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Geopolitics, networks, and complex friction

September 20, 2011

The long-running sovereignty debate has now come full circle, to the realm of the theoretical debate over the importance of societies and states. Read the piece in full. She explains that the nature of the Arab Spring may mean that new governments no longer uphold US interests, but makes the case for supporting the Arab Spring anyway, because naturally it is proof societies have the power to overturn states.

Given this reality, why aren’t scholars and commentators like my friendly foil Dan Drezner not actively recommending that we simply tell the Syrian government that it can do whatever it likes to its people, as Joshua Foust, Dan Trombley and their fellow defenders of absolute sovereignty insist is the right of all sovereign governments? Why didn’t we encourage the Egyptian military to fire on the protesters in Tahrir Square, keep Mubarak in power, and enforce a transition to his son? North Korea’s Kim Il-sung managed such a transition to Kim Jong-il, who looks set to do the same to Kim Jong-un. If states are what matter in the world, then why not do everything we can to encourage the continuation of governments that are friendly to our interests, regardless of what happens within their borders?

Firstly, I would like to reiterate that my claim has never been that states are what matter in the world. Power is what matters in the world. The reason realists choose to resolve the complexity and tension between the various social and political organizations outside the state and the state itself in favor of the state is generally because the state remains the optimal mechanism for maintaining territorial sovereignty and defense against external intervention. As I have detailed in previous posts, there is a long history of realist authors dealing with forces outside the state since realist political theory antedates the state itself. The fundamental difference between realists and the rest is their understanding of power as essentially coercive, and view the creation of alternative nodes and networks of other forms of power as relying upon the careful concert of coercive forces at play.

The reason, in completely cold-blooded terms, why I objected the Tiananmen solution to Tahrir is quite obvious. Simply, the United States was not in a position to control that decision either way short of very overt and likely counterproductive intervention, and secondly, there was no reason to think the protesters goals significant enough of a threat to United States interests to warrant such an extraordinary intervention into Egyptian politics. After all, did Egypt’s protests succeed because they triumphed over coercion? No, they succeeded because the Egyptian Armed Forces opted to stand aside, and it is the Egyptian Armed Forces which remain the strongest single actor in the Egyptian political arena today. Although the fall of Mubarak has resulted in a reduction of power for the Interior Ministry, the military, which has always been the core of the Egyptian “deep state” since Nasser, remains intact.

Slaughter insists that this view contradicts my “absolutist” vision of sovereignty. I submit my vision is neither absolutist nor grounded in conceptions of “right,” except in the most Hobbesian sense of “natural right,” (rather than moral or even necessarily legal right). While there are undoubtedly states which do maintain an absolutist vision of sovereignty, no realist does because to think that states have such legal or moral rights to absolute sovereignty flies in the face of the obvious constraints that preponderances of foreign power inevitably impose on lesser polities.

Sovereignty cannot be absolute because, in today’s international arena, it is all things to all states and all peoples. It is, as I have stressed, an intersubjective notion whose lowest common denominating standard is the right of governments to use violence internally and against aggressors to main civil order. Like all orders, there are exceptions, and as in most orders, it is the strongest actors who have the capacity to decide on when they are. But this objection is legitimized by the tacit or explicit acceptance of the other concert of powers which make up international institutions.

Making the dismantling of this “absolute” sovereignty a loudly-proclaimed objective will do more harm than good. So long as the rhetoric of civilian protection and humanitarianism has been upheld, other states have had to at least begrudgingly accept the logic of intervention. Indeed, some states such as Russia even reappropriate the language of humanitarian intervention  in the advancement of their own interests. Not nearly as many states, however, and particularly few developing states, support intervention because they are opponents of absolute sovereignty or the advancement of an American-led world order. The reality is that many actors have very contradictory notions of what sovereignty actually means. Because the Western great powers have thus far avoided explicitly couching their doctrine in terms of the remaking of the social contract or the formation of a new international contract, and rather instead spoken of civilian protection, the contradictions of Western conceptions of sovereignty and those of rising powers has rendered it relatively obscure.

So long as the West is judicious and where and why it uses intervention, it can do so without provoking major international tensions. While most states abhor genocide or at least publicly claim to, the case of say, suppressing an armed revolt with military force is widely held within and among these states as a legitimate use of state power. Sometimes this may mean besieging and shelling villages and towns full of civilians. Sometimes it may mean forced displacement and resettlement. Sometimes it may mean indiscriminate warfare in populated zones. Sometimes it may mean extrajudicial killings and detention of influential activists or political opponents. These behaviors are routine in a large number of states. Yet by prosecuting the Libyan regime for the crime of seeking to suppress revolution with force, many of the states which employ these methods to retain control have grown hostile to the notion of Western intervention and are seeking to stonewall even non-violent UNSC action in Syria, despite atrocities of similarly deplorable nature compared to Libya’s. This is not to say it is wrong that the West does not intervene in Syria, only to prove that revealing the extent of Western normative ambitions beyond simply the immediate issue of protecting civilians encourages resistance to Western power.

