Many Cooks in the Global Governance Kitchen

28 Feb 2018

Are world leaders and world institutions up to the task of solving the ever-growing range of global problems? An international group of scholars met do debate this question and others in Geneva on February 10-11, co-hosted by STI and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

STI Experts Meetings

The Academic Leaders of the 2016 Transforming Global Governance experts meeting in Barcelona convened another reunion in Geneva to delve even more deeply into The Future of Global Governance.  They explain:

Does global governance have a future? And what does that future like?  These are the questions that consume international society as it attempts to attend to a range of global problems, including climate change, economic inequality, emergency relief, migration, global trade, international finance, peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction, terrorism, human rights, and on and on.  There is no shortage of problems, but there is considerable worry that the world’s leaders or the world’s current set of institutions are not up to the task of solving them. 

The Geneva workshop focused on three big questions.  The first is: what is happening?  The general impression is that today’s global governance differs significantly from what previously existed.  States do not seem to want to negotiate or sign binding treaties.  There seem to be more and different kinds of actors involved in global governance than ever before.  International organizations used to be the center of global governance, but increasingly they seem to be losing their ground to networks, public-private partnerships, and other experiments.  But these are impressions often based on little awareness of history.  History suggests that many of the global governance arrangements that are often seen as completely novel, in fact, have a historical precedent.  Recovering this history is important not only to make sure that we get our history right, but also because these previous chapters provide lessons for the present and the future.  Yet, our tentative conclusion is that many of these trends, even if not new, are intensifying, sometimes creating new opportunities for cooperation but at other times complicating negotiations for the simple fact that there are more cooks in the kitchen.

The second question is: why is this happening?  Tallying the possible causes generates a long list: shifts in geopolitics and changes in state power; new phases of global capitalism; the rise of expert communities and the desire for a more rationalized world order; ideological diversity; increasing numbers of state and non-state actors; technological developments; the growing complexity of the issues to be governed; and the rising cost of adjustments to global and domestic societies.  All of these factors occur in the broader political context of the relative economic and political decline of the United States and the rise of China, India, and other non-Western powers. 

Yet two causes deserve special attention. One, the current wave of nationalism and populism sweeping the world is particularly worrisome, especially since many of the Western states that created and supported the major global governance institutions are wavering in their support.  In addition, the growth of non-state actors in general and expert communities in particular is transformative.  The rise of these actors is itself a function of global gridlock: because states are incapable of delivering results, state and non-state actors are experimenting with new kinds of arrangements, such as public-private partnerships.  Again, we recognize that history has laid down some tracks that represent constraints on how contemporary policymakers might think about solving global problems.  But the sheer number of these trends and developments have created new spaces and opportunities for experimentation. 

The third question is: do these trends in governance matter?  How do they change outcomes and make lives better, safer, and more secure? We have more questions than answers, but the questions are themselves important.  One, is all this change leading to breakthroughs in global governance?  Or is this simply, proverbially speaking, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?  Will new voices in the area of global governance find heretofore undiscovered political solutions? Or do these voices simply add to the cacophony of calls for change that go nowhere? We do not know where these changes will lead.  There are reasons to believe that all this activity is improving the ability of the world to solve its most pressing problems.  Take climate change.  At Paris, states created an important agreement.  But there is a lot of action occurring elsewhere, including municipalities working unilaterally and forging alliance with other cities, all without the guidance or support of nation-states.  It might be too little too late, but only the most committed cynic would insist that there has been no progress. 

How are these new global governance architectures affecting the legitimacy of the processes and outcomes of global governance?  Does the fact that there are more stakeholders actively involved mean that global governance has greater legitimacy?  But who do these stakeholders represent?  Who elected the international judicial bodies that are ruling over more and more of global and domestic politics?  Any political order, and global governance represents a world order, creates winners and losers.  Do these changes even out power differentials, or heighten them?  Our current solutions are laying down problems and solutions that future generations will have to confront and manage.  Are we making their lives easier or more complicated? 

Although we have more questions than answers, we can report three preliminary observations that give hope for the future.  There are many changes taking place in the world of global governance, and while they are sometimes hyped and at other times operate with historical amnesia, we are living in historic times.  We have never seen so many actors engage in so many (increasingly linked) areas of global governance.  There is no simple reason for these changes.  Although great power dynamics get most of the attention, there is no single cause.  Indeed, these multiple drivers are interacting in unpredictable ways.  We are living through a period of growing complexity.  Lastly, there is a considerable amount of experimentation.  When actors find themselves stifled in one direction, they do not shrug their shoulders and wave white flags, but rather they look for new avenues.  And while some of these experiments may fail, they illustrate that global governance has become a dynamic, responsive system rather than a static, fixed set of rules.