The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics (Book review)

Interesting coincidence that I stumbled upon Tom Murphy's post 'The NRA has no clue about the UN' on how an NRA spokesperson ‘discusses’ the UN treaty on fire arms while reading Clifford Bob's latest book. In the end, it boiled down to the well-rehearsed argument from the political right that an unaccountable UN may be able one day to take away fire arms from law-abiding Americans citizens. Besides some good, old-fashioned fear-mongering it exposes a key component of right wing lobbying in international affairs: Plant a seed of doubt and see it growing in public policy debates.

Once you start digging deeper into the debates of global governance and right wing civil society political interference you probably end up at a point where you ask yourself ‘Why hasn’t anybody written a book about this yet?!’ The good news is: Clifford Bob’s ‘The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics’ is a well-researched, accessible introduction to the complex topic of how global civil society and governance are no longer the exclusive domain of left-leaning and progressive organisations. By looking at contested policy themes such as gay marriage or international and national gun control/access, Bob outlines an important new arena for research on international politics that enhances traditional understanding of the triangle of ‘civil society’, ‘state’ and ‘markets’. In short, his book ‘highlights the battle of networks, marked by exclusionary strategies, negative tactics, and dissuasive ideas’.

Sowing the seeds of doubt

The strength and beauty of Bob’s argument lies in the fact that he avoids extensive forecasting, speculations and over-theorising and looks at the topic from a researcher's perspective who is surprised by the omission of an important debate although it happens right under our eyes. Therefore, the outline of his main arguments is interesting and also straightforward:

First, transnational politics is ideologically diverse and conflictive. [...] Second, the battles cut across institutions and borders. [...] Third, the globalised combat influences outcomes, whether policy, nonpolicy or “zombie” policy. [...] Finally, global civil society is not a harmonious field of like-minded NGOs. It is a contentious arena riven by fundamental differences criss-crossing national and international boundaries. (pp.5-7)
Maybe this will sound less surprising to frontline NGO advocacy and communication staff or in fact to many who actively work on the front lines of global governance and policy-making, but as Bob outlines in his introductory chapter, these debates have really been absent from academic research and teaching on global governance. What Bob also mentions in the introduction is that in an age of highly networked, professional organisations and sometimes very dichotomising debates, ‘the distinction between self-interested conservatives and principled progressives is [...] overdrawn’ (p.11).

In the second chapter, Bob reviews the existing literature around global policy-making and, almost in passing, highlights important nuggets of political science wisdom:

Notwithstanding its importance in the scholarly literature, agenda setting does not guarantee new policy. That requires substantive decisions by political leaders. (p.27)
In the end, Bob reminds us of a key dynamic we are currently experiencing elsewhere, e.g. in the areas of ‘climate change’ or ‘creationism’:
The book’s core hypothesis is that opposition makes policy harder to achieve. [...] It fosters both affirmative and negative strategies. (p.34)
Because there hardly is any issue that can be predicted and planned with 100% certainty, researchers, progressive advocates and policy-makers need to think of how to engage with the ‘seeds of doubt’ – especially as demands for ‘evidence-based’ policy are increasing and the evidence is often open to interpretation or even manipulation.

In his first case study ‘Culture Wars Gone Global – Gay Rights versus the Baptist-Burqua Network’ Bob analyses in detail the debates around ‘sexual orientation’ in global UN policy declarations.

To have focused only on the gay network’s affirmative efforts would have missed [the conflicts], and might even have suggested that a new norm was emerging. That is a fine hope, but the reality is bleaker. (p.71)
In an area where opposition of certain countries or interests can mean a delay in decision-making and language-changing for years – sometimes decades – non-action, slow-downs etc. are part of ‘successful’ strategies of right wing influences.

The following chapter is a detailed case study of how US based organisation got involved in ‘Litigating for the Lord’, basically dispatching top attorneys to influence a Swedish court that dealt with the case of a pastor who was eventually convicted under a new law criminalising ‘disrespect’ for groups defined by sexual orientation after extensive speeches on the ‘inhumane’ nature of homosexuality. The right wing Christian supporters from the US are an interesting example of how ‘advocates undertake overseas forays, using the results of one battle, whether positive or negative, on the other fronts they contest’ (p.96), e.g. by inviting the pastor to California during the ‘Proposition 8’ debate.

The final two case studies analyse the Small Arms Review Conference and subsequent UN efforts to curb small arms and the ‘Battlefield Brazil’ on how ‘National Disarmament and International Activism’ clashed in Brazil. As the previous case studies they are very detailed and especially the case of Brazil has certainly been under-researched. On the partial success of the small arms conventions Bob concludes:

The contentiousness of the small arms issue might seem surprising. After all, in the early 1990s, scientific communities, advocacy NGOs, and the UN worked together to define what they saw as an important global problem and to devise a detailed set of solutions.’ (p.145). [...] There is little question, however, that in understanding small arms policy, it is essential to analyze not just the NGOs claiming a crisis, but also those denying it – and their recurring clashes with one another. (p.146).
An important point Bob points out in the Brazilian case study is that
None of [the debates with foreign organisations] is to say that Brazil’s contest over guns is an overseas transplant. Its primary sources are national. However, key players on both sides are coached, aided and cheered by rival transnational networks.’ (p.159)
'There are certain people you really should not waste one jot of energy attempting to inform or convert'
Bob is aware that his introduction to the topic leaves plenty of room for more research and that he may have been slightly biased by choosing ‘culture-war issues’ (p.187) for the book. But I also agree with Bob that political dichotomisation does not only occur in the arena of gun control or gay rights, but has been a rising (?) phenomenon in global politics as well. I wonder, for example, of how prepared the UN system is for this kind of lobbying when oftentimes very traditional ideas about diplomacy and compromise dominate global policy institutions and debates. As one small arms advocate puts it:

I think often people in movements think that if you could just give [the opposition] the right information they would see it. That isn’t how it’s going to work...There are certain people you really should not waste one jot of energy attempting to inform or convert or whatever, because that is a bit of energy you could be using to save lives in some way. (p.196)
All in all, Clifford Bob’s book is a refreshing read with a genuine and not over-stretched analytical and empirical framework and one of those books that you should put on your personal reading list or the list for students to get a more contemporary and critical view on traditional governance research and the idea that ‘globalisation’ will offer only one definitive path to constructive engagement of cosmopolitan, progressive and transnational civil society in world politics. 

Bob, Clifford: The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics, ISBN: 978-0521145442, 240 pages, CAD27.95, Cambridge University Press.
Full disclosure: I asked Clifford Bob for a review copy and he arranged with Cambridge University Press to send me one in March 2012


  1. While I agree with you that the origin of the change isn't going to come from nowhere and requires a widespread shift in thinking, what it eventually needs to achieve is to reform the institutions etc. We're living in a material world, you're not going to convince anybody to move their ass with throwing around philosophy and epistemology. What we need is a practical how to. Best,


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