We’ll come back to that later. Before then, let us address Slaughter’s contention about the nature of networked power:

When you put all this together, you get a complex, adaptive system, a world of diverse actors interacting with one another in many different ways and adapting to whatever circumstances arise as a result of that interaction. The Cold War world — a strategic competition between two superpowers — was relatively easy to model using game theory, which itself assumes rational (in other words, interest-maximizing) choice on the part of all the participants in the game. Most international relations scholars’ models of the world still assume rational choice. But when lots of different actors interact in lots of different ways, they are more likely to adapt to changing circumstances than to choose specific moves based on any strategy designed to maximize their interests (see Robert Axelrod in The Complexity of Cooperation¸a book that unfortunately far fewer international relations students and scholars have read than his classic The Evolution of Cooperation).

In plain English, the Cold War world was like chess. The 21st century world is more like tennis, where the wind, heat, possible rain delay (climactic factors that are themselves the product of complex adaptive systems), and your opponent’s relative health and form on any given day (health and form that are themselves a function of whom your opponent has played prior to your match) all affect the speed, trajectory, and spin on the ball coming at you. Sometimes you get to choose your actions independently, for example when you serve, but mostly you adapt and respond. Or take surfing, where you really can’t predict when the wave is coming or what it will look like. But when the conditions are right you can be sure that a wave will come and you can do a great deal to position and prepare yourself to ride it all the way — or at least not to get smashed under.

The reality is that networks are not anything new, in fact, they have been fertile grounds for security studies analysts for essentially two decades, as Ronfeldt and Arquilla’s research makes clear. The problem is that examining networks and society and their relationship to coercion reveals much more troubling than even the guarded assessment Slaughter offers. An analysis of the networks of power would reveal that commerce, communications, everyday public life, and culture are tied up in networks and relationships of violent power. While these connections are more or less subdued in many societies, they are very explicit in others. The multifarious layered and competitive networks of international politics have no real analogues in any kind of game. Chess was not a model for global politics during the Cold War, it was a model merely for the most important aspect of it. It was the highest game in the sense that the dual superpowers approximated McCarthy’s Judge Holden’s “ultimate game” because “the trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up the game, player, all.” In each square and piece whirred myriad networks of power – intelligence organizations, activist groups, deep states, paramilitaries, businesses – but all seemed spurious to the calculating bipolar relationship which could upend the world in its entirety.

Yet they were not absent. The game did not change with the advent of new technologies and the end of the Cold War. Certain aspects of it simply became more fierce. Chess was merely a game within a game. It was, due to the stakes of the weaponry and size of the players involved, the game that was the precondition of all others.

I would agree with Slaughter that networks are important. The realist criticism, however, is that her description severs networks from the coercive architectures which enable and limit their existence. Ultimately, coercive apparatuses are vital to the functioning of a countries’s civil society, economy, and other social spheres. Her examples for the efficacy of networks elude this central point, as does her choices of tennis and surfing as metaphors for global politics. In tennis, there is only one opponent (and any game in which there is only one opponent is a model simply inviting unnecessary Manicheism for today’s increasingly multipolar world), and in surfing, there is no opponent. The ocean is not adapting to beat you. Slaughter’s examples demonstrate the successes of network theory in lending itself to external control – but only when competition and coercion are absent (all emphasis is mine).

As the World Health Organization and many national governments demonstrated during the SARS and H1N1 pandemics, epidemiologists can figure out who infects whom fairly quickly and can certainly recommend measures to block contagion. And as Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler show in their book Connected, empirical studies confirm that it is possible to spread positive health effects, such as weight loss and smoking cessation, by targeting identifiable nodes in much broader social networks. Network theory and complexity theory more generally offers many insights on how to make ourselves more resilient, adaptable, prepared, and resourceful in the face of challenges we know are coming . Network theory can tell the London city planners how many roads they need circling the city and how many going through it to minimize traffic congestion and maximize fast access. It’s all a function of how many and what type of connections exist within what overall structure.

