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Why I’m a Network Realist

April 16, 2013

In my last post I made referred to the realist/idealist issue that surfacing at the ISA this year and my crack that I consider myself a network realist.  So what does that mean?

My basic understanding of the world is that it’s a bunch of networks but in some respects the tenets of classical realism (Machiavelli, Carr, Morgenthau) still provide a pretty good guide at the level of thinking about world politics in general and public diplomacy in particular.

Here’s five aspects of the realist worldview that I think are useful.

  1. We live in a recalcitrant world.  Be realistic about your ability to change or maintain things.   Of course the classical realists didn’t think about networks but social networks provide stability as well as change.
  2. Interests.  Everybody has them.  The most saintly looking NGO still has interests and the prevalence of interests is one of the reasons for 1.  Following the constructivists at some level all interests are constructed and hence it’s theoretically possible to change them.  The difficulty is that what is possible in theory may be impossible in practice see 1.
  3. People try to dress up their interests as universal, often without realizing that they are doing it. This includes us.
  4. Realism emphasizes the continuity of international politics and given the constant bombardment of claims that everything has changed this needs to be reiterated.  In terms of network theorizing this means a preference for Michael Mann or Bruno Latour over Manuel Castells.  The point is not that nothing has changed but a scepticism about claims of radical historical discontinuities.  As Latour puts it somewhere the difference between us and the ancients is that we have bigger networks, that is we’re dealing with incremental development not a new era.
  5. It’s not just about ideas, information, discourse, cognitions, perceptions, values.  Resources matter.  Michael Mann’s sociology of power is sometimes described as ‘organizational materialism’, that is power is created by, and exerted through organization.  Organization is where ideas, meaning, money, people technology get mixed up together.  Ideas don’t do things on their own.

Two things that I wouldn’t take from realism

  1. Axiomatic state centrism.  In IR state centrism is often taken as the defining characteristic of realism but early Niebuhr was concerned with domestic politics or what about Schattschneider’s The Semisovereign People?  I’ll take up the question of state centrism in another post.
  2. Power as the master concept.   Power matters but I don’t think that power analysis gets you very far.

What does mean for public diplomacy? Think in the medium and long term, the short term is how  you manage to get to the longer term.  Think about creating networks built on mutual satisfaction of interests (note that these may be different interests not ‘shared’) and the recognition of difference.  Be sceptical about quick fixes, recognize that what other people see is not what you see.  Recognize that resources constrain what you can do so it may be better to do nothing than to try to act with insufficient resources. Learn from history.

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3 comments

  1. One step further in a more political direction:
    Y. Rumpala, Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project, 21st Century Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2009, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17450140903197435


    • Thanks for the reference – I’ll read with interest.


  2. […] Brown, “Post ISA Thoughts,” April 12, 2013; “Why I’m a Network Realist,” April 16, 2013; “The Warring Tribes of US Cold War Public Diplomacy,” May 8, […]



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