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Conservative Causes Go Global

In promoting global causes, conservative and liberal NGOs can find strange bedfellows

By Clifford Bob Created: January 21, 2013 Last Updated: January 23, 2013
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Conservative religious activists hold signs in front of a Tampa municipal building during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 29, 2012. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/GettyImages)

Conservative religious activists hold signs in front of a Tampa municipal building during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 29, 2012. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/GettyImages)

International campaigns on social and economic issues are increasingly common. NGOs, foundations, journalists, celebrities, and citizens have pressured governments to establish an International Criminal Court, institute a ban on landmines, and promote environmental sustainability. They are also trying to slow global warming, broaden access to reproductive rights, and promote any number of other progressive goals.

Such activism, not always successful, has become so frequent that global civil society is often portrayed as a bastion of leftwing politics—a realm of likeminded groups working to counter corporate power, state repression, and cultural backwardness.

Yet for all the liberal groups working across borders, the voices of another civil society are also making themselves heard. Right-wing civic groups are taking to the global stage, despite a reputation for kneejerk aversion to international institutions as embodiment of liberal causes. Indeed, by doing so, conservative groups can attract allies, exploit receptive venues, and find additional examples supporting their ideas.

Conservative Activism

Consider recent debates over gay rights. Even as the human rights movement has pushed for them at the United Nations, a backlash has emerged. Traditional believers have crossed national and religious boundaries to form a powerful network that has stymied efforts to recognize even the concept of sexual orientation. Members of this informal Baptist–burqa coalition may not agree among themselves on dogma. But conservative Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims have worked together for years promoting long-established values, customs, and prohibitions. This week’s protests against gay marriage in France exemplify the trend.

As another example, in 2009 when Italian secularists backed by foreign rights NGOs brought a court case challenging crucifixes in classrooms, a transnational faith coalition fought it. Prominent in this and other European clashes were American-supported activists and legal advocacy groups such as the European Center for Law and Justice, ECLJ, and the Alliance Defense Fund, ADF.

On more conventional human rights themes, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch face off not only against the governments they target, but also against other civil society groups. In the Middle East, rights activism now comes under microscopic analysis and scathing criticism from the Israeli group NGO Watch. Such organizations aim both to support their own countries’ policies and, more fundamentally, to challenge rights groups’ reputations as unbiased moral beacons.

In another sphere, the National Rifle Association, NRA, has catalyzed an international network promoting the right to own guns in countries lacking a Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Members of the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities, WFSA, have been active for decades at the U.N. In 2012, they raised objections to the Arms Trade Treaty controlling the illicit trade in small arms, helping to kill the treaty.

Proponents of development aid, too, find themselves challenged by powerful civil society organizations. Groups such as the Inter Region Network in Kenya promote free-market solutions, decry aid as destructive to indigenous business, and urge that Africa be seen as a land of opportunity. On environmental issues from global warming to genetically modified foods, NGOs opposing controls have helped torpedo or hamstring international agreements.

In these and other cases, right-wing organizations have gone global. No doubt some of these groups are Trojan horses, funded by corporations or bankrolled by states with specific agendas, rather than being spontaneous manifestations of popular opinion. But much the same can be said for many so-called grass-roots, left-wing networks, with their foundation support and professional staffs.

Despite illusions to the contrary, global civil society is ideologically diverse and contentious. Indeed it’s always been so, as suggested by historical examples such as the pro-slavery and anti-suffrage movements, both of which involved international influences. Today, with the growth of international institutions, many conservatives have decided that it’s more effective to fight them from within than without. By doing so, they can block, delay, or reshape initiatives they loathe. Nor do right-wing forces simply oppose “progress.” Instead, they promote their own visions of such fuzzy terms as rights, justice, sand ustainability as well as different means of achieving them.

So even as right-wing political leaders denounce international institutions or warn against threats to national identities, conservative groups such as the NRA have applied for and received consultative status at the U.N. So has WFSA. Others, such as the ECLJ and ADF, argue cases before the European Court of Human Rights or file amicus curiae briefs in foreign courts on everything from homeschooling to hate speech.

International Networks

Like their progressive counterparts, conservative groups have built international networks. Linking up with likeminded organizations in other countries, they share strategies. Consider Brazil, where arguments and advertisements from U.S. and Canadian gun groups helped defeat a 2005 referendum to ban private arms sales. Sport-shooting groups from countries as diverse as Colombia, South Africa, or India have also reached out to the NRA, Gun Owners of America, and Canada’s National Firearms Association for support in fighting local battles.

As a consequence, many political debates within countries are now internationalized—nor is this only true of weak states that might seem most susceptible to overseas pressure. Even in the United States, activists seek not only to influence foreign decisions, but use overseas events, positive or negative, to influence domestic politics. For instance, in fighting the Mathew Shepard law criminalizing hate crimes based on sexual orientation, American groups pointed to other democracies’ prosecutions of conservative ministers for sermons allegedly inciting hatred against gays.

In a ceaseless quest to advance their goals, the leftwing and rightwing scour the globe for settings and examples favorable to their views. They propose their own conflicting policies and norms, seeking to bootstrap them into international law. They warn about crises, promoting a rival set of solutions with competing stables of academic experts, moral megastars, and Hollywood celebrities.

Right-wing groups are taking to the global stage, despite a reputation for kneejerk aversion to international institutions …

In domestic settings, right-wing groups support new national laws imposing strict registration requirements on hostile foreign NGOs. They scrutinize and censure their opponents’ every move. In some cases, such as the Israel–Palestine conflict, a war of the watchdogs has broken out with every aspect of human rights reporting—factual claims, legal analysis, political objectivity—being challenged.

Who wins these battles? It’s difficult to predict and varies by case. But a civic network’s ability to include a powerful state as an ally plays a key role. Both progressive and conservative groups work closely with likeminded governments, seeking to enlist them to their causes. Even after decisions on particular policies, the struggle continues in other national and international venues.

The conservative activism that makes this possible is not the result of some “vast right-wing conspiracy,” as Hillary Clinton once warned. There is huge diversity and conflict among groups too glibly labeled rightwing. But clearly, “global civil society” is not the exclusive domain of progressive groups. Nor is it an easy route to achieve policy goals blocked at home.

Today, conservative activists are equally comfortable and adept on the global playing field. They have mastered the arcane rules of international organizations and honed alliance-building strategies. They have devised alternative ideas that resonate with large local and international audiences. And they have taken the battle over any number of global policies to a new level of intensity. This may upset liberal advocates hoping to advance their goals, but it makes international arenas more representative of the diversity of opinion in civil society.

Clifford Bob, professor of political science at Duquesne University, is the author of “The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics,” published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. With permission from YaleGlobal Online. Copyright © 2013, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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