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Lost CausesAgenda Vetting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security$

Charli Carpenter

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780801448850

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801448850.001.0001

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Agenda Vetting and Agenda Setting in Global Governance

Agenda Vetting and Agenda Setting in Global Governance

(p.1) 1 Agenda Vetting and Agenda Setting in Global Governance
Lost Causes

Charli Carpenter

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter discusses the selection process whereby certain ideas are precluded from gaining a foothold on the transnational advocacy agenda, by focusing on the political power involved in agenda vetting. These “negative events” are as significant as visible campaigns in constituting global issues, norms, and standards and reshaping state behavior; and the process of agenda denial, while examined in the domestic policy literature, has been drastically understudied by international relations scholars. By comparing the more unsuccessful ventures to the rich empirical literature on issues that have successfully emerged in the past, the chapter provides an overview of the politics of agenda vetting in practice.

Keywords:   agenda setting, agenda vetting, advocacy agenda, advocacy elites, agenda denial, international relations

In April 2013, outside the steps of Parliament in London, a group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) launched a new campaign to ban the use of fully autonomous weapons. Concern over this issue had been raised since 2004 by political entrepreneurs from the academic community, but their calls for an anti-“killer-robot” norm had been virtually ignored by the advocacy community for over seven years. When asked about the issue in 2009, many advocacy elites in mainstream humanitarian disarmament organizations expressed bemusement. They pointed out that there were far more serious threats to human security in conflict zones, and that these weapons had not yet been developed or deployed. As one of them said, “You don’t need a norm for science fiction.” These heavyweights of human security refused opportunities to join calls for a ban. As late as spring 2011, no NGO had autonomous weapons formally on its agenda.1

Things began to change in late 2011 when the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) acknowledged the problem of fully autonomous weapons in a keynote address on emerging technologies.2 (p.2) And they changed even more dramatically when another well-known NGO, Human Rights Watch (HRW), published a report the following year calling for a ban.3 Within a month, nine well-known human security organizations had joined the steering committee for a new campaign. In April 2013, thirty NGOs showed up to a London conference on the topic prior to the launch of what was widely hailed as the “next landmine ban campaign.” By mid-May, twenty-nine organizations had officially joined a growing list of signatories. “Killer robots” were suddenly creating the biggest “human security” buzz since cluster munitions.

What happened between 2004 and late 2012? Why did well-known organizations such as Human Rights Watch pay so little attention to autonomous weapons for so long, despite considerable lobbying from norm entrepreneurs, and why did this change so suddenly? Why did other human security organizations avoid the issue for so long, but join the campaign so readily once the ICRC acknowledged the issue and Human Rights Watch took the lead? And why did humanitarian disarmament campaigners set their sights on a category of weapons that didn’t yet exist? Why not (for example) a campaign against depleted uranium weapons, said to harm the health of thousands in conflict zones, which had an even longer and more widespread history of concern by political entrepreneurs?

A rash of literature in the past two decades has hailed the significance of transnational advocacy networks in global norm development and governance. But much less research has focused on why such networks gravitate toward certain issues and reject or dismiss others at any particular time. And as this example suggests, the construction of new transnational issues clearly requires more than dedicated norm entrepreneurs.4 For a new issue to be taken seriously, entrepreneurs must successfully market their issues within global political structures, and doing so is no simple task. Indeed, the story of the killer robot campaign suggests two truths about global advocacy work and raises two equally important questions.

The first of these truths is that new normative ideas do not float freely in global networks. It matters very much who is promoting them. Whereas entrepreneurs are always necessary, they are rarely sufficient or sufficiently skilled to effectively promote their ideas: new global norms are born or stillborn not merely due to entrepreneurs’ dedication or persistence but by the grace and acquiescence of powerful organizations with access to global policy stakeholders. Professionals in these organizations, facing a (p.3) menu of competing claims, must make strategic choices about where to place their attention. Only if these advocacy elites legitimize a new issue is it likely to proliferate. Like the killer robot ban campaign, other powerful human security norms—against child soldiering, conflict diamonds, landmines—hit the global agenda not when a norm entrepreneur raised the issue, however tirelessly, but when a mainstream human security organization eventually “adopted” it, throwing its institutional weight behind the idea. Causes that never get legitimized in this way seldom skyrocket to global prominence; those that never achieve prominence among global policy elites seldom result in meaningful global governance.5

Indeed, it is often easy to forget that transnational social problems with which we are now familiar were not preordained to succeed on their merits but are instead simply the lucky survivors of such a selection process. For example, Raphael Lemkin pitched the concept of “genocide” to a number of governments and celebrities before his idea found a home at the United Nations in 1948.6 Women’s rights groups worked unsuccessfully to mainstream their concerns into the human rights movement until Charlotte Bunch constructed the issue of “violence against women” and brought leading human rights NGOs on board.7 But many other issue entrepreneurs are not so lucky, and find their causes dismissed, rejected, blocked, or simply ignored by advocacy elites. When this happens, their chances of achieving global resonance drop significantly. These elites do not just “set” the agenda: sometimes they actively “vet” the agenda as well.

