Opportunities and Risks in the Public Institutions-Civil Society Relation

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for wpfdc.org

The relations between public institutions and civil society organizations have grown resolutely in the last decades. On the overall, however, such interaction has not been sufficiently considered in public discussion, and its outcomes have often been underestimated if not altogether overlooked, causing a dangerous misperception.

Seeking different goals, political representatives and activists increasingly manage to find a compromise which is unstable and yet with significant outcomes. This intensified relation is yielding consequences on the foundations of the political system in which we have lived in the last century. A profound transformation of the very nature of the (especially international) political system is, arguably, ongoing. These radical transformations may bring about socio-political benefits, but may also entail serious political costs. An examination is therefore very much due.

A first consideration should be done on the current configuration of the international system which is today much more prone than in the past to facilitate the active participation of civil society organizations. The current global governance arrangements allow for the participation of a number of different political actors (the so-called relevant stakeholders) and thanks to this opening creates a significant room for the presence of civil society. In addition, the transformation of authority from its traditional understanding in terms of institutional delegation is nowadays increasingly interpreted de facto or de jure as based also on the expertise, principles or simply capacity of the relevant actors. In the same vein, compliance is more and more gained through soft modes such as best practices and recommendations rather than through formal sanctions: international public policy is very often a matter of improving actors’ ability and willingness to comply with international standards through capacity building, dissemination of best practices, and normative persuasion rather than imposing coercively their abiding to the rules. All of this constitutes a particularly favorable context for civil society organizations that are in an excellent position to contribute to the international decision making and policy implementation process through their soft skills.

It is in this context that, at least from the eighties onwards, public institutions, be they national or international, have reconsidered their engagement with civil society. This engagement has been developed with different degrees, depending on the specific political objectives underpinning the interaction. At times, public institutions in need of external legitimization have considered civil society organizations as the best (and cheaper) legitimacy-enhancer available in global politics. Some time, public institutions needed material or know-how support which they were not able to get anywhere else, especially as a consequence of the stark privatization of their functions of the 1980s and 1990s. Other times, however, public institutions also genuinely endorsed the idea that civil society should be supported in itself (rather than instrumentally) because it constitutes the realm within which the most genuine political resources can flourish: in a way, a vital mechanism for the sustainability of the political system in its entirety.

For all of these (contrasting) reasons, a number of international and national organizations have supported the inclusion of civil society actors within international decision-making. Primary among them is the UN that has actively promoted cooperation with civil society in global governance, originally within the ECOSOC (art. 71 UN Charter) and later especially in relation to the world summits which provided a forum for global civil encounters to occur. The European Union has followed a similar (if not more advanced) approach by integrating different types of civil society organizations within its governance mechanisms. The USA has by now a long standing attention towards the engagement with nongovernmental actors that are deemed to be a central component of the American soft power. More recently, many other international and national institutions have also opened up channels of communication and interaction with civil society organizations.

On the other side of the camp, civil society organizations themselves have actively sought an engagement with public institutions for a number of different reasons. They needed external recognition and crucial funding. But they also needed political support for their mobilization, especially in those context in which the possibility for their action was severely constrained by national governments. Typical of such situation is the so-called “boomerang effect” according to which activists try to put pressure on their national institutions not directly (because of the constrains posed against their contentious politics) but indirectly, through the external support of foreign civil society organizations, governments, and international institutions which may provide different types of help from arms to money, from political statements to economic pressure. In addition, civil society organization also pursued the backing of international institutions for the simple reasons that they have been socialized, in a way grown up (but at times they were just created exogenously) to do that.

Only when the interests of public institutions and those of civil society organizations overlap a productive engagement may take place. Over the years this overlap has become more and more frequent. From peacebuilding missions to development programs or policy monitoring, the role offered to civil society organizations by public institutions but also the role seized by civil society organizations autonomously has been significant. This translation of public functions from public institutions to civil society has enjoyed a wide consensus in the international community. All that glisters is not gold, though. There are dimensions of the public institutions-civil society relation that remain highly controversial. One of them is public diplomacy.

By public diplomacy we understand, minimally, the action carried out by a government in order to engage with the citizens of another country. This way public diplomacy correspond to the notion of track II diplomacy. Recently there has been an intensification of actions of public diplomacy especially by the US and the EU. Moving beyond the traditional government-to-government diplomacy, with public diplomacy (i.e. government-to-foreign-peoples diplomacy) governments try to influence the citizens of another country in order to promote their foreign policy objectives. Among the different channels that can be used for the purpose of public diplomacy, two are particularly salient: direct action through internet and indirect action through civil society organizations. Through internet, especially the new media, governments are able to open a channel of direct communication with foreigners in order to both receive inputs for improving their policies abroad and deliver soft outputs that targets foreign publics. Through civil society organization, be they local organizations or international nongovernmental organizations with national branches, the government is able to deliver services on the ground but also to promote changes in society that are in line with its vision and interests.

What remains highly controversial in this is the fact that public diplomacy initiatives almost by definition bypass the local government and enter into conflict with national sovereignty. Public diplomacy in fact often entails a scarce consideration of the receiving government that is at times perceived as ineffective, corrupt, or just an enemy. In order to deliver on the ground and promote a political project, what is increasingly practiced (but also increasingly recognized as politically viable) by mainly western governments is a type of local engagement that goes beyond the classical westphalian, intergovernmental diplomacy. This move is welcome by a liberal perspective insofar as societies are conceptualized as open and with porous boundaries that allow for continuous transnational interchange between political actors belonging to different political communities. This is considered positive in itself insofar as it maximizes the opportunity for citizens to exercise their free choice among a (potentially) unlimited set of alternatives that are uncoercively presented. However, when a more realpolitik position is adopted, the practice of public diplomacy and soft diffusion of political values immediately turns into a threat. Public diplomacy is accordingly seen with great suspicion in that it is interpreted as an attempt to impose foreign influence on national affairs on which the principle of sovereignty should instead be affirmed. When this position is held, countermeasures are usually taken in the form of internet censorship and limitations on (or indeed altogether banning of) foreign civil society organizations. When such radicalization takes place, when the context becomes securitized, then the room for manoeuvre for any civil society organization becomes narrow, irrespective of the political nature of its actions.

In sum, what lessons can be learnt from these brief considerations? First of all, the significance of civil society’s role into the political system should not be underestimated. Second, the (international) system is changing towards forms of interdependence and transnational interactions that are ever more intense and difficult to tame and control. Third, significant opportunities and risks are intermingled within the public institutions-civil society relations. Public institutions have a great opportunity to receive valuable inputs from civil society organization, may collaborate with them, at time they may even manipulate them for their own goals. However public institutions can also be heavily influenced by civil society organizations for better or for worse. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to civil society organization in their relations to public institutions.