Reconstituting the Global Public Domain — Issues, Actors, and Practices

AuthorJohn Gerard Ruggie
Publication Date01 December 2004
Date01 December 2004
Reconstituting the Global Public Domain
— Issues, Actors, and Practices
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
This article draws attention to a fundamental reconstitution of the
global public domain — away from one that for more than three
centuries equated the ‘public’ in international politics with sovereign
states and the interstate realm to one in which the very system of states
is becoming embedded in a broader and deepening transnational arena
concerned with the production of global public goods. One concrete
instance of this transformation is the growing significance of global
corporate social responsibility initiatives triggered by the dynamic
interplay between civil society actors and multinational corporations.
The UN Global Compact and corporate involvement in HIV/AIDS
treatment programs are discussed as examples. The analytical para-
meters of the emerging global public domain are defined and some of
its consequences illustrated by the chain of responses to the Bush
Administration’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol by a variety of
domestic and transnational social actors.
globalization global governance multinational
corporations transnational civil society actors global transforma-
In the more than 30 years since Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye (1972)
introduced the concepts of transnational actors and transnational relations
into our discipline, conventional understandings have consistently failed to
keep pace with actual practices. Transnational corporations and what are
now called civil society organizations have vastly expanded their scope and
modalities of operations, affecting the daily lives and fortunes of people and
in some cases, entire countries across the world. But in the scholarly
heartland only fragments of analytical and theoretical lenses exist through
which to view and interpret the political significance of these institutions and
European Journal of International Relations Copyright © 2004
SAGE Publications and ECPR-European Consortium for Political Research, Vol. 10(4): 499–531
[DOI: 10.1177/1354066104047847]
practices. Indeed, no shared paradigmatic understanding at all exists of the
place the massive global corporate sector occupies on the world political
My aim in this article is to provide a more comprehensive set of lenses,
drawing attention to the beginnings of a fundamental reconstitution of the
global public domain — away from one that equated the ‘public’ in
international politics with states and the interstate realm to one in which the
very system of states is becoming embedded in a broader, albeit still thin and
partial, institutionalized arena concerned with the production of global
public goods. Thus, as Keohane and Nye anticipated, albeit in ways they
could barely imagine at the time, transnationalization is transforming the
world polity.
The article proceeds in the following steps. The first section briefly recalls
the broad evolution of the literature on transnational actors and relations
since the 1970s, to draw from it some of the building blocks of my own
argument. In the second section, I portray the contours of global
governance more or less as they stood at the outset of the post-World War
II era, in which the concepts of ‘public’ and ‘state based’ still were virtually
coterminous. The third section depicts the subsequent spatial transformation
of issues on the global agenda, which created openings for transnational
actors to play new roles on the global stage. The fourth section looks at a
concrete instance of one such role — the articulation and enactment of new
expectations regarding the global social responsibility of private enterprise,
initiated by the dynamic interplay between civil society organizations and
transnational corporations. The fifth section builds on that case to define
more generally key features of the emerging global public domain,
illustrating some of its consequences by describing the chain of reactions by
a variety of social actors to the Bush Administration’s rejection of the Kyoto
Protocol. A brief conclusion recapitulates the argument.
The Transnationalism Debates
In the 1970s, transnational corporations (TNCs) were all the rage and
attracted considerable scholarly attention. Raymond Vernon would later
lament the fact that he titled his path-breaking book Sovereignty at Bay
(1971, 1981). In fact, he had concluded that it was not, but as he noted,
people remembered the title, not his thesis. Conventional international
relations theorists soon responded by imposing what I have elsewhere called
an ‘institutional substitutability’ criterion on transnational actors — if they
did not directly challenge the state by potentially embodying a substitute for
it, they might be interesting in practice, but not worthy of serious theoretical
consideration in a field still dominated by realism, soon to be joined by a
European Journal of International Relations 10(4)
liberal institutionalism that mimicked its ontology and epistemology
(Ruggie, 1993a, 1998b). Because TNCs were not in the same business as
states (this held even more so for organizations such as Amnesty Inter-
national and Oxfam or Greenpeace), theoretical interest in transnational
actors soon faded.
Academic debates in the 1980s centered on the concept of international
regimes — trying to make sense of what they are and how they function, and
to explain differential patterns in their emergence, attributes, and evolution
(Ruggie, 1975; Keohane and Nye, 1977; Krasner, 1983; Kratochwil and
Ruggie, 1986). Regimes were depicted as formal and informal modes of
institutionalized cooperation among states, so whatever roles transnational
actors might play in the context of international regimes (as in the impact of
scientific epistemic communities on environmental regimes, industry asso-
ciations or firms on trade negotiations, or banks on monetary relations) were
filtered through the prisms of their influence on governmental and
intergovernmental policy processes.
The study of transnational civil society organizations (CSOs) began to
flourish in the 1990s.1For American scholarship perhaps the seminal
contribution was Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s (1998) award-
winning book, Activists Beyond Borders, which for the first time traced in
detail the specific bases of influence and circuits of action created and used
by transnational advocacy networks in the areas of human rights and
environment. By then, the concept of global governance had also gained
widespread currency (governance in the absence of government, in James
Rosenau’s (Rosenau and Czempiel, 1992) now classic formulation), so it
was but a short analytical step to conclude that civil society actors had come
to play a role in global governance even though they remained excluded
from most formal intergovernmental settings.
Richard Price (2003) has recently published a useful review article of some
of the major works on CSOs, summarizing what we now know about what
they do and how they do it; what little we know about when and why they
succeed or fail; and the apparent sources as well as limits of their legitimacy.
Understandably, much of the work remains descriptive, though it is getting
progressively ‘thicker’ in the Geertzian meaning of the term (Geertz, 1973),
and generalization remains problematic due to inevitable sampling and
selection constraints.
Although Price is not explicit on the subject, his review also makes it clear
that the basis for an accommodation has emerged between the study of
CSOs in global governance, on the one hand, and mainstream theorizing,
on the other — the works that draw the most attention focus on CSOs
essentially as transnational pressure groups seeking to influence the behavior
of states, intergovernmental negotiations, and the policies of international
Ruggie: Reconstituting the Global Public Domain

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