Ecological Control and Foreign Influence

April 5, 2019

Updated 8 May 2019 to improve clarity.

If you’ve been exposed to any kind of training in ‘strategy’ thinking in political, business or communications contexts it’s easy to get into the habit of thinking in an extremely linear way; what’s my objective, resources, timeframe etc.  There are good reasons for this; the world tends to entropy and the clarity of a plan is a way to generate action in a resistant world.  As the saying goes a ‘a bad plan well executed is better than a good plan badly executed’.

But this isn’t the only way of getting things done. A very common way of acting is what’s called ecological control.  That is an actor influences others not by trying to dictate precisely what they do but by influencing their environment.  In a classic statement of this idea the White House announces all budgets of government agencies will be cut by 5% but leaves it up to the agencies to decide how they will meet the target.  Clearly there is an ‘effect’ but the initiator is not responsible for particular choices.  You can argue that nudging /choice architecture or reflexive control are more directive variants of this given that in that they operate by shaping the environment rather than by dictating an action.

One of the reasons that it is difficult to make sense of questions of foreign influence is that often influence activities are aimed at shaping the ecology rather than achieving a direct objective.  Public diplomacies can be about creating opportunities rather controlling end states.  The issue that tends to face countries with in dealing with a partner is that these indirect, non-political effects can begin to affect the overall political ecology of the country; groups with particular attachments begin to pull overall policy in favoured directions.  In dealing with the foreign influence question such pulls are harder to deal with that out and out ‘collusion’.  It is up to those that are concerned about the consequences of such activities to politicize them but in doing so they find that those involved can (often quite plausibly) deny any political intention let alone ‘collusion’, they have merely acted to improve relations between the two countries or pursue business or study interests.   Although, in the current situation one might read the two countries as Australia (or the EU) and China the logic is the same between any pair of countries and much foreign public engagement activity.

This opens up a set of questions about the circumstances where particular relations become politicised.  The acme of skill in public diplomacies is to modify ways of doing things in another country without them becoming objects of political controversy.  Any general consideration of the foreign influence questions needs to engage with the ecological dimension not just with direct effects.


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