Ideas Matter! Civil Society in Global Politics

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

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

From Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to Joseph Nye’s argument on soft power, the relevance of principled ideas in international affairs is by now widely ascertained. No doubt, tanks and money are still very salient, and yet the role of ideas on the good and evil is increasingly acknowledged as a significant behavioral determinant of international political actors.

Ideas matter not only because they provide a motivational driver for action, but more importantly because they shape our understanding of the world and by doing that they heavily predetermine how we in turn read and use military and economic power.

If this is the case, the key question to address in order to both understand and possibly influence international affairs is who are the actors best equipped to influence the battle of ideas beyond borders? Here the typical answer points to a plethora of different actors from religious leaders to epistemic communities, from NGOs activists to philanthropic foundations, from media to social movements. Altogether, we can briefly refer to them as transnational civil society organizations.

Civil society actors, because of their alleged independence from private and governmental interests, are usually deemed to be in the best position to promote ideas and advocate guiding principles. On the contrary, governments despite having most frequently higher resources tend to have a weakened credibility because of their misguided double standards policies. This is ultimately the reason why civil society actors are more and more object of study from the academia and object of attention from politicians.

Moreover, patterns of globalization have accentuated the diminishing exclusivity of states as actors in international affairs which embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions, generating transcontinental or inter-regional flows and networks of activity. Globalization links distant communities and de-territorializes power relations, whilst simultaneously extending their reach beyond traditional domestic borders.

While diminishing the exclusivity of states as international actors, this globalizing process has opened up spaces for new social actors. Among non-state actors, three categories can be identified: first, public-interest-oriented nongovernmental actors, second, profit-oriented corporate actors, and third, public inter-governmental organizations. Nowadays, these non-state actors play a significant part in international affairs, for they provide expertise and information (e.g., technical help provided by NGO in development program), but also by dint of the fact that they influence political discourse, agenda setting, and law-making (e.g., lobbying activities of advocacy or transnational corporations networks) as well as their part to play in the implementation of decisions (e.g., service provider organizations in humanitarian actions).

It is now widely recognized, in particular, that global or transnational civil society plays a significant role in global governance. In the last 30 years, and especially after the end of the Cold War, the presence of civil society organizations in international affairs has become increasingly relevant. They have played a role in agenda setting, international law-making and governance, transnational diplomacy (tracks II and III), and the implementation and monitoring of a number of crucial global issues ranging from trade to development and poverty reduction, from democratic governance to human rights, from peace to the environment, and from security to the information society. Civil society organizations have thus been significant international actors as advocates for policy solutions, service providers, knowledge brokers, or simply watchdogs and monitors of state and intergovernmental actions.

Central to the action of civil society in international affairs is transnational networking. Transnational networks are usually characterized by their advocacy of the promotion of normative change in politics, which they pursue through the use of transnational campaigns.

At the core of the dynamics leading to the emergence and operation of transnational activism resides the perception of the possibility of change in one specific global issue area. This possibility might be due either to the ‘discovery’ of a new issue as significant, or to the re-interpretation of a long-standing issue in a different way.

Ultimately a key component of transnational activism in global governance lies exactly in its stubborn attempt to influence the normative battle on the right and legitimate interpretation of key global issues.

In this perspective, civil society organizations should be seen not only as traditionally problem solvers (providing solutions which governments are less suited to delivering), but also as ‘problem generators’ (imposing new problematic issues on the international agenda). While the perception of an unjust situation necessarily constitutes a precondition for action, it is only when the actor recognizes the possibility of having a positive impact on such a situation that mobilization may start. Two elements are necessary for such mobilization: conceptualization and political commitment.

Transnational mobilization on global issues should be interpreted as the result of several steps.

A first, crucial challenge for any transnational network is the ability to present the issue at stake in such a way that it is perceived as problematic, urgent and yet soluble. Each issue of contention should be clearly and singly identified: protest on broad or fuzzy issues tend to be less effective. Any issue at stake should be presented to the public as problematic and therefore in need of action. It should be seen as urgent, i.e. no postponement should be accepted. And finally, it should also be assessed as feasible, as a problem that can be solved for otherwise no action would be initiated. The first step in cross-border mobilizations is therefore the production of knowledge and the creation of frames through which the correct interpretation of the issue at stake is proposed.

A second step consists of the external dissemination and strategic use of such knowledge. This is the crucial stage for it is here that information acquires a fully public dimension, thus a political significance. Global public opinion needs to be attracted and its imagination captured for framing the terms of the conflict in such a way that the issue at stake becomes associated to a general interest which requires a public engagement. Information politics is at work here. Often, when networks become active players in the ‘epistemic communities’ of experts of global issues, they tend to be perceived by public opinion as credible sources of information and increase their influence on policy-making. It is in this phase that civil society organizations need to play well within the windows of opportunities that the system provides in order to be as effective as possible to reach the right target audience, be it politicians, opinion leaders, or citizens.

A third step is, however, necessary in order to promote change. This consists in enacting the process of acquisition of legitimate representation of the general interests at stake. Contrasting the situation of international affairs in which states monopolize power and social actors are structurally excluded, the task consists here in the appropriation of a recognized role in the public sphere, as rightful advocates of general interests. To the question “in the name of whom do you speak?”, transnational networks need to offer a response in terms of reclaiming for themselves the representation of a more general interest than the one relevant for economic and political decision makers.

Once transnational networks succeed, through the process here summarized, in shaping a challenge associated to a particular global issues, the political opportunity for mobilizing and network building arises. Once a norm has emerged, it may be embedded into institutions and travel among institutions in a dynamics that is by now well known.

The competitive nature of the politics of norm change is at time underestimated or simply overlooked by civil society studies. As a matter of fact, however, the dynamics generating new norms is inherently contentious. Any time a new reading is advanced by civil society organizations, a different, most often opposite interpretation is vigorously promoted by antagonist socio-economic actors. The political dynamics within which civil society organizations play at the international level, especially for what concerns the normative struggle for new norms, is highly competitive.

A typical phenomenon of any transnational process occurring at the international level is precisely the sense of instability generated by the emergence of un-institutionalised actors and new legitimacy claims (previously unheard) in the public domain. These actors try to upgrade their missing political and institutional power in order to align it to their existing social and economic power. Those excluded actors claim inclusion into the political system through deploying different strategies from mild lobbying to harsh protest.

Within this context of new political agency, an unprecedented global public domain consolidates in which old, state-centred visions of international affairs mix with new non-state-centred visions of global politics, producing a complex map of ideological positions. This has been possible through the partial replacement of the Westphalian international system, in which authority and legitimacy was circumscribed to territorially bounded jurisdictions interacting exclusively at the intergovernmental level.

The global public domain remains a central place where new dimensions and new applications of global legitimacy are developed and advanced in contrast to current interpretations. This does not necessarily entail reformist or indeed revolutionary reading of legitimate global politics that influence concrete political action, but the mere chance of starting a dynamic of norms change in international politics makes this global public arena and its ideal content extremely important for current global politics. It is to this global public discourse and to its components that we need to look in order to understand and shape the future, long-term transformation of global politics. It is in this arena that the World Public Forum "Dialogue of Civilizations" plays an important role.