Private Authority: Non-State Actors and Global Governance

By Hall, Rodney Bruce | Harvard International Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Private Authority: Non-State Actors and Global Governance


Hall, Rodney Bruce, Harvard International Review


More than half a century since political scientists Harold Laswell and Abraham Kaplan advocated power analysis as a framework for political analysis of all forms, the concept of power has remained a highly contested concept in political analysis. Nowhere does it remain more contested than in the analysis of international relations. And if the nature of power in international politics is contested by analysts and observers, the question of authority--the legitimate use of power--is even more hotly contested.

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Authority and Legitimacy as a Power Resource

The world has suffered enormously from the destructive consequences of contests of state power in the 20th century. These contests have manifested themselves in two global interstate wars, and in the prolonged tensions of an ideological and bipolar Cold War with a disturbing tendency to blow up into a series of quite hot wars between superpower clients and proxies. The destructiveness of the two World Wars resulted in a significant attempt to construct a more pacifistic global order--an order predicated on collective decision-making among mutually sovereign states and on the rule of law. The pre-war international order, based upon state pursuit of unilateral advantage through bilateral diplomacy and military alliance politics, had twice resulted in globally destructive, multi-year conflicts that killed tens of millions of people. After the destruction of the Second World War, this order was considered decisively illegitimate. A more multilateral approach to global governance was sought.

The new order transcended borders and entailed multiple international institutions. The security functions of this order were institutionalized in the Security Council of the United Nations. The economic functions were apportioned to the Bretton Woods institutions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which has now morphed into the more ambitious trade negotiating forum of the World Trade Organization.

In a highly influential article published in International Organization in the 1980s, international relations theorist John Gerard Ruggie argued that the resulting post-war "embedded liberal" order constituted a fusion of Anglo-American social power with legitimate social purpose. It is this legitimate social purpose that has lent international organizations (IOs) the status of ultimate arbiters of authoritative international decision-making. They are authoritative precisely in the sense that the power they wield is thought to be exercised legitimately on behalf of the international community of states. Max Weber, one of the fathers of modern sociology, famously defined authority as the legitimate exercise of power. Authority is a social commodity that cannot be usurped or successfully claimed unilaterally. It must be publicly claimed and publicly acknowledged by the subjects of the exercise of power. Whereas the sovereign state alone continues to, in Weber's terminology, enjoy a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within its borders, the post-war community of states has tended to deny this legitimacy to the international use of force and has reserved the power to authorize the use of international force to the Security Council of the United Nations.

Some of the sources of the authority of these international institutions have readily recognizable historical antecedents and provide significant utility to institutions recognized as moral or ethical authorities. In fact, moral authority should be recognized as a power resource in its own right. The great Pope Innocent III, for example, employed his moral authority to depose the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV, with little but theological pronouncements and a universally acknowledged claim of authority to judge a man's moral suitability to temporal rulership.

Certainly no contemporary international organization, including the UN Security Council, enjoys anything like the unequivocal moral authority that Innocent enjoyed. …

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