The UN and Japan in an Age of Globalization:
The Role of Transnational NGOs in Global Affairs

Stephen Toulmin

Jump to Sections: [ 1 ] [ 2 ] [ 3 ] [ 4 ] [ 5 ] [ 6 ] [ 7 ] [ 8 ]

3. Reasons for the Infiuence of NGOS

So much by way of background about the general nature and standing of NGOs. Now, let me turn to the central issue for this essay, about the significance of the large, financially independent transnational NGOS in global affairs. The fact that NGOS have been increasingly influential over the last twenty years is clear to observers of current events. The decline of the USSR's political authority on the international stage was accelerated by its hostile reactions to the award of Nobel Prizes to Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andre Sakharov, while Amnesty's campaign for Soviet prisoners of conscience only made matters worse: Mikhail Gorbachev therefore felt bound to invite representatives from Amnesty International to visit Moscow, to discuss reforms that might help restore Russia's standing in the larger world.

More recently, humanitarian, environmental and human rights organizations have worked with the international Press and Television to draw their viewers and readers' attention to ecological catastrophes and oppressive regimes, massacres and famines, from Alaska to Rwanda, Somalia to Guatemala, Bosnia to Kashmir. In response, the World Powers, large or small, have felt bound to acknowledge disasters they might have preferred to ignore, and have reacted by despatching mobile hospitals and food supplies, election observers and armistice monitors. Suffering that is visible on the TV screens of richer countries touches the conscience of electors, and so of politicians aiso: what the Eye cannot help seeing, the Heart cannot help grieving about.

The fact that NGOS are influential is undeniable: what is less obvious is why their influence has increased at this time. The alliance of NGOS and the media is a potent instrument of change; but about the deeper significance of NGOs something more has to be explained. In particular, what we face at this time is not just a growth of influence for NGOs, but a shift in the balance of influence as between NGOS and Nation State Governments. The significance of NGOS becomes more apparent, as people find more and more suspect the claim of NSGS to "sovereignty". In a dozen ways, we are at a turning point in the history of State Power and Sovereignty: the spotlight is leaving the governments of totally Sovereign Nation States, and other actors are becoming visible on the global stage. In the long run - I shall argue - the Nation State Governments can no more monopolize the political conduct of global affairs than OPEC can monopolize the World market for petroleum.

The heart of the matter is this. The birth of Nation States from the 1650s on, after the Peace of Westphalia, was - in practical terms - the work of Louis XIV of France. After a brush with dissident nobles in the Fronde, he used all available force to create the unitary State that France has since remained, both as a monarchy and as a republic. In theoretical terms, European ideas about the power of the Nation State are dominated by the model in Hobbes' Leviathan. On this view, the prime function of the Sovereign is to provide security to his Subjects or Citizens: for this he is given a monopoly in the legitimate exercise of Violence in the State. The authority of the Sovereign is displayed in the use of State Violence, to preserve domestic order by the power of the Police, and to protect the State's external integrity by the power of its Armed Forces. Against the Sovereign's legitimate Force, Hobbes saw no scope for any legitimate resistance. The execution of King Charles I in 1649 marked for him the final breakdown of the State: even the secession of the Dutch Republic from the Spanish Crown in the 1570s or '80s had, in his eyes, been illegitimate.

In the three and a half centuries since the Peace of Westphalia, the political Powers of the World have constructed a diplomatic system in which every Sovereign is free to ensure the domestic order and external integrity of the State. By both formal and tacit agreement among these Sovereign authorities, all States respect each other's monopoly in the domestic use of Violence, and they will resist each other's external use of Force, only if their own compelling interests are threatened. In this sense, the Westphalian Order created a Cartel of Nation States.

The United Nations Treaties did nothing to weaken the power of this Cartlel: rather, they created a new instrument for existing Sovereign States to use in their own interest. Under the UN Treaties (as in other Treaties) States took on voluntarily accepted limits on their Sovereignty: in principle, at least, they retained their option to leave the UN, and resume unqualified authority to defend their State interests as they thought best. Since the end of the Cold War, the authority of States to protect Sovereign interests has been qualified in ways that are now familiar. A new rhetoric constructed around such novel ideas as human rights law and the international community - a community with needs and interests of its own - is winning currency in debates at the UN, as well as in other forums: the force of this rhetoric deserves careful scrutiny.

