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Book Review: Why Global Governance is Failing, and What We Can Do About & Why Global Cooperation is Failing When We Need It the Most

Laura Bullon-Cassis - 19th June 2014
Book Review: Why Global Governance is Failing, and What We Can Do About & Why Gl

Divided Nations: Why Global Governance is Failing, and What We Can Do About It by Ian Goldin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 224 pp, £12.99 hardcover 978-0-19-969390-0

Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When We Need It the Most by Thomas Hale, David Held and Kevin Young. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. 368 pp, £55 hardcover 9780745662381; £17.99 paperback 9780745662398; £14.99 paperback 9780745670102

Antonio Gramsci famously wrote in his Prison Notebooks that ‘the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ Archetypically used to describe an interval of time between the end of a sovereign’s reign and the accession of his or her legitimate successor, the term ‘interregnum’ aptly describes the object of study of two of the latest opuses in the field of global governance literature: Ian Goldin’s Divided Nations: Why Global Governance is Failing, and What We Can Do About It (2013) and Thomas Hale, David Held and Kevin Young’s Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When We Need It Most (2013).

Both books scrutinise the same subject: the causes and possible solutions to the ‘crisis’ in governance at the global level – one in which the ‘old’ post-war multilateral institutions no longer effectively manage twenty-first-century global interdependence, or are seemingly capable of generating substantial reforms. ‘Morbid symptoms’ are everywhere, with some threats better known than others, and with plenty of room for those with vivid imaginations to feel uneasy.

Published roughly at the same time, Divided Nations and Gridlock offer strikingly complementary analyses of this conundrum. They work towards different goals and offer alternative explanations for the ‘interregnum’, all the while drawing on their authors’ equally distinguished but dissimilar backgrounds to reach similar conclusions.

Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development and Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, boasts the CV of a leading international civil servant, having held, among others, the prestigious post of Vice President of the World Bank. Divided Nations draws upon this vast, first-hand experience to deliver ‘fresh perspectives on [international] organisations in light of today’s challenges, and [make] proposals that aim to contribute to the resolution of these challenges, both through the reform of existing structures and by alternative means’ (p.4).

Divided Nations is also intended as a call for mass action. To mobilise readers perhaps less familiar with the woes of global governance, Goldin uses anecdotal, un-academic language to include: a captivating and alarming introductory review of the new global governance challenges, i.e. finance, cybersecurity, pandemics, migration, and climate change, as well as systemic risk (Chapter I), and an overview of the barriers to intergovernmental cooperation and institutional reform (Chapter II). Once the challenges have been outlined, Goldin considers alternatives: the potential of coalitions of willing countries, transnational networks, and business (Chapter III), and of interconnectedness to empower individuals (Chapter IV). His last chapter proposes five core principles around which to articulate global governance reform (Chapter V).

Gridlock, on the other hand, is perhaps less explicitly prescriptive, though it describes itself as ‘a warning’ (p.275). Indeed, despite posing the almost Rawlsian question of how ‘the “effect of good government” [can be brought] to our globalized society’ (p.15) in the first chapter, the authors do not spend much time elaborating a theoretical answer. Admittedly, they have done so brilliantly in other works: David Held is one of the most prominent global democracy theorists – having put forward sophisticated accounts of contemporary globalization and elaborate models of cosmopolitan democracy – and his co-authors, Thomas Hale and Kevin Young are leading global governance scholars.

Gridlock is geared towards the well-versed, but not necessary scholarly, reader, i.e. ‘those who write books about global problems, but [also] those who confront them’ (p.13). It is an accessible, pleasant read thanks to its eloquent prose and remarkable storytelling. For example, it draws the reader in from the very start with the story of twelfth-century Sienna: the city, once blessed with a well-functioning government and society, was defeated by its interdependence with other Italian regions, which brought the plague into its walls and led to its decadence. Many contemporary policy problems are ‘like the plague’, the authors write, ‘they do not fit neatly into jurisdictional boundaries’ (p.15).

The authors offer a very strong contribution to the literature by advancing a theory to explain gridlock in global governance (Chapter I). They then demonstrate how this theory applies in global security (Chapter II), economic (Chapter III) and environmental (Chapter IV) governance, through a rich empirical analysis of the three fields. Chapter V, ‘Beyond Gridlock’, assesses the viability of various paths forward.

Gridlock’s argument is twofold. Its first component is that ‘current global governance problems are of a “second order” nature […]: they are not problems of international cooperation per se, but problems resulting from the historical processes in which past systems of cooperation have evolved amidst changing circumstances’ (p.17). In fact, the authors put forward an admirable defence of the post-war institutions: these, they argue, have been victims of their own success. In creating a unique set of circumstances – an open, peaceful, liberal and institutionalized world order – the United Nations and other IGOs allowed for other forces, such as the expansionary logic of capitalism and innovations in information technology, to accelerate and intensify flows within and between countries and regions. As a result, new circumstances and issues arose that these organisations were never set up to address, rendering them virtually defunct but also challenging their architects, the victors of World War II.

