Scholars of global governance have made much use of the public–private distinction in their exploration of the power of non-state actors and the constitution of authority beyond the state. But is this distinction analytically adequate? We subject the public–private distinction to analytical scrutiny and argue that it does not hold when analysing phenomena beyond the domestic setting. State actors are universal at the domestic level, but they are particularistic at the global level, being responsible primarily to its territorially defined constituency. The difference between public and private actors qua participants in global governance is thus overstated. We differentiate between public as a category of analysis and a category of practice. As a category of analysis, public denotes a particular configuration of accountability and capacity, which can, in principle, be found at the global level. As a category of practice, public is a claim to universality and responsibility that different types of actors use to legitimize what they do. We illustrate the added value of this conceptualization through a discussion of possibly emerging global public actors, and of how actors’ claim to ‘publicness’ in an incomplete public sphere serves to conceal their particularistic character, thereby undermining ‘publicness’ at the global level.