Posts Tagged ‘Elites’


It’s all about l’ambiance: French Cultural Action in the US

June 11, 2015

In the conclusion of his study of French cultural diplomacy in the United States between the First World War Alain Dubosclard (2003) asks what this effort was intended to do and what it achieved.

In setting out to answer this question he turns to the views of the historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle (Renouvin and Duroselle 1968) who points to the importance of ‘l’ambiance’ within which national leaders operate. The English version of Introduction to the History of International Relations translates this as the ‘climate of opinion’. For Duroselle this indicates the environment within which the leader operates – this is partly to do with their own experiences and beliefs but also to do with their relationships and sources of information – this comes out very clearly in his discussion of Mussolini’s decision for war in 1940, he couldn’t turn to the press for information because it was controlled instead he depended on advisors who wanted to keep him happy.

To put it in a different language this kind of high politics is a matter of elite networks and the beliefs and affective attachments that exist within them.

In a later work Duroselle argues that

“contrary to what one might believe in looking at the torn world in which we live. persuasion plays a huge role in international relations even in the most important affairs. It is not a collective persuasion, a propaganda, a psychological war, but a quasi-personal persuasion, leader to leader, or, better yet, small group to small group” (Duroselle Tout Empire Périra cited in Dubosclard 2003, p. 341, my translation)

‘cultural action contributes to influencing policy-makers in shaping a favourable environment…to create, maintain a climate of confidence’ (Dubosclard 2003, 341)

Dubosclard A (2003) L’action artistique de la France aux Etats-Unis : 1915-1969. Paris: CNRS.

Renouvin P and Duroselle J-B (1968) Introduction to the History of International Relations. London: Pall Mall.


Ask Max Weber: What’s Wrong With British Foreign Policy

May 20, 2015

Britain’s lack of appetite for international affairs attracted some negative commentary during the election campaign, even the Iranians weight in calling for a more active foreign policy. Given that there’s a widespread belief in Iran that the British are as malevolent as the Americans this was a pretty big deal. The three main parties all had pretty much the same foreign policy in their manifestos so it wasn’t going to become a big issue.

So what’s going on? One explanation is that it’s to do with popular war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan. Public opinion won’t wear an active foreign policy. Given that Chatham House’s regular survey continues to show 60% support for a significant international role I’m not convinced. In fact Max Weber offers an alternative explanation; it’s the elites that are the problem.

Weber’s argument goes like this.* Support for active foreign policies come from elite groups who gain material (arms contracts?) or other benefits (status, promotions) from success in the international sphere. The success generates prestige that serves as one mechanism to legitimize the elite. In this scheme nationalism is the tendency of the ruled to identify with the rulers – and the more successful they appear to be the more popular they are.

So how is British foreign policy going? Well we invaded Iraq and then having told everyone we knew what we’re doing discovered that we didn’t. The army decided to have another go and got us involved in Helmand, and made it clear that we still didn’t know what we were doing. David Cameron’s Libya mission has gone south and on Syria I’m not convinced that he was really trying that hard. The political, military and foreign policy elites have all been thoroughly deflated on foreign policy. The politicians don’t know anything about foreign affairs and are more interested in clinging to office. I get the impression that senior military, FCO, and intelligence people are anxious to pass the buck – which explains their enthusiasm for the NSC. And the Iraq fallout isn’t over yet because we’ve still got the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War to come it covers the period up to 2009 which means that there are people still in senior positions who are implicated in events – so don’t expect brilliant new initiatives coming up from below to enthuse the political leadership any time soon.   New thinking is going to have to come from outside the government.

*Randall Collins discusses this in chapter 6 of Weberian Sociological Theory (Cambridge: CUP, 1986), this draws on the argument in Chapter 9 of Weber’s Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California, 1968).