Many people were shocked at the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Then Congress passed a multi-billion dollar recovery program, heads rolled at FEMA, and the network news anchors left New Orleans. Now two years later, the news crews are back, trailing President Bush on his tour of the still moribund city, and newspapers around the world are noting that New Orleans residents are marking the anniversary with a mix of anger and sadness. The city is still largely in shambles. Where, people ask, did the money go?
Some of the money certainly lined the pockets of the scam artists who descend on any tragedy. Some of the aid was probably delayed by political infighting. And there is still plenty of reason to question the government's continuing incompetence.
But the underlying reason may have more to do with a seismic shift in government's leverage on complex problems.
In a seminal 1996 article in Foreign Affairs, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, posited that the new world order proclaimed after the fall of the Soviet Union would have a very different character than generally thought. She warned it would not be "a world in which international institutions, led by the United Nations, guaranteed international peace and security with the active support of the world's major powers." The centralized rule-making authority such an arrangement would require was clearly beyond reach.
On the other hand, the revolution in information technology was causing power to shift within every human institution -- from hierarchies to networks, from centralized compulsion to voluntary association. Why would government be immune? The result would not be world government, but global governance -- cooperative problem-solving by a changing cast of characters. "The result is a world order," she wrote, "in which global governance networks link Microsoft, the Roman Catholic Church, and Amnesty International to the European Union, the United Nations, and Catalonia."
Slaughter expanded on these ideas in her 2004 book, A New World Order (Princeton University Press), suggesting that the most effective public-sector initiatives, are those that take place quietly through networks of professionals working on common problems. And in her new book, The Idea That Is America (Perseus, 2007), she argues that if governments can use networks to become more responsive, collaborative, and flexible, they will more closely embody the ideas and principles that fostered modern democracy in the first place.
If government power is shifting on the international stage, maybe something very similar is happening at the local level. Maybe the real problem in the government's response to Katrina is that it leaned too heavily on the usual suspects -- the Army Corps of Engineers, government loan officers, and emergency management officials -- rather than on an imaginative alliance of private industry, non-profits and local citizens.
Are there lessons here for our international public diplomacy?