Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Norms

Ending the Slave Trade

A large part of my scholarly work is examining the role of norms in International Relations. Norms are the social rules which tell you (or your country) how to behave and view the world. Some of these are unwritten, like saying please, thank you, or shaking hands. Others are written down, such as recognizing others private property. At an international level, Norms drive countries to respect each others sovereignty, to be concerned about environmental destruction or to not have slaves. Well, that is the case in most places, but not all

A year after she ran away from her master, Barakatu Mint Sayed prays that the election on July 18 will mark the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania. Her nation is one of the last places on Earth where large numbers of humans are still kept as property.

And like thousands of other slaves and freed slaves across the Saharan country, her hopes are fixed on an inspirational candidate, a man born to slave parents who has sworn to put an end to the practice of “owning” humans if he is elected president.

That candidate is Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 66-year-old former civil servant with a strong resemblance to the film actor Morgan Freeman. Mr Boulkheir has vowed that in power he would punish slave owners and do everything he can to free their human property.

Officially, slavery has long been abolished in Mauritania, but the law has never been enforced and there are an estimated 600,000 slaves, almost one in five of the country’s 3.2 million people, almost 150 years since the American civil war.

Sadly for the hopes of people everywhere, the election has declared the Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the ex-military and 2008 coup leader as the victor with 52% of the vote. His challengers including Messaoud Boulkheir have called the result an ‘electoral masquerade’, though western diplomats at the scene seem content with the process.
Slave_Mauritana
Mauritania is a former French colony which gained independence in 1960, but which has remained mired in poverty, military challenges for power (most recently in 2008), and large area’s of the country where life has remained almost unchanged in centuries (outside better guns, clothes and phones). Yet it presents a stark reminder to the world that whilst the British pushed to end the slave trade in 1815, and the US came into line with the Civil War in 1865, almost 150 years later, some places in the world still have not come to accept these ideas. Whilst I, and most of humanity see this as an obvious stark moral issue, norms like slavery are better understood in practice as a contest of persuasion, influence and coercion. What is most significant is not that in “this modern world” that slavery exists, but that having had a dominant idea in place around the world for so long, it has not quite managed to drive out competing norms. Take this taxi driver from the capital Nouakchott:

A Berber driver, who would only give his first name, Mohammed, defended slavery. “It is our religion and custom,” he said.
“Why does the international community try to stop it? The slaves are better off with their masters. This is their fate. When they leave, they starve.”

Moral outrage in such cases is a necessary motivator, but it also blinds us to seeing what is needed to stop the practice. Better ideas, like the economically productive potential of free human beings, and free societies are stronger weapons for the non-slave trading countries than condemning ‘backward’ sins. This also needs to be coupled with financial and national incentives to lead the elites to recognize their own potential to benefit.

The Information Revolution has clearly not prevented war or genocide or even given the public that much more of a say in the way their countries conduct international affairs. But it does offer the potential for norms to flow significantly faster and more deeply into countries around the world. This is often poo-poo’ed when it means everyone starts drinking coke and talking with an American accent, but it also means that the battle of ideas is radically shaken up in ways that have never before been possible. If the world is to make good on any of the high language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (it is 61 years since it was signed), then we need to make causes such as eradicating slavery a true objective. Whilst some issues such as conflict, and violence in conflict are difficult to learn about when occurring, much less deal with, long term human rights violations such as slavery are one’s we can track, monitor and deal with much more strongly due to the new information at our finger-tips. If the Information Revolution is to mean anything to human rights (and it’s not clear that it does) then I’d like to predict that Slavery will be its first great victory. That day is still some time off with an estimated 20 million bonded labour slaves around the world. Of a similar note (though more talked about in SE Asia) is human trafficking which may entrap from 2.5 to 5 million people around the world.

This issue is obviously one that touches the US President Barack Obama closely, given his own status as first African-American President, and his wife’s history with a great, great grandfather who was a bonded slave in southern America. Obama raised the issue on his recent trip to Africa, and his wife and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also held events this year to help address the issue. Yet this is as I said at the beginning a battle of ideas and influence, not one that can be condemned nor bombed out of sight. Obama has too many challenges, and his skin-colour does not automatically give him a gilded tongue for every important cause. But where other challenges of stopping war or genocide or exploitation may well be beyond us, stopping slavery is something that is surely possible within the next 100 years. We can finally peer down and track where and how many are in chains, it is then up to us to convince and coerce those in charge to finally let them be free. Morality may energize us, but it is winning the battle of ideas about the best types of behaviour and action, by both individuals and countries that will achieve it for us. We must not relent.

Soft Power

Over at The Interpreter, a debate has arisen about the concept of ‘Soft Power’ in International Relations, as pushed by self-proclaimed sceptic Raoul Heinrichs. Raoul is a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute, and former foreign affairs advisor to one Kevin Rudd.

