Global Governance or Transnational Elite Bargaining?

The emerging field of global governance has produced a number of breakthroughs, as well as failures, aimed at managing global problems through the voluntary and ad hoc cooperation of a diverse range of international actors. The essays in this series represent the assessment of advanced students and young scholars from around the world, and document the key achievements, obstacles and challenges animating the field.


With the ever-increasing tide of interdependence among nations, the need for concerted efforts across territorial borders to address contemporary threats and challenges has never been more urgent. The very ubiquity of the concept of global governance suggests a shared recognition of the common destiny of humankind and the corresponding imperative to forgo unilateral and self-serving tendencies in favor of more collaborative approaches to satisfying needs and solving problems. However, one only has to take a cursory look at where we currently stand with regard to cooperation on major global issues to come to the conclusion that, like domestic efforts to engender more open and accountable governments in some states, global governance has more or less become a stalled enterprise, having been hijacked by vested capitalist interests.

Superficial Cooperation Underpins Progress in Global Governance

It is true that there have been noticeable advances in the drive to foster cooperation at the global level over the years. First of all, sovereign states, whose consent remains vital in global decisionmaking and which for centuries had preferred self-serving approaches in pursuing their national interests, have become increasingly inclined toward multilateralism. Today, the global policy space is crowded with a myriad of formal and informal institutions and coalitions, which have spurred unprecedented cooperation among states. In addition, recent decades have witnessed the legitimization of the role of nonstate actors in the global arena, with the effect that concerns about human security and social justice have started competing with the narrow interests of states and big businesses—which nonetheless continue to dominate the global policy agenda. The rise in coalitions between transnational civil society organizations and middle-power states, in particular, has been credited with generating the impetus that has produced groundbreaking agreements and institutions such as the 2002 Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the 2008 Convention banning cluster munitions. 1 Optimists about global cooperation would also not hesitate to point to the newfound solidarity among the emerging powers of the Global South as another positive development that portends well for global governance. The increasing tendency of these states to harmonize their positions in global forums has arguably contributed in diffusing power in the international system and has rendered such cooperation a little more attractive for even the most powerful states like the U.S.

It would, however, be naive to make an unqualified case for meaningful progress in global governance based on these developments—if by global governance one means transnational efforts dedicated not to serving the interests of certain privileged constituencies but to improving the quality of life for all, irrespective of race, class or nationality. There is no gainsaying that, thanks to the activism of global civil society organizations and to some extent middle-power states, global policymaking has occasionally produced results, which, to varying degrees, have responded to broader social concerns about equality, justice and the promotion of human dignity, which in my view should be the focus of governance at the global level. Even so, the bulk of the cooperation that has been made possible by the developments outlined above, as well as by the governance arrangements they have fashioned, still remains essentially oblivious to the demands and aspirations of the majority of the world’s people, making it a mockery to talk of the emergence of a global neighborhood, as suggested by the Commission for Global Governance. 2

Global Capitalism Undermines Genuine Global Cooperation

This brings us to what I consider the fundamental obstacle to genuine cooperation on most transnational issues. The propensity for states to continue to act in their narrow interests and the absence of a morally persuasive hegemon to inspire and champion cooperation, along with the lack of a global civic ethic, are just some of the factors that are often cited as undermining effective governance at the global level. However, it is my contention that these seeming constraints are merely symptoms of the larger challenge that confronts effective global cooperation. The root of the problem is global capitalism with its attendant profit-making logic and entrenched culture of self-centeredness, which have transformed the institutions and processes of global governance from people-centered spaces to conduits for the promotion of capitalist interests and agendas.

The preeminence of these market forces in the current wave of economic globalization has not only undermined the autonomy and decisionmaking capacity of governments within states but has also transformed state machineries into promoters of capitalist interests. So, while current challenges such as poverty, insecurity, climate change and the burden of disease have ostensibly forced states to overcome their prejudices and cooperate in searching for common solutions, the multistate governance arrangements that have emerged to assist in these efforts nonetheless reflect the designs of transnational elite networks, which undermine meaningful progress in addressing these challenges. In this context, what currently parades as global cooperation is largely a reflection of the political bargaining of transnational capitalist elites who, by virtue of their power to regulate access to the formal and informal institutions and networks that shape the global policy agenda, tend to prioritize profit maximization over broader societal concerns such as equitable development, justice, human rights and protecting the environment.

The emphasis on market access that underpins global trade arrangements illustrates this reality. From the perspective of governance with a developmental end, one would expect the Word Trade Organization, as the institution managing global trade relations, to take the lead in spreading the gains of trade and making it more amenable to the fight against global poverty. However, as the current deadlock in the so-called Doha Development Trade Round suggests, the desire to amass excess wealth on the part of big businesses, often disguised by the rhetoric of the benefits of free trade, has reduced the Word Trade Organization’s structure and processes to a forum for bargaining market access, often at the expense of human development objectives. The elitist nature of the current global governance architecture is such that even the governments of developing countries—most of which bear the burden of trade liberalization, including inequality, labor rights violations and environmental degradation—engage with the system not necessarily to challenge its antidevelopment foundations but often to seek concessions that satisfy their respective domestic business communities.

An Inclusive Approach to Global Governance Is Required for Genuine Progress

In the face of the scheming, hypocrisy and self-seeking that currently underlie global policymaking in most areas, the only meaningful breakthrough for which one can hope is a paradigm shift that enables all the actors with a stake in global governance—including states, private individuals, businesses and civil society organizations—to truly conceive of cooperation as a way to better the lot of humankind everywhere in the world. But insofar as efforts at global cooperation continue to be informed largely by the narrow interests of transnational elite capitalist networks, the supposed breakthroughs in creating new institutions and “reforming” old ones will at best qualify as cosmetic alterations to a project that has lost its raison d’être.

However, given the pervasiveness of global capitalism and its divisive and exploitative tendencies, it is highly inconceivable that global governance will one day be approached by all concerned parties with a common understanding that prioritizes equality and distributive justice. As global discontent with inequality rises, one can hope with some degree of certainty that transnational civil society networks would in the future become more vigorous in their efforts to open up the global policy space. The same, however, cannot be said of the other major actors involved in global decision-making. Concerned primarily with outwitting one another and controlling the direction of surplus accumulation, states, alliances of states, as well as networks of companies and corporate lobbies are guaranteed to be permanently locked down in relations of competition, leaving multilateral processes highly hierarchical and less amenable to popular concerns.


Fritz Nganje, Research Assistant, Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD), South Africa


1 For a detailed discussion of the growing partnership between middle powers and global civil society organizations, see Matthews Bolton and Thomas Nash, “The Role of Middle Power–NGO Coalitions in Global Policy: The Case of the Cluster Munitions Ban,” Global Policy 1, no. 2 (May 2010).

2 See Henry Lamb’s summary analysis of the report of the Commission of Global Governance,