Swing States and Their Discontents

A group of countries with more fluid approaches to the international order are increasingly reshaping that order, say Tim Mauer and Robert Morgus.
By: , /
May 28, 2014

In 2011, G. John Ikenberry published his influential article, “The Future of the Liberal World Order,” in Foreign Affairs. Recently, some have pointed to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine as an indication of the demise of the existing world order. They say that norms are eroding and increasingly contested. Given this reality, we believe that what direction the international community will ultimately pursue depends upon a number of states that have not yet firmly taken a position. They are the “swing states” in the global debate concerning the future of the world order. Internet governance provides a good case study to illustrate the changing dynamics in international affairs.

In December 2012, numerous news outlets reported on the debate over Internet governance that took place at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai. It was the first time in nearly a decade that the topic attracted major international media attention. The conference ended in a diplomatic éclat with 89 states including Russia and China signing the new International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) and 55 publicly opposing them including the United States, most of the OECD members and several others such as Mongolia, India, and Peru.

A key aspect of the post-WCIT discussion has centered on the role of “swing states” in this global Internet governance debate. But what does it mean to be a swing state in Internet governance and international relations more broadly?

Richard Fontaine and Daniel M. Kliman note that the liberal order that exists today has benefited many nations and led to the longest period of great power peace in modern times. To them, the “current moment presents the United States with an opportunity to adapt and renew the global order by enlarging its base of supporters.” They suggest that the most influential swing states will have strategic locations and large and rapidly growing economies. The research on swing states in the Internet governance debate builds on previous work on global swing states in the changing international system more broadly. According to Kliman and Fontaine:

In the American political context, swing states are those whose mixed political orientation gives them a greater impact than their population or economic output might warrant. Such states promise the greatest return on investment for U.S. presidential campaigns deciding where to allocate scarce time and resources. Likewise, in U.S. foreign policy, a focus on Brazil, India, Indonesia and Turkey can deliver a large geopolitical payoff, because their approach to the international order is more fluid and open than those of China or Russia. In addition, the choices that these four countries make — about whether to take on new global responsibilities, free ride on the efforts of established powers or complicate the solving of key challenges — may, together, decisively influence the trajectory of the current international order. The concept of global swing states offers a new framework for thinking about these four powers. It describes their position in the international system; however, it does not suggest an emerging bloc.
The definition we developed for our own study builds on Kliman and Fontaine but generalizes the terminology, especially by including capacity—“who have the resources to”—as a necessary condition for a swing state to be able to wield influence. We therefore define a swing state in foreign policy as “a state whose mixed political orientation gives it a greater impact than its population or economic output might warrant and that has the resources that enable it to decisively influence the trajectory of an international process.”

Our own study moves beyond previous analyses that have focused on predefined groups of countries such as the “IBSA”, “BRICS”, or “MINTS”. We examined a large group of countries using a range of indicators to identify a subset of potential swing states with regard to the Internet governance debate.

Tipping the Scale applies a more systematic approach by using the voting record at the WCIT as a baseline and Internet governance as a case study. The research revealed some interesting patterns among certain groups of states. Namely, we identified a core group of potential swing states—a total of 30 countries—that are important to future strategic planning that focuses on engaging other actors internationally.

Our findings also confirm some of the previous assessments of which countries constitute swing states in the Internet governance debate. While it is not surprising to find IBSA (India, South Africa, and Brazil) in the top 30, other details raise some interesting questions. For example, why did Belarus vote against the ITRs? And why did Brazil vote for the international telecommunication regulations (ITRs) in spite of a vibrant civil society focused on this topic? What developments will determine if swing states change their behaviour in future Internet governance debates? And will peer pressure from other members of the OECD and FOC influence the mixed political orientation of Mexico, South Korea, Turkey, Ghana, and Tunisia? If not, what factors will be more dominant?

The Internet governance debate is embedded in a larger systemic shift in international relations transitioning from the unipolar moment of the 1990s to a more multipolar world of our current era. Brazil and India are only two of the countries that have attracted greater attention in the context of this debate over the future of the liberal world order. Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, Ghana, and Malaysia are others on this list and are perhaps worthy of further research. Their behaviour shape what norms and institutions will govern various aspects of international relations in the future, including the Internet, in addition to finance, post-2015 development goals, and international security.