Daniel W. Drezner

Contagion in world politics

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?