International campaigns on social and economic issues are increasingly common. NGOs, foundations, journalists, celebrities and citizens have pressured governments to establish an International Criminal Court, institute a ban on land mines and promote environmental sustainability. They are also trying to slow global warming, broaden access to reproductive rights and promote a number of progressive goals.
Such activism, not always successful, has become so frequent that “global civil society” is often portrayed as a bastion of left-wing politics — a realm of like-minded groups working to counter corporate power, state repression and cultural backwardness.
Yet for all the liberal groups working across borders, the voices of another civil society are also making themselves heard. Right-wing civic groups are taking to the global stage, despite a reputation for knee-jerk aversion to international institutions as embodiment of liberal causes. Conservative groups can attract allies, exploit receptive venues and find additional examples supporting their ideas.
Consider recent debates over gay rights. Even as the human rights movement has pushed for them at the United Nations, a backlash has emerged. Traditional believers have crossed national and religious boundaries to form a powerful network that has stymied efforts to recognize even the concept of sexual orientation. Members of this informal “Baptist-burqa” coalition may not agree among themselves on dogma. But conservative Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Jews and Muslims have worked together for years promoting long-established values, customs and prohibitions. This week’s protests against gay marriage in France exemplify the trend.
In 2009, when Italian secularists backed by foreign rights NGOs brought a court case challenging crucifixes in classrooms, a transnational faith coalition fought it. Prominent in this and other European clashes were American-supported activists and legal advocacy groups such as the European Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defense Fund.
On more conventional human rights themes, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch face off not only against the governments they target, but also against other civil society groups. In the Middle East, rights activism now comes under microscopic analysis and scathing criticism from the Israeli group NGO Watch. Such organizations aim to support their own countries’ policies and, more fundamentally, to challenge rights groups’ reputations as unbiased moral beacons.
The National Rifle Association has catalyzed an international network promoting the right to own guns in countries lacking a Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
The amendment states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Members of the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities (WFSA) have been active for decades at the UN. In 2012, they raised objections to and helped kill the Arms Trade Treaty, which was meant to control the illicit trade in small arms.
Proponents of development aid also find themselves challenged by powerful civil society organizations. Groups such as the Inter Region Network in Kenya promote free-market solutions, decry aid as destructive to indigenous business, and urge that Africa be seen as a land of opportunity. On environmental issues from global warming to genetically modified foods, NGOs opposing controls have helped torpedo or hamstring international agreements.
In these and other cases, right-wing organizations have gone global. Some of these groups are Trojan horses, funded by corporations or bankrolled by states with specific agendas but the same can be said of grassroots left-wing networks, with their support and professional staffs.
Despite illusions to the contrary, global civil society is ideologically diverse and contentious. Indeed it’s always been so, as suggested by historical examples such as the pro-slavery and anti-suffrage movements, both of which involved international influences. Today, with the growth of international institutions, many conservatives have decided that it’s more effective to fight from within than without. By doing so, they can block, delay or reshape initiatives they loathe. Nor do right-wing forces simply oppose “progress.” Instead, they promote their own visions of such fuzzy terms as rights, justice, sustainability as well as different means of achieving them
As right-wing political leaders denounce international institutions or warn against threats to national identities, conservative groups like the NRA have applied for and received consultative status at the UN. So has the WFSA. Others, such as the European Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom, argue cases before the European Court of Human Rights or file briefs in foreign courts on everything from home-schooling to hate speech.
Conservative groups have international networks, linking up with like-minded organizations in countries, they share strategies. In Brazil, arguments and advertisements from US and Canadian groups helped defeat a 2005 referendum to ban private arms sales. Groups from countries as diverse as Colombia, South Africa and India have reached out to the NRA, Gun Owners of America and Canada’s National Firearms Association for support in fighting local battles.
Now, many political debates within countries are now internationalized. Even in the United States, activists seek not only to influence foreign decisions, but use overseas events to influence domestic politics. In fighting the Mathew Shepard law criminalizing hate crimes based on sexual orientation, American groups pointed to other democracies’ prosecutions of conservative ministers for sermons allegedly inciting hatred against gays.
In a ceaseless quest to advance their goals, left- and right-wingers scour the globe for settings favorable to their views. They propose their own policies and norms, seeking to bootstrap them into international law. They warn of crises, promoting solutions with competing stables of academic experts, moral megastars and celebrities.
In domestic settings, right-wing groups support new national laws imposing strict registration requirements on hostile foreign NGOs. They scrutinize and censure their opponents’ every move. In some cases, a war of the watchdogs has broken out with every aspect of human rights reporting — factual claims, legal analysis, political objectivity — being challenged.
Who wins? It’s hard to predict and varies by case. A civic network’s ability to include a powerful state as an ally plays a key role. Progressive and conservative groups work with like-minded governments to enlist them to their causes.
The conservative activism that makes this possible is not the result of some “vast right-wing conspiracy,” as Hillary Clinton once warned. There is huge diversity and conflict among groups too glibly labeled right-wing. But clearly, “global civil society” is not the exclusive domain of progressive groups. Nor is it an easy route to achieve policy goals blocked at home.
Conservative activists are equally comfortable and adept on the global playing field. They have mastered the rules of international organizations and honed alliance-building strategies. They have alternative ideas that resonate with large local and international audiences. They have taken the battle over any number of global policies to a new level. This may upset liberal advocates hoping to advance their goals, but it makes international arenas more representative of the diversity of opinion in civil society.
Clifford Bob, professor of political science at Duquesne University, is the author of “The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics.”