Introducing the Influence Chain

It’s one of the maxims of academic writing that you should stick to one new idea per paper. In writing my paper for ISA this year I shoved three ideas in each of which deserved a paper in its own right.   The overall question was if we’re thinking in comparative terms about PD what should we be comparing in order to build better theory.

In the paper I offer three ideas. Firstly, we should think about national public diplomacy systems*. That is the set of organizations and stakeholders that are responsible for the conduct of foreign public engagement. These systems are path dependent in that they emerge in response to quite specific problems, become institutionalized and the response to changes in the internal and external environment is constrained by the existing organization and ways of doing things. National systems develop specific repertoires of activities so faced with a new problem they reach into their toolbag and pull out a familiar tool. In posts this week I want to write about the second and third of the ideas that I put forward the influence chain and the operational space.

What’s an influence chain? Following Bruno Latour’s exhortation to follow the actors it’s the set of connections that leads us from intent to effect.   Here’s a very simple example: a government wants to influence another government using PD so in a very classical model there’s supposed to be a chain of influence that runs from left to right.

Ideal Type 4

But what you frequently get is something like this…

Fail 2

..the chain isn’t complete or it doesn’t go where you want it to go: for instance an implementing organization just does what it always does regardless of the situation. This isn’t surprising as that organization is probably going to be evaluated in how much it does, not what the effect actually is.

Some future work is to develop a typology of influence chains based both on the type of actors involved and the type of influence mechanism.  From the point of view of comparative research the USIS at its most informational or the Goethe Institut at its most cultural are both building influence chains they are just composed of different types of links and work (or don’t work) in different ways.

For me the influence chain can exist in three forms. Firstly, it’s the ‘theory of change’ – possibly implicit that the decision-makers and planners have. In pure research terms actually looking at what these theories are would be a valuable exercise.  How to they vary across organizations, across the actors in the chain and across countries.  Secondly, following from this the chain can be thought of as a diagnostic tool; what’s wrong with this theory. Thirdly, it’s a way of exploring what is really happening. The ‘theory of change’ is likely starting from a fairly idealized picture of the world but when we start ‘following the actors’ we start to see what’s really happening

If we look at the connection between the first and second links in the chain as if under a microscope we notice that the two links have quite a few potential differences between them and something similar is going to happen all along the chain. In the language of actor-network theory, actors need to be enrolled (ie influenced to get on board with the project) but this leads to translation – that is the project is changed by this process. Given how difficult different bits of the same state find getting along what happens when we start to include, for instance, foreign NGOs? Marshall McLuhan argued that the medium is the message to which I would add that in public diplomacy the medium is the organizational network.



*In responding to the paper Eytan Gilboa argued that ‘system’ was too orderly and suggested ‘establishment’. I hesitated before using ‘system’ for precisely this reason.

Here’s a copy of the paper:ISA 2014 v 6

From Latour to British Foreign Policy: Part V – It’s All About the Networks

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’

Latour to British Foreign Policy via Blair, Part IV: Still Looking for A Policy

In this post I want to make the connection between Blair’s globalist vision and some of the more normal concerns of this blog about the machinery of government in the UK.

The basic argument here is that we have seen the development of a gap between high level visionary abstraction of the Blairite persuasion and the workings of a modernizing government machinery.

I think a key element here is the conjunction of two factors at work in British foreign policy over the past decade and a half; firstly the failed state agenda and secondly, the push for modernization in government.

Failed/fragile states have attracted a lot of policy attention –  Bosnia followed by the interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq in addition there’s been relatively sustained policy interest in countries like Pakistan and Somalia.

Modernization had many facets but it was ‘joined up’, getting different bits of government to work together and it developing defined objectives that would allow assessment of value for money.  This is not something that has just happened in the UK.  Here’s a comparison between the UK, Netherlands and the Nordics.

It’s the combination of these factors that has led to a degree of learning and innovation in British statecraft.  This also saw policy innovations such as the Conflict Pool – funding accessible by different departments – and efforts to think through how to deal with this problems eg the Building Stability Overseas Strategy.  The result was an extremely coherent account of British statecraft although accounts of the system in action are much less impressive.

Despite this in there has a been a growing concern over the lack of strategic thinking in British government.  Including in the military.

What’s going on?  How can we have strategies but no strategy?

