THE BLOG
12/27/2011 01:21 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2012

Dirty Networks and How They Fall Apart

A couple of weeks ago I drafted a dictator's dead pool for 2012. The list identified 13 authoritarian rulers over 70 years old, and with the death of Kim Jong Il there are 12 guys left on the list. The reason I made such a list was to help frame the most important way international relations may change in the near future -- the collapse of the "dirty network" between authoritarian governments.

Scholars and analysts alike love talking about networks. New software applications make the analysis of complex social networks easy, and network metaphors now abound in how we talk about national security and international relations. But network concepts have not always been sensibly used in foreign policy analysis.

For example, researchers at UCSB have documented how the Bush White House misunderstood social networks. The network concept itself was misappropriated and taken to mean a narrowly defined, onerous, and insidious organizational form preferred by radical Islamists. Bush's security team treated networks as information systems for socially and historically bounded, like-minded groups that were hierarchically organized, top-down command and control structures with global reach.

In contrast, research on network dynamics has demonstrated their multifaceted nature as communication systems. The network form of organization is held together by many kinds of relations that allow for dynamic, emergent, adaptive, and flexible associations. Networks are made up of nodes and ties, and are often composed of smaller networks. Perhaps the best evidence of this systematic misuse is that in the recent years, the security establishment has stopped referring to one al Qaeda network, and developed relevant names for the different components of what is a very loosely coupled network.

Still, there are several ways network theory would help explain how and why dirty networks can fall apart. One of the least understood aspects of network interaction concerns negative social capital and links between dictators -- what I would call "dirty networks."

First, some simple math reveals that the loss of a few dictators -- who are nodes in these dirty networks -- can have catastrophic consequences for the network as a whole. Hypothetically, if all 13 dictators in my original list had good relations with each other, that would mean a total of 78 ties over which drugs, money, weapons, slaves, and propaganda would flow. With Kim Jong Il's death, there are only 66 possible ties. If only three more 70-year-old dictators die off next year, the total number of ties in the network would be half of what it is this year.

Obviously every dictator is not connected to every other dictator, and some ties are stronger than others. Only 12 of the world's dictators are over 70, and authoritarian rulers often make provisions for their replacement or are quickly replaced by other thugs. But there is an important relationship between the number of dictators and the robustness of a dirty network. Only a few nodes need to disappear to seriously hobble a dirty network.

Second, dirty networks don't serve their members the way more positive networks do. Regular people use social networks to borrow money or find job opportunities. We use our social networks to collect and spend social capital. But social capital -- sometimes defined as norms of trust and reciprocity -- is not always beneficial. There are forms of negative social capital, which dictators build when they form diplomatic bonds with other dictators rather than diplomatic bridges to democracies. The norms of trust that might build between authoritarian rulers are as precarious as each leader's domestic hold on power, and norms of reciprocity among thugs does not have much value outside the dirty network.

Dirty networks tend to be about enforcing norms of deviance, and that means excessive monitoring and coercion. Negative social capital, precisely because it often involves the trade in drugs, money, weapons, slaves, and propaganda, may not be valued outside of dirty networks. Like the codes of criminals, the codes of diplomacy among dictators are difficult for outsiders to understand, not internally consistent, and serve mostly to mark a dictator as outside Western influence and the UN system.

All this leads to the possibility that social theory might offer some insight into how to deliberately constrain or even shut down dirty networks, but this post is just about defining dirty networks and how they can collapse. We tend to spend more time talking about worst case scenarios in international politics than imagining opportunities. Dirty networks are inherently limited because small losses in membership can have a big impact on relationships, and the negative social capital in a dirty network doesn't accumulate and can't be spent outside the network.

This doesn't mean that dirty networks are always doomed to fail. But this was a year of heavy losses -- the dirty network of international despots doesn't look healthy.