Complexity, Authority, Power, Change

Rethinking Global Governance? Complexity, Authority, Power,
Change
Thomas G. Weiss
The Graduate Center, The City University of New York
and
Rorden Wilkinson
The University of Manchester
Global governance remains notoriously slippery. While the term arose to describe change in the late twentieth century,
its association with that specific moment has frozen it in time and deprived it of analytical utility. It has become an alternative moniker for international organizations, a descriptor for an increasingly crowded world stage, a call to arms, an
attempt to control the pernicious aspects of globalization, and a synonym for world government. This article aims not to
advance a theory of global governance but to highlight where core questions encourage us to go. A more rigorous conception should help us understand the nature of the contemporary phenomenon as well as look “backwards” and “forwards.” Such an investigation should provide historical insights as well as prescriptive elements to understand the kind of
world order that we ought to be seeking and encourage us to investigate how that global governance could be realized.
“Global governance” is now ubiquitous, used and abused
by academics and policymakers. A Google search offers a
crude measure, generating over 3.1 million hits at the
end of 2012—astonishing given that two decades ago, it
was almost unknown. Despite or perhaps because of its
omnipresence, global governance remains notoriously
slippery. While it has potential beyond conveying a sense
of the complexity of contemporary global authority, it
has become, among other things, an alternative moniker
for international organizations, a descriptor for a world
stage packed with ever more actors, a call to arms for a
better world, an attempt to control the pernicious aspects
of accelerating economic and social change, and a synonym for world government (Craig 2008).
This imprecision has robbed the term of conceptual
rigor, in the main forcing us to fall back on more staple
approaches of international politics for explanatory sustenance (Ba and Hoffmann 2005). The best that could perhaps be said about global governance is that we invoke it
to indicate a super-macrolevel of analysis; we do not use
it to convey a discreet and pithy understanding of how
the world works. As such, we have hardly advanced in
answering the question that Lawrence Finkelstein posed
in the first volume of the journal that took the same
name, “what is global governance?” He provocatively
answered, “virtually anything” (Finkelstein 1995:368).
Our aim is to press for rethinking how we conceive
and apply the term. On the one hand, “global governance” has become both widespread and useful for
describing growing complexity in the way that the world
is organized and authority exercised as well as shorthand
for referring to a collection of institutions with planetary
reach. On the other hand, the analytical capacity of the
term has not been mined sufficiently to enable us to get
a better handle on the underlying dynamics of change.
Our argument is that a deeper investigation of contemporary global governance has the potential to capture more
accurately how power is exercised across the globe, how a
multiplicity of actors relate to one another generally as
well as on specific issues, make better sense of global
complexity, and account for alterations in the way that
the world is and has been organized (or governed) over
time—both within and between historical periods.
It is our contention that an investigation into global
governance should concentrate on four primary pursuits.
First, it should move beyond the strong association that
has come to exist between the term and virtually any
change in the late twentieth century. It should instead be
understood that the complexities of the post-Cold War
era are merely the most concrete recent expression of
global governance, but that forms of world organization
have been and will be different in other epochs. Second,
it should identify and explain the structure of global
authority accounting not just for grand patterns of command and control but also for how regional, national,
and local systems intersect with or push against that structure. A concern with multiple levels of governance is not
enough although it is a good start (Bache and Flinders
2004). Third, a central preoccupation should be to investigate the myriad ways that power is exercised within such
a system, how interests are articulated and pursued, the
kind of ideas and discourses from which power and interests draw substance as well as which help establish, maintain, and perpetuate the system. Fourth, it should
account for changes in and of the system and focus on
the causes, consequences, and drivers of change, not just
today but over extended periods of time.
Our aim is not to advance a theory of global governance but to highlight where core questions encourage
Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science and Director
of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The City University
of New York’s Graduate Center. He is Past President of the ISA (2009-10).
Rorden Wilkinson is Professor of International Political Economy in the
School of Social Sciences, and Research Director of the Brooks World Poverty
Institute, at the University of Manchester.
