What Remains: On the European Union
If other forces are needed to rescue the old internationalist dream and reinstill a degree of popular participation in what remains a closed world chiefly suited to bureaucrats and lobbyists, where might such forces be found? Perhaps in that civil society whose magical effects are widely credited with the dissolution of communism and the injection of ethics into international life. Ninety percent of international NGOs have been formed since 1970, proof of a quickening of associational life on a scale not seen since before World War I (a 1994 Foreign Affairs article referred to a “Global Associational Revolution”). Many NGOs are now entrenched and institutionalized in UN agencies and elsewhere, and they are the recipients of large amounts of Western aid. Two-thirds of EU relief goes through them, for instance, and by 2003 they were disbursing more money than most UN agencies or indeed member states: the budgets of major NGOs such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund run to more than $100 million annually.
Yet funding can become a form of co-optation, and many NGOs worry about how to prevent the funders from dictating their mission so as to preserve some legitimacy. Their world has changed fast in the past three decades, and their own accountability and transparency have come under scrutiny. So has the process whereby they select the causes to fight for. Global civil society, writes political scientist Clifford Bob, who has explored the process by which some issues get taken up and others do not, is basically a Darwinian society of complicated relationships between mostly Western organizers at the top of the pyramid and mostly non-Western movements bidding for their attention. This is not to say that the rise of the NGO is necessarily a bad thing, but simply that the energies they bring to international life must be set against their relative opacity and the fact that their agendas are often established with little public rationale or justification. Lobbying for specific causes, they supplement but cannot substitute for the more holistic approach to the public good that governing institutions are designed to adopt.
Even less plausible as vehicles of a democratization of international life are the huge charitable foundations that have been one of the major sources of the so-called civil society revolution, and that oversee disbursements of some of the astronomical private fortunes that have been made over the past thirty years—mostly through privatizations, the dot-com boom and finance. The result of their emergence has been not merely an explosion in private charitable giving but a transformation of philanthropy itself. The new “philanthrocapitalists” are often impatient with the old global institutions: they like to take an active advocacy role, pushing hard to solve society’s problems in predetermined ways that reflect the personal views and preferences of the very wealthy individuals whose munificence they advertise. In classic fashion, they are inspired by their own success to empower new “social entrepreneurs” around the world. But they have a downside. Applying business methods to social problems, they exaggerate what technology can do; ignore the complexities of social and institutional constraints; often waste sums that would have been better spent more carefully; and wreak havoc with the existing fabric of society in places they know very little about. In the past, such foundations often provided vital support for public international institutions: the intimate relationship between the Rockefeller Foundation and the League of Nations comes to mind. Now, however, because the vast sums at the foundations’ disposal outweigh those available to many long-established international agencies, they have started to displace the latter and complicate their activities instead of enhancing them. Malaria specialists at the World Health Organization have complained that the Gates Foundation’s dominance of research in their field is creating a “cartel” of malaria scientists who validate one another’s research and hinder genuine debate.
For about a century, governments used tax revenues to fund this kind of research through public bodies; now the model is for private wealth to take a leading role in accumulating and organizing expertise. No less obviously inclined to waste, corruption and arrogance than the older public government version, this new model is yet more unaccountable and opaque. In 2009, for instance, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and David Rockefeller called a meeting of their fellow super-philanthropists—people like George Soros, Oprah Winfrey and Ted Turner—to discuss what they could do in response to the global financial crisis and the longer-term environmental and health problems facing the world. When the participants gathered at an Upper East Side residence in New York on May 5, the meeting was shrouded in secrecy. It was scarcely surprising: the combined wealth of the people in the room was reckoned to be around $120 billion—and that was after already spending billions in the previous twelve years. Such sums dwarfed the social spending budgets of most member states of the UN down the road. But whereas the UN has a General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council and many other means of disseminating and debating its activities, the Good Club (as journalists dubbed it) has nothing. Did they just have tea? Or did they decide, as some newspaper accounts have it, that it was up to them to tackle the threat of planetary overpopulation—probably the top global fear of wealthy American philanthropists for about a century? We cannot know. But we have learned enough about the history of private wealth to know that these do-gooders alone are inadequate vehicles to supply the global public goods that well-run multilateral international institutions can handle more systematically and openly.
Some of the big new givers question this. The whole point of philanthropy, according to eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, is to accelerate “a movement from institutions to individuals.” In the implicit pro-business, anti-political thrust of this comment, it would be hard to find a better encapsulation of the fundamental challenge: domestically and to an even greater extent internationally, many people in the West—and not just dot-com billionaires—have lost faith in the capacity of government. The civil servant is as unpopular as the entrepreneur is idolized. Ignoring the built-in advantages of the institutions of the public sector—their long memories, their accountability, their experience in accommodating and mediating real political conflicts within and across societies—opinion throughout much of the developed world remains suspicious of them. Half a century ago, some commentators argued that old-fashioned horizontal relations between states—the stuff of nineteenth-century diplomacy—were being replaced by hierarchies of power topped off by supranational bodies with an autonomous existence of their own and increasing powers to centralize decision-making. But that trend has been thrown into reverse, and many formerly powerful governing institutions are dwindling in importance.
Some would say this doesn’t matter. Don’t we now inhabit a brave new world—porous, fast-moving and networked—in which large institutions are about as useful as dinosaurs? In contrast, networks sound equalizing and youthful, a way of bringing the corridors of power into contact with the streets. Yet networks exist in many forms, and many of them, too, are opaque and unrepresentative to any collective body. Networks are good for some things and not so good for others, as Marx and Lenin understood. It is all very well, as the Internet commentator Clay Shirky does in his book Here Comes Everybody, to talk about “organizing without organization” and to praise the efficiency of loosely affiliated groupings, but they are rarely sources of durable political achievement. Anarchist internationalism, as the 1890s showed, bursts onto the scene like a meteor and then vanishes.
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That international institutions may not be internally democratic in their workings has been known for some time and doesn’t appear particularly surprising. They are, after all, chiefly executive bureaucracies, and their most powerful members mostly like them that way. International legislatures have never lived up to the hopes of the nineteenth-century internationalists, and as the fate of the European Parliament and the UN General Assembly demonstrate, they are unlikely to make much of an impact in the twenty-first century.
What does seem novel, in historical terms, are two developments: the collapsing importance of the public bodies that give national sovereignty meaning, and the way that organs of international government and regulation have come to assail the internal legitimacy, capacity and cohesion of individual states. Democracies are not being turned into dictatorships—few people believe in dictatorships anymore—although the turn to Vladimir Putin in Russia suggests that such a drift is possible. But their representative institutions are being hollowed out and their capacity to act curtailed. Bodies that were once designed to foster sovereignty are now recast to curb it, and this is not merely the result of states deciding to join international organizations and respect their rules; it is the consequence of major changes in the rules themselves.