David Held

Pr. David Held is the perfect man to talk to about Global Governance. He was among the first to understand the political implications of globalization, and to recognize the shift from globalization as an irresistible phenomenen towards global governance. The last two years of turmoil in political order at global level, with their convoy of repeated crises, have brought a sense of emergency and pessimism. Held has no crystal ball, but he clearly sees what principles, concepts and ingredients are most needed to help us cross the Rubicon towards a new governance. Perhaps it will be a question of sink or swim...

It seems globalization is no longer the big word: global governance is now taking the lead. Why? Where is the shift?

Well, first of all, globalization is no longer a new phenomenon that people talk about. It has shifted from a phenomenon that exploded to the media world in the 1990s, early 2000s, to now more a backdrop of our changing condition, but the fundamentals are still very much the same. I like to summarize this in the following way: we live in a world that has shifted increasingly from national communities of fate – where the fate of communities could be determined largely within territorial boundaries – to a world that I call overlapping communities of fate, where the fate and fortunes of communities, nation-states, are increasingly bound-up together. After 9/11, the war on terror, the global financial crisis and climate change, we see the huge force of that shift. These are some of the issues that have exploded onto the global terrain in the last 20-30 years. They have become part of our political consciousness. The world we live in now is marked by confluence of change across different sectors of human activity – economic, communicative, environmental - all of which create this world of overlapping communities of fate, the background of the condition of our life in the 21st century. 

I think the focus has shifted to governance, precisely because we are faced with a set of changes and a lack of confidence – and imagination – about how to govern them. We are faced with a pyramid of issues. Issues concerned with our rules: trade rules, financial rules, genetic research rules, climate rules, carbon emission rules, intellectual property rights—a whole range of rules, that are no longer just made by nation-states alone, but have to be made by communities engaging with each other in some way. Then we face a whole set of questions about our habitat: water scarcity, disease, climate issues, ozone and so on, which create a whole range of transborder issues that raise the question of which jurisdiction, and who makes decisions and regulations to govern these changing habitats?

Where to start with? 

We face a huge range of issues; the most pressing of which are probably trade rules, financial market rules, climate and nuclear proliferation. Each one of these domains is enough to unsettle the whole world, and yet the reason why global governance has come to the fore now is because we see the advantages of a rule-based multilateral world order; it was some of the strength of the second half of the 20th century. But now we face gridlock over a large number of international questions. The Doha trade round is gridlocked, stalemate. Issues about financial governance and changing the rules of the global financial markets: gridlocked. Climate: essentially gridlocked. Carbon emissions are going up in the world whether we like it or not. And nuclear proliferation, well, in some sense that’s like closing the stable door once the horse has bolted – we have nuclear proliferation! In each of these areas, we face a new question of governance: where will decisions be made, by whom, and in which jurisdictions? So the shift from globalization as a discourse to global governance as a discourse emerges at precisely the moment where the question of where we are governed, by whom, with what rules is no longer easy to answer. For so long this question has been easy to answer: in nation states, in domestically sealed silos of political decision- making. But today, because globalization has created this enmeshment of nation-states with each other, there is a whole range of issues governing the global economy, global communications, the global habitat that no longer fits into these silos. So the question of governance becomes hugely pressing. 

For many national politicians, global governance is still something they would rather not discuss in public. Which means there is quite a vacuum of thoughts and ideas. What can be done to unlock the debate and the need for action? 

I think there are three complex, interconnected, background conditions for gridlock. The first overriding background condition is the increasing marginalization and weakness of the UN system itself. The UN was designed at a point in geopolitical history that was very different to where we are now in 2012. It was designed by the victors of the Second World War, who entrenched their power and their interests throughout the UN system, from the Security Council to the World Bank and the IMF. It was designed primarily to handle issues of war and peace, and in some ways the UN multilateral system was hugely successful: it kept the peace; in some sense it kept global order; it has protected us from the worst ramifications of the Cold War, the possibility of developing into a nuclear Armageddon. At the same time, the world is changing around the UN system. The UN today is no longer representative of the diversity of the voices that matter in the world. The Security Council still entrenches the interests of the victors of 1945. Surely no one could argue that Britain and France have a better claim to their privileged position on the Security Council today than many other countries with an equal or even stronger claim. None of the transborder issues that have emerged, against the backdrop of globalization and global governance, fit easily into the UN system as it was designed in 1945. It’s not a surprise. So the first point I would make is that the UN system is no longer fit for purpose – and that is one reason for gridlock. It is no longer an effective decision-making body and it no longer fits the menu of the functions that are required of it. In addition, the response to 9/11, the war on terror, which I have discussed in my book on Global Covenant, weakened the UN system further. By bypassing the UN system, the American- led coalition, particularly in the case of the War in Iraq, fundamentally weakened the UN apparatus. That is the first set of arguments. 

But the second set of arguments explaining gridlock notes that the world created by the UN system, and by economic globalization, has created remarkable success for a number of countries and regions of the world. The economic balance of power unleashed by the stable world order – the UN system and economic globalization, that were developed in the second half of the 20th century and early part of this first decade of the 21st century – has created a shift in the global balance of power, from west slowly to east. Danny Quah, a colleague of mine from LSE, has written about the shift in economic gravity. In the 20th century, the economic gravity probably had its center somewhere near the mid-Atlantic. Today, the center of economic activity is shifting rapidly to the east. Not only is the UN system defeating its purpose, this is true at the time when we have growing shift from a bipolar world order to an increasingly multipolar world order. And with the rise of China, India, Brazil, South Africa and others, we don’t just have powerful shifts in the world economy (and therefore shifts of power), but also very significant shifts of voice, value, belief, and priority. You can see each of those movements in play – in the Copenhagen climate talks, in the Doha trade round and so on. What do we see in each of these critical international negotiations? We see that the old Western coalition can no longer, as it were, command or engineer its agenda. Other countries in the world are not yet an alternative hegemonic power to the West, to the US and to Europe. But they are powerful rising veto voices. They say, “If this is the only game in town we don’t it,” so, effectively, you get non-decision-making, vetoes against vetoes. In former times, the US and Europe could have insured that these great international negotiations were settled in a way that suited them, but today, with the shift from a bipolar world order to a multipolar world order, with the emergence of increasingly confident voices around the world, you don’t get just a different articulation of interests but of voice and of value, and you see that in the playing out of international negotiations. So, underneath gridlock, fundamentally, is the changing balance of world order, the emergence of different voices, and linked to that, the weakening of Western hegemony, and the weakening of US hegemony especially.

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by Jean-Christophe Nothias

photography by RITA SCAGLIA for The Global Journal