Global Governance Institute


Towards a Third Generation of Global Governance Scholarship

21 May 2018

Leading scholars discuss current challenges and promising future lines of inquiry in global governance at an International Studies Association (ISA) roundtable.

Global Governance Third Generation

Global governance is not working. The rapid development of economic globalisation and deepening interdependence of cross-border activity belie the relative absence of governance mechanisms capable of effectively tackling global public policy issues. From financial regulation, to non-communicable diseases, bio-pathogen containment, and, of course, climate change mitigation, global governance is failing to find solutions. It is imperative that we make progress in understanding blockage and ways through. Martin Rees (2014) has argued that existential risks make it unlikely that humanity will reach the end of this century without major changes. But what is global governance? How might it be harnessed to ensure human society meets the challenges of a rapidly globalising reality? 

A first generation of global governance research, principally in international relations (IR), has focused almost exclusively on formal mechanisms of interstate relations within public multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations and the World Bank. With these structures apparently in gridlock, many observers now regard global governance to be in crisis. However, a second generation of disparate scholarship spanning a range of subfields in political science and IR has begun to investigate new forms of public and private global governance as a response to the limitations faced by states in tackling pressing transboundary challenges.

The purpose of this International Studies Association (ISA) roundtable was to take stock of recent rapid developments in scholarship on what we understand as 'global governance', an undeniably important but still ill-defined field of analysis. It built upon a commentary published in Governance by David Coen and Tom Pegram (2015) and expanded upon in a special issue of the journal Global Policy (2018), calling for a 'third generation' of global governance research, one which advances convergence across a theoretically and empirically rich, but disparate, second generation of global politics and public policy scholarship. Many of the contributors to the special issue joined us for this ISA roundtable, alongside other world-leading researchers in the area of global governance.

Participants showcased their cutting-edge work, as well as reflected on the state of the art in global governance scholarship with a view to identifying promising future lines of inquiry. What resulted was a wide-ranging and highly illuminating set of reflections which we reproduce (in edited form) here. Cautioning against a retreat into rule formality or 'technical fixes', what are the prospects for global governance scholarship (and practice) to effectively respond to the realities of global power fragmentation, legitimacy deficits and populist contestation? The UCL Global Governance Institute will be focusing on this vital question in 2018-19.

Roundtable participants:

Chair: Miles Kahler (American University)

This ISA roundtable was organised by the UCL Global Governance Institute on 6 April 2018.

Please click on the names below to read individual contributions to the roundtable discussion. 

Michael Barnett

Michael Barnett ISA Roundtable

Michael N. Barnett reflected on the need for scholars to re-familiarise themselves with the history of global governance. The 1990s usually provide the baseline for discussions on global governance, as the concept and language of global governance entered scholarly and popular discourses only after the end of the Cold War. As a consequence, Barnett argued, the pre-1990s historical foundations of global governance are widely ignored, obscuring historical patterns of continuity and variation and the concept's indebtedness to previous theoretical discourses.

Barnett highlighted the value of bringing historical scholarship into global governance, including efforts to re-examine the post-WWI era and the role of the League of Nations. He argued that, although the League is widely seen as a failure, it provoked a lot of interesting experimentation and many of the creators of those experiments subsequently played an important part in shaping the post-WWII order.

Looking at the different 'waves' or 'generations' of global governance scholarship, Barnett stated that the basic problematique it seeks to address has not fundamentally changed over time: How can states overcome the problems of independent choice and cooperate to produce pareto-superior outcomes and global public goods? However, while the goal has essentially stayed the same, there have been important shifts in the underlying architecture, the actors involved and their configurations.

For the past several years, Barnett has been involved in a research project (in collaboration with Kal Raustiala and Jon Pevehouse) that seeks to better understand these shifts. Initially, the project sought to trace how the focus of global governance shifted from creating 'big global solutions' and major international organisations, back in the post-WWII era, towards a 'small ball' strategy: a much more cautious approach to global governance that pursues incremental, piecemeal change rather than a 'swing for the fences'.

