Archive for April, 2018


Some Implications of the Organizational State

April 5, 2018

A couple of weeks ago I pointed to the neglected significance of the modern state as a set of bureaucracies and policy networks for its external relations.  Here I want to point to three implications of this.

The first point is that the modern state has evolved a set of bureaucracies and policy networks that are concerned with international relationships but academics and policy makers take the legal singularity of the state as their reference point.  In every day speech and writing we shift from a language of strong intention ‘what Tehran’s strategy is…’ to a language of factions (hawks and doves) or intergovernmental struggle (eg ‘the foreign ministry is pushing for more conciliatory stance but the army is concerned about its prestige’) without drawing any broader theoretical conclusions.  Diplomats routinely manage the complexity of their own and foreign states but this does not show up in theoretical accounts even though it often forms a large part of their memoirs.  From my historical work it is clear that this multiplication is not new.  The era of the First World War saw a transformation in foreign affairs organizations.  In the 1920s some countries are seeing the need to coordinate the numerous public and private organizations.  It might be argued that the Soviet Union is sui generis but the demand for coordination is quite visible in Weimar Germany and Fascist Italy. In France there were also efforts to produce a comprehensive national statecraft which (as happens in many cases) just proves too difficult to sustain in practice.  Since then the trend of development has been to more extensive sets of international linkages.

This suggests a need for a comparative research agenda on the pluralization of foreign relations and how they have been managed, and with what effect.  Coordination is hard to achieve and it is not obvious that it is always desirable;  Stalin shows achieving a high level of coordination may simply produce coordinated stupidity or the coordination of things that are best left uncoordinated.

Secondly, the multiplication of foreign linkages is not just a matter of bureaucratic scope; the modern state is inherently pluralist.  As Isaiah Berlin would put it we don’t live in a ‘jigsaw world’ where all the pieces can ultimately be made to fit together.  If you have multiple outward facing agencies they tend to develop their own conception of how the world works, to systematically promote policy that emerge from their worldview and work towards these goals regardless other concerns.  In looking at the history of public diplomacies it pretty apparent that many states have had, and continue to have, several foreign policies pursued by different agencies.

Thirdly, there is a tension between the tendency of bureaucracy towards rationalization and the logic of politics and diplomacy.  In Richelieu’s formulation diplomacy as continuous negotiation implied a constant vigilance, flexibility and opportunism that would allow the trading off of different relationships.  The growth of the organizational state has added a rationalized bureaucratic logic to foreign relations. Communications campaigns, exchange programmes, or development projects need to unfold in an orderly way but there is a tension here between a shifting political world and the pursuit of bureaucratic rationalization and stability

One of the core implications of this perspective is that it requires us to look at the agency of the state in a different way – rather than imagining a single strategic sovereign we may be dealing with a multiple autonomous organizational logics.