I think that the Building Stability Overseas Strategy gives hefty clue.  It explains why stability matters to the UK, what produces instability and how, faced with a situation of instability, UK government departments will work together and with other people to address the problem.  If this was a military document it would be extremely clear what it is.  It’s doctrine not strategy.  Doctrine gives a common understanding of a problem and an approach to working together to address it.  It doesn’t tell you which circumstances the UK will become involved or in which cases, it doesn’t tell you about resources, it doesn’t give timeframes.

In 2010 The FCO put out a training booklet on policy skills which laid out a hierarchy in which  strategy was placed above policy. To a Clausewitzian like me this raises a red flag.  Clausewitz places policy at the top of the tree not because it’s a label but because politics is where different aspects of the world are composed.  It we have five different priorities which do we choose to pursue? How do they affect each other?  How do they affect other people?  Can we get others to support us in this particular situation?

There is a parallel with a critique that applies to the  British and American armed forces.  Because national  leaderships will not or cannot properly define objectives and strategies based on political realities military thinking has tended to expand the reach of operational thinking (Strachan 2005, 2010, 2013, Bailey, Iron and Strachan 2013, Ledwidge 2011) .   I think that the same has been going on in foreign affairs more generally;  there has been lots of thinking about means and instruments much less about politics, policy and strategy.  What we get is a gap between the broad generalities of the Blairite vision and the working level.  This is gap that capital D diplomacy should partially be filling.

In the UK as in the US it’s become more common to see diplomacy, defence and development referred to together but in the context of failed states it’s the diplomacy that gets squeezed between defence and development.  In the US it’s common to see complaints about the militarization of foreign policy but in the UK it would be more accurate to think in terms of developmentalization foreign policy becomes an adjunct to development.  If we’re thinking in terms of modernizing government development and defence do planning and projects, they spend money and as a result have lobbies, they also both feel nervous about politics.  That’s really what diplomacy should be doing but the 3D formulation tends also to reduce diplomacy to a small d instrument of policy rather than a mode of interacting with the world.

There’s a big gap at the heart of British foreign policy between a particular one world vision and a set of techniques and resources to build that world.

In the final post of this series I’ll try (emphasis on try) to suggest a way forward.

Bailey JBA, Iron R and Strachan H, eds (2013) British generals in Blair’s wars. Farnham: Ashgate.
Ledwidge F (2011) Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Strachan H (2005) The Lost Meaning of Strategy, Survival, 47: 33–54.
Strachan H (2010) Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War, Survival, 52: 157–182.
Strachan H (2013) British National Strategy: Who Does It?, Parameters, 43: 43–52.

Latour, Blair and British Foreign Policy, Pt 3 The Blair View

The legacy of Tony Blair hangs heavily over British politics.  The Labour Party is still marked by the Blair/Brown rivalry, David Cameron’s political strategy and style was modelled on Blair. In foreign policy the dominant ideas of British foreign policy come from the Blair era and the area is inevitably marked by the Invasion of Iraq.  This is often described as Britain’s worst foreign policy mistake since Suez but the Suez was over in a few months and we could get on with dealing with the aftermath.   Iraq dragged on for six years.

In this post I want to look at Blair’s foreign policy thinking because it provides a context for the way that Britain’s foreign policy priorities and organization have developed. What’s the connection between Latour and Blair?  Blair is perfect example of the tendencies that Latour was critiquing.

I want to take as my texts, Blair’s 1999 Doctrine of the International Community speech and his 2006 pamphlet A Global Alliance for Global Values

The first of these was given in Chicago during the Kosovo Crisis with Blair concerned to shore up US support for the war and made the argument for a broader doctrine of humanitarian intervention.   There are three characteristics 1) axiomatic globalization – everything is connected to everything else 2) ambition – he reels off a list of six projects to undertake once the Kosovo Crisis is over, overhaul global financial regulation, a new global trade round, a reorganization of the UN, a reorganization of NATO, action on global warming and addressing third world debt.  3) The rejection of a language of interests in favour of values.  ‘In the end values and interests merge.  If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights an open society then that is in our national interests too.  The spread of our values makes us safer.’

A Global Alliance for Global Values is based on speeches that Blair gave in the year before he stepped down as Prime Minister as such it’s less rooted in concrete politics but I also suspect that it actually reflects the way that Blair’s thinking developed after 9/11.   The message is very simple: we need to work together to defeat extremism.  A few choice extracts

To win the battle of values, we must prove beyond any question that our world-view is based not just on power but on justice; not just on what is necessary, but on what is right.

