Politics Among Networks

The Struggle for Power and Peace in Technology

On the 32nd floor of a New York based law firm at a startup networking event, I had a surreal experience while listening to a VC, a founder and an advisor opine on fintechs. Flashback to five years ago. I sat in a windowless room with ten other International Affairs graduate students in our recitation section, discussing assigned readings from the previous week. One of our readings was from “Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace” by Hans Morgenthau. We discussed the three fundamental schools of international relations, which you might glibly sum up like this:

  1. Realism - “power and the pursuit of power is all there is”

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  2. Liberalism - “we live in a global society of rules and norms”

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  3. Constructivism - “the world is governed by social interaction; a process of ideological competition that resolve into shared narratives”

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Being a policy school with close ties to the U.N., Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), and many public policy/international affairs schools tend towards liberalism. After all, if you are studying the international rules based order with the hope that you will one day become part of its support structure, it is hard to image any other approach.

My experience at Columbia Business School, where I was pursuing an MBA, contrasted sharply with SIPA. It is probably no surprise to you, that people in business school tended towards realism, which is not to say they were bad or power hungry. It just seemed almost matter-of-fact that those in business school have a visceral sense of power dynamics and felt rather amoral about their personal role in those dynamics.

At this point you might be asking, “whither the constructivists?” Well, me too. I cross-registered into departments such as computer science, Russian studies, statistics and political science. The closest thing I’ve found, is the Columbia Startup Lab. Early stage startups live and die by the stories they spin, so it’s no surprise that they are keenly attuned to the importance of narrative.

So which of these camps is correct? All of them, and none of them. As predictive tools, they are each pretty useless. As ways of understanding a person, institution or situation, they can be applied the same way a method actor might inhabit a role. Diplomats sometimes talk about the difficulty understanding the constraints of their negotiating partners.

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Snap back to the Midtown conference room and the three panelists. My instinct was to classify the speakers by their roles (VC:realism :: Founder:constructivism :: Advisor:liberalism), but this first cut is too simplistic. When the founder shared an anecdote about using a bombastic piece of information as a marketing tool, I realized they understood the power dynamics of realism. When the advisor shared the sad story of how poor password management lost a client $10M of investors’ money, I heard a constructivist narrative. The VC shared their experience developing expertise in setting up the rules and infrastructure that an investment firm needs, which led them to become a sort of incubator for other VC’s. His view of the chaotic land of venture investing reflected a certain kind of liberal “rules based order.”

As the discussion drew to a close, the audience clapped and either rushed to the front to corner the panelists (realism), dutifully complied with the host’s request to finish the wine in the back of the room (liberalism) or mingled about introducing themselves to each other and sharing their stories (constructivism). I tried to do a bit of each and hold back the instinct to categorize anybody too quickly. Ultimately, each of us probably leans towards one of these world views, and we likely work in an industry that aligns with our personal world view, but doubling down on one’s own perspective can be dangerous. Next time you’re having a hard time understanding or getting through to somebody, try on a new perspective. You might be surprised by what you find.

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to David Teten, Greg Farrington and Justin Zhen for participating in the panel. Thank you to Ignatius Chithelen of Silley Circuits and Scott Kaufman of Sullivan and Cromwell for hosting. Thank you to all my SIPA professors and peers for helping me see the world in many different ways.