Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, August 29, 2011

Network? What Network?

Much has been said about the interesting debates between Anne-Marie Slaughter and Dan Drezner on the role of social networks in international politics. Brad in his very interesting post has made some good points (his piece has linked to the entire AMS-DD debate, so look there, if you're interested).

No serious IR scholar will deny the argument that networks are important. Anyone questioning it should look at the Twitter/Facebook-driven Arab Spring that helped to shake the foundation of several Arab regimes. Still, the question is how important social networks really are in causing social and political change. Dan Drezner hits the nail on its head by arguing that:

"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." 
Honestly, I will go further than Dan by arguing that states and governments are still very crucial in determining whether any "social/political movement" will be successful or not. More importantly, the fragmentation of political elites matter here and are important in determining outcomes.

Let's first start from the really basic "networking" tools: Twitter and Facebook are politically useful because there is this giant behind it called the United States, which provides the infrastructure, the required network where these social media tools are located. Without the United States' ability to provide this "common good," the "Facebook/Twitter Revolution" may not even exist in the first place.

Only few other countries, such as Japan and China, have the kind and amount of resources to provide alternatives to America's "common goods." In China's case, it prefers to have its own Twitter and Facebook (Sina Weibo) which its officials can control to some degree, though Chinese users are smart and cynical enough to bypass many of the attempts to censor (or, euphemistically, harmonize) the posts.

Aside from the social networking tools, much has been written on the game-changing impact of the transnational networks that empower regular people and mobilize the apathetic people to rise to topple the sitting tyrants. Yet, transnational networks do not exist in a vacuum. They depend on the goodwill of the states to exist, and their successes are heavily influenced by whether they are able to tap into the discourse of the local political elites.

Take the example of NGOs, the pillars of international civil society. One of the main reasons why there are many NGOs in democracies is because NGOs are useful in bolstering the position of competing political elites. So for instance, in the U.S., the Democratic Party needs labors, the Greens, etc; while the Republicans need the Chamber of Commerce, the Tea Party, and so on. Thus, in my view, the more democratic a state is, the more NGOs can be influential, precisely because they are useful in the "struggle of power" among political elites.

Yet in totalitarian or authoritarian governments, NGOs do nothing but to create trouble. These governments see NGOs as operating to harass and undermine them. Yet, as often is the case, authoritarian or totalitarian governments still need some NGOs so as to preempt any pressure from the international community. Thus they have their own human rights organizations that they use to counter criticisms from other countries and international bodies.

Still, the more fragmented the political elite, the higher the freedom for transnational movements. Thus, Egypt may have some independent NGOs running around (with very close supervision and perhaps some arrests and beatings now and then to keep them in line), but North Korea essentially has zero independent NGOs.

Here's another factor to consider: one state's power vis-a-vis other states. Watch how China simply ignores any denouncements, complaints or pressures from the US or European-based human rights organizations.

A closer inspection of a number of the Arab Spring cases shows that the popular revolts were only successful when the political elite has been fragmented. The Tunisian army, for instance, refused to shoot on the protesters. In Egypt, Mubarak's mixed responses (plus the military's already dissatisfaction to his family's ambition and rapacity) hurt Mubarak's position greatly. In Libya, well, there's no organization anyway and there's NATO help that turned the tide.

And let's keep in mind that the digital world itself is not monolithic. As Cliff Bob nicely argued:

Notably as well, these networks are not all “progressive,” although most of the scholarly and journalistic attention has focused on human rights, environmental, and global justice groups. Rather, there is huge diversity among transnational advocates, with powerful right-wing networks fighting the left. Nor is it simply the case that conservatives ally with states to oppose changes in the status quo. In the ongoing battles that comprise most of international policy making, all sides support or reject change at certain times.
While Twitter/Facebook can be used for good purposes, it can also be used to promote the idea of mass killing, global Jihad, racism, and religious hatred. There are still people who support Qaddafi, and China has its 50-cent party that keeps promoting the Party's line to the chagrin of many Chinese. In essence, it is not that really clear-cut world like Anne-Marie Slaughter thinks it is.

In a nutshell, social networks are important. Their ability to exist and to be influential, however, depends on the state itself.

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