Obama Gets It Not Quite Right on Civil Society

by Peter Spiro

President Obama’s UN General Assembly speech this morning highlighted the place of civil society as an agent of progress:

Civil society is the conscience of our communities, and America will always extend our engagement abroad with citizens beyond the halls of government. We will call out those who suppress ideas, and serve as a voice for the voiceless. We will promote new tools of communication, so people are empowered to connect with one another – and, in repressive societies, to do so with security. We will support a free and open Internet, so individuals have the information to make up their own minds. And it’s time to embrace – and effectively monitor – norms that advance the rights of civil society, and guarantee its expansion within and across borders.

I’m on board with the global first amendment riff.  But to center civil society as a vehicle for association and expression and community is not at all to say that it is our “conscience.”  Civil society obviously can be a force for good (as in the examples Obama cited, South Africa, Argentina, and Poland), but it’s not necessarily progressive.  The right-wing is globalizing, too.

“Conscience” also implies a kind of inherent selflessness.  But even where it’s progressive, civil society represents constituencies.  Various transnational identity groupings (women, children, gays, the disabled, etc.) are representing the interests of those communities first and only incidentally move the ball forward for others.  Even the generalist human rights groups (Amnesty and Human Rights Watch) are mostly representative of Northern donors, which results in the heavy emphasis on political and civil rights over economic and social ones.  (There have been pointed internecine exchanges in the human rights community on this; see for example the testy back-and-forth between Ken Roth and Neera Chandhoke in this edited volume.)

This is not to fall into step with Ken.  I think accountability concerns relating to NGOs are overblown and largely self-correcting.  In any case, civil society is a power that has to be reckoned with.  On that score, Obama’s foregrounding in the state-based forum of the UNGA supplies yet further evidence.


2 Responses

  1. My dear Peter, accountability requires that everyone fall in line with Ken!

  2. Ken:

    Here’s an example of everyone falling in line with Kenny:


    But maybe that’s not what you meant….

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