This leads to the second truth: despite all the optimism about the power of global civil society, the media spotlight on successful campaigns blinds observers to myriad issues that never rise to the top of the global advocacy agenda.8 In the disarmament area, many problematic weapons receive less advocacy attention than landmines, cluster bombs, small arms, or now robots: depleted uranium, fuel-air explosives, and pain weapons, to name a few.9 The same variation holds true in other issue areas. Internal wars are an important concern for conflict prevention analysts but gangs and urban violence are on the margins of the global security agenda.10 HIV/AIDS and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are championed as health issues while other communicable diseases such as pneumonia and Type 1 diabetes get only limited attention; nondisease health issues such as maternal mortality and the right to pain relief get even less.11 (p.4)

Agenda Vetting and Agenda Setting in Global Governance

Figure 1. Human security issues according to survey respondents. Issue content from advocacy websites combined with survey responses to the question, “Name three or more specific issues that come to your mind when you think of human security today. An issue means something that human security specialists are actively concerned about.” Font size corresponds to issue frequency in dataset, averaged across both data sources.

Visualized by Many Eyes.

These twin observations lead us to three questions addressed in this book through a discussion of several neglected causes. First, what gives a few organizations such disproportionate influence over the advocacy agenda? Second, what determines how they choose to use this power? That is, given the agenda-setting (and agenda-vetting) power of global advocacy elites, how do they decide what to work on and what to ignore? What distinguishes the issues that they eventually “adopt” and launch to prominence from those that they ignore or dismiss, and which continue to fall through the cracks? And third, given these dynamics, how can issue entrepreneurs championing neglected issues successfully press their claims on the global stage?

In this book I show that the answer to all three questions is to be found in the structure of global networks themselves. Expanding on Clifford Bob’s influential study of human rights organizations, I argue that “agenda vetting” constitutes a powerful form of global governance. But unlike earlier studies, I show the power to set or “vet” the advocacy agenda is not an intrinsic attribute of organizations but rather a function of their structural position within networks. Indeed, the logic of network relations not only confers special agenda-setting and agenda-vetting power (p.5) on certain organizations but also plays a crucial role in determining the answer to the second question: how they decide when to invest resources and attention, and when to withhold it. My research shows that advocacy elites choose issues not just based on their merits, or mandate, or the wider political context, but partly on calculations about the structure of their institutional relationships—to other actors, to other issues, and to networks themselves. Therefore, understanding how to use network ties strategically is a key ingredient in any recipe for successful global norm entrepreneurship.

I arrived at this conclusion by analyzing agenda setting in a “network of networks”—the transnational advocacy network associated with the concept “human security.” Although the language of “human security” is on the decline,12 the concept continues to be useful to describe and bound what Roland Paris has called “the glue that holds together a jumbled coalition of ‘middle power’ states, development agencies and NGOs seek[ing] to shift attention away from conventional security issues and toward goals that have traditionally fallen under the rubric of international development.”13

Indeed, my research shows that aside from conceptual debates about the term’s meaning, a human security network exists as an empirical fact.14 It is composed of several subnetworks and includes organizations working in the areas of human rights, humanitarian affairs, arms control or disarmament, environmental security, conflict prevention, and development. It also includes many “hybrid” organizations that do work in more than one of these areas and many initiatives that cut across these specific communities of practice.15 This broad “human security” network (like others) includes not only nongovernmental organizations but also international organizations (IOs) such as the United Nations (UN), international specialized agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), governments, academics, regional bodies, foundations, and think tanks.16

Of these, organizations vary in terms of their centrality to or connectedness with the rest of the network and to specific subnetworks. My central claim is that for any given issue network within this space, the most important agenda-setting and agenda-vetting power is held by the organizations most centrally connected to that subnetwork, and most connected to the entire network. I develop a theory of how such “hubs” construct their preferences over which issues to select or avoid—focusing not (p.6) only on the political economy of ideas and moral altruism but also on how structural relations within networks affect actor preferences.

In developing and testing this model, this book fills four important gaps in the literature on transnational advocacy networks. First, it focuses on how advocacy networks determine their own agenda, rather than how effectively they influence the practices of states. Even though the relationship between advocacy networks and global policymaking has been established,17 very little empirical research currently exists explaining why transnational activists themselves mobilize around certain kinds of problem and not others at specific points in history. Some hypotheses are implicit in the literature, yet rarely tested.18 Yet understanding why issues emerge at all is very important, since absent effective problem construction within global civil society, changes in state behavior are unlikely.

