What China Portends

One of the interesting points raised in this forum concerns the rise of new great powers, in particular China. Everyone recognizes that China is increasingly significant in global political terms; the harder task is predicting what kind of power China will be and what kind of world China will seek to create as it resumes its traditional place at the center of world affairs.

Dan queried whether China’s rise will empower or disempower the NGO community that is now so active and engaged in global governance. Given China’s ongoing suppression of dissenting voices at home, and well-known intolerance for dissenting views abroad (e.g., regarding Taiwan or Tibet), it is hard to see how a more powerful China would not seek a retrenchment of NGO power and access in many global forums. Alternatively, however, we might see the proliferation of new international organizations (with quite different rules and procedures) that aim to supplant existing institutions. Indeed, we already see such steps with the emergence of groups like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which rejected a U.S. bid for observer status. A third possibility is simply a lot less governance of the institutionalized sort prevalent since 1945. One thing we know about Asia today is that it is one of the least institutionalized regions on earth.

Any one of these paths — changing rules and norms in existing institutions, creating new global institutions that gradually displace the old, or moving toward fewer global governance structures altogether — seem likely to lead to less, not more, NGO influence. Except that institutional rules and norms are often sticky, and so it may prove difficult in practice for China to push global civil society to the margins, let alone to disband or discard existing international organizations. That is one reason the newfound activities and influence of NGOs at the international level — sometimes derided by critics as “two bites at the apple,” since many of these groups presumably had a first bite at the domestic policy level — may prove significant for the West in coming years.

The two bites metaphor is a favorite of some conservative critics of global civil society in the U.S., who see global governance as an end-run around domestic opposition to liberal policies. (This view is of course in some tension with Dan’s main argument). But the two bites metaphor might be better applied in the context of Western values and political preferences. To many in the developing world, the international NGO community largely reflects the values of the West, and the inclusion of NGOs in international policy processes simply strengthens the hands of the U.S. and Europe. In short, it gives the West two bites at the apple.

Resistance to NGO “amicus briefs” at the World Trade Organization Appellate Body is a good example. Some WTO member states are hostile to the notion of amicus briefs because they believe that the amici are likely to support increased deference to international environmental and labor standards, standards which, in practice, can be used as cover for economic protectionism, and at a minimum can serve to erase some of the comparative advantage — perhaps unfairly acquired — of the poorer nations. There is some truth to this fear, and hence locking in NGO access and participation now may prove beneficial for the traditional great powers as they inevitably face intensified competition with rising powers such as China. This is not to say that China cannot sidestep NGO influence. As I argued in my initial essay, states have long proven adept at this. But over time such side-stepping tends to get harder and the costs rise, and the result may well be that China acquiesces more than it would like.

These are speculations. Yet it does not seem overly fanciful to posit that global civil society will, in the future, function to give the West’s eroding political power some extra oomph. The interesting question is whether China, and other Asian powers, will be able to successfully govern the world via a new set of institutions with radically different rules and practices, or perhaps govern without any real institutions at all. A good answer to that question would of course go a long way toward addressing a whole host of important issues, issues that go well beyond the topic of the future of state power in a globalized world.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.”

  • 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.”

  • “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.”