However, digging deeper into particular issue areas and regimes, Barnett and his colleagues found that the underlying story was more complicated. Historically, in many issue areas, there were not just big hierarchical, top-down global governance architectures, but also parallel markets and networks organising global governance in a bottom-up fashion. In some cases, one form of governance was dominant over the other, but in many others, governance was more complex, layered and relational. This suggests, according to Barnett, that today's governance arrangements may not actually be that different from what existed 75 years ago, even if the relational dynamics have changed.

Going forward, Barnett suggested that an important research agenda for the third generation of global governance scholars could be to focus on the role of professionals, networks, and expertise. Much of the existing literature on epistemic communities in global governance is free floating and focuses on specific communities of experts while neglecting the various ways in which these experts are embedded within states and international organisations.

Barnett contended that global governance scholarship is right to focus on immediate real-world problems but this should not result in historical amnesia, distracting us from thinking about global governance in more sophisticated ways. After all, global governance did not begin with the invention of the term. In fact, Barnett argued, talking of global governance as a 'thing' may occlude the rich variations that are going on in terms of the way problems are being constructed and addressed.

In this context, Barnett also emphasised the importance of critical global governance scholarship. While critical scholars do not focus on immediate problem solving, they look at what problems come to the fore in the first place, how they are constituted, and how this affects which kind of actors can actually participate in global governance processes. As such, critical scholarship refocuses our attention on questions of power. Have any of the changes that are taking place in global governance actually altered patterns of exclusion and inclusion? Have we really seen a correction of the mechanisms that create winners and losers of global governance?

The answer to these questions, Barnett concluded, is probably no. While discourses have changed and more actors have gotten involved, the basic power configurations have remained much the same. Going forward, he argued, global governance scholarship needs to pay more attention to where power is, how it underpins governance, and how it has endured through the different generations of global governance.

For more, see Barnett, M. N., ed. (2016). Politics of Paternalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Virginia Haufler

Virginia Haufler - ISA Roundtable

Virginia Haufler offered a somewhat narrower account of global governance, focusing specifically on transnational business regulation from an international political economy (IPE) perspective. Such a perspective, she argued, draws attention to the interaction of markets with political authority and illuminates how many of the problems which animate global governance today stem from the nature and organisation of global production. 

Haufler began by reflecting on the emergence of the term 'global governance'. As a simple Google search reveals, the language of global governance came into common usage in the 1990s. Interestingly, the term 'international organisation,' which had animated much commentary after WWII, saw a slow decline in usage at around the same time. Thus, in some respects, Haufler said, global governance has really 'taken over the field', reflecting a shift in how we think about international cooperation. 

Global governance goes beyond the study of international organisations, with a lot of recent literature focusing on the authority, legitimacy and effectiveness of private governance. Increasingly, scholars are also theorising how global governance is disaggregated across different levels and functions, mapping the complex way in which state and non-state actors interact and create new institutions. Haufler suggested that global governance offers a larger and more coherent framework for studying these developments than previous attempts to simply 'add in' private sector actors to established IR theories. 

Haufler highlighted two important developments that shape the dynamics of transnational business regulation: First, the extreme levels of industry concentration in many economic sectors and, second, the way in which firms are embedded in increasingly extensive networks of suppliers, processes and distributors, creating what Mayer and Phillips (2017) refer to as a 'global value chain world'. 

The expansion of contractual relationships across borders has distanced production from consumption, making it more difficult to hold transnational corporations to account. Exploring the implications for efforts to regulate global business, Haufler argued, can provide a fruitful direction for theoretical development in global governance. While there is already an emerging literature in this area, Haufler called for a deeper and more theoretical exploration of how the structure, organisation, concentration of power and the contractual terms of global value chains affect the design and effectiveness of global governance. 

Looking at real-world examples of transnational business regulation, Haufler observed that three elements stand out: the governance of transnational corporations is (1) increasingly multistakeholder driven and (2) achieved through 'soft governance' techniques, such as transparency or reporting requirements, with (3) compliance monitored by third party auditors. 

Each of these elements, Haufler suggested, needs to be further explored and theorised. For example, third party auditors and professional consultants play an increasingly important role in the implementation of transnational business regulation, acting as 'transmission belts' for particular templates of how firms should respond to new demands. However, we do not yet have a good understanding of the emergence and the particular impact of these actors.