Second, this analysis advances theories of global “issue creation” by distinguishing between issue definition by local activists and issue adoption by powerful civil society actors at the center of advocacy networks. Much of the earlier literature on issue creation focused on the role of issue entrepreneurs, but the examples above suggest there is considerable variation in the ability of issue entrepreneurs to convert their ideas into global norms.19 A permissive or inhibiting role is also played in issue creation by actors with the ability to disseminate and promote new issues but who pick and choose among the range of possible emerging claims, launching some issues to prominence and sidelining others. Understanding the relationship between problem definition by entrepreneurs, issue adoption by advocacy elites, and issue diffusion throughout a network is vital for grasping the construction of global norms.

Third, in so doing, the project “unpacks” the concept of the “transnational advocacy network.” Earlier literature on advocacy networks has tended to view them as a monolithic force in a uniform dialectic with the state system. Jutta Joachim’s book on agenda setting, for example, posits an NGO sector in contradistinction to a UN sector, but does not examine hierarchies, conflict, and power differentials among NGOs themselves.20 Clifford Bob looks at NGOs as “gatekeepers” but neglects other actors that also inhabit advocacy networks and exert influence over the global agenda: epistemic communities, donors, celebrities, IOs, governments, and individual citizens with particular forms of expertise.21 By opening the black box of the “transnational advocacy network” through both network analysis (p.7) and in-depth case studies, I contribute a critical view of power relations within global civil society, as well as between civil society and states.

Finally, in contrast to existing studies of advocacy campaigns, this book focuses primarily on cases during the period before agenda setting has succeeded. The limited work explicitly tracing the emergence of new issues on the international agenda is generally based on case studies of issues that have emerged, making it difficult to test hypotheses for issue creation against negative cases. In focusing on the political power involved in agenda vetting, I aim to understand the selection process whereby certain ideas are precluded from gaining a foothold on the transnational advocacy agenda. These “negative events” are as significant as visible campaigns in constituting global issues, norms, and standards and reshaping state behavior; and the process of agenda denial, while examined in the domestic policy literature, has been drastically understudied by international relations scholars. By comparing dogs that didn’t bark (or have barely started barking) to the rich empirical literature on issues that have successfully emerged in the past, I illustrate the politics of agenda vetting in practice.

“Entrepreneurs” and “Advocacy Elites”: Issue Creation in Advocacy Networks

This book focuses on the dialectic between norm entrepreneurs and authorities in specific transnational issue domains in converting global social problems into “issues.”22 A large scholarly literature has, since the late 1990s, documented the power of transnational advocacy networks (TANs) in global civil society.23 As the literature has demonstrated, networks such as these do a great many things, including lobbying, standard setting, monitoring of compliance with standards, and shaming norm violators;24 and much of the emphasis has been on demonstrating that their efforts actually make a difference when it comes to what states do. But two of the most pivotal yet understudied aspects of transnational network politics are the construction and acceptance of specific problems as international issues in the first place.25 These twin steps, together constituting what I call issue creation, are logically prior to building campaigns, negotiating treaties, and holding states accountable to new norms.

(p.8) Understanding the dynamics of issue creation is crucial to assessing the power of TANs in world politics. Not all global social issues become codified as international norms: once an issue has emerged within a TAN issue pool, it may or may not elicit a campaign or concerted action. But if an issue never enters the agenda, effective advocacy is rarely possible, since all subsequent advocacy politics depend on an issue being defined as such by a norm entrepreneur and accepted as such by a critical mass of activists and gatekeepers. In short, issue creation is the conceptual link between the myriad bad things out there and the persuasive machinery of advocacy politics in world affairs. Everything, in a sense, depends in the first place on the advocacy agenda.26

So the key question motivating this book is how to explain variation in the issue creation stage: How do global social problems become transnational issues, and why do some issues end up on TAN agenda space while others fall by the wayside? Although existing TAN literature tends to talk only vaguely about “norm entrepreneurship” as a permissive condition driving campaigns, it is useful to distinguish at least two necessary phases of transnational issue creation, either of which may fail to occur: issue definition by an entrepreneur and issue adoption by one or more major advocacy organizations.27 The distinction is vital for understanding issue creation, because an issue may be defined by an entrepreneur but not adopted into the mainstream TAN discourse by advocacy gatekeepers.

Issue definition is the first step in the global policy cycle.28 It involves both identifying a problem and linking it to some official platform. Problem definition is the process of demonstrating “that a given state of affairs is neither natural nor accidental, identify[ing] the responsible party or parties, and propos[ing] credible solutions.”29 Problems are defined when actors articulate the case that existing conditions are wrong and are changeable. But problem definition by any one individual does not ensure that an issue will be constructed as such on anyone’s policy agenda. To go from being a “problem” to an “issue” requires some organizational platform or official agenda. This could be an academic institution, a small NGO, an individual, or a group that goes beyond complaining about a problem to mobilizing institutionally to solve it.30

By contrast, issue adoption occurs when an entrepreneur convinces at least one major player in a broader network, associated with the issue cluster in which the new issue is conceptually embedded, to incorporate the (p.9)

Agenda Vetting and Agenda Setting in Global Governance

Figure 2. Issue emergence in global civil society.

new issue into its formal agenda. This moment has enormous conceptual and political significance. According to Clifford Bob, the formal adoption of an issue by at least one powerful player within an advocacy network is a defining moment in the construction of new issues on the global stage. It is a hurdle that must be passed for an idea to move from nascent to politically salient within global civil society; and a prerequisite for the development of a campaign that might result in new international norms.

