But Is It Socialization?

International Institutional Effects on Chinese Arms Control Policy

Alastair Iain Johnston, Associate Professor,

Government Department, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

May 13, 1998

Socialization involves the transmission of the rules of socially appropriate behavior for actors. In international relations, socialization provides guidelines to states and their leaders about how they are supposed to behave in the international system. Unfortunately, current international relations theory fails to explain how socialization works. In this talk, I first lay out and critique three approaches to socialization: the realist, the contractual (or neoliberal) institutionalist, and the constructivist approaches. Then, I discuss the microprocesses of socialization. Finally, I provide two plausibility tests for the effects of socialization -- China’s participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum and its agreement to sign on to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Realist theories claim that states which do not respond in realpolitik fashion to the constraints of structural anarchy will be punished and/or selected out of the system. This is what they mean by socialization. Critics, however, claim that realism exaggerates systemic effects. They also claim that the historical record fails to show that those states that do not become socialized disappear. Contractual institutionalists, while acknowledging that new information can change ‘beliefs’ about ‘states of the world’, nonetheless tend to downplay socialization. They believe that institutions encourage pro-social behavior by providing positive and negative sanctions, by changing domestic balances of power, or by encouraging states to consider their reputation in other exchange relationships. Finally, the social constructivists argue that actors engage in specific behaviors because they have internalized norms of appropriateness (whether conflictual or cooperative). Unfortunately, constructivism has, for the most part, only demonstrated a correlation between behavior and norms in so-called ‘deviant’ cases (cases that realists claim are unimportant or rare). It has been less successful in showing precisely how norms diffuse among actors with different levels of resistance.

The literature in social psychology, sociology and communications suggest that socialization can work in two basic ways: persuasion, and social back- patting and opprobrium. Persuasion involves changing minds, opinions and attitudes about causality and affect in the absence of overtly material or mental coercion. Constructivists use Habermas’ notion of ‘communicative action’ to analyze the process of persuasion, but they have failed to outline the conditions under which communicative action is likely to work. The literature suggests that in international institutions persuasion should be more likely when membership is small, when decisions are made by consensus, when the mandate is deliberative, and when agents have a great deal of autonomy from their state’s leaders. The effectiveness of social back patting and opprobrium -- social influence -- rests on actors’ desire to maximize status, prestige and diffuse image. This desire can lead actors to engage in pro-social behavior, so as to maximize status markers provided by the group, even when such behavior might be costly in terms of relative power and wealth. In international institutions, social influence is more likely to be effective when membership is large, where decisions are made by majoritarian voting, when the mandate is to negotiate the distribution of benefits, and when the autonomy of agents from their state leaders is low.

When testing these two different socialization microprocesses, it is important to select appropriate cases. I use three criteria: First, the ideology of the state must be obviously different from the ideology of the institution. This allows us to observe more easily any changes in the normative arguments of the actor. Second, we want to look at novice states—states that recently and rapidly became involved in international institutions. Third, the behavior under study ought to run counter to other explanations, allowing us more easily to rule out competing explanations.

China provides useful cases for this study. The Chinese leaders, for the most part, have internalized a realpolitik ideology. Furthermore, China is a new participant in international institutions. It entered many of them relatively recently and quite rapidly. China’s participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum and in the CTBT also would not be predicted by other theories. Most versions of realism would predict that China would avoid these institutions because they could potentially reduce its autonomy limit its relative military power capabilities. Contractual institutionalism would suggest that under these negative conditions participation in these institutions would most likely be the result of sidepayments and sanctions. Empirically, however, none were provided in either of these cases.

The ASEAN Regional Forum provides a useful example of persuasion. Mainstream realism would not expect Chinese participation in the ARF because the ARF’s ideology is inconsistent with China’s realist power maximizing ideology, and because the institution’s agenda of CBMs has become more intrusive over time. For a small, but influential segment of the functional specialists who participate in this institution, exposure to the ideology and discourse of regional security dialogues has led to a basic re-evaluation of the benefits of multilateralism.

The CTBT provides a useful example of social influence. Most versions of realism should have expected China to either try to block the start of negotiations in the first place, obstruct the completion of the treaty, or refuse to sign it, given the constraints it places on China’s nuclear weapons capability. Not only did China sign the treaty, but Chinese officials conceded that their decision was heavily influenced by the desire to avoid criticism for blocking a major pillar of the nonproliferation regime.

Alastair Iain Johnston is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Government Department at Harvard University. His research focuses on international relations theory and Chinese foreign policy.

Rapporteur -- Jonathan Ladinsky

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