Thomas Biersteker, Director of the Programme for the Study of International Governance (PSIG) at The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, is a leading scholar on the emergence and nature of global governance, and has more recently worked with the UN and the governments of Switzerland, Sweden and Germany on the design of targeted sanction regimes.
You have worked on global governance since the emergence of the concept – how did it begin?
One of the very first volumes on global governance, Governance Without Government: Order and Change in World Politics, was published in 1992. It was the result of a conference organized by James Rosenau and Ernst-Otto Czempiel. The number of changes that were taking place in the world particularly struck Rosenau – he was also re-thinking international relations after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War basically triggered it. Rosenau brought together an interesting group – we were all struggling with the evolving nature of governance. The conference was an attempt to find people with different specializations and regional knowledge, and to ask each not immediately to write a paper, but instead a short memo about the nature of governance in certain issue-domains in which we worked. Rosenau really pioneered the distinction between the concept of ‘govern-ance’ and ‘govern-ment’.
You have led the study of security governance in particular. How did you become interested in this aspect, and how does security governance affect global governance more broadly?
Initially, I started looking at governance in terms of sets of ideas and ways of thinking about order. In the late 1990s, I had been working a lot on global debt and governance of the debt regime with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and private financial actors. Then in 2001 I co-edited a volume with Rodney Hall called The Emergence of Private Authority in Global Governance. We built on work that had been looking at forms of private actor governance in the international political economy. We decided to extend those ideas into the security realm, even in the least likely areas of security. There is a chapter by Mark Juergensmeyer, for example, that looked at religious movements as an alternative form of global governance. One of his cases was Al Qaeda!
That work can also apply to mercenaries – we now call them private military companies (PMCs). Is it possible that private security forces could replace the state in certain domains? Former UN Secretary- General, Kofi Annan, was exploring the possibility of the use of PMCs for rapid deployment in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. Again, it was an area that had not been explored before. We were looking at the ways in which non-state actors in the security domain were providing for everyday individual, group and community security. What were the normative implications? While we might celebrate innovative forms of governance through private sector provision, we raised questions about accountability. That’s also the case for environmental actors. To whom is Greenpeace accountable? To its members? To its major source of finance? To the global environment and the greater good?
Recently you have been involved in more general discussions about governance – how has this shaped your thinking?
Firstly, we should not think of governance in the singular. There is not a single system of global governance. People sometimes think of the UN as an institutional location, or the G20, or the G8. I think it’s very simple-minded: we should think about governance in the plural. There are different arrangements of governance in different issue-domains with very different actors playing different kinds of roles. If we look at the governance of some core security issues, that is a realm where the state is very central. We see it in Geneva in the Conference on Disarmament, where NGOs are relatively minor players. In other issue-domains, like global health, you have a large number of private for-profit actors and private non-profit actors that are very influential. In short, in different issue-domains we have very different types of governance arrangements. In highly technical areas, academics and NGOs play a very important role. In other areas that are highly politicized, where there is no recognition of technical expertise, it’s much harder.
Secondly, I try to define what I mean by governance. I draw from Rosenau on the importance of differentiating the ‘functions of government’, and ‘government’ per se. Usually, governance is understood as ‘who governs’ – often with rather unnuanced arguments about great power rules. The rational choice approach sees the idea of governance as ‘steering’ or ‘guiding’. When I went back to the Latin root gubernare, I found that governance could also mean something that is self regulating, like the governor in an engine, which keeps it from overheating. So I make the distinction between governance as steering, and governance as a market operation that is almost self-regulating. That is a bit of an extension on my part.
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by Julie Mandoyan.
Photography by Pascal Dolémieux for The Global Journal.