The Debate

Book Review: Why Govern? Rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance

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The Debate

Book Review: Why Govern? Rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance

The transition to multipolarity may be destabilizing, but the new order is undoubtedly a more democratic one.

Book Review: Why Govern? Rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance
Credit: Flickr/ MEAIndia

The need for global governance has never been greater, but the system of international cooperation built after World War II around the UN is facing unprecedented challenges. Not only have these challenges become more complex, but the number of actors seeking to shape the global rules and norms is greater than ever before (creating the so-called Legitimacy-Efficacy Dilemma).

Yet as Amitav Acharya points out in a new edited volume on the subject, Why Govern? Rethinking Demand and Progress in Global Governance, published by Cambridge University Press, the emphasis on “who governs” obscures the question of “why govern.” With that question in mind, the book covers a broad range of issue areas, from human rights and refugees to health and cyberspace. He articulates a useful framework, assessing strategic, functional and normative determinants of global governance, as well as domestic politics and regional dynamics, thus providing space for different theoretical approaches.

The analyses differ somewhat in their degree of technicality; while Alexander Betts’ analysis of refugees is very accessible, Sikina Jinna’s chapter on climate change requires some previous knowledge on the subject. In their entirety, however, they succeed in approaching a much-discussed topic from a new angle which has been missing from the debate so far.

The timing of such a contribution could hardly be better. With the United States more skeptical than ever vis-à-vis the provision of global public goods, the future of global governance is highly uncertain. Even though the book was written prior to the election of Donald Trump, the analysis provides several key insights: Will the rise of populism and nationalism in the West symbolize the end of global governance as we know it? Or can emerging powers, several of them illiberal at home, maintain the order and provide goods?

The chapter by Miles Kahler suggests that not all is lost. Indeed, he rightly points out that rising powers are hardly the “rising spoilers” they have been often called in the past. Indeed, he describes them not as deviants, but representing varieties of liberalism. There is plenty of evidence of that: Over the past two decades, Brazil repeatedly helped defend democracy in its neighborhood (even though it currently failed to positively influence the crisis in Venezuela). China provides more peacekeeping troops than the rest of the UN Security Council’s P5 combined, and India is among the world’s most generous contributor. The vacuum left behind by the United States could also be partially filled by more efficient, legitimate and durable regional mechanisms. The recent crisis in Gambia provided a powerful example, when ECOWAS pressured defeated President Yahya Jammeh to hand over power to the winner of a presidential election. Even though there is plenty to criticize about China’s trade policy, at least symbolically Xi Jinping saved the day in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election victory and energetically defended globalization.

Edited volumes are often unwieldy and lack connectivity between different chapters, but the case of Why Govern? shows how multiple authors can help provide space for differing opinions and thus create, in their entirety, an excellent debate. In chapter 4, Rodney Bruce Hall disagrees with Miles Kahler, arguing that the normative structures of global governance are not invariably liberal, and that rising powers may not necessarily support the liberal order if that is not in their interest. It is up to the reader to decide which argument is more convincing. While Bruce Hall is right to argue that China can hardly connect its ‘national narrative’ to the promotion of liberal values, providing global public goods is very much aligned with the way China sees and wants to project itself in global affairs — as a promoter of peace and stability, placed at the very center of the international system. Indeed, one of Beijing’s key strategies to reduce US influence in Asia will be to provide more regional public goods.

He is also right that slower economic growth in China and India could reduce their government’s willingness to take the lead — this has become painfully evident in the case of Brazil, which today no longer plays the role it played under both Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula. That, however, is also true for both Europe and the United States, whose international activism partly depends on their economic well-being.

To some extent, Sikkink’s chapter on human rights can be read as supportive of Miles Kahler’s more optimistic view. Stressing that the origins of the regime are far more purely Western, she explains how Latin American nations made key contributions as rule makers in the earlier stages of the creation of global human rights norms (the same is true vis-à-vis international law). That shows that countries outside of North America and Western Europe do not regard such issues as foreign, and expectations that they will seize on the US retreat to impose other standards is likely to be misguided. This also happens in the realm of R2P (analyzed by Ramesh Thakur in Chapter 7), a norm that was heavily influenced by norm entrepreneurs from the Global South.

Acharya’s conclusion strikes an optimistic tone, even though he cautions that linear progress cannot be taken for granted. As structures will at times take time to adapt to shifts of power and changes of the normative, functional and strategic context, setbacks will be unavoidable. As he summarizes, “demand may be strengthening in climate change, human rights, global security governance and atrocities, but weakening in health and trade, and remains static or uncertain in other areas such as finance, refugees and health. In trade, finance, refugees and health, there is clear evidence that the demand for global governance is crisis-driven.” (p.275). He also points to the rise of non-state actors, some of which are now more important than states — the most important example being the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which spent about U$ 11 billion on global health from 1999 to 2010. Interestingly enough, none of these non-state actors will come from China, and Beijing may not be keen on systematically engaging with them once as it becomes an ever more central actor in governance regimes.

While the transition to genuine multipolarity — not only economically, but also militarily and regarding agenda-setting capacity — will be disconcerting to many, it is, in the end, far more democratic than any previous order in global history. In the coming decades, greater levels of genuine dialogue, spread of knowledge and ways to find more innovative and effective ways to address global challenges may be expected. Getting to such a scenario, admittedly, will be a major challenge.