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Taking it Online: Are Networks the New Nation-States of Foreign Policymaking?

December 7, 2020 ~ In a year like no other, networks appear to be in the ascendant while nations struggled to keep up with basic functions and public services. To validate information, many of us found ourselves turning more and more to our professional and social networks rather than government officials and formal channels. In my June blog entitled “Pivoting U.S. Foreign Policymaking”, I raised a few questions that needed to be considered and posited that to start answering those questions, leaders and decision-makers might rethink the Who, What, Where, When, Why and ultimately How. In this month’s blog, I expand on the Who.

The Who is relatively easy to answer – EVERYONE. As we work to build more equitable and inclusive societies, not only would it be tone-deaf to consider otherwise, but it is also the right thing to do. Traditionally, statesmen represented states or nations in a now outdated paradigm. Today, we have art and cultural ambassadors, music and sports ambassadors as well as youth ambassadors who have not just helped to influence, but are the influencers, who shape the global agenda and mobilize change. And these global influencers work through networks of civil society organizations, industry associations as well as research institutions and not necessarily through nations. What if the United States were to take a networks-centric approach as opposed to a nations-centric approach or some combination in the new administration? And were this approach to be adopted, let’s just say for the sake of this discussion, how might we assess or evaluate for outcomes and impact or effectiveness of this networks-centric approach?

Network analysis can be traced back to the 1960s and network theory (Davies, 2004 and 2005) and social network analysis has since become important tools used to analyze the complex processes that lead to policy decisions (Lee, Rethemeyer and Park, 2018). The main assumptions behind network theory are that networks are flat, loosely structured and members have shared interests. On the one hand, networks provide value in that they fill gaps and enable communication, cooperation and collaboration where they previously did not exist. On the other hand, networks, because of their fluid nature, can also develop a life of their own and because of their fluidity and as such, efforts toward effectiveness, transparency and accountability may be minimal. With networks, diffusion is both a strength and a limitation. Network theory has been applied in a wide variety of empirical contexts across both disciplines of political science and public administration. According to Hafner-Burton et al (2009), network analysis challenges traditional views of power in international relations by re-defining network power. This perspective has some merit that should be seriously re-considered, particularly given the increasing prominence of networks in international affairs and their influence on foreign policymaking. Some of the earlier concerns and limitations about network analysis in the international relations arena may no longer be as concerning with availability of disaggregated and more reliable data and information as well as technological advances. So, going back to the original question posed in the heading, are networks the new nation-states of foreign policymaking? I think likely not quite yet, but for a variety of reasons briefly described above, they should not be quickly dismissed or discounted and, let's be frank, there are networks that do not have the public good in mind. There are clear advantages to networks and obvious reasons why people look to join and participate in them: access to information, power in numbers and common identity or purpose. Rather than seeing networks as competition, perhaps nations and governments can look to better cooperate and even collaborate with networks. In the context of the past year’s developments that have given us serious pause in transnational issues, governments may not have a plausible choice. Turning once again to my February blog, I introduced a logic model that illustrates how knowledge, data and evidence in the public policy domains might inform decisions on the application of a variety of foreign policy instruments to contribute to possible outcomes. I have since updated my logic model to illustrate the peripheral role of networks. Here the borders are permeable and represented by dash lines. This is, again, an attempt to spark further dialogue on the very interesting evolution of social networks in the context of foreign policymaking.


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