The closest thing approximating competition and rivalry in these models is the natural trial and error of viruses. For some challenges, this depiction would be appropriate. But international politics is composed of actors with divergent interests and competitive, if not outright belligerent, proclivities. Networks themselves are composed of arrays of actors with agendas and interests of their own, and they are actively innovating to pursue them. In international politics, political actors and the networks they form will not necessarily want to be controlled or even able to be controlled, even by a superpower such as the United States. Farrell is ultimately more accurate in his assessment because unlike the maladies public health networks or traffic networks combat, rival political actors have access to the same information and awareness of the situation the intervening party has. Not only that, there are innumerable participants, none of whom have necessarily the same objectives or perspectives, but all with an interest in maintaining some semblance of control over their own fates.

Slaughter in fact drastically underestimates the complexity of networked politics. Her examples of networked policymaking success involve essentially ignorant foes unable to recognize they are under attack and without a conscious desire to counteract other moves to pursue their own agendas. Naturally, this conception totally omits the role of the coercive actors in international politics, who have the ability to veto or substantially disrupt the agendas of rivals who might seek to interpose themselves in local politics.

Her example policy prescription for Libya demonstrates the flaws of this approach:

So what can all this abstraction tell us about the question that I raised at the outset of this piece about the changing Arab region? A memo to the National Security Adviser that says “many of the new governments in the Middle East aren’t going to like us, so we’ll just have to adapt to their views and make the best of it” is not going to get us very far. Here’s a start at more concrete recommendations. Take the emerging Libyan government and the concerns about increasing Islamist influence, for example. How can we help construct a network of governments, foundations, and businesses that will provide successful counter-pressure? Encouraging strong ties between Turkey and Libya will help, as will focusing intensively on exactly who in Qatari government and society has been funding the Libyan opposition and making as much of that information public as possible. Another approach is pushing hard for the continued role of women in the Libyan government and working with allies and investors to make this a signal of the strength and stability of whatever regime emerges. Connecting Libyan women not only to UN Women but also to many different collaborative networks that promote female entrepreneurship and leadership will help, as will identifying young entrepreneurs across Libya and connecting them to similar young business networks. In short, mapping the socio-economic terrain in Libya as well as the more obvious political terrain and focusing our diplomacy on making that terrain as transparent and as positively connected as possible.

So, the Libyan Islamists, and most prominently the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group, just quietly accept their marginalization in the political arena, despite being an organized force with significant combat power? So too do other groups whose interests might be harmed by the rise of new power centers within Libyan society? There is no mention here of how to deal with institutionalizing Libya’s capacity for violence, now widely diffused throughout the country, into institutions capable of upholding the rule of law that will allow rights to be maintained, and businesses to flourish, and the stability necessary to hold together a broad coalition of anti-Islamist elements against a common foe?

Non-state elements do matter. This is precisely why the “networked” approach to order-building will fail, because the very complexity of the networks themselves do not lend themselves to the spontaneous adoption of liberal order. Social engineering has been either horrendously violent and difficult or utopian and disastrous for millenia, particularly by a foreign power. The forging of networks and states into a coherent actor necessarily involves the compliance of the military, security services, intelligence arms, and other coercive apparatuses of the “deep state,” as well as measures to confront and where possible eliminate other potential nodes of power which might subvert the fragile coalition (or the corruption or flow of resources which all too often lubricates such layered networks).

Even in the revolutions of the Arab Spring, what has been striking is that where the deep state and other coercive bodies genuinely have been swept away, they have been replaced with civil war and struggle. Where they have endured, there has been relative peace. The notion that the US can simply engineer away the quandaries of security sector reform and the fundamental role of coercive power in shaping a country’s economy and society is misleading.

Studies of netwar have revealed the strength of networks is dependent on organizational design, doctrinal methods, and social cohesion, in addition to narratives that are not wholly under anyone’s control. Without a doubt, the US is in an extremely limited position to predictably and reliably influence or shape effective networks in foreign states without a massive investment in resources – particularly if it lacks control over the coercive networks and hierarchies which control the scope of network behavior and insulate them from the machinations of rival actors.

The US cannot network its way out of the primacy of power, and the reality that the most easily manageable (note I did not say the only important) nexus of power remains the state. Perhaps Libya will not bear this out, since Libya’s problems were never a major for American national security anyway. However, the US must bear in minds its attempts to network engineer foreign societies, and its desire to update the social contract for such a networked world in a way that call into question the ability of states to contain the dark side of coercive networks will only lead to the re-emergence of the great power politics which are the ultima ratio and the primary external constraints on its foreign policy. So too do they risk exhausting the resources and willpower of the US in another shiny, sanitized repackaging of social engineering.

