Transnational Activists, Democracy Deficits, and the Tragedy of the Institutional Commons

Ann Florini, Jeremy Rabkin, and Kal Raustiala have all provided interesting and challenging counterpoints to the arguments I’ve made in All Politics Is Global. One of the problems with distilling a book into a 2,500 word essay is that a few things get left out — which is why, of course, everyone reading these words should buy All Politics Is Global. My distillation was incomplete, so some responses will be easier than others.

Let me start with Florini, who offers the most direct set of critiques. She argues that I fail to account for the rise of Asia, which will certainly alter the distribution of power in new ways. A quick rejoinder – I have thought about this, though those thoughts were not in my original essay. Obviously, the rise of Asia is going to make the world more multipolar, which expands the concert of great powers, which will make “getting to yes” on coordination all the more difficult. I would also point out that the rise of Asia actually problematizes her other point, which is about the power of global civil society. Simply put, global civil society has it easy in America and Europe compared with many of the Pacific Rim economies, including Ann’s home base. A question to Florini: will global civil society become more or less empowered by the rise of China?

Pressing the influence of global civil society, Florini proposes two flaws to my argument:

The first is a common one in the international political economy literature — the assumption that there is some fixed and clear concept of a state’s self-interest in any given issue area. But there isn’t. State interests are hugely contested, with all sorts of players jockeying to influence what ends states will pursue in their negotiations with other states. That’s nothing new, but now globalization is opening up that once-internal process to a host of new players. How states define what their interests are is one of the most important ways globalization is affecting outcomes in global rule-making. So starting the study at the point where states have already defined their interests misses much of what matters — and doesn’t give any scope for understanding how and why state interests change over time in response to globalization.

The second flaw is the implicit assumption that you can explain outcomes — the behavior of the regulated entities — solely by examining the formal rules set by governments. But in the era of codes of conduct and business “self-regulation,” that assumption no longer holds water.

If transnational activists can influence national-level decision-making, and if world civic politics supplants conventional regulation, Florini would have me dead to rights. I think she might be overstating both cases, however.

The ability of transnational activists to influence great power governments is uncertain at best. In most cases, activists have been able to push governments only when they were predisposed to move in the first place. In the case of genetically modified organisms, for example, much has been made of how NGOs were able to push the European Union into stringent regulatory arrangements. This is only half of the story, however. Those same activists failed to mobilize a similar shift in preferences in the United States. This was not been due to a lack of effort. By 1999, the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, Greenpeace USA, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth had launched active campaigns against GMOs. Since 2000 there have been at least two significant food safety scares in the United States — the StarLink episode and the limited outbreak of mad cow disease. These crises gave global civil society a policy window through which they could ratchet up regulatory stringency. However, there was no significant change in the American regulatory system with regard to GM use, and only a modest shift in American public opinion.

It will be a rare event when global civil society can influence all of the great powers at the same time – and as the number of great powers increases, it will be rarer still. Furthermore, to use a point raised elliptically by Jeremy Rabkin, and less elliptically by Kal Raustiala, sustained influence will be even trickier. As the post-Doha behavior of the United States on TRIPS suggests, great powers can and will innovate in response to political challenges.

The possibility that global civil society will simply bypass the state all together is more intriguing. Certainly this has taken place in some issue areas, such as access to life-saving drugs. My question, however, is whether this will be as prevalent and as effective as Florini suggests. As Aaron Chatterji and Siona Listokin pointed out earlier this year in Democracy, corporations are learning to game the system:

Unfortunately, one feature of voluntary codes of conduct is that companies can pick and choose the standards to which they adhere, particularly if consumers are confused about the basic differences. As long as the company can claim that it is complying with some pleasantly named code of conduct, most consumers are likely to be pacified, even if the code lacks any real teeth. [1]

I agree with Florini that global civil society will attempt to provide a substitute for the great powers when it comes to important questions of global regulation. In terms of altering corporate behavior, however, my hunch is that almost all of these efforts will be a poor substitute for a great power concert.

Florini challenges me to make predictions, based on my argument, about the future of climate change negotiations. I’ve blogged a bit about this, but to repeat the point here: regardless of who is in the White House, I am pessimistic about forward progress on global warming unless China and India are willing to agree to reduce emissions. And the adjustment costs for those countries are even higher than in the United States. Until the costs of inaction are more visible, my policy prognosis will be pessimistic.

Jeremy Rabkin and Kal Raustiala ask different variants of the same question — whether globalization, by thickening global governance, constrains states more than I allow.

Rabkin frets that the state will become ensnared in an increasing web of global governance structures:

States now are so entangled in international regimes — because so entangled in international exchange — that the accepted rules of international economic conduct are now recognized to be very important.

I agree that recognizing the importance of international rules does not make states into altruists — any more than it makes lawyers into disinterested good citizens in the domestic legal system. But lawyers have (or are supposed to have) only one client at a time in a particular dispute. Governments serve lots of constituencies, which often pull in different directions. The “state” is often distracted. And a world of rules makes it easier to get distracted — or to give way to pleas to “go along” with a deal that, on many grounds, looks like a bad one for the home country.

At the international level, we are starting to let standards negotiated in international forums become guides to domestic policy even when there is no direct cross-border spillover problem.

