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October 31, 2014

Global Governance

Jennifer Bremer


How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance. By Parag Khanna. Random House, 2011. 272 pp.; World Rule: Accountability,  Legitimacy, and the Design of Global Governance. By Jonathan  G. S. Koppell. University of Chicago Press, 2010. 392 pp.; The Future of Power. By Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Public Affairs, 2011. 320 pp.; The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas. By Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson. Harvard University Press, 2010. 224 pp.

In 1215, a group of rebellious English barons confronted King John on the field of Runnymede and forced him to sign the Magna Carta. Thus began England’s long transition from absolute sovereignty to power sharing and participatory governance. Today, we are approaching a second Runnymede. America, as powerful on the global level as was King John in medieval England, faces new challenges to its role as the last superpower.

This transition will see America’s leadership give way to power sharing with the barons of Beijing, Brussels, and Brasilia, and even possibly with upstart non-governmental organizations (NGOs). What the new system will look like, how it will evolve, and whether the transition will be as comparatively peaceful as that ushered in at Runnymede, however, are questions that all excite considerable controversy. Will we see continued American superpower hegemony? Are we moving, however slowly, toward a formal world government, perhaps managed by evolved forms of the formal global governance organizations (GGOs)? Or will we develop a new model of governance wholly unlike the familiar unitary state model, perhaps a model in which coalitions of NGOs, corporations, and individuals will increasingly manage issues directly, circumventing or even replacing states?

The authors of four new books on global governance agree that change is coming, and that the U.S. would be better advised to understand and try to shape the transition, than to oppose it. Even when arguing that America will or should remain the last superpower, they accept that more power sharing is inevitable. The question is how much and with whom.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., frames the coming change as involving a dual transition. The first shift will see U.S. dominance give way to a new distribution of power shared more broadly with Europe, Japan, the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), and others. The second will diffuse power away from formal states altogether and toward non-state actors, both intergovernmental and nongovernmental.

He argues that none of these newly powerful forces will replace America as the leading superpower in the coming decades. China’s power will continue to rise, but China cannot take the lead globally without barons willing to follow it. Would Europe, Japan, or the BRICs want to see China supplant U.S. global leadership? Clearly not. Even if China were to become America’s equal in economic and political power, the barons’ backing for the U.S. would tip the balance.

Nye draws on his long career in foreign policy to integrate current events and historical perspectives into an insightful discussion of how the major global powers will benefit or lose from the dual transition underway. He cites the history of wars flowing from earlier transitions from one dominant power to another and points to several dangers inherent in the current double power transition. Even though the U.S. is likely to retain its leadership position overall, the U.S. must work to reshape its leadership style from one of presumptive dominance toward one of  “preponderance,” where the U.S. can “influence but not control” others.

Nye argues that, like Rome, the U.S. may face the greatest challenge to its leadership from domestic factors. Its outdated governance structure, designed to delay action and spread authority, may not be able to cope with the urgent need to modernize its economy and social services or meet global challenges. The coming decades demand unity and decisiveness, not attributes currently on display in American politics. He advocates a smart-power redeployment of U.S. leadership resources, one that will require the U.S. to step up to the “responsibility … to produce global public or common goods” and to develop “smart strategies for power with rather than merely over other nations.”

Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson mirror Nye’s advocacy of U.S. leadership through soft power. They openly call on America’s leaders to frame policies that will regain American leadership in the “global competition of ideas.” America must define a new, twenty-first-century consensus to replace the “five big ideas” that shaped global affairs in the twentieth century, which are that peace, benign hegemony, capitalism, democracy, and Western culture are each inherently superior to their respective alternatives of war, a balance of power, socialism, dictatorship, and non-Western culture, and will ultimately win the day.

These five big ideas no longer find acceptance among the majority of humanity living outside Western democracies, however. As Weber and Jentleson write, “the global population does not see itself as having benefited meaningfully from an era of American-led globalization.” The rise of China and the U.S.’s mishandling of key engagements with the developing world, from Iraq to retrovirals, have opened the door to a competing “Beijing Consensus” embracing autocratic governance, a “market–Leninist” economy, the reaffirmation of communal over individualistic values, and strict limits to outside intervention in states’ internal affairs. In short, broad prosperity trumps political freedom: “one man one vote” has become “one man one cell phone.”

Weber and Jentleson also see danger in the coming transition, as the increased vulnerability of the global economy and environment to system disruption poses a “potent threat in part because the systems on which the world depends are now so tightly stretched.” Rather than denying or opposing needed responses, an America determined to maintain its leadership must demonstrate that it can “make the systems we and others depend on more resilient and robust.” It must embrace “mutuality” and reject unilateralism and American exceptionalism.

Like King John, the authors have ignored the barons’ role in financing this new sovereign activism. The barons at Runnymede did not oppose King John’s wars so much as the taxes needed to pay for them.  Can we expect China to contribute to financing American investments at home and rebuilding of its influence abroad without also demanding a greater share in decision making?