This effect is so powerful because of the structure of issue networks in global civil society. For any global issue area, a handful of actors possess the largest budgets, the greatest name recognition, the most access, and the densest network with the other core actors as well as with advocacy targets and stakeholders. They are the ones that will come to mind when people think of a particular issue area. Beyond these “hubs” are a cluster of “core” organizations enjoying a modicum of recognition by the hubs that can play matchmaking roles with other core or hub organizations in the network. They enjoy connections to and relationships with the hubs. Beyond those are many small or “no-name” NGOs whom very few people could name if asked. Their ties to the core of the network tend to be unidirectional and aspirational. Their agendas matter much less in defining the overall issue pool for the intersubjectively understood “human rights” or “environmental” or “arms control” issue areas.

(p.10) The best issue adopter for a new cause will depend on the issue and the specific thematic issue area. For actors pitching “disability rights” to the United Nations, the endorsement of human rights for disabled people by Amnesty International (AI) constituted an important moment of legitimation for the movement; as Janet Lord has documented, Human Rights Watch’s unwillingness to adopt the issue had previously posed an obstacle.31 That is because AI and HRW are the two most widely recognized human rights NGOs. For the network advocating against infant male circumcision, the denial of such legitimation by the same players compromises the entrepreneurs’ ability to use rights-based rationales when they take their cause to the media, the public, or the United Nations. On the other hand, for entrepreneurs concerned with little-known environmental issues, such as the export of waste products to developing countries, it is acknowledgment not by AI but by an environmental leader such as Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund that will catapult their issue into global notoriety. For advocates of fair trade in particular commodities, it is recognition by organizations concerned with socially responsible consumerism and social justice that matter.

This is why, as I show in chapter 2 and the case studies, that what Bob calls “gatekeeper” status is best understood as a relational construct, not an attribute of specific organizations. The flow of information, ideas, and frames throughout an advocacy network involves many points of contact, with each organization or individual convinced of the worth of an idea pitching it tactically to players on the chain with greater credibility, legitimacy, or access than they themselves possess. At any point in this process, agenda vetting may occur, altering the potential of the idea to reach policymakers, and changing how it is formulated.

Though Bob’s pathbreaking analysis was focused on insurgent movements within states pitching their grievances to international NGOs, the same logic applies to many current thematic issues in global society and many different types of organizations. Indigenous movements may vary in the extent to which they can get international attention; but the thematic concept of indigenous rights as a global issue area itself was also an idea that required adoption by key players within the human rights movement before it began to receive policy attention at the United Nations. Other thematic issues claimed as “rights”—like the right to bear arms or the right to water—have had less success on the international agenda because they (p.11) have had less legitimation from the human rights mainstream. The same dynamic holds true in other areas such as global health.32

This rise of issues on the global agenda and their conversion to international normative standards is not necessarily a linear or one-time process. The campaign to end child recruitment, for example, went through several iterations of issue creation and re-creation. Yet in each case, the agenda cycle looked much like the model visualized above.33 Norm development may also stall for a time even once an issue is on the formal advocacy agenda. It rarely occurs at all, however, without concerted attention to a problem and resources from the players in advocacy networks with the greatest name recognition, resources, access, and clout.

There are of course exceptions to this rule. Sometimes, actors are able to take their ideas directly to their targets of influence with some success and enact policy changes without global campaigns for norm change. For example, as described in chapter 4, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) managed to convince certain governments to provide condolence payments to civilians in the absence of a global norm, and only later set their sights on creating an expectation of such action.34 In other cases, global norms themselves emerge in the absence of widespread transnational campaigns, usually when powerful states themselves are the entrepreneurs.35 Moreover, in cases where the targets of influence are highly motivated for strategic or normative reasons to preempt a campaign before it mobilizes, governance around a newly defined problem can emerge so quickly that the issue adoption process within advocacy networks, though it may still unfold, exerts little decisive effect on the policy process. In the case of conflict diamonds or the UN’s scandal over sexual exploitation by peacekeepers, policy change was facilitated and hastened by the extreme sensitivity of the perpetrators—the diamond industry and the UN—to public embarrassment, triggering a swift desire to be seen to do something.

