Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

States, Social/Political Groups, and Networks in International Politics

I'm pleased to see that Yohanes has engaged in the Anne-Marie Slaughter-Dan Drezner debate about transnational networks. He's made several good points, particularly on the persistent primacy of states in the world. I'd like to use what he's written as a launching point for a more general discussion about the connection between social and political groups (social/political activists, interest groups, experts, foundations, civic groups, universities, NGOs, etc.), networks, and states international politics.

The presence of social/political groups (which I'll hereafter abbreviate as SPG) in any given country  is a natural consequence of how free the state is. If the state is free, SPGs can take root and flourish. If the state isn't, then they won't. Simply put, there won't be sufficient space for SPGs to form and operate, let alone form transnational networks. It's as simple as that. Let's explore this in more detail.

Liberal democracies guarantee and protect an array of civil and political rights and liberties, including, most notably, freedoms of speech, the right to assemble, and the right to self-determination. These features provide a crucial fertile environment for politically-oriented people and groups to gather, organize, and work toward achieving their goals, whatever they may be. Here, we often see SPGs building connections with the state, working with bureaucrats, politicians, and political and financial and cultural elites. But some SPGs function to contest various seats of power. Meantime, other SPGs work in issue-areas, giving voice to policies that they think need to be addressed. Some SPGs decide to go it alone, while others build bridges to other domestic and/or international groups. Liberal democracies grant SPGs the freedom to form networks with whichever groups, people, and institutions as they wish. Their constraints in doing so will primarily come from limitations in funds, flaws in organizational structure, insufficient expertise, and an inability to find the right partners.

The relationship between SPGs, networks, and the state is a bit different in nondemocratic regimes. That said, I think we should make a distinction between authoritarian states and totalitarian ones. There can be a fairly stark difference between these two types of governance. Totalitarian states snuff out all independent and dissenting thoughts and opinions. The public and private are one, melded together, for the state's benefit. So in these states, SPGs will simply be appendages of the state, doing the business of the state. They're insular and inward-focused, concentrating mostly on the affairs of the country in which they reside. To the extent that SPGs foster connections to other groups, they'll frequently do so with groups and people from countries that share similar beliefs and political structures with their own country.

In garden variety authoritarian states, relative to totalitarian ones, there's more room for SPGs to form, work, and grow. This might not be the same kind and amount of space as we find in democracies, but it's real and it's there. In general, SPGs run into problems in authoritarian states when they begin to challenge the sitting government or the political system. So in these cases, we often find an informal agreement: civic groups and activists can set up shop and function as long as they stay out of the political game. Failure to heed this line in the sand brings the wrath of the state on the SPGs.

Just think about the presence and activism of NGOs and other groups in Egypt prior to the revolution. They were alive and well, as long they stayed out of mainstream politics. Thus, the bulk of the activities of Egyptian SPGs were hidden from public sight, buried underground, where it was safe to deliberate about politics and begin the process of forming loosely-based ties to other people and groups in society and in other countries. For instance, we know that prior to the January Revolution, Egyptian activists had already cultivated ties to revolutionaries in Serbia and Tunisia, among other places. Sure, some Egyptians physically traveled to these countries to acquire information, but they also took advantage of new technologies to form and strengthen nascent bonds with their counterparts abroad.

New technologies (cell phones, text messaging, the Internet, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and so on) have made it easier for SPGs, especially those in democracies and authoritarian states, to start up and also go transnational. These new technologies have effectively reduced the costs and other barriers to forming, to entering the marketplace of actors. If people have access to new technologies, can come up with a good idea/cause and package and sell it well, then they have a viable capacity to put together an SPG. Additionally, just as the case of pre-revolutionary Egypt shows us, new technologies have made it substantially easier to link to other groups around the world, effectively shrinking the globe for SPGs. This is what Anne-Marie Slaughter is excited about. And as I've written already, I think she has good reasons to be pleased and optimistic about these developments.

Here's my worry: states will catch on to how new technologies impact themselves and in response they'll aim to exert some control over these tools, thereby curbing the freedoms and rights and privileges of their citizens. This is something to watch going forward. Certainly, as Yohanes pointed out, social media tools can be used to cause death and destruction and disorder. The bloody and chaotic events in London illustrate that very thing. Perhaps greater oversight over Twitter, Facebook, and SMS can at times be a useful, though undoubtedly very controversial, public service.

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