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Transparency and Volatility: A New Era in International Relations

Johanna Martinsson's picture

The accelerated changes in communication flows are posing both opportunities and challenges in the global system.  A recently published book entitled ‘Diplomacy, Development and Security in the Information Age,’ edited by Shanthi Kalathil (a former colleague and contributor to this blog), seeks to better understand the changing face of international relations in a new era, by examining two emerging themes: heightened transparency and increased volatility. Leading up to the publication, practitioners grappled with these themes, and how they are affecting international affairs. Craig Hayde, one of the authors, notes that transparency and volatility are increasingly inextricable concepts. He says “transparency does more than simply put information out there – it inculcates a shared value that information should be available”, but that it is also “facilitated by the same technologies that promote instability, risk, and uncertainty in the business of international relations.”

The collection of essays provides fresh thinking in an area that has mainly focused on the use and impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs). While several essays discuss ICTs, Kalathil points out that “the premise for the series is not to minutely examine new forms of technology and their impact. Rather, the premise for the series is that ubiquitous global communication flows have, over time, created an encompassing information environment that nurtures transparency and volatility in pervasive conditions and/or guiding norms.”

The book also seeks to illuminate the so often popular narrative of the information age, which goes, thus: “time and distance are collapsing, everything and everyone is scrutinized, filters are nonexistent, and nonstate actors hold disproportionate and ever-increasing power.”  Moreover, the essays aim to deconstruct some of the hype surrounding key concepts, including “open data” and transparency (it states that there is a frequent gap between rhetoric and reality), “information dominance”, “digital diplomacy”, and anything with the prefix “cyber”.

The book covers the three issue areas of international relations - diplomacy, development and security - with two essays on each theme, focusing on different aspects of transparency and volatility. The section on development is, of course, of particular interest to this blog.  It talks about transparency as a “normative component of accountability, good governance, and (if relevant) democratization in developing countries.” Transparency is treated as both a bottom-up approach that facilitates state accountability, and as a top-down approach with sharing of information to promote accountability.  Andrew Puddephat specifically discusses transparency in aid programs. He says that “transparency does not guarantee accountability, but the lack of it can make obtaining accountability much harder.” While there is much enthusiasm about transparency in development, he points out that many are still unwilling to implement transparency practices, mainly for the fear of exposing failure (he points out that only 50% of aid information is being published). Nevertheless, transparency in aid programs is still a fairly new concept, and there is little assessment of its impact to draw from.

In this new era of international relations, Kalathil stresses that it is important for policymakers to extend their thinking about these issues through a new lens, which extends beyond the application of ICTs. The following broad suggestions are provided for policymakers and practitioners of foreign policy to consider:

  • To better understand and devise solutions for the information age, do not lead with technology.
  • Transparency and volatility are inherently difficult for large bureaucracies but promise opportunities for innovation in statecraft and other areas. (newfound appreciation for public opinion as channeled through the networked elite)
  • While transparency and volatility can have positive impacts, they also may be manipulated to suit various actors’ aims.
  • To harness opportunities in the information age, states and nonstate actors alike should focus on a strategy of resilience, credibility, and adaptability.

The book was published by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. Here's a link to the video of the launch event held last month, which included several of the authors on the panel.

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