Book Review - Global Policymaking: The Patchwork of Global Governance

By Matthias Hofferberth - 18 August 2023
Book Review - Global Policymaking: The Patchwork of Global Governance

Global Policymaking: The Patchwork of Global Governance by Vincent Pouliot and Jean-Philippe Thérien. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2023. 280 pp., £80 hardcover 9781009344951, £26.99 paperback 9781009344968

Global governance, in theory and practice, frequently remains abstract and cast in passive terms. Notably, it took almost two decades after its conception to explicitly consider global governors (Avant et al., 2010) and another decade to bring in the governed in everyday perspectives (Weiss and Wilkinson, 2018). An equal lacuna exists when it comes to actual practices of global governance. Pouliot and Thérien seek to close this gap in their important book by bringing together research on global governance and policy studies to highlight as well as better understand the complex, intricate, and messy nature of global policymaking. In particular, they argue that it is imperative to “understand how the expanding global governance process actually works” (p. 1), given that it is ubiquitous and at the same time consequential for everyone in our globalized world. Against functionalist approaches to explain it, Pouliot and Thérien contend that “global governance results from a collective ‘muddling through’, involves normative cleavages and power struggles, and plays out on a staunchly unequal field” (p. 2). In their theoretical language, they intend to capture global governance “as a bricolage, or patchwork, of competing value claims and politically charged governing practices” (p. 3, their emphasis). As such, one can read the book as a much-needed intervention to recover the politics in and of global governance.

PW.jpgThe book’s ambition is to introduce an analytical framework as well as a methodology to study global policymaking. Combining global governance research on the one hand and policy studies on the other hand helps the authors to deliver on their claims. To no surprise (Thérien and Pouliot, 2020, Pouliot and Thérien, 2018, Pouliot and Thérien, 2017), they do so by paying “attention to practices as collective ways of doing” which allows them “to highlight the forces that shape the social configuration of the global arena” (p. 15). This focus shifts attention away from the what and why (i.e., delivery of public goods at a global scale) to the how of global governance (i.e., the complexity and messiness of the process). Chapters 1 and 2 spell out this commitment in great detail. By doing so, Pouliot and Thérien elegantly outline and define the contours of this emerging field and the chapter is worth reading for everyone working in this area and for those interested in its current shape. At the same time, the authors are not dogmatic about their approach. Rather, they are pragmatic about questions of scale and applicability, leaving the individual researcher with flexibility to use their framework while matching their own research questions at hand (p. 29).  This openness, enticing as it is, leaves the reader wondering though whether global policymaking primarily offers a heuristic, an epistemology, an ontology, a methodology, or all of the above for global governance. Specifically in conjunction with other concepts such as bricolage and practices as well as the constant emphasis that global policymaking by nature is “fluid and fragmented” (p. 42), the first chapter, at times, remains at an abstract level and leaves certain questions unanswered.

The second chapter seeks to remedy this impression by offering “an analytical framework and a step-by-step methodology” (p. 44). Here, practice theory becomes most tangible as the authors, in humorous fashion, outline a hypothetical scenario on the governance of newly invented teleportation devices. Following this, the book becomes most concrete in methodological terms, and potentially most useful for undergraduate and graduate students, when spelling out the different steps of studying global governance practices. From mapping the global policymaking space to inventorying key practices to documenting their political effects, Pouliot and Thérien offer very helpful tools that can make all of our respective studies on global governance more fruitful. In the example and throughout the book, the division of labor between global policymaking and bricolage as epistemology (Chapter 1) and practice theory (Chapter 2) works for the most part, but arguably both have to say something on each level of research. In other words, the book becomes somewhat crowded with theoretical and methodological concepts that relate. This is not a problem and likely a consequence of the comprehensive, ambitious nature of each concept. While it becomes clear that one should be open about what the problem is, what the ends are, and by what means these are addressed, it is up to the reader to make the approach fruitful in their own work.

The focus on the theoretical and methodological contributions of the book so far should not distract from the fact that Chapters 3-5 are dense and empirical rich accounts of different processes of global governance. These are derived from zooming in on the UN as a specific site of global policymaking dealing with specific issues. Notably, with the Sustainable Development Goals, the Human Rights Council, and the Protection of Civilians, the book tackles an outcome, an institution, and an issue area and thereby proves its comprehensive applicability to global policymaking. While extremely rich in their empirical reconstruction, it is noteworthy that each case is equally driven by a priori theoretical postulations. The Sustainable Development Goals, for example, are defined as “open-ended improvisation” (p. 78), while the Human Rights Council is framed as “perpetual work in progress” (p. 106). To provocatively rephrase Maslow’s law of instrument, one could argue that once you have a (practice theory) hammer, everything looks like a (messy, practice-driven) nail. That critique aside, each case not only provides a wonderful illustration of the powerful framework at work by listing instances of practice and their effects (pp. 79; 107; 138-9). It also offers new and important insights that not only advance our understanding of each case, but also allow for a comprehensive case comparison and deeper insights into global policymaking. In other words, each chapter should be read by students of the respective case but also by those interested in global governance as such.

On that final note, and maybe as yet another important contribution of this wonderful book, Pouliot and Thérien conclude on key trends in the making of global policies that echo through each case. Including the clash of sovereignties, the emphasis on expertise, and the resilience of the North-South divide, among seven more, Chapter 6 turns out to be a comprehensive assessment of where we are in global governance at the moment and opens up plenty of space for further research. This, arguably, is the greatest asset of the book that could easily have been two or three books: while bringing together different traditions and developing a step-by-step methodology to study practices of global policymaking, the book leaves enough room for the reader to bring in their own perspective and encourages them to live with and in fact embrace the messiness and unfinishedness of global governance. As such, Global Policymaking is a gem and provides an accurate, ambitious, and yet ultimately modest approach to the study of global governance. While the book draws together current research and provides its own cases, it really invites the readers to study theirs. While offering rich empirical reconstructions, Pouliot and Thérien do a fantastic job in stimulating new thinking. It is on everyone in the community now to live up to their ambition and high standards and provide insights into the practices that shape and define the global world we live in.



Matthias Hofferberth is Associate Professor of Political Science, International Relations and Global Governance at the University of Texas at San Antonio. 



Avant, D.D., Finnemore, M., and Sell, S.K., eds. 2010. Who Governs the Globe? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pouliot, V., and Thérien, J.-P. (2017) ‘Global Governance: A Struggle over Universal Values’, International Studies Review 20(1): 55-73.

Pouliot, V., and Thérien, J.-P. (2018) ‘Global Governance in Practice’, Global Policy 9(2): 163-172.

Thérien, J.P., and Pouliot, V. (2020) ‘Global Governance as Patchwork: The Making of the Sustainable Development Goals’, Review of International Political Economy 27(3): 612-636.

Weiss, T.G., and Wilkinson, R. (2018) ‘The Globally Governed. Everyday Global Governance’, Global Governance 24(2): 193-210.



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