<strong> <u>The Concept of Transparency in International Relations</u></strong>
Transparency is a political condition valued and pursued by countless actors in globalpolitics, and transparency promotion is central to an extensive range of policy issues.Development aid practices, Internet governance and surveillance, the accountability ofinternational institutions, democracy promotion, nuclear weapons proliferation, and thepolitics of financial regulation are all characterized by the strong positive value attached totransparency. Non-governmental organizations existing solely to encourage and monitortransparency have thrived in this climate: one estimate places the number of global‘transparency advocacy’ organizations at 500 .Nor is transparency subject to promotion by civilsociety organizations alone. Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, reflecting a broader USforeign policy tradition that promotes transparency as a common good, stressed that‘Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstateconflict. When we face serious disputes or dangerous incidents, it’s critical that people on bothsides of the problem have access to the same set of facts and opinions’ (Clinton, 2010).Transparency is portrayed as both necessary and increasingly possible within a globalizing,information-centric international system.
In this context, transparency seems to offer a realistic means of generating a moreaccountable, peaceful, or legitimate form of international politics. Assumptions about thenovelty of transparency are misleading, however. The concept lies at the nexus ofepistemological, political, and religious assumptions which have defined the Westernpolitical tradition and path of modernity (Foucault 1980: 153; Jay 1993). From thisperspective, the current policy vogue for transparency is the latest manifestation of a mucholder constellation of ideals and practices linking rationality, legitimacy, and progress withtransparency.
<strong>Clarifying the concept of transparency in International Relations</strong>Conceptual development is a central aspect of all work in social science. Theemployment of clear, useful, resonant, and precise concepts is vital to productive theoreticaland empirical analysis.Despite the increasing recognition of the central roleof concept formation in the social sciences ,treatments of transparency in IR have undertakenrelatively little of this work. Undoubtedly, definitions are provided that are more or lesssuccinct and more or less useful for empirical study .However, these often fail to outline their constituent elements in detail. The conditionsnecessary or sufficient for a claim of transparency’s existence are underspecified. Thehistorical purview of transparency as a practice, and the historical context of its theorization,is often not well laid out. The internal relations of the concept of transparency – the elementsthat constitute the concept, as ‘participation’ is internal to ‘democracy’ or ‘wage labour’ to‘capitalism’ – are rarely discussed in detail. Questions around the reflexivity of the conceptand its employment are not thoroughly engaged, with the relationship between scholar andobject of study underspecified. While the concept of transparency may seem straightforward,its different articulations – discussed below – suggest that research on transparency needs toclarify these assumptions.
Their concept of transparency is ‘objective’ in that they focus their attention on observablefeatures, rather than unobservables such as preferences or beliefs. The resultant ‘transparencyindex’ approaches the public disclosure of information by measuring the amount (but notquality or kind, as denoted by ‘easy to perceive’) of political debate, information control, anddisclosure, such as the number of political parties or the frequency of data releases. Finel andLord limit their concept of transparency to what should be called, without harm, simply‘information flows’; the category of ‘understanding’ is sufficiently important in general usagethat using the term to refer to something being transparent but not understood seemsmisplaced. As we shall see, the equation of knowledge with increased quantities ofinformation is a common feature of accounts of transparency, but nearly all such accountsstress that the increased quantity of information is understood correctly by its audience.
A third conception of transparency has emerged in IR over the past 25 years. Withinthe rationalist literature on bargaining, conflict and war, the transmission of signals betweenstates is outlined as key to a transparent understanding of actors’ intentions . In contrast to theabove approaches, transparency is conceptualized as the disclosure of information betweenstates – understood as unified actors – rather than to a public. Rather than empowering publics,and thus altering hierarchical relations between political institutions and the public, rationalistsexamine how formally equal actors can generate transparent signals of their intentions over aconflict issue. Despite these differences, unpacking the assumptions of rationalist approachesreveals some problematic underpinnings of ‘transparency-as-disclosure’ and hiddenconnections to ‘transparency-asdialogue’.
<strong>Clear signals and shared understandings: rational choice approaches to transparency</strong><ul> <li>While the rational choice approach to transparency shares some features with the</li></ul>broader ‘transparency-as-disclosure’ literature, its starting point does not derive from a focusupon corruption and democratic public deliberation. Rather, RCT approaches to war arefocused upon what may be the defining issue of IR theory: the problem of uncertainty.Solutions to the problem of uncertainty in large part define the analyticalpositions that populate the discipline. The large literature on the security dilemma hasfocused most closely upon the dynamics of uncertainty and thus provides a prime example ofthis broader work . Within an anarchical international system states can never be sure of theintentions of others; they have no access to others’ true intentions and the real purpose ofothers actions. This creates two ‘lemmas’: uncertainty of how to interpret signals sent fromother states – is a military build-up aggressive or defensive– and subsequentuncertainty of how one should respond in turn .The security dilemma thus centres uponinformation flows and the absence of understanding – states have no information that caninform them with certainty of the intentions of others.
<strong>The limits of transparency-as-information</strong><ul> <li>There are a number of problematic features of these arguments, each of which point to</li></ul>wider problems with the way transparency is often understood in IR and beyond. First, thespecific claims of rationalist theories of conflict in IR rely upon unstated assumptions ofshared normative understandings between actors.
