While presidential candidates pick fights over polarity—which countries are gaining power and which are declining—they are missing the most dramatic shift in foreign policy in centuries: the rise of individuals within each country vis-à-vis their governments.
In previous centuries, kings made the foreign policy for their realm, without consulting powerless peasants. True, businesses such as the British East India Company conducted some policy, but only after being granted a direct charter by the monarchy to act on its behalf. The eighteenth century saw the rise of democracy. But citizens could only elect their leaders, not conduct foreign policy. Governments still dealt with other governments. For much of the twentieth century, an individual could affect foreign policy only by joining the government, or maybe by holding one of the very few positions of influence that then existed outside government.
But in the latter half of the century, this model began to break down. Multinational businesses, wielding immense resources in otherwise weak countries, began to have policy influence. Financial flows resulting from thousands of traders’ individual decisions became big enough to influence other nations’ currencies and to create economic pressures that affected policy. Groups of citizens also started to make their voices heard internationally. Amnesty International became an influential global player; the International Campaign to Ban Landmines won a Nobel Prize as much for its organizational model as for its cause.
The rise of the Internet and social networking has accelerated this fracturing of foreign policy. Skype, satellite television, cell phones, and other technologies have made citizens of even remote, impoverished parts of the world aware of their relative wealth, freedom, and power. And they have also given these people the means to make their thoughts known—thoughts that in many instances differ from their government’s official positions and decisions. A citizen in the developing world may now provide information through a Twitter account that contradicts the propaganda of her government—and that gets quoted on CNN. Individual empowerment can be as simple as uploading an inflammatory cell-phone photo to Facebook. The Arab Spring took self-organization to an entirely new level, as revolutionaries operating on a shoestring with a diffuse leadership took on some of the most sclerotic, heavy-handed governments on earth.
The ability to organize quickly, at nearly no cost and with networked leadership structures that cannot be easily stopped by autocratic governments, has accelerated the rise of a new set of actors in international relations. Governments are no longer the only players that matter. Mass media is not the only source of information. Suddenly, hyper-empowered individuals are a part of the story, alongside activist organizations, businesses, religious networks, and other parts of civil society. Nor are they simply a new round of protestors shouting to get into the edifices of influence. They are circumventing those edifices entirely. Connectivity is replacing money and stature as the most important marker of power, as scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter has written.
This change in the nature of power means that governments no longer have a monopoly on force—from places like Mexico, where drug gangs are better armed than the army, to Lebanon, where Hezbollah has the power and personnel to overrule the state. It also means that finding—and fighting—one’s enemies is more difficult. A computer geek with a website spreading jihadist ideology can be more lethal over the long run than an armed insurgent. But when that geek lives in Guernsey, and is protected by England’s free-speech laws, what should be done? Conventional military superiority will look ham-fisted when activists with cell-phone cameras can stop an army in its tracks via the threat of instantaneous global exposure, as Israel discovered when it tried to maintain a blockade that the UN itself approved. The power citizens now have to disseminate information means that every government action takes place before an international audience. Diplomats may try to contain the fallout from WikiLeaks, but the ability of open societies to keep secrets is disintegrating, like it or not. (See Jonathan Spalter’s “Open-Source Diplomacy,”)
The Progressive Outlook
What principles should guide how the United States acts in this new reality? Here conservatives—of both the neoconservative and realist variety—start out a significant step behind. Their philosophies breed three failed ideas.
First, while progressives give pride of place to the individual, conservative realists see states as the only international actors that count. National interests and power matter; people and values don’t. Because realists have long prized government-to-government interaction as all-important and have ignored the role of civil society and ideology, their tendency is to continue to ignore these sub-state movements of organized people. You could almost hear their sighs of relief as the Egyptian military appeared to be reasserting control over that country last fall. Conservative realists believe the U.S. government should deal with other governments, and ignore citizens and civil-society groups who muck up the smooth operation of deals between regimes.
That supposed “hard-headedness” led realists—including too many Democratic foreign policy experts, who sacrificed progressive values on the altar of realist assumptions—to make deals with dictators in the name of stability. But realists used to dealing government-to-government don’t know how to operate in this new environment. Because in a world of empowered individuals, the people can share information, organize, and overturn those dictatorships—and they remember who supported their former oppressors. As conservatives lambasted President Obama for standing with the Egyptian people, they not only showed that they were out of touch—their counsel risked putting America on the wrong side of history. Fearing that we would alienate old “friends,” realists have instead alienated the empowered publics of the Middle East.
