The Duck of Minerva

A Network Explanation for the Rise of Global Social Issues

1 July 2013

I am delighted to report that as of last Friday at 7:02pm I have completed final revisions on my latest book manuscript. This culminates a project on issue neglect that started with my observations about children born of war, emerged as a theory of “agenda-vetting,” and involved a detailed NSF-funded study of the rise and fall of issues in the human security network. It also includes detailed case studies on several norm-building campaigns I’ve been following since 2007: the campaign to make amends to civilians harmed in legitimate battle operations, the campaign to ban infant male circumcision, and the campaign to ban the development and use of autonomous weapons.

I am told by the editor at Cornell University Press it should hopefully be on the shelves in time for next year’s ISA conference. For readers who have long followed my work on this project, which coincided with the start of my blogging career, I offer below the fold the first few paragraphs of the book as a sneak preview.

In April of 2013, outside the steps of Parliament in London, a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) launched a new campaign to ban the use of fully autonomous weapons. Concern over this issue had been raised since 2004 by political entrepreneurs from the academic community, but their calls for an anti-killer-robot norm had been virtually ignored by the advocacy community for over seven years. When asked about the issue in 2009, many advocacy elites in mainstream humanitarian disarmament organizations expressed bemusement. They pointed out that there were far more serious threats to human security in conflict zones, and that these weapons had not yet been developed or deployed. One of them said: “You don’t need a norm for science fiction.” These heavyweights of human security refused opportunities to join calls for a ban. As late as Spring 2011, no NGO had autonomous weapons formally on its agenda.

Things began to change in late 2011 when the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) acknowledged the ethical issues raised by fully autonomous weapons in a keynote address on emerging technologies. And they changed even more dramatically when another well-known NGO, Human Rights Watch (HRW), published a report the following year calling for a ban. Within a month, nine well-known human security organizations joined the steering committee for a new campaign. In April of the next year, 30 NGOs showed up to a London conference on the topic prior to the launch of what was widely hailed as the “next landmine ban campaign.” By mid-May, 29 organizations had officially joined a growing list of signatories. Killer robots were suddenly creating the biggest “human security” buzz since cluster munitions.

What happened between 2004 and late 2012? Why did well-known organizations like Human Rights Watch pay so little attention to autonomous weapons for so long, despite considerable lobbying from norm entrepreneurs, and why did this change so suddenly? Why did other human security organizations avoid the issue for so long, but join the campaign so readily once ICRC acknowledged the issue and Human Rights Watch took the lead?  And why did humanitarian disarmament campaigners set their sights on a category of weapons that didn’t yet exist? Why not (for example) a campaign against depleted uranium weapons, said to harm the health of thousands in conflict zones, with an even longer and widespread history of concern by political entrepreneurs?

A rash of literature in the past two decades has hailed the significance of transnational advocacy networks in global norm development and governance. But much less research has focused on why such networks gravitate around certain issues and reject or dismiss others at any particular time. And as this example suggests, the construction of new transnational issues clearly requires more than dedicated “norm entrepreneurs.” For a new issue to be taken seriously, entrepreneurs must successfully market their issues within global political structures, and doing so is no simple task. Indeed the story of the killer robot campaign suggests two truths about global advocacy work and raises two equally important questions.

The first of these truths is that new normative ideas do not float freely in global networks. It matters very much who is promoting them. While entrepreneurs are always necessary, they are rarely sufficient or sufficiently skilled to effectively promote their ideas: new global norms are born or still-born not merely due to entrepreneurs’ dedication or persistence, but by the grace and acquiescence of powerful organizations with access to global policy stakeholders. Professionals in these organizations, facing a menu of competing claims and limited resources, must make strategic choices about where to place their attention. Only if these advocacy elites legitimize  a new issue is it likely to proliferate. Like the “killer robot” ban campaign, other powerful human security norms – against child soldiering, conflict diamonds, landmines – hit the global agenda not when a norm entrepreneur raised the issue, however tirelessly, but rather when some mainstream human security organization eventually “adopted” it, throwing its institutional weight behind the idea. Causes that never get legitimized in this way seldom skyrocket to global prominence; those that never achieve prominence among global policy elites seldom result in meaningful global “governance.”

This leads to the second truth: despite all the optimism about the power of global civil society, the media spotlight of successful campaigns blinds observers to myriad issues that never rise to the top of the global advocacy agenda. In the disarmament area, many problematic weapons receive less advocacy attention than landmines, clusters, small arms or now robots: depleted uranium, fuel-air explosives, pain weapons, to name a few. The same variation holds true in other issue areas. Internal wars are an important concern for conflict prevention analysts but gangs and urban violence are on the margins of the global security agenda. HIV/AIDS and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are championed as health issues while other communicable diseases such as pneumonia and Type 1 Diabetes get only limited attention; non-disease health issues such as maternal mortality and the right to pain relief get even less.

These twin observations lead us to three questions addressed in this book through a discussion of several “neglected” causes. First, what gives a few organizations such disproportionate influence over the advocacy agenda? Second, what determines how they choose to use this power? That is, given the agenda-setting (and agenda-vetting) power of global advocacy elites, how do they decide what to work on and what to ignore? What distinguishes the issues that they eventually “adopt” and launch to prominence from those that they ignore or dismiss, and which continue to fall through the cracks? And third, given these dynamics, how can issue entrepreneurs championing neglected issues successfully press their claims on the global stage?

In this book I show that the answer to all three questions is to be found in the structure of global networks themselves. Expanding on Clifford Bob’s influential study of human rights organizations, I argue “agenda-vetting” constitutes a powerful form of global governance. But unlike earlier studies, I show the power to set or “vet” the advocacy agenda is not an intrinsic attribute of organizations but rather a function of their structural position within networks. Indeed, the logic of network relations not only confers special agenda-setting/agenda-vetting power on certain organizations, but plays a crucial role in determining the answer to the second question: how they decide when to invest resources and attention, and when to withhold it. My research shows that advocacy elites choose issues not just based on their merits, or mandate, or the wider political context, but partly on calculations about the structure of their institutional relationships – to other actors, to other issues, and to networks themselves. Therefore, understanding how to use network ties strategically is a key ingredient in any recipe for successful global norm entrepreneurship.