Book Review - Beyond Gridlock

By Richard Beardsworth - 16 July 2018
Book Review - Beyond Gridlock

Beyond Gridlock by Thomas Hale, David Held et al. Cambridge: Polity 2017. 313 pp., £55 hardcover 9781509515714, £18.99 paperback 9781509515721, £18.99 Open eBook 9781509515752

Beyond Gridlock constitutes a collection of essays that analyses contemporary gridlock on global governance issues and highlights practical pathways out of this gridlock. It is the direct sequel to Thomas Hale, David Held and Kevin Young’s 2013 analysis of global governance gridlock (Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When We Need it Most) and, as a co-edited volume, is based on papers at workshops in 2015 and 2016 that specifically worked to address pathways out of gridlock in eleven identified global governance issue-areas: four aspects of the global economy (finance, monetary policy, trade and investment), humanitarianism and human rights, energy, climate change, health, and global security (WMDs and cybersecurity).      Beyond Gridlock presents an excellent sequel to the earlier work in the specific sense that it is analytically focused on the terms of governance gridlock and on pathways through it, is empirically rich and thematically contained within this overall framework (not obvious for an edited volume, as is well known), and consistently suggests, across a broad range of global challenges addressed by appropriate experts in the field, issue-specific paths forward. As such, the volume argues, within the ‘global policy’ world, for ‘incremental but significant improvements’ (p. 12). In the following I rehearse the major arguments of the book’s analytical lens and consider several illustrations of these arguments within the governance areas selected. Having highlighted the book’s theoretical and empirical platforms, I then question several of its terms of analysis in order to help situate, in a conversation with Beyond Gridlock, where public debate around global governance at this historical conjuncture might best lie. 

gIn a conceptually powerful, synthetic introduction, the editors redefine ‘gridlock’ as ‘the inability of countries to cooperate via international institutions to address policy problems that span borders’ (p. 3). Recalling the historical and explanatory analysis of their first book, they repeat their thesis that post-1945 multilateral cooperation generated deeper levels of interdependence in the world, but that this higher level of interdependence makes ‘current and future cooperation more difficult’ (p.4). This difficulty in forging global cooperation ensues from four causal factors: multipolarity (the diffusion of power from West to East and the rise in the number of global actors), the difficulty of global problems (more dense interdependence leading to more recalcitrant problems), institutional inertia (lack of appropriate institutions to manage these problems), and fragmentation (uncoordinated plurality of interests across existing institutional structures). These four factors of analysis create, out of interdependence, ‘self-reinforcing gridlock’.  In other words, it is not simply the failures of globalization (e.g.: radical inequality), but globalization’s very success (e.g.: a more equal playing-field) that has created increasing non-cooperation around global challenges. These problems of non-cooperation are consequently considered ‘second-order’ in distinction to the first-order cooperation problems of international anarchy and collective action dilemmas.

It is here where the analytical focus specific to Beyond Gridlock comes into its own. First, the gridlock framework, facilitating analysis of second-order cooperation challenges, is empirically tested through the book by the eleven issue areas mentioned above. These same areas test, second, specific combinations of seven pathways through and beyond gridlock. The seven pathways, improving institutional governance and the impact of governance on human welfare, are: shifts in major powers’ core interests; autonomous and adaptive international institutions; technical groups; diverse organizations coalescing around common norms; civil society alliances with reformist states; mobilization of domestic constituencies; and innovative political leadership. The novelty and strength of the volume lies in the way in which the academic and practitioner experts in each issue area test this dual analytical lens.  In this sense Gridlock and Beyond Gridlock form a tight block of analysis of the failures and successes of global governance since the 2007/8 financial crisis. 