Parag Khanna writes about the emergence of what he terms “mega-diplomacy,” the expansion of nonprofits, corporations, informal coalitions, and even individuals into roles previously the sole preserve of nation-states. In his wide-ranging review of these developments, the single most valuable contribution is his analysis of how non-state actors interact with weak and failed states, and whether NGOs can fill the gaps, notably in human rights. He points to implementation challenges that impede this model, noting that “everyone wants to be the coordinator, no one the coordinatee.”

In Khanna’s new world of mega-diplomacy, success demands three attributes: inclusiveness to mobilize state and non-state actors for the achievement of shared global objectives; decentralization to allocate implementation responsibility to empowered and resilient coalitions of local organizations, not to ossified formal bureaucracies; and accountability to build “communities of trust” and mutual obligation among the participants to advance the mission. Khanna describes a world that remains far from achieving these three requisites, however. In Africa and elsewhere, weak and failed states have ceded power to non-state actors in a “new colonialism” of global NGOs and corporations—the latter increasingly Chinese.

Who, then, will run this newly decentralized and inclusive world? Khanna makes the case that no intergovernmental body, not even the G-20, will emerge as the new global governing council. Davos’s World Economic Forum lays a stronger claim to being a global protoparliament, where major corporate CEOs and charismatic NGO leaders meet with heads of state to set the global agenda and launch world-changing initiatives. In this new reality, the U.S. remains a powerful force not because of its military might but because “no other country has such a deep pool of resources outside of its government to beneficially shape the world.”

Where Khanna captures the diversity of corporate, nonprofit, and individual actors engaged in mega-diplomacy, Jonathan G. S. Koppell takes a rigorously analytic look at a key subset, the GGOs that set and enforce global rules. He explores how GGOs actually get things done, the challenges they face, and the strategies developed in response. This is an important work, advancing our understanding of global governance and offering insight into whether international institutions are up to the task, are able to set and enforce rules on countries and corporations, and in doing so, can maintain legitimacy and accountability.

His rigorous and painstaking analysis of twenty-five GGOs provides, if not answers to these questions, at least solid evidence to advance the debate beyond rhetoric and speculation. His choice to focus on institutions working in diverse sectors and with established track records in rulemaking and enforcement lends force to his conclusions, as does his inclusion of intergovernmental, wholly private, and mixed public–private entities.

The crux of his argument is that GGOs face a built-in dilemma between authority and legitimacy and must adopt specific structures and strategies to overcome this weakness. In order to promulgate rules that make a difference and are followed in practice, a GGO must have authority. It therefore needs the legitimacy that comes from having a wide membership base and the promulgation of rules that are widely accepted and obeyed.

No GGO has independent enforcement power, however. In most cases, countries or companies retain the option not to adopt a rule, or to withdraw from the organization altogether. Rules that are too burdensome thus drive members away or invite members to ignore them. Not all members are equal, moreover; rules that are adopted lose authority if the strongest members—particularly the United States—fail to follow them, but lose legitimacy if they are seen as dictated by America.

GGOs respond to this dilemma by developing a range of strategies that give major players, particularly the U.S. but also at times major corporations, a large role in developing the rules to be adopted. To retain legitimacy, the system then provides opportunities for the broader membership to weigh in, even if only at the end of the process. An alternative strategy, that of adopting lowest-common-denominator rules, would only undermine the GGO by making participation a waste of time and resources. GGOs thus find themselves constantly balancing authority against legitimacy in both rulemaking and rule enforcement.

One of Koppell’s most important conclusions is that, whether a GGO is a formal interstate body (such as the International Labor Organization) or an NGO with a mixed corporate–NGO membership (such as the Forest Stewardship Council), it faces much the same set of challenges and is likely to adopt similar strategies to overcome them.

Koppell stops short of offering a bottom-line answer as to whether global governance organizations are up to handling the urgent challenges of a globalized world. Are GGOs confined to relatively narrow action on specific issues, such as accounting rules or Internet numbering? Does the continuing failure of the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round signal that even the most powerful GGOs cannot forge a consensus between the West and the rest when it matters? If GGOs cannot advance a positive-sum game such as trade liberalization, how can they tackle climate change, almost surely a negative-sum game in the short term at least? If we cannot create GGOs that work and are seen to be legitimate, then the feasible set of choices narrows to superpower dominance or chaos.

An intriguing leitmotif among these four works is the frequent comparison with another such period of chaos, the Middle Ages: like the present time an era of uncertainty and widespread conflict as one system gave way to another. As the four authors suggest, the focus now must be squarely on the major choices ahead of us and how we should think about them. Like King John and the barons at Runnymede, we know we cannot stay where we are, but we cannot yet say with any precision where the coming transition will take us.


Jennifer Bremer is an associate professor of public policy and chair of the Public Policy and Administration Department at the American University in Cairo. Previously, she served as director of the Washington center of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, a unit of the University of North Carolina, and as an international development consultant with Nathan Associates and Development Alternatives.


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