Daniel W. Drezner

Meet the new foreign policy frontier…. same as the old foreign policy frontier

This past week Anne-Marie Slaughter launched a new foreign policy blog over at The Atlantic entitled "Notes from the Foreign Policy Frontier."  This was greeted with general huzzahs across the foreign policy community, as Slaughter is a universally-acknowledged smart person.  She is an exemplar of someone who can effortlessly transition from the scholarly to the ...

This past week Anne-Marie Slaughter launched a new foreign policy blog over at The Atlantic entitled "Notes from the Foreign Policy Frontier."  This was greeted with general huzzahs across the foreign policy community, as Slaughter is a universally-acknowledged smart person.  She is an exemplar of someone who can effortlessly transition from the scholarly to the policymaking world and back again.  Her facility with new media is so good that her own bio undercounts her Twitter followers by 50%.

Slaughter’s first post suggests the themes of her new blog — let’s take a look and see what she’s up to, shall we?  Here are the opening paragraphs: 

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.

Traditional foreign policy continues to assume the world of World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the first and second Gulf Wars — an international system in which a limited number of states pursue their largely power-based interests in bargaining situations that are often zero-sum and in which the line between international and domestic politics is still discernible and defensible. Diplomats and statesmen compete with each other in games of global chess, which, during crises, often shift into high-stakes poker. It is the world of high strategy, the world that Henry Kissinger writes about and longs for and that so-called "realist" commentators continually invoke.

Well, this is… this is… I’m sorry, I got lost among the ridiculously tall strawmen populating these paragraphs.   I’ll go out on a limb and posit that not even Henry Kissinger thinks of the world the way Slaughter describes it.  Just a quick glance at, say, Hillary Clinton’s recent speech in Hong Kong suggests that actual great power foreign policies bear no resemblance whatsoever to that description of "traditional foreign policy." 

Slaughter knows this very well, given that she was Clinton’s first director of policy planning.  She also knows this because much of her writing in international relations is about the ways in which traditional governments are becoming more networked and adaptive to emergent foreign policy concerns.  One could quibble about whether this is really a new trend, but Slaughter was correct to point out that states are doing this. 

So, let’s get to the main point of her blog post:  what does Slaughter think about this new frontier? 

21st century diplomacy must not only be government to government, but also government to society and society to society, in a process facilitated and legitimated by government. That much broader concept opens the door to a do-it-yourself foreign policy, in which individuals and groups can invent and execute an idea — for good or ill — that can affect their own and other countries in ways that once only governments could.

In late June, I spent two days at the Summit Against Violent Extremism (#AVE on Twitter), a conference sponsored by Google Ideas, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Tribeca Film Festival that brought together more than 80 former gang members, violent religious extremists, violent nationalist extremists, and violent white supremacists from 19 countries across six continents. They came together with 120 academics, NGOs, public sector and private sector partners. The conference grew out of a vision developed by Jared Cohen, the head of Google Ideas, when he served in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Policy Planning together with Farah Pandit, who worked on countering violent extremism in the State Department’s Bureau of Eurasian Affairs and is the Special Representative to Muslim Communities. But, despite their role, bringing together this range of "formers" is something that Google Ideas and the Council on Foreign Relations can do much more easily than any government could. The range of projects creating networks to help build on effective, early intervention programs already working around the world, such as Singapore’s programs to deflect and deprogram Islamic radicals, will also be much easier to develop with a broader range of stakeholders, including some government participation, than they would be through government alone….

Skeptics argue that these kinds of initiatives are doomed to remain perennially peripheral and ineffectual. But, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, the traditional tools of fighting, talking, pressuring, and persuading government-to-government really aren’t working so well. Thirty years of urging reform produced next to nothing; 6 months of digitally and physically organized social protests and a political earthquake is shaking the broader Middle East. Twenty years of working toward a treaty to govern carbon emissions has barely yielded an informal "accord." Yet measures taken by 40 cities organized by the Bloomberg Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative will have far more impact.

Outing myself as a skeptic, I’d make two points.  First, Slaughter’s weakness as an international relations theorist is to uncritically observe phenomena like the Summit Against Violent Extremism and then inductively generalize from them to extrapolate the future of world politics.  AVE is happening, but I’m gonna want to see a lot more evidence that it’s making a difference before calling it a success.  There are a lot of issue areas where this kind of initiative will not substantially alter policy outcomes.  Indeed, one could flip this around, look at new trends like sovereign wealth funds, national oil companies and and state-owned enterprises, and reach the exact opposite conclusions from Slaughter.  I don’t, but you see my point — world politics is about a lot more than a Muslim woman setting up a Twitter account thanks to her microfinance loan.     

Second, Slaughter’s climate change example is a great one.  I don’t doubt that the initiatives she’s blogged about likely have accomplished more than the two decades of UN negotiations.  I also don’t doubt, however, that those accomplishments are a drop in the bucket compared to what has needs to be done.  Furthermore, I suspect these groups would strongly prefer joint government action to their own initiatives, as the only viable means to mitigate the effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions.  In which case, they will function like good old fashioned interest groups, which is not all that new.   

Slaughter believes that these "bottom-up" movements represent the future of world politics — and she may well be right.  My own inclination is that DIY foreign policy represents a poor and underprovided substitute for effective state action global governance.  We’ll see what the future holds. 

Concluding her post, Slaughter says that she’ll be, "looking at the world through a very different lens — highlighting features of the foreign policy landscape that simply disappear if we examine only a world of opaque unitary states negotiating, pressuring, fighting, and ignoring each other."  This is good, and highlights the value-added that such an approach can bring to thinking about world politics.  I’ll be looking at Slaughter’s musings as well through my own lens — one that is very wary of overhyped initiatives that do not accomplish nearly as much as suggested by their media hype. 

Am I missing anything? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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