The Limits of Global Governance: Transnational Neopluralism in a Complex World

Philip G. Cerny

Governance as a Contested Concept

The concept of global governance is becoming increasingly contested as the twenty-first century proceeds. Indeed, in a recent issue of Governance, David Coen and Tom Pegram argue that ‘Global governance is not working’. They identify a ‘first generation’ of global governance research that ‘focused almost exclusively on formal mechanisms of interstate relations within public multilateral institutions. ... With these structures apparently in gridlock, observers now regard global governance to be in crisis’ p. 417 (Coen and Pegram 2015). Similar arguments have also been made in a forthcoming symposium in Public Administration entitled Global Public Policy and Transnational Administration, edited by Diane Stone and Stella Ladi (see Stone and Ladi 2015). At the same time, the word itself is characterized by a particular ambiguity that has run through the political and social sciences generally since their early development. The very concept of ‘governance’ as it was previously used in political theory connoted not institutionalized structures nor more formal political processes, but

P.G. Cerny (H)

University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017 31

R. Marchetti (ed.), Partnerships in International Policy-Making, International Series on Public Policy,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-94938-0_2

informal practices, indirect forms of social control, and loose and fungible structures of power such as the ‘self-organizing networks’ analysed by policy network theorists, economic sociologists, marketing specialists, and many political economists.

For example, Randall Stone’s book Controlling Institutions frames global governance as a set of complex, problematic institutions represented by international—or, more properly, intergovernmental or interstate—organizations (Stone 2011). He argues that they are characterized by a trade-off between more formalized and legalized decision-making processes, on the one hand, and an accepted safety valve for the most structurally powerful states to manipulate outcomes in favor of their own perceived—especially their most ‘intense’—interests, policies, alliances and other special relationships, on the other. In this context, more powerful states, reluctant to give up their positions when they see their own interest at stake, are happy to allow these formal/legal processes to develop as long as they have a kind of safety valve or virtual opt-out when they decide they want or need it. But if other countries raise the barriers to US influence—especially if US structural power declines in a globalizing world—then the USA will pull back its commitment, leading to ‘institutional decline’. This reflects a fundamental problem with some main assumptions of International Relations theory—that is, that there is an underlying ‘levels of analysis distinction’ that makes world politics different from domestic politics (Hollis and Smith 1990).

But a familiarity with longstanding—mainly domestic—pressure and interest group theory, public policy analysis, bargaining approaches, pluralism, and neopluralism, corporatism and neocorporatism, elite theory, capture theory and the like might suggest that such a trade-off is not only a normal state of affairs but, even more so, a condition for political processes to work in the first place. However, this leads to the central conundrum of global governance today. To what extent are states themselves the Waltzian ‘unit actors’ the interaction of which determines outcomes (Waltz 1979)? Global governance institutions are not the kind of structurally differentiated, relatively autonomous, multifunctional institutions represented in political theory, at least, by modern states (Cerny 1990). Authors such as Stone underestimate the roles of private actors in shaping state actors’ conceptions of what is in the ‘national interest’ of states and what states’ policy priorities might be. Moreover, non-state actors—often in regular interaction with actors in a Slaughterian ‘disaggregated state’ (Slaughter 2004)— may be the true ‘independent variables’ in any analysis of how states and international organizations (IOs) really operate.

In a world without a structurally differentiated, relatively autonomous, multifunctional, overarching state-like governance structure, it is necessary to move beyond realism and consider global governance as a political process more like that of a pre-state world. Indeed, recent history suggests that the further development of an effective global governance structure is unlikely, even moving in the opposite direction. Biermann et al . (2009), for example, refer to the ‘fragmentation of global governance architectures’ as the dominant trend in the twenty-first century. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), as a result of its imposition of conditionality (often at the behest of the USA), especially in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, is today treated with caution in the developing world. As a result, the organization has turned back to Europe—its original remit in the 1940s—but has limited clout there, as shown recently by its less than successful attempt to introduce the option of debt relief into the 2015 Greek bailout crisis negotiations and the Syriza Government’s recent request to expel the IMF from the troika overseeing the Greek reform process. The World Trade Organization, although its Dispute Settlement Mechanism is still relatively efficient and respected, has found the Doha Round to be a non-starter and the proliferation of preferential trade agreements, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to myriad bilateral and minilateral pacts, to be the wave of the present, perhaps of the future. Indeed, the United States Trade Representative, Michael Froman, has recently stated the it is time to move ‘beyond Doha’, a statement which is said to signify the ‘merciful death’ of the Round (Financial Times, 21 December 2015). And the European Union is caught up in the Eurozone and migrant crises, along with the referendum on British membership, challenging the very cooperative core of the union itself. These developments are the result of the increasing governance quagmire brought about by globalization and the complex ramifications of the Washington Consensus/neoliberal approach to economic and financial policy as well as fragmented international security and increasing ‘imperial overstretch’ not just by the United States under the Obama Doctrine but also by so-called rising powers like China and status quo powers like Russia. In that endeavour, international organizations may be increasingly vulnerable to capture—and to trying to impose reverse capture on the private sector actors and national regulators they will increasingly be interacting with.

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