Global Outreach: Speaking to the Awakening World
While presidential candidates pick fights over polarity—which countries are gaining power and which are declining—they are missing the most dramatic shift in foreign policy in centuries: the rise of individuals within each country vis-à-vis their governments.
In previous centuries, kings made the foreign policy for their realm, without consulting powerless peasants. True, businesses such as the British East India Company conducted some policy, but only after being granted a direct charter by the monarchy to act on its behalf. The eighteenth century saw the rise of democracy. But citizens could only elect their leaders, not conduct foreign policy. Governments still dealt with other governments. For much of the twentieth century, an individual could affect foreign policy only by joining the government, or maybe by holding one of the very few positions of influence that then existed outside government.
But in the latter half of the century, this model began to break down. Multinational businesses, wielding immense resources in otherwise weak countries, began to have policy influence. Financial flows resulting from thousands of traders’ individual decisions became big enough to influence other nations’ currencies and to create economic pressures that affected policy. Groups of citizens also started to make their voices heard internationally. Amnesty International became an influential global player; the International Campaign to Ban Landmines won a Nobel Prize as much for its organizational model as for its cause.
The rise of the Internet and social networking has accelerated this fracturing of foreign policy. Skype, satellite television, cell phones, and other technologies have made citizens of even remote, impoverished parts of the world aware of their relative wealth, freedom, and power. And they have also given these people the means to make their thoughts known—thoughts that in many instances differ from their government’s official positions and decisions. A citizen in the developing world may now provide information through a Twitter account that contradicts the propaganda of her government—and that gets quoted on CNN. Individual empowerment can be as simple as uploading an inflammatory cell-phone photo to Facebook. The Arab Spring took self-organization to an entirely new level, as revolutionaries operating on a shoestring with a diffuse leadership took on some of the most sclerotic, heavy-handed governments on earth.
The ability to organize quickly, at nearly no cost and with networked leadership structures that cannot be easily stopped by autocratic governments, has accelerated the rise of a new set of actors in international relations. Governments are no longer the only players that matter. Mass media is not the only source of information. Suddenly, hyper-empowered individuals are a part of the story, alongside activist organizations, businesses, religious networks, and other parts of civil society. Nor are they simply a new round of protestors shouting to get into the edifices of influence. They are circumventing those edifices entirely. Connectivity is replacing money and stature as the most important marker of power, as scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter has written.
This change in the nature of power means that governments no longer have a monopoly on force—from places like Mexico, where drug gangs are better armed than the army, to Lebanon, where Hezbollah has the power and personnel to overrule the state. It also means that finding—and fighting—one’s enemies is more difficult. A computer geek with a website spreading jihadist ideology can be more lethal over the long run than an armed insurgent. But when that geek lives in Guernsey, and is protected by England’s free-speech laws, what should be done? Conventional military superiority will look ham-fisted when activists with cell-phone cameras can stop an army in its tracks via the threat of instantaneous global exposure, as Israel discovered when it tried to maintain a blockade that the UN itself approved. The power citizens now have to disseminate information means that every government action takes place before an international audience. Diplomats may try to contain the fallout from WikiLeaks, but the ability of open societies to keep secrets is disintegrating, like it or not. (See Jonathan Spalter’s “Open-Source Diplomacy,”)
The Progressive Outlook
What principles should guide how the United States acts in this new reality? Here conservatives—of both the neoconservative and realist variety—start out a significant step behind. Their philosophies breed three failed ideas.
First, while progressives give pride of place to the individual, conservative realists see states as the only international actors that count. National interests and power matter; people and values don’t. Because realists have long prized government-to-government interaction as all-important and have ignored the role of civil society and ideology, their tendency is to continue to ignore these sub-state movements of organized people. You could almost hear their sighs of relief as the Egyptian military appeared to be reasserting control over that country last fall. Conservative realists believe the U.S. government should deal with other governments, and ignore citizens and civil-society groups who muck up the smooth operation of deals between regimes.
That supposed “hard-headedness” led realists—including too many Democratic foreign policy experts, who sacrificed progressive values on the altar of realist assumptions—to make deals with dictators in the name of stability. But realists used to dealing government-to-government don’t know how to operate in this new environment. Because in a world of empowered individuals, the people can share information, organize, and overturn those dictatorships—and they remember who supported their former oppressors. As conservatives lambasted President Obama for standing with the Egyptian people, they not only showed that they were out of touch—their counsel risked putting America on the wrong side of history. Fearing that we would alienate old “friends,” realists have instead alienated the empowered publics of the Middle East.
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