He writes:

Soft power refers to a state’s ability to achieve desired objectives through attraction rather than coercion or inducement – to get others to ‘want what you want’. According to Nye, soft power arises not from the accumulation of capabilities that can affect the behaviour of other states, but from the magnetism of a country’s culture, values, ideals, and the style — as well as the substance — of its domestic and foreign policies.

Two problems come to mind. First, even if a state is full of admiration for those elements of another society that supposedly give rise to its soft power, it is not clear to me why, when divergent interests are concerned, that admiration might lead the first state to subordinate its own objectives to the other’s.

And second, the concept seems to imply that a state can be powerful, and capable of attaining its preferences in international affairs, by virtue of its goodness, and not just its strength. This is a nice thought, though one that does not square with reality, as demonstrated by the need to create ‘smart power’, which seeks to integrate all elements of national power.

Yet this is a misunderstanding of the basic nature of how soft power. As Joseph Nye notes early on in his famous article that kicked off the subject ‘Proof of power lies not in resources but in the ability to change the behavior of states.’, yet soft power approaches this task differently to normal power. Material power takes interests as constant and uses coercive means (or the mere threat of) to force actors to subvert or overcome their interests to the good of the superior power. This is a once off action, each time the behavior is needed, material power has to revisit the threat to overcome the others actors interests, occurring a second and third time and so on.

Soft power on the other hand works to subvert the very interests of the other actors to have them believe their interests accord with the interests of the superior power. Instead of each time vaulting over the high wall of another’s interests to achieve your aim as material power does, soft power breaks down and rebuilds the wall in another location to benefit the influencing power and hopefully the receptive power too. That is, once successful, soft power does not need to be revisited, but should allow such behavior time after time without significant effort (indeed if truly successful the other actors may even return to encourage you or a third party to also engage in such behavior)

So contra Heinrichs, states under the influence of soft power don’t believe they are subordinating their interests to the others, they believe their interests correspond. This links his second complaint, the unfortunate normative link between soft power and “goodness”. That is, soft power is often seen as being simply a way for virtuous but weak ideas (like peace, co-operation and tolerance) to claim influence through association with the tag ‘power’. Yet, this is only because of the limited ways in which soft power has been studied and promoted in the last few decades, than a problem with the idea itself. Actually, that’s not quite true, significant scholarship has gone into the deliberate proliferation of idea’s which don’t meet such heavenly virtues. We just call those ideas ‘Propaganda’.

Ever since humans became able to have abstract thought, we have engaged in efforts to try and convince each other of these ideas and perceptions. Yet because Idea’s can not be counted, measured, or any other of our usual quantifiable approaches to scholarship, the field has been largely seen as ‘too hard’. Therefore it is not much surprise that the people who finally turned their efforts towards such a task did so because of some wish to promote or understand how highly held ideals could be promoted or work. There had to be some benefit beyond mere understanding, and indeed there is self-selection at work prior to scholarship, in that the people most interested in these higher ideas, will be the ones to most justify the time and effort it takes. Only when it comes to the effect of the worst of the worst ideas (such as totalitarian propaganda) do bad idea’s have enough of a power to attract scholars and thinkers attention.

There’s a second problem within the academic literature of a related nature, the ‘dog that didn’t bark’ problem. That is, having been studied for the best part of 20 years, the scholarship still hasn’t quite extended beyond looking at ideas which successfully transferred from one actor to another (ie the acceptance of democracy, or anti-landmines, or anti-chemical weapons), but that is starting to change. We don’t yet have a good criteria for why some idea’s do succeed and most don’t. But we are working on it.

For my own part, my research is on how the Australian Government over the Keating and Howard Government’s tried to use soft power to exercise leadership in the Asia-Pacific and achieve our national interests. That is, in converting the regions countries to share our interests (such as supporting multilateralism, democracy, counter-terrorism measures etc). Yet I take a slightly different spin, in that I am more interested in how countries can spread ideas, using both ideational and material power, rather than simply ideational power to promote ideas. For example: when Howard sent troops into East Timor to help stabilise the country, he was using material power in support of an ideational goal (self-determination and democracy) which are deeply held Australian values.

East Timor is currently a surviving democracy, something in the national interest of Australia. But one that only works so long as the East Timorese believe democracy is in their interest too. The aim of soft power in short is not to have the other actor feel they have been coerced to accept your interests over their’s, it’s that they think your interests correspond, and therefore can positively join you on the effort. It’s still a new field, but it’s also the oldest and most important element of power within human societies. Weapons and violence is incidental and rare, but the flow of soft power is constant and dominating. We’re just only beginning to find ways to understand and chart it.