The crucial transition was the case of lraq vs. Kuwait. Initially, the attempt by one member of the UN and OPEC Cartels to seize the assets of a fellow member was found unacceptable for purely Westphalian reasons. But the penalties to which the Sovereign State of lraq was exposed, and the lengths to which the alliance opposed it went in its interpretation of the Security Council's resolutions, give evidence of a change of view. The use of those resolutions, for instance, to warrant intervention between the Baghdad authorities and their Subjects in Kurdistan to the North, and in the Delta to the South, imposed restraints on the exercise of lraqi Sovereignty that had very little to do with its seizure of Kuwait.

On the contrary, these actions rested on pre-Westphalian ideas of State Sovereignty. In short, the actions of Saddam Hussein against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs were condemned as those of an "unjust" Sovereign: Iraqi Kurds were entitled to appeal for support and understanding in resisting those actions, as much as the Netherlanders of the 1570s were entitled to support and understanding against religious persecution by Philip of Spain's Army. On the Hobbist view, the only "injustice" a Sovereign can do to his Subjects is to fail to preserve the State's domestic peace and its external integrity: acting on this view, most Member States of the UN are quick to object to any "external" interference in their "internal" affairs - e.g., the People's Republic of China, challenged about Tibet. Yet this is just the argument the Security Council did not let Saddam use in his own cause.

On a pre-Westphalian view, however, a Sovereign's obligations went beyond those of preserving domestic peace and external security. Legitimate Violence may be a way to create and maintain an effective State; but, if a Sovereign were to retain legitimacy, his actions must meet other conditions. In general, it was not acceptable for Subjects to rebel, but the way in which Philip II persecuted the Netherlands Protestants gave them a right to "abjure" their earlier loyalty to the Spanish Crown. Loyalty was a two-way affair. The Sovereign was expected to act in his Subjects' interests, not just vice versa: if he failed in these requirements, he invited difficulties of other kinds. The murder of Thomas Becket (say) made King Henry II of England an object of contempt to people of conscience all the way across Europe: as a result, he was not forced but shamed into submitting to the authority of the Church.

Claims about a Sovereign's "injustice" carried conviction for Aquinas but, until 1991, they had little weight in the UN. At the high point of the Modern Nation State, matters of Power were interpreted as questions about a State's ability to bring Military Force into action. (Stung by the Catholic Church's criticisms, Stalin reputedly asked, "How many divisions has the Pope?") In the early 20th centLlfy, the central issue for British diplomacy was the numbers of battleships available for service in the German, French and British navies, respectively: during the Cold War, the rival numbers of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in the forces of the US and the USSR played a similar part in the strategic debate.

Since 1989, the capacity for Military Force is longer the only measure of political influence. Even now, Shame may only a limited ability to (say) change the minds of the Burmese junta. But limited power is not zero power: in the balance of influence, one strength of the NGOS is the role of Shame, as a counterweight to Force. So one reason why major transnational NGOS can win and retain public respect just is their manifest abstention from Violence. As I wrote some years ago,
... in the eyes of decent human opinion, moral challenges are never answered by displays of force. The day that Amnesty International takes possession of a machine gun, let alone an atom bomb, its ability to gain a hearing and influence events will be at an end ... Amnesty International's moral authority is that much the greater, just because it is a Lilliputian institution 2.

While the Superpowers boasted about nuclear arsenals, NGOS were seen as inherently nonviolent. While the policies of NSGs were slanted by their own ambitions, and the speeches in the Security Council were aimed at national advantage, NGOs seemed free of ulterior interests - grinding no axes, uncommitted to one country rather than another, speaking not for any Government but for its victims, the sufferers and the oppressed. Put idealistically, NGOS became Humanity's Conscience, and were taken seriously because their arguments were disinterested. Of course, this view involved an element of exaggeration. If pressed, UN officials who handled nongovernmental organizations would reply that NGOS can act in ways as self-interested as those of any Government. But this reply involved a counter-exaggeration, too. The basic insight still holds good: Oxfam and Amnesty are not inherently self-interested parties, and their arguments can be taken as meaning just what they say.

Go back to previous sectionGo on to the next section

Comments and suggestions:
Hari Srinivas -