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November 15, 2005

citizens' role in diplomacy and conflict-resolution

Picture a classic diplomatic scene--perhaps Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill side-by-side at Yalta, or Nixon and Mao in China. It's easy to interpret these scenes according to a "realist" theory of politics. The leaders have power and are in a position to make decisions. They represent their countries, so it is almost as if the nations themselves were sitting down to negotiate. The countries' interests are their own security, prosperity, and influence. The leaders negotiate rationally to maximize those interests.

Hal Saunders, a senior American diplomat who flew with Kissinger himself on the "shuttle" flights that advanced peace between Israel and Egypt, is very familiar with that kind of politics. In a forthcoming book entitled Politics is about Relationship (Sage), he argues that the "realist" model has never been adequate, either as an explanation of the way the world works or as a normative framework for deciding what we should do. Inadequate even in situations like the "carefully managed" relationship between China and the United States of the early 1970s, the realist theory fails utterly to explain such critical developments as the construction of a democratic society in South Africa, the sustainable economic development of poor countries, or the evolving relationship between the US and China today.

The "realist" account is in fact quite unrealistic, because it ignores the following factors (among others). First, political identity is complicated. Roosevelt at Yalta and Nixon in China did not represent a unitary entity called the "United States" with a known set of interests. Rather, these men had complex identities (as individuals, members of parties and administrations, representatives of their countries, and human beings). Insofar as they represented the United States, its identity was complex and constantly contested. They, like their fellow citizens, had choices about how to define America and its interests. Subjects of totalitarian states have fewer evident choices. Yet even the Russians and Chinese had identities that were subject to change. As soon as Soviet diplomats stopped identifying as representatives of Communism or of the USSR and began seeing themselves as Russians, the Soviet Empire was over.

The realist picture also focuses too narrowly on the few people who hold the conspicuous power to issue orders--especially orders to armies and navies. There are always other players and other forms of power. Again, the US opening to China represents an apparent example of "realist" politics, since just four men initially drove the diplomatic process, operating in near secrecy, and thinking mainly of national security interests. Yet it mattered enormously that US public opinion had already turned in favor of peace with China. That means that millions of Americans were players. Moreover, the relationship between the United States and China had already been launched by decades of missionary activity, immigration, trade, and cultural exchanges. These interactions created perceptions, stereotypes, habits, and modes of relating between the two nations that had enormous impact on Kissinger, Nixon, Zhou Enlai, and Mao, despite the apparent power and freedom of these leaders.

What was true when Nixon went to China applies much more clearly today. Now that the Chinese government has relaxed control over many aspects of Chinese life and there is a net annual flow of $75 billion from individual American consumers and firms to Chinese companies, the relationship is evidently between two complex "bodies politic" and not simply between two sets of national leaders. Identity, culture, perception, and modes of interaction are essential.

In Chapter IX, co-written with Philip D. Stewart, Saunders examines the evolving relationship between Russia and the US since 1989. By observing public deliberations about Russian-American relations, Saunders and Stewart learned that a major issue is the enormous consumption of US popular culture in Russia. Hollywood-produced movies and music threaten to erode Russian civilization; at the aame time, they present the US in a light that many Americans may resent. (In our movies, we appear to be violent, sexually prurient, and spiritually vacant). The flow of pop culture is a significant problem, but not one caused by states. "While American companies certainly produce these films, it is Russian television executives who choose to show [them]. These decisions are normally made on commercial grounds, that is, the anticipated audience the film can draw, and thus advertising revenues. In this case, the influences on a most sensitive aspect of relationship--Russians' pride in their culture--are multisided, complex, and not subject to direct or central control by either side."

One Russian citizen says, "Yes, America influences our lives, but why do we permit them to influence us to such a degree?" If there is a solution, it will necessarily involve creative work by thousands or millions of citizens in both countries, who find better ways to represent themselves.

Saunders also devotes chapters to the democratic transformation in South Africa after apartheid, the peace process in war-torn Tajikistan, and public deliberations on issues like domestic violence in West Virginia. Each chapter plays an important role in the overall argument. The South Africa case clearly demonstrates that "realism" is unrealistic. The apartheid government possessed the only army and police force in the country; it seemed to have all the power. Stalin asked, "How many divisions has the Pope?" and he could have asked the same patronizing question about Nelson Mandela in his prison cell. Nevertheless, the apartheid regime crumbled (much against the wishes of its leaders) and a new society was born without a bloodbath.