Regrets?  Not enough intervention:

There are many areas in which we have not intervened as effectively as I would wish, even if only by political pressure. Sudan, for example; the appalling deterioration in the conditions of the people of Zimbabwe; human rights in Burma; the virtual enslavement of the people of North Korea.

Our opponents don’t just need to be killed but  first they have to admit that they are wrong about everything.

This ideology has to be taken on – and taken on everywhere. This terrorism, in my view, will not be defeated until we confront not just the methods of the extremists but also their ideas. I don’t mean just telling them that terrorist activity is wrong. I mean telling them that their attitude to America is absurd, that their concept of governance is prefeudal, that their positions on women and other faiths are reactionary. We must reject not just their barbaric acts, but their presumed and false sense of grievance against the West, their attempt to persuade us that it is we and not they who are responsible for their violence.

He then takes up the political strategy of radical Islam  but you wonder whether he’s talking about himself

Sometimes political strategy comes deliberatively, sometimes by instinct. For this movement, it was probably by instinct. It has an ideology, a world-view, it has deep convictions and the determination ofthe fanatic. It resembles in many ways early revolutionary Communism. It doesn’t always need structures and command centres or even explicit communication. It knows what it thinks.

This brings me to a fundamental point. For this ideology, we are the enemy. But “we” is not the West. We are as much Muslim, as Christian, or Jew or Hindu. We are all those who believe in religious tolerance, in openness to others, in democracy, liberty and human rights administered by secular courts.

This is not a clash between civilisations: it is a clash about civilisation. It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace in the modern world, and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand, and pessimism and fear on the other.

The crucial point about these interventions is that they were not just about changing regimes but changing the value systems governing the nations concerned. The banner was not actually “regime change” it was “values change”. That is why I have said that we have done, by intervening in this way, is more momentous than possibly we appreciated at the time.

He has a solution although it sounds more like the Pope, or Habermas or Kant than a prime minister

The answer to terrorism is universal application of global values

And from the conclusion

In my nine years as Prime Minister I have not become more cynical about idealism. I have simply become more persuaded that the distinction between a foreign policy driven by values and one driven by interests, is wrong. Globalisation begets interdependence. Interdependence begets the necessity of a common value system to make it work. Idealism becomes realpolitik.

That is why I say this struggle is one about values. Our values are our guide. Our values are worth struggling for. They represent humanity’s progress throughout the ages. At each point we have had to fight for them and defend them. As a new age beckons, it is time to fight for them again.

Four comments

If Latour sees a plural world then Blair is with the modernists 110%.   Running through this is the drive to construct a single world based on the truth – although Blair is remarkably vague on what ‘our values’ are.

In The Passions and the Interests Albert Hirschman argues that the language of interests was developed in the seventeenth and eighteenths centuries as a check on the passions: the passions may be unlimited and a concern with interests can place a restraint on those passions.  The pursuit of values is inherently unlimited.  In these writings there are no concerns with resources or even with priorities, more fundamentally there is no discussion of how you balance different values Blair is a firm believer in the view that all good things go together.   Essentially he does what Schmitt accuses liberals of – replacing politics with ethics.

One of the key rhetorical strategies is what might be called axiomatic interdependence – everything is connected to everything else – so there is no option so we have no choice but to react.  The problem is that this isn’t true, not everything is connected and it is differences in exposure generate different positions which again produces politics.  The global is local at all points.

How can Blair advocate such a sweeping foreign policy with such unlimited ends?  Like previous British prime ministers Blair saw Britain’s role in building a bridge between the US and Europe.  He believed that if there could be a unified West that united around his mission  it would be possible to pursue the sweeping foreign policies that he advocated.   It can be argued that in the first half of his premiership he went some way towards achieving the (eg Clarke 2007) but with Iraq the wheels came off.  The result though is that British foreign policy thinking became focussed on the concept of global solutions to global problems with global coalitions.  This doesn’t require a very strong concept of British foreign policy because what he’s talking about is a Western foreign policy where, in his mind, the West can achieve anything that it puts its mind to.  My concern is that British foreign policy remains strongly marked by the Blairite assumptions even though the world is very different from what it was at the end of the 1990s.

In the next post I’ll take up some of these implications.