Second, while progressives fight to open up and diversify the halls of power in America and abroad, conservatives are uncomfortable with broadening access to decision-making tables. Where popular movements cannot be ignored as epiphenomenal, conservative realists urge governments to get their people under control, as if they could put the genie back in the bottle. The only way to do so is by force, and so conservatives end up wishing nostalgically for police states that can curtail civil liberties in order to ensure order and stability. For instance, Republican Congressman Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan declared that the “Egyptian demonstrations are the reprise of Iran’s 1979 radical revolution” and called on the United States to “stand with her ally Egypt to preserve an imperfect government capable of reform.” Israel’s current plight is exacerbated by such conservative “friends.” Instead of helping Israel craft a strategy to address its new, fraught reality as one democracy among others in a neighborhood where popular movements are unfriendly, such conservatives pretend to protect Israel by dreaming of a return to dictatorship nearby, a short-term “solution” that would simply add to Israel’s danger when the lid blows off again.
Conservatives, of course, are not all realists. Neoconservatives do care about people in other parts of the world, and they give real weight to ideas, ideologies, and civil society. But they also see the United States as a shining city on a hill that can bring its light to backward peoples. While progressives laud the uniqueness of America’s creed, they see it as a work in progress. We are forever striving to create “a more perfect union”—and so it is patriotic to draw on the best ideas from anywhere, including other countries, in order to improve America. After all, that’s what our founding fathers did when they borrowed democracy and liberalism from European philosophers.
But neocons make the third conservative mistake by subscribing to an American exceptionalism that sees America as immutably better than all other societies. This belief makes it impossible for neoconservative policy to lead to their desired results in this new world. For instance, while neocons like democracy and individual empowerment in theory, they want it to be made by America, look like American practice, and follow American values. This is at stark odds with the views of newly empowered individuals. Egyptian activists, for example, are refusing American help with their democracy—after all, America was responsible for keeping their dictator in power for decades. Legitimacy matters a great deal to citizens in formerly colonized countries—and America must be aware of its history if it is to earn legitimacy. For neocons, however, American legitimacy is simply—wrongly—assumed.
The conservative belief in a static American greatness prevents them from seeing how much developing economies are learning from one another and leapfrogging ahead. Some of the most innovative companies and social technologies are coming from the developing world, from firms that produce $2,000 cars and $35 tablet computers, to transformative services such as tele-health care and the transformation of cell phones into mobile banks. The developing world is not only the recipient of our largesse—it is also home to innovators from whom we can learn and entrepreneurs with whom we need to compete. Tariffs and jingoism won’t change this new reality; we need to invest in our citizens’ education and equip them to compete.
The Empowered Citizen
Progressives, in contrast, have long seen individuals and groups of individuals as the fundamental actors in world politics. The international-relations philosophy of liberalism, described best by Princeton professor Andrew Moravcsik, sees government as simply the configuration of individual and group interests, not a black box that stands outside and apart from the individuals within a state. The moral philosophy of liberalism takes this a step further: Individuals, not governments, are the only entities with moral standing and legitimacy.
Many of the left’s core principles work well in this new world. Liberals believe that all people have fundamental human and civil rights that governments may not violate. We have long backed protection for the marginalized parts of society, measuring the health of the community not at its apex, but at its base. We also believe that countries are interdependent—and that, therefore, America is better off when others are better off. Instead of a zero-sum game, modern progressives see a world in which peace, justice, and stability abroad support stability at home.
These core values provide guidance to how the United States should proceed in this awakening world. First, governments must take the power of civil society seriously and begin to reach out to civil societies in other countries. This allows us to capitalize on opportunities, such as the Arab Spring, and also to meet new threats. For instance, threats from empowered individuals such as members of the Al Qaeda network have diffused leadership. When the head of such an organization is cut off, it does not die—instead, it tends to become hydra-like, sprouting multiple heads. This feature of self-organizing networks, which are growing in prevalence thanks to the Internet, means we need more connections with more parts of society, so that we may recognize when such groups and ideologies arise, and have ways to understand and infiltrate them and block their growth.
As discussed in Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom’s The Starfish and the Spider, a book about leaderless organizations, the best way to fight distributed networks is to go after the tie that binds them together: their ideology. Such battles can be fought well or poorly. Centralized propaganda campaigns favored by neocons—such as the American-sponsored Hello magazine and the Alhurra television network in Iraq—have failed miserably. Their attempts to influence a new world through old, command-and-control technologies are similar to the Soviet gaffe of investing in loudspeakers instead of telephone lines. Thinking that it was enough to broadcast propaganda, neocons fundamentally misconstrued the two-way communication that empowered individuals demand. The developing world is media savvy, and happy talk doesn’t cut it anymore. Instead, the best psychological operations work orthogonally, through distributed networks that spread information socially, in a manner that seems natural because it is.
