Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The New Foreign Policy Frontier: A.M. Slaughter's New Blog

Always on the search for new and interesting blogs on international politics, I'm pleased to say that I've recently found a new one. At the end of July, Anne-Marie Slaughter began a blog, which she calls "The New Foreign Policy Frontier." Slaughter is highly intelligent and well-respected, and extremely knowledgeable about and experienced in international relations. Initially, she was an international lawyer, then got a Ph.D. in politics, and since then has been an academic (International Relations Prof. at Princeton) and a foreign policy practitioner (Director of Policy Planning at the State Dept.). Clearly, she crosses a host of areas that are usually thought to be separate and unbridgeable.

Slaughter sees her blog as serving as a counterweight to those thinkers (e.g., Kenneth Waltz, Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer) and policymakers (such as Henry Kissinger) who label themselves "realists." Realists see international relations as a nasty and cutthroat environment filled with nation-states constantly jostling for power and influence over others (other nation-states, groups, organizations, etc.). Above all, to realists, it is the leading military and economic powers (U.S., China, Britain, Russia, and so on) that are the primary movers and shakers in the world. In fact, particularly in the context of big events and broad trends, realists argue the world can be theoretically reduced only to these actors, the great powers, thereby wiping away the rest of the world. One need only look at events/trends such as world wars, colonialism, world trade patterns, shifts in power in the world as salient examples of this argument. Furthermore, in a broad, general sense, realists also see international relations as somewhat predictable: nation-states maximize power or security; seek arms and/or alliances for self-defense purposes; balance against power or threats; pay attention to relative gains, and more.

Slaughter, meantime, contends that the world is much messier and more complex than realists believe. In her view, the world is significantly shaped by a myriad of actors, from all parts of the globe, and is dominated by lots of different issues. Contemporary international relations is an unpredictable arena, highly contingent on different forces that are prominent at any moment in time. Here is a snapshot of her perspective, in her words:

"The frontier of foreign policy in the 21st century is social, developmental, digital, and global. Along this frontier, different groups of actors in society -- corporations, foundations, NGOs, universities, think tanks, churches, civic groups, political activists, Facebook groups, and others -- are mobilizing to address issues that begin as domestic social problems but that have now gone global. It is the world of the Land Mines Treaty and the International Criminal Court; global criminal and terrorist networks; vast flows of remittances that dwarf development assistance; micro-finance and serial entrepreneurship; the Gates Foundation; the Arab spring; climate change; global pandemics; Twitter; mobile technology to monitor elections, fight corruption, and improve maternal health; a new global women's movement; and the demography of a vast youth bulge in the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia."
Slaughter's worldview appears to be a synthesis of network theory (which derives from several academic disciplines, such as political science, cognitive science, organizational research) and Robert Keohane and Joe Nye's (both are political scientists) work from the early 1970s on complex interdependence.

At the risk of simplification, there are four key points to Slaughter's logic: (1) The power of the state is eroding due to ever-expanding communications and information technology, which has dramatically empowered groups and individuals over the last few decades. (2) These groups and individuals form connections or networks with each other, and even at times with states, as a way to push their preferred policy policies and ideas forward through the state, to gain attention and publicity, to galvanize support, to implement plans, etc. (3) These diverse, newly empowered actors have vested interests in many different policy issues. (4) Some of these issues (climate change, control of dangerous diseases, terrorism) by definition can't be solved by just one or two powerful states. Rather, they require immense collaboration among lots of different actors in the world (yes, states, but also international organizations, experts, NGOs, political activists, and so on).

Slaughter's new blog has gotten attention from scholars and policy wonks, and it has already triggered some thoughtful critiques. (Among others, please see this and this and this and this). The critiques, generally speaking, claim that what Slaughter highlights is real, but question how impactful and crucial these things are to present-day world politics.

As for myself, I'm sympathetic to Slaughter's views. I do think there's something to what she writes. It feels like this "networked internationalism" (a term for Slaughter's views) is where the world is headed. As a result of the proliferation of satellite services, cell phones, computers, and the Internet around the world, people and groups of people are becoming more politically aware and active, trying on new political identities, acquiring and exercising political power on many different global issues. As these individuals and groups gain more political power, it's inevitable, perhaps necessary, that this comes expense of the state. And they are using these tools to form transnational bonds to like-minded others. Just look at the Arab Spring, a topic I covered in detail a few months ago. But there other, less dramatic examples as well. For instance, look at the Tea Party, a new American grassroots movement. In ways that are similar to the Arab revolutionaries, the Tea Partiers, like them or not, have have employed some elements of network theory along with social media tools to voice their specific political agenda, acquire some political power, and eat at the ability of the Obama administration to control political narratives and debates.

All of that said, I have a few minor questions about this school of thought.

With that in mind, this is what I would like to figure out: How we would know that we've reached the era of networked internationalism? What are some indicators that we can use as signposts to help us determine this answer? I'm sure that Slaughter would likely argue that we're already there, which is fine. But then, how does she know this? Which specific variables is she looking at?

2. I also wonder how various important forces in international relations impact the logic of networked internationalism. Let's take nationalism as an example. On the one hand, I can see nationalism as buttressing the power of the state, reinforcing the centrality of the state in the world. Look at current events in Egypt. There, the revolutionaries really are nationalists: they sought to seize their country from a brutal, corrupt dictator who, in their eyes, was a lackey of the U.S. and Israel. The revolutionaries now want to Egypt to reclaim its traditional exalted position in the region. This requires state action. And further, should the Egyptian state act more assertively in the region, whether in its relations with Israel or Saudi Arabia or any other country, Egyptian citizens will likely support these moves and look upon the state more favorably, thus creating a feedback loop by which the state clearly benefits. Additionally, let's not forget that a free and open and effectively functioning democratic Egypt--we're not there yet, but maybe in the future--can legitimize and as a consequence empower the state.

On the other hand, I can envision a different set of outcomes that are consistent with Slaughter's logic. For instance, in any country, the rise of nationalism and nationalist political actors in particular, will likely trigger a strong reaction from those officials who have something to lose with a shift in politics. In this scenario, these two groups--those supporting change in a nationalist direction and those defending the status quo--will battle for power. And as they do so, it's certainly possible, perhaps probable, that each will forge links to other domestic and international groups for support (knowledge and expertise, political backing, funds, material assistance) in their struggle for power.

I encourage you to check out Slaughter's blog and form your own thoughts on her writings. I know I'm interested to hear what she has to say going forward.

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