<ul> <li>Whatever the intentions of the leaders of the democratic state, the audience costs</li></ul>mechanism can be decisive only if the opposing power understands why it would behard for those leaders to back down. Unless the adversary is able to see why thedemocratic power’s leaders’ hands are tied, it would have no reason to conclude thatthey are not bluffing. So for the audience costs argument to hold, the adversary powerhas to understand that the democratic leaders would find it hard to give way for fearof incurring audience costs.<strong> </strong><strong>Cognitive and epistemic features of transparency and social interdependence</strong>While the rationalist approach does not present, in our view, the most appropriate way todefine the concept of transparency, this also does not mean that a focus upon transparency viathe lens of strategic action is not valuable. Instead, it points towards a concept oftransparency in which both ‘transparency-as-dialogue’ and ‘transparency-as-information’ areonly conceivable within specific socio-historical contexts. Exploring these ideas through thedialogue between rational choice theory and Frankfurt School Critical Theory – a dialogueoften ignored in IR – provides a means to illustrate this important point. ignored in IR – providesa means to illustrate this important point.
<ul> <li>Scholarship inspired by Critical Theory, particularly the version of it associated with</li></ul>Jurgen Habermas, has engaged the rational choice project in a series of articles since the1980s . Criticism of RCT from this perspective arises, in part, from the way in which itsformalistic methodology and individualist ontology obscure the social dimensions of knowledge.Critical Theorists assert that, in contrast with ‘sociological’ approaches concerned withhistorically located social structures and shared norms, RCT depends on an atomistic model ofthe social world which, coupled with a formal or ‘economic’ approach, excludes a considerationof specific social forms .As we have noted above, this atomism and formalism determinethe concept of transparency adopted by rationalist scholarship in IR. It cannot grasp thedevelopment of shared values, norms, practices, or capabilities, and thus cannot tell us howthese strategic contexts arise, or how the shared epistemic standards necessary fortransparency came into being. For Critical Theorists, this problem can be addressed bygrounding such thought in real conditions, on the one hand, and really effective but not fullyrealised ideals, on the other.
<strong>Towards a critical approach</strong>Transparency-as-dialogue provides the best theoretical starting point for further investigatingtransparency in international politics. A full exploration of how such research would proceedis beyond the scope of this paper. However, we can highlight three substantive advantages ofsuch an approach, already partially elaborated above. Two arise from the way transparencyas-dialogue expands our understanding of transparency in analytical and ethical terms. Thefinal advantage arises, paradoxically, from considering the limits of Habermas’ discourseethics and the danger its universality presents to the political itself.<ul> <li>First, ‘transparency-as-dialogue’ provides a basis upon which to consider the</li></ul>implications of institutional and practitioner claims about transparency, which often assume amodel that corresponds to ‘transparency-as-disclosure’ or ‘transparency-as-information’. Assuggested above, one of the practical limitations of conceptualizing transparency in theseterms is that it precludes reflection on the social conditions in which interactions betweeninstitutions and publics have developed and continue to take place. ‘Transparency-asinformation’ is not concerned with institutional change but with how actors can produce theright kind of information for a given activity, failing to consider how specific institutionalconfigurations limit and shape transparency as a political practice. ‘Transparency-asdisclosure’points to the need for institutions to change in order to provide more information,but does not encompass the social conditions in which the relationship between publics andinstitutions has developed. With the application of these ‘problem-solving’ conceptions thepotential for transparency promotion to incorporate reflection on the quality of institutions,systems of interaction, and the nature of roles will remain relatively undeveloped.
<strong>Conclusion</strong><ul> <li>Examining the different concepts of transparency in IR it is clear that the field uses</li></ul>the term in different ways for different purposes at different times. To date, each distincttheoretical approach has generated a specific understanding of ‘transparency’. Yet, as thisdiscussion has highlighted, the concept of transparency seems to contain some underlyingand unifying features which IR theorists use either implicitly or explicitly. Transparency-asdisclosure, transparency-as-dialogue, and transparency-as-information all outline conceptsthat attempt to grasp how political actors can communicate their actions and intentions in theinterests of stability and minimal forms of cooperation. Each concept outlines, implicitly orexplicitly, the centrality of understanding the information communicated. Each conceptdiscloses some understanding of publicity and publicness as a central dimension of politicalinteractions and outcomes.<ul> <li>These similarities do not override the differences between the concepts.</li></ul>Transparency-as-dialogue operates at a higher level of generality than either of the otherapproaches, refraining from defining the specific actors that constitute a transparentrelationship. It stresses the central role of mutual recognition of actors as fundamental totransparency, while actors are assumed to recognize one another in the otherconceptualizations. And in its strong emphasis upon shared understanding – shared epistemicframeworks and capacities – it again contains what the other concepts assume. Transparencyas-dialogue thereby functions as a deeper concept in its content, captures the familiar andresonant meanings of ‘transparency’, articulates a broad field of application while stillhistorically delimited, and differentiates transparency from simple quantitative informationflows for theoretically clear reasons. ‘Transparency-as-information’ and ‘transparency-asdisclosure’ should continue to be used within International Relations – both captureimportant manifestations of the current political practice of transparency – but as conceptswith adjectives, with the meaning of transparency reserved for the larger term.<ul> <li>Adopting this analytical practice has the benefit of retaining the boundedness that</li></ul>information transparency and disclosure transparency denote, while still pointing towards thebroader historical and social underpinnings of transparent social relations. Such an approachalso performs an integrative function in a discipline often characterized as fractured. At thevery least, it would give our empirical treatments of transparency greater sophistication andfacilitate dialogue between different theoretical frameworks towards some of the mostimportant and most pressing political issues in the field.
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