Chicago Journal of International Law


For centuries, international diplomacy was predominantly an affair of states. Neither private actors nor even parliaments had much influence on the goals that governments pursued abroad, the commitments they undertook, or the extent to which their behavior conformed to their international commitments. This environment was ideally suited to the shifting alliances of balance of power politics, and to the doctrine of unconditional sovereignty that governments (especially dictatorships) have always found convenient. During the mid- to late-twentieth century, though, a new set of actors-international non-governmental organizations ("NGOs")-began to assert their voice in international diplomacy. As a result, both inter-governmental organizations like the United Nations and the foreign ministries of individual states are now increasingly accustomed (however reluctantly) to the presence of NGOs wherever diplomatic agendas are being set, foreign policies implemented, treaties negotiated, and compliance monitored. After summarizing the nature and activities of international NGOs, this paper responds to the two principal forms of skepticism typically engendered by their increasing salience in international diplomacy. First, I rebut the analytical claim that NGOs are like the background noise of world politics-present, and perhaps annoying, but inconsequential. I then contest the normative claim that the activity of NGOs threatens the processes of popular accountability that sustain representative democracy. Instead, I argue that NGOs have been effective in helping to place certain conditions on the exercise of state sovereignty, and that this effect has advanced, rather than undermined, democratic values worldwide. However inconvenient this development may sometimes be in the short-term, the American people and government should recognize that the spread of international NGOs is helping to create an international order that is consistent with America's long term interests in the rule of law and respect for human rights throughout the international system.

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