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Activists Beyond Borders and Theorists Within Them

Peter Waterman

Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1998. 227pp.


Keck and Sikkink (henceforth K&S) have written a very good book. No, an excellent one. It is going to be both academically and politically influential. My guess is that it will become a standard teaching text on what they call transnational advocacy networks - even if I call them international solidarity networks. One reason for this expectation is that they work on this novel subject matter within new, but not-unfamiliar, theoretical paradigms. A second is that they do so within politically established ones. A third is that this is a highly professional work, even a technical one, and that these things are sorely needed in the world of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), still largely becalmed in a sea of global-civil-society babble. This is, finally, a confidently and tightly argued work with a nice combination of theory, literature discussion and case study. 


K&S has a sophisticated theoretical introduction. It has a chapter on history, or pre-history. Three case study chapters deal with transnational networks on human rights in Latin America, on the environment, and on violence against women. The conclusion summarises. 

Theory. K&S plumb international relations, social movement, network and other theory to come up with their major model. This is of local NGO initiative surpassing recalcitrant local states, reaching foreign and international NGOs, foreign states and international organisations, so as to `boomerang’ back on local ones (13, fig.1). But this major model is not as central as first appears. The theory chapter itself, and the succeeding ones, offer us an expanding battery of concepts and typologies to aid analysis, evaluation and strategy. 

Crucial is the combination of concepts in the book’s subtitle (8-10, 32-34). Advocacy is taken to mean the promotion of causes, principles and norms that go beyond a conventional understanding of `interest’. A network is understood as a horizontal, voluntary, reciprocal pattern of exchange and communication. Conventional contemporary understandings of international politics or relations are criticised, as are those that would subsume transnational advocacy networks (henceforth TANs) `under notions of transnational social movements or global civil society’ (33). K&S prefer to see a global civil society more as a fragmented and contested arena of struggle in which TANs struggle with(in) states and inter-state organisations, press on these, find each other, and form and transform themselves. Sub-sections of Chapter 1 explain the origins and rise of the TANs, how they work and the conditions for influence. In each case the specification is both original and insightful. Repeated conceptualisations offer us a toolchest where we previously had only steamhammers. Three examples: 

Our typology of tactics...includes 1) information politics...; 2) symbolic politics... 3) leverage politics... 4) accountability politics... (16) 

To assess the influence of advocacy networks...[w]e identify the following types or stages of network influence: 1) issue creation and agenda setting; 2) influence on discursive positions of states and international organisations; 3) influence on institutional procedures; 4) influence on policy change in `target actors’...and; 5) influence on state behaviour. (25) 

[F]ocusing on international interactions involving nonstate actors...we distinguish three different categories based on their motivations: 1) those with essentially instrumental goals, especially transnational corporations; 2) those motivated primarily by shared causal ideas, such as scientific groups or epistemic communities and 3) those motivated primarily by shared principled ideas or values (transnational advocacy networks). (30) 

History. K&S recognise three different historical traditions behind contemporary TAN activity: the religious, the labour/socialist, and the individual rights one. Their history chapter however, deals only with those coming out of the religious and rights traditions: with the international 19th or early 20th century campaigns 1) against slavery in the US, 2) for women’s suffrage world-wide, and 3) against footbinding and female circumcision (in the then (semi-) colonial world). More concepts are developed, including the distinction and dialectic between the often individualist rights model of advocacy and a solidarity one which assumes a community of fate. 

Cases. The three case studies are chosen by K&S because of their international significance. Using data from the International Union of Associations’ invaluable Yearbook of International Associations, they argue that these represent about half of the international TAN community. But it is only somewhere in the middle of the book that they comment on what has already become apparent, that they are also stressing North-South networking, or the North-South aspects of networking (132). No reason is given for this, so we have to assume it as being due to both authors being Latin Americanists, or to them assuming the North-South axis as the dominant one internationally. Chapter 3, on human rights networks in Latin America is thus, primarily, about human rights networks on Latin America, though the point is firmly established that the on and in are not only interlinked but mutually influencing. This last point is crucial to the chapter on TANs working on violence against women, in so far as this issue is seen as having allowed for a surpassing of a North-to-South model with its built-in conflicts of interest and values. 

