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Roundtable on Global Government
An exchange on Global Government Revisited

Lucie Edwards


There are (at least) two approaches to global governance. The first, exemplified by Luis Cabrera’s, belongs to the Kantian “perpetual peace” School, advocating an evolution to cosmopolitan political and economic institutions, replacing the current model of sovereign states. It is based, as the author says, both on principles of justice and on effectiveness: Only such a system of world government could bring about peace and prosperity for all. Another key argument in favor of perpetual peace 2.0 is the nature of the wicked problems facing the world today: climate change, maritime pollution, and biodiversity crash. These problems can only be addressed if all societies are harnessed to the task and can’t be left just to nation-states.

The second School of Global Governance takes a more anthropological (or butterfly collector) approach and seeks to identify, document, and explain the new institutions of governance, many of them well outside the ambit of the sovereign state, where governance is taking place. Many of the institutions that govern our lives from day to day are nongovernmental, private or public/private, and operate under club rules (coalitions of the willing) rather than universal rules. They include the institutions that set global accounting rules; set standards for most industrial and consumer products (the International Standards Organization); resolve conflicts in transnational transactions (the International Chamber of Commerce’s arbitration service); and govern the Internet and the underwater cables that cinch the world together. Yet most people would be hard-pressed to name these organizations. Other key areas of rule-setting are enacted by transnational organizations, notably the European Union, which holds a mighty sway over most health, environment and safety issues, particularly in the developing world. And there are fields where subsidiary organizations hold sway—notably California, in issues of transportation and environmental protection, such as vehicle emission controls. In these cases, the governing institutions are mobilizing three kinds of power: economic power; the capacity to mobilize ideas, which speaks to legitimacy; and the capacity to convene other agencies to communicate their ideas, which speaks to leadership.

In addition to documenting new institutional types, students of global governance examine how ideas are diffused across national states, through transnational epistemic communities (climate scientists, for example, or gay rights advocates), advocacy agencies (Greenpeace, Amnesty International), or transnational media agencies like Russia Today, Al Jazeera, or Wikileaks. These may, or may not, take their direction from nation-states, but they exercise agency and enjoy considerable legitimacy at popular levels. 

While the nation-state remains a powerful, indeed perhaps the most powerful, actor in global governance, it is striking how much decision-making has slipped out of its control. The trend began with the rise of environmental problems, which could not be effectively addressed at state level alone, and has accelerated with the rise of the cyberworld. This has led a number of experts to question whether the state system is decaying, and in the process of being replaced by a new dominant power—perhaps a form of neo-medievalism where effective control is centered in powerful city-states which set the rules and diffuse the ideas to the rest of us. I should add there is a debate in global governance over whether the current system is too untidy and obscure and would be better replaced by big transnational regulatory agencies like the WTO governing all aspects of the global digital economy and environmental politics. But there are equally strong voices that argue that big agencies routinely fail; the current system, with all its redundancies and byzantine rules, provides many avenues to address and solve emerging problems.

So personally, I am not convinced that our choices are either/or at this stage of global governance: the continued dominance of the nation-state vs. more formal world government. If current trends continue, we are likely to see ever more diffuse and informal governance arrangements which fail to meet the objective of effectiveness in securing justice, democracy, and transparency, but may meet the basic requirements of efficiency in addressing tangled global problems.


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Lucie Edwards
Lucie Edwards is a doctoral candidate in Global Governance, specializing in science and environmental policy, at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada. She moved to academia following a 34-year career in the Canadian Foreign Service, serving as Canadian High Commissioner to Kenya, South Africa, and India, and Ambassador to the UN Environment Programme.



Cite as Lucie Edwards, "Contribution to 'Roundtable on Global Government,'" Great Transition Initiative (October 2017), http://greattransition.org/roundtable/global-gov-lucie-edwards.




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