Pragmatic Networks and Transnational Governance of Private Military and Security Services

Though “Blackwater” still evokes images of burley dudes with shades using force at will, transnational governance of private security has actually made great strides. Why? Not because the US led. Not because the US forced or paid off others. In fact, the US was hostile to transnational coordination at the start.  Instead, the shift toward governance began when the Swiss gathered stakeholders – governments, companies, civil society organizations, and even academics – to talk about the problem.

At these meetings new connections and open conversation actually created some common ground. No one ignored US interests or power. But the US came to see its interests differently. Congressional pressure to “do something” helped. US officials at the Defense and State Departments used this process to meet congressional demands in a way that could govern not only the private military and security companies that contracted with the US but also those that contracted with other governments and private clients.

With US support, these initiatives took on greater gravitas. Because the US was only one of many participants, though, others saw them as more legitimate. When the enterprise appeared to work, participants recommitted and others joined in. This “pragmatic” process was the key to more effective governance of this industry.

The coordinating instruments (the Montreux Document, the International Code of Conduct, and Private Security Standards) are all non-binding and some have condemned them as “toothless”. But governments, companies and civil society groups use them all the time – to talk about what private military and security companies (PMSCs) are and how they should behave. And US government agencies have written them into contracting requirements (see here and here) and can thus enforce them.

It is not like civil society organizations and companies are holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Different governments (the US and South Africa – ahem) are still at odds on many issues surrounding this industry. Plenty of wrangling continues all around. And the ICoC only tackles concerns about abuse by private armed security companies. But the connections created in the Montreux/ICoC process have produced opportunities for side bar conversations and more connections that, so far, have kept the process going forward.

This is just one case, but it shows that when stakeholders engage with others around a problem they can come up with new ideas about solutions. When they encode ideas into “toothless” best practices, some can nonetheless use them in “toothy” ways.  The US is surely an important global player that can interrupt governance processes when it wants. But talking with others can lead US officials to see what the US wants differently. And marrying US power to broader stakeholder processes is a productive way to generate transnational governance. 

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