Ultimately, the most resilient form of US foreign policy would be adopting the kind of passive adaptation and measured conception of interests that Slaughter rejects earlier in her piece. Just as the US cannot afford to render bare the contradictions in the shaky (in practice) international consensus on the value and meaning of sovereignty, it cannot afford to pursue an open-ended foreign policy based on an approach that seeks to engineer away the dynamism of international rivalry, or ignore the fact that complex systems create as many opportunities for rivalries and new obstacles to US power as they seemingly remove. Ultimately the reality of a networked world is more dangerous for the aspirations of American liberal internationalists than it is for realists. Networks do not inherently flummox realists who are concerned with power above the state. However, the dark side of networks and netwar reveal the difficulty and violence necessary for a liberal order to emerge out of complexity and chaos. States are ultimately very useful vessels for the maintenance of international laws and norms in the absence of a universal empire. As the loci of power internally and externally, they have the ability to constitute international rules to constrain each other and to enforce norms on their own people. But their cooperation, despite their many divergent interests, relies upon the willful, mutually-deceiving illusion that all parties see the same thing in an international concept such as sovereignty. The more states of exception are declared by the great powers, and the more expansive the justification in favor of the exception taken, the less likely the liberal order, which is built and ultimately maintained by state power, will endure. Disillusioned rivals and unleashed networks whose coercive powers are beyond US control will not be able to uphold that, or any other, conception of US interests.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2011 10:33 pm

    While there are undoubtedly states which do maintain an absolutist vision of sovereignty, no realist does because to think that states have such legal or moral rights to absolute sovereignty flies in the face of the obvious constraints that preponderances of foreign power inevitably impose on lesser polities.

    This sentence (and perhaps some other aspects of the post, but I’ll stick to this sentence) seems to me to confuse a normative issue with an empirical one. What legal or moral rights are held by states or other collectives (or individuals, for that matter) is basically a normative question and thus cannot be determined by an asserted empirical fact, i.e., “the obvious constraints that preponderances of foreign power…impose on lesser polities.”

    Whether states have an ‘absolutist’ right to be free of external intervention of any kind cannot be answered by saying “well, state X doesn’t have such a right b/c it’s weaker than state Y”. That’s just the old doctrine of might makes right. Rather, one has to make the case for sovereignty-as-nonintervention at least partly on normative (i.e. moral) grounds, appealing e.g. to pluralism and the rights of peoples to decide their own destiny, etc. (Or in the case of an oppressive regime, you have to make the Mill/Walzer case that oppressed peoples have to win their own freedom.)

    Invoking a form of ‘realism’ that presents itself self-consciously as cold-blooded and hard-headed and unconcerned with normative issues both begs important questions and, incidentally, reduces the realist tradition to something of a caricature of what it actually is. I’m sorry if this comment is both blunt and somewhat general – it’s late and I’ve had a less-than-great day. But I found the tone of parts of this post sufficiently disturbing to feel compelled to say something.

  2. September 23, 2011 10:41 pm

    P.s. I happen to have read Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’ but those who haven’t may not get your Judge Holden allusion.

  3. September 23, 2011 10:52 pm

    Thanks for the comment – yes, it is rather confusing, but then again the question I was responding to was also a mix of normative and empirical, in that it asked why my theory didn’t lead me to demand the US endorse Egypt slaughtering its own people (with all the normative loading that question bore).

    My point in that comment was not that there is no other normative basis for sovereignty wasn’t intended to be a full statement of my views about realism and sovereignty (which I hope I’ve substantiated in other posts (eg as a necessary tolerance of alternative systems of government which allows the relatively liberal world order to survive), but merely to point out that even the caricatured state-centric ruthlessness that Slaughter posed in the question I excerpted would not demand such an action.

    I didn’t hope to endorse that answer as fully adequate but to show that even within the confines of the caricature she paints of the realist vision (as “only states matter, screw the people”), it’s possible to object to her assertion the US should have endorsed a massacre. Not entirely clear there, but I didn’t want to recapitulate that post on sovereignty and tolerance needlessly.

    • September 24, 2011 9:30 am

      Perhaps I should have gone back to your sovereignty & tolerance post before commenting on this one.

      But as far as this post is concerned, you answered Slaughter’s question (about why your position wouldn’t lead to an endorsement of massacring the protesters) in ‘cold-blooded’ terms (with reference to the limits of US power and the nature of US interests). Presumably you also think that massacring unarmed protesters is morally wrong but thought that that was so obvious you didn’t have to say it – but it might not have been entirely obvious, esp. to a reader coming into this exchange for the first time. Admittedly this may ultimately reflect more on Slaughter’s question than your answer.


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