Conservative causes go global

A grand battle has been joined between traditionally left-wing international organizations and upstarts on the right, reports Duquesne professor CLIFFORD BOB


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International campaigns to promote social and economic causes are increasingly common. Nongovernment organizations, foundations, commentators, celebrities and citizens have pressured governments to establish the International Criminal Court, ban landmines and encourage environmental sustainability. They seek to slow global warming, broaden access to reproductive rights and promote any number of other progressive goals.

Such activism has become so frequent that international "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, conservative organizations increasingly are taking to the global stage, too, despite a reputation for knee-jerk aversion to international institutions as embodiments of liberal soft-headedness.

Consider recent debates over gay rights. As the human rights movement pushes for them at the United Nations, a backlash is growing. Traditionalists have crossed national and religious boundaries to form a powerful network that has stymied efforts in many places to recognize even the concept of sexual orientation. Members of this "Baptist-burqa" coalition may not agree among themselves on dogma, but conservative Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Jews and Muslims work together to promote long-established values, customs and prohibitions. Recent protests against gay marriage in France exemplify the trend.

In 2009, when Italian secularists backed by foreign 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 conservative 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 both 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 anything like a Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protects "the right of the people to keep and bear arms." The NRA-supported World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities has been active at the United Nations, raising objections most recently against the Arms Trade Treaty to control the illicit trade in small arms, which was approved by the General Assembly last month.

Proponents of development aid also find themselves challenged by powerful civil society organizations. Groups such as the Inter Region Network in Kenya decry aid as destructive to indigenous business as they promote free-market solutions to poverty and urge that Africa be seen as a land of economic opportunity.

On environmental issues ranging from global warming to genetically modified foods, NGOs opposing controls have helped torpedo or hamstring international agreements.

No doubt some of the right-wing groups are Trojan horses, funded by corporations or bankrolled by states with specific agendas, rather than being spontaneous manifestations of popular opinion. But many of the left-wing networks, with their foundation support and professional staffs, are not exactly grassroots organizations either.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, global civil society is ideologically diverse and contentious. And in some respects, it has long been so. Historical examples include the movements for and against slavery and women's suffrage, both of which involved international networks.

In recent decades, however, witnessing the growth of progressive global institutions, conservatives have put more resources onto the field. They block, delay or reshape initiatives they loathe, but also launch their own initiatives, advancing their own visions of such fuzzy terms as human rights, justice and environmental sustainability.

So, even as right-wing political leaders denounce international institutions as threats to national sovereignty, conservative groups, such as the NRA, have sought and been granted consultative status at the United Nations. Others argue cases before the European Court of Human Rights or file amicus curiae briefs in foreign courts on cases involving everything from home-schooling to hate speech.

Like their progressive counterparts, conservative groups have built international networks. In Brazil, for instance, arguments and advertisements from U.S. 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 and India have 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 internationalized -- and this is true not only in weak states that might seem most susceptible to overseas pressure. Even in the United States, activists use overseas events to influence domestic politics. In fighting the Matthew Shepard law establishing hate crimes based on sexual orientation, for example, American groups pointed to other democracies' prosecutions of conservative clergy for sermons allegedly inciting hatred against gays.

In some domestic settings, right-wing groups advocate national laws imposing strict registration requirements on what they see as hostile foreign NGOs. They scrutinize and censure opponents' every move. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, a war of the watchdogs has broken out, with every aspect of human-rights activism -- 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 are made, the struggles usually continue in both national and international venues.

Today, conservative activists are as comfortable and adept on the global playing field as liberals. 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. They have taken the battle over any number of global policies to a new level of intensity.

This may upset a lot of liberals, but it makes international arenas more representative of the diversity of opinion that has long resided in "civil society."

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Clifford Bob, a professor of political science at Duquesne University, is the author of "The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics," published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. Reprinted with permission of YaleGlobal Online, www.yaleglobal.yale.edu.


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