Conclusions. This chapter is useful as a summary of the book as a whole but does not really adding to the argument. It includes further literature discussion rather than, for example, making explicit recommendations for either the TANs themselves or research on them. The Conclusions do, however, raise directly the question of sovereignty. K&S seem to be concerned with nation state sovereignty not only because of their political view of the global mentioned above but also because of their recognition of the continued attachment of Southern activists to at least `the idea of the state’ (215) as a symbol of self-determination - `a desired, if fading, utopia’ (ibid.). K&S here value networks precisely as a space within which the anti-sovereignty attitudes of the Northern activists can be negotiated with the pro-sovereignty ones of the South. 


Although this is nowhere made explicit, my assumption is that K&S are from the Left, with `from’ suggesting political origin and/or current position. This is suggested by their familiarity with - and even sympathy for - the labour and socialist tradition, particularly in Latin America. They are certainly working on the front edge of both conventional international politics and social science. I think, however, they are doing this from within certain parameters of both the academy and activism. I think they are also doing it within certain social and geographic ones. There seems to me to be a certain paradox in dealing with this transformatory, emancipatory and internationalist subject matter within such borders. 

Let us consider the K&S view of the international/global; their attitude toward the labour/solidarity tradition; the class and Western bias in their approach; the problematic lexicon that reveals this, and the liberal-pluralist orientation of the work as a whole. 

Despite its theoretical sophistication and sensitivity, there is no explicit worldview (either weltanschauung or view-of-the-global) in this work. Indeed, there is no reference to globalisation in general or the internationalisation of capital in particular. The theoretically critical and socially committed literature on globalisation is ignored, along with the related ones on the globalisation of culture, citizenship and of social movements. Capital itself makes its rare appearance in the guise of transnational corporations (and even here mostly in reference to one international campaign). The blind eye to globalisation means that K&S are working, inevitably, within traditional liberal (or leftist) political and academic paradigms that their own subject matter and arguments actually put in question. In so far as they have some view of the global, it is, as I have suggested, a political one. It is, they say, the `world political system’ that is the `appropriate level of analysis’ (212). Although they obviously reject the notion that nation states are the only actors here, they believe that in 

the world political system today, states remain the predominant actors...The cosmopolitan community can bring pressure to bear at stages of the domestic process, but the state is still in charge. (ibid.)  Despite all the evidence they give of TANs questioning, subverting or reducing the relative power of the nation state, of TANs as operating within globalised institutions, or on/in globalised communicational and cultural terrain, K&S see them as essentially political and as operating essentially on/in the nation state. This helps us understand why they object to TANs being subsumed under either a global civil society or global social movements. But a state-centred approach also means that TANs are not even considered in relationship to the latter. 

The significance of the restriction becomes evident when we consider the K&S treatment of labour and socialism. These are recognised as representing one historical tradition, but this is done in passing, and, whilst K&S recognise the contemporary significance of the dialectic between communal-solidarity and individual-rights orientations to TAN activity, labour’s present significance is dismissed in the following terms: 

Although labour internationalism has survived the decline of the left, it is based mainly on large membership organisations representing (however imperfectly) bounded constituencies. Where advocacy networks have formed around labour issues, they have been transitory, responding to repression of domestic labour movements (as in labour support networks formed around Brazil, South Africa, and Central America in the early 1980s). (15)  The first sentence is true and important. The second is not, and this is just as important. A number of such significant networks have survived or even developed in the 1990s, in both the UK and the USA, as well as in, for example, South Korea. In so far, moreover, as national and global power is moving from states to corporations, that labour protest is reviving internationally, that international labour organisations are beginning to fight back against global neo-liberalism, that they are applying themselves to rights issues particular (including those of women), and even recognising the significance of the network form (Danish General Workers Union 1997), one has to either rule them out definitionally or have a broader definition of the TAN. K&S have taken the first option. There are implications, not least being the failure to recognise that TANs might (and do) reproduce the self-defeating shortcomings of labour and socialist internationalism! These include hierarchisation, bureaucratisation, financial dependency, ritualisation, incorporation into hegemonic forms and norms, substitution for the membership/community in question. 

