Keck & Sikkink: Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics

Keck, Margaret E. and Kathryn Sikkink. 1998. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY.

1.Transnational Advocacy Networks in International Politics: Introduction (1–38)

By the end of the twentieth century, the authors argue (in 1998), nonstate actors play significant roles on the global stage of politics—transforming and challenging conceptions of national sovereignty through networked relationships. These networks vary with time, context, and issue, but include “those relevant actors working internationally on an issue, who are bound together by shared values, a common discourse, and dense exchanges of information and services” (2).

The fundamental goal of such networks is to create a boomerang pattern. For example, if, for whatever reason, individuals (or organizations) in a country are unable to effectively persuade that state government to initiate change, they may nonetheless be able to activate a transnational network focused on the issue. This network can in turn influence other states and international organizations—and these other actors can then exert pressure on the original state at the global level.

But how? Transnational advocacy networks deploy four main types of tactics:  information politics (generation and dissemination of salient information), symbolic politics (use of symbols, narratives, etc. to connect with a variety of audiences), leverage politics (alliances with stronger actors), and accountability politics (holding actors to promises and avowed principles).

But not all issues trigger transnational advocacy networks—and even among those that do, not all do so successfully. Network success depends to a certain degree on the density and information flows between actors, but a number of issue characteristics influence whether or not a network forms around an issue, including the ability to identify/assign a direct causal agent to the problem and the ability to articulate a clear solution. But the two most significant factors, the authors contend, are “issues involving bodily harm to vulnerable individuals” and “issues involving legal equality of opportunity” (27).

Question: While the authors agree wholeheartedly with the idea that the public sphere contains far more actors than merely the state, they are uncertain as to whether or not transnational advocacy networks should be located within a “global civil society.” At the time of their writing this, information and communication technologies were not as developed as they are today. But do these technological advances support a global civil society today? Can such a thing ever exist?

2. Historical Precursors to Modern Transnational Advocacy Networks (39–78)

This chapter examines the Anglo-American abolitionist movement (1833–1865); the international suffrage movement (1888–1928); the antifootbinding movement led by Western missionaries and Chinese reformers (1874–1911); and the movement to end female genital mutilation in Kenya by Western missionaries and British colonial authorities.

Through these examples, the authors explore the tension between transnational and local forms in different contexts. Thus, for example, the arguments of Chinese reformers resonated better with nationalist discourse about modernity at the time than the arguments of Western missionaries and activists; on the other hand, these Western missionaries and activists offered a particular vision of modernity through their efforts, thus affecting the shape of the nationalist discourse.

In Kenya, similar efforts by Westerners with regard to female genital mutilation among the Kikuyu backfired. An increasingly important nationalist organization, the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), defined itself partially through its opposition to the Western stance on female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation thus came to symbolize an important cultural tradition under attack by Western colonialists. Drawing on this argument, Jomo Kenyatta, key figure in the KCA, traveled to Britain and persuaded politicians there to withdraw their support for the movement to end it.

Question: One of the things that struck me reading this chapter was the role of religious groups in many of these social movements. This makes sense, as the borders of religious identity obviously don’t match those of national identity, but I wonder if this doesn’t somehow grant these organizations different powers as network actors. Not all actors have the same characteristics, and it may be that the more salient features of actor identity lie in elements outside the domestic–international frame.

3. Human Rights Advocacy Networks in Latin America (79–120)

Through the issue of human rights, this chapter discusses what is one of the most intriguing features of transnational advocacy networks (and international organizations more generally): their challenge to traditional concepts of national sovereignty.

A conjunction of specific individuals, organizations, and the post-WWII era led to the establishment—at least in terms of documents, policies, and organizations, if not always actions—of human rights as inalienable individual rights that override state sovereignty rights. Amnesty International and other international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) began to flourish during this period. Within this context, two different ideal types of international advocacy relationships are articulated: the human rights tradition, which argues that individuals are endowed with rights, and the solidarity framework, which is community-centric and rallies around defense of a just cause (95).

