Over the last three decades, a diverse collection of actors—private corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and subnational (state, provincial, and urban) governments—has developed and promoted a global agenda of collective action. From advancing human rights to combating climate change, these actors have become new governors in world politics. More recently, a second movement—a loose array of populist and nationalist groups and governments—has questioned the forward momentum of institutionalized global cooperation. Brexit, followed by the Donald J. Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement on climate change, as well as proposed cuts in U.S. contributions to the United Nations and development assistance, suggest a weakening—if not undermining—of the network of treaties, institutions, and relationships constructed over the last seventy years.
Each of these movements aims to transform a global order based on intergovernmental agreements and institutions. The first movement has already done so by increasing participation in global governance of new actors who are pursuing cooperative outcomes in collaboration with and independently of national governments and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). Their involvement both complements and complicates the traditional international order. The second movement, in contrast, asserts national interest and sovereignty against the constraints of global governance. Although the conflict between these two movements remains unresolved, they will likely shape the future global order.
The Emerging Landscape of Global Governance
Across the four issue areas of peace-building, human rights, the cyber domain, and climate change, one innovation in global governance has been the emergence of less formal, creative multilateral organizations in response to the existing slow-moving, formal intergovernmental mechanisms. These institutionalized coalitions of the willing have proved to be useful instruments for collective action. Multistakeholder initiatives, which have proliferated in recent years, constitute a more radical departure from conventional global governance. Their missions are often focused on improving corporate conduct, as exemplified by the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA), which governs private security providers. Particularly in the environmental and climate space, similar innovative institutions set standards for corporations and subnational governments. Although some observers view this new landscape as one of fragmentation and lacking in common purpose, others tend to agree that it is a “glorious profusion of state, nonstate, and hybrid entities.”
Global Governance Innovations
Greater resilience to nationalist rollback is most likely in arenas of global governance where national governments are less dominant. Some of the disruptors to global governance that led to innovation also promise resilience to national policy change. Where national governments have been less central from the beginning or have been slow to act, more space has opened for local governments, private firms, and NGOs to devise new modes of governance. Governance of the internet, with its long-standing multistakeholder models, and the diverse ecology of climate governance are prime examples.
Peace-building and human rights are much more susceptible to governance stagnation in the face of recent changes, since national governments remain central to both. An inward turn by the industrialized states could produce a setback in peace-building efforts at a time of major crises in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen and long-standing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. Reduced effort on the part of influential national governments might produce space for innovations that could eventually lead to greater effectiveness.
Retrenchment by powerful democracies will affect support for civil and political rights in particular. Governments play an essential role in enforcing human rights standards, a role that nonstate actors cannot replace. In this issue area, unlike climate or trade, emerging powers, such as China, will not provide new leadership; in some cases, they will likely support inaction under the guise of noninterference in domestic affairs.
Increased concern over cybersecurity has contributed to renewed efforts by national governments to reassert control over internet governance. However, the inherent transborder nature of the internet, the fact that digitization has such widespread effects, and the degree to which the private sector is deeply entrenched in digital governance have shaped governance in the digital domain for some time. These very features could also promise future resilience.
Reimagining Global Governance
To provide insurance and amplify resilience in the face of political uncertainty, more innovation in global governance will be required. Even in issue areas such as human rights that have depended on the support of national governments, innovation can provide additional support in specific sectors. To carry out nuanced interventions in dynamic conflict-affected contexts, global bureaucracies need to become more nimble and creative at the local level. Innovation might also solicit additional sources of support. The private sector—whether security companies or local businesses—can behave in ways that exacerbate or ameliorate violence. NGOs, particularly those well integrated into the local setting, could nudge host governments as well as other armed actors toward better behavior.
Innovations in climate governance could provide models for other issue areas. Orchestration by the United Nations, important in forging the Paris Agreement, might also serve to enable peace-building innovations. A transfer of the multistakeholder models of ICoCA, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or the Climate Action Network, which coordinates NGOs in order to influence other actors, would be a more ambitious undertaking.
Innovations have grown in prominence, particularly when dealing with issues that have recently emerged on the global agenda. Pessimists might describe this as a consequence of the traditional global order’s impending collapse in the face of political opposition, with plucky but ultimately impotent initiatives appearing in the cracks of an otherwise crumbling facade. However, innovation has the potential to be more constructive and influential.
Sympathetic observers are divided. Some see these new actors and institutions as adding to the resilience of global governance. Nevertheless, they remain dependent on IGOs and national governments for their effectiveness. The multistakeholder concert can benefit greatly from an IGO conductor, such as the United Nations, in arriving at the right tune. Others believe these innovations could lay the foundation for a new architecture of global governance. It is too early to evaluate these divergent assessments. For now, it would perhaps be best to regard these innovations in global governance as new structures that can both prevent collapse and facilitate renovation.