Mechanisms of International Attension: An Unscientific Listicle

In many contexts, we consider attention as an interpersonal reality — who’s watching my LinkedIn? Why won’t my classroom listen to me? Are they just not that into me? We assess the attention of others towards us, keeping track of the little ripples in our personal ponds. We count them and fret over them, using the information we collect to constantly revise our opinions, priorities, and relationships. Paying attention to attention structures our social worlds.

But the currency of attention — who’s paying how much, to whom, when — is also a component of international reality. How much is your nation spending on mine? Are our connections multilateral or bilateral? Do we have the same values, and trust each other’s information? As with individuals, nations have many ways to attend to and ignore each other — here are ten such options.

Note: These are intentionally glib. We ask forgiveness for any untoward oversimplification of international relations — if you spot it, please let us know! Ditto with plain old mistakes.

1. Treaties

Potentially the most cooperative of international relations, treaties require both nation-sides to agree to a set of specific terms. They can be bilateral (such as the historic 1978 Camp David Accords) or multilateral (such as the seemingly futuristic but 50-year-old Outer Space Treaty). They’re often connected to military action (or inaction) and tend to form a lasting bond (if they’re not entirely ignored; see treaties between the U.S. & Native Nations). Of course, there’s also a whole world of attention that goes into writing a treaty — and sometimes disagreement over pre-treaty commitments (I see you, joint cooperation statement between North Korea and U.S. that is not a treaty and has since fallen into disrepair).

As a form of attention, treaties are like polyamorous marriage contracts: foundational, detail-oriented, and exhaustive.

Who Owns The Moon? | Source: © NowThis World/YouTube

2. Trade Agreements (and Tariffs, and Sanctions, and Embargoes)

By now it’s either a cliche or a truism (or a cliched truism?) that we live in an increasingly global world. This is, of course, in part about technology. We can fly! We can video-chat around the world! We get frustrated when any of these technological magics are temporarily offline or delayed! But technology on its own isn’t enough. That technology (and all the materials and knowledge that contribute to it) need to be passed around.

Technology and everything else that goes from place to place is governed by trade agreements and their stepsiblings: tariff, sanction, and embargo. In a global economy where production in one country relies on resources from another, trade agreements have a lot of power. In theory, they’re mutually beneficial bilateral or multilateral agreements (though just ask Hawaii about The Reciprocity Treaty, a trade agreement through which it became dependent on the U.S. and eventually annexed). Their stepsiblings, on the other hand, can be unilateral. The stepsiblings can operate at different levels: trade restrictions on other nations, individuals within nations, or industries. In their flexibility, they’re a place world leaders love to focus — for instance, China vs. U.S.: Tariffs and Trade and Trump, Oh My is really the one to watch right now.

As a form of attention, trade relations are like Tinder dates: a bit capricious, the result of an attempt to manage a free market, and just a bit moralizing.

Trade wars, explained | Source: © Vox/YouTube

3. Walls and Borders

Mr. Gorbachev, we’ve seen quite a few walls in the brief history of human society. We build them up, tear them down, threaten and entice with them… we’re obsessed with staying in or keeping out. Often our walls just sit there, but sometimes their gates beg for ceremony.

As a form of attention, walls and borders are like the cold shoulder: you may not be sure why it happened, but you definitely know it’s there.

What If We build The Wall as in the Game of Thrones in Our World? | Source: © Ridddle/YouTube

4. Foreign Aid

Either the opposite of walls (supporting rather than rejecting neighbors) or their soft-power alternative (we’ll give you money, just don’t come here), foreign aid is the nominally obligation-free provision of resources to another nation. Of course, foreign aid can also be seen as a post-colonialist tool of hegemony (and, you know, has been used in that way). 

As a form of attention, foreign aid is like charity: generous, potentially condescending, and intended to be consistent with an internal ideal.

Obama on what most Americans get wrong about foreign aid | Source: © Vox/YouTube

5. Cuisine

Oh, how we love to pay attention to our neighbors’ food. From the very first spice traders to the Anthony Bourdains and Samin Nosrats who bring us into kitchens around the world — we’re way into sitting down at the table for dinner. Leaders of nations know this, and they wield it accordingly.

As a form of attention, cuisine is like sharing your innermost thoughts: what’s more central than the way you eat and conversations over meals? 

The Korean summit sparks noodle cravings in Seoul | Source: © TRT World/YouTube

6. Ideas, Intellectuals, and Prizes

An easy one, and one on which we can all (hopefully?) unambiguously agree: it’s nice that we talk to each other about what we’re learning, and we give awards to folks who work on interesting or pressing problems.

As a form of attention, ideas are like collaboration: intriguing, competitive, and hopefully full of growth potential.

How does the Nobel Peace Prize work? – Adeline Cuvelier and Toril Rokseth | Source: © TED-Ed/YouTube

7. Naming and Mapping

Here’s where things get dicey: sometimes we don’t agree on who exists and who does not, or on what we’d like to be called. It’s perhaps the first and best insult — to refuse to name — and we do it all the time in our fights among ourselves.

As a form of attention, naming is like using the right pronouns: respecting the basic right of an entity to self-identify.

Greece: Thousands protest over Macedonia name | Source: © FRANCE 24 English/YouTube

8. Sports

What is the Olympics but an opportunity to seek attention? From the opening ceremonies to the athletes themselves to the host nation’s level of preparedness… it’s two weeks of some of the most fascinating content that humans can contrive. And despite the economic and political risks of the undertaking, cities bid years in advance to host the Olympics, just to get the spotlight on their corner of the world.

As a form of attention, sports are like family reunions: deeply competitive and potentially divisive, but a way of making sure we’re all around the same table.

Why Hosting The Olympics Isn’t Worth It Anymore | Source: © Business Insider/YouTube

9. Bans

…on people, on planes, on insects, plants, animals… sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re very, very wrong, but apparently to ban is to be human. We’re still a work in progress.

As a form of attention, bans are like putting a hand in front of someone’s face as they’re walking: they see you, and they wish they didn’t.

Images of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ blocked on Chinese social media | Source: © euronews (in English)/YouTube

10. Cross-National Movements

Some of the ways nations interact are specifically a-national. Think of the Arab Spring, the #MeToo movement, pan-Africanism, and the Jewish diaspora. Think of U.S. states still adhering to the Paris Climate Agreement, or populism rising across Europe. These movements are instantiated within and across nations, making clear that the nation is not their primary unit of analysis. These are neither strictly between nations nor strictly between people; perhaps they are interhuman or intergroup, instead.

What does Pan-Africanism mean to you? | Source: © BBC News Africa/YouTube

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