The Power of Norms; the Norms of Power: Who Governs International Electrical and Electronic Technology?

Book Section

This article/chapter analyzes the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) as a "global governor." Founded in 1906 by the nascent professional associations of electrical engineers from nine countries, the IEC was set up to help its members coordinate on common terms, symbols, and basic measurements for science and the emerging field of electrical engineering. Today, the IEC is the clear focal point for international electrotechnical standard-setting. Its more than 5,000 standards govern research methods, product designs, and purchase specifications across a broad range of industries and are frequently incorporated into laws and regulations in many of the hundred-fifty countries in which the IEC has member bodies or affiliates. In the first half of this chapter, I describe and explain the remarkable institutional evolution of this international nongovernmental organization over the past century. I identify functional incentives for the increased scope and geographic reach of IEC governance, but institutional change from 1906 to 2008 was ultimately a political process, driven by specific actors pursuing their particular interests. Internationally competitive firms have often pushed for broadening the scope of international standardization since it reduces non-tariff barriers and integrates markets. And the IEC, as a non-governmental international organization, has at times been an actor itself, augmenting its expertise-based authority by developing formal and informal institutions, increasing effectiveness and efficiency, and getting governments to delegate international standard-setting functions to the IEC. In the second half of the chapter, I put IEC standard-setting (that is, transnational rule-making) into the context of the broader governance sequence: agenda-setting, rule-making, implementation, monitoring, and enforcement. For each of these activities, I identify the key groups with a stake in IEC governance, their motivations and resources, and why they do or do not play a role as "governors." I argue and show that the key characters at each stage in this process differ greatly. The answer to Dahl’s deceptively simple question, "Who Governs?," therefore depends upon the stage of the governance sequence, but I find that formal and informal institutions at the domestic (as well as at the international) level generally determine who the main actors are at each stage of the governance sequence and what kinds of power resources they can use to exert influence in this realm of global private politics.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Büthe, T

Cited Editors

  • Avant, DD; Finnemore, M; Sell, SK

Published Date

  • 2010

Book Title

  • Who Govern the Globe?

Start / End Page

  • 292 - 232

Published By