Friday Nerd Blegging: Science Fiction and Foreign Policy Discourse

Jul 12, 2013

Lawfare T2000 from Adama on Vimeo.

The video you see is not just an intriguing and entertaining way to express one position in legal arguments around the debate over autonomous weapons. It represents a fascinating foreign policy artifact, a data point in the policy discourse over the value of a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons, one in which science fiction metaphors are given a prime place. This raises intriguing questions about the relationship between science fiction and foreign policy and how we might study it. 

The creator of this video is Tom Malinowski, who has just been nominated by President Obama for Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the State Department. Malinowski, a former speechwriter, previously served as the Washington Director at Human Rights Watch. That said, this was not created or published in Malinowski’s capacity as an employee of the organization heading the anti-kilbot-campaign but rather in his independent capacity as a commentator on legal issues around autonomous weaponry.*

The video was created and posted at the Lawfare Blog back in January as one volley out of several in a lively blog debate over the international law pertaining to fully autonomous weapons.  At stake is the question of where the burden of proof lies – on governments/defense contractors to demonstrate the risk of public harm is minimal, or on ban advocates to demonstrate the risks are unacceptably high. Malinowski argues the precautionary principle stance, whereas law bloggers Benjamin WittesKen Anderson and Matthew Waxman have joined Ron Arkin in arguing that such weapons may not only represent an appropriate balance between humanitarian concerns and military necessity, as Michael Schmitt claims, but may have humanitarian applications and therefore their development should not be foreclosed. I may weigh in at another point later with a social scientist’s view on how to assess the various empirical claims underlying positions in this legal debate.

But for now, I want to pose a different question: what does a video like this say about the blending of entertainment, political narrative and satire in professional foreign policy argumentation in the early 21st century? What does it mean for a prominent foreign policy professional (albeit a person with one serious sense of humor) to be contributing to political debate through the use of science fiction satire? What is happening here and how do political scientists get purchase on it in an empirical way? It’s a question that informs a new research project and about which I’ll be thinking over the summer, and at the moment I’m in search of a theoretical framework for understanding artifacts like these.

The best I have found so far is Daniel Nexon and Iver Neumann‘s typology of popular culture effects from the introduction to their edited volume Harry Potter and International RelationsNexon/Neumann discuss both causal and constitutive effects, but I will dispense for now with causal questions since I do not intend to speculate here about whether Malinowski’s position on autonomous weapons is directly caused by his obvious uber-fluency in science fiction metaphors. I also set aside for now N/N’s arguments about “pop culture as a mirror” since this artifact does not seem designed to use Terminator to teach about international law, in the way his co-authored Foreign Policy article on Harry Potter meant to teach about postwar stabilization, or in the way that Dan Drezner used zombies or Patrick James used hobbits and orcs to teach about IR theory. I also do not see this film as an example of N/N’s “pop culture as data” since Malinowski is not using this clip to demonstrate the salience of dominant robopocalyptic ideas in the culture in service of some argument (as I previously did in my video riposte to Drezner’s book) but rather to use those ideas themselves to further an argument. So instead let me pose some questions about how to code an artifact like this in terms of the different types of constitutive effects described by Nexon/Neumann. These include, according to N/N:

determining effects: “in cases where decision-makers lack the knowledge or experience to appropriately frame an issue… popular cultural representations may fill the void and exercise a determining effect on policy-making.”

informing effects: “provid[ing] diffuse knowledge that people bring to bear on political issues”

enabling effects: when “popular culture lend[s] metaphorical strength to the appeal of a certain policy and so takes on enabling importance for political action”

naturalizing effects: “similarities between the politics of an artifact of popular culture and other political representations may be said to ‘clear the ground’ for the reception of political representations”

Some questions for DanIver, the other DanPatrick, the other Patrick, and whomever else wants to jump in:

1) How is a constitutive “determining” effect different from a causal effect of ideas? (For social scientists, causal effects are expressed as [X >Y]; constitutive effects are expressed as [Y means X in context of Z]. The kind of causal effects N/N describe in their book are political phenomena directly caused by the dissemination of a cultural artifact, like copyright suits or protests. But if a policy is determined to be appropriate and therefore enacted based on “knowledge” gained through popular culture then why is this constitutive rather than just being a causal effect of ideas in the Goldstein and Keohane sense? Is it that the determination is constitutive but only the enaction would be causal?)

2) What is the empirical difference if any between informing, enabling and naturalizing effects? In other words, if this typology works what are the observable implications of treating these kinds of effects as distinct? I think we see them all in this political artifact. However are these really different types of effect that might sometimes overlap, or are they really just different labels for the same thing? How would I teach a set of students to code similar artifacts for different types of effect? One difference might be that an informing effect or determining would be measured in how someone frames an argument, but an enabling effect would have to be measured in whether those arguments resonate with an audience or increase the presenter’s effectiveness. Still don’t know how I would distinguish enabling and naturalizing effects.

There may be one more thing going on here that is not mentioned in N/N’s typology: the use of popular culture as a socio-ideational lubricant in policy communities of practice. The silliness of science fiction metaphors can be used to take the edge off of what otherwise might be an uglier argument, to intersperse laughter with heated debate, to maintain a sense of nerdy in-group-ness among stakeholders who otherwise see high-stake matters in very different terms. I don’t know what to call this effect. Funniest answer in comments wins a BSG mug and a mention in a footnote.

*This is an important distinction since as I will show later in my killer robot blogging series, most of the “sci-fi framing” is being done by the media and independent bloggers rather than by campaign NGOs themselves.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.