The impact of new technologies on transnational business regulation could be another area for future research. On the one hand, Haufler argued, new technologies, such as blockchain, could transform tracking systems established by governments and improve traceability within global supply chains. On the other hand, there is a growing concern over the omnipresence of computer algorithms which affect our lives on a daily basis in complicated, often obscure ways. 

Haufler also observed a 'return of the state' albeit in new forms: The United States, the European Union and other states, increasingly adopt legislation that requires firms to report about processes within their supply chains. However, it remains unclear whether this type of national legislation (e.g. the UK Modern Slavery Act) is more effective than efforts pursued by multistakeholder institutions or international organisations. 

In the context of rising anti-globalisation sentiments, Haufler also urged scholars to engage with a range of new questions. What would a less globalised, 'non-global value chain world' look like? If growing protectionism leads to a shortening of global supply chains, what would be the implications for global governance? While these questions are largely hypothetical, scholars cannot take continuity for granted. 

Finally, Haufler called upon scholars to pay more attention to how global governance is implemented, perceived, and adapted on the ground. Recent research has called into question whether local communities are in fact empowered by new global governance mechanisms such as multistakeholder fora. If people feel marginalised, we can expect resistance to global governance. Scholars therefore need to pay more attention to the role of identity and values, Haufler argued, with more work urgently needed to integrate gender perspectives and non-Western voices into global governance. 

Ann Florini

Ann Florini - ISA Roundtable

The protracted transboundary challenges the world is presently facing call for a profound systemic transformation rather than incremental change. However, current global governance solutions have not been able to foster such change, moving us further into what David W. Orr (2016) has termed the 'long emergency.' Given the urgent need to respond to pressing global problems such as climate change, Ann Florini welcomed the ongoing purposive turn in global governance research, calling upon a third generation of scholars to be more forward-looking and imaginative.

In recent years, Florini observed, 'multistakeholderism' has become a sort of mantra in global governance as it is increasingly clear that neither states, nor businesses, nor civil society networks by themselves will solve the world's big systemic problems. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for example, establish multi-stakeholder partnerships as the central mechanism to move towards a more sustainable future. However, Florini argued, so far, these initiatives have failed to deliver the transformative change required. 

According to Florini, one issue with multistakeholder initiatives is that they tend to be predicated on a specific Anglo-American understanding of the relationship between states, businesses and civil society. This understanding, she argued, is not embraced in other parts of the world. Asia, for example, has a very different political economy, with ownership of most enterprises being held by states or families, in contrast to the widely dispersed public ownership more typical of large companies in North America and the UK.  Strikingly, it is mostly publicly traded Western multinationals that have participated in multistakeholder initiatives. 

As Florini pointed out, this poses a significant puzzle for researchers: Why have Western publicly traded corporations that are very much driven by short term profit imperatives been most responsive to the push for a more socially responsible private sector? Why do we not see state owned enterprises or family conglomerates taking the lead, given that one could expect them to be more responsive to public needs and generational threats? 

A second problem with multistakeholderism is the lack of appropriate training for those running cross-sectoral dialogues. Florini, who piloted a new post-graduate curriculum on tri-sector collaboration at Singapore Management University, argued that we need to fundamentally transform the ways in which future professionals and entrepreneurs are educated, with a focus on promoting deep system thinking and cross-sectoral understanding. Currently, she said, public sector education barely mentions business, while business schools treat government as 'that nasty thing over there that regulates you'. 

The third concern Florini pointed to is an even more fundamental one. The idea that collaborative governance is the way forward to achieve systemic change is in itself problematic, she argued, because we have the wrong kind of private sector. This is because businesses in the West have adopted a single-minded focus on short-term profit maximisation, with business schools perpetuating the idea that the fiduciary responsibility of any corporation is, first and foremost, to maximise shareholder value. 