After exploring the role of foundations—particularly the Ford Foundation—in rights movements in Latin America, this chapter offers case studies of human rights movements in Mexico and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s. The authors see the human rights movement in Argentina as a classic example of the boomerang pattern, that underlines the fact that “international pressures [do] not work independently, but rather in coordination with national actors” (107). The human rights movement in Mexico—which the authors divide into three stages—reveals weaker aspects of the larger transnational advocacy network: in part because the Mexican government espoused a policy of active protection of human rights, the transnational network was slow to become involved in Mexico, despite egregious human rights violations that directly conflicted with official policy.

Question: I may be misreading them, but it seems as if the authors exclude state actors from membership in transnational advocacy networks; rather, state actors exist in either opposition or cooperation with the network, but outside it. Can state actors be parts of transnational advocacy networks? If so, what would that look like?

4. Environmental Advocacy Networks (121–163)

This chapter traces the rise of environmental advocacy, including the development of activist groups like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund, as well as the increased focus of international institutions after Sweden’s concerns about transnational acid rain triggered the convening of the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment. It draws on case studies of campaigns to fight deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and the state of Sarawak in Malaysia.

In the case of the Brazilian Amazon, the network successfully deployed information politics by expanding information flows to include local residents in discussions of land development, and accountability politics through pressuring the World Bank to transform its commitment to sustainable development into action. Interestingly, the Sarawak campaign focused attention not on the producer side, but on the consumer side, triggering boycotts of Malaysian hardwood in many countries. Ultimately, however, the Sarawak campaign was considerably less successful than the Amazon, in part because of timing, a national modernist discourse that embraced development, and sovereignty issues of Sarawak within Malaysia. Further, there was no analog to the World Bank involved that could offer an opportunity for sustained international action.

Question: The authors argue that environmental issues present a particular set of challenges, in that the base argument centers around the idea of the environment as a public good. Narratives of stewardship, they suggest, aren’t as broadly resonant as human rights narratives. Do these transnational advocacy networks thus tap into different populations of supporters? Would this produce different patterns of network advocacy?

5. Transnational Networks on Violence Against Women (165–198)

This chapter describes the development of the idea of violence against women as a resonant social problem that organizes experience and unites north and south. Unlike the preceding chapters, this chapter offers no specific case studies, but rather focuses on bridging north-south tensions and the reframing of women’s rights campaigns away from discrimination and equality and toward human rights. One of the reasons for the success of the focal point (violence against women) was that it lent itself to easy localization, whether that took the form of institutionalized sexual abuse in prisons, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, or dowry killings. It did—does—however, raise questions about the right to intervene in private spheres.

Within this context, the authors identify a pattern that frequently appears in successful networks:


Question: This chapter, though interesting, doesn’t quite seem to fit with the others, perhaps because it offers no case studies of particular campaigns, but rather focuses on broader coalition building. By their own description, networks that can offer clear causal narratives and solutions are more likely to be successful—something impossible to do with such a broad movement. Does this mean it isn’t likely to be successful? Or does it perhaps suggest that there are different types of transnational advocacy networks that accomplish different types of goals? If so, what might be some useful categories to break these into?

6. Conclusions (199–217)

In conclusion, the authors argue that more attention should be paid to network forms, that they are important constructions not only in the political economy sphere, but at multiple levels of politics. Although network issues are “in their general form” issues that are unlikely to garner mass mobilization, networks can transform diffuse agreement into action (204). Indeed, they offer the network model in contrast to models of diffusion. They suggest, moreover, that networks can be effective in five different stages:

  1. “by framing debates and getting issues on the agenda;
  2. by encouraging discursive commitments from states and other policy actors;
  3. by causing procedural change at the international and domestic level;
  4. by affecting policy; and
  5. by influencing behavior changes in target actors” (201)

Question: How does a network like Anonymous fit into this picture? (Does it?) Could it perhaps be a different kind of transnational advocacy network than those described by the authors, in that both the specific set of individuals and the issue being advocated and campaigned for regularly changes? Almost a distilled network, where the organizational network itself was of more importance than the specific advocacy issue?

Anonymous's hack of the Formula One site, in support of the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.


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