Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Public Accountability and the Public Sphere of International Governance

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Public Accountability and the Public Sphere of International Governance

Article excerpt

After long and awkward negotiations, on November 19, 2009, the heads of state and government of the European Union finally nominated Catherine Ashton as the Union's new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security. The next day an Internet user nicknamed "hoeckt" posted the following comment on a popular German news site:

   This morning I listened to an interview with [Ashton] on B5 [radio
   station] and was flabbergasted. She has already understood how they
   work at the EU level. She wants to do diplomacy the silent way,
   which to me means that there will be no transparency; nobody will
   know what she is doing, and how. And hence nobody will be able to
   judge success or failure of her actions. (1)

The remark targets a key feature of the much-lamented "democratic deficit" of internationalized policy-making: the inability of citizens to properly monitor and evaluate institutions and persons in power--institutions and persons that supposedly still act on their behalf.

The Internet user "hoeckt" is not alone in his or her anger over the obscure ways of international governance. Particularly in the European Union, calls for more democracy, legitimacy, and accountability have proliferated since the ratification crisis of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. One of the symptoms of the democratic deficit that few academic authors fail to address is the problem of public accountability. This problem affects traditional forms of multilateral diplomacy and the intergovernmental organizations in which such diplomacy takes place, but it appears especially troubling after the turn from intergovernmentalism to new modes of governance. "Governance," a term associated with both European integration and global institutions and processes, is characterized by a spread of decision-making competence over various levels of policy-making. It often takes place in networks that may include only public officials, but quite often also include representatives of private bodies, thus blurring the boundary between the public and the private realm. At the global level, structures of governance are also notably fragmented, and tend to be much more informal than traditional forms of government. (2)

International network governance has a pronounced problem of transparency. "Networks," writes Kal Raustiala, "are based on flexible and functional peer relationships. Their very informality and clubishness, however, invite exclusion and make monitoring and participation by non-state actors and other government officials often difficult." (3) As a consequence, the origins of political choices in transnational governance networks are often unclear, and responsibility for them is hard to establish. (4) For laypeople, at least, the functioning of internationalized forms of policy-making is extremely hard to comprehend. It would therefore seem logical to argue that at the core of the democratic deficit of international governance is a lack of accountability toward the wider public. (5)

Interestingly, however, such a notion of "public accountability" and the normative demands on international organizations and governance networks that may be derived from it seem to be on the retreat. In the recent literature we find public accountability in the guise of accountability to peers within governance networks, to markets, or to ombudsmen and courts. (6) For a growing number of authors, public accountability is becoming an umbrella term, meant to describe a variety of accountability mechanisms that operate in the realm of public (as opposed to corporate) governance. Only for a minority, it seems, does the term "public accountability" still pertain quite specifically to the opportunity of citizens to critically monitor and debate proceedings of political decision-making. (7) What we observe here is a definitional contest between traditional notions of democratic accountability and rival accountability concepts that have their origin predominantly in management and public administration. …

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