If you look at the legal basis for this claim, Florini contended, it simply does not hold.  However, the idea that corporations exist primarily to maximise shareholder value is deeply ingrained in business culture, resulting in a very narrow definition of what the role of the private sector should be in cross-sector collaborations. At the most senior level, Florini stated, business leaders know that the existential threats the world is facing are also bad for their businesses, and they want to participate in cross-sector collaborations that can help them maintain long-term profitability without causing social harm. However, at the operational level, the focus remains very much on short term profit maximisation. 

In response to this excessive focus on short-term profit maximisation, entrepreneurs and even some large firms are looking for ways to use the efficiency and financial sustainability of the for-profit model to achieve the public good. For example, a number of jurisdictions in the US and elsewhere have enacted policies that ensure legal status for 'for-benefit businesses.' The so-called 'Fourth Sector Movement' seeks to build a new ecosystem for the private sector which would allow a purpose-driven approach to business to take off at scale. And even in finance, there is now an ongoing conversation, led by places like the People's Bank of China, about how the sector as a whole can be transformed to harness its potential to drive forward social purpose. 

But to drive forward such mission-driven social enterprise, Florini argued, we also need to fundamentally change the way business is regulated and taxed. Thus, an important question for global governance scholars is to consider how we can restructure the incentives facing the private sector. This should include overhauling existing metrics and accountability systems to prevent 'cherry-picking' social goals and allow for a better assessment of how well business are doing on initiatives such as the SDGs.  

In short, Florini concluded, researchers and educators need to fundamentally rethink the roles of the private and public sectors in global governance with a view to identifying the underlying levers which could help tip us into more systemic transformations. 

Beverley Loke

Beverley Loke - ISA Roundtable

Beverley Loke reflected on what the rise of China and other emerging powers means for the study of global governance. She argued that the ongoing reconfigurations of global power are fundamentally changing what constitutes 'the global,' something that has traditionally been defined by a select few. This raises a number of urgent questions about ordering, legitimacy, authority and power.

When global governance scholars first began to consider the role of the emerging powers, much of the discourse focused on whether these states would be 'status quo' or 'revisionist powers', either supporting or challenging the existing liberal order. As Loke argued, the discussion primarily revolved around normative projections of responsibility and socialisation, based on the assumption that the West needed to socialise these states into more responsible patterns of behaviour. This was reflected, for example, in then-US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's 2005 'responsible stakeholder' concept, which was initially projected against China and subsequently expanded to bring in the other emerging powers.

However, Loke said, it has now become clear that this model of socialisation is fundamentally flawed as it assumes a linear, one-directional socialisation process, denies agency to the emerging powers, and ignores their normative preferences. More recent work has therefore sought to focus on reciprocal, two-way socialisation processes, ascribing far more agency to the emerging powers and paying more attention to the various ways in which they can thwart, resist and reshape aspects of the evolving global order.

A similar analytical shift, Loke observed, has been underway in the literature on responsibility, with an increasingly critical awareness that ascribing responsibility is fundamentally a political act, embedded in the role and function of power. This has brought to the forefront the question which actors have the legitimacy and authority to define what constitutes appropriate behaviour. China, for example, initially engaged with the 'responsible stakeholder' concept in a pragmatic but cautious way, attempting to balance these international projections of responsibility with its own domestic responsibilities. Over the years, however, it became more confident, seeking more ownership over global governance structures and defining its own responsibilities.

Global governance scholars have also moved beyond the binary 'status quo vs. revisionism' debate and towards a more sophisticated understanding of the different ways in which the emerging powers are defending certain aspects of the existing order while contesting, renegotiating or resisting others. This layered, hybrid and contested space, Loke contended, is now central to the way in which scholars think about the shifting contours of global governance.

Building on these observations, Loke raised three avenues for further investigation.

First, she called upon a 'third generation' of global governance scholars to consider in more depth the politics of responsibility within a much more fluid and complex international society. Are we seeing different claims and projections of responsibility? In what ways have the emerging powers sought to reframe notions of responsibility and how is this being coordinated? What does the concept of 'mutually defined responsibilities' actually mean in institutional and normative terms?

