In the analysis of international relations, agency is back in. That is to say, instead of simply viewing the underlying structural context as dominant, space has opened up for the role of individuals.
Yet this turn in the level of analysis leaves out questions of what sort of individual actors should be focused on. At first glance it is tempting to say that it is the activity of "big" men and women that matter to the point of exclusivity. After all, in the 21st century world of global governance that privileges so many summits, leaders come to the fore! Certainly the serious media is obsessed with the actions (and inactions) of key figures: President Obama and others at the G8 and the G20; Chancellor Merkel and others at the Euro Summits; Presidents Hu, Putin, Zuma and Dilma Rousseff and Prime Minister Singh at the BRICS summit.
Such a focus on big individuals is reinforced by the motivation — and the physical capability — for leaders to be everywhere and do everything in the diplomatic realm. On the one hand, they are supposed to be the main sales agents for their country: leading trade/investment missions. On the other hand, they are supposed to deliver major events for their country: winning the right to host Olympics, FIFA World Cups as well as economic summits.
Paradoxically, however, it is the "little" people – bureaucrats and state operatives in various guises that often supply the most innovative (and controversial) forms of agency in terms of international relations. Significantly, if the serous media is obsessed by leaders, other cultural forms showcase this bottom up role: a fact driven home by my intellectual preparation to see Ben Affleck’s new movie Argo – a film about the escape from Tehran of six US diplomats in a covert operation led (at least in the movie) by a "not by the book" CIA operative Tony Mendez.
To be sure such a focus on a maverick operative of this type is standard fare in cinema: on a trajectory from the bureaucratically insubordinate type such as Harry Palmer (IPCRESS File) to the robustly anti-elite behind the lines operatives such as Rambo. Even one of the rare movies about economic summitry — The Girl in the Café — has as its central figure a senior state official who is transformed into a maverick policy activist on issues of global debt and poverty.
Still, along with an in interest in focusing on the extended range of individual agency as portrayed in films such as Argo, I have also become fascinated with other cases where the agency of a key (if often fairly junior) official appears to have made a big difference in a decisive global event. Indeed, as noticed by some journalists, it is significant that a previous episode in the US-Iranian relationship is of a nature that cries out for another Hollywood movie — albeit with a script that shifts from one that highlights American resilience under adversity to one where the US is a dramatic change agent.
The star of this different type of movie (akin to Tony Mendez) would be Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt Jr. the CIA’s operative who was the key front line figure in Operation Ajax, which organized the coup against Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s prime minister to restored Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī the Shah of Iran to the "Peacock" Throne in August 1953. Accounts of the Operation are every bit as exciting — and far more decisive — than Argo. Moreover as recounted by the book All the Shah's Men, Roosevelt (Teddy Roosevelt's grandson) played the role of maverick to the hilt: refusing to leave Iran when a first coup attempt failed and instead moving ahead with a second successful attempt.
Agency therefore comes in many forms and under diverse circumstances. However, in movies the bias is firmly towards a portrayal that accentuates the outside/insider side of agency: individuals who though part of a bureaucracy or the state machinery can bend if not break the rules in delivering results.
Coming back to the paradox of "little" people doing big things in international relations, the disconnected component of course is that in the Hollywood version such innovative agency is usually only embedded in US actors and actions. The true test of Argo’s credibility then — against the background of an escape from Tehran being widely referred to as "the Canadian Caper" — is whether the film can go beyond this national stereotype.