Rebuilding global governance by taking cues from domestic politics

By Cornelius Adebahr - 04 September 2023
Rebuilding global governance by taking cues from domestic politics

Cornelius Adebahr reports on how the next generation of leaders view the the future of global governance in a world where consensus-based, technocratic rulemaking can no longer be considered the norm.

Every year in August, the Bucerius Summer School invites young professionals from all over the world to Hamburg to discuss the most urgent global issues of the day. In my intervention this year, I asked the assembled 50+ bright minds to step back and reflect on how one should think about rebuilding global governance. Many worthy papers from governments and think tanks on the reform of multilateral institutions have been published over the past 20 to 30 years, but to little avail. (I happen to be guilty by association, most recently through a co-authored paper on “Making Multilateralism Matter”.) Yet, it is time to question some fundamentals.

As I see it today, the issue is not one of finding the right (technocratic) solution, but of starting with the right assumptions. And it appears that global governance isn’t so different from domestic politics as it is often made to be. The “rules-based international order”, as some would call it, isn’t a separate system outside of national politics but very much intertwined with the latter. And it isn’t just under attack from autocratic and nationalist governments but, more fundamentally, the system itself that has proved to be increasingly dysfunctional over the past years. (Where exactly was that order when the pandemic hit societies worldwide?)

This means that, when discussing global governance and a possible reform of its institutions, we need to look at the same mechanisms as we do on internal issues: Power, politics, and people.

Obviously, the past two decades have seen a major shift in global power relations away from the United States’ unipolar moment after the end of the Cold War. However, which category of power is most decisive? Military or economic? The military appears increasingly ambiguous as a marker, especially when used in ‘faraway places of which we know nothing’ (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq – you name it). Economically, a fundamental shift towards Asia is recognizable, reversing a Westward trend that had lasted from around 1600 to the 1950s. Yet, „Asia“ is neither a block, nor all about China, as any closer look reveals. Also, recent systemic shocks – the pandemic, inflation, the climate emergency – have underlined gross economic inequities impacting on this trajectory.

More importantly, the politics of global governance means that consensus-based, technocratic rulemaking can no longer be considered the norm. In a geopolitical and ideological confrontation, „global governance“ means different things to different people: For (Western) academics and some policymakers, it may be an intricate web of relations built across institutions; for hard-nosed politicians from any country, it means the ruthless pursuit of national interest. That said, global institutions are not going to go away soon or easily, nor is there (currently) any room for reform. If, in domestic politics, “nothing is more permanent than the temporary”, then it seems that states are equally loth to replace the international system they have with something that is as of yet undefined. Short of a systemic collapse, therefore, the most that politics will allow are tweaks to the machinery, not its replacement.

Lastly, what is the role of the people? In a world of great power rivalry, focusing on the people – one’s own, but also those in other countries – can be a tool of smart power. The past three decades have seen a fundamental shift from the state-led Westphalian order to a citizen-driven one. From the notion of human security of the 1990s and the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda of the 2000s to the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2010s and now Feminist Foreign Policy most recently – a string of human-centered policies has come to the fore. Especially when government-to-government relations have turned sour, it is wise to devise policies and programs that tangibly improve the situation of a broad swath of people – and publicize their actual effects. While the world is far from being a democracy, the standing of one country in another’s public opinion does matter for what it can achieve vis-à-vis the respective government.

Coming back to the question of reform, governments alone cannot redesign the global system – as much as they cannot, except for very exceptional cases, change a domestic political system. Instead, citizens – via civil society, businesses, unions, academia, and the like – need to be part of the discussion. Because whatever (new or altered) order should emerge from the current period, it needs to have a compelling and inclusive narrative that resonates with a global public to be convincing in a sufficiently high number of countries.



Photo by Duc Anh Nguyen

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