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Interest in transnational activist groups such as Greenpeace, European Nuclear Disarmament (END), and Amnesty International has been surging. Much of this new attention on the part of students of international relations is directed at showing that transnational activists make a difference in world affairs, that they shape conditions which influence how their particular cause is addressed. Recent scholarship demonstrates, for example, that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have changed state human rights practices in particular countries.(1) Other studies have shown that environmental groups have influenced negotiations over environmental protection of the oceans, the ozone layer, and Antarctica and that they have helped enforce national compliance with international mandates.(2) Still others have shown that peace groups helped shape nuclear policy regarding deployments in Europe during the cold war and influenced Soviet perceptions in a way that allowed for eventual superpower accommodation.(3) This work is important, especially insofar as it establishes the increasing influence of transnational nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) on states. Nonetheless, for all its insight, it misses a different but related dimension of activist work--the attempt by activists to shape public affairs by working within and across societies themselves.
Recent studies neglect the societal dimension of activists' efforts in part because they subscribe to a narrow understanding of politics. They see politics as a practice associated solely with government and thus understand activist efforts exclusively in terms of their influence upon government. Seen from this perspective, transnational activists are solely global pressure groups seeking to change states' policies or create conditions in the international system that enhance or diminish interstate cooperation. Other efforts directed toward societies at large are ignored or devalued because they are not considered to be genuinely political in character.
Such a narrow view of politics in turn limits research because it suggests that the conception and meaning of transnational activist groups is fixed and that scholarship therefore need only measure activist influence on states. This article asserts, by contrast, that the meaning of activist groups in a global context is not settled and will remain problematic as long as the strictly societal dimension of their work is left out of the analysis. Activist efforts within and across societies are a proper object of study and only by including them in transnational activist research can one render an accurate understanding of transnational activist groups and, by extension, of world politics.
This article focuses on activist society-oriented activities and demonstrates that activist organizations are not simply transnational pressure groups, but rather are political actors in their own right. The main argument is that the best way to think about transnational activist societal efforts is through the concept of"world civic politics." When activists work to change conditions without directly pressuring states, their activities take place in the civil dimension of world collective life or what is sometimes called global civil society.(4) Civil society is that arena of social engagement which exists above the individual yet below the state.(5) It is a complex network of economic, social, and cultural practices based on friendship, family, the market, and voluntary affiliation.(6) Although the concept arose in the analysis of domestic societies, it is beginning to make sense on a global level. The interpenetration of markets, the intermeshing of symbolic meaning systems, and the proliferation of transnational collective endeavors signal the formation of a thin, but nevertheless present, public sphere where private individuals and groups interact for common purposes. Global civil society as such is that slice of associational life which exists above the individual and below the state, but also across national boundaries. When transnational activists direct their efforts beyond the state, they are politicizing global civil society.
Like its domestic counterpart, global civil society consists of structures that define and shape public affairs. For example, market forces shape the way vast numbers of people in various countries act with reference to issues of public concern. Additionally, voluntary associations affiliated with trade, cultural expression, religion, science, and production have widespread influence. In targeting these processes and institutions, activists use the realms of transnational social, cultural, and economic life to influence world public affairs.
One can appreciate the idea of world civic politics by drawing an analogy between activist efforts at the domestic and international levels. According to Melucci, Habermas, Offe, and others, the host of contemporary domestic peace, human rights, women's, and human potential movements in the developed world both lobby their respective governments and work through their societies to effect change. In this latter regard, movements identify and manipulate nonstate levers of power, institutions, and modes of action to alter the dynamics of domestic collective life.(7) The French antinuclear movement, the German Green Party in its early years, and the feminist movement in the United Kingdom represent significant attempts to politicize various arenas and thereby bring about change.(8) Likewise, present-day grass-roots organizations--from new populism in the United States to Christian-based communities in Latin America and alternative development organizations in India--are both targeting their governments and nurturing modes of political expression outside state control.(9) Finally, the early years of Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia illustrate the multifaceted character of activist politics. Recognizing the limits of influencing their respective states, Solidarity and Charter 77 created and utilized horizontal societal associations involving churches, savings associations, literary ventures, and so forth to bring about widespread change. As with the other organizations, this does not mean that they ignored the state but rather that they made a strategic decision to explore the political potential of unofficial realms of collective action.(10) In each instance groups target government officials when it seems likely to be efficacious. If this approach fails or proves too dangerous, however, they seek other means of affecting widespread conditions and practices.(11) Analytically, these other means are found in civil society.
