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Who should govern the world?

Global Governance and its Contestations

By Daniel Warner - The Geneva Observer

April 21, 2021



The Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva was founded in 1927. The Global Studies Institute of the University of Geneva was founded in 2013. The difference between international and global in their titles represents marked changes in world politics between 1927 and 2013.

We are living in a double transitional period between the international and the global: international relations being relations between states, the global including more than states, such as the private sector and civil society. The decline of American post World War II domination and the rise of new powers such as China are major international changes. The growing importance of the private sector (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (GAFA)) and civil society (non-governmental organizations (NGOs)) are crucial global changes.

As a result of this double transition, questions of order and governance have become more and more acute. If there is to be some order in the world, if the interstate is being replaced by the global, where is the order to be found? Who is in charge to guarantee some world order if states are no longer the sole dominant powers?

Within the difference between international and global is the question of order and leadership. International order is dependent on the acceptance of interstate norms through treaties, multilateral agreements and multilateral institutions. Global order is more complex since it includes more than state structures such as the United Nations, the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

In many ways, GAFA companies have become more powerful than countries. And NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have become global players competing with or complementing international organizations such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.


For academics specializing in international relations, questions of order and its lack thereof—anarchy—are of particular interest. Most prominently, Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (1977, Macmillan, now in its fourth edition) is considered to be one of the major texts in the study of international relations (IR) as is Alexander Wendt’s “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of World Politics” (1992, International Organization). Bull and Wendt seek to describe order and leadership where anarchy appears to prevail.

A recent book by German scholar Michael Zürn, has had a large echo in academic circles. The author, Director of the Global Governance Unit of the Berlin Social Science Center and Professor of International Relations at the Free University of Berlin, audaciously proposes A Theory of Global Governance: Authority, Legitimacy, & Contestation (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Zürn begins from two assumptions very much felt in International Geneva. The first is the inability of international institutions to deal effectively with crises like migration, climate change, terrorism and nuclear brinksmanship. (The book appeared before the Covid-19 crisis.) The second is the rise of right-wing populist leaders like Donald Trump and Viktor Orban and the emergence of authoritarian leaders in Russia and Turkey, to name a few. (Implied in the case of Trump is the decline of American leadership in the multilateral system.) According to Zürn: “What these political leaders and movements have in common is that they all emphasize the need to control borders, are openly nationalistic, they emphasize the so-called will of the silent majority, and downgrade universal rights and obligations.”

The purpose of the book is not a utopian presentation of what ought to be. Rather, the author delves into the different layers of global governance in the hope of showing that what some people consider its weaknesses are really endemic problems in multilateralism. For him, contestation, hierarchies and power inequalities are all part of cosmopolitanism but not excuses for resistance to global governance.

In sum, the book’s aim is to expose both the strengths and weaknesses of global governance. As he succinctly states: “This book offers a theory of global governance that enables understanding of the complex parallelism of decline and deepening in global governance.” Instead of identifying a rigid organigram of governance reminiscent of the state system, Zürn presents layers within the global governance system which include societal actors, specific institutions—some outside the UN family—as well as international and global normative principles.

Any relationship between recognized authority structures and non-state actors must focus on the problem of legitimacy. Greta Thunberg, for example, has no official status, but she is an important voice in the climate change movement. She is a lone individual with no title who is still able to address the United Nations and the World Economic Forum. For Zürn, institutions which have prospered are those that have become more transparent when faced with contestation and have accepted individuals like Thunberg. Those in decline, on the contrary, are those mired in institutional deadlock.

His essay is divided into four parts. The first outlines how the current global governance system functions. The second empirical part traces the emergence and evolution of the system. The third and fourth parts, which we will examine in more detail, look at the contestation of global governance and its future.

In analyzing the change from the international to the global, Zürn uses a database to trace the authority of international organizations (IOs). Two critical junctures, he points out, are the final years of the Second World War and 1990. The “embedded liberalism” of the post war years saw the establishment of the UN, World Bank, IMF, NATO, etc. as well as accompanying international norms, all under the leadership of the United States.