In making the case for global public governance, the authors send waves of short-lived optimism through the second part of their argument: if multilateral institutions were so fruitful once, surely they can become so again? Yes, but four important hurdles complicate matters substantially, they continue: emergent multipolarity; ‘locked-in’ policy-making processes in existing international organisations; the complexity of the new challenges to be tackled; and finally the proliferation of institutions with overlapping jurisdictions (this is complemented by an analysis of the current foreign policy preferences and domestic circumstances of various countries: a brief move away from the systemic analysis that dominates the book).

For Gridlock, therefore, the possibility for institutional reform at the global level is slight, but it is not something that we should give up on. The past has, after all, taught us that in international cooperation, consensus has often happened in extreme conditions, once negotiations have reached a stage of damage control. Hale et al. do not sound entirely convinced when suggesting that compensatory, alternative arrangements such as private-public partnerships or transnational networks are ‘seeds that could be nurtured into more meaningful reforms’ (p.303). Among other trends beyond the gridlock they explore, their evaluation of technology and social media as ‘significant enabling conditions’ is more hopeful. Their tone also changes when they discuss a possible reform of the 1945 multilateral order: it becomes more prescriptive (1), somewhat animated (2) and optimistic (3).

Goldin’s Divided Nations generally concurs with Gridlock on why the current context is particularly unfavourable for a reform of multilateral organisations, as well as in its assessment of ‘locked-in’ policy-making processes. Goldin is at his strongest when opening the ‘black box’ of multilateral organisations: for example, his scrutiny of intergovernmental organisations’ (IGOs) hiring systems is insightful. One may hope that his acknowledgement that ‘organizational profiles [of IGOs] are out of step with modern working trends’ (p.101), and that there should be greater regional balance among staff – especially at the more senior level – will be heard in the right places.

For Goldin, however, the gridlock is not of ‘second order’ nature. The book instead chiefly faults the ‘tragedy of the commons’: it argues that there is something inherently problematic with intergovernmental cooperation, mainly due to ‘free riding’ and misaligned incentives plaguing the efficiency – and legitimacy – of the institutions.

Thus, Goldin seems more enthused about alternative forms of global governance, and argues that ‘wherever possible, domestic solutions are preferable’ (p.48). The core principles that he lays out in Chapter V are certainly worth reflecting on: they include a ‘principle of subsidiarity’ that restricts the use of global governance only to issues that need it; a ‘selective inclusion’ that keeps involvement to only those actors who are affecting or are affected by an issue; and a ‘variable geometry’ that matches the form of governance to the content of the issue (p.175).

This is one of Divided Nations core achievements: it does an excellent job in both highlighting the complexities of an issue – be it financial, technological or environmental – and its policy-making process, as well as boiling the latter down to clear, concise concepts. Goldin indeed enriches the text with definitions of fundamental notions such as national sovereignty, misaligned interests or global public goods, which makes for a useful introductory or reference book. And, whilst his enthusiasm for ‘the power of one’ is conveyed with perhaps a slight tendency towards hyperbole – he predicts that ‘individuals all over the globe will see their abilities to change the world amplified’ (p. 128), primarily thanks to technology – one cannot deny that there is value in actively engaging individual readers into the cause, regardless of whether their background is outside of political science or academia altogether. Later in the book, Goldin expresses belief in the feasibility of an increased involvement of civil society, as long as this is non-binding and therefore in line with national sovereignty.

As both books agree on the transformative powers of information technology and the plausibility of harnessing transnational networks and social movements, further research in this area could include examining more closely the effects of transnational issues on how individuals express themselves politically. The issue of climate change, for example, with its anthropogenic and quasi-apocalyptic nature, requires not just global but intergenerational solidarity. This could shed light on the mechanisms that allow for an ‘overlapping community of fate’ to recognize itself as one, channel imaginaries, organize itself politically, combat defeatism and achieve results at an adequate level of subsidiarity. The complexity of gridlock at the global level calls for opening up the ‘black box’ not only of multilateral organizations and of states, but also of societies.

Laura Bullon-Cassis holds a BSc in Sociology and an MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics. She has worked at the United Nations University, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the Global Governance Institute, and the private sector.


(1) ‘there needs to be decisive change in both its representative and financial base if it is to be “fit for purpose” in the coming decades...’ (p.304)

(2) 'efforts such as the New International Economic order ‘most importantly ... remind us of what functioning multilateral institutions might look like’ (p.303)

(3) '‘the international order has been rebuilt before’ (p.306)