Global Governance in a Time of Transformation

We live in an extraordinarily fluid time, when choices made today will have massive consequences for tomorrow.

Imagine living in a wonderful world a few decades from now. The gut-wrenching poverty that left half the world eking out a bare existence at the turn of the millennium has become little more than a distant memory as ever freer and more equitable global markets have ushered in a new era of prosperity for almost everyone. New environmentally sustainable technologies from ‘green’ cars to organic farming are so widely adopted that Mother Nature smiles benignly on her eight billion or so human children. This extraordinary progress in the human condition has become possible thanks to the information revolution and the related spread of education. People around the world have become capable of demanding and getting effective and competent governments which are closely monitored by a global array of citizens groups looking out for the public interest.

Now imagine a different scenario. Economic globalization has forced all societies to subordinate concerns about equity and social justice to productivity and competitiveness. With the private sector ever more powerful and the wealthy ever more isolated from the rest of society, governments finds themselves unable to compel those with money to help pay for such basic social needs as defense and police functions, economic infra- structure, environmental protection, or a social safety net.

Organized crime runs rampant through porous borders. The technologies of the information revolution have spread, but inequitably, leaving the poor well aware that others are living far better than they, but unable to participate in the information- based global economy. The failure of either market or government to meet the demands of both the truly desperate and the merely relatively deprived masses is provoking growing frustration and thus violence. And, everyone is suffering the consequences of climate change and ecosystem collapse.

Either scenario could come to pass. Human destiny is not fixed. Major stresses are inevitable given the sheer size of the growing human population and the need to adjust to technological changes. But within those constraints, humanity has enormous freedom. People decide which problems matter most and how, or whether, to try to solve them. Cultures and civilizations need not clash if people decide to work out their differences in nonviolent ways. Climate change need not continue. Humanity can wait and see whether ecological catastrophe will strike, or we can reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. We can wait until the bombs go off, or we can act to constrain the proliferation of conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. We can confront the problem of growing income disparities, or we can wait and see whether such divisions really will rip societies apart, as many social scientists predict.

The difference between the rosy and gloomy scenarios boils down to a single word, governance. Governance refers to all the ways in which groups of people collectively make choices. Governments are obviously a big part of global governance—they agree on treaties, constitute international organizations that set international standards, and enact and enforce national laws to implement internationally agreed-upon rules. Corporations and a vast and growing array of nonprofit groups are also taking an increasingly large part in global governance.

The current system for running the world is based on rules that were set in the wake of World War II. This system is based on assumptions that a handful of great powers will make most of the decisions, with other national governments involved as needed, and with intergovernmental efforts, at times, coordinated through treaties or international organizations such as the United Nations.

The world of the early twenty-first century is obviously quite different. Although the ‘war’ against terrorism is uppermost in some minds, humanity faces threats on many fronts—from the fragility of the global economy to the rampages of a Mother Nature enraged by climate change, to the on-going slaughter of innocents in overlooked civil wars. Although people are becoming more aware of the global nature of humanity’s most urgent problems and opportunities, the responses, with some notable exceptions, add up to unimaginative muddling through. The thousands of international conferences, treaties and declarations of pious intent have, with some notable exceptions, done more to salve the conscience than to save the world.

Because many problems are transnational, their resolutions lie beyond the authority of any single national government. Because political authority is held by national governments, there is an increasing disjunction between the transnational problems to be solved and the mostly national systems and procedures available to solve them. To the extent that transnational and multi-national systems are emerging to address transnational issues, these systems are not directly accountable to the people whose lives they affect. And, although economic, environmental, and security issues interact with and exacerbate one another, most efforts to tackle those problems focus on only one issue at a time, reflecting the nature of bureaucracies rather than what is needed to address the issues.

What are the alternatives? One obvious possibility would be a world government, wherein the United Nations and other interna- tional institutions are built up to the point that they take on the functions currently served by modern national governments. This, however, would be disastrous. If the world has learned only one thing from the bloody history of the twentieth century, it is that highly centralized, top-down systems of governance are economic and political nightmares. A second proposition calls for reducing the need for global governance by returning to the good old days of impermeable national borders—a ‘solution’ that ignores the reality of modern information and weapons technologies and the global scale of environmental degradation. A third option would have us rely on the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, ignoring the need for conscious and deliberate cooperation across borders.
Where each of these proposals fails is in its lack of means for carrying out the five basic steps needed to deal with problems of the collective good.

