Tag Archives: IGOs

Nonstate Actors and Sustainable Development

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon shakes hands with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio +20 (since 20 years have passed since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro) wrapped up on Friday and produced some interesting results.  Sustainable development refers to economic development–an activity often associated with environmental degradation–that preserves the environment for future generations.  The Rio +20 Conference website elaborates on this concept as follows:

“Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Seen as the guiding principle for long-term global development, sustainable development consists of three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental protection.”

Despite numerous opportunities (e.g., Kyoto 1997, Copenhagen 2009) states have generally failed to produce environmental treaties that are both binding and include the world’s major polluters.  For example, on the issue of climate change, states that are responsible for the largest emissions of greenhouse gases (e.g., the U.S. and China) have been unwilling to cause potential harm to their economies by substantially reducing emissions.  Developed and developing countries have traded accusations as some of the former have refused to sign on to binding treaties unless the latter countries are also forced to cut emissions (a requirement developing countries view as unfair and hypocritical). 

Despite (and perhaps because of) this gridlock at the interstate level, nonstate actors have begun to pick up the slack on environmental issues in important ways.  This may be part of a general evolution away from the state-centric Westphalian international system as power in an age of globalization has become dispersed among more and more actors, including Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs), Multinational Corporations (MNCs), terrorist groups, and even individuals.  A New York Times article summarizing the results of the conference was entitled “Progress on the Sidelines as Rio Conference Ends.”   The article describes some of these achievements as follows:

“Yet despite this record [of failure for state-centric treaties], the activity outside the main negotiating sessions here produced hundreds of side agreements that do not require ratification or direct financing by governments and that offer the promise of incremental but real progress…For instance, Microsoft said it would roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. The Italian oil giant Eni said it would reduce its flaring of natural gas. Femsa, a Latin American soft-drink bottler, said it would obtain 85 percent of its energy needs in Mexico from renewable sources…A group of development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities.”

MNCs are the primary type of nonstate actor featured in this article, but local governments, NGOs, and prominent individuals are increasingly active in shaping agendas and mobilizing action on environmental issues. 

What do you think?  Are nonstate actors now the leaders in dealing with environmental problems?  What are the limits of these actors’ influence (if any) in terms of tackling climate change and other issues of sustainable development?

Levels of Analysis and the Euro Crisis

The decisions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel have emerged as a key individual-level driver of outcomes in the eurozone financial crisis.

The financial crisis unfolding in Europe provides a stark illustration of the complex interactions between system-level, state-level, and individual-level variables in contemporary world politics. Political scientists employ these three (and sometimes more) levels of analysis as an analytical device to categorize the causal “drivers” that produce outcomes in international relations.  This framework might shed light on the current Eurozone crisis as follows:

(1) The system level of analysis includes attributes of the international system and supranational actors.  The power imbalance between the wealthier and more financially secure European states, such as Germany, and those needing bailouts, such as Portugal and Greece, can be viewed as a system-level factor placing pressure on weaker states to abide by the stronger countries’ demands.  The same could be said of the “top-down” pressure from International Governmental Organizations (IGOs) such as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund on countries such as Greece and Ireland to enact austerity measures in exchange for bailouts.

(2) The state or domestic level of analysis includes factors such as political institutions, interest groups, public opinion, and political parties.  The ease with which governments can fall in parliamentary systems (as opposed to presidential systems) helps to explain the events of the past week in Greece and Italy.  The anti-austerity attitudes of public opinion and labor unions have led to political instability and a reluctance by some policymakers to agree to the harsh terms imposed by external actors.

(3) The individual level of analysis focuses on the choices, perceptions, and personalities of individuals (normally political leaders and other influential individuals).  The critical decisions by former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to (a)  call for a referendum on the bailout plan, and then (b) to withdraw this request and hand over power to an interim government are causal drivers located at the individual level of analysis.  The perceptions and choices by other key players such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Central Bank Chairman Mario Draghi are also important individual-level factors that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the course of this crisis.

What do you think?  Do causal drivers at one level of analysis seem to be particularly influential in the current European financial crisis?  How are variables from different levels interacting to shape outcomes?  Is it possible to model these interactions and predict how all of this will end, or is such a feat beyond the skills of even our best political scientists?