Clarke M (2007) Foreign Policy, in Seldon A (ed) Blair’s Britain, 1997-2007, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 593–614.
Hirschman AO (1977) The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

From Bruno Latour to British Foreign Policy via Tony Blair: Part 2

Latour refers to diplomacy quite frequently but his most extensive discussion is in his essay The War of the Worlds.  Originally dating from 2000 it was revised in the wake of 9/11. His target is partly Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis but he’s also invoking all kinds of ‘science wars’ and ‘culture wars’ that concern his broader interests.

His argument here extends the line set out in We Have Never Been Modern.  Western modernity sees the world as consisting of a single nature and multiple cultures.  The claim to authority of the West is based on its mastery of science and hence of nature so other cultures are just wrong.  Hence, the export of Western modernity is seen by the West as simply the correction of error but by those outside as a war against them their culture and their nature.

It is not astounding that the modernists managed to wage war all over the planet without ever coming into conflict with anyone, without ever declaring war? Quite the contrary! All they did was to spread, by force of arms, profound peace, indisputable civilization, uninterrupted progress.  They had no adversaries or enemies in the proper sense – just bad pupils.  Yes their wars, their conquests, were educational! Even their massacres were purely pedagogical!

He points out Carl Schmitt’s view that you can only have a real enemy where there is no common mediator.  For the ‘modernizers’ there has always been a common mediator.

Even when fighting fiercely, they always deferred to the authority of an indisputable arbiter, of a mediator far above all possible forms of conflict: Nature and its laws, Science and its unified matters of fact, Reason and its way to reach agreement.  When one benefits from a mandate given by a mediator who oversees the conflict, one is no longer running a war but simply carrying out policy operations, Schmitt says.

Like Huntington he sees that the Western project can no longer proceed unchallenged because other points of view can no longer be ignored but more importantly because the separation between nature/culture/politics can’t be sustained.  Hence the need to recognize the nature of the project and to see that there are other points of view.  You can only have diplomacy where you have an enemy, where other people or entities can’t be simply obliterated or absorbed into the system, that is taking other views seriously.

It is not a matter of replacing intolerant conquistadors with specialists of inter-cultural dialogue.  Who ever mentioned dialogue? Who asked for tolerance? No conquerors should rather be replaced by enemies capable of recognizing that those facing them are enemies also and not irrational beings, that the outcome of the battle is uncertain, and that consequently, it may be necessary to negotiate, and in earnest. While the inter-cultural dialogue implies that ninety per cent of the common world is already common and that there is a universal referee waiting for the parties to settle their petty disputes, the negotiation we should be prepared for includes the ninety per cent—God, Nature and souls included—and there is no arbiter.

Later he points out

 one should add the long-term reason of the diplomat. To be sure diplomats are often hated as potential traitors ready for seedy backroom compromises, but they have the great advantage of getting to work after the balance of forces has become visible on the ground, not before as in the case of police operations. Diplomats know that there exists no superior referee, no arbiter able to declare that the other party is simply irrational and should be disciplined. If a solution is to be found, it is there, among them, with them here and now and nowhere else. Whereas rationalists would not know how to assemble peace talks, as they will not give seats to those they call “archaic” and “irrational,” diplomats might know how to organize a parley among declared enemies who, in the sense of Carl Schmitt, may become allies after the peace negotiations have ended. The great quality of diplomats is that they don’t know for sure what are the exact and final goals—not only of their adversaries but also of their own people. It is the only leeway they possess, the tiny margin of the negotiations played out in closed rooms. The parties to the conflicts may, after all, be willing to alter slightly what they were fighting for. If you oppose rationalist modernizers to archaic and backward opponents, there is no war, to be sure, but there is no possible peace either. Negotiation cannot even start. Reason recognizes no enemy. But the outcome might be entirely different if you pit proponents of different common worlds one against the other. Because then diplomats could begin to realize that there are different ways to achieve the goals of the parties at war, including their own. Nothing proves in advance that modernizers might not be willing to modify theways to achieve their cherished goals if they were shown that the cult of nature makes it impossible to reach them.

This all comes back to Latour’s basic world view we’ve built a world that is incredibly messy filled with all kinds of hybrid constructions but the categories we use to describe it are far too simple with the result that we are constantly confused about what we’re doing.  He makes the point that we like to appeal to Science but in fact that there are lots of sciences.

If you’ve read this far you’ve probably got an inkling of how Tony Blair matches up to this.

Tomorrow: Tony Blair, one world and all good things go together.