But there was inevitably resistance and contestation to this system of “embedded liberalism.” Zürn points to the demands from the leaders of the newly independent countries of the South as exemplary of this contestation, culminating in the New International Economic Order in the 1970s. In addition, growing globalization led to demands for common international policies to deal with the economic and social consequences of increased transnational activities. As more and more national companies became multinationals, various human rights and environmental conventions came into force to try to correct the negative consequences of the growth of global markets.

And these multilateral conventions were often started by non-state actors. Zürn lists Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam and Human Rights Watch among others to show how “non-state actors were agenda setters and governments in a reactive position.”

The result, in his view, is the beginning of change from the international to the global in terms of authority and governance. He observes that “post-war multilateralism was strongly government-centered and hostile to the public. The rules of embedded liberalism were negotiated internationally and implemented nationally without comprehensive participation of the legislatures or the systemic involvement of national or transnational societal actors …With the development of new market-braking regimes, executive multilateralism had reached its limits.”

The change from the international to the global authority is clearly presented in his dataset, showing the evolution of political authority from the 1990s on. While there is an obvious rise in international authority—measured by agenda setting, enforcement, evaluation, knowledge generation, monitoring, norm interpretation, and rule-making—the number of IOs has remained stable.

Zürn’s conclusion is that the traditional state-centric basis of international order had been transformed into a layered system of global governance that now includes different elements of civil society. He refers to this as the “remarkable rise of politically assigned epistemic authorities (PAEAs) within IOs. NGOs and the private sector through public/private partnerships have played important roles in this development since the 1990s.

Thus, paradoxically, the rise of global governance institutions weakened the Westphalian order based on the primacy of the nation state that had been the basis of international order since the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. Zürn quotes international relations theoretician John Ikenberry on this profound shift: “The rise of American unipolarity and the erosion of the norms of state sovereignty … have eroded the foundations of the old order and thrown the basic terms of order and world politics into dispute.”

So, where is global authority today? Zürn perceptively observes that there is increased politicization around international institutions. This politicization consists of “demands for more international authority (re-legitimation) and challenges to existing authorities (delegitimation). Examples of this politicization—the deepening and the decline—would be that we want international institutions like the World Health Organization to do more during a pandemic, but we recoil when the International Court of Justice tries to impose jurisdiction over the actions of American soldiers overseas.

Zürn develops these double features of politicization in a case study of the European Union (EU). Why the EU? Because, Zürn argues, “no other institution beyond the nation state has so many mechanisms to overcome national vetoes and no other is so intrusive into national societies than the EU.” He tries to show that as the EU’s authority rose, politicization against that authority increased, especially during the financial and economic crisis between 2009 and 2011.

Beyond the EU, he looks at media reporting by three leading international business newspapers between 1992 and 2012 to show similar politicization in the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and World Bank. His argument, again, is that “the more authority an inter- or transnational institution exercises, the more politicization by non-state actors can be observed.”

International Geneva, the Rome of multilateralism, is the scene of many contestations against international institutions. Some come from calls against injustice, others come from new economic powers looking for a greater role in the global economy. The tension between established powers and rising powers is played out within international institutions. Zürn points to the UN Security Council and International Monetary Fund as examples of contestation because of institutional inequality.

How to react to this inequality? Zürn’s response is what he calls counter-institutionalization. “Counter-institutionalization refers to practices through which international institutions are weakened or challenged via the use of other international institutions with similar tasks.” States could either forum shop or create other regimes, coalitions and networks as the Chinese have done with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. In both situations, a rising power has changed the global system to one more favorable to its interests. Traditional powerful states, which he refers to as “incumbents,” also may react to this contestation by various means of trying to hold on to their power, as the United States did by blocking the nomination of judges to the Appellate Body of the WTO.

