Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey

Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey

by Thomas G Weiss, Ramesh Chandra Thakur

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In the 21st century, the world is faced with threats of global scale that cannot be confronted without collective action. Although global government as such does not exist, formal and informal institutions, practices, and initiatives—together forming "global governance"—bring a greater measure of predictability, stability, and order to trans-border issues

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In the 21st century, the world is faced with threats of global scale that cannot be confronted without collective action. Although global government as such does not exist, formal and informal institutions, practices, and initiatives—together forming "global governance"—bring a greater measure of predictability, stability, and order to trans-border issues than might be expected. Yet, there are significant gaps between many current global problems and available solutions. Thomas G. Weiss and Ramesh Thakur analyze the UN's role in addressing such knowledge, normative, policy, institutional, and compliance lapses. The UN's relationship to these five global governance gaps is explored through case studies of some of the most burning problems of our age, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, humanitarian crises, development aid, climate change, human rights, and HIV/AIDS.

Indiana University Press

Editorial Reviews


"Weiss and Thakur have managed to perform the difficult trick of producing a work that can function as textbook, scholarly reference, policy guide, and popular reading.... Recommended." —Choice

P. F. Diehl

Global governance is the latest catchphrase in discourses about international relations. It signifies 'governance without government,' or how the international community creates rules and maintains order without formal government structures, yet few serious studies of the phenomenon exist. Weiss (Graduate Center, CUNY) and Thakur (Univ. of Montreal, Canada) begin with a clear articulation of the concept as a prelude to how governance issues have played out in the UN. The book is both a history of global governance in the context of the UN as well as a report card of what gaps remain. A notable feature is the amazing breadth of the work; over 75 percent of the book is devoted to nine sets of issues across three different areas: international security (e.g., use of force, arms control, and terrorism), development (e.g., sustainable development, trade, and climate change) and human rights (e.g., rights, responsibility to protect, and health) respectively. Weiss and Thakur have managed to perform the difficult trick of producing a work that can function as textbook, scholarly reference, policy guide, and popular reading. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers, upper-division undergraduate students, graduate students, and research faculty. -- ChoiceP. F. Diehl, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Jan. 2011

Craig Murphy

"Every student of global governance, and every course on global governance, needs to have a coherent understanding of the existing UN system and its relationship to the rest of world governance, both as it now exists and as we can imagine it can be. This is simply the best book available for that purpose." —Craig Murphy, Wellesley College

Gareth Evans

"An intriguing and meaty analysis of the world's collective problem-solving arrangements.... Tom Weiss and Ramesh Thakur are the doyens of contemporary scholarship in this field, and there could be no more credible or lucid guides through these complex and important issues." —Gareth Evans, International Crisis Center, Brussels

John Gerard Ruggie

"Never has a serious book on the United Nations and global governance been timelier." —John Gerard Ruggie, Harvard University Law School

From the Publisher
"Weiss and Thakur have managed to perform the difficult trick of producing a work that can function as textbook, scholarly reference, policy guide, and popular reading.... Recommended." —Choice

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Indiana University Press
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United Nations Intellectual History Project Series
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Global Governance and the UN

An Unfinished Journey

By Thomas G. Weiss

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 The United Nations Intellectual History Project
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35430-3


Tracing the Origins of an Idea and the UN's Contribution

• Global Governance: The Idea

• Governance without Government

• Globalization

• An Historical Perspective

• Identifying and Diagnosing Problems

• The UN's Ideational Role: This Book and the UNIHP Series

This chapter explores three themes: the idea of global governance itself, the UN's ideational role in framing this idea, and the anomalies in the international system that have provided openings for the spread of this concept. The UN's "ideational role" is fancy new packaging for the world organization's intellectual or creative capacities in global governance—its efforts to understand problems and address them by formulating norms or policy recommendations.

We identify gaps or disconnects in order to examine the search for new solutions—including new combinations of actors—to address challenges that are beyond the capacities of states. The essential challenge in contemporary global problem-solving is the fact that no central authority exists to make global policy choices and mobilize the required resources to implement these decisions. Consequently, only second- or even third-best solutions are feasible at present. The United Nations has been more effective in filling gaps in knowledge and norms than in making decisions with teeth and acting upon them.

Global Governance: The Idea

While we spelled it out earlier, another way to think of governance is as purposeful systems of rules or norms that ensure order beyond what occurs naturally. In the domestic context, governance is usually more than government and implies a shared purpose and goal orientation as well as formal authority or police powers. In international politics, what little organizational structure exists is amorphous, even morally suspect for some. It is important to make clear the differences between national and global governance.