The steps are as follows:

  1. There must be agreement that the problem is a collective matter.
  2. Those concerned must negotiate how to solve the problem and how to divide the cost.
  3. If the group manages to reach an agreement it must implement this agreement.
  4. The group has to check to make sure everyone is complying with the agreement.
  5. Often, the group must have some means for punishing free riding in order to deter those who might be tempted to shirk.

At the transnational level, mechanisms for all five steps are poorly developed and often ineffective. There may be broad agreement on the desirability of peace, prosperity, community, and increasingly individual liberty, but, translating these ideals into concrete agenda items requiring action is no easy matter. No system exists for forcing a ranking of issues or an allocation of resources. Priorities reflect a hodgepodge of the interests of the most powerful states (or their most powerful constituents), the whims of the media spotlight, and blind chance. Negotiation too often takes place in cumbersome intergovernmental forums that are unable to keep pace with fast changing problems and that often fail to represent the interests of large numbers of people.

The still-resilient norm of national sovereignty can wreak havoc with efforts at monitoring, as governments resist letting outsiders in to check on them. Enforcement across borders remains seriously problematic because the available tools, from diplomatic persuasion to economic sanctions to military force, are blunt, ineffective, or both. There is still a tendency to look to the United States to solve the world’s problems. For many global issues, there is not much that even the extraordinarily powerful United States can accomplish by itself.

In short, providing for the collective good at the global level will require something more imaginative than the extension or replication of national government power at the global level, or a return to the sharply defined borders of the past. Hints are already emerging as to what that something might be. No one is planning this system. It is evolving, with many disparate actors who are largely unaware of the roles of other sectors and their relationships to other issues. The private sector and the amorphous third sector of non-governmental organizations that are grouped under the heading of ‘civil society,’ are becoming key figures in transnational governance.

Agreements are being worked out and implemented directly between the private sector and activist groups on issues ranging from environmental protection to labor standards. And, non-governmental organizations are increasingly taking on the role of monitoring compliance with international accords.
But these groups lack the democratic systems of accountability that have so painfully evolved in the past few centuries. No one elected Amnesty International to serve as the human rights conscience of the world; no one elected Greenpeace to set and enforce environ- mental standards for multinational corporations, and no one elected the corporations themselves. Since there is now a clear global consensus on the desirability of democratic rules of governance, surely we do not want to create unaccountable forms of trans- national governance just as we are finally getting some momentum in the spread of democracy at the level of national government.

What constitutes ‘democracy’ in the context of global governance? Democracy requires two things, a system for providing people with a voice in the making of decisions that affect them and a mechanism for holding representatives accountable to those whom they represent. The world badly needs to devise institutions and frameworks that can make it possible for people affected by decisions, to have a voice in those decisions and to hold the decision makers accountable.

The tools are now available to decentralize the flow of information, enabling democracy to emerge. The most important concept for global democracy in the twenty-first century is transparency. If voice and accountability are to exist across borders, decision makers must explain their actions and decisions to the broader public and they must allow that public greater say in those decisions.

Such transparency will not automatically ensure that good and just decisions are always made, but it is the most effective error correction system humanity has yet devised. It can, must, and increasingly does apply not only to people already explicitly responsible for governance—leaders of national governments and intergovernmental organizations such as the World Trade Organization—but also to corporations and even civil society. Changes in both technology and behavioral norms are making such transparency based governance increasingly feasible.

My view of the future is fundamentally, if nervously, optimistic. The nervousness sets in because of the call for significant change in the way we think about political and social organizations. Such a change in thinking and in doing is already beginning to occur— not just among politicians and corporate executives but also among ordinary citizens, who are collectively far more able to contribute to solving transnational problems than either they or the elites generally recognize. The optimism comes from the belief that humanity can and is in fact finding innovative solutions and ethically acceptable ways of governing itself at the global level. Those innovative solutions often do not look much like the electoral, representative systems that are the usual focus of works on governance. Their focus is on what can be truly new when technology and politics combine to open up the information floodgates in a time of transformation.

Ann Florini, a recognized authority on global governance and civil society, is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and Director of the World Economic Forum’s Global Governance Initiative. Formerly a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she has published widely in such periodicals as Foreign Policy and WorldLink. With the kind permission of, and some additions by, Ann Florini, Tara Stuart of Kosmos has excerpted the essence of Chapter One, “A Time of Transformation?” from, The Coming Democracy: New Rules for Running a New World, Island Press, 2003.