In many cases, however, advocacy campaigns precede international norm change. A flourishing international relations literature documents myriad cases where international normative understandings would not have been altered but for the political imagination and concerted action by coalitions of activists. This is usually the case where the targets of influence are opposed or indifferent to the idea of the new norm.36 My argument is that under conditions when transnational advocacy campaigns do matter, issue adoption by at least one powerful actor within a preexisting network (p.12) is a crucial prerequisite for successful agenda setting. Although political entrepreneurs outside the system are often the best source of new normative ideas, governments take these ideas much more seriously when they come from United Nations agencies or NGOs with whom they are familiar and have a historical working relationship than from political entrepreneurs outside this formal system. According to Don Hubert, “The message may be the same, the evidence may be the same, but official ‘letterhead’ matters to governments.”37 Absent this legitimation by a hub within a network, issues can sometimes succeed, but they are likelier to stall or remain marginal to the global agenda; and unless championed by states rather than global civil society actors, they are unlikely to result in global “norms.”

Agenda Vetting and Political Power in Advocacy Networks

The point of all this is to emphasize that a significant amount of understudied effort by political entrepreneurs goes not into teaching or persuading states, but rather into selling their ideas to the advocacy elites who can carry their message to governments. Because of this dynamic, a significant power relationship exists between issue entrepreneurs and global governors who control the advocacy agenda, one with crucial yet poorly understood implications for the normative structure of global politics.38

This bears some foregrounding given that many individuals working in the most influential advocacy organizations do not see themselves as powerful because they are comparing themselves to the states whose behavior they hope to change. But in wielding such an influence over what enters or is excluded from the global agenda, these leading advocacy organizations determine the ideational content and reinforce or strategically alter the structure of global civil society, contributing to the regulation or nonregulation of political outcomes affecting the lives and security of individuals. Defining what counts as a legitimate advocacy claim within an issue domain constitutes an exercise of at least three of the types of power outlined by Barnett and Duvall in their pathbreaking study.39

First, it offers or denies institutional power to claimants on the material resources and ideational influence of respected advocacy organizations in global civil society. Within advocacy networks, constituent parts’ authority (p.13) and influence is based on moral legitimacy and persuasive power.40 As Lake and Wong have demonstrated, in transnational advocacy networks “nodes in networks are not equal”: that is, some entities have much greater influence than others.41 Their analysis describes the contagion effect on the human rights community when leading NGOs such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International begin referencing new issues; correspondingly, many problems never get defined or, once defined, never spread because they are not endorsed by powerful gatekeepers, whose “choices have powerful demonstration effects, signaling that certain causes are important.”42 By articulating a new problem as an “issue,” a network hub legitimizes that problem and defines it in a particular way, thus triggering donor attention and material resources, and affecting the visibility of that issue within the informational content of the issue network to which it is associated.

Second, this agenda-setting/agenda-vetting process does not simply channel the soft power of global civil society, relative to states, toward some issues and away from others: it is also in itself an expression of structural relations of power within advocacy networks. The asymmetrical influence of powerful organizations in a network stems from factors such as relative connectivity to the rest of the network; name recognition; financial capacity; linguistic, diplomatic, and technological mastery; and access to states and global policymakers. In a global sector defined by its ability to invest symbolic meanings with legitimacy and to disseminate information effectively, these are coveted resources.43 Granting or denying access to such resources is itself an expression of power that reproduces the central place of such gatekeepers within the structural hierarchy of a transnational network. The creation of rules and procedures by which such requests are considered is itself a form of governance.44

Third, selecting issues for adoption constitutes a form of productive power.45 The construction of “child soldiers” or “HIV-AIDS orphans” as specific categories of concern signals a need for policies to address such populations, and produces new claims on the governance activities of states, NGOs, and international organizations.46 Conversely, to determine which voices shall not be given credibility in such forums constitutes an exercise of power that decisively shapes the global agenda. As Holzscheiter writes, “The subjugation of minority voices originates in a manipulation of the issues that are talked about, in the limitation of legitimate participants in the discussion and of the ways of talking about the issues.”47

(p.14) Such a practice of “non-decision-making,” to draw on Bachrach and Baratz’s famous articulation of the process, constitutes an exercise of what these authors refer to as the “second face of power”: “When the dominant values, the accepted rules of the game, the existing power relations among groups, and the instruments of force, singly or in combination, effectively prevent certain grievances from developing into full-fledged issues which call for decisions … a non-decision-making situation exists. To pass over this is to neglect one whole face of power.”48

Limiting the scope of decision making to “safe” or politically “acceptable” issues is an act of power.49 Thus, actors in a position to determine which issues their leading organization shall formally adopt govern the global agenda by influencing definitions of what constitutes a public good.50 When Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch acknowledged women’s rights as part of their global human rights agenda, it lent strength to women’s mobilization by signaling the fundamental, rather than subsidiary, importance of gender issues, by situating women’s concerns within rather than as separate from the broader movement, and by committing their own advocacy influence to the movement.51 By contrast, institutionalized violence and discrimination under India’s caste system was tolerated for decades until Indian activists convinced human rights gatekeepers to address their concerns under the rubric of “work-based discrimination.”52

