Over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic change in the way international politics is conducted. Gone are the structural certainties of the Cold War and, in their place, are more fluid, and somewhat more unpredictable, patterns of international cooperation. Determined, in large part, by the demands and effects of rampant globalization towards the end of the twentieth century, these more dynamic patterns of cooperation are anchored in a significantly more ambiguous, and malleable, conception of legitimacy than was previously the case. Evidence of this is to be found in practically all global policy domains where talk of the need to establish an “international consensus” is to be found.
In the absence of a global regulatory framework, international consensus has become a euphemism for legitimacy as a basis for action in world affairs – implying, as it does, some kind of transcendental common sense or moral code. But look beyond the platitudes of consensus formation in the global setting and we discover that, far from simply emerging, consensus is given form by subtle, and ever present dynamics of power. It is not some kind of objective truth or realization waiting to be discovered; it is instead the negotiated, amplified and persuasive assertion of the motivated and powerful. To exercise control over how legitimacy is constituted is, in large part, to determine the capacity for, and nature of, individual and collective forms of action in world politics. In short, international consensus is an inherently political outcome and the strategic management of legitimacy is, unquestionably, the real power play in contemporary world politics.
But what mechanisms exist to facilitate the rather nuanced processes of consensus formation underpinning these conceptions of legitimacy in the global political arena? In what sense are they distinct from the more formal instruments of international political engagement? And critically, how are they capable of transcending the tendency towards protectionism that characterizes the consistent failure of more formal collective action initiatives in world affairs? Our research in the field of transnational policy elites, which includes interviews with members and attendees of the most prestigious of Atlantic networks, Bilderberg, suggests that elite networks are a key mechanism for the creation, maintenance and dispersal of powerful policy consensuses or narratives. Certainty in this world, such as it is, is a product of how our elites think and, importantly, our acceptance of their disseminated logic. It is the collective ability of the transnational elite to reinforce or challenge assumptions related to the nature of world problems; in essence, to define the terms of reference for the rest of us, which increasingly holds the key to unlocking the capacity for global economic, political and societal change. And while this ability may, for the most part, be unconsciously exercised, it is important to understand that it is in no way an accidental consequence of elite interactions. There are underlying forces that play a considerable role in determining the shape and tenor of elite collaboration and consensus – forces that are far from random or accidental in their effects1.