Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Importance of Actors in Networks

. Thursday, June 14, 2012

(Apologies for the light posting. Real work plus a family emergency has gotten in the way. Normal posting should continue for most of the rest of the summer.)

Ben O'Laughlin recently attended a talk given by Anne-Marie Slaughter to the British Parliament that focused on how the Clinton State Department is trying to lay the groundwork for perpetuating the U.S.-led liberal order. For those who have followed Slaughter's career, both as an academic and as a former senior advisor in Clinton's State Dept, the basics should not surprise. She's a strong advocate of leveraging networks to embed the U.S. at the center of the global system. She believes that one way to do that is via "smart power", a term coined by Joe Nye* and popularized by Sec. Clinton, that emphasizes persuasion as a complement to capabilities. What I found interesting, however, was the way that the State Dept is going about this:

Slaughter began by saying that structures are being put in place whose effects won’t be visible for some years. The structures the US is building are informed by the assumption that the biggest development in international relations is not the rise of the BRICs but the rise of society – “the people” – both within individual countries and across countries. The US must build structures that harness societies as agents in the international system. Slaughter returned to Putnam’s (1988) two-level game, the proposition that it is in the interaction of international and domestic politics that governments can play constituencies off against one another to find solutions to diplomatic and policy dilemmas. Slaughter took up this framework: the US administration must see a country as comprised of both its government and its society, work with both, and enable US society to engage other countries’ governments and societies. The latter involves the US acting not as “do-er” but as “convenor”, using social media and organising face-to-face platforms for citizens, civil society groups and companies to form intra- and international networks.

Critically, these two levels are flat. This took me by surprise. At the society level, citizens, civil society groups and companies are connected horizontally. No particular group or individual is afforded a priori centrality. Why is this a surprise? Public diplomacy experts have spent the last few years trying to target ‘influencers’ in societies. Influencers are political, religious or cultural figures who are listened to by others. This idea is informed by network analysis, marketing, and the idea that State Department messages are more credible in different parts of the world when mediated and delivered by a local influential figure than by Hillary Clinton on TV. Slaughter was not convinced by reliance on influencers, empirically or normatively. She argued that all the millions marketers have spent still hasn’t generated any clear knowledge about how influencers can be identified and utilised. Not only that, but it is surely preferable to try to engage whole societies and treat all individuals equally. That would flourish a greater democratic ethos than appealing to amenable clerics, companies, journalists and intellectuals in the hope they might spread the word downwards.
The bold is added and it's the part that I'm not sure about. A few lines up Slaughter says (via O'Laughlin) that she is "not convinced" on the empirical evidence that influencers are, erm, influential. I wonder why, because it as far as I can tell it's a pretty robust finding across many differential fields that use network analysis.** In network terms, "influencers" generally have a high "degree", meaning that they are at the center of the network and many other actors in the network are linked to them. In many cases, non-central actors are not linked in any way but through the central actor. So if you want to gain influence in the network you get the most bang for the buck by influencing the influencer.

Moreover, once established influencers tend to remain influential. This is because they are already influential. And influencers tend to become influential because of some intrinsic quality. Let's take an example. Bill Gates became influential because of his ability to make personal computing user-friendly and accessible, an intrinsic attribute. But once he gained an initial influence advantage he was able to gain even greater influence simply because he was already influential. This is not an intrinsic attribute of Gates', but rather what is called a "network externality". That is, one advantage of using Gates' products is that many other people are using Gates' products. So Gates attracts new followers largely because he has already attracted followers. In fact, Gates has been able to continue doing this despite the fact that his new products have arguably been inferior, relative to its competitors' products, than his early products. At this point Gates' position as an influencer is almost solely due to his position as an incumbent influencer.

How does this relate to Slaughter's program? It's all fine and good to engage everyone in the world with the U.S.'s message, to encourage everyone to think like stakeholders, and to try to build large coalitions that are broadly supportive of the U.S.'s interests (or at least are not reflexively against them). But this is a very high-cost, low-yield strategy. As O'Laughlin goes on to note, this is a very long-term plan with no guarantee of success. I'd add that if the U.S. cannot simultaneously get the influencers on its side then it is very likely not to succeed in buttressing the liberal order. And if the U.S. can get the influencers on its side then it is very likely to succeed whether it appeals directly to each individual in the world or not.

There's no reason not to do both, but a tactical change from targeting influencers to targeting everyone is misguided, in my view.

What I find interesting about this is contrasting Slaughter's approach with someone like John Ikenberry's. They have both spent their careers theorizing about the liberal order and the U.S.'s hegemonic relationship with it, and have co-authored a bunch of pieces on the subject, but seem now to have diverged in what they think about what needs to be done for it to persist. Ikenberry continues to stress the importance of international institutions, particularly formal institutions. Slaughter has also emphasized formal institutions in the past, particularly legal institutions, but seems not to be shifting focus. There is nothing contradictory about the contemporary work of Ikenberry and Slaughter, but they have diverged a bit in the points they've chosen to emphasize.

*I can use the diminutive because I met him once. That's all it takes, right?

**For one recent study in international relations relating specifically to advocacy networks, see this piece by Charli Carpenter.


LFC said...

I wrote a long comment and Blogger ate it.

Basically the gist was (1) targeting whole societies, even if not always as effective as targeting 'influentials', can be more democratic (you pretty much ignored this point of O'Loughlin's), and
(2) I am a bit more skeptical about the power of network analysis than you, but that would be a longer discussion.

LFC said...

P.s. I shd have said "appealing to" whole societies, rather than "targeting".

The Importance of Actors in Networks
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