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Should NGOs be involved in foreign policy formulation?

Published on 30 August 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

I have recently seen the suggestion that, in the context of introducing Good Governance to foreign affairs, states should accept Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) as contributors to a national foreign policy. Good governance is an emotionally loaded term used to outline a theoretical and uniform Platonic “best practice” to which all countries and their Ministries of Foreign Affairs should aspire.

Arguing against suggestions for “good practice” is akin to challenging motherhood and apple pie. Of course, MFAs can become more effective if they become more inclusive (unless bureaucrats tie themselves up in knots managing inclusiveness). Rather than arguing the principle, therefore, I shall look at experience. In doing so, I shall define NGOs as “political pressure groups with a foreign relations attitude,” irrespective of their institutional structure. Such groups embody a “bottom-up approach” – the wishes of at least some of the governed.

In my broad definition, NGOs have a long history of involvement in foreign affairs. In China three thousand years ago, “the interplay of trade and expansion had been gradually pushing the northeastern frontier of China to as far as northern Korea.”[1] At that time, diplomats were traders, and traders were known to impersonate diplomats (the diplomatic language bears witness to the fluidity of the border between public and private interest).

While the trade interest never receded, NGOs over time developed further ambitions. In the West, groups urged their government to effect regime or cultural change abroad. Early on, religious groups pushed for jihad or crusades. Missionary and anti-slavery societies came next.[2] As nationalism replaced religion as a collective ideal, groups began to advocate blessing the barbarians with democracy and universalistic human rights. Byron and his friends in Greece may have been precursors. Gladstone was in Naples in 1850/51 and publicly urged Great Britain to intervene on behalf of the opposition to the king[3] (while he was unsuccessful in Naples, Gladstone successfully parlayed his public stance into a political career, to be rescued at the time of the “Bulgarian atrocities” in 1876). Western countries enforced consular protection at the mouth of the cannon.[4]

British and Piedmontese Masonic Lodges may have funded part of Garibaldi’s mad dash from Sicily to Naples in 1860.[5] As nationalism enfolded, irredentist groups at home urged action over the border. Colonial expansion was a popular ambition. The emergence of mass armies created NGOs devoted to preparing the citizenry to fight wars (in Germany e.g. they were the Schützenvereine, with an enrollment of three million). These organizations were often a hotbed of jingoism. Arguably, an NGO – Serbia’s “Black Hand” – started WWI. One could contend that terrorist groups are “deviated” NGOs.

Mass migration created diasporas. The electoral power of the German minorities in the US delayed the country joining in WWI. Irish immigrants in the US sustained Irish independence (and beyond). Diasporas created and sustained states – Israel is a good example. Remittances kept China’s imperial government afloat in the second half of the XIXth century. Nowadays, a diaspora’s political and financial clout can sway policies both in the host and in the origin country.

Domestic politics can create strange bedfellows. The US yellow press looking for better sales pushed for the country’s intervention in Cuba in 1898 and then the Philippines.[6] In 1913, Italian Prime Minister Giolitti “bribed” the political right into conceding general male franchise by starting a colonial war in Libya.

The end of WWII brought about a surge in “do-goodism” abroad. NGOs concerned themselves with economic development but also cultural themes.[7] They soon expanded into institutional development. From the Baltic to the Cape of Good Hope, volunteers taught democracy, human values, and free markets. NGOS vociferously and successfully called for military interventions (Africa, Libya, and now the Levant).

My cursory historical excursion shows that NGOs have been able to influence foreign policy. Particularly today, foreign policy as “elitist” is diplomatic lore. NGOs will affect foreign policy in future also. The problem, then, is not whether to give NGOs a voice. The core issue is what role their contribution should take.

