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Is effective global governance now impossible? If so, what comes next?

August 2, 2012
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As negotiations on a global Arms Trade Treaty kicked the can down the road last week, adding to a litany of stalemates that includes talks on climate change (UNFCCC), trade (WTO) or sustainability savedoff(Rio+20), it’s worth reading a thought-provoking new paper from CGD’s William Savedoff (right) on the reasons for this collapse of effective global governance.

Savedoff distinguishes two basic patterns: ‘global governance’ based on expanding various functions of the nation state to a global level (e.g. UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, EU, WHO), and a more fluid ‘multipolarity’ of ‘mixed coalitions’ of the willing, including non-state actors (examples: International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Global Fund). Savedoff argues that we are ending an anomalous period of global governance, and returning to a status-quo ante of multipolarity. Some highlights:

“Multipolarity is actually the norm in international relations. The growing power of countries like China and India represents a return to the global distribution of power preceding the acceleration of economic and military expansion in the United States, Europe, and Japan. The rise of mixed forms of international cooperation, of opportunistic alliances, is not new; rather, such mechanisms for addressing international issues preceded the rise of global governance institutions in the post-WWII period. In other words, the world we are living in today is normal; the world of 1945–1990 was the aberration.”

“The global-government paradigm generally seeks fixed membership of nation-states for a wide range of activities that can be carried out by international institutions. The resulting laws and institutions are usually established on the basis of unanimity, which allows them to be binding on all members. Yet achieving unanimity for international cooperation often requires accepting (or at least compromising with) the position staked out by the most cautious or least cooperative member state. While some issues genuinely require unanimity, it could be useful to distinguish those issues that do not require unanimity. For these kinds of issues, a different voluntary and non-unanimous approach might be preferable.

un-logo1Such a voluntary and non-unanimous approach to international cooperation might be described as following a mixed-coalition paradigm. Such an approach is more fluid than the notion of global government institutions. It assembles interested parties—which may include some nation-states but also NGOs, private foundations, for-profit firms, and civil society groups—around specific initiatives.”

Why the anomalous 1945-90 period of global governance? Post-war US primacy allowed it to force other countries to swallow their objections to ceding elements of sovereignty. The erosion of US supremacy has now triggered a return to the more fluid patterns of 19th century diplomacy. Savedoff illustrates his thesis by discussing three areas of global public goods: health, finance and environment. The implications are mixed, but not good, overall.

“In most of the rich countries, we have powerful elites bent on removing safety nets, regulations, and other instruments of collective action to pursue common goals. And internationally, we have created bureaucracies that seem clumsy and unresponsive.” 

As for the resurgent form of mixed coalitions, they can move faster than cumbersome international processes based on unanimity, but they are mainly good at innovation, spending money and adapting to evolving circumstances: “the most promising thing about mixed coalitions is that they are part of a global conversation on acceptable social norms and standards, which are always changing.”

Unfortunately many of today’s global threats require something much more coercive and self-sacrifing from national governments and economies. As Savedoff concludes: “What concerns me most is a particular class of issues that involve irreversible damage—and this is where I think mixed coalitions are both the only path forward and not at all assured of success.” As examples he cites microbial resistance to drugs, financial regulation and, of course, climate change.

His last para is doggedly optimistic, but hardly reassuring:

“I remain optimistic that our complex mix of global governance and mixed coalitions will eventually resolve the many challenges that require international cooperation. But it is not an optimism based on any deterministic trend or teleology. Rather it is an optimism that comes from reading historical accounts about the “end of the world” and realizing that, at least so far, we’ve survived—and even progressed.”

Yeah, right.


  1. Isn’t this just a rehash of World Systems Theory, Hegemonic Stability Theory etc? As I understand it, when a hegemon (e.g. US) is able to impose its rules and wishes in the economic, political and military spheres, then a period of openness results. The hegemon continues to do this until it is exhausted, then the system starts to break down. World affairs enter turmoil, trade slows, things close in on themselves – but the hegemon tries again to regain its position, gets more aggressive and things get rough – e.g. Mitt Romney’s world tour…

    Immanuel Wallerstein is the doyen of this field, was about the first person to call it that the US was in decline. Duncan why not get him to do a piece, that really would be interesting!

  2. Given the increasing number of global issues that can’t be tackled by any nation alone, there’s no doubt that some form of binding global governance is a pre-requisite to a just and sustainable world. Unfortunately, this is a subject the NGO community do not take seriously enough. There are some initiatives, such as the Simultaneous Policy (Simpol) which would offer civil society a very powerful way of implementing it.

  3. The World Economic Forum’s Global Redesign Initiative issued a report called Everybody’s Business: Strengthening International Cooperation in a More Interdependent World, which is the most comprehensive proposal for re-designing global governance since the formulation of the United Nations during World War II. The Program on Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston recently published an on-line Readers’ Guide to this report that offers an easy introduction to WEF’s key governance proposals and seeks to encourage a healthy debate on the future of global governance. The intention is to provide current participants in international organizations with the tools to understand these proposed changes in international governance and to provide students and faculty in international relations with an engaging overview of contemporary governance issues. The Readers’ Guide was prepared by a former United Nations staff member with long experience in international negotiations. You can find it here: http://www.umb.edu/gri. The Readers’ Guide invites users to share their comments on the Davos proposals and on the analysis provided by the author.

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