Conservative causes go global

By Clifford Bob

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 landmines and promote environmental sustainability. They are also trying to slow global warming, broaden access to reproductive rights and promote any number of other progressive goals.

Such activism, not always successful, has become so frequent that “global civil society” is often portrayed as a bastion of leftwing politics — a realm of likeminded 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 kneejerk aversion to international institutions as embodiment of liberal causes. Indeed, by doing so, 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.

As another example, 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, ECLJ, and the Alliance Defense Fund, ADF.

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 organisations aim both to support their own countries’ policies and, more fundamentally, to challenge rights groups’ reputations as unbiased moral beacons.

In another sphere, the National Rifle Association, NRA, has catalysed an international network promoting the right to own guns in countries lacking a Second Amendment. 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 the Arms Trade Treaty controlling the illicit trade in small arms, helping to kill the treaty.

Proponents of development aid, too, find themselves challenged by powerful civil society organisations. 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 organisations have gone global. No doubt some of these groups are Trojan horses, funded by corporations or bankrolled by states with specific agendas, rather than being spontaneous manifestations of popular opinion. But much the same can be said for many so-called grassroots left-wing networks, with their foundation 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 them 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.

So even as right-wing political leaders denounce international institutions or warn against threats to national identities, conservative groups such as the NRA have applied for and received consultative status at the UN. So has WFSA. Others, such as the ECLJ and ADF, argue cases before the European Court of Human Rights or file amicus curiae briefs in foreign courts on everything from homeschooling to hate speech.

Like their progressive counterparts, conservative groups have built international networks. Linking up with like-minded organisations in other countries, they share strategies. Consider Brazil, where arguments and advertisements from US and Canadian gun groups helped defeat a 2005 referendum to ban private arms sales. Sport-shooting groups from countries as diverse as Colombia, South Africa or India have also reached out to the NRA, Gun Owners of America, and Canada’s National Firearms Association for support in fighting local battles.

As a consequence, many political debates within countries are now internationalised, and nor is this only true of weak states that might seem most susceptible to overseas pressure. Even in the US, activists seek not only to influence foreign decisions, but use overseas events, positive or negative, to influence domestic politics. For instance, in fighting the Mathew Shepard law criminalising 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, the left-wing and right-wing scour the globe for settings and examples favorable to their views. They propose their own conflicting policies and norms, seeking to bootstrap them into international law. They warn about crises, promoting a rival set of solutions with competing stables of academic experts, moral megastars and Hollywood celebrities.

In domestic settings, right-wing groups support new national laws imposing strict registration requirements on hostile foreign NGOs. They scrutinise and censure their opponents’ every move. In some cases, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, 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 these battles? It’s difficult to predict and varies by case. But a civic network’s ability to include a powerful state as an ally plays a key role. Both progressive and conservative groups work closely with like-minded governments, seeking to enlist them to their causes. Even after decisions on particular policies, the struggle continues in other national and international venues.

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.

Today, conservative activists are equally comfortable and adept on the global playing field. They have mastered the arcane rules of international organizations and honed alliance-building strategies. They have devised alternative ideas that resonate with large local and international audiences. And they have taken the battle over any number of global policies to a new level of intensity. 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.

This post was originally published at YaleGlobal

17 January 2013