Even if the United States can force other governments to bend to our will, we cannot force their peoples to agree. And those people can oust their governments as we have seen, from the electoral loss of the Spanish government when it chose to enter the war in Iraq without its people’s support, to the current teetering dictatorships across the Arab world. Instead of relying on governments that sometimes act against the will of their peoples, we must work to convince the people to share our vision of the world. And we must do this not through direct propaganda, but intelligently, through distributed networks.
For that reason, it is not enough for our government to create ties to civil society, though that is necessary. The second innovation we must embrace is using our government as convener and catalyst to create ties among civil societies. Government will need to function more frequently as a platform that brings together coalitions of like-minded actors and focuses them to work as a network to influence events overseas. In a brain, the ultimate decentralized system, the more neurons that are networked, the more resilient the mind. Similarly, government-to-government and even government-to-civil-society networks are brittle. But networks of Americans in many sectors engaging and understanding their counterparts abroad creates a more resilient system in which we can gather and spread information, gain a broader understanding, and build a denser network of connections more easily.
Finally, our government must embrace this empowerment revolution itself, decentralizing and pushing power down internally. In a paper written four years ago, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, called for an “Embassy of the Future,” which would be more connected and more informed about the whole of a country, rather than just its government, because a more distributed, empowered staff would speak with a wider range of individuals. But even this does not go far enough.
In Silicon Valley, junior Google staffers can see their ideas become reality at one of the most influential companies on the planet. In the tech economy, leaders in their mid-30s may have been CEOs of multiple companies, managing millions of dollars and scores of people. In too many parts of government, ideas must travel all the way up the chain of command and back down before they can be implemented, squelching initiative, killing solutions that are closest to the problems, and deterring entrepreneurial individuals from remaining in government. Instead, those who are most comfortable in this command-and-control structure stay, while those who are most entrepreneurial leave—further separating government from the innovations revolutionizing the rest of the world.
As a former State Department appointee said to me, it is ironically the Department of Defense—long seen as a more conservative arm of government—that is the most progressive in this regard. The Marines recognized the growing complexity of the world and the importance of individuals more than a decade ago and started to remake themselves. General Charles Krulak wrote in his 1999 article, “The Strategic Corporal,” in Marines magazine:
The inescapable lesson of Somalia and of other recent operations, whether humanitarian assistance, peace-keeping, or traditional warfighting, is that their outcome may hinge on decisions made by small unit leaders, and by actions taken at the lowest level….[T]oday’s Marines will often operate far “from the flagpole” without the direct supervision of senior leadership….Most importantly, these missions will require them to confidently make well-reasoned and independent decisions under extreme stress—decisions that will likely be subject to the harsh scrutiny of both the media and the court of public opinion. In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well. His actions, therefore, will directly impact the outcome of the larger operation; and he will become, as the title of this article suggests—the Strategic Corporal.
In order to empower a 25-year-old junior officer to make crucial strategic decisions on the fly at his level of command, the Pentagon has been turning its entire organization on its head, with all power, equipment, and education flowing down. Young leaders are being taught to become moral decision-makers and are given more latitude and authority. While hidebound bureaucracies still characterize some parts of the military and defense-contracting sector, these organizational changes have revolutionized war-fighting commands. In Iraq, junior officers have served as town mayors, while in far-flung forward-operating bases in Afghanistan, they are allocating funds, determining strategy, and executing tactics with immense discretion, operating as the CEOs of their units.
Paradoxically, the State Department—generally beloved by progressives—is among the agencies that has had more difficulty adapting to this new world. While its leaders struggle to help it change (the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review offers an excellent blueprint), too many in the workforce are mired in old ways, reinforcing a hierarchical bureaucracy that sees value only in high-level relations.
Making these changes is difficult. The risk and fallout from mistakes are real, as the fate of U.S. soldier and alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning has shown. But in the DoD, the risk is literally life and death—and they have found a way to make the transition, because the costs of not changing are even greater. Failing to adapt to a world of empowered individuals means failing to win wars. It means missing looming threats. And it means consigning America to a reactive role, unable to get ahead of events.
It is easy for Washington to convince its elite that they are more important than civil-society protesters and developing-world movements. Yet failing to change is far more dangerous when those protesters topple governments and become presidents, or profoundly disrupt the foreign policies of vast states with a few clicks of a mouse.