April 19, 2014

The Invisible Hand

I think on some level we are all familiar with Adam Smith’s concept of the “Invisible Hand;” the metaphor used to describe the self-regulating behavior of the market place.  Essentially, he argues that economies are structures that exist as a result of, but also independent from, the behavior of the individuals that comprise it.  The sum total of an economy, Smith surmises, is our independent financial decisions interacting with one another to produce a market force or event (ie: supply and demand or dare I say it, the “Great Recession”).

But the nature of the system that most of us accept as given on an economic level is just as true on an international level.  If we are to be effective change agents within the global system we have to understand how it functions.  You can think of International Relations as the other invisible hand…the left hand perhaps? (I’ll end the metaphor there lest the other invisible hand finds itself attached to the invisible arm hinged to the invisible shoulder socket, sorry)  There are underlying structures in place that motivate how the world works.  I’m not talking about governments, institutions, or specific leadership.  I’m talking about the ways of thinking which color our interactions with the global system.

The idea of the free market, as a way of thinking, is the invisible hand that motivates our economy.  The ideas behind international relations are what make the world turn.  Governments rise and fall, ideologies fade in and out of favor, but when you strip away the temporary actors within the international system, what remains are three major ways of thinking which determine international outcomes.  Lobby governments all you want, publicly champion your cause, but if you really want to affect change you have to understand what is motivating the decisions and to do that you have to understand the concepts which move the invisible hand of international relations.

First, Realism.  More specifically neorealism as the modern incarnation of the concept, but realism is the colloquial term so let’s go with that (There’s a difference, and the IR PhDs are starring daggers into their screen, but I’m just going for the gist of things).  Realism is all about the acquisition and maintenance of power.  Those with a realist world view see the international system as anarchic. States are sovereign and equal, and there is no authority above them.  Thus, states seek to act in their own self-interest.  Known as the self-help world, it is this quest to pursue personal interest which governs global interactions and outcomes.

Next is Liberalism.  Unlike realism where interaction is motivated by self interest through power projection, the liberal framework holds that interaction in motivated by the desire for cooperation.  Maintaining self-interest remains the goal, but the means are different.  It stresses the desire for absolute gains over relative gains leading to a system where all players (game theory) can come away with a win.  Out of this concept we saw the rise of international institutions like the UN or the World Trade Organization; forums in which states come together to advance self-interest through cooperation.

Finally, Constructivism.  This school holds that global interactions are not determined by structures such as anarchy versus cooperation, but rather identities and interests.  From this perspective international relations is a social construction where groups are motivated by common histories and shared ideas. The advancement of interests is not motivated by the needs of the moment, but rather the shared historical identity of the group advancing them.  Constructivist thinking can be used to describe nationalist movements, separatist movements, and can be found at the heart of our most ancient conflicts.

Now, I am not of the mind, as are many in the field of international relations as an academic disciple, that you have to accept one as true to the exclusion of the others.  We see elements of all three playing out in international politics on a daily basis and knowing how to navigate them can make all the difference when advocating for a cause.

This is the global system that determines outcomes, and I don’t think we are utilizing that system as effectively as we could.  As would-be change makers, when confronted with an institutionalized system, we typically have one of three reactions: we fight against it, we concede to it, or we seek to change it from within.  I’m an advocate for option three so first I’ll tell you why the other two don’t work.

You can’t fight because it’s extremely difficult to alter how people perceive information.  The invisible hand of International Relations is not governed by individual decision, but rather the perspective of the decision maker.  Now, I’m not arguing that you can’t fundamentally change how a group or state perceives the world, but it is an extremely slow (centuries long) process.  Conceding also doesn’t make sense because admitting you can’t change how people think makes you a conciliatory player in a global system you oppose.

This leads to option three: use these invisible forces to your advantage.  For example: Morality and the greater good are secondary concerns for realists.  Remember, they are inherently motivated by self interest.  Show them how your issue benefits them.  Liberals are willing to cooperate if it means absolute gains.  Never bully a liberal into accepting a position.  They don’t respect power projection.  Show them how all parties can benefit.  For constructivists history is everything.  You can’t approach a group with a prevailing shared history from a perspective ignorant to what unites them as a people.  Their sense of identity, cultural or otherwise, is too strong to brush aside in the name of cooperation.  In these causes what’s rational and what’s right are sometimes mutually exclusive.

Bottom line: adapt your advocacy to your audience.  People don’t listen because your message is important or just, they listen because it appeals to them.  If you want to change people, don’t appeal to how they act, appeal to how they think.


*Note: The hyperlinks to Wikipedia articles hurt my soul, but their language is a bit easier to digest than a lot of the scholarly stuff.


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