I’ve really been wanting to get back to blogging but over the last 12 months I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to work through the question of how do public diplomacies fit in to international politics and rather than just start commenting on current events I want to sketch out some of the conclusions of this theoretical work so that I can refer back to it. One big concern for me has to close the gap between our theoretical and policy discourses (and has been for a very long time) but as Clausewitz would tell you if the theory doesn’t fit the practice you need a new theory. Most of the themes have been discussed here before but I think that I can now pull them together in a more coherent way.
This argument and what follows is developed at much greater length is some forthcoming work but I want to start off with the question of the state, what we mean by it and how it acts.
Corollaries of the Infrastructural State
Modern international relations is a product of the changes in the nature of the relationship between state and society that emerged during the 19th century. In thinking about this I started from Michael Mann’s concept of the development of the transition from a despotic to an infrastructural state. Essentially, the modern state embeds itself into the social order and can extract more resources/capability but at the same time it becomes constrained by these relationships (Mann 1988). There is a trade-off between embeddedness and autonomy (Evans 1995).*
If you think about this in a broader context you can see two corollaries which are usually discussed in different literatures. Firstly, the state as organization becomes much larger but more functionally differentiated hence less coherent. At the same time different components of the state organizations build their own relationships with other social actors. The political science literature has all kinds of concepts for making sense of this phenomenon; sub-governments, policy domains, issue communities, policy networks, the organizational state etc (McCool 1998).
The second corollary of the infrastructural state is the need to legitimize and naturalize this new order in cultural and ideological terms hence the importance of education, cultural, media infrastructures and small d democratic ideologies in producing a field within which entrepreneurs both from inside and outside the state can operate. Although we tend to label this as a nation-state but I think that this places too much weight on the ideas of ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ and too little on processes of nationalization and of the principle of nationality. We live in an order where everything is assumed to have a nationality and I think neglect how fundamental this is to the contemporary world. Even people who strive to escape this are still frequently shaped by their national habitus (Kuipers 2011, 2013, Stroup 2012).
Drawing on Andrew Abbott’s work this line of analysis leads a view of the modern state as an ecology (2005, 2016).
The Nationalized State as an International Actor
If we translate this argument into international terms we largely still talk about IR as if we were dealing with an imagined rational unitary sovereign and ignore 1) the rise of diverse state bureaucracies and their policy networks and 2) the way in which everything within or attached to the nationalized state can be turned into an instrument or vulnerability within statecraft.
Pretty much all histories of statecraft that have been written over the past century document the increasing complexity of the organizations of the modern state and conflicts and irrationalities that follow from this. Yet this is hardly ever taken as a basis for theorizing. The best known treatment of this idea in the International Relations literature focuses on one of the most intense international crises ever but bureaucracies do their things all the time and it is the fact that they may do them over long periods that means we need to look at things other than ‘decisions’ (Allison 1971). The agency of the modern state is bureaucracy and even relatively small states have multiple channels of international action. This is neither new or unusual. The First World War produced an expansion in outward facing organizations and the problem of coordination between them was becoming an issue in the 1920s (eg Düwell 1976, Garzarelli 2002)
What is the relationship between a country and its people, business, cuisine, art, science, pop culture beyond its borders? Who or what counts as belonging to a country. These relations are not that straightforward, claims to ownership or membership are complex and ambiguous and absolutely endemic to international politics in general and public diplomacies in particular.
The corollary of this is that this nationalized state is also something that is acted on but the effect needs to be seen in terms of its impact on this ecology.
In talking about the ‘nation-state’ as an international actor we are addressing a fluid, fragmented and rather ambiguous entity that works at coherence. Although some of the forms have changed this is not a new set of developments. These themes of fragmentation and ambiguity are ones that I will return to but in making sense of contemporary international politics they seem like better places to start that with a mythical Louis ‘L’etat? C’est moi’ XIV
*Even back in the 1980s Martin Shaw was discussing this as the warfare-welfare state and questioning whether nuclear weapons and the end of mass armies were eroding this bargain (Shaw 1988).
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Abbott A (2016) Processual Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Allison GT (1971) Essence of decision: explaining the Cuban missile crisis. Boston: Little Brown.
Düwell K (1976) Deutschlands auswärtige Kulturpolitik 1918-1932: Grundlinien und Dokumente. Köln: Böhlau.
Evans P (1995) Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Garzarelli B (2002) Fascismo e propaganda all’estero: Le origini della Direzione generale per la propaganda (1933-1934), Studi Storici, 43: 477–520.
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Stroup SS (2012) Borders Among Activists: International NGOS in the United States, Britain, and France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.