Global governance in a world of change: A must read for understanding ‘International Geneva’

Global governance in a world of change: A must read for understanding ‘International Geneva’

‘International Geneva’ remains an expression in search of a definition. Outside of Geneva, it has no real meaning. One of the merit of 'Global Governance in a World of Change' is to address these questions by providing a conceptual framework to better understand this unique ecosystem.

‘International Geneva’ remains an expression in search of a definition. At The G|O and elsewhere, we use the phrase as shorthand, almost a code word. Outside of Geneva, it has no real meaning. International Geneva talks a lot, in mostly self-serving ways, about what it does. But this very dense network says almost nothing about how and why it operates, what forces and influences shape its contours and its interactions. It is one of the chief merits and virtues of Global Governance in a World of Change, but by no means the only one, to address these questions and answer them, by providing a conceptual framework to better understand this unique ecosystem.

Global governance “came of age in the post-Second World era,” Barnett, Pevehouse, and Raustiala remind us in the introduction to their book. But if states and international organizations (IOs) continue to lead ambitious efforts to address global challenges through international cooperation, what is clear seventy-five years later, they write “is that global governance has become much more diverse and complex. States and IOs are still often the stars of the show, but they increasingly work with an ensemble cast, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), public–private partnerships, multi-stakeholder arrangements, transnational networks, private organizations, corporations, and foundations. A good example is the Global Alliance on Vaccines, known as Gavi. The primary partners include existing global institutions (World Health Organization, World Bank) as well as foundations (the Gates Foundation), private sector organizations (the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association), and governments.” The writers note that “Previous governance arrangements used to be formed by treaties and often overseen by secretariats in buildings. Now they can be quite informal and have the barest sort of physical presence.”

One of the most original contributions of Barnett et al’s opus is to introduce the notion of “modes of governance” in analyzing the evolving forms of global governance: “In order to better understand whether and how relations among the now myriad key actors have changed we use the lens of modes of governance. We focus our analysis on three ideal-typical modes drawn from economic and sociological institutionalism: hierarchy, network, and market. (...)Hierarchical modes are characterized by top-down, centralized, organizational forms that regulate relations between relatively dependent actors and enforce the rules through command and force. The traditional IO is a classic example of a hierarchical mode of global governance. Market modes are organized around non-hierarchical principles that regulate relatively independent actors, often associated with a ‘hidden hand’ or competition among independent actors. Whereas hierarchies are centralized, markets are decentralized. Network modes are characterized by relatively interdependent (and possibly formally) equal actors with a common purpose that voluntarily negotiate their rules through bargaining and persuasion and then maintain and enforce those rules through mechanisms of trust.”

Extremely useful and enlightening is the authors’ mapping of the underlying causes of these transformations of global governance: “We identify nine major drivers of change that are present to one degree or another, all of which reside at the structural level: (1) geopolitical change, such as the relative decline of US power and rise of China; (2) shifts in the global economy; the sheer ‘crowding’ in the global governance space, both in terms of (3) the number of actors and (4) the pluralization of actors; (5) the increasing complexity of global problems; (6) changes in ideology and trends in governance theory; (7) the global turn to expertise as a way to rationalize governance; (8) technological change; and (9) domestic political change, for example in the form of rising populism and nationalism.”

In the final analysis, the question is, of course, does it work? Are these changes proving effective in solving the world’s problems? The editors and contributors’ answers are, like their rich book, full of nuances. But as the world has become more complex, they admit that “these new governance mechanisms may also reflect and produce much less ambition and vision” than the ones they are replacing. “Global governance in the twenty-first century has become much less ambitious, characterized by provisional and improvisational action, piecemeal incrementalism, more modest goals, and experimentalism. Perhaps these more modest approaches will eventually provide the foundation for a more ambitious undertaking. Yet while these scaled-back ambitions might deliver more identifiable ‘successes,’ they might not sum to a solution.”

From tackling climate change to responding to the pandemic, it is, sadly, hard to disagree with their assessment.


Global Governance in a World of Change, edited by Michael N. Barnett, George Washington University, Washington DC, Jon C. W. Pevehouse, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Kal Raustiala, University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. Cambridge University Press, 381 pages, December 2021. You can download the book here.