Is the Internet making realism obsolete?

Is the Internet making realism obsolete?

Is modern media — the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, and all that other stuff — making realism obsolete? More specifically, if the essence of realism is the hard-headed pursuit of national interests, and especially the cool and dispassionate weighing of the costs and benefits of different policy choices, then is that approach undermined when policymakers are buffeted by viral videos of tyrannical outrages (e.g., Libya in 2011, Syria today) and well-crafted online campaigns to mobilize support for benevolent intervention? If ordinary citizens can watch carnage unfold wherever it might occur, how can national leaders remain aloof and conduct statecraft in the careful and prudent way that realism recommends?

Pretty easily, I’d say, although there will obviously be a few cases where presidents and prime ministers are pushed to take action by public outcry fueled by greater access to information. But on balance, I doubt the greater ease with which information now flows around the world will have a powerful systematic effect on what leaders ultimately decide to do.

In fact, this issue is just the latest incarnation of a rather old debate. Walter Lippmann famously argued that public opinion was too fickle to be a reliable guide to policy, and that better-informed elites would have to "manufacture consent" in order to lead effectively. Realists like George Kennan used to worry that democracies were no good at statecraft because public passions would warp the conduct of foreign policy, although other scholars have argued that democracies often out-perform authoritarian states because they are better at correcting their mistakes. Social scientists have long debated whether media coverage has any systematic effect on wartime behavior, military intervention, or other foreign policy elements. Check out the seminal works of Dan Hallin, Lance Bennett, or my colleague Matt Baum for more detailed coverage of this broad issue.

Meanwhile, what about the infamous "CNN effect" (or its modern cousin, the "YouTube Effect")? This is the idea that media coverage or internet avalanches can force policymakers to act when they would rather not. Scholarly research on this question suggests that the effect is pretty modest and highly conditional: Media coverage can affect decisions when policymakers are undecided, but it rarely sways them when they have firm views on the proper course of action. And that’s just another way of saying that when it is obvious that one should stay out of an ongoing conflict, a lot of lurid media footage and YouTube videos of carnage aren’t going to convince national leaders to do something really stupid.

There’s another reason why the greater transparency that modern media provides does not produce a systematic shift towards intervention and away from realpolitik. Although seeing horrible events live-and-in-person triggers our sympathies and may mobilize activists, it also creates a powerful and vivid impression of just how much of a mess a given society might be. While reinforcing our sense of outrage, in short, such images also highlight the costs and dangers of getting involved. On balance, therefore, the greater availability of images and other unmediated information might even make ill-founded interventions less likely.

Furthermore, political leaders of all kinds still prefer to conduct a lot of their business in the dark, especially when the use of force is concerned. Iran and China have tried to make it hard for outsiders to hear about domestic crackdowns, and North Korea remains the poster child for a society that does its best to prevent outside scrutiny. But let’s not forget that democratic leaders sometimes prefer to do the nation’s business in the dark. Dick Cheney never did tell us who was on that energy task force of his, and the Obama administration still refuses to talk candidly about drone strikes and special forces operations. And remember that infamous Wikileaks video of an Apache helicopter killing a Reuters journalist in Iraq? Those images didn’t do anything to encourage public support for the war effort, which is perhaps one reason why the U.S. government launched an all-out assault on Wikileaks itself.

Bottom line: The ubiquity of information and the growing ability to see far-flung events for ourselves is undoubtedly having some impact on what we (think we) know about the world, and in some cases may push undecided policymakers in surprising directions. And as I’ve noted before, the leaders of powerful countries like the United States may be particular vulnerable to such pressures, in part because they’ve convinced themselves that they have a responsibility to "lead" and in part because the U.S. is so powerful that it is sometimes hard to remember that we can’t do everything. But on the whole, the globalization of information doesn’t free national leaders from the need to think first and foremost about what is in their own country’s interests, and thus to weigh costs, risks, and benefits carefully. In short, realism is not dead.