The decisions of network hubs nested in different issue domains also have an important effect on how issues are framed. It is one kind of political act to deal with the protection of civilians within the humanitarian arena; it is a different political act to begin treating this as a security problem at the level of the UN Security Council. Similarly, landmines were once treated primarily as an arms control problem; reframing them as a humanitarian concern required the mobilization of prominent civil society organizations, and this reframing had consequences for eventual governance in this area, as well on the chances of related problems (such as cluster munitions) themselves receiving attention.53 In Africa, lead organizations and donors often ask whether an issue is security or development related, given that these are the current master frames driving the human security issue agenda.54 Thus, agenda-vetters place conditions on the way in which a problem can be articulated in order to receive their endorsement, and issue entrepreneurs must often resist having their problem definition watered down.55

(p.15) Because of their power and their role in the global agenda-setting process, it thus becomes crucial for scholars of civil society and activists pressing new claims on states to understand the decision-making practices and preferences of these global advocacy elites or “gatekeepers.” The rest of this book offers precisely such a road map, drawing on the insights of numerous practitioners within lead advocacy organizations. It combines an overall theory of agenda vetting with a set of illustrative cases that expose the complexity of intranetwork politics in global civil society.

Methodolog(ies) and Outline of the Book

In the next two chapters, I first demonstrate the power of agenda vetting, detailing how structural position as a network hub confers authority within networks, and correlating the absence of “hub organization” support to a variety of failed campaigns. I then propose a theory of “advocacy elite” preferences, describing what authorities positioned in hub organizations want, why they gravitate toward certain issues and not others, and the strategies they use for exercising agenda denial in certain cases, or issue appropriation in others. The empirical grounding for this general argument is comparative case analysis, focus groups, surveys, in-depth interviews, and website analysis of the cluster of actors (including NGOs, governments, think tanks, and IOs) most centrally associated with the advocacy network around “human security.”56

Any general study of elite decision making in constructing global issues requires three key steps: measuring the existing issue agenda for a particular network, capturing problems that have been identified by activists but are not yet on a network’s issue agenda, and gathering insights from actual practitioners that can explain this variation. I briefly discuss each of my data sources below; a more detailed description of how the data were collected, coded, and analyzed appears in the appendix.

Measuring the issue agenda.

In this book, I combine three sources to gauge the salience of issues on the global agenda for the period of this study: advocacy websites, surveys, and focus groups with individuals associated with the human security network. Websites within the human security network were identified using co-link analysis tools, and text data from the “mission statements” and “issues” sections of organizational home pages (p.16) were captured and coded to identify the most and least salient issues on the human security agenda. I triangulated this with an online survey of practitioners associated with the actual network around “human security,” disseminated to those on the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues mailing list and then by snowball method. Although it is impossible to get a representative sample of a transnational network, survey responses to questions such as “which organizations come to mind when you think about human security?” and “which issues come to mind when you think about human security?” enabled me to corroborate the findings of the web-based analysis.

Capturing nonissues.

The selection of negative cases constitutes an important problem for agenda-setting theory. First, it is impossible to know the total population of negative cases and, as with advocacy networks themselves, representative sampling of “nonissues” is therefore infeasible. A tempting solution is to gravitate toward cases known to the researcher, but this introduces an unacceptable amount of researcher bias into the study. I developed a population of candidate cases by asking survey, interview, and focus group respondents to tell me which human security problems they knew of that had received too little attention from advocacy organizations.

Studying advocacy elite preferences.

I gathered data on the decision-making process of advocacy gatekeepers in organizational hubs from three sources. First, I conducted a series of focus groups with practitioners drawn from organizations identified as belonging to the human security network, to talk broadly about agenda-setting politics within the network.57 Second, I conducted in-depth interviews around this broad question with representatives of three influential organizations particularly relevant to my case studies: Human Rights Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.58 Third, in both interviews and focus groups, I asked respondents to think hypothetically about specific “nonissues” drawn from responses to the survey, or relevant to the cases I was studying, and explain whether their organization would consider joining a campaign for that issue, and why or why not. These various methods and data are used to develop the arguments laid out in chapter 2, and are explained in further detail in the appendix.

(p.17) Case selection.

Chapters 4–6 consist of detailed case studies illustrating the dialectic between issue entrepreneurs (who define a global “problem” and pitch it to powerful players in existing advocacy networks) and network gatekeepers who decide whether and how to “adopt” a new problem into an existing advocacy agenda; or whether and how to block it altogether. In each chapter, I highlight the variation that exists within the specific issue area in terms of issues on the agenda and candidate issues; and, within that context, I examine a particular case for insight into the moment when an issue is stalled in the agenda-setting process and why.

Chapter 4 tracks emerging advocacy in favor of a right to compensation for civilians harmed by legitimate military operations, an issue that is now gaining ground but had previously been opposed by antiwar groups and some humanitarian organizations. Chapter 5 documents the efforts of epistemic communities to promote a precautionary principle governing the deployment of autonomous robots in conflict zones; the initial resistance encountered by leading organizations advocating for weapons bans, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross; and how this changed. Chapter 6 examines the efforts of issue entrepreneurs to define infant male circumcision as a human rights violation, and explains the ongoing agenda denial exercised by leading human rights NGOs and the United Nations. The cases were developed through a combination of content analysis, process tracing, participant-observation, and elite interviews with both seasoned advocacy elites in organizational hubs and with issue entrepreneurs.

In selecting these illustrative cases, I sought out cases in which (a) an issue entrepreneur had already identified the problem and a platform for defining the issue, and was engaged in a process of dialogue with gatekeepers on how to move forward, and (b) at the time of the research the issue had not yet become salient on the human security agenda. From the range of cases available that I might have followed, my selection of these three cases was influenced by ethical, conceptual, and logistical concerns.

First, because the process of researching nonissues inevitably constitutes a notable, if modest, agenda-setting enterprise in itself, researchers cannot afford to be sanguine about the types of conversations they have with practitioners. This means case selection is a question of ethics as well as methodology. When one asks a policy practitioner to explain his or her organization’s inattention to a specific social problem, one inadvertently (p.18) becomes a de facto spokesperson for “problems” identified by social change agents.59 Therefore, raising new or unknown issues in conversational settings with practitioners can come close to a form of action research, even where that is not the intent. To address this, while I did not go into the research process with the goal of promoting any particular cause, nor did I actively participate in advocacy on any of these campaigns during the period of field research,60 I did choose issues that I felt had a plausible chance of contributing to the general goal of human security if attended to by global policymakers.61

Second, this choice served a helpful conceptual purpose in guiding the study: it meant that I limited my analysis to “hard cases,” where the logic for issue creation can be clearly articulated from a human security perspective, and where therefore the absence of the issue from the agenda is theoretically most puzzling. In other words, while several interview respondents in this study told me, “You know a lot of ideas out there just aren’t very good ideas,” in this study I have focused only on ideas that are at least as plausible from a human rights/human security perspective as many others already on the global agenda.

Finally, I focused on issues where I was easily able to gather real-time data in a continuous manner over the life of the study through frequent iterated contacts with activists. My choice to follow the CIVIC campaign, for example, stemmed partly from easy proximity to Washington, DC, which facilitated case study work, interviews, and participant-observation in meetings. Because of the way logistical preference and chance influenced my case selection, it should be stressed that this set of cases, while illustrative of the dynamic I describe, is neither exhaustive nor necessarily representative of the range of issues being pitched by activists to advocacy gatekeepers in many parts of the world.62 The cases that do appear cover health and human rights, humanitarian affairs, and weapons norms, spanning several prominent issue areas in the broader human security agenda under study. Each documents a social problem at a different stage of issue creation and with a different cluster of attributes, but all are examples of contested claims in global society that have been put forth by proponents and—crucially—not yet accepted by network elites at the time the data were gathered. Together they offer a detailed analysis of the politics of global agenda setting and agenda vetting within networks—a politics that determines the shape and extent of global norms and plays a decisive role in global governance.


(5.) By this I mean “policymaking activities that produced coordinated action in the absence of global government.” See Avant, Finnemore, and Sell 2010, 14.

(12.) For example, in UN circles and among the foreign policy establishment of once-norm leaders such as Canada, the term has all but disappeared since the mid-2000s. See Martin and Owen 2010.

(14.) I use the term “human security network” to describe the empirically measurable relational ties between these organizations, and not to refer to the Human Security Network as such (a former group of like-minded states). On the history and fate of the Human Security Network, see Martin and Owen 2010. On the wider meaning of “human security,” see Paris 2001.

(16.) It may therefore be most appropriate to think of this as a “global policy network” encompassing a variety of distinct though interlinked “issue networks.”

(18.) For example, in their groundbreaking study on transnational advocacy networks, Keck and Sikkink (1998) emphasized the importance of issue attributes in explaining the success of specific campaigns, an argument that might also be applicable to the construction of particular problems as issues in the first place. Price (1998) suggests that issues succeed depending on whether advocates can link a new set of intersubjective understandings to preexisting applicable moral standards. According to a third line of thinking, international advocacy is best pictured as a marketplace for short-term contracts (Cooley and Ron 2002), in which the public visibility of a problem generates pressure to appear to be addressing it (Bob 2005), and in which savvy advocates gravitate toward “hot” issues likely to draw donor funding and good media coverage for their organizations (Dale 1996). The empirical research from which these hypotheses were derived consists largely of inductive case studies, but it has rarely been tested across many cases or cases of norm failure.