From Bruno Latour to British Foreign Policy via Tony Blair, Part 1.

I’ve been meaning to pick up my discussion of the potential of Actor-Network Theory for International Relations and the study of diplomacy but it’s got tangled up with something else I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently:  the state of British foreign policy both as it is and as it should be.    The result is something of an impasse and as way of moving forward on this I’m going to take (probably) three or four posts to work through these issues.  The argument in a nutshell is that the UK has quite a coherent theory of foreign policy, developed under Tony Blair, which is quite possibly wrong, Latour’s discussion of diplomacy tells us why it’s wrong.  A subsidiary theme of this is the disconnect between the theory of Diplomacy as it’s talked about at ISA and the contemporary practice of diplomacy.

The parts of this discussion are probably in the wrong order but as I need to push this ahead then we’ll take them as they come.

Firstly, Latour on politics.

One reason that I’m interested in Latour is because he frequently talks about diplomacy and politics as positive activities, in fact one of the basic problems with the modern world is that there isn’t enough of them. 

The importance of politics follows directly from his sociology.  As he argues, particularly in Reassembling The Social, sociology has been too ready to use ‘society’ to explain things when the real question is how can society exist in the first place.  In Latour’s world the mystery that needs to be explained is how things hang together rather than flying off in different directions.  Thus, politics is the way that assemblage of people and things are brought together and maintained.  This is a practical art, that in dealing with people places a heavy burden on rhetoric.  In his essay ‘What if we Talked Politics a Little’ he argues that it is precisely this effort to create the community that ensures that political speech always seems slippery but to demand that it follows the requirements of ‘straight’ talk either in the everyday sense or in a Habermasian version of ideal communication is to fundamentally misunderstand what political speech is about.  Pandora’s Hope (Chaps 7+8) contains a long dissection of Plato’s Gorgias where he argues that Socrates’s defeat of the sophists effectively replaces the necessary practical skills of politics with a version of  science  that is useless in practice.   This affects both how we understand politics and science by theoretically separating the two we become unable to effectively deal with the increasing numbers of hybrid issues where they are intertwined.

Tomorrow: Latour on Diplomacy, on Thursday Tony Blair.

Latour B (1999) Pandora’s hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Latour B (2003) What if we Talked Politics a Little?, Contemporary Political Theory, 2: 143–64. Copy here
Latour B (2007) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. Oxford: OUP Oxford.



Everyday Soft Power

In the Lords Committee Hearing on UK Soft Power and Influence the hearing started off with the four departments represented talking about the good work they are doing in this area and this stimulated the following comment from Baroness Nicholson

Following the point that Lord Forsyth was making, the excellent outcomes that departmental representatives are telling us about are fully laudable. However, is it possible that they are a little bit as one would expect you to produce from your departmental responsibilities? Actually, what we are looking for is that extra called soft power, which is something over and above the normal daily routine as one would expect it.

I’m with Bruno Latour on this one, as he says in Reassembling the Social  ‘power, like society, is the final result of a process and not a reservoir, a stock or a capital’ (p.64)

Baroness Nicholson is looking at this the wrong way round:  soft power is not in the ‘extra’ but precisely in the ‘normal daily routine’.   it’s in the routines of scientists who choose to partner with colleagues from particular universities, it’s in the decisions about which  films to watch, or which country to visit on holiday, or which stars to pay attention.   That everyday is embedded in networks of relationships – influence is related to particular areas and doesn’t provide an ‘extra’ that can be easily redeployed.

But this line of argument doesn’t just apply to ‘soft power’ it applies to any type of ‘power’.  The French concept of the diplomatie d’influence relates to precisely the everyday processes that go on in expert networks and international organizations.  Even if you’re thinking of military resources much of their political effect comes from the way that networks (media, intelligence, diplomatic) produce representations of their consequences through their routine everyday action.

The Global is Local At All Points: Latour on Globalization

Some of the things that have caused me to re-engage with Latour and Actor-Network Theory are issues that specifically follow from working on public diplomacy.  PD exists in multiple places at the same time – not least in foreign ministries and in embassies.  As a field of research it exists in Communications and International Relations but Communications tends to focus on ‘small’ things like effects and strategies while IR deals with ‘big’ things like states and states-systems.  How then do you bring together the global and the local and the micro and the macro  to use a couple of distinctions beloved of theoretically minded social scientists?

