Who really rules the world
Who really rules the world today?
Political scientist Susan Sell investigates who, where, how and with whom is involved in global governance. Because that much is clear to the American: Nobody rules today, not even a superstate.
Interview: Lotta Suter, Washington D. C.
WOZ: Susan Sell, day in and day out we are informed about state visits and state treaties, conflicts and war. And now you come and say that global governance works very differently. What did the media miss?
Susan Sell: The media miss out on a lot of what goes on below the surface. And that's where a large part of global governance is done. A current example of this is the Trans-Pacific Partnership TPP. This international free trade agreement is negotiated outside the public eye. And the media hardly report on it, because the big media moguls themselves are interested in strong commercial copyrights, as provided by the TPP.
The official TPP advisory committee is made up of parties with self-interest. Private actors such as the tobacco company Philip Morris or the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer want absolute protection of intellectual property that goes far beyond what is enshrined in international law today. And US President Barack Obama seems to be joining them. The general public - such as consumers, environmentalists or patient representatives - is not represented at all in this closed society.
What secrets are so closely guarded in these trade talks?
For example, it has been leaked that the pharmaceutical companies are worried that South Africa wants to change its patent law to make it easier to access medicines. South Africa adheres to the requirements of international law and the Trips Agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights. Nonetheless, the pharmaceutical document states that the health section of the South African draft patent law "mentioned public health care" with concern. The pharmaceutical multinationals apparently find it “worrying” that South Africa cares about the health of the population. They are willing to strangle an up-to-date health law in South Africa to ensure that they can continue to suck up high prices for their drugs.
This is also a good example of the rise and growing importance of various non-state actors. What about their accountability to the public?
The public is increasingly annoyed by secret deals, as we see them in the current free trade agreements - the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the European counterpart Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In November, Wikileaks published two draft texts with provocative statements about the environment and intellectual property. This angered the interested public. In response to public anger, US Trade Representative Michael Froman announced that he would create a new public advisory committee. It turned out that he had presented his idea of democracy to the members of the existing committee, who had previously been representatives of large companies. They had steadfastly refused to accept lawyers of the public interest into their serene circle. Then Froman proposed his special committee - it will be a body that nobody listens to. It's supposed to silence people, but it won't have any impact.
A political model that reduces international relations to the actions of state actors, you say, fits into the 1980s, but not into the 21st century. What is so different today?
If the analysis is restricted to states, one misses a large part of the global political scene. Much has changed and accelerated, which makes the control more complicated and less state-centered. A landmark event was the end of the Cold War in 1989. Another factor was economic globalization, especially globalized finance. The states became more vulnerable, as we saw during the Asian crisis. Hedge funds and other investors suddenly had much more power over the states than before. And many citizens worried that the forces of global capital would weaken the ability of states to provide for the common good of their people. Today international negotiations have a deep impact on domestic politics. They can jeopardize the agreements that governments have made with citizens, for example in social policy or consumer protection.
Have the states really gotten weaker? Take, for example, the new technologies, which are also an impetus for change. Of course, the population has access to more information. But that also applies to the other side - as the NSA revelations revealed.
The relationship between the actors is not a zero-sum game. It is not that states have become weak and non-state actors have become strong in their place. Rather, the role of the state has fundamentally changed. Its institutions and authorities are different. In the course of privatization, the state has outsourced many of its previous functions. In the USA today there is a state-market common rule in which the market forms the state and the state forms the market. But market players have more power than before because economic globalization has widened the economic reach of Wall Street investors and global corporations.
In his book "The Plundered State", the economist James Galbraith writes that states have become so weak that they can be used and abused by market forces at will. Your judgment is not so sharp?
In the field of intellectual property, yes. It's not just about the state being plundered. Rather, there is, at least in the US, a mutual dependency between intellectual property owners and the office of the trade representative. There is a revolving door between the state and the private sector that creates conflicts of interest and favors the neglect of the common good. I recently read that two of the TPP negotiators, including Agent Froman, had received huge severance payments when they moved from the private sector to the government. That damages the legitimacy of their office; they are administrators of private interests at the expense of the common good.
States act in an anarchic milieu, say most politicalological theories. Is there a better way of describing the non-governmental environment?
The term "anarchy" is used very specifically by political scientists. It just means the absence of world government. In terms of global governance, the non-state environment would be better defined as a network of interconnected actors. These networks can be public or private, or a hybrid of both. A network of interest groups is also conceivable - like that of the large corporations in the TPP negotiations.
