An International Public Sphere: Setting a Normative Benchmark

Before any assessment is made of whether an international public sphere has emerged as a result of the greater access granted to non-state actors in international governance structures we should define how such an international public sphere should look like. In other words, a benchmark is needed in order to proceed with a meaningful assessment of actual patterns of political mobilization by non-state actors within global governance structures.

We briefly review the existing literature and identify at least three components of what could be plausibly defined as a ‘truly’ international public sphere, the emergence of which many authors’ identify as a necessary condition for existing governance structures to be democratically legitimate.

As a starting point, it is important to stress that arguing in favour of the emergence of an international public sphere to redress the international governance democratic deficit does not necessarily mean advocating the creation of a national democracy writ large (Jens and Steffeck 2004). While some authors’ have argued along these lines (see Marchetti 2008), others have taken a less radical stance and argued that the institutionalization of arenas for deliberative political participation beyond the limits of national boundaries would be a more realistic goal (Jens and Steffeck 2004). The normative assumption underlying this position is that the actors affected by particular political decision should be given the opportunity to meaningfully participate and make their voice heard to the very decision-making procedures that lead to the adoption of such decisions (Macdonald 2008). Interaction between these actors and political institutions do not need to take the form of electoral authorization and accountability, the argument goes, as long as effective expression of stakeholders’ concerns and some degree of responsiveness of political power is ensured (Archibugi et al. 2011).

Having clarified that an international public sphere should not be confused with a global polity, there remains the question of what should be its key defining properties. Three properties seem key for a public sphere to be truly international. The first concerns the organizational scope of the constituencies that actively participate to the political processes taking place within global governance fora. Since structures of decision making increasingly transcend national boundaries, meaningful international deliberation is deemed to require new forms of participation of the very transnational interests affected by these political decisions. A first condition for the emergence of an international public sphere can thus be considered the presence and active participation by non-state actors that represent constituencies transcending national boundaries—that is, that have a transnational organizational character. The existing literature provides ample illustrative evidence that organizations with a transnational organizational character, be they global or regional, may affect the management of political issues within international governance fora in significant ways (Glasius et al. 2005; Keck and Sikkink 1998). Yet, it remains be seen whether their influence is purely idiosyncratic or reflects the emergence of a truly international public sphere.

A second key property of an international public sphere concerns what we define the issue scope of constituencies’ political action. While the organizational scope of the societal interests active in global governance tells us whether constituencies transcending national boundaries have become important, perhaps more important is to assess the types of issues these actors’ act upon. A proper international public sphere requires that actors involved in it address transnational problems, not only that that they have a transnational organizational character. If deliberation about international issues is what an international public sphere is about, then we should observe that actors participating to such deliberative processes increasingly act with a global or international frame of reference in their action and goals (Castells 2008). The challenge for the emergence of an international public sphere to emerge consists therefore in giving voice to opinions that are shaped independently from the single national perspectives shaped by purely national interests. As Jens and Steffeck (2004, 322) put it, an international public sphere entails the creation of ‘deliberative forums in which groups of social actors cooperatively address a certain global problem, and the ensemble of which could serve for enhancing broader transnational policy debates. Such participatory debates reserve themselves the prerogatives to scrutinize and monitor policy choices of international organizations’.

The third property of an international public sphere that we consider concerns the degree of inclusiveness of the interests that get to participate, hence that get represented, in international decision making processes.

Who are the interests that actively participate to these deliberative processes? Are all relevant stakeholders fairly represented or is there a structural imbalance in the systems of interest representation emerging at the international level? One of the greatest challenges in making global governance more democratic is to ensure that all stakeholders, that is, those affected by political decision adopted within global governance fora, can make their voice heard. As Scholte (2002, 296) nicely argues ‘all interested parties must have access and preferably equal opportunities to participate. Otherwise civil society can reproduce or even enlarge structural inequalities and arbitrary privileges.’ To put it differently, the observation of the growing relevance of transnationally organized groups that focus on transnational issues might still obscure the possibility that these actors are only a subset of a large population of potentially relevant stakeholders, hence that access to global governance remains skewed in favour of privileged interests. Critical voices have long noted the emergence of a truly international public sphere can be hampered if the business community and/or constituencies from developed countries disproportionally profit from the opening up of global governance structures to non-state actors relative to ‘civil society’ actors and developing countries respectively (Fried 1997; Fischer and Green 2004; Spiro 2000).

To sum up, we believe we can fruitfully use the concept of international public sphere as a normative benchmark to empirically assess whether increased access to global governance structures can foster greater democratic legitimacy of these systems of political authority. Greater access can help address concerns about the democratic legitimacy of global governance insofar as it fosters the emergence of an international public sphere. In our view, a truly international public sphere can be defined as such when the constituencies that actively participate to the political processes taking place within global governance fora (1) have a transnational organizational character; (2) act upon transnational issues; (3) are inclusive.

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