Anne Marie Slaughter and Dan Drezner had an interesting debate last week on the role of nonstate actors in foreign policy. AMS stakes out a “modern/liberal-social” position highlighting the role of nonstate actors, whereas DD takes a “subtle realist” view, maintaining the priority of states and national interests. DD sums up their differences this way:

I’m skeptical about the viability of transnational interests to effectively pressure multiple governments to adopt a common policy solution, and I’m super-skeptical that these groups can supply broad-based solutions independently of national governments.

My own take is that DD underestimates the extent to which transnationally-linked domestic coalitions affect policy, but that AMS takes too narrow a view of the civil society actors involved. I agree with DD that nonstate actors alone will not provide “broad-based solutions” themselves–although I don’t think that AMS would go that far anyway.

Most international issues do not pit states against nonstate actors, with each lining up on different sides of the issues. Rather, what we see are networks on each side, usually with states representing key components. Keck and Sikkink made this point years ago in a book that revived the scholarly debate on transnational relations. But the presence and importance of states in networks is often overlooked. States must be a major part of network studies because, in the end of course, they make policies.

On a day to day basis within networks, however, states are not necessarily the leading forces. When it comes to projecting the ideas and rallying the interests that go into policy outcomes, civil society actors play key roles. Acting as interest groups within states, they seek to shape governments’ preferences. Acting as NGOs across state borders and in international institutions, they exchange ideas, personnel, and money, affecting both domestic and international policy.

Notably as well, these networks are not all “progressive,” although most of the scholarly and journalistic attention has focused on human rights, environmental, and global justice groups. Rather, there is huge diversity among transnational advocates, with powerful right-wing networks fighting the left. Nor is it simply the case that conservatives ally with states to oppose changes in the status quo. In the ongoing battles that comprise most of international policy making, all sides support or reject change at certain times.

Finally, the means by which policy change happens transcend the staid “logics” of persuasion—framing, shaming, grafting, deliberation, dialogue, etc.–on which much of the literature has focused. Network members do use such tactics. But these are invariably countered by opposition networks. They smash frames and deploy their own equally resonant ones. They shame the shamers and honor those who the other side seeks to embarrass. They sever grafts while making their own.

In other words, these are policy wars, not one-sided persuasive campaigns aimed at changing state policy or public opinion. The tactics that opposing sides use extend well beyond the rhetorical. They seek to exclude one another from key institutions. They invent their own institutions to keep the other side out. They seek to silence one another’s voices. And they attack one another ferociously, for misunderstanding, misstatement, and downright evil.

I’ll take a few cases that I’ve written about in my forthcoming book. Admittedly, these are not frontline national security issues, but I’d say they are nonetheless important parts of international and domestic politics in many countries.

Gay rights has advanced tremendously in Western states over the past few decades. This has been led not by governments but movements that have effectively organized and been able to achieve political and cultural change. There has been substantial transnational interaction within the gay rights movement, with domestic groups learning from one another, receiving assistance, and exchanging personnel. They’ve also been active at the UN trying to affect policy.

All the while, however, they have faced resistance from a transnational coalition of conservative religious groups, what I call the “Baptist-burqa” network. In some countries, this has helped keep gay rights off the political agenda completely. In others, it has led to continuing conflict whose outcome remains unclear. At the international level, at least with regard to UN policy on gay rights, it has kept “progress” slow and minimal. The fight has been far from pretty, with the two networks and their national components engaging in all sorts of mudslinging and competition. The current stalemate at the UN stems from the respective power of these opposing networks, in particular their ability to affect state policy choices, even if in the final analysis it is states that vote on the policies themselves.

Small arms control is another issue pitting network against network. Human rights, gun control, and development organizations organized transnationally in the 1990s, seeking to stem the global trade in weapons. But they immediately faced opposition from a transnational coalition of gun rights groups, led by America’s National Rifle Association (NRA). The two sides, complete with powerful states on each side, have fought over controls on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW) since then. In these battles, the nonstate actors on both sides have helped shape state policy, through both domestic and international politicking. The failure thus far to achieve significant controls stems in large part from the power of the gun network to influence ideas and policies in a number of states. This is an outcome every bit as important as policy change—and stemming significantly from civil society activism and clashes.

In other cases that AMS mentions, such as the landmines treaty and the ICC, networks of states and nonstate actors achieved much—but could have achieved much more but for the power of opposing states within larger ideological networks. The U.S. government was a major impediment to reaching the goals activists originally hoped for. But this was a U.S. government strongly influenced by NGOs and activists—and the outcomes are in large part a result of their ideas and sway.

Other interesting recent works that show the power of these kinds of networks, and especially their clash, include Orenstein’s on pension policy and Teles and Kenney’s on free market activism.

What about “major” international policy? DD puts it this way:

The kind of non-state actors that Slaughter embraces have not been shy in engaging issues like climate change, Israel/Palestine or macroeconomic imbalances — but I haven’t seen any appreciable change in global public policies as a result.

John M. Owen has written a fascinating new book arguing that clashing ideological networks have been a key basis for regime change for centuries. I’d argue that some of the most important foreign policy developments of the last decade stem from powerful civil society interests, affecting state policy. The role of neo-conservative networks in sparking the Iraq War is Exhibit A.

Regarding climate change, I see this issue not as involving a clash between powerful states and environmental groups but as one which again pits network against network. On both sides, there are an array of powerful states, corporations, foundations, and NGOs, supporting divergent views. The failure to reach agreement on climate change policy is a testament as much to network as to state power.

On Israel/Palestine, I’d argue that a major reason for the situation we now see is the power of internationally-linked domestic interests–in the US, a loose but real agglomeration of civil society groups, the Israel Lobby as Walt/Mearsheimer define it. Its activism has shaped perceptions of America’s national interest, notwithstanding increasing efforts to reshape that view by other civil society actors.

The end of all this interaction may not be easily predictable, certainly not in the way that structural realists purport to predict outcomes. Henry Farrell makes this point in talking about cross-border “contagion” and the unpredictability of policy outcomes that result. The “contagion” metaphor, however, with its overtones of hot zone diseases spreading spontaneously and uncontrollably only explains part of what is happening.

Often there is deliberate, strategic interaction among like-minded groups within different states. They seek to shape policy both within their own and other states, using demonstration effects at home or abroad to push for their own favored policy outcomes more broadly. True, as HF states, we may not be able to predict outcomes as easily as in a billiard ball world. But I agree with AMS here that we need to pay attention to these interactions.

Where I differ with many who highlight transnational relations is in their taking too narrow a perspective on the groups, networks, and tactics involved. To reiterate, these networks centrally involve states, sometimes politicians, sometimes bureaucrats. There is not a full-scale power shift to nonstate actors. Second, these networks by no means push only “progressive” solutions to global problems. Rather, there are conflicting networks following and often deepening the ideological divisions of modern societies. Finally, because the stakes are so high for the groups involved, the tactics they follow are bare-knuckled and hard-hitting—just like politics in any other sphere.