The explanation must lie, first, in the capacity of white South Africans to modify their identities, their understanding of their own self-interests, and their stereotypes of Blacks. Second, there were dialogues among the White, Colored, and Black populations that took place over a long period in various venues, with various purposes and styles. The result of all that talk was a deep, complex, difficult, but substantially positive relationship among three (or more) peoples. Third, there were valuable cultural resources in Black South African culture, especially a traditional commitment to peaceful consensus, the philosophy of ubuntu, which understands human value in terms of relationships, and Christian ethics.

The Tajik case exemplifies the role of a fairly formal and organized "peace process" among belligerent factions that applied Saunders' principles. A joint team of Americans and Russians had experienced the "Dartmouth Process" during the Cold War. The "Dartmouth Process" refers to a long series of meetings between Soviet and US delegations that took place outside of formal government. Applying their experience from forty years of Dartmouth dialogues, Soviet and US diplomats encouraged Tajiks to think broadly about the relationships among their communities. They decentralized the Inter-Tajik Dialogue by organizing deliberative forums at the local level. And they linked talk to action by encouraging local deliberators to design micro-enterprises together and apply jointly for grants.

Finally, Saunders' domestic American example, which focuses on the West Virginia Center for Civic Life, demonstrates that it is important for some people to be deliberately and self-consciously concerned about the civic infrastructure. To be sure, democratic politics and international affairs are mostly interactions among people who hold particular values and views. Political energy comes from people who want something--not always money or power, but sometimes a particular vision of their community. Nevertheless, some citizens should strive for neutrality so that they can create trusted forums in which other citizens can talk and work. The West Virginia Center for Civic Life is a perfect example.

Betty Knighton is the Center's director. I happen to know and admire her. She says, "We have defined the Center for Civic Life as aggressively neutral." As I argued recently, Knighton's stance might be better described as "open-ended." She surely has goals for her state; she's not neutral. The work that she promotes is likely to favor certain political outcomes over others. Nevertheless, Knighton is willing to create a good democratic and deliberative process and then let the chips fall where they may. One of Saunders' South African sources, Pravin Gordhan, similarly "insists" that the peace process that ended apartheid "was a way of acting, not a well defined or carefully masterminded strategy." Such openness is crucial.

In my view, Saunders brilliantly demonstrates the power of citizen politics in the 21st century. The most "realistic" view is that millions or billions of people now shape international affairs through their talk, their opinions, and their behavior. It is, however, a different question whether citizen politics is inevitably better than state-centered power politics.

South Africa is an inspiring example, but it's also worth considering Yugoslavia. Under Marshall Tito, a few bosses met to negotiate scarce economic goods. The country was undemocratic and not very dynamic, but it was at peace. Once many Yugoslavs became involved in politics, once national identity became a topic of discussion, and once people began to think about their overall relationships with other ethnic communities, hell broke out.

In general, citizens don't negotiate fine details; they consider fundamental problems and debate their own identity. Unfortunately, for many Serbs, the fundamental "problem" was the alleged trampling of Serbian identity ever since the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389.

To be sure, Saunders would have handled the dialogues among Yogoslavs infinitely better than Slobodan Milosevic and his peers. He would have worked for relationships "based on equality, mutuality, accountability, input, access to decision-making, shared and accountable stewardship of resources." Nevertheless, I think it's fair to say that the civil war in Yugoslavia accompanied an increase in the role of citizens and a broadening of public discourse to include identities and relationships.

Saunders defines politics as "relationships among significant clusters of citizens to solve problems in a cumulative, multilevel, and open-ended process of continuous interaction over time in whole bodies politic across permeable borders either within or between communities or countries." Serbian and other Balkan nationalists used a "cumulative, multilevel, and open-ended" process to "engage" with rival populations across permeable boundaries. Unfortunately, some of engagement included ethnic cleansing and mass murder. We might be tempted to say that Serbs had common interests with Kosovars and Bosnian Moslems, so they should have worked together. That's true insofar as their interests were prosperity and security. But some of them were more interested in cultural domination. I can imagine a darker version of Saunders' book, one that predicts a shift from elite economic negotiations to broad citizen engagement on matters of culture and identity--with lots of bloodshed along the way.

