book review: moral movements and foreign policy by joshua busby
I recently reviewed Joshua Busby’s book social movements and foreign policy. He uses a number of case studies from American and European politics to show how moral pleas, in certain contexts, can move policy. From PS: Perspectives in Political Science:
Busby asks a simple question: How do activists affect a state’s foreign policy? He answers with a two-part theory. First, there is the balance of values and costs. Activists may demand something that is expensive or cheap. Similarly, activists may demand policies that have low or high resonance with moral values. Second, activists must successfully interface with gatekeepers, such as legislators or policymakers, who have the power to legitimize the movement’s demands. The author then goes on to support his theory with empirical studies of a range of policy domains, such as AIDS policy and the international courts.
The importance of Busby’s argument is that it is an alternative to the interest-based view of foreign relations, which asserts that states do what they must to protect a narrowly defined resource such as trade, military power, and so forth. His view is that the beliefs of citizens are very important, not because political leaders follow the whims of voters but because domestic public opinion defines a spectrum of possibilities. The moral resonance of an issue defines the political cost of taking an action.
Works like Moral Movements and Foreign Policy illuminate the relationship between sociology and political science. This book is an example of the use of sociological theory to enrich a topic typically associated with political science. The international relations field has been dominated by arguments among realists, liberals, constructivists, and others over state behavior. Social movements have not usually been at the center of this debate. By itself, Busby’s book does not upend these theories, but it does suggest that there is still unexplored territory in IR theory. Social-movement activists are now recognized as a group of actors who are not state elites, nor are they average voters, nor are they marginalized cranks. Rather, they are specialized political entrepreneurs who use tactics ranging from lawsuits to protest to promote their causes. Research on transnational activism documents a global network of actors who influence and create the policy environment for states. By showing when and how activism leads to changes in foreign policy, Busby shows one way that sociology and political science can enrich each other and expand a research area that may appear to be well covered.