On Global Governance, Wishing Won’t Make It So

The “future is now” special report in Foreign Policy magazine’s September/October 2011 issue includes a couple of pieces that predict a significant deepening of global governance in the near future. In “Come Together” (link), American University professor of international relations David Bosco reflects on the consequences of the 9/11 attacks and the global economic crisis of 2008 and concludes that we may have “reached the point at which the world is more centripetal than centrifugal.”

The messy, halting, and fragmented project of global governance may have advanced far enough now that conflict, crisis, and the intense pressure of events lead not to the flying apart or hollowing out of existing institutions but to their consolidation. When crises hit, policymakers are pulled toward more international governance rather than less — sometimes in spite of themselves. The reality of interdependence may finally have insinuated itself into the instincts of policymakers…Multilateral instruments are getting more power and responsibility not necessarily because they’ve earned it, but because there seems to be no other option. Global institutionalization, at least in the economic realm, may now be a one-way ratchet: the only real options are keeping the status quo (which virtually everyone agrees is untenable) or ceding more power to the center.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of international relations at Princeton University and former Director of Policy Planning at the Department of State under President Obama, makes even bolder predictions in a piece titled “Problems Will Be Global — But Solutions Will Be, Too” (link):

By 2025 the U.N. Security Council will have expanded from the present 15 members to between 25 and 30 and will include, either as de jure or de facto permanent members, Brazil, India, Japan, South Africa, either Egypt or Nigeria, and either Indonesia or Turkey. At the same time, regional organizations on every continent — the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, some version of the Organization of American States — will be much stronger. Each will follow its own version of economic and political integration, inspired by the European Union, and many will include representation from smaller subregional organizations. In the Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey could provide the core of a new Middle East free trade area; alternatively the European Union could be interlocked with an emerging Mediterranean Union.

Like Bosco’s, Slaughter’s predictions are based on her sense that globalization is inexorably strengthening demand for international governance.

Driving this massive multilateralization is the increasingly global and regional nature of our problems, combined with an expanding number of countries splitting off from existing states. National governments will remain essential for many purposes, but managing bilateral relations and engaging in successful global negotiations with nearly 200 states will become increasingly unwieldy.

What Bosco and Slaughter have given us is the liberal institutionalist view of international relations in the early twenty-first century. Complex interdependence in the global political economy is creating new threats, but one person’s threats are another’s opportunities for mutual gains from cooperation. To realize those gains, however, states must create institutions that solve problems of coordination and enforcement. And so they will.

As sympathetic as I am to their hopeful visions, I’m more skeptical than Bosco and Slaughter about the prospects for deeper global governance in the near future. As observers of institutional development have repeatedly shown, the prospect of mutual gains from better governance does not lead inexorably to the development of new regimes or the strengthening of existing ones. Disagreements over exactly what the rules ought to be and how to share the costs and benefits of enforcing them have a tendency to scuttle or cripple most integrationist projects. Institutions may be useful as solutions to problems of cooperation, but demand does not lead automatically to supply.

Right now, globalization probably is broadening and deepening possibilities for mutual gains from international cooperation, but obstacles to collective action may be strengthening as well, as America’s and Europe’s relative power declines and new powers arise. I think we’ve seen this dynamic at work in the failures of the Doha round of talks on new rules for global trade and the Copenhagen conference on climate change in 2009. In both cases, there was no lack of mutual interest; instead, it was the shifting balance of power that impeded deal-making. In Doha and Copenhagen, rising powers demanded larger concessions than established powers were willing to make. Those failures would seem to favor the established powers for now, but the rising powers probably believe (correctly) that time is on their side. As a result, they have little incentive to strike a deal now that might lock them into terms less favorable than the ones they might get 10 or 20 years hence. A similar pattern has emerged recently within the European Union, the deepest of all international-governance projects. There’s been talk of new layers of financial cooperation, but there’s been even more talk of scuttling the common currency, and newer members have increasingly pushed back against the old-timers’ demands on many political matters as well.

In short, I think Bosco’s and Slaughter’s predictions are more aspirational than rational. As a “new liberal” by temperament, I share those aspirations, but I’m far more skeptical than they are about the amount of institutional development we’ll see in the next couple of decades, when states’ relative power is so much in flux.

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  1. Sorry for commenting so late on a post, but I just wanted to say how much this helped me to start getting into some work I’m doing on complex interdependence. Many thanks!


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