Latour offers an attractively radical solution: throw the whole lot out.  The addiction to big/small, micro/macro, local/global are just more of the misunderstandings that social scientists use to confuse themselves.

So what does he offer in its place?

You can sum it up in the maxim that the global is local at all points.  Here he introduces the analogy of the railway – although you can travel for huge distances it never becomes ‘global’ it is made up of stations, tracks, signals, ticket collectors that are located in places.  ‘global’ networks are just collections of local places that are connected in some way.  The railway has another valuable property for Latour, however far you travel you can’t go everywhere; either because the track doesn’t go there or because the train doesn’t stop.  Networks are full of holes so deploying ‘global’ is a rhetorical strategy not a description of reality.  ‘Electromagnetic waves may be everywhere, but I still have to have an antenna, a subscription and a decoder if I am to get CNN’ (Latour 1993: ), The same applies to ideas, norms, culture they circulate within particular networks.  The challenge that Latour lays down is to follow the connections.

The basic characteristic of the modern world is that we have built networks that that connect more things in more places together but have mistaken changes in size for the emergence of new levels.

What, for example, is the size of IBM, or the Red Army, or the French Ministry of Education, or the world market? To be sure, there are all actors of great size, since they mobilize hundreds of thousands or even millions of agents….However if we wander about inside IBM, if we follow the chains of command of the Red Army, if we inquire in the corridors of the Ministry of Education, if we study the process of selling and buying a bar of soap, we never leave the local level. We are always in interaction with four or five people; the building superintendent has his territory well staked out; the directors’ conversations sound just like those of the employees; as for the salespeople, they go on and on giving change and filling out their invoices…Could IBM be made up of a series of local interactions? The Red Army of an aggregate of conversations in the mess hall? The Ministry of Education of a mountain of pieces of paper? The world market of a host of local exchanges and arrangements? (Latour 1993: 120-1)

The key to making sense of this is to follow ‘the thread of networks of practices and instruments, of documents and translations.’  (Latour 1993: 121)

I think this is good advice for studying public diplomacy.  Follow the networks but keep in mind that the network doesn’t go everywhere; public diplomacy is frequently a story about failure and unintended consequences.

Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


Public Diplomacy and Actor Network Theory

I think that Bruno Latour is one of the most interesting figures in contemporary social science.  I first came across him about 15 years ago when I was involved in the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s Virtual Society Programme.  There were lots of anthropologists involved who kept talking about something called ‘actor-network theory‘ or ANT.  In the pub one night I innocently asked someone what ANT was the response:  ‘that’s Bruno Latour; he thinks that things are people too’.  I didn’t follow this up until a few years later where I was teaching a course that engaged with the social impact of communications technology and this stimulated me to get into  the science and technology studies (STS) literature which is where Latour comes from.  Although Latour is known for his radical positions it’s important to keep in mind that he’s an anthropologist who believes that researcher should look and listen to what people actually do.  This probably the core of his ideas that there’s a huge gap between what people in the contemporary world do and what we think we do.  I’ve also found Latour to be quite literal in his approach to the world, he has little truck with abstract impersonal ideas like society or globalization.

A few years ago I did write a conference paper exploring the application of ANT to IR but got a bit stuck with how to take it forward.   In working on public diplomacy I’ve been drawn back to ANT as a way of thinking about the nature of PD and world politics more generally so I’m starting an occasional series of posts exploring the application of ANT in PD and IR.  I this post I want to argue that actor-networks are actually a pretty good way of thinking about what public diplomats try and do.

What is an actor-network?  An actor (or actant) is alway a network in the sense that it is assembled from other actants .  A football team is a set of players.  Sometimes we see the team at other times we see a collection of  players.  A car is normally a unified object but if it breaks down or crashes we see it as a collection of parts. Hence actors have a dual nature.  But is a car an actor?  In the world of ANT anything that makes a difference is an actor (or strictly speaking an actant).  The football team is not just people it is also their team strips, their boots, their training equipment while the car is also dependent on the intervention of humans to build and maintain it.  For Latour humans and technology are inseparable and always have been.  Trying to separate the human and the technological is not just a waste of time it’s a mistake that stops us understanding the world.  The network that produces the actant is not just loca;l the football team is dependent on fans and sponsors, it’s part of a league….The car is the product of a global network of production, it depends on a network of mechanics, maintenance, fuel, licensing etc.  How far you need to go in following the network depends on what it is you’re investigating.  The point is that if there is a problem with any of these connections the operation of the actant is threatened and the missing connections need to be repaired or replaced.  When everything is running smoothly the actant is ‘blackboxed’ and is taken for granted.   This leads to one of the recurring features of Latour’s thought that the social sciences start in the wrong place.  That they take for granted the existence of ‘states’, governments, public diplomacy and Latour’s particular bete noire ‘society’ rather than asking how are these actors are produced and maintained.   You can’t explain things by reference to ‘society’ unless you can show how society is produced.

