Friday, April 12, 2013

Diffusion and International Relations

Posted by Professor Sara Mitchell

I recently returned from the annual convention of the International Studies Association ( in San Francisco which had close to 1,100 panels and roundtables and about 6,000 participants from 60+ countries. The theme of the conference was “The Politics of International Diffusion: Regional and Global Dimensions.” I participated in one roundtable related to the theme on the diffusion of liberalism and I also participated in an innovative roundtable linking theories of international relations and foreign policy. Both roundtables got me thinking about the conference’s focus on the processes of diffusion.

As a Kantian peace scholar, I have long been interested in the increasing number of democratic countries globally and the implications of this growing democratic community for world politics. One obvious benefit is the potential for increased peace, as fully democratic countries do not go to war with other fully democratic countries. The benefits extend to lower level crises or diplomatic conflicts, as militarized disputes between democratic countries rarely involve any fatalities.  My own work also shows a similar pattern at the systemic level, as a higher proportion of democratic countries in the world reduces the proportion of countries fighting wars (Mitchell, Gates, and Hegre 1999).  As I discussed on the liberalism roundtable, we can think about the current events in the Arab Spring as part of this broader dynamic process of the international system becoming more democratic.  The Kantian diffusion process has other potential benefits as well, with democracies generally having better human rights policies and respecting their neighbors’ land borders, removing one of the most contentious issues that often leads to war.  Democracies also create and join international organizations more frequently than their autocratic peers and these organizations have also been shown to serve as portals for the spread of Kantian values such as democracy and respect for human rights.
One question that arose was whether we are actually witnessing the diffusion of liberalism.  Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (New York University) presented some data on global human rights, focusing on violations of personal integrity rights (e.g. torture or political imprisonment). His data suggested that there have not been any major changes in states’ human rights practices in the past 30+ years. This raises an interesting question about why improvements in human rights are lagging behind the growth of the democratic community.  A second question that Bueno de Mesquita raised was related to the idea of diffusion itself.  How do we know when processes actually diffuse across borders or groups? He argued that we can understand what looks like the diffusion of liberalism by focusing on leaders’ incentives to stay in power and the institutions inside the state that create various strategic incentives. I responded by saying that while I think domestic institutions help us understand a lot about interstate interactions, we cannot ignore diffusion processes at the global level.  For example, many democratic regimes get created in large clumps at points in history where something major happens such as a world war or the end of the Cold War.  We have seen major changes in states’ foreign policy practices following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. And many panels at ISA focused on how information and technology (e.g. twitter) are mechanisms for diffusion today.

For me, the best way to determine if there are diffusion processes is to find a group of actors that do not have the internal incentives or preferences to adopt a certain type of behavior, but do so regardless. In my own work (Mitchell 2002), that involved looking at whether non-democratic countries adopted certain types of behavior promoted by the democratic community, such as the use of third party adjudication or arbitration.  I found that pairs of states with non-democratic governments are sixteen times more likely to use third party conflict management strategies to settle border disputes when 50% of the countries in the world are democratic, versus a system where there are no democracies.  Thus a foreign policy decision such as taking a border dispute to an international court depends upon the systemic environment within which the decision is made.  While an emphasis on domestic institutions and leaders gives us valuable insight into understanding foreign policy behavior, we cannot lose sight of global or regional environments and how changes in these systems might influence states’ or leaders’ foreign policy decisions.  On the second roundtable I participated in, I came to precisely this conclusion, arguing that theories of foreign policy will always need theories of international relations. And theories of international relations must not lose sight of the broader international system and the global diffusion processes that are unfolding.



Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin. 2002. “A Kantian System? Democracy and Third Party Conflict Resolution.”

American Journal of Political Science, October, 46(4): 749-759.

Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin, Scott Gates, and HÃ¥vard Hegre. 1999. “Evolution in Democracy-War

Dynamics.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 43(6): 771-792.


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