The Human Development Report 1999 argued that "governance does not mean mere government." In a domestic context, this is correct because governance is government plus the additional mechanisms required to ensure order and predictability in problem-solving. For the planet, however, governance is the whole story because there is no central authority. In many instances, the UN's network of institutions and rules provides the appearance of effective governance but these mechanisms do not produce the actual desired effects. International organizations sometimes function in a quasi-governmental fashion and try to exercise social control by promulgating norms and laws. The United Nations, not unlike national governments, represents a structure of authority that rests on institutionalized practices and generally accepted norms.

The starting point for thinking about international public policy is that governance for the planet is weak. Readers should keep in mind that global governance is not a supplement but rather what the French would call a faute de mieux, a surrogate for authority and enforcement for the contemporary world in the absence of something better. No matter how strong the contributions of informal and formal networks are, no matter how plentiful the resources from private organizations and corporations are, no matter how much goodwill from governments exists, the striking reality is that there is no central authority. While vast improvements are plausible and desirable in contemporary global governance, we must continually ask a sobering question: Can we ever get good global governance without something that looks much more like effective world government? Can global governance without a world government actually address adequately the range of problems faced by humanity?

As noted earlier, some would argue that all efforts to solve problems beyond state borders since the nineteenth century are part of the history of global governance, but the birth of the term "global governance" reflects an interesting marriage between academic and policy concerns in the 1990s. It replaced an earlier exploration of what was called world order studies, which some critiqued as overly top-down and static, failing to capture the variety of actors, networks, and relationships that characterize contemporary international relations. At the end of the Cold War, scholars believed that the collapse of the bipolar system created an opportunity for a substantially new world order—one achieved not by some sort of consensus among different cultural and political traditions but a U.S. or at least a classical liberal world order. When the multiple perspectives in the work done by world order scholars started to look a little old fashioned, James Rosenau and Ernst Czempiel published their theoretical collection of essays Governance without Government (1992). In 1995, the policy-oriented Commission on Global Governance's report Our Global Neighbourhood was published and the first issue of the journal Global Governance, whose subscribers are both scholars and practitioners, appeared.

In addition to interdependence and a growing recognition of problems that defy solutions by a single state, the other explanation for the emergence of concept of global governance stems from the sheer growth in numbers and importance of nonstate actors (such as NGOs and transnational corporations), which also are conducting themselves in new ways. Indeed, this was the logic behind the creation of the Global Compact at the Millennium Summit of 2000, which characterizes the private sector—both the for-profit and the non-profit species—as a necessary partner with states and intergovernmental organizations.

Society has become too complex for citizens' demands to be satisfied solely by governments. Instead, civil society organizations play increasingly active roles in shaping international norms, laws, and policies. Civil society provides additional levers that people and governments can use to improve the effectiveness and enhance the legitimacy of public policy at all levels of governance. However, both governments and civil society actors face challenges of representation, accountability, and legitimacy. In an increasingly diverse, complex, and interdependent world, solutions to problems that require collective action are often unattainable by state actors alone. Instead, on many issues partnerships form between different types of actors.

The growth in the number and influence of nonstate entities as well as technological advances and increasing interdependence necessarily mean that state-centered structures (i.e., IGOs, especially those of the UN system) find themselves sharing the governance stage with a host of other actors. Civil society actors participate in global governance as advocates, as activists, and as policymakers in many instances. Their critiques and policy prescriptions have demonstrable consequences in the governmental and intergovernmental allocation of resources and the exercise of political, military, and economic power. Paradoxically, IGOs seem marginalized at exactly the moment when enhanced multilateralism is so sorely required. Coordination and cooperation are increasingly complex and problematic as a result of the growing number of actors and the existence of decentralized and informal groupings.

Depending on the issue area and geographic location, vast disparities in power and influence exist among states, IGOs, multinational corporations, and international NGOs. Consequently, today's world is governed by a patchwork of authority that is as diffuse as it is contingent. In particular, the IGOs that collectively underpin global governance are too few in number, have access to too few resources, do not have the requisite policy authority and capacity to mobilize resources, and are sometimes incoherent in their separate policies and philosophies.

According to Anne-Marie Slaughter, the glue that binds the contemporary system of global governance is government networks, both horizontal and vertical. Horizontal networks link counterpart national officials across borders, such as police investigators or financial regulators. This was demonstrated vividly when a terror plot being hatched in London was foiled in August 2006. Vertical networks are relationships between national officials and a supranational organization to which they have ceded authority, such as the European Court of Justice. For those who dismiss the idea of a world government, the solution to the weaknesses of global governance lies in strengthening existing networks and developing new ones that could create a genuine global rule of law.

Unlike many in earlier generations of analysts of international organization, most contemporary proponents of global governance do not seek to create a world government. Some rule it out as undesirable, while others do not believe it to be feasible within the foreseeable future. The quest for global governance remains an unfinished journey because we are struggling to find our way and are nowhere near locating a satisfactory destination. Global governance is incoherent, and its separate parts often move at different paces and in different directions.