Moved up a political notch, this form of politics helps explain the efforts of transnational activist groups. Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, and Greenpeace target governments and try to change state behavior to further their aims. When this route fails or proves less efficacious, they work through transnational economic, social, and cultural networks to achieve their ends. The emphasis on world civic politics stresses that while these latter efforts may not translate easily into state action, they should not be viewed as simply matters of cultural or social interest. Rather, they involve identifying and manipulating instruments of power for shaping collective life. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom has taken them to be politically irrelevant.
In the following I analyze the character of world civic politics by focusing on one relatively new sector of this activity, transnational environmental activist groups (TEAGs). As environmental dangers have become part of the public consciousness and a matter of scholarly concern in recent years, much attention has been directed toward the transboundary and global dimensions of environmental degradation. Ozone depletion, global warming, and species extinction, for instance, have consequences that cross state boundaries and in the extreme threaten to change the organic infrastructure of life on earth. Responding in part to increased knowledge about these problems, transnational activist groups have emerged whose members are dedicated to "saving the planet." World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Conservation International, and Earth Island Institute are voluntary associations organized across state boundaries that work toward environmental protection at the global level. TEAGs have grown tremendously since the 1970s, with the budgets of the largest organizations greater than the amount spent by most countries on environmental issues and equal to, if not double, the annual expenditure of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).(12) Furthermore, membership in these groups has grown throughout the 1980s and 1990s to a point where millions of people are currently members of TEAGs.(13) This article demonstrates that, while TEAGs direct much effort toward state policies, their political activity does not stop there but extends into global civil society. In the following, I describe and analyze this type of activity and, in doing so, make explicit the dynamics and significance of world civic politics.
This article is divided into five sections. The first places my argument within the theoretical literature of international relations to highlight where my thesis is similar to and yet different from earlier efforts to underscore the role of nongovernmental organizations. The second is an empirical presentation of the way TEAGS specifically practice world civic politics. It describes how they foster an ecological sensibility and explicates the significance of this form of politics. The third section outlines how environmental groups pressure corporations and explores the political dimension of this strategy. The fourth section describes how TEAGS empower local communities and considers the ramifications for world politics. In each of these instances activists operate outside the province of state-to-state interaction yet engage in genuine political activity. The final section evaluates the concept of world civic politics from a theoretical perspective.
Two caveats are in order before proceeding. First, although I refer to transnational environmental activist groups in general, the focus here is on so-called northern organizations. These are groups that originated in advanced industrial societies and, although they have offices throughout both the developed and the developing worlds, maintain their central headquarters in the North. An implicit assumption is that an understanding of northern organizations will shed light upon transnational activist groups in general; this premise, however, may turn out to be false.(14) Second, I do not mean to suggest that transnational environmental organizations have a monopoly on ecological wisdom, are the harbingers of an ecologically sound future, or are beyond criticism. Like all other political actors, activists have their own problems. One must question, for example, their use and at times misuse of scientific evidence; their accountability (they are not elected officials); and the complex and often antagonistic relations among different transnational groups. I do not address these aspects of activist groups in detail here, although in a number of places I refer to particular instances when they become relevant. This is not to overlook the problems associated with transnational activist groups so much as to maintain a focus on the type of politics they employ to further their goals. In other words, one need not necessarily support the work of transnational environmental groups to understand how they operate in the international arena.
Beyond the Transnationalist Debate
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s NGOS were the objects of tremendous scholarly attention. At the time the statecentric model of world politics was undergoing one of its many attacks and NGOS were enlisted in the assault. Many scholars argued that since nonstate actors were growing in number and power, students of world politics would be better served by paying attention to these as well as, if not instead of, nation-states. For example, a substantial number of multinational corporations (MNCs) had assets in excess of the gross national product (GNP) of certain states and had projects in numerous countries,(15) leading many scholars to argue that MNCS were curtailing state action and represented an independent variable for explaining world events.(16) Likewise, advances in communications technology opened the way for nonstate actors such as revolutionary groups, the Catholic church, and political parties to play a greater role in world politics. Innovations in overseas travel, international wire services, computer networks, and telecommunications were enabling these actors to influence the ideas, values, and political persuasions of people around the globe. Scholars argued that they were having a significant impact on questions of peace, international morality, and the salience of political issues.(17) In short, the surge in transnational activity suggested that the state might not be the most important variable for explaining world events.(18)
The debate over the relative importance of the state in world affairs had an impact in the field insofar as it convinced realists--those who most explicitly privileged the state in the 1960s and 1970s--that NGOS matter.(19) To be sure, this took some effort. Defenders of the strictly statecentric model argued, for example, that the proliferation of NGOS was a function of hegemonic stability and thus derivative of interstate …