Tuesday, May 22, 2007

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Avast, ye scurvy bilge rats!! Them doubloons be mine!!!

One of the best feelings a scholar can have is when another scholar applies your model to a new issue area and finds out that it works pretty well. Over at Opinio Juris, Peter Spiro looks at the global governance of buried treasure. He discovers that the argument I made in All Politics Is Global works pretty well at explaining the status quo. He also uses the word "doubloons" -- a term that should be used far more often in modern discourse.

Spiro, however, is not completely on board with my argument:

[This] is not to say that I think Dreznerís update of a great-powers methodology works across the board. Drezner takes globalization seriously, which is more than you can say about other rat-choice oriented state-based theorists. He also understands that any useful model today has to take account of non-states actors. But he ultimately concludes that although globalization "has led to the emergence of new issues to be analyzed by IR scholars, it does not imply that new paradigms are need to explain these issues." Drezner minimizes NGOs as lacking the material resources to compel state action, which relegates them mostly to the role of delegatees and cheerleaders of state-driven regimes. In Dreznerís view, great-power agreement is both necessary and sufficient to the establishment of international regulatory regimes.

I donít think that works in all cases, and even less so into the future. In the context of international labor standards, for example, Drezner dismisses codes of conduct with an unsourced paragraph. He does take on the ďsemi-deviantĒ (from his theory) case of TRIPS and public health (and the Doha Declaration), highlighting that AIDS is now processed through a security lens and as a threat to great power interests traditionally defined. But that seems to accept great-power framing at face value, and here again he ignores the civil society-corporate dynamic outside of an intergovernmental tent (or in ones more friendly than the WTO, like the World Health Organzation). The book also fails to confront the trendlines. It concedes that NGOs are more powerful than they used to be; couldnít we expect them to become more so, and if not, why not? All that said, the book is clearly an important addition to the IR [international relations] literature, and one that should be of interest to IL [international law] scholars.

Now I could respond to this in the time-honored tradition that IR scholars deal with IL scholars -- namely, dragging them into a small, dark corner and beating them up, to symbolically demonstrate how coercion trumps the law. But that would be wrong. So let's engage Spiro's argument on its merits.

On the NGO question, Spiro posits a model where global civil society continues to amass power and influence over states, because they have done so in the past. Why don't I deal with this possibility? Three reasons:

1) It's a non-falsifiable assertion. Sure it's possible that global civil society will become ever more powerful -- just ask NGO activists. For some reasons discussed below, however, it's far from a sure thing. Furthermore, one of the frustrating parts of the NGO line of argumentation is that sham standard promulgated today (i.e., core labor standards) will acquire greater power and meaning over time. The thing is -- and I say this in All Politics Is Global -- it's impossible to disprove this assertion. The only way to test the NGO argument is to see what happens in the future -- which means I can't say anything definitive about it in the present.

2) With (1) in mind, I don't think the rise of NGOs is an inexorable process, because that version of history treats states as passive, non-strategic actors. If there's anything I learned in my research for All Politics Is Global, it is that governments are never more agile than when they face a challenge to their authority. My expectation is that the contest for authority between states and global civil society will more closely resemble the offense-defense balance in military technology. That is to say, whenever the offense acquires a distinct tactical advantage, there are powerful incentives to invest in innovations in defensive weaponry -- and vice versa. Global civil society is more powerful today than in the past (unless one counts the Catholic Church as part of civil society) because in the past they were powerless. From here on in, however, I expect that states will learn to adapt over time.

3) Finally, whatever influence global civil society has amassed has come in an era when the two largest economic powers are the US and EU. Those two entities are relatively open societies. As some have recently observed, however, there are rising powers on the horizon, and it is far from clear whether they will be so friendly towards non-state actors. This doesn't mean that global civil society will be shut out, but it does mean that their task will be harder whenever China is in the green room.

The great thing about this debate is that as the future unfolds, we will be able to figure out whether Spiro or I are correct. Let the best man win the doubloons!

posted by Dan on 05.22.07 at 08:39 AM


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