The State of Global Governance: An Audit

diverse hands on globe
Global Governance: A Work in Progress
Hakan Altinay
January 26, 2010

Management of transnational issues through voluntary international cooperation has come to be referred as Global Governance. The term sounds like global government, but it is really the opposite, as it refers to management of the transnational challenges in the absence of a world government. Neither transnational challenges, nor attempts to manage them are new. We have had things like the Rhodian Law of the Sea, which provided a framework to govern maritime losses. The Hawala system has worked over a thousand years through the proactive participation of countless actors across South Asia, Middle East and the Mediterranean. The Hanseatic League provided an early glimpse of true multilateralism. Nevertheless, the depth and breath of current international cooperation around transnational issues is unprecedented. 

Let’s review some of the manifestations of our existing international cooperation: It took several decades to develop a system to have telegrams across national borders. And yet, today owners of four billion mobile phones have a reasonable expectation that their phones will work seamlessly when they travel to another country. World GSM operators have agreed to sensible standard practices such as every operator dedicating 112 to emergency services.

At a mundane level, money can be wired across countries with tremendous speed and little inconvenience. SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, and IBAN, International Bank Account Number, are two systems which expanded to many a task which would not have been routine even for Rothschild.

We cooperate around the internet actively and every day. Tremendous amount of data, information and knowledge is open to all 6.7 billion of us. Encylopédistes of the 18th century would be awe-struck by what is available through Wikipedia, JSTOR, Google Scholar and the like. Popular VOIP facilities such as Skype have rendered international telephony, a facility not available to Napoleon or Cengiz Khan, practically cost free for billions. CreaticeCommons is becoming a popular alternative to conventional trademarks practices. And, we all have access to trans-border broadcasting through satellite TVs, which makes diverse ideas, lives and sufferings accessible to great many, and nurturing awareness and a feeling of common humanity along the way.

We have assumed that traditional sovereign competencies of national states have been more resistant to international cooperation schemes. However, countries have the facility to ask other countries to apprehend criminal suspects through Interpol, which reports to have enabled 5,600 arrests in 2008. This is not a minor achievement.

We have rules governing safety at sea, pollution, and even a system for a global maritime distress, search and rescue system. There exists an audit scheme, albeit a voluntary one, to monitor compliance. Furthermore, we have a way to allocate satellite orbits, and the system is working with relatively little discontent.

We have mechanisms for global health challenges and even some vital successes. Small pox has been eradicated though international cooperation; And polio may be next. The world has had the wherewithal to come up with ad hoc responses when traditional mechanisms did not suffice; The Global Fund to Fight TB, AIDS and Malaria is one such ad hoc response with encouraging results. We have also managed to cooperate to protect the genetic diversity of our main crops, and have established the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The world has demonstrated crucial capacity to identify ozone depletion as a potential problem with global consequences, and was capable of hammering out a set-up where the ozone depleting gases have been phased out. The basic grammar of the ozone problem is not very different from the climate change predicament, and the Vienna Convention and the Montreal protocol are no small accomplishments.

The first example of an international normative campaign for global rules was the anti-slavery movements of 19th century, and their efforts took more than 50 years to produce the first international treaty on the issue. Another seemingly gargantuan task was around the land mines, one of the most popular ammunition of armed forces around the world. In the latter case, it took a mere seven years for a global consensus to be achieved, and for this once-popular weapon to be outlawed. There is now a new movement to establish norms concerning the trade and transfer of small weapons, which are responsible for many more deaths than nuclear weapons.

Another very significant development was the formation of the International Criminal Court. Not all the states are party to the International Criminal Court, and yet the mere existence of ICC would surpass even the most optimistic utopias of the multilateralists from the last century.

Amartha Sen has recently warned us against excessive fascination with ideal justice at the expense of multiple and seemingly disjointed ways of decreasing injustice. The patterns of global cooperation of the last decades seem to support Sen’s argument. Progress has been uneven and less than ideal, but, on balance, we should be encouraged by the advance of international cooperation and global governance on these multiple tracks. The more visible absence of progress is the exception, and should not be the basis of a debilitating cynicism; We need to celebrate our accomplishments and in the process muster the energy to overcome remaining challenges to a fuller global cooperation.

Two glaring gaps in the existing global governance schemes are effective procedures for Responsibility-to-Protect, and of course a framework to thwart climate change. One of the earliest modern attempts to set transnational norms was around proper conduct during the time of war. The first Geneva Convention dates back to 1864. Humanity has been aware of the ultimate crime of genocide, and has profusely sworn not to let it occur again since 1940s. Yet, what has come to be known as the Responsibility to Protect, has been systematically abdicated. As long as humanity is organized primarily through national states, there is an inherent problem to send national armies to harm’s way without clear national interest. Yet, that is not the only option we have. Humans have always taken up arms in other countries for their beliefs. The international brigade at the Spanish Civil war is the most celebrated example, but the practice is older. UN needs to have a mechanism to accept volunteers; ensure adequate representation of all regions so that no particular group ends up dominating the UN Army at any given conflict; and, of course ensure their discipline during their mission as there are too many examples of presumed rescuers harassing the very people they are meant to rescue. One can even imagine a set up where not just UNSC but UNSG or the college of all former UNSGs can endorse a given mission, so that action cannot be held hostage to veto by P5.

Climate change is clearly the most pressing issue facing us. Business as usual means that we will soon cross the point of no return in triggering a chain reaction of catastrophic results for human existence and civilization on Planet Earth. The qualities of the underlying dynamics make climate change an especially difficult challenge: There is some 30 years between cause and effect; that is carbon emissions and the full consequences of those emissions. The fact that significant percentages of adults continue to smoke demonstrates that humans find it difficult to give up immediate gratification in anticipation of deferred costs in 30 years. As such, climate change is the collective action problem from hell. After years of neglect, denial and foot dragging, humanity now seems to have harnessed the wherewithal to address climate change. No other challenge we face brings home our epic interdependence. Therefore, a solution to the climate change challenges could serve as the paradigm for solving other global public goods problems.

Ours have been a story of trial and error, and slippages as we found ways to cooperate across border, a process which we began thousands of years ago. The audit of current state of international cooperation and global governance patterns show that perseverance, creativity, pragmatism and vision are the answer, not despair or cynicism.

Hakan Altinay was a 2009 World Fellow at Yale University and is a Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution.

Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization