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How Participatory is Global Governance of Trade and Environment? The Cases of WTO and UN Climate Summits

Marcel Hanegraaff and Arlo Poletti


The emergence and increasing importance of multiple layers of governance ‘above’ the state has become a central feature of contemporary international relations since the 1990s. Few would question that during the last decades, the policy process has increasingly migrated to the international level. To a greater or lesser extent, virtually all economic, political, and social activities are today subject to rules decided upon, implemented, monitored, and enforced by international institutions of various sorts. While domestic institutions have not gone out of business, it is beyond doubt that an increasing number regulatory processes traditionally confined within the boundaries of nation-states have today been supplanted, or at least complemented, by new forms of policy-making taking place within a wide array of different international institutional venues. Areas as

M. Hanegraaff (H)

University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands A. Poletti

Department of Political Science, LUISS, Rome, Italy

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017 51

R. Marchetti (ed.), Partnerships in International Policy-Making, International Series on Public Policy,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-94938-0_3

diverse as trade, finance, the environment, human rights, and even national security are more and more subjected to rules developed under the auspices of international governance systems (Mattli and Woods 2009).

At the heart of the debate about global governance lies the question of its democratic legitimacy. As global governance systems have become increasingly central in contemporary public policy-making, concerns about the democratic legitimacy of these political processes have also emerged, questioning the viability of democratic processes still largely confined within the boundaries of the nation-state and calling for a number of possible reforms to make global governance more democratically accountable and thus redress its massive ‘democratic deficit’ (Nanz and Steffeck 2004).

The question how to address the problem of democratic legitimacy in global governance is subject to debate and different answers to this question largely reflect different underlying normative positions concerning the definition of the scope of the global demos (for an overview see Marchetti 2011). What is common to these different conceptions is the idea that a reform global governance is necessary in order to create the social and institutional conditions that can facilitate the expression of citizens’ concerns and ensure the responsiveness of power (Archibugi et al. 2011; Castells 2008; Held 1995; Nanz and Steffeck 2004; Scholte 2002).

Granting greater access to civil society actors to these institutions is widely perceived as one potentially effective solution to provide global governance with more expertise, accountability and, ultimately, legitimacy (Charnovitz 2000; Robertson 2000; Scholte 2000). The ultimate goal of opening up global governance to greater participation by civil society actors is, these arguments go, the creation of an appropriate public sphere, that is an institutionalized arena for deliberative political participation beyond the limits of national boundaries (Nanz and Steffeck 2004; Scholte 2002). In light of the growing gap between the global space where the issues arise and the national space where such issues are managed, a flourishing international public sphere is deemed necessary in order to avoid that the global socio-political order remains defined by the realpolitik of nation-states (Castells 2008; Held 2004).

Whether more openness of global governance is conducive to the emergence of an international public sphere however, largely remains an empirical question. Assessing empirically whether greater openness fosters the emergence of an international public sphere and can thus be instrumental to addressing global governance’s democratic deficit is particularly important given that critical voices warn us that greater civil society access to global governance may deepen the bias of interest representation already existing at the domestic, hence it may turn out to worsen, rather than solve, existing problems of democratic legitimacy (Fischer and Green 2004; Fischer 2010; Spiro 2000).

Recent research shows that global governance has witnessed a systematic shift towards greater involvement of civil society actors. While there is of course significant variation in how much different global governance systems grant access to societal actors, empirical evidence confirms the existence of a far-reaching institutional transformation of international organizations (IOs) over the past two decades pervading all issue areas, policy function, and world regions: these IOs increasingly share authority with organized societal actors (Tallberg et al. 2014).

Has greater openness of IOs led to the emergence of a truly international public sphere? In this chapter we assess whether existing claims about the changing nature of political mobilization by societal groups resulting from greater IOs openness withstand empirical examination. On the basis of original datasets collecting information on the participation of both 2000 societal groups at World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conferences and 6500 societal groups at UN Climate Summits over the 1995-2012 period we are able to trace the evolution of the population of societal interests active within these international governance systems. Both international fora provide significant access to societal actors, but to a varying degree. While the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) system explicitly denied access to societal interests, with the creation of the WTO in 1995 specific guidelines stipulating more openness towards these organized groups were also adopted (Steffek and Kissling 2006; Van den Bossche 2008). Nevertheless, the UN Climate Summits are even more open to the input of societal actors due to the even more lenient accreditation requirements (see research design for more details). Comparing both cases thus allows us to reflect on the impact of IO openness towards the creation of an international public sphere with a higher degree of generalizability.

The chapter proceeds as follows. In Section 2, we briefly review the existing literature to come up with a broad definition of how a truly international public sphere should look like. Having set such a normative benchmark, we then turn in Section 3 to our data to assess the extent to which patterns of actual participation by societal groups in these two governance systems meet these normative standards. Our rough and largely illustrative analysis suggests that greater access to these two international governance systems has not brought about a fundamental change in the nature of political action by societal groups. While the number of societal groups targeting these two international venues is substantial, we find that the nature of their political mobilization remains overwhelmingly ‘domestic’, both in terms of issues that they deem important and act upon and with respect to their organizational character.

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