How Power and Interests Ignite a Volatile International Arena
Boats brimming with refugees and zig-zagging, precariously, across the Mediterranean Sea. In the background, world leaders inconsistently shifting between offers to coordinate action on this issue and refusals to let those boats land. Social media accounts filled with nuclear war threats followed by historic summits, then name-calling, then praises and even promises of more summits. These indelible images exemplify why the 2010s have been the years of volatility in foreign policy.
When countries act in a volatile manner---that is, when their behavior in the international arena shifts inconsistently between cooperative and conflictual episodes---their counterparts cannot easily predict such countries' next moves, thus growing uncertain. This uncertainty fuels conflict escalation and stymies trust, compromising hopes of sustained cooperation and stable peace. Recent volatility, while striking, is not a new phenomenon. Yet, where does volatility come from? This is the question that my book, Shifting Politics, addresses.
Pundits and policy-makers have argued that volatility stems from elected officials’ attempts to pander to their voters---i.e., that it stems from populism. The implications of this untested claim are both subtle and perilous. If volatility is the flammable outcome of leaders’ attempts to represent their constituencies, then democratic representation is in part to blame this treacherous juncture in global politics. Yet democracies have been around for a long time: how can they explain the current surge in volatility?
Challenging these oversimplified narratives of volatility, Shifting Politics scrutinizes the far-reaching transformations at its roots. Volatility, I argue, is the outcome of two processes melding into the perfect storm. First, technological advances in fields ranging from weaponry to communication have expanded the set of international policies countries can choose from (i.e., cyberweapons, etc.). Secondly, transformations in the economic and geographical composition of many countries’ domestic population have empowered special interest groups displaying opposing foreign policy preferences. Thus, equipped with more cooperative and conflictual options, countries inconsistently shift between them to satisfy the increasingly opposing foreign policy preferences of special interest groups that leverage domestic divisions to hijack foreign policy.