More grave is the implicit class bias of such an exclusion. The historical and contemporary cases considered by K&S are all middle-class - indeed Western, or even US middle-class - in origin and appeal, all `progressive’ in aim, all `nice’ in behaviour. The Western and middle-class origins or appeal of the TANs does not at all disqualify them for me, or even reduce their significance, but it is problematic and could lead to a `globalisation from the middle’. This could itself be limited to completing the unfinished business of capitalist modernity: the universalisation of the liberal democratic nation state. TANs, secondly, are not limited to `progressive’ causes. In writing on internationalism, over 70 years ago, the Peruvian Marxist, Jose Carlos Mariategui (1973), noted the paradox that even the racist, militaristic and statist fascists were `internationalist’. This was actually no paradox at all but an expression of the globalisation avant la lettre of social life in the early 20th century. Today we have TANs of religious fundamentalists, of militaristic socialists and, still, regrettably, of racists and fascists. 

It is, moreover, not only the right-wing social movements that `network and advocate internationally’. This could well be seen as a characteristic of the present stage of capitalist development! To thus see it removes the aura of virtue that surrounds `networking’ in the K&S lexicon. And, in so far as a globalised networked capitalism is increasingly a cultural one (cultural products, creation of meanings and feelings), it is concerned with `advocacy’ in both the most general sense and in the narrowly legal one. I don’t think the K&S distinction between interest and values is adequate here, since there can be reactionary/conservative values and progressive/transformatory interests (the values/interests distinction is, in any case, dialectical rather than oppositional). Finally, I think that the essentially political term `transnational’ is too narrow a word for both what capitalism is doing and the new terrain of democratic pluralist struggle. Even `globalisation’ is inadequate, it occurs to me, since capitalist activity is increasingly in the ether. This means that it actually surrounds the globe. This sphere is as little national as is the ecosphere, although - as with the ecosphere - capital and (inter-)state organisations may dominate it. If this is a domain of politics, it is of a globalised, cultural and communicational politics, supranational and in need of similarly supranational forms of oversight, access and control. (Compare Castells 1996, 1997, 1998, discussed Waterman Forthcoming A). 

Back to earth. And money. K&S consider as major possible actors within TANs not only the national and international NGOs themselves but also, and equally

2) local social movements; 3) foundations; 4) the media; 5) churches, trade unions, consumer organisations, and intellectuals; 6) parts of regional and international intergovernment organisations; and 7) parts of the executive and/or parliamentary branches of governments. (9)  Indeed, when talking of human rights networking they even say that `foundations may be the most autonomous of all the actors in the network’ (97), the latter being due to what I would consider capitalist/statist characteristics - their independent incomes and self-perpetuating boards of trustees! This is followed up by uncritical praise for a Dutch funding agency and policy makers, the first for involving `partners’ (i.e. financial clients) in decision-making, the second for being simultaneously involved in governmental, academic, NGO and other networks (and surely thus blurring or obscuring what should be a useful, public and creative tension between such). 

Here we are clearly moving toward a liberal-democratic pluralist model of the national and international, in which everything is penetrated or penetrable by citizen networking. (K&S now appears as successors rather than originators, since they were preceded by an equally sophisticated, but merely footnoted, work of the early 1980s, Willets 1982). Accepting such a model is to ignore deep problems and contradictions. Enormous power, wealth and cultural influence is concentrated in the hands of capital globally (which is to say globalised capital, in increasingly intangible forms); nation-states are still able to `discipline and punish’; foundations and other powerful funders, finally, have their own interests, agendas, criteria and procedures. All this leads to the current neo-liberalisation of NGO funding, the crisis of North-to-South funding, and the `NGOisation’ of social movements and civil society, North and South, East and West. This is now coming to the critical attention of , for example, feminist scholars (Alvarez 1998). 