Rabkin raises an interesting question – whether even great powers become prisoners of the global governance structures that they create. My prior work on this topic, however, suggests that the executive branch is more Janus-faced than Rabkin allows. Governments have become more adroit at using international agreements as a mechanism for bypassing domestic institutional roadblocks (consider the “regulatory taking” provision in NAFTA, for example). Because national governments can play in both the domestic and global games, they possess an advantage that other political actors lack. Global governance structures can provide national governments with some political cover, permitting them to advance preferred policies.

This exploitation of global governance structures will lead to cries of a “democratic deficit,” which segues nicely into Raustiala’s argument. He posits a worrying effect from NGO demands for greater governance:

Why is this story about NGOs and policymaking important? It is not that NGOs determine, or greatly influence, discrete international policy decisions. Rather, it is that once the international policy process starts to look like the domestic one — both because traditionally domestic topics have gone global, and because many interest groups are now chiming in and jockeying for position — expectations about the nature of the policy process shift. Critics expect more openness, more transparency, more accountability; in other words, a process more like domestic governance. The lack of these features is often decried as a “democratic deficit.”….

More concern with openness and accountability could lead to less global governance, or at least a slower rate of increase in global governance, than we see now. It is equally likely that we will simply see more of the features of domestic governance replicated at the international level.

Raustiala identifies a way in which the 21st century will be different from the 20th — both the supply and demand for global governance structures will be higher. My concern is whether the supply will meet the demand.

There’s a third possibility in Raustiala’s future, which I believe to the likely outcome. Complaints about the democratic deficit will lead to more global governance, but not all the features of domestic governance will be replicated. Established international organizations — like the WTO or ILO — are likely to feel the pressure to democratize themselves. In response, great power governments will likely create a whole new layer of “club” organizations, as a way of keeping the green room as small as possible. The United States did this in the wake of the Asian financial crisis – I see no reason why China, India or the European Union would not adopt this tactic as well.

The long term effects of this are uncertain. It is possible that the proliferation of global governance structures will lead to some healthy competition among different sources of authority. It is more likely, however, that this proliferation will lead to a tragedy of the institutional commons. As Montesquieu put it, useless laws weaken necessary laws. As more and more fora are created, each of them will find their legitimacy devalued when forum-shopping is created. My fear is that Gresham’s Law will kick in — bad institutions will drive away good ones. And without clear and common rules, governments will be more empowered — at the expense of the individual.


[1] Aaron Chatterji and Siona Listokin, “Corporate Social Irresponsibility,” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas 3 (Winter 2007): 52-63.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Persistent Power of the State in the Global Economy by Daniel W. Drezner

    Drawing from his recent book, All Politics is Global: Explaining International Regulatory Regimes, Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner explains that “for many issues that comprise the daily substance of our lives … the politics have gone global.” However, he argues, the intellectual response to this development has been out of proportion to its real extent. When great powers coordinate on regulatory standards, that may be enough to shift the rest of the globe. But, as Drezner illustrates from examples ranging from the Internet to genetically modified foods, when the costs of adjustment are too high for states with economic heft, global regulatory coordination tends not to be forthcoming. In the end, we get neither a “race to the bottom,” nor liberation from the state through jurisdictional competition. “Globalization is not irrelevant to global governance,” Drezner concludes, “but it is not transformative either.”

Response Essays

  • Globalization Is Transformative by Ann Florini

    Ann Florini, director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the National University of Singapore and senior fellow at the Brookings Institutions disagrees with Daniel Drezner’s claim that global governance remains dominated by a few great state powers. “We’re heading for a multi-polar system where very different kinds of states, at very different levels of development, will matter,” Florini argues. And, she maintains, “ ‘regulation’ is no longer done only by governments.” For example, corporations, not states, put international protection of intellectual property rights on the table, but it was small states and pressure from civil society groups that eventually determined effective policy. Florini suggests Drezner’s analysis is confused by an over-simple idea of the interests of great states. “How states define what their interests are is one of the most important ways globalization is affecting outcomes in global rule-making.”

  • While “Great States” Sleep by Jeremy A. Rabkin

    Jeremy A. Rabkin, professor of law at George Mason, writes, “one can accept almost everything [Drezner] says in his essay and still think the challenges we face now are different, in important ways, from the patterns we had become accustomed to in the past.” The collapse of communism and the discrediting of socialism has led to a world in which “states now are so entangled in international regimes – because so entangled in international exchange – that the accepted rules of international economic conduct are now recognized to be very important.” Though the U.S. can in principle block international rules contrary to its overall interests, domestic interests jump at the chance to push their narrow agendas, it is often easier to go along than to fight, and some marginal changes occur simply through neglect. But “marginal changes can add up to sizable effects in the aggregate.”

  • Globalization and Global Governance by Kal Raustiala

    “In the main [Drezner’s] argument is persuasive,” writes Kal Raustiala, director of UCLA’s Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. However, the continued preeminence of states on the world stage “is a bit more ambiguous and complex than Drezner suggests.” Raustiala argues that critics of globalization increasingly “expect more openness, more transparency, more accountability; in other words, a process more like domestic governance.” Raustiala contends that can learn something important by looking to domestic politics: powerful lobbyists and special interests did not emerge because the state was getting weaker. “The rise of interdependence and NGOs in American society didn’t signal the end of the state; it signaled the growth of the state.”

The Conversation