Dry stone wall as actant Photo by Cristina Archetti
The duality of the actor-network 1: Dry stone wall as actant
Photo Cristina Archetti


The duality of the actor-network 2: It's a pile of stones!  Photo by Cristina Archetti
The duality of the actor-network 2: It’s a pile of stones! Photo Cristina Archetti

Dating back to Latour’s earliest work on scientists he tends to focus on the entrepreneurial work of building black boxes.  The entrepreneur has to enrol other actants in the network that is being constructed; money, equipment, other people, office space.  The difficulty each of the actants that make up the new actor network have their own interests.  Enrolling them requires a translation; bringing them together changes them and the collective.  As the entrepreneur, be it a scientist or a public diplomat, builds their network the enrollment of more actants causes shifts in what the network can do or will become.  Hence a central concern has to be with the stabilization of networks into black boxed actants and the maintenance of those actants.   From a political point of view Latour’s central problem is how things, both ‘small’ like scientific facts and ‘big’ like states, are stabilized.

So what does all of this have to do with public diplomacy?  By focusing on communication we are missing the bigger picture.  To put it very narrowly ‘getting the message out’ implies that you already have a channel through which that message can be transmitted.  The history of public diplomacy suggests that it is building that channel  that is the difficult part.   Successful public diplomacy is about drawing necessary actants into a stabilized relationship that alters the situation in way that benefits the initiator.   This suggests three possible outcomes

  1. It is impossible to construct a stabilized network that will do this.  Other actants refuse to play your game.  Your boss won’t give you the money for your project or no-one will listen to your radio station, or your local partners take your money and spend it on a new office instead of working with the public.  The two groups that you hoped will work together hate each other.
  2. You construct a stabilized network that won’t do what you thought it would do.  This is a very common one.  In the mid 1950s the most popular radio station in the Middle East was the Sharq al Adna, a very popular entertainment oriented station operating from Cyprus.  Most people knew it was controlled by the British but they listened anyway.  According to some accounts this station even made money.  It had been blackboxed.  But come the confrontation with Colonel Nasser in 1956 and the attempt to the British government to use it as a tool of strategic communication its popular Arab staff quit, as did its audience.   Sharq al Adna  was stable as an entertainment station but as soon as a new actor the, government psychological warfare operation, connected itself it destabilized the network and constituent actants split off.  More broadly public diplomacy activities build a public for their activity but the public they have doesn’t actually have the influence on attitudes or policy that they hoped.  But in many cases it is more important to make the project look like a success than for it to really be a success.  How can we continue to get funding? (money is part of the actor-network) we need to show that lots of people are coming to our events (or that they are really important people) hence the activity gets tweaked to produce the indicator that the funder wants.
  3. You build a network that is stabilized and does what was supposed to do.  Your network appears so natural that it is invisible.  For instance you carefully promote linkages between publishers in your country and your target.  It appears completely natural to go and study in your universities or to learn your language.   What you’ve done is to enrol others interests in a way that you may even be able to disengage from the network and do something else.

Another ANT scholar, Michel Callon, talks about ‘heterogenous engineering’ at work, the entrepreneur needs to bring together a coalition of people and things to make their project work.  Who and what you have in your network tells you an awful lot about what the network will produce.   There’s a paradox that the actants who are most valuable in your network are also the hardest to control.  During the 1920s and the 1930s the USSR sought to gain the support of western intellectuals but as you would expect the bigger the name the less able they were to control them, and the more keeping them onside became an end in itself.

If you’re interested in Latour probably the best places to start are with his Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge: Harvard UP: 1987) and or Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005). Latour also has a very comprehensive web site with copies of many of his papers here.

In future posts I’ll explore issues around an Actor-Network inspired theory of International Relations; my initial list of issues includes globalization, the state, representations, the role of diplomacy, the conceptualization of politics, how to think about conflict and competition,