Weiss, Thomas G. and and Rorden Wilkinson. (2014) Rethinking Global Governance? Complexity, Authority, Power, Change. International Studies Quarterly,
doi: 10.1111/isqu.12082
© 2013 International Studies Association
International Studies Quarterly (2014) 58, 207–215
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us to go. We pick up on earlier work that has fallen by
the wayside and seek to re-energize the search for a better understanding of “global governance as it has been,
is, and may become” (Hewson and Sinclair 1999:ix). If
our propositions are correct, and if better answers to the
questions that global governance encourages us to ask
are forthcoming, a more rigorous conception should help
us understand the nature of the contemporary phenomenon as well as look “backwards” and “forwards.” Such an
investigation should provide historical insights and prescriptive elements to understand the kind of world order
that we ought to be seeking and encourage us to investigate how that global governance can come about. The
value-added of the concept results from opening our eyes
to how the world was, is, and ought to be organized—
certainly better than simply “muddling through” as we
seek to counter the threats that confront the planet
(Lindblom 1959).
We begin with an overview of the intellectual genesis
of the term, concentrating on why global governance
emerged, what it was intended to depict, and how its
meaning has evolved over the last two decades. Here, we
show how its emergence was bound up with a specific set
of changes in authority and the exercise of power that
became visible at the end of the twentieth and beginning
of the twenty-first century. While the term arose to
describe change in the late twentieth century, its association with that specific moment has frozen it in time and
deprived it of a greater capacity to understand change.
Put another way, “global governance” has come to mean
world governance without world government and not a
more generic analytical tool for understanding how the
globe is organized. We then explore what global governance has helped us explain, but also what it has missed.
Imprecision has resulted in a feebler conceptual tool
than it should for understanding how the world is
organized and how power is exercised. We then spell out
the four desirable components of an investigation. The
penultimate section considers how, despite its emergence
from—and indeed its relationship with—a specific and
quite recent historical moment, global governance has
considerable traction in looking back to explain the
nature and complexities of, as well as wholesale changes
in, previous global orders, and in looking forward to how
the contemporary world ought to be organized.
The Emergence of Global Governance
Mainstream thinking has shifted decidedly away from the
study of intergovernmental organization and law toward
global governance. The term itself was born from a marriage between academic theory and practical policy in the
1990s and became entwined with that other meta-phenomenon of the last two decades, globalization. Rosenau
and Czempiel’s (1992) theoretical Governance without Government was published just about the same time that the
Swedish government launched the policy-oriented Commission on Global Governance under the chairmanship
of Sonny Ramphal and Ingmar Carlsson (Commission on
Global Governance 1995). Both set in motion interest in
global governance. The publication of the commission’s
report, Our Global Neighbourhood, coincided with the first
issue of the Academic Council on the United Nations
System journal Global Governance. This newly minted
quarterly sought to return to the global problem-solving
origins of the leading journal in the field, which seemed
to have lost its way. “From the late 1960s, the idea of
international organization fell into disuse,” Sinclair
(2012:16) reminds us. “International Organization, the
journal which carried this name founded in the 1940s,
increasingly drew back from matters of international
policy and instead became a vehicle for the development
of rigorous academic theorizing.”
These developments paved the way for a raft of works
about growing global complexity, the management of
globalization, and the challenges confronting international institutions (Cox 1994; Prakash and Hart 1999). In
part, global governance replaced an immediate predecessor as a normative endeavor, “world-order studies,” which
was seen as overly top-down and static. Having grown
from World Peace through World Law (Clark and Sohn
1958), world order failed to capture the variety of actors,
networks, and relationships that characterized contemporary international relations (Falk and Mendlovitz 1966–
1967). When the perspectives from world-order scholars
started to look a little old-fashioned, the stage was set for
a new analytical cottage industry. After his archival labors
to write a two-volume history of world federalism, Joseph
Barrata aptly observes that in the 1990s “the new expression, ‘global governance,’ emerged as an acceptable term
in debate on international organization for the desired
and practical goal of progressive efforts, in place of
‘world government.’” He continues: scholars “wished to
avoid using a term that would harken back to the thinking about world government in the 1940s, which was largely based on fear of atomic bombs and too often had
no practical proposals for the transition short of a revolutionary act of the united peoples of the world” (2004, vol.
2:534–535). Barnett and Duvall said it more adroitly:
“The idea of global governance has attained near-celebrity status. In little more than a decade the concept has
gone from the ranks of the unknown to one of the central orienting themes in the practice and study of international affairs” (2005:1).
Yet, the emergence of the term—and changes in the
way that aspirations for insights from it were expressed—
did not empty global governance of the normative content stemming from preoccupations that motivated previous generations of international relations and
international organization scholars. In this way, global
governance came to refer to collective efforts to identify,
understand, or address worldwide problems and processes that went beyond the capacities of individual states.
It reflected a capacity of the international system at any
moment in time to provide government-like services in
the absence of world government. Global governance
encompassed a wide variety of cooperative problemsolving arrangements that were visible but informal (for
example, practices or guidelines) or were temporary
formations (for example, coalitions of the willing). Such
arrangements could also be more formal, taking the
shape of hard rules (laws and treaties) or else institutions
with administrative structures and established practices to
manage collective affairs by a variety of actors—including
state authorities, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, private sector entities, and
other civil society actors (Weiss and Thakur 2010).
It is also worth noting that the need to refresh thinking about how to better utilize international organizations
underpinned the efforts of scholars working under the
auspices of the “Multilateralism and the United Nations
System,” a project coordinated by Robert W. Cox and
sponsored by the United Nations University (UNU;
Sakamoto 1992; Krause and Knight 1995; Cox 1997b; Gill
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1997; Schechter 1999a,b). The stated intention was to
capture, revitalize, and build upon the legitimacy connoted by the term “multilateralism” as a way of thinking
about how to better organize the world. As Cox summarized:
“Global governance” means the procedures and practices which exist at the world (or regional) level for
the management of political, economic and social
affairs. One hypothetical form of governance (world
government or world empire) can be conceived as having a hierarchical form of coordination, whether centralized (unitary) or decentralized (federal). The other
form of coordination would be non-hierarchical, and
this we would call multilateral (Cox 1997b:xvi).
An earlier and widely cited project directed by Ruggie
(1993) had also aimed to substantiate the idea that
“multilateralism matters,” albeit less ambitious in the way
that it sought to conceptualize the capacity of this institutional form to be refashioned. Another UNU project
actually challenged his more traditional concept of multilateralism (Newman, Thakur and Tirman 2006). Yet, the
insights of all of these projects were unable to rehabilitate
the study of global authority via a reclaimed multilateralism. Global governance proved more pervasive and
persuasive.
Global governance also became bound up with another
normative project ignited by worries about the shortfalls
in the capacity of states to reign in the activities of a
range of actors and to blunt the sharper consequences of
global marketization as well as the seemingly unstoppable
actions of powerful international economic institutions.
In this variation—what Chanda (2008) called “runaway
globalization”—the political authority of some great powers and international economic organizations along with
the absence of authority among others (largely those
states that encountered globalization as a quasi-force of
nature) underpinned growing dissatisfaction in civil society (Hall 1998; Hobsbawn 1998). This disgruntlement
found expression in mass demonstrations during the
meetings of the World Trade Organization, International
Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Union (EU), and
various regional development banks as well as in the
growth of an anti- and then an alter-globalization movement (Peet 2003; Amoore 2005). The normative result
was one of governing globalization (Vayrynen 1999; Coyle
2000; Held and McGrew 2002).
In short, potential analytical traction evaporated
because global governance meant so many different things
to so many different people. It embodied the hopes and
fears of many at the turn of the millennium, but failed to
satisfy the need to analyze those tumultuous times.
It is worth recalling briefly what those dramatic
changes were as well as what the term hoped to describe
and capture. Three broad developments underpinned
the appearance of the notion of global governance: the
character of global problems, the nature of actors, and
the perceived limitations of international measures to
govern the planet.
Beginning in the 1970s, interdependence and rapid
technological advances fostered the growing recognition
that many problems defied the problem-solving capacities
of a single state. Prior to this time, and the evidence of
world wars and the Great Depression notwithstanding,
most observers would have argued that powerful states
could usually solve problems on their own, or at least
could insulate themselves from the worst impacts. Efforts
to eradicate malaria within a geographic area and to prevent those with the disease from entering a territory
should be seen as qualitatively different from halting terrorist money-laundering, avian flu, or acid rain. Today no
state, no matter how powerful, can labor under the illusion that it can protect its population from such threats.
Rich states earlier could insulate themselves by erecting
effective barriers, whereas a growing number of contemporary challenges to world order simply cannot be prevented by erecting walls. And politicians can no longer
completely shy away from recognizing that reality—except
perhaps during elections.
The development of a consciousness about the global
environment and the consequences of human interactions, and especially the 1972 UN conference in Stockholm, is usually seen as a game-changer in the evolution
of thinking. Although other examples abound, sustainability is especially apt to illustrate why we are all in the
same listing boat. It simply is impossible that such laudable localized actions as environmental legislation in California or wind farms in Denmark can put the brakes on
the destructive trajectory of climate change down which
the planet is hurtling (Newell 2012).
The second development underpinning growing interest in global governance was the sheer expansion in the
numbers and importance of nonstate actors (NSAs), particularly civil society and for-profit corporations, and
more especially those with trans-national reach (Willetts
2011). While analysts of international relations and international organization had become aware and included
them into their thinking and concepts, they were still
seen as appendages to the state system (Keohane and
Nye 1971). Such growth has been facilitated by the socalled third wave of democratization (Huntington 1991),
including institutional networks similar enough to facilitate greater trans-national and trans-governmental interactions described by Slaughter (2004) and Grewal (2008),
a growing disillusionment with state capacity and state
willingness to deal with social issues, and the onset of a
more pernicious global economic environment.
A third driving force lay in concerns to upgrade the
UN system for the post-Cold War period. Combining worries about the increasingly trans-border nature of problems and state incapacity to address them with a desire to
draw from the untapped potential of “new” global actors,
scholars and practitioners sought to shore-up the world
body by encouraging it not only to reform but also to
partner with others to address pressing issues. One aspect
of this movement pressed the United Nations to recognize the comparative advantage of other actors that were
better able to fulfill key tasks, including roping NGOs
and TNCs more closely into the work of the world organization through the Global Compact. Another explored
the capacity for a “complex multilateralism” to emerge
designed to capture the capacity of global social movements to fill a legitimacy gap in global governance
(O’Brien, Goetz, Scholte and Williams 2000:3). Another
still sought to address the “crisis of multilateralism”
through root and branch reform of UN institutions
(Newman 2007).
Whatever the exact explanatory weight of the three
driving forces, the emergence and widespread recognition of trans-national issues that circumscribed state
capacity along with the proliferation of NSAs responding
to perceived shortfalls in national capabilities and a willingness to address them in the context of a perceived
crisis of multilateralism combined to stimulate new thinkThomas G. Weiss and Rorden Wilkinson 209
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ing. Scholars of international relations and international
organization began to ask questions about the precise
role of other actors that were to varying degrees already
global agents. Multinational corporations and philanthropic institutions, for instance, were obscured from the
sight of analysts who focused on states as the only or at
least the most consequential actors. As a consensus about
the pace and extent of global change grew, so did the
impulse to understand the significance of an even greater
range of players, extending later to faith actors and financial rating agencies as well as such less salubrious agents
as transnational criminal networks and terrorist movements (Sinclair 2005; Madsen 2009; Marshall 2013). At
the same time, scholars began to ask what kind of governance was exerted by mechanisms such as markets that
had previously been the sole purview of international
political economists (Cox 1997a). So, whereas states and
the intergovernmental organizations that they had created had once monopolized the attention of students of
international organization, the closing decades of the
twentieth century encouraged the shift from state-centric
structures to a wide range of actors and mechanisms.
These ideas, in turn, were carried over into real-world
developments. New, or newly recognized, as well as old
actors combined in partnerships, thereby blurring even
further the traditional conception of a world shaped
essentially by the interactions of states and their relative
power capabilities. The United Nations “sub-contracted”
security operations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Balkans and to the Economic Community of West African States in West Africa as well as to
development and humanitarian NGOs for the delivery of
services, assistance, and protection (Gordenker and Weiss
1996; Weiss 1998). And as indicated above, the UN itself
also formed a coalition with multinational corporations,
labor unions, and civil society around shared concerns
for social and environmental standards in the Global
Compact (Hughes and Wilkinson 2001; Ruggie 2001).
These new institutional forms and partnerships encouraged investigators to ask questions not only about who
and what were involved in the organization of the world
but also how any particular form of organization came
about and its mechanisms of control. Here, work accelerated on networks and epistemic communities, super-sized
business gatherings like the World Economic Forum and
counter weights such as the World Social Forum, and
markets and investor decision making (Cox 1992; Haas
1992; Germain 1997; Sinclair 2005; Stone and Maxwell
2005; Pigman 2007). To borrow an image from James
Rosenau, a “crazy quilt” of authority was emerging and
shifting, resulting in a “patchwork” of institutional elements that varied by sector and over time (1999:293). He
also correctly attached the adjective “turbulent” to our
world and times and struggled to make sense of “fragmegration,” or the simultaneous pulls toward fragmentation
and integration (1990).
Plus C a Change…
Yet, for all of the interest that growing complexity
engendered, and the new and novel scholarly first-cut in
thinking about global governance that it generated, old
ways persisted. Three-quarters of a century of distinguishing the study of international relations from political science as one characterized by a focus on states as the
primary units of analysis continued to condition thinking
and weighed heavily on the way that scholars understood
this altered world. Similarly, students of international
organization have continued to emphasize the role of
major powers in intergovernmental organizations as the
central lens through which to view human progress.
However, older ways also involved thinking outside of
these boxes. Harold Jacobson observed that the march by
states toward a world government was woven into the tapestries decorating the walls of the Palais des Nations in
Geneva—now the UN’s European Office but once the
headquarters of the defunct League of Nations. They “picture the process of humanity combining into ever larger
and more stable units for the purpose of governance—
first the family, then the tribe, then the city-state, and
then the nation—a process which presumably would eventually culminate in the entire world being combined in
one political unit” (Jacobson 1984:84). Other than a few
surviving world federalists, virtually no one believes that is
where we are headed; and Mazower (2012), for one, is
comfortable with the disappearance of this noble but megalomaniacal, visionary but delusional idea.
Thus, our best shot was to label this complex world
where authority was exercised differently “global governance,” but to persist with familiar state-centric ways of
understanding it, to view all other actors and activities as
appendages to the international system that analysts have
observed since the Peace of Westphalia. What the ups
and downs of global change had injected was curiosity
and new questions. They revolved around how the world
was organized and authority and power exercised therein,
and the knowledge that we lacked by merely peering at
states for insights. But we stopped short of providing real
answers to questions that pushed us beyond comfort levels with older modes of thinking.
“IO plus” was basically Finkelstein’s original answer to
“what is global governance?” His reply is not all that different from contemporary responses. Indeed, the journal
that was established to drive forward understandings of
new worldwide complexities—Global Governance—signaled
a reluctance to break with old ways of thinking in its
subtitle, A Review of Multilateralism and International
Organizations.
According to Craig Murphy’s masterful history of “global governance” avant le mot since the nineteenth century,
international organizations customarily are viewed as
“what world government we actually have” (2000:789). He
is right, but the problem lies elsewhere. At the national
level, we have the authoritative structures of government
that are supplemented by governance. However, internationally we simply have governance with some architectural drawings for modest renovations in international
structures that are several decades old and not up to present building codes. Blueprints sit in filing cabinets while
unstable ground and foundations shift under feeble existing structures, which are occupied by a host of other
actors, processes, and mechanisms that all-too-often
occupy only our peripheral vision. The result has been
that the value of global governance in understanding
complexity and especially the drivers of change has been
less than fully exploited. We have updated the Finklestein’s answer: “add new actors and issues and stir.”
We also have too closely associated the changes that we
sought to explain with a particular moment in time, the
post-Cold War era. The capacity of existing international
organizations to address pressing contemporary challenges is called into question by their demonstrated
inability to bind key states in meaningful ways to address
global problems—to which efforts to protect the global
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environment, eradicate world poverty, or attenuate
increasing inequalities within and across states and social
groups bear ample witness. Consequently, the association
of global governance with the hopes, worries, and complexities of a particular moment runs the risk of turning
it into an historical artifact. This consignment brings with
it a risk of losing sight of questions about how the world
is organized and authority exercised. In short, we need to
rescue the term.
Reviving Global Governance
These risks should push us to probe more deeply into how
the world is truly organized—or as John Ruggie some time
ago remarked, how “the world hangs together?” (1998:2).
What is it that we need to do in order to realize the analytical utility of global governance? The first part of an answer
is to tackle global complexity in a more satisfactory fashion, not to be afraid to disaggregate by issue and by context, and then to try and fit the data back together into an
explanatory whole. We should not only describe who the
actors are and how they connect to one another, but also
how a particular outcome has resulted and why and on
what grounds authority is effectively or poorly exercised.
We should examine the consequences of new forms of
organization and determine what adjustments might be
made to enhance their utility to meet existing, new, or
changing social goals. Important as well are subtler understandings and a better appreciation of the differing characteristics of institutions and the effects when those with
varying natures and capabilities come together.
Another essential task is giving greater thought to the
way that power is exercised other than indicating that
Germany is not Gabon, that emerging powers are on the
rise, and that the end of Pax Americana is nigh (Strange
1987; Layne 2011). In today’s international system, state
capabilities matter as do the way that formal and informal
institutions mediate relations between states and the way
that goods and services are exchanged and managed.
When the numbers and kinds of actors proliferate,
markets are less controlled by states, and more complex
relations exist between actors and markets, questions of
power are less straightforward. Here, we should probe
more than the relationship between the birth of the
current phase of international institutions and US power,
illustrated by the work of Ikenberry (1992) and Ruggie
(1994). We should also reflect on institutional expressions and social groups, epistemic communities and policy networks, financial decision making, and changing
capabilities among other actors (Haas 1992; Pogge 2001;
Cerny 2010; Hellenier and Pagliari 2011; Stone 2012).
Finally, and despite some notable endeavors (Finnemore
and Sikkink 1998; Gill 2002; Jolly, Emmerij and Weiss
2009), we have yet to fully understand the ideas and interests that drive the organizations that we have, and more
particularly how they arise and develop, and subsequently
permeate and modify the international system. Here, ideas
themselves are important as are the value systems upon
which they sit, the discourses in which they are embedded,
and the interests to which they speak. So too are the individuals who generate those ideas, the networks through
which they are disseminated, the ways that various institutions mediate core messages, and the processes through
which ideas are translated into forms of organization and
policy delivery. Checkel (1997) long ago called for “midlevel theory,” and we as a scholarly community have yet to
do that and link ideas to global governance.
Without a concerted effort to press forward our understanding of the complexities of global governance, the
way that authority and power are exercised, and the ideational and material aspects of global organization, we risk
not only misunderstanding the world around us but also
underestimating our capacity to make meaningful adjustments to that order. In short, we can no longer ignore
global governance’s capacity to understand change—past
and future as well as present.
Global Governance: Backwards and Forwards
Thinking harder about global governance may have utility
beyond understanding where we are and the nature of
the world order in which we live, or which actors we
should or should not emphasize or ignore when thinking
about complexity (Jentleson 2012). The questions asked
in the closing decades of the twentieth century may also
be useful in helping us understand where we have come
from and where we are going. And the analytical utility of
global governance as a conceptual device beyond the current order may lie in ideas advanced about a refashioned
multilateralism immediately after the Cold War’s end.
Earlier we recalled Cox’s distinction between global
governance as multilateralism and as world government
or empire. This distinction provides a potentially fruitful
way of thinking about global governance that removes
some of the blinkers that its association with the postCold War moment entails. We understand global governance as the sum of the informal and formal ideas, values, norms, procedures, and institutions that help all
actors—states, IGOs, civil society, and TNCs—identify,
understand, and address trans-boundary problems. If so,
we ought to do so not merely on the basis of its contemporary manifestations, which emerged from a specific and
recent historical moment, which responded to a perceived need to better understand what was going on, and
which sought to capture global change as a positive phenomenon. Pursuing answers to the question “how is the
world governed?” across time should also give us a better
idea of where we have come from, why change has happened, and where we are going.
Put differently, if we apply the same kinds of questions
that led to understanding global governance as a pluralization of world politics at the end of the last century,
then we should also be able to determine what kinds of
systems of world order existed before the current one,
and how power and authority were exercised. In brief, we
should have answers about the ultimate drivers of change
and their impact.
A willingness to ask how the world was governed as well
as how that governance has changed over time has the
potential to destabilize international relations theory. It
opens our analytical aspirations to examine a complexity
that, in fact, has always existed; and it requires us to
account for that complexity by adjusting our theoretical
lenses to examine that long-standing complexity. As many
have shown, the global governance of the Westphalian
era was more than an anarchic state system alone. For
instance, Spruyt (1994) reminds us that a mosaic of
actors—states and nonstates—have always been involved
in global governance although some states have been far
more capable actors than other states and NSAs.
Indeed, perhaps the best that we can say about the
community of international relations scholars over the
past half-century is that we have manufactured a handle
to grasp how the interstate part of the global governance
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complex has worked. However, we have spent too little
time thinking about what other agents and forms of
governance exist and have existed and what the relationships between them and the interstate system have been
—not just in the last few decades, but forever.
One way to think about global governance over time is
to evaluate the kinds of ideas about world order that have
prevailed. In the two-dimensional and static view of the
Westphalian order as an interstate system, an assertion
that the organizing principle is anarchy tells us nothing
about why the world has been organized that way or why
we need to know about what existed before hand. Such
an approach takes us into well-charted territory, but our
way of journeying through it—if we focus on questions of
how and why the world is organized—is different and
potentially more satisfactory.
One reason for the emergence of the interstate system
as the broad framework that governs the world was a
response to ideas that—in the European world at least—
sought to move away from a form of global governance
in which papal authority was supreme to one in which
various secular rulers exercised sovereignty over discrete
geographic units. While ideas of self-determination found
their first expression here, the move from papacy to state
was not necessarily in the interests of the populations
who were subjected to this new form of governance. Nor
did it end the influence of the papacy, or of religious
institutions more generally, in the global governance of
the time. Nor did it extinguish ideas about the subjugation of populations beyond national borders as a “legitimate” product of global governance—though the fight
against later expressions of European imperialism most
certainly accelerated the consolidation of self-determination as a foundational principle of the subsequent system
of global governance.
Other agents that contributed to how the world was
governed until this point—such as mercenary armies and
city states to name but two—fell into relative desuetude,
but new actors emerged to play a more central role.
Indeed, we can observe how Hobsbawn’s (1994) “Age of
Empire” came about as the dominant form of world organization from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries by scrutinizing the role of private enterprises—which
in many cases started off as “privateer” ventures and
became the nationally sanctioned “companies” of European empires—in extending imperialism as the dominant
form of global governance.
Asking questions about the rush to empire enables us
to see the role of such actors as the British and the Dutch
East India Company, but it also helps to distinguish
between the kind of global governance in existence
during the appropriation of European imperial power (as
well as the brutal forms of governance to which colonized
peoples were subjected) and that which existed once the
scramble for colonies subsided. The usual route into
thinking about how the world was organized in the nineteenth century is to examine how the balance of power
became institutionalized among the major European
countries through the Holy Alliance and the Concert of
Europe (Morgenthau 1995:481–489). Yet, this perspective
tells us merely of efforts to avoid costly and catastrophic
wars in Europe, not how the world was governed. Absent
from this view are the competing imperialisms that were
the dominant frame of global governance along with differing ideas about the subjugation of non-European peoples and the colonization of uninhabited lands (or that
were treated as terra nullius irrespective of indigenous
populations). Moreover, this dominant form of organization and the ideas on which it was based were subject to
challenges—both ideational and physical—that eroded
the bases of competing imperialisms and helped set in
motion the wholesale changes in global governance that
we now label “post-colonialism.”
Murphy’s (1994) International Organization and Industrial
Change: Global Governance since 1850 traces the origins of
global governance to the middle of the nineteenth century. His examination of public unions as the forerunners
of “global governance” is anomalous in that the term
arose, as we have seen, early in the 1990s. However, his
effort suggests the crucial importance of testing the
framework of global governance as an approach to understanding how the world was organized in other historical
periods than our own. The utility of Murphy’s work lies
in his willingness to connect changes in the form and
function of global governance with the onset, consolidation, and acceleration of another global dynamic that
mainstream international relations has always found it difficult to comprehend—the industrial revolution and the
logic of global capitalism. Others too have used this form
of economic and social organization as a different starting point for thinking about how the world is organized
and governed (Chase-Dunn and Sokolovsky 1983). These
works contribute considerably to our understanding of
what world authority structures we actually have, but they
do not—attempts to historicize these approaches further
notwithstanding (Frank and Gills 2003)—fully explore
the kinds of questions an enquiry into the historical manifestations of global governance demands. Likewise,
Hobson’s (2004) work on the contribution of nonWestern civilizations to the contemporary world and nonEuropean forms of organization offers useful insights
into—but not a complete platform for—thinking about
global governance, past and present.
It is also worth bearing in mind that if the questions that
led us to define contemporary global governance pluralistically were driven by the need to understand change and
new horizons, we should be able to ask similar questions
about earlier epochs and find satisfactory answers. Boli and
Thomas’s (1997) research on international non-governmental organizations goes in this direction. Peering into
the past through the lenses of global governance makes
one realize that, like globalization which once seemed
novel but is not, global governance also is not new.
The call of many historians to learn lessons for the
future from the past resonates loudly (Macmillan 2009).
Carr (1961:62) commented that history is an “unending
dialogue between the past and the present.” The relevance of this caveat was immediately obvious to three
authors of a recent international relations text who argue,
“One of the often-perceived problems of the social sciences is their lack of historical depth” (Williams, Hadfield
and Rofe 2012:3). Nothing is more valued in contemporary social science than parsimony, which puts a premium
on the simplest of theoretical pictures and causal mechanisms. History complicates matters, which is one of the
reasons that global governance has become widespread as
an approach because it “emerges out of a frustration with
parsimony and a determination to embrace a wider set of
causes” (Sinclair 2012:69). Self-doubt and reflection flow
naturally from historical familiarity in a way that they do
not from abstract theories and supposedly sophisticated
social science.
Yet, wrenching global governance from a contemporary
moment and applying it historically is not enough. This
212 Rethinking Global Governance?
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move would have limited value if it also were not a
valuable approach to understanding tomorrow. The
future-oriented value lies in treating global governance as
a set of questions that enable us to work out how the
world is, was, and could be governed, how changes in
grand and not-so-grand patterns of governance occurred,
are occurring, and ought to occur. This is an urgent intellectual task to which scholars should turn.
Conclusion
It is commonplace to state that many of the most intractable contemporary problems are trans-national, ranging
from climate change, migration, and pandemics to terrorism, financial instability, and the proliferation of weapons
of mass destruction; and that addressing them successfully requires actions that are not unilateral, bilateral,
or even multilateral, but rather global. Everything is
globalized—that is, everything except politics. The policy,
authority, and resources necessary for tackling such problems remain vested in individual states rather than collectively in universal institutions. The classic collective action
problem is how to organize common solutions to common problems and spread costs fairly. The fundamental
disconnect between the nature of a growing number of
global problems and the current inadequate structures
for international problem solving and decision making
goes a long way toward explaining the fitful, tactical, and
short-term local responses to challenges that require sustained, strategic, and longer-run global perspectives and
action.
Can a more comprehensive framework of global governance help us to attack that basic disjuncture? Contemporary global governance is a halfway house between the
international anarchy underlying realist analysis and a
world state. The current generation of intergovernmental
organizations undoubtedly helps lessen transaction costs
and overcome some structural obstacles to international
cooperation, as would be clear to anyone examining
international responses to the 2004 tsunami or ongoing
humanitarian crises for which we see a constellation of
helping hands—soldiers from a variety of countries, UN
organizations, large and small NGOs, and even Wal-Mart.
Global governance certainly is not the continuation of
traditional power politics. It also is not the expression of
an evolutionary process necessarily leading to the formation of structures able to address contemporary or future
global threats. Nor is it simply bound up with governing
the economy in the longue duree . Moreover, to speak of
“governance” and not “government” is to discuss the
product and not the producer. Agency and accountability
are absent. In the domestic context governance adds to
government, implying shared purpose and goal orientation in addition to formal authority and police or
enforcement powers. For the globe, governance is essentially the whole story, what Barrett (2007:19) describes
aptly as “organized volunteerism.”
To these observers, voluntary action has its limits; and
so, taking conceptual steps toward a more complete
framework of global governance is required. Our journey
should be toward a better understanding of how the world
was and currently is organized or disorganized, including
how its complexity is unpacked, how authority and
power are exercised, what are the ideational and material
drivers of change, and who benefits. That knowledge
should also place us in a position to propose what should
and could happen to improve the planet’s prospects.
At the end of the day, we require more satisfactory
answers to “What is global governance?” Otherwise, we
are left with images from two authors who rarely appear
in the pages of the scholarly journals focused on how the
world is organized: Gertrude Stein’s characterization of
Oakland, “there’s no there, there,” or Lewis Carroll’s
Cheshire cat, a grinning head floating without a body or
substance.
In comparison with international organization, peering
through the lens of global governance opens the analyst’s
eyes to viewing a host of actors and informal processes of
norm and policy formulation as well as change and
action. The crucial challenge in the near term is to push
the study of global governance beyond the notion of
“add actors and processes into the international organization mix and stir.”
Global problems require global solutions. We have to
identify cooperation at various levels and with specific
actors so that we can determine how global public goods
may result from a host of means and forms, formal and
informal, including supranational authority. There, we
have again uttered a notion that typically qualifies
authors for an asylum (Weiss 2009). We can point to
numerous examples of helpful steps in issue-specific global governance—for instance, the International Committee of the Red Cross for the laws of war and
humanitarian principles, the Federation Internationale
de Football Association (or FIFA, its familiar abbreviation) for the world’s most popular sport (football or soccer), and the International Association for Assigned
Names and Numbers (also better known by its acronym,
ICANN) for the internet.
Yet, we have to do more than hope for the best from
norm entrepreneurs, activists crossing borders, profitseeking corporations, and trans-national social networks.
To state the obvious, they can make important contributions but not eliminate poverty, fix global warming, or
halt mass atrocities. In accepting the limits of global governance without global government, our core argument is
that today numerous gaps (Weiss and Thakur 2010; Weiss
2013) should and could be better plugged in a variety of
ways in order to better address key problems confronting
international society. At the same time, these essential
measures should be taken without losing sight of the horizon. Vision is essential because history is not prophecy.
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