We define global governance as the sum of laws, norms, policies, and institutions that define, constitute, and mediate transborder relations between states, citizens, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, and the market. It embraces the totality of institutions, policies, rules, practices, norms, procedures, and initiatives by which states and their citizens (indeed, humanity as a whole) try to bring more predictability, stability, and order to their responses to such transnational problems as warfare, poverty, and environmental degradation that go beyond the capacity of a single state to solve and that are increasingly recognized as such.

Governance without Government

The long tradition of criticizing the existing state system and seeking to replace it with a universal government began with Dante's Monarchia at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Harold Jacobson noted that the tapestries in the Palais des Nations in Geneva—the headquarters of the League of Nations and now the UN's European Office—offer a fitting image for the older view of world government. He observed that 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." Along the same lines, a contemporary theorist, Alexander Wendt, suggests that "a world state is inevitable."

However desirable, such an eventuality appears fanciful. While we agree with E. H. Carr that a mixture of utopia and power is required to avoid stagnation and despair, we also note that he (appropriately) wrote, "Any real international government is impossible so long as power, which is an essential condition of government, is organized nationally."

We certainly are not complacent about what is at stake and are not satisfied that global governance can accomplish what a world government could. That should be clear by now. Rather, our approach is based on our judgment about how to best use our analytical energies in this volume, although we proceed differently in other publications.

Our aim with the bulk of the analysis is to understand efforts to enhance order in international relations and improve, as the UNDP's Human Development Report 1999 put it, "the framework of rules, institutions and practices that set limits and give incentives for the behavior of individuals, organizations and firms." We are specifically interested in actions that aim to be comprehensive and are not merely piecemeal social engineering; in actions that are multisectoral, democratically accountable, and include members of civil society in the shared management of a troubled and fragile world order; and in actions that are possible to imagine as being implemented over the next decade.

That said, we emphasize how best to realize a stable, peaceful, prosperous, and well-ordered international society of the type that international relations scholar Hedley Bull sought—the maximum in the absence of a unifying global authority. Improved global problem-solving may or may not involve creating more powerful global institutions in the immediate term; our emphasis will be on UN ideas that explore the need for such entities in the medium term. This is not to say that we are disinterested in the critical longer-term problems of more democratic forms of global governance; such voices as Martha Nussbaum and David Held raise critical issues regarding social justice, representation, and participation that obviously are the topics for entire books.

There is no guarantee that the supply of global public goods will follow the growing demand for them. Better and more effective global governance will not simply materialize. For us, concerted action is essential. Craig Murphy encourages us: "The longer history of industry and international organizations indicates that the task of creating the necessary global institutions may be easier than many of today's liberal commentators believe."

We realize that states and state-centric institutions do not have the capacity to adequately address all the challenges of an increasingly globalized world. Several of these challenges expose the limited ability of states to control outcomes through self-help. How can we improve the provision of essential global public goods in an anarchic society? To date, the system of global governance has not met the test that "it must channel behavior in such a way as to eliminate or substantially ameliorate the problem that led to its creation." How do we develop "the capacity to get things done" in the absence of international institutions with enforcement capacity and in the absence of prospects for their creation on the horizon?

We have not abandoned hope that satisfactory (or at least better) answers can be found for these questions, which provide the impetus for the concluding section of each chapter. Even without a world government, there is much room for more initiatives from governments and groups in power and better incentives and initiatives from secretariats and civil society—in short, better mobilization and use of the three United Nations in better governance for the planet.


The other key concept in our analysis is "globalization," which we define as a process of increased interconnectivity throughout the world. The term has become the focus of some controversy and a considerable analytical industry. Many regard it as both a desirable and irreversible engine of commerce that will underpin growing prosperity and a higher standard of living throughout the world. Others recoil from it as the soft underbelly of corporate imperialism that plunders and profiteers on the basis of unrestrained consumerism. There is also the dark side of globalization with many interconnections between the disparate elements of the underworld trafficking in drugs, arms, and humans. Some observers have argued that globalization has been occurring since the earliest trade expeditions (e.g., the Silk Road), and it is true that the process itself is not fundamentally new. For example, Amit Bhaduri and Deepak Nayyar point out that as a proportion of total production in the world economy, international trade was about the same in the 1980s as it was during the last two decades of the gold standard (1890–1913). But others have suggested that the current era of globalization is unique in the rapidity of its spread and the number of interactions in real time.

The primary dimension of globalization concerns the expansion of economic activities across state borders, which has produced increasing interdependence through the growing volume and variety of cross-border flows of finance, investment, and goods and services and the rapid and widespread diffusion of technology. Other dimensions include the international movement of ideas, information, legal systems, organizations, and people as well as cultural exchanges.


Excerpted from Global Governance and the UN by Thomas G. Weiss. Copyright © 2010 The United Nations Intellectual History Project. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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