A Theory of Global Governance: Authority, Legitimacy, and Contestation, by Michael Zürn

| June 2019
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Cover of A Theory of Global Governance Authority Legitimacy ContestationA Theory of Global Governance: Authority, Legitimacy, and Contestation, Michael Zürn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 336 pp., $94 cloth, $26.95 paper, $25.99 eBook

Michael Zürn has produced one of the most important books on global politics since James Rosenau first introduced the idea of global governance as a competitor paradigm within international relations (IR) in the early 1990s. Whereas Rosenau sought to inspire a prison break from the narrow prescriptive scope of much theorizing in IR at that time, Zürn’s ambition is to demonstrate that a global-politics paradigm is now increasingly well established and, indeed, promises to eclipse the narrow war-and-peace or cooperation-under-anarchy paradigms that have dominated the discipline for the past fifty years. This reflects the conviction of a leading scholar who has spent the past twenty-five years at the cutting edge of normative and empirical international regime analysis, observing both the zenith of post–Cold War multilateralism and its recent nadir. Zürn also mounts a spirited defense of the analytical value of global governance against its critics, offering an original conceptualization as well as affirming its normative and empirical value in extending our gaze beyond the confines of the anarchical international system.

The book is ambitious, as it aims first to orient a new generation of global politics scholarship, underscoring the contribution of cross-disciplinary convergence across law, politics, and sociology to the new paradigm. In particular, it sheds new light on the endogenous causes of conflicts and struggles as functions of the global system itself, as opposed to “seeing global politics as an epiphenomenon of struggles between independent units” (p. 263). With an eye to the future trajectory of this research field, Zürn also cautions against the proliferation of concepts developed thus far in the global politics paradigm, such as contested multilateralism, joining other authors in proposing to “move hierarchy to the core of theorizing and analyzing the global system” (p. 265). A key task for the pioneers of this new global politics paradigm will be to balance the need for conceptual convergence within the paradigm (while also maintaining a plural intellectual ecosystem capable of deliberately traversing disciplines) with a willingness to define and explore substantive global politics problems in original, creative ways.

To his credit, Zürn does not shy away from this challenge, offering an exemplary blueprint for how such careful theoretical and empirical synthesis may be achieved. In laying out his own theory of global governance, he draws upon political, sociological, and legal theory to “reconstruct global governance as a political system founded on normative principles and reflexive authorities in order to identify the legitimation problems built into it” (p. 248). This is crucial, he argues, because “the rise of transnational and international authority has changed world politics in empirical terms—it has brought the issue of legitimacy and normativity to the fore” (p. 62).

The argument is laid out in two parts. In the first part of the book Zürn develops an original conceptualization of the global governance system, while in the second part he drills down upon six hypotheses and causal mechanisms connected with its dynamics. In explaining the rise of societal contestation against the global governance system, Zürn emphasizes legitimation problems inherent in the system itself, the internal dynamics that produce such disagreement, and—perhaps most consequentially—the conditions under which struggle may lead to either “the decline or deepening of global governance” (p. 101).

Zürn’s argument in this regard marshals theory and an impressive array of empirical evidence from across global policy domains. He identifies two systemic legitimation problems: the lack of a meta-authority to handle interface conflicts between different spheres of authority (for example, between trade and health regimes), resulting in technocratic bias; and a weakly established separation of powers, introducing hierarchy and institutionalized inequality. This power bias, coupled with the technocratic bias, produces severe legitimation problems.

Chapters 6 and 7 of the book engage in a methodologically rigorous empirical examination of two delegitimation practices triggered by the rise of international authority: societal politicization (“public resistance to international institutions and their more intensive utilization” by nonstate groups [p. 137]) and counter-institutionalization (“practices through which international institutions are weakened or challenged via the use of other international institutions” [p. 172]). The findings persuasively corroborate the hypothesis that the decline or deepening of global governance largely hinges on whether “authority holders” (secretariats of key international organizations and executive representatives of powerful nation-states) respond to delegitimation efforts with substantial reform or merely symbolic gestures, in which case deadlock can be expected.

Unfortunately, the evidence that there will be a deepening is not entirely reassuring. Chapter 8 does empirically demonstrate the possibility of substantial reform in the face of societal pressure, in the context of the human rights responsibilities of international organizations. I suspect, however, that some readers—after learning that merely adopting formal institutional provisions, as opposed to their actual implementation, constitutes substantial reform—would conclude that global governance has failed to deepen in recent years.

More broadly, while Zürn’s analysis may support his proposed mechanisms for alleviating the deficits of the global governance system, some will doubtless dispute that international institutions constitute the principal target or site of system contestation. In particular, the power of market actors, both embedded within and external to multilateral structures, would benefit from more critical scrutiny. In a highly instructive concluding section on future research, Zürn himself acknowledges that the analysis has focused more on international than transnational authority. Indeed, the book is replete with suggestions for further avenues of inquiry, and will undoubtedly provoke useful discussion among global politics and international law scholars.

For many scholars and practitioners this monograph may be their first introduction to the field of global politics, and it provides a challenging thought exercise for newcomers. However, the book’s argument rewards careful consideration. It aims to “demolish the seemingly unbreakable elective affinity between institutionalism and a cooperative reading of world politics,” and to support the foundational claim that global governance “contains hierarchies and power inequalities and thus endogenously produces contestation” (p. 3). In so doing, Zürn also seeks to transcend intradisciplinary silos between so-called liberal-functionalist scholarship and normative as well as critical scholarship. Combining the pragmatic, problem-focused empiricism of the former with the sustained focus on normativity, power, and contestation of the latter is vital. But it is also fraught with challenges. As Zürn notes, “A political theory of globality . . . requires interplay between the empirical and normative perspectives, which, however, can never quite merge” (p. 246). Nevertheless, the book evidences the creative tension produced by such interplay, particularly in its intriguing penultimate chapter interrogating the future prospects for realistic models of global governance.

Zürn has done a major service to the field of global governance, setting out a rigorous research agenda for an emergent new global politics paradigm, one that utilizes both positive and normative theory to guide political modelling and empirical inquiry. It also provides encouragement to all who advocate for an interdisciplinary approach to global politics scholarship, and will serve as a resource for a wide range of readers, including scholars, practitioners, and policymakers.

—Tom Pegram

 Tom Pegram is associate professor of global governance in the Department of Political Science and deputy director of the Global Governance Institute, University College London.

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Category: Book Review, Global Governance, Issue 33.2

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