Is the EU Special? Are NGOs Agenda-Setters?

I have progressed in my career by adhering to a few basic maxims: be as parsimonious as possible in developing a theory, be as detailed as possible in the presentation of evidence, and don’t get into a debate on Internet governance with Milton Mueller.

I will largely adhere to the third rule here, but to respond briefly to a few points in his post. First, he raises a fair question about my obsession with state power:

[O]ne of Drezner’s two ‘great powers’ is not a state at all – it is the European Union, a form of supranational economic integration among traditional nation-states. The EU is a radical and deliberate departure from the Westphalian model.

How can I argue that states are what really count when the EU is one of my primary actors? Couldn’t other states decide to form a similar grouping?

My answer is that the EU is such a whopping supranational exception that I’m not worried about copycats emerging anytime soon. It took the EU thirty years of struggle – backed by the U.S. security umbrella and the historical weight of centuries of continental wars – to get to the position of being a supranational entity that matters. No other regional grouping even comes close to the EU’s degree of integration right now, and I don’t think any of them will come close in the decades to come, either. Raustiala believes that EU is a harbinger of eroding norms of Westphalian sovereignty. For me, the EU is a sui generis case; there are no copycats at the moment, and for the decades to come, it will remain an exception rather than a trend.

Mueller raises another big theoretical question akin to those raised by Florini. They all argue that I’m underselling the power and influence of transnational civil society at the global level. For Florini, these groups have greater agenda-setting power. For Mueller, they can exercise voice at the global level.

On agenda-setting, I concede that occasionally, NGOs can influence agendas. The question is what happens next. As the TRIPS case suggests, initial declarations infused with activist agendas can fall victim to opportunistic implementation. Because it is so difficult for activists to keep the spotlight on, there might be a global parallel to Daniel Kono’s recent argument about “optimal obfuscation” at the domestic level. Governments are getting better at making public gestures towards NGO demands and then undercutting those gestures by either shifting fora to more arcane and remote settings, or using “all deliberate speed” in implementing concrete action.

I am more skeptical than Mueller about the global “voice” power of activists because their voice imposes fewer political costs on great powers. NGOs can try to exercise political voice as a means to lobby national governments. However, governments respond in a concerted fashion when the use of political voice signals economic as well as political costs from pursuing a particular course of action. Unless global civil society is capable of highlighting the material costs from changing a global governance setting, their use of political voice does not pack the same punch as actors with large asset-specific investments in the status quo (i.e., pharmaceutical companies or agribusiness).

Here endeth the positive analysis (i.e., the way the world is). In my next post, I hope to tackle the normative questions raised by Kal Raustiala and others.

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.”