Articles and Posts from ISQ

How do we account for the emergence of transnational governance of private military and security companies (PMSCs)? According to Deborah Avant, recourse to conventional IR theory of the realist or liberal variety is insufficient; instead, a “relational pragmatic” approach is better suited to grasp the complex dynamics that brought “effective governance” to PMSCs over the last decade. “Effective governance,” however, is not conventionally defined in terms of steering – intentionally and efficiently directing a system or set of practices toward some pre-determined value or end – since this conceptualization misses the dynamic and transactional quality of how systems of governance actually develop. Rather, “pragmatic accounts take effective governance to be creative collective action to solve a problem.” The value of Avant’s theoretical framework, combining concepts of network and pragmatist social theory, is clear: by employing an historically sensitive analysis, a relational pragmatic framework demonstrates how governance goals and solutions are not efficiently derived from pre-constituted interests but emerge and transform in the process of interaction and deliberation. Avant’s approach, then, cashes out a key aspect of pragmatist social theory by locating the creativity that emerges from collective problem-solving as actors ambiguously muddle through policy options in dynamic contexts and with shifting ends-in-view.

Deploying categories of creativity and innovation, interaction and shifting goals, representational and practical knowledge, Avant convincingly cobbles together an approach grounded in pragmatist thinking. But like other turns to philosophical pragmatism, I worry about the reduction, perhaps even the excision, of politics. In the focus on problem-solving, stakeholder consultations, and consensus, I wonder if pragmatic approaches lose the forms of domination, deep disagreement, conflict, and multiple exercises of power that characterize processes of global governance. Avant’s conditions for “effective governance,” for example, include agreement on the problem, broad inclusion of relevant stakeholders, open discussion, and attention to usefulness or workability of solutions; however, the very definition of a problem, identification of who counts as a stakeholder, or what constitutes usefulness imply prior political choices. In focusing on how interests shift in the process of collective problem-solving alone, a pragmatic approach misses part of the story of how governance emerges.

As evidence, consider the choice of the United States to participate in the Swiss-led forum (as opposed to previous UN-led efforts), which led to “effective governance” of PMSCs. For Avant, the Swiss initiative succeeded in including the United States because it did not narrowly define the contours of the problem from the start but only sought to “catalogue existing law.” Thus, in the absence of any strong interest in transnational governance, U.S. officials could nevertheless agree to simply discuss the current state of PMSC regulation. There were no substantive political stakes.

However, from a governmentality perspective (Larner and Walters 2004; Merlingen 2003; Rose 1993), the U.S. decision to engage with a multistakeholder forum while refusing coordination through the intergovernmental United Nations is evidence of a deeply political decision that speaks to (neo)liberal rationalities of governing. For governmentality theorists, state power under contemporary (neo)liberalism is articulated in a specific way such that its exercise involves producing actors as active participants in their own regulation; objects of governance — in this case, PMSCs — are made to act as subjects of governance as well (Sending and Neumann 2006, 658–61). Though UN-led processes may include consultations with PMSCs, they remain embedded within a fundamentally intergovernmental institutional framework. The nonstatist, consensus-oriented, voluntary, and self-regulative quality of multistakeholder fora, on the other hand, orient global governance practices in a decidedly neoliberal way. From the standpoint of a governmentality framework, the critical issue is not how U.S. priorities shifted to support any transnational governance of PMSCs but how it specifically came to support voluntary, self-regulation through multistakeholder deliberations rather than something else. Surely accounting for the emergence of a regime for PMSCs in terms of (neo)liberal governmentality does not displace a pragmatic interpretation, but it does, in my estimation, direct us to an important but overlooked dimension of the story.

The viability of this interpretation is further evidenced by U.S. actions in other issue areas. Consider global regulation of the internet: to date, US policy has consistently opposed centralizing governance in the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), choosing instead to support decentralized multistakeholder bodies. Though recognizing that multilateral (i.e. intergovernmental) organizations can play a role in certain “scenarios,” US officials maintain that they should not fundamentally be in the business of internet governance (Zoller 2015). That the ITU is one of the oldest international organizations, and a natural site for regulating a global communications infrastructure, only throw into relief that what matters for U.S. “interests” is not simply transnational governance or not but the form governance takes.

The relationship between pragmatism and politics is an important one because often, in common and academic parlance, the former has come to signify a kind of apolitical philosophy of social action. Yet, many who developed and advanced the signposts of philosophical pragmatism did so through a deep and explicit commitment to participatory democracy, one that would upset the primary form of domination in liberal polities (Abraham and Abramson 2015). Dewey’s social theory, for instance, certainly highlighted the creativity that emerges from collective action, but this was politically important for Dewey inasmuch as it shored up a more robust notion of democracy than the prevailing institutional one (Dewey 1939). Of course, nothing dictates that the rearticulation of pragmatism in contemporary IR must adhere to the democratic politics of earlier statements; however, if pragmatic accounts are to be more than studies into policy formation, neither can they bracket prior political decisions or broader political contexts. Avant’s relational pragmatism makes great strides toward an explanation of how transnational governance dynamically emerges, but without considering other relational accounts or examining the politics around which institutional sites are formed, the story remains incomplete.


Abraham, Kavi Joseph, and Yehonatan Abramson. 2015. “A Pragmatist Vocation for International Relations: The (global) Public and Its Problems.” European Journal of International Relations, December, 1–24.

Avant, Deborah D. 2016. “Pragmatic Networks and Transnational Governance of Private Military and Security Services.” International Studies Quarterly 00: 1–13.

Dewey, John. 1939. “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us.”

Larner, Wendy, and William Walters, eds. 2004. Global Governmentality: Governing International Spaces. Routledge.

Merlingen, Michael. 2003. “Governmentality Towards a Foucauldian Framework for the Study of IGOs.” Cooperation and Conflict 38 (4): 361–84.

Rose, Nikolas. 1993. “Government, Authority and Expertise in Advanced Liberalism.” Economy and Society 22 (3): 283–99.

Sending, Ole Jacob, and Iver B. Neumann. 2006. “Governance to Governmentality: Analyzing NGOs, States, and Power.” International Studies Quarterly 50 (3): 651–72.

Zoller, Julie. 2015. “Advancing the Multistakeholder Approach in the Multilateral Context.” The Marvin Center at George Washington University, Washington DC, July 16.

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