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Foreign Policy

Global Governance: Just a Buzzword?

Oct 21, 2020
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

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“Global governance” is a term used often in international relations to call attention to a critical means of addressing world crises.

In the decades since the 1990s, the world seems increasingly convinced that globalization has resulted in a major reshuffle of the international political and economic system. It is believed that the autonomy of sovereign states has been eroded by economic globalization, and that deep-pocketed transnational companies can have a direct impact on the internal and external affairs of some states.

Integration across Europe and the emergence of free trade agreements around the world have convinced the public that national borders are no longer important and that the concept of nationality is losing its relevance. In addition, the rapid development of communication and transportation technologies has made the world smaller, and the cross-border extension of high-tech networks has led to a belief that the regulatory authority of the traditional state is increasingly superseded by the global authority represented by international organizations.

Simply put, in the two decades after the end of the Cold War, the prevailing view of globalization holds that it is a super-powerful force that inexorably penetrates into the domestic affairs of sovereign states. In other words, the concept of the state is outdated. As a result, international politics has been renamed global politics, the international economy has been replaced by the global economy and global governance has taken shape.

Today, however, the effectiveness and practicality of global governance has been called into question because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the face of a virus plaguing the world, who is responsible for providing masks, respirators and protective gear? Who should provide medical services to seriously ill patients? Who can decide when a state of emergency is declared and what restrictions can be imposed? And who should provide subsistence allowances to those who have lost their jobs in such sectors as tourism, services and aviation?

The answer is simple and clear: the national governments. In the wake of the outbreak, governments, not international organizations, closed borders or restricted international travel. Some countries sent chartered flights to pick up their nationals living and working in foreign countries. While this reminds us of the vital importance of nationhood and nationality, it has led to serious doubts about the effectiveness and development prospects of global governance. Some even believe that global politics and the global economy will revert to a patchwork of national politics and national economies.

In fact, this skepticism is not new; it emerged in the 2007-08 global financial crisis. In the wake of the crisis, it was national governments that injected capital into banks and financial institutions, that tried to revive the economy through massive stimulus policies and that provided basic social security to vulnerable groups.

As far as I am concerned, we should take an objective and balanced view of the relationship between global governance and sovereign states. While recognizing the shortcomings of global governance in responding to crises, we need to see its positive role and enormous potential.

On one hand, we need to correct the belief that sovereign states are a thing of the past; on the other, we need to abandon unrealistic expectations about global governance. As we saw during the global economic crisis, the U.S. government injected massive cash into troubled global banks and financial institutions, a fact that shows even the US, a long-term champion of economic liberalism, had to save its economy through direct state intervention.

During the 1997-98 financial crisis in Southeast Asia, the IMF identified the source of the crisis as a lack of economic openness and freedom, as well as state intervention, in Southeast Asian countries. But when another financial crisis broke out in Europe and the United States a decade later, Western governments averred that government intervention was necessary because something was wrong with the global economic system. Such stories illustrate that every region or country needs protection mechanisms at the national level to blunt the negative impact of globalization.

At the same time, we should see that global governance is not a meaningless cosmetic exercise or just fancy diplomatic rhetoric. If well positioned, global governance can point the way to international cooperation and help avoid tensions caused by excessive protectionist measures at the national level that undermine economic welfare and relations between nations.

While national governments provided protections during this pandemic for their citizens, the World Health Organization released pandemic information and determined the pandemic phase in a timely manner, thus providing much-needed guidance to countries facing asymmetric and confusing information and avoiding the fragmentation of the global pandemic response. 

As the basic symbol of transnational authority, international organizations play an indispensable guiding role in enhancing consensus-building, shaping public opinion and developing public products, although they are not in a position to provide direct material assistance to the global population. For example, criticisms have been leveled at the G20, which was established after the financial crisis, for its lack of decision-making and implementation skills, but over the past 12 years, leaders from member states have met annually, and a large number of meetings and consultations at various levels have been held in parallel, providing a valuable opportunity to coordinate positions, exchange information and build consensus among countries.

Also, following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the WHO came under criticism for its lack of response capacity. But imagine how messy international coordination would be without this organization.

It is wrong to dismiss international mechanisms unilaterally and, more significantly, it is unrealistic to expect international organizations and mechanisms to act as a world government in an international system composed of independent sovereign states. We cannot deny their role just because they do not have the same legislative power and enforcement capacity as national governments. 

In global governance in the post-pandemic era, it is almost impossible to see the emergence of a world government as envisaged that can set and enforce uniform rules. Instead, global governance will play a greater role in agenda-setting, international coordination, resource mobilization and consensus-building, while exploring ways to coordinate and reconcile sovereign states. 

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