Speaking of interest groups: In our book "Who Governs the Globe?" there is an extremely interesting chapter on the far-reaching political role of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the most powerful gun freak in the United States. The NRA tried in the UN to block negotiations on an international small arms agreement. In addition, the NRA gained a great deal of influence on Brazil's gun laws. Such international actors hardly figure in the official presentations of global governance.
Probably the most important finding of our studies on global governance is: Nobody governs or controls alone. State and non-state actors must cooperate with other would-be governors. It is very important to take a closer look at the relationships between the various leading actors.
It appears that private contracts, especially short-term contracts, have replaced many former government functions. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this special form of cooperation?
Let us take the example of earlier Soviet states which commissioned private companies to integrate their state economies into the market economy. Large accounting firms applied for such contracts. In this competitive situation, short-term contracts are a problem because the provider, if he wants to win or keep the contract, cannot completely carry out his mandate, in this case the integration into the market economy. Because if someone pushes the commissioning state too much to reform, when the contract expires in a few years, they simply hire a different, easier-to-care-for company. This dynamic creates unintended consequences and false incentives, and it alienates those involved from their real mission. Long-term contracts alone would reduce the opportunities for abuse and conflicts of interest between the client and the service provider.
Companies fighting for orders sounds familiar. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and aid organizations such as the Red Cross also have an interest in selling their services, so they are classic market participants.
NGOs and large corporations do not have the same resources. Yet their strategies are very similar. All actors try to define a problem in such a way that their definition dominates the scene. One cannot make a sharp distinction between NGOs as moral actors and purely materially oriented companies. NGOs also run a business. They have to keep their audience happy and growing, find fields of activity and prove to their financiers that they can do something so that the funds flow on. The NGOs are just as competitive as the companies. And the competition has become even tougher since the crisis.
So NGOs aren't angels and corporations aren't devils?
If I had to classify the various actors on a spectrum from totally cynical to genuinely principled, I would put the Halliburton Group at the cynical end, especially after its dubious dealings in the Iraq war. The service company receives most of its orders from the US government, but it hardly pays any taxes in the US. Halliburton has moved its headquarters to Bermuda.
At the other end of the spectrum, I see Médecins Sans Frontières, for example. The medical emergency aid organization has a certain hard-won autonomy. When this NGO was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, the leadership first discussed whether they could even accept the prize and the million in prize money if they wanted to remain politically independent. Eventually they accepted the price and put all the money into a campaign for better access to medicines. But they fought for their decision.
Most actors are somewhere between these two poles. There are companies heading towards Médecins Sans Frontières. And there are also NGOs closer to Halliburton. For example, a number of fake grass-roots organizations, so-called Astroturfs (artificial grassroots movements) operate in the USA, which serve as a facade for cynical maneuvers. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, recently wanted to set up an Astroturf NGO called Forward South Africa to undermine the patient-friendly reform of patent law in this country.
The range of companies can be illustrated using two large US retail chains. The Halliburton variant is covered by Wal-Mart, which does not pay its employees living wages. The Costco Group, on the other hand, treats its workforce fairly. There are also a number of companies that support environmentally friendly production and fair trade. In any case, the black and white thinking is misleading.
You write that a large part of global governance does not happen through coercion and violence, but rather through creative and productive forces. How did you come up with this rather optimistic thesis?
Among other things, we examined the role of actors who could be called standard manufacturers. Many important social changes in the world have come from individuals. Think of the anti-slavery campaign in the United States in the 19th century. Slavery is now a taboo - but back then it was normal business practice. Or take the founding generation of environmental protection, people like Rachel Carson, whose book “Silent Spring” in the early 1960s raised awareness that human activity can damage ecosystems. In Vermont, Jody Williams more or less single-handedly launched an international campaign against landmines. Individuals can initiate a change of attitude, even in global governance. One thinks, for example, of the ban on nuclear weapons or chemical weapons. Even if there are violations, these standards are very strong today and internationally binding.
And yet, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, many countries have experienced a wave of militarization. If we just look at the expansion of the US security apparatus - whether privately or state-organized - we see how many parties are interested in preserving the threat and conflict today.
You're right. I hope the NSA revelations will increase oversight of this machine. It is worrying that the media is in such a bad state. Many reputable newspapers have disappeared. Most digital media and the remaining newspapers do not have enough resources for thorough reporting. That makes it easier to cheat on falsehoods, white-collar crime and corruption. We're caught between two stools because we don't yet know what the new information model will look like. For now, we have Wikileaks, but we also have the NSA.
