From Latour to British Foreign Policy: Part V – It’s All About the NetworksOctober 28, 2013
Sorry about the delay but to finish off this series of posts I want to offer some suggestions about changing the way that we think about British foreign policy. At the moment the combination of a Blairite vision and a fragile states doctrine leaves us with quite serious gaps in the way we think about foreign policy. Although William Hague signalled some intention to place greater weight on bilateral relationships and on commercial diplomacy I don’t think that the basic framework of foreign policy thinking has changed.
I think that the Blairite ideas are both hubristic and disempowering. They are hubristic in their confidence that if only we (the west) led by Britain try harder we can build a single world in which we solve the problems (those that the UK has identified) in the appropriate way (British solutions). From the point of view of a British foreign policy these ideas are disempowering in that they specify a set of problems that are objectively given (by Science or Ethical imperatives) and that can only be solved by a global coalition. Britain is constituted as an agent of global modernization, a modernization that it has no choice but to carry out.
The Blairite rhetoric is seductive because it appeals to a humanitarian instinct, while at the same time it seems sophisticated because of its emphasis on connectedness, for instance in the way it makes connections between say climate change, failed states and refugee flows and insists on interdependence.
From a realist point of view this is essentially the same ‘harmony of interests’ that Carr critiques in in The Twenty Years Crisis. It could be argued that we now have had seventy plus years of increasing interdependence, globalization and so on so even if Carr was right then he isn’t now. Here we need to reach into the network realist tool box. Networks don’t automatically produce homogeneity. Position in a network produces differences in perspectives and differences in interests, hence different versions of the world, different agenda, different solutions and differential capabilities. Even in a connected world risks, interests and capabilities are distributed differently and that brings us back to politics – and the Latourian task of composing the world.
Three network realist points.
Firstly, we (Britain or the west) can’t solve all the problems in the world because we don’t know how, we don’t have the resources, we can’t agree what the problems are or what the solutions are. Hence British foreign policy needs to make ‘tough choices’* about what needs to be done and can be done in the world. I think that key thing is recognizing the necessity to make choices and to justify the basis for those choices. Talking in terms of ‘values’ and ‘rules based order’ isn’t enough we need to be able to answer the questions about which values in which places and which rules are the ones that really matter. Thus we need to fill the gap between vision and doctrine with real policies and strategies.
Secondly, network thinking offers some useful intellectual tools for making sense of the world that can form the basis for acting in it. Network concepts deal in variation not categories or essences. Rather than being confronted with binary choices networks offer different ways of thinking about degrees and forms of connection. Following Latour we also see that ‘big things’ are actually collections of ‘small things’ which may offer ways of exerting influence. British foreign policy debates almost always devolve into in/out (of the EU) or Atlantic/Europe or Europe/wider world. The Blairite vision offered one way of resolving these issues (the choice is made – there is no choice to make) network thinking offers a different way of breaking down the issues.
Thirdly, the Blairite rhetoric of interdependence is deterministic. In contrast networks are sites where agency operates and where influence can occur. We can make relationships stronger or weaker, we can make new relationships and end old ones, we can try to influence other relationships or exploit their absence.
Yes, we live in a world of networks but that fact does not abolish politics or the possibility of choice. Political talk thrives on binary oppositions and necessity because it has to create the community and motivate action but it also functions to define possibilities, the problem is that the Blairite concepts continue to define, and limit, how we think about British foreign policy. In a situation where the position of the US is under question, the EU is likely to undergo rapid change, other power centres are emerging which, democratic or not, certainly see the world differently from the North Atlantic axis, apart from the Blairite global agenda we need some creative thinking.
I’ll come back to the question of British foreign policy in future posts but that’s quite enough for the moment.
*Tony Blair liked to talk about ‘tough choices’ but he didn’t actually mean make a choice in the sense of choosing between alternative courses of action it was more like ‘I’ve made the choice and its tough if you don’t like it’