Introduction: Drivers and Change in Global Governance

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The purpose of this roundtable is to add momentum to our own long-standing analytical efforts to push outward the boundaries of what we understand as “global governance”—something that every contributor to this issue has struggled to accomplish in her or his own scholarship and teaching. Specifically, our analytical quest here is to advance the concept of governance from a simple association with international organization and law, multilateralism, and what states do in concert to one that looks at the kinds of world order in which their interactions take place, while also paying attention to a host of other actors, principles, norms, networks, and mechanisms. In brief, we aim to enhance our understanding of global complexity and the way that it is governed. We take seriously the idea that global governance actors are not merely involved in the creation and preservation of the status quo but are also agents of change.

The contemporary study of “global governance” sprouted and took root among academics and policy wonks in the 1990s, coinciding with the end of the cold war. This newfound attention reflected growing global interdependence and rapid technological advances as well as the sheer expansion in numbers and importance of civil society organizations and for-profit corporations during this time. The term came to refer to collective efforts to identify, understand, or address worldwide problems and processes that went beyond the capacities of individual states. It reflected a capacity of the international system to provide government-like services in the absence of world government. The concept of global governance encompassed a wide variety of cooperative problem-solving arrangements that were visible but informal (for example, practices or guidelines) or were temporary formations (such as coalitions of the willing). Such arrangements could also be more formal, taking the shape of hard rules (laws and treaties). They also included institutions with administrative structures and established practices that managed collective affairs by a variety of actors—including state authorities, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, private sector entities, and other civil society actors.

We must change the way we govern the planet. With refugees and internally displaced persons fleeing in record numbers, the climate changing at alarming rates, weapons of mass destruction circulating, pandemics lurking, and terrorism thriving, the contributors to these pages, like the readers of Ethics & International Affairs, need no persuading on this point. Transformation is a necessity, not an option, and thus analysts need not be shy about the use of “ought.” It is imperative to frame more specifically “the world we want” (to use the catchphrase of the Sustainable Development Goals, which were agreed by the UN General Assembly in September 2015) and to find paths toward this world. An initial step on that journey is to better understand the dynamics of continuity and change.

At the same time, it is crucial not to overlook previous steps, small and not so small, toward a more desirable world order. We are not starting from scratch. Indeed, many times it was not so much the world that changed but that observers noticed something that had long been there or “rediscovered” something that was hardly new at all. Of course, change has taken place. Hence, we should not underestimate the extent to which order, stability, and predictability exist despite the lack of a central authority to address the planet’s problems. On any given day in virtually every corner of the world, exchanges take place smoothly, with neither notice nor comment. Mail is delivered among 200 countries. Travelers arrive at airports, harbors, train stations, and by road—many of them crossing borders with barely a notice. Goods and services move by land, air, sea, and cyberspace. A range of transboundary activities occur with the expectation of safety and security. In fact, disruptions and failures are often less frequent and spectacular in the international arena than within such countries as Afghanistan, Syria, Zimbabwe, and others that supposedly have functioning governments.

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Category: Issue 29.4, Roundtable: Change and Continuity in Global Governance

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