“Global Governance” - Address by Minister of State Gernot Erler, Federal Foreign Office

04.10.2006 - Speech

Defining Global Governance

In recent times, Global Governance has become one of the most eminent catchphrases in the realm of international politics. As many of its fellow buzzwords, it does not lack frequency in usage, but clarity in definition. This deficiency stems from the simple fact that it is a very complex phenomenon. There are very different notions among political practitioners and theorists and, consequently, there is no general accepted definition.

So, if experts disagree what Global Governance actually is, maybe we should start by describing what it is not: it does not mean Global GovernMