Global governance is hard to define, difficult to achieve, but more necessary than ever.
Global governance sounds like a good idea. The world faces a number of major problems that only our best collective efforts seem capable of addressing. Whether it’s managing the world’s crisis-prone economic system, addressing the unprecedented challenge of climate change, or even trying to place security on a collective basis, there are many issues that seem to demand a cooperative approach.
And yet one of the most striking features of the contemporary era is that international relations are increasingly fractious and contested. There is little agreement on which issues should be prioritised, let alone how—or even whether—they could be successfully managed. On the contrary, for all the excited talk about the benefits of ‘globalisation’ and even the end of history in recent times, the current international order looks anything but orderly.
There are a number of key reasons why the prospects for international cooperation are nothing like as bright as many had hoped. First, and most consequentially perhaps, the United States no longer seems willing or even able to play the sort of stabilising or ‘hegemonic’ role it once did. The erratic presidency of Donald Trump and his nationalist agenda has much to do with this, but American power was in relative decline before Trump appeared on the scene. Indeed, he is as much a consequence as a cause of the new disorder.
One of the reasons that the United States has become less willing to play its accustomed role is that its primacy is being challenged by an array of rising powers, most notably China. The re-emergence of China as a great power represents a major challenge to American pre-eminence, both as the dominant state and as an exemplar of political and economic development. When there is little agreement —even competition — about what the international rules and norms ought to be, the chances for cooperation look even more remote.
One way of trying to make sense of the current situation and the prospects for much-needed, future-oriented cooperative endeavours is by placing the idea of global governance in some sort of historical context. When seen from a longer-term perspective our collective capacity to create enduring institutions and principles remains impressive. True, some of the most practically consequential and symbolically important organisations, such as the European Union are in a good deal of trouble, but the fact that they exist at all is perhaps the most remarkable point in retrospect.
After all, much of the scholarly community dismisses the idea that any sustained cooperative relations between autonomous states are possible in the first place. And yet the EU has been involved in keeping Europe peaceful for more than half a century – not to mention underpinning some of the world’s highest living standards, of course.
In this context, it is important to remember that interstate war, of a sort that Europeans used to specialise in, has actually become something of a rarity. True, there is plenty of chaos and mayhem in the world, but it usually occurs within national borders, not between rival states. This is no small achievement when seen in the long sweep of history, especially the bloody European variety. The big question, of course, is can the world continue on this relatively peaceful path?
There are many reasons for scepticism, to be sure, but there also some glimmers of hope. For example, there is still a large number of institutions that are dedicated to maintaining the peace. True, many of them are not terribly effective and/or anachronistic, but they have at least some influence on the actions of even the most bellicose and nationalistic of leaders.
The difficulty of reforming existing institutions so that they are more effective, or trying to create new ones that can actually achieve highly desirable and essential forms of cooperation remains formidable. Non-state actors have been effective in drawing attention to the need for action, but it is still states and the elites that run them that literally call the shots. Any efforts to change the world for the better will have to deal with this political reality.
Having said that, it’s important for policymakers and the populations they claim to represent to have some sort of vision about where we are collectively heading. National self-interest cannot take even the most privileged members of the global community very far in isolation. Global governance is consequently something we need to understand and work toward—no matter how improbable it may seem. History provides some sobering reminders of what the world might look like without it.
Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia and the author of Rethinking Global Governance (Palgrave, 2019).