The challenge for the global system is how incumbent powers and institutions they have controlled react to the demand of emerging powers. Politically, Zürn is concerned with “to what extent the rising powers thrive at a better distribution of status in the decision-making process of … international institutions. It is the issue of whether the politics of a given IO allow for fair participation of all affected states and an even-handed implementation.”

In a very detailed manner, Zürn sets out to describe the counter-institutionalization of rising powers. His conclusion, different from many other theories, is that “rising powers ask for more than just routine changes within the given system, but they do not aim at overhauling the system—they do envisage a system change …The current crisis of the global governance system … is not an attempt to re-install a Westphalian system with unconditional sovereignty by rising powers.” (If correct, Zürn’s position will placate those who see China as either taking over the system or creating its own system.) However, contestation by rising powers can lead to gridlock and fragmentation as they try to change existing Western-based institutions: “They want to re-shape the global governance system … from the inside.”

On the other hand, counter-institutionalization by incumbent states can lead to regime shifting and competitive regime creation. Zürn uses the example of the World Health Organization to show how “major donor states such as the United States, and donor agencies such as the World Bank, increasingly turned to agencies outside of the WHO for implementing health assistance.” The reason for this, he writes, was “a direct consequence of the power mismatch inside the WHO, where key funders could control neither organizational policies nor the selection of organizational leaders.” The election of non-Western Director-Generals of the WHO drove donors to seek other venues they could control such as the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS(UNAIDS).

Some institutions do adapt via societal pressure. Mainstreaming human rights in the entire UN system, including peacekeeping, is one of Zürn’s examples as well as the European Union’s protection of subsistence rights in its sanctions policy. His conclusion is that “the delegitimation of existing international authorities by non-state actors leads to a deepening of the institution if there are strong coalition partners; the other is that the addressed institution can be attacked for being openly inconsistent.”

Looking to the future, Zürn asks “Which global order would be able to overcome the institutional deficits of the current global governance system?” And here the academic goes beyond his capacities of analysis. In describing a future architecture, he naively omits all the political problems to determine the architect. In the post WWII scenario, meetings in San Francisco and Bretton Woods established the embedded liberal order. The major, legitimate players were all there. They had the authority to work out the system.

In the global system, in 2021, there is no such agreement on legitimacy and order. Who is to be invited? Is being invited to Davos by the WEF the current legitimizing forum for establishing a global order? Where else can public and private leaders meet? How democratic and acceptable is that process? What kind of decisions can be arrived at?

The interplay between the empirical and normative show their weakness when Zürn tries to present a new paradigm for international relations in terms of a global politics paradigm. The conclusion of the book only suggests further research for academics, highlighting the value of the empirical analyses he develops but also the political limitations of his conclusions. Zürn is more concerned with order in international relations than he is with global politics.

Several years ago, I started a small project at the Graduate Institute I called the Program for the Study of International Organization(s), the PSIO. For more than ten years, it organized research, held seminars, published books and papers etc.

During decade long existence of the PSIO, not once did anyone ask me about the parenthesis in the title. There is a fundamental difference between the concept of organization and organizations. The former deals with order, the latter deals with formal institutions

Zürn’s book examines the very relationship between organization and organizations. Although overly academic and referenced, the book is an important study of the change from the international to the global with all its history, ramifications, and consequences.

Much is written about the rise of China and a future war between the United States and China for global domination. Zürn’s book is a helpful reminder that contestation within international organizations is an endemic part of their existence. Instead of only highlighting warships in the South China Sea, much of what goes on in Geneva and other centers of international organizations is the playing out of shifting power balances, all within evolving diplomatic parameters.

States will not wither away, as Marx predicted. But they are no longer the only major political actors in the world. An evolving combination of state power/authority with other forms of globalized authority are with us, and fascinating to observe, especially from an International Geneva perspective. The parenthesis in the PSIO’s organization(s) was not just a grammatical add-on.

Zürn’s book is an insightful academic analysis of the transition from the international to the global. But no academic can hope to predict how the system will evolve. It’s only through empirical observation in places like Geneva that the transition can be understood.