Second, Loke urged scholars to offer more clarity on contestation in global governance. For example, China has sought representation and reform within existing international organisations while also engaging in 'counter-institutionalisation' in certain issue areas. This dual track strategy of engaging with and contesting the existing international order highlights the need to better understand what the rising powers are actually contesting: Is it essentially about ensuring more representation and institutional voice or is it a much more fundamental normative contestation about the actual content of the rules? To what extent are we seeing a new politics of inclusion and exclusion and a redrawing of global power constellations? Are the emerging powers resisting a liberal global order or simply one that is Western-led? As Loke suggested, the new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) may present an interesting case study as it still embodies a liberal framework on many accounts.

Finally, Loke highlighted the need to pay more attention to normative divergence and value pluralism. For example, looking at China and the US, there are avenues for cooperation based on what Barry Buzan (2018) has referred to as 'shared fate problems' but we also see significant value pluralism and normative divergence. Thinking about how this affects the prospects of cooperation and order building, Loke argued, poses important questions for global governance research going forward.

Michael Zürn

Michael Zurn -ISA Roundtable

Has the basic problematique global governance seeks to address fundamentally stayed the same since the emergence of the concept in the 1990s? Michael Zürn argued otherwise, stating that it can no longer be viewed as a neutral, consensual problem solving device. Global governance is increasingly challenged and contested by emerging powers as well as significant groups within the West. The situation is clearly different from the 1990s, Zürn contended, with global governance facing a 'double problematique': On the one hand, we urgently need collaborative solutions to pressing global problems, on the other, there is growing political resistance to doing exactly that. Consequently, the 'third generation' of global governance scholars faces a double challenge: providing solutions to global challenges and overcoming resistance to the way these solutions are devised and implemented.

Zürn highlighted three possible implications of this new problematique.

First, he suggested, we need to stop thinking about global governance in terms of consensual problem solving within more or less independent issue areas. Global governance can better be understood as a global political system, consisting of various layers, some of which exercise authority and some sort of domination. This re-conceptualisation will also help moving research beyond the focus on specific issue area, compelling us to ask instead: How do institutional arrangements in different issue areas interact, collide or reinforce each other?

While some of these issues are already being taken up by the emerging global governance literature on regime complexity, orchestration, and fragmentation, Zürn argued, that these theories still have a strong problem solving focus and continue to think primarily within issue area boundaries. He also questioned the very notion of fragmentation, which assumes that there is something unified which subsequently falls apart. Global governance, he said, was never really unified, rather it encompasses the complex interactions between different institutions. It is also not falling apart as we still witness the emergence of new global governance arrangements, with institutional density growing further, even if not to the same extent as before. Going forward, Zürn argued, we need to better understand how specific global governance institutions interact with one another but also with other actors, including states and private actors.

Second, Zürn contended that, when studying global governance as a global political system, we also need to take into account hierarchy, authority, domination, and how the stratification between different states and actors affects distributional patterns, creating both winners and losers. Global governance is urgently needed, however, beyond this normative focus on problem solving, a political system always includes, to some extent, forms of domination and mechanisms to empower some actors over others. Taking up this more political perspective, Zürn suggested, also opens up scope for the sort of historical comparative analysis Michael Barnett has called for.

Third, Zürn argued that we need to have a better understanding of why we see this level of politicisation and resistance to global governance. Importantly, resistance is not just coming from the Global South and emerging powers. Donald Trump's 'America First' agenda is a clear statement against global governance and a similar rhetoric has also been embraced by a number of populist right wing movements in Europe. Understanding the origins and the normativity of these resistance movements is absolutely essential, Zürn argued, and it must involve asking questions about legitimacy. After all, the contestation of global governance stems to some extent from the perception that a global cosmopolitan elite is able to use international institutions to dominate and exclude certain people while including others.

Zürn stated that a 'third generation' of global governance scholarship needs to focus on questions of authority and domination, studying both failures to legitimise international institutions and successful attempts at re-legitimisation. Scholars can no longer treat global governance institutions as inherently 'good', more or less apolitical institutions, but they must take seriously the fact that these institutions are being used to achieve certain goals which serve the interests of some actors, but not necessarily others. Global governance, he concluded, exists to 'provide global solutions to global problems' but to make it work we first need to understand its underlying politics.

For more, see: Zürn, M. (2018). A Theory of Global Governance: Authority, Legitimacy and Contestation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.