I choose a few important examples from an empirically rich array of issue areas and governance dilemmas. In the domain of trade the three causal factors of multipolar interests, institutional inertia and consequent institutional fragmentation could lead, it is argued, to the future decoupling of industrialized and emerging economies (pp. 70-71) despite the latter remaining status quo powers within global capitalism. The author (an academic and former vice president of Berne Union) argues that, together with the pathways of effective technical bodies and groups like multilateral development banks coalescing around common norms, thorough institutional reform of the WTO is required for its negotiations to gain global legitimacy and ownership by developing economies. Only thus will the threat of decoupling be avoided.

The two chapters on energy and climate change stand, oddly, separate in the volume despite the contemporary need to work them up into a comprehensive policy analysis. That said, the rehearsal of governance gridlock in the energy sector focuses well on the fundamental transformations required to counter the ‘zero-sum mindset’ of fossil-fuel interests (pp. 120-121) and looks to policy coherence under the 2015 agenda of Sustainable Development Goals as one pathway towards incremental change. The absolute need for innovative global leadership (and therefore change in ‘core interests’) to institute and consolidate this kind of normative shift is a recurring theme in the chapters on humanitarianism (p. 138), global health (p.181), cyber security (p. 227) and Weapons of Mass Destruction (the increasing danger, for example, of cyber threats to nuclear control systems) (p. 249).  

The chapter on climate change is particularly good at placing the history of climate diplomacy and post-Copenhagen reform under the analytical lens of gridlock and pathways forward. Having retraced the descent into gridlock analysed in Gridlock, the co-editor Thomas Hale argues effectively that the Paris climate change regime offers the example of a ‘bottom up’ response to the previous regulatory nature of global governance, one in which states, in institutional alliance with non-state actors, provide now the self-determining ‘catalyst’ for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The 2015 Paris agreement and its aftermath are presented in this way as diplomatic and political inventions out of gridlock: multipolarity and fragmentation have been ‘made virtues’ (p. 190). Hale concludes that, despite US retreat, only time will tell if the new climate change regime presents a model for global governance in general, if it is specific to the policy issue of the climate or not, indeed whether it will be effective as such to help forge a carbon-neutral world in the first place. A third volume awaits us.

Beyond Gridlock is admirable in being analytically tight, empirically rich, and policy-focused. Such delimitation nevertheless carries risks. Although based on collective deliberation in 2015-16, there is not enough analysis within the book as a whole on the magnitude of the present threats to the international liberal order. Policy-oriented and pragmatic, the volume focuses on ‘significant incremental change’: but the analytical lens’ very causal factors (multipolarity, institutional inertia, fragmentation, and increasing complexity) may well have already taken the contemporary world beyond the possibility of a normative consensus around global challenges. The hypothesis needs at least to be addressed. The present undermining of the WTO, the overt contestation of international law regarding chemical weapons, on the one hand (Russia and Syria), and refugees, on the other (Western powers), the unintended consequences of humanitarian interventionism since, at least, Afghanistan and Iraq, the economic causes of domestic populism (the illiberal list could go on) – all suggest that the normative climate of international liberalism has been in crisis for several years. In this sense liberal globalization may indeed have dug its own grave. Apart from a few words in the conclusion (that places populist nationalism as a moment within the dynamic of ‘self-reinforcing gridlock’, pp. 253-256), the chapters in the book do not address these threats. As a result, the book as a whole comes forward as intellectual work situated within liberalism, not as a forward-looking attempt to re-invent policy norms in a globalized, but fragmented world. One may retort that this is not the remit of the volume: but it is telling in this respect that the editors only speak of ‘effective and legitimate’ management of global challenges (p. 266, my underlining) in the conclusion. For most of the book – despite some of the examples above – the focus is on their ‘effective’ management. This is perhaps appropriate language for the policy world, but it is now politically problematic. In the contemporary climate of wide social anger, political resentment, and global shifts of power, more comprehensive analyses of the global economy, of transitions to a low-carbon world, and of relations between domestic constituencies and technical and political elites may be required for the effective transition of core national interests and leadership (from both state and non-state actors) to be possible in the first place.  




Richard Beardsworth is EH Carr Professor of International Politics and Head of Department in International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth.

Image credit: Claus Rebler via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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