Philip G. Cerny


On his book Rethinking World Politics: A Theory of Transnational Neopluralism

Cover Interview of October 16, 2011

In a nutshell

Our understanding of world politics in the “modern” world (i.e. the past couple of centuries) has been dominated by the “inside/outside distinction.”

On the one hand, “domestic” politics, the inside, involves the interaction—whether pluralistic or hegemonic—of political parties, social categories, interest groups, values such as justice or fairness, and different national models of economic growth and development.

On the other hand, “international” politics, the outside, has been about hierarchy and competition among states seen as “unit actors” pursuing “national interests” and military security in a world of inherent underlying conflict and “relative gains.”  (Even proponents of “soft power” like Joseph Nye focus on the relative capacities of states to pursue their interests in a context of growing global integration.)

Today, however, debates are about globalization and “complex interdependence”—economic processes, social linkages, and power relationships that cut across borders.

Rethinking World Politics is an attempt to transcend the inside/outside distinction by applying well-known analytical approaches to domestic politics to the wider world.

Rather than seeing, for example, international markets, multinational corporations, trade interdependence, global finance, and the explosion of international non-governmental organizations as merely complicating the lives of nation-states, I argue that complex, cross-cutting, multi-level political processes are becoming transnational realities that make international politics more and more like domestic politics.

Nation-states are increasingly enmeshed in transnational webs of power that are not merely replacing states but transforming them in a multilayered world politics that has not yet been fully understood.

In approaching this question, the book applies quite traditional notions of pluralism and neopluralism to world politics. In other words, the main actors are no longer states, statesmen (and women), foreign policymakers, and security apparatuses like the armed forces, but groups.

Like pluralists such as V.O. Key, I focus on both what have been called “sectional” (or “material interest”) groups and “value” groups. The book argues that those groups that have been most successful are those that have led the way in creating, utilizing, and coordinating their activities across borders. Cross-cutting linkages, coalitions, and networks—“third-level games,” as distinct from the “two-level games” within and between states—increasingly reflect the way such groups use those ties to enlarge their power and influence. This, in turn, is leading to a process of “structuration” (or re-structuration) of world politics itself.

This process of re-structuration has another side to it as well.  It is not merely about the power and influence of such groups, but also about how much more complex and often opaque these processes are.

Traditional forms of political debate increasingly cannot identify who has power and influence; traditional policymaking processes cannot effectively address the growing challenges of globalization whether in terms of economic growth and stability, the environment, more fragmented forms of violence and warfare, or social cohesion; and traditional forms of state management and bureaucracy, whether democratic or authoritarian, are inadequate in doing what people expect them to do, especially in the “global village” where communication is increasingly transnational.

Domestic politics, as well as international politics, are therefore faced with political entropy and even what has been called “neomedievalism,” i.e. competing authorities with overlapping jurisdictions.

This “new world order” is still in the making, and the key actors—political, economic and social—are still finding their feet in this unpredictable and unprecedented environment of change and transformation.

The vague and fungible concept of “neoliberalism” has been particularly important in presenting and justifying these changes—and has itself been rapidly evolving. The institutions and processes often labeled “global governance,” which remain essentially inter-governmental, are also inadequate for managing this transformation.

My book not only looks at these processes in broader theoretical and analytical terms but also applies them to particular issue-areas such as financial markets and regulation, democratization, and war and violence.