I must now recall Gandhi’s response to the journalist who asked him what he thought of Western civilisation: it would, he said, be a wonderful idea. The democratisation of the world would also be a wonderful thing, particularly if it implied the democratisation of those parts of national and international power presently concealed from public view and controlled by capital or executive branches of these state (or inter-state bodies). This applies not only to the recalcitrant states on the capitalist periphery, forefronted in the K&S boomerang model, but to the liberal-democratic capitalist states that dominate international politics! But, one should not, even in this case, forget that even liberal-democratic (or social-democratic) capitalism reproduces competition, inequality, patriarchy, environmental destruction, crime (from which it is only demarcated by the finest of constantly shifting lines). Capitalism - of every variety - also means commodification - the reduction of humans and their relations to that which can be bought, sold - and accumulated. To surpass this, or even to effectively modify it in a manner both K&S and I desire, requires a vision of a possible, desirable and attractive alternative to it, based on more social (not to say socialist) principles. This is what is customarily called a utopia - something also absent from this work. Yet such a realistic global utopia (Giddens 1990, Sousa Santos 1995) - a global alternative to a neo-liberal globalisation - is being either articulated or is tendentially present in the work of many TANs. And, indeed, it is difficult to know how one could meaningfully evaluate their singular or collective success right now, without extending our social imaginary beyond the limits of what is dominantly present - or represented. One cannot move the world without have both a point and a lever outside it. 


Before finishing I should make clear that I am not a conventionally disinterested reader of this book. My own book, which conceives the same matter in terms of globalisation, social movements, solidarity and civil society, is also supposed to appear this year (Forthcoming B). The structure of K&S parallels my work in quite remarkable ways. Authors of unpublished books can imagine how I experienced the discovery of this one! You find that a book has just been published on what you had assumed was your very own subject area. You open it with more than a degree of anxiety. Does it say, better as well as sooner, what you will be saying more clumsily and later? Does it reveal, devastatingly, an enormous gap in your knowledge or - worse - your paradigm? Can it be dismissed, comfortably, as an empirical or ideological also-ran? Or does it, reassuringly, confirm that you are not (as you had sometimes wondered) either mad or bad. Does it even, encouragingly, suggest that you might have met fellow travellers, with whom you could have fruitful discussion on what has previously been a lonely journey? 

As far as I am concerned, K&S are more than fellow travellers. Which is why I want to repeat my original endorsement. But, in view of all the criticism above, does this not all amount to praising with faint damns? I think not, and this for the following reasons. Firstly, I do not believe that there is only one way to global civil society, or even the civilising of global society. This road will be made by walking - and talking. Secondly, and more specifically, I do not see `reform from within’ in opposition to `radicalism from without’ but rather as conditions for each other’s existence. Thirdly, I consider that any sustained and sensitive analysis of our new international subjects cannot but raise public awareness and interest. Fourthly, I do not believe that macro-theoretical or ideological claims or assumptions necessarily determine the value of a work. I may have concentrated on criticism of these but I want to repeat my feeling that the meso- or micro-theoretical, the analytical and even strategy propositions in K&S are going to be of great value to those working either in or on this field. My review has only indicated the part of the iceberg above the water level. I will have to deal with the other nine-tenths in any serious further work I might do on activists beyond borders. 


       Alvarez, Sonia. 1998. `Latin American Feminisms "Go Global": Trends of the 1990s and Challenges for the New Millenium’, in Sonia Alvarez, Evelina Dagnino and Arturo Escobar (eds), Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: Re-visioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder: Westview. Pp. 293-324. 
Castells, Manuel. 1996, 1997, 1998. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. 3 Vols. Oxford: Blackwell. 

Danish General Workers Union (SiD). 1997. `Labour Visions and Strategies for the 21st Century’. http:/ 

Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity. 178 pp.

Mariategui, Jose Carlos. 1973. `Internacionalismo y nacionalismo' (Internationalism and Nationalism), in Mariategui, Jose Carlos, Historia de la crisis mundial: Conferencias anos 1923 y 1924. Lima: Amauta. Pp. 156-165.

Sousa Santos, Boaventura de. 1995. Towards a New Common Sense: Law, Science and Politics in the Paradigmatic Transition. New York: Routledge.

Waterman, Peter. Forthcoming A. `The Brave New World of Manuel Castells: What on Earth (or in the Ether) is Going On?’. Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. 26pp.

Waterman, Peter. Forthcoming B. Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms. London/Washington: Mansell/Cassell. c. 320pp. 

Willets, Peter (ed). 1982. Pressure Groups in the Global System: The Transnational Relations of Issue-Orientated Non-Governmental Organisations. London: Frances Pinter. 225 pp.

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