What's good and what's bad about transnational governmental regulatory networks? The instant answer about legitimacy...
I was asked by a friend the other day about my (evolving) views of transnational governmental regulatory networks - the kind of networks championed by Anne-Marie Slaughter, for example, in her book A New World Order. In my lengthy review of that book, I criticized such networks as seeking to “square the circle” of global governance - global governance without actual global governance. I think that critique is correct, but I also think I should be clearer about the virtues of such networks - provided that they limit themselves in important ways.
There are problems with such networks from an accountability and transparency standpoint. The recent, very good SMU conference I attended back in November had a talk by someone who had been part of such a network that dealt with certain banking issues, and she thought the network great - until she became an academic and tried to study it and discovered that no one would so much as talk to her, let alone show her documents that, indeed, had important implications for policy.
But accountability and democratic legitimacy have become somewhat confused in the literature on networks, governmental and NGO advocacy networks. They are, after all, separate things and separate political/moral values. You can have democratic legitimacy and yet have very poor accountability mechanisms. And you can have excellent accountability mechanisms, yet not through democratic mechanisms, but instead through legally enforceable governance standards, courts of law, efficient bureaucratic oversight, etc. So saying that intergovernmental regulatory networks of the kind praised in A New World Order often lack transparency or accountability is important, but it is not always, and not always most importantly, because of a lack of democratic legitimacy. The question of democratic legitimacy is there independently. So is the question of accountability. (I discuss this in an upcoming review essay in the American Journal of International Law, reviewing a book, NGO Accountability - I think it will be the January 2009 AJIL, but AJIL is a bit backlogged.)
Nonetheless, insofar as these regulatory networks are limited to doing what they are able to do under the grant of bureaucratic - usually executive - authority within their own (democratic - which raises a separate problem) states, I do not have a problem as such with their democratic legitimacy. There might be problems with their regulatory reach, and this might be magnified in a transnational setting with less transparency. But in principle, I do not see this as very different from the fact that national agencies might have similar overreach and democratic deficit problems.
Notice how admirably conciliatory I am being today of these networks. And that is important to stress, because I do indeed see them as having a genuinely legitimate role, within certain bounds, for precisely the reasons their advocates have said. By contrast with the NGOs, they are able to partake of the (we hope) democratic legitimacy of their national governments. But to do that, however, requires that they act within the terms of that national legitimacy.
That last condition limits them to a coordinating function. It might be very robust coordinating function - meaning one in which the several members exercise great pressure to keep players 'in the game' and to prevent defection from a collective action system. But it is still a coordination among sovereign states, in which, if one is willing to pay the price in reputation, future dealings, etc., there is no fundamental legal mechanism to prevent a member from departing the system. If Lincoln aptly defined sovereignty as "a political community, without a political superior," then a coordinating group of sovereigns must accept that it is not a true ‘partnership’, with the power to prevent departures. On the other hand, the group can offer collective benefits to offset the burdens.
This then leads to what seems to me the fundamental problem with these networks. It is not the networks as such - it is what they are imagined to be in a certain liberal internationalist imagination, including how they are praised in A New World Order. It is the fundamental idea that over time, as a matter of simply history taking its (and what I would call its Whig History) course, governance within networks, and among networks, will "densify" until they coalesce into something that is more than just coordinated networks of various bureaucratic functions. Over time, these mechanisms will solidify into true networks of governance.
Now, I am highly skeptical of that as an empirical historical proposition about the future. But I am equally skeptical of it as a moral/political proposition, precisely on grounds of democratic legitimacy. And on this matter of morals, I suppose I also part company with the "new sovereigntists," at least in their 1990s original form. In that original form, the emphasis was on sovereignty, essentially for its own sake and own value. My emphasis - and I believe that people like Jack Goldsmith and Jeremy Rabkin have come my way in the last decade - is not on sovereignty as such, but on democracy and democratic legitimacy, for which sovereignty provides a crucial vessel for its defense. It is not sovereignty as such I wish to defend; it is democracy and (liberal, that is, including the rule of law, fundamental individual rights, etc.) democratic societies, for which sovereignty is a means of its defense, not the thing to be defended as such.
I understand that if one is a true liberal internationalist, you cannot really be satisfied with resting upon coordinated transnational actors; you want true global governance. And it is natural to want to see these things as growing into that governance. I also cannot over-stress how much I admire A New World Order for being willing to say flatly that NGOs cannot offer that legitimacy, only governments can. (The NGO advocates and their intellectual defenders have moved to a kind of weirdly obscurantist position of calling for "norm entrepreneurship" as a vehicle for eventual governance, but that is mostly a way of eliding the legitimacy question.)
But I do not accept that one can make the jump from coordination to governance without sacrificing the principle of democratic legitimacy. The effect of this, in today's world, is that it is an argument not so much over the existence of transnational regulatory governmental networks today, but rather over what they might become in the future. It is mostly an argument about anticipations and hopes for the future. However, if you are committed to them becoming all these wonderful political things in the future, you might well wind up ruining them and their narrow, bureaucratic functioning within a narrow, bureaucratic mandate today. Why? Because imagining their expanded political role in future governance leads to overplaying the narrowly regulatory role which gives them a certain legitimacy today precisely because they are perceived as narrow in activity and ambition. Alter that perception, and you raise significant legitimacy issues for the activities they might carry out today reasonably successfully.