expect he'll weigh in on this question soon. Based on China's difficulties with North Korea and the Middle East, I'm inclined to think it's a general phenomenon, however.