Global Politics

Democratising Global Governance

There is little doubt that the world is facing formidable challenges at present: decades after the end of the Cold War, we still live in the shadow of a possible nuclear holocaust; the conflicts in the Middle East are escalating, and there are many other potential flashpoints; the world’s population is rising, with growing demand for food, water and employment, and more people on the move than ever; and we are starting to feel the effects of climate change, which will only get worse. Yet, we do not seem to have effective mechanisms to successfully address these issues. The 2018 G20 and 2020 G7 summits (the latter meant and failed to provide a coordinated response to the Covid pandemic) were clear evidence of that. International politics, as we know it, seems to be coming to an end. We need a fresh approach. This chapter proposes evolving current global institutions into a new model that could address global challenges better.

Why we need global institutions

The need for global institutions was recognised more than a century ago. The League of Nations was created after WWI, but collapsed largely due to its inadequacy in dealing with Hitler. It was replaced after WW2 by the United Nations. The UN has not collapsed (yet) but it has become lame and marginalised, mainly because it has not kept in step with ever-changing political realities and global challenges. It is increasingly becoming a relic not fit for purpose. As the historian Mark Mazower concludes in his account of global institutions, “The idea of governing the world has become yesterday’s dream” (Mazower, 2012 p.427). And yet this seems to be more pertinent than ever. Seven in ten adults surveyed across ten countries think that a new supranational organisation should be created in response to global risks. Some of the reasons for global governance are similar to those for needing national governance, but there is more to it:

  • We are more interrelated, interconnected and interdependent than ever; global challenges (e.g. climate change or a pandemic) require coordinated action. Without a sound international platform, it is not only hard to reach widely accepted decisions, but also to ensure their continuing implementation.
  1. Only global institutions can guard against one country (or a small number of countries) taking over, be it the US, China or any other superpower that may emerge. There are some authors who argue for having a state that would take on the role of world leader[1]. This, however, is not only undemocratic but also highly risky: sooner or later, the dominant state will exercise this power over others for its own advantage (as has happened in the case of the US – it is worth recalling that Donald Trump is not the first, or even the second, American president to use the slogan ‘America first’).
  • Last but not least, global politics is lagging behind global commerce and finance, which are largely controlled by a relatively small number of big corporations. While the global influence of corporate power is growing increasingly strong, the power of global institutions is becoming weaker. This is dangerous, as business globalisation without matching political globalisation creates an imbalance. The ultimate aim of most businesses is to increase their profit, rather than to improve the lives of people and, as we have already argued, these two do not always coincide. If corporations become the leading global force, their priority is likely to intensify rather than change.

Why the existing global institutions need to evolve

To summarise the above, the main purpose of global governance should be to forge ways forward in dealing with global issues and make international cooperation easier. This may involve outlining steps that need to be taken, helping balance global and national priorities, providing a forum where various views and proposals can be heard and discussed, and offering effective mechanisms for cooperation. Right now, this cooperation is below the required standards for several reasons:

  1. National interests are almost always prioritised over world interests. In the long term, this creates problems as it becomes a race to the bottom, which is unsustainable in an interdependent world of limited resources.
  2. Some states prefer to retain a dominant or privileged status, while others aspire to achieve such status. This can lead to either an escalating power struggle or global hegemony – neither of which is a good way forward. Yet, this is not likely to change, unless there is a viable alternative on the table.
  3. The decision-making process in the main global institution, the UN, is not fit for purpose. This makes it hard for the UN to reach agreements that are accepted across the board, leading to the marginalisation and de facto paralysis of the UN.
  4. Most UN decisions (except some made in the Security Council) are not binding. Without binding agreements, nation states (especially when the wind of national politics changes) often do not implement even little that is agreed.

Therefore, to be effective, global institutions have to be able to:

  1. Help balance global priorities with national priorities
  2. Provide the effective mechanisms of cooperation that would undermine calls for the domination of one or a few nation states.
  3. Provide an equitable way of making decisions and agreements.
  4. Provide mechanisms for enforcing decisions, agreements and commitments.

Underfunded, and with very little real power, the UN today is a long way from meeting these criteria. There are many structural reasons why the UN has found itself in this sorry state (such as a lack of sufficient transparency and democratic accountability, embedded double standards, and inadequate decision-making procedures), but they are no more than spokes of the wheel. At the hub is the fact that the UN is structured solely around nation states. It is a major issue because, irrespective of whether or not a state is a democracy, national interests are prioritised over global ones. This is not surprising – after all, national governments are accountable to their citizens (or rulers), not to the wider world. One can argue that what is good for the world must ultimately be good for the individual countries in that world. However, in the short term, this may not always be self-evident, and nation states tend to focus on their immediate interests first. As many other issues stream from this, we consider it to be the central problem.

Just to make it clear, we do not suggest that the representation of nation states at the UN is not important or that it should be abolished – only that it is not by itself sufficient. So, as in the case of national governance, we propose a tripartite model here too. This model has some similarities with the one described in the previous chapter, but there are also some substantial variations. They reflect innate differences between the nation state and the world as a whole. Here is an example: we know that the competition between states encourages cooperation within those competing states – this is not applicable to the world as there are no other worlds that we know of to compete with. Bearing this in mind, let’s see what our proposed structure would look like.

[1] See, for example, Temin, P. & Vines, D. (2013). The Leaderless Economy. Oxford, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

The Structure Of The Model

There are two interrelated challenges in this case: a model of global governance needs to be a) fit for purpose and b) workable. Some idealism is needed for the former and a lot of realism for the latter, as any model of this kind would need to be acceptable to many players.

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The Council Of Global Affairs

Well-functioning global governance would benefit from a relatively small group of distinguished individuals who would be tasked to focus on the big picture. For a global society to survive and thrive, it is necessary to clarify what surviving and thriving entails on that scale and how to go about it.

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The House Of Representatives

Together with the Council, the House of Representatives could contribute to a better balance between national and global interests. Delegates sent by states to the present General Assembly, with the role of merely relaying messages from their national governments, represent people only indirectly – in many cases, very indirectly.

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The House Of States

The states are one of the fundamental political entities and it makes sense that they are represented in any global governing body. So, we propose to retain the UN General Assembly but in a somewhat modified form (hence the change of name to the House of States).

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The Secretariat

Beside the three main components outlined above, this system of global governance would also include the Secretariat, although its role would be somewhat different to that of the UN’s equivalent.

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The People

Another crucial player in global governance needs to be considered – the people themselves. The public would be indispensable for informing the chambers about the situation on the ground, making suggestions and proposals about global challenges, and supporting, as well as challenging if necessary, the upholding of common goals, values and principles.

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Some Specific Operational Issues

The mandate and regulations of the global governance structure should be delineated in the Constitution’s preamble and its chapters. In a nutshell, the mandate would be not to interfere with the internal affairs of sovereign states and ordinary people, but to deal with global issues or serious violations of commonly agreed core values and principles.

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There is little doubt that we badly need a functional international body that can help us deal with growing global issues. The reality, though, is that much resistance on all fronts will need to be overcome to achieve this, so we must consider how we can facilitate the process of getting all players on board for such reform.

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