Before Saunders gets to his examples, he argues for a "new paradigm" in political science. To support this argument, he tells the following story. First, Newtonian physics created a model for all sciences--abstract, quantitative, general, and concerned with mass and force. Political scientists adapted this model, and were naturally led to focus on coercive power as an analogy to Newtonian force. Since the main bearer of coercive power is the state, political scientists narrowed their attention to governments.

Next, natural scientists began to discover deep complexity, unpredictability, relativity, and the interdependence of systems. Finally, Saunders and colleagues followed the lead of the new "holistic" natural scientists by developing a new paradigm of politics that is less reductive than "realism." This new paradigm emphasizes relationships among "bodies politic," much as natural scientists look at whole organisms and ecosystems.

This is an effective story, but I could tell an entirely different one that omits natural science altogether. In my version, political scientists between 1930 and 1970 focused on the coercive power of the state because states were remaking the world--solving social problems in the case of the New Deal and the European social democracies, and creating disasters in the fascist and communist states and many of the post-colonial regimes. A few political scientists wrote about political culture, but culture and human relationships seemed relatively inconsequential compared to the behavior of governments, which were transforming societies overnight, manipulating public opinion, and launching world wars.

Then came the social movements of the 1960s and afterwards, which (as Saunders notes in Chapter VIII) had enormous impact even though they were non-coercive. The most powerful states in the world--those of the Communist bloc--collapsed altogether; civil society played a role in bringing them down. Even the old social democracies seemed incapable of handling a new generation of problems that arose in the 1970s. Under these circumstances, political scientists naturally turned their attention to social movements and, more generally, to non-governmental, non-coercive forms of politics.

This trend was already evident in the 1970s, when scholars like Elinor Ostrom and Jane Mansbridge were deeply influenced by the success of social movements. Mansbridge, Ostrom, Robert Putnam (with his analysis of "social capital"), and Theda Skocpol (with her historical narrative of American associations) are as influential as anyone in the profession. Benjamin Barber, Harry Boyte, Bill Galston, Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, and many others have provided theoretical arguments for the importance of civil society and political culture. In none of these developments do I see an important influence from natural science.

In short, I found the analogy to science interesting but unnecessary, and I thought that the book was excessively optimistic in places. Nevertheless, it would be impossible to overstate the importance of what Saunders has achieved through his experimental engagement with actual citizen politics on several continents, his clear-sighted and eloquent analysis of cases, and his overall theoretical framework.

Posted by peterlevine at November 15, 2005 07:35 AM


Are we thinking of the lack of realism in the present administration when writing this article?

Posted by: airth10 [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 15, 2005 08:54 AM

I agree with your analysis, Peter.

Kenneth Waltz and his defenders would respond, of course, by confining the domain of realism to international relations, which means that they exclude domestic politics and human personalities.

I find Waltz's distinction unsatisfying because nation states and people are subsets or elements of the international system. By Aristotelian standards excluding these elements is bad analysis. The definitional cuts do not reflect the "natural anatomy" of the subject matter.

Waltz recovers personalities and states by distinguishing between international politics in foreign policy. International relations is about international politics. Personalities and state characteristics are about foreign policy.

Waltz's view takes advantage of a peculiarity of the English language. Neither Russian, French, Spanish, nor German distinguish between policy and politics.

Posted by: Hellmut Lotz [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2005 11:24 AM

Here is a question: Did not relativity theory become the metaphorical subtext of multiculturalism? If that is the case then relativity theory has shaped politics? Wouldn't it have snuck into the study of politics as well?

On the other hand, one can also justify the civil rights movement and other demands for equality in the classic terms of the Enlightenment and the Golden Rule.

May be, the importance of relativity theory is not so much that it empowers movements but undermines claims of authority.

Posted by: Hellmut Lotz [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2005 11:38 AM

To "Airth10" -- Saunders' analysis is certainly relevant to the present situation in Iraq. What matters is the relationship between the whole population of the US and the populations of Iraq, the Arab World, and the Moslem World. Pop culture, religion, and other forces beyond the control of states are very powerful. The Bush Administration understood power strictly in terms of states and armies, and we are paying the price for that mistake. ... On the other hand, I wasn't necessarily thinking about Bush, because there are plenty of other leaders who are stuck in a "realist" mode.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 16, 2005 04:27 PM

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