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.