Foreign policy, I would contend, is not the triangulation of private interests, but a careful balancing of the private and public interest in foreign affairs. This is the core task of an MFA (not being “his master’s voice” abroad). As input and enrichment of this process of acquiring knowledge and developing foreign policy, NGOs’ knowledge and arguments are welcome. There is a tendency today, unfortunately, to see government as default incompetent – an empty vessel best filled by the wisdom of particular interests.[8] When in half an hour an individual can sway foreign policy – as was the case for France’s intervention in Libya[9] – this is downright reckless. It is evidence of the curse of O’CONNOR’s Law: conviction is inversely proportional to experience.

Conviction sways. Conviction sways money; money reinforces conviction. It is a self-reinforcing process. Conviction backgrounds experienced knowledge. In conviction is imminent danger.


[1] Ying-Shin U (1967): Trade and expansion in Han China. A study in the structure of Sino-Barbarian economic relations. University of California Press, Berkeely, pg. 93.

[2] For the interplay of military force, trade, and missionary zeal in the Mediterraneqan see e.g. Michael B. OREN (2007):Power, faith, and fantasy. America in the Middle East 1776 to the present. Norton, New York.

[3] “In 1850/51 Gladstone visited Naples for the benefit of his daughter Mary’s eyesight. Gladstone became concerned at the political situation in Naples and the arrest and imprisonment of Neapolitan liberals. In February 1851 the government allowed Gladstone to visit the prisons where they were held and he deplored their condition. In April and July he published two Letters to the Earl of Aberdeen against the Neapolitan government and responded to his critics in An Examination of the Official Reply of the Neapolitan Government in 1852. Gladstone’s first letter described what he saw in Naples as “the negation of God erected into a system of government.” https://bit.ly/1KT7TeN

[4] Here is the amusing story of David Pacifico, a British subject from Gibraltar of Portuguese Jewish descent. In 1847, an anti-Semitic mob that included the sons of a government minister, attacked and vandalized Don Pacifico’s home in Athens whilst police looked on and did nothing. He was then living and working in the Greek capital as the Portuguese consul. Don Pacifico appealed to the Greek government for compensation for loss of possessions. When it became clear that compensation would not be given, he turned to the British for redress. Foreign minister Lord Palmerston decided that military action would be justified and dispatched a squadron of the Royal Navy to blockade Piraeus, the port of Athens. After an eight week blockade, the Greek government paid compensation to Pacifico. Lord Palmerston justified his military intervention in Parliament quoting as precedent the phrase, “I am a Roman citizen.” This sentence embodied the principle of “extraterritoriality,” the right of a person abroad to be tried in accordance with the law of his origin, rather than that of his residence. US refusal to submit his soldiers to international war crime tribunals is an avatar of the principle.

[5] See e.g. Lorenzo DEL BOCA (2011): Maledetti Savoia. La storia d’Italia non è quella che ci hanno insegnato a scuola. Piemme, Milano

[6] David NASAW (2000): The Chief. The life of William Randolph Hearst Houghton Mifflin, New York.

[7] Admittedly, in the 50es, both the Soviet and the Western block secretly funded “cultural” NGOs to push their civilizational model.

[8] Frederic HAYEK started the fad against government; Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan vulgarized it. Ronald Reagan’s great achievement, however, was his insistence on the “common good” in foreign affairs.

[9] “In March, 2011, the well-connected French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy arrived in the city and took it upon himself to make sure that the rebels got aid. In Paris recently, I asked Lévy why he’d adopted the Libyan cause. “Why? I don’t know!” he said. “Of course, it was human rights, for a massacre to be prevented, and blah blah blah—but I also wanted them to see a Jew defending the liberators against a dictatorship, to show fraternity. I wanted the Muslims to see that a Frenchman—a Westerner and a Jew—could be on their side.”

Lévy said that he returned to Paris and told President Nicolas Sarkozy that humanitarian intervention wasn’t enough. “The real objective had to be to topple Qaddafi,” he told me. Sarkozy agreed, and Lévy became his emissary. Lévy accompanied a Libyan opposition leader to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to lobby for U.S. involvement.* “It was hard to convince the Americans,” he said. “Robert Gates was totally opposed. Obama as usual was hesitating. But Hillary got it.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/unravelling

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