This insecurity reduces the trust between the state and the population. In the United States, citizens have had a constitutionally guaranteed right to information since the 1960s. The Freedom of Information Act guarantees the government's duty to provide information. But when the citizens recently made use of this right to information and wanted to see the text of the TPP contract, the sales representative refused the request for information, as he had previously done with the anti-piracy trade agreement Acta - for reasons of national security. It seems pretty far-fetched to me to make Hollywood or Pfizer's wish lists of commercial copyright a matter of national security.
How else does the increased power of private actors affect politics?
The problem is that the imbalance leads more and more to extremely short-term thinking. I was truly amazed at how few serious financial reforms sparked the 2008 crisis. I thought that at least the separation between commercial banking and investment banking would be reintroduced.
In the US, the root of the problem also lies in the lack of public funding for elections. If politicians have to raise a lot of money to get a job or to stay in office, then they owe those who donate the most money. This becomes a spiral, because the rich get exactly the politics they want, so they get even richer and can finance further elections and influence politics even more. The Americans also like to complain that Congress is bogged down. There is no bipartisanship in Washington. That is not right. Since the Reagan era, there has always been political consensus on at least three major issues ...
Okay let's say four. Defense is topic one. Subject two, the protection of intellectual property; the motto here is “more is always better, and let's work hard for it all over the world”. Topic three: high finance. Whatever Wall Street wants, Wall Street gets too. And number four: fossil energy. We have hardly invested seriously in green energies in the USA. The climate change deniers are still using great resources for their propaganda. There is broad agreement on these four issues. And if you dig deeper and ask why, then you realize that the most profitable sectors of the economy are involved here. And also those who invest the most money in funding elections. There are economic sectors in which the carousel turns lively, where people move from high government posts to the PR departments of the private sector and vice versa.
Your role is to analyze international relations, not to save the world. Nevertheless, I ask about the most promising forms of cooperation for good governance.
Hybrid coalitions of well-networked actors have the best chances: world citizens with a good feel for their own political environment and local institutions who can also move on the international stage. I will come back to Médecins Sans Frontières again. This organization tries on a global level to improve access to essential medicines. But it also interferes in the national politics of various countries in order to strengthen the public health system there.
In the case of the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (Pipa), too, it was a mixed alliance that acted extremely successfully. Some companies were there, but they weren't the main players. Google, for example, came on late.The democratic process worked here because the debate was public. People could see the texts and see how the regulations would jeopardize the freedom of the internet. And so they managed to stop these two proposed laws. Whereupon the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (Acta) was rejected in Europe.
It is extremely important to present big issues such as global social inequality or climate change to a large audience so that as many people as possible can understand what is at stake. We have to support politicians and all other actors who see which policies benefit or harm the planet and ordinary people. And who then act according to these principles.
Susan Sell, an American, is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington D.C. She is also director of the Institute for Global and International Studies at GWU's own Elliott School of International Affairs. Sell's research interests include trade and development, as well as history, politics, and intellectual property law.
The 56-year-old sits on the Board of Directors of Intellectual Property Watch (IP-Watch), an independent information center based in Geneva that regularly provides information on the activities of international actors. The IP-Watch, founded in 2004, particularly supports resource-poor countries in establishing and implementing the most democratic legal system possible with regard to intellectual property. Most of their observations and comments are available online at www.ip-watch.org.
A kaleidoscope of actors
When US President Barack Obama campaigned for the forthcoming free trade agreement with Europe, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), in Brussels at the end of March, he assured several times that he would not sign a contract that would weaken consumer rights and environmental protection. The critics remain skeptical. Rightly. Obama may be serious about his promise, but he does not rule alone. The USA and the European states are not the only actors in negotiating these trade agreements: private companies from the pharmaceutical and entertainment industries, for example, have a huge say. In complete contrast to the general population, who are increasingly resisting this whacking.
Where and how a whole kaleidoscope of non-state actors have a say in international events, not just in trade agreements, is the subject of the non-fiction book "Who Governs the Globe?" (Who rules the world?), For which Susan Sell is co-editor. The political scientist wants to understand global governance not just as a process or structure, as something that “just happens”. At the center of their interest are the actors themselves, such as international organizations, companies, professional associations, social movements and NGOs. They are all “global governors” if they want to exert influence across borders in an area that is important to them and also have a certain legitimacy to do so.
Susan Sell writes: “Instead of assuming that it is states that govern, we examine: Who carries out the steering tasks? Where do the global governors come from? Who hired you (and why)? How do you achieve your goals? What are the effects of your actions? "
Deborah Avant, Martha Finnemore and Susan Sell (eds.): "Who Governs the Globe?" Cambridge Studies in International Relations. Cambridge University Press, 2010. 456 pages. 50 francs.
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