(19.) See also Checkel 2012.

(22.) The concept of an “issue” is ill-defined and contested within the literature on agenda setting, and ill-defined in the transnational advocacy networks literature. For the purposes of this project, an issue is “an identifiable problem or category of concern on an official agenda.” It is somewhat broader than definitions requiring a problem to be linked to a policy solution, and narrower than definitions that include any problem identified by anyone, regardless of their connection to some sort of official platform. It also includes both thematic problems (“human trafficking”) and categories of concerns, including countries (“Darfur”) and populations (“internally displaced persons”). This roughly corresponds to the way in which advocacy organizations themselves define issues on their web pages.

(23.) Transnational advocacy networks are composed of a variety of nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, governments, and myriad individuals located within these bureaucracies and other levers of symbolic power in world affairs, including academia and the media.

(26.) This is widely recognized, for example, within the agenda-setting literature on domestic U.S. politics (e.g., Kingdon 1994), and the sociology literature on the construction of social problems (e.g., Spector and Kituse 1977; Hilgartner and Bosk 1988).

(27.) I am grateful to Michael Goodhart for this analytical insight.

(30.) I thank Betcy Jose-Thota, Ben Rubin, and Rebecca Wall for discussions that helped to clarify this distinction for me.

(34.) To some extent this example proves the point about the importance of international norms, however: CIVIC changed its strategy precisely because states would not construe this type of case-by-case policy change as a precedent and therefore could not be counted on to do the same in the future.

(35.) Early bans on exploding and flattening bullets, for example, were promoted not by transnational norm entrepreneurs but by the Russian government, whose military establishment (p.181) opposed the use of such inhumane weapons but could ill afford to ban their production in the absence of assurances from neighboring governments.

(38.) I follow Avant, Finnemore, and Sell (2010, 2) in defining governors as “authorities who exercise power across borders for the purposes of affecting policy.”

(44.) For example, as Bob (2005) notes in appendix 1 of his book, organizations as diverse as Human Rights Watch, the Sierra Club, and the Worker’s Rights Consortium have internal documents outlining the criteria they use in sifting among the various requests they receive from civil society for assistance.

(46.) This does not necessarily ensure that new norms will be implemented or that governance will be effective, as Karen Mundy’s analysis of the Education for All campaign demonstrates (2010). However, had there been no consensus among organizations associated with child rights and education, such as UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund) and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), that education for children was a human right, implementation of such a right would have been impossible: the adoption of education as an issue for these organizations provided a permissive context in which a discussion of governance was made possible.

(50.) Avant, Finnemore, and Sell 2008, 11.

(54.) I am grateful to Erin Baines for this insight.

(55.) For example, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict was once encouraged to emphasize women and children as victims, which would draw donor attention but constitute a significant narrowing of their vision. So far the organization has refused. This principled stand has affected CIVIC’s ability to spread its message.

(56.) My emphasis on a Canadian conception of human security that focuses on humanitarian issues and bodily integrity rights stems largely from the logistical feasibility of gathering data on those issues, given my preexisting research in these areas and the ease of making contacts within organizations working on those issues. It should not be interpreted as a defense of what is an admittedly limited view of “human security”—I could have chosen to cast a much wider net to examine myriad environmental and economic security issues as well, but this would have increased the complexity and methodological difficulty of completing the research.

(57.) Anonymity in the focus groups was protected by assigning each participant a number. Some quotations in this book by these individuals are identified by the participant’s number, others simply as “focus group participant.” All unattributed quotations in this book are by focus group participants.

(58.) Interviewees are quoted by name only if they have signed a release form permitting this; they also had the opportunity to stipulate conditions. Respondents who were quoted by name were permitted to review and approve, edit, or veto quotes. Interviewees wishing to remain anonymous are identified by a number.

(p.182) (59.) As Wendt (2006) describes, this “measurement problem” is consistent with a quantum view of the study of social processes.

(60.) Indeed, I specifically avoided issues where I felt strongly in favor of a specific policy position. This both reduced the likelihood of slipping into action research and enabled dispassionate conversations both with proponents and dismissers of new ideas.

(61.) For example, I considered but declined to study the movement for a global right to bear arms. Even though I think this claim may have merit from a rights-based perspective, and while it certainly constitutes a conceptually useful case of human rights agenda denial, it was not clear to me whether the goals of gun advocates, if achieved, would contribute to the general security of human beings. Although gun advocates make an important claim that the right to self-defense can prevent genocides and state-perpetrated atrocity, I know of no study that has weighed the gains for human security against the well-documented threats posed by the presence of light arms among civilian populations, so I remain agnostic on this point.

(62.) For example, economic and social rights are a major concern of local actors in the developing world, but they are not covered at length in this study.