Academic journal article Global Governance

The John Holmes Memorial Lecture: International Organizations at the Moving Public-Private Borderline

Academic journal article Global Governance

The John Holmes Memorial Lecture: International Organizations at the Moving Public-Private Borderline

Article excerpt

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN A PUBLIC AND A PRIVATE SPHERE IS ESSENTIAL TO politics. The public sphere is commonly associated with the state and politics whereas the private sphere encompasses markets and civil society. Political power and state sovereignty rest on "a set of institutionalized authority claims." (1) The sovereign state's authority claim over its population imparts it with metapolitical authority. That is, the governing bodies of states claim to have, and are recognized as having, the authority to define what is public (and thus political) and what is private (and thus beyond political authority). (2) The range of activities over which political bodies can legitimately exercise authority may vary over time and between states. For instance, the authority claims of modern welfare states are far more extensive than those of medieval or nineteenth-century states, as formerly private aspects of people's lives have become included in the public realm.

The public-private distinction can be seen as one of the "grand dichotomies" of Western thought, subsuming a wide range of other distinctions that shape our understanding and organization of social life. (3) Rather than essential and categorically separable, the terms of this formative distinction are relational and their interpretation has varied over time. The establishment of a distinction between a public and a private sphere is the result of a prolonged and often conflictual historical process. (4) For example, warfare and diplomacy--which we today unquestionably include in the public sphere--were marketized and internationalized well into the nineteenth century. For several centuries, mercenaries were the foundation of European military power. (5) And until the early nineteenth century, diplomacy was an aristocratic pursuit; diplomats who had a sense of belonging to a single "cosmopolitan fraternity" or "aristocratic international" could easily change from one monarchic employer to another. (6)

Conversely, there are activities that today are considered primarily commercial, but not long ago were seen to belong to the public sphere. For example, from its inception in the late 1920s through the immediate post--World War II period, international civil air transport was essentially a government enterprise. The value of aviation was first demonstrated in World War I. Born in an era of war and rampant nationalism, air transportation received much more attention by its parents (state governments) than its older siblings such as shipping and railways. The relative lack of multinational enterprises that remains today in civil air transport is a vestige of its birth in the public sphere. (7)

Simplified understandings of the distinction between public and private neglect the range of variable interpretations and alternative implications of these concepts. And in today's globalized world, the borderline between the public and the private sphere is becoming increasingly diffuse. Domestically as well as internationally, private actors become politicized and public actors become marketized--"the public goes private and the private goes public." (8) What are the consequences for international organizations in general, and the UN system in particular, of this diffuse and moving public-private borderline?

While the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations (IG0s) are traditionally firmly grounded in the public sphere, the global private sphere comprises business (for-profit) actors as well as civil society (nonprofit) actors. The interface and interplay between these types of actors have changed in recent decades. UN attitudes toward the business community have shifted dramatically. The private sector has traditionally been held at arm's length by virtually all parts of the UN system. (9) The UN Centre on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC) was inaugurated in 1974, at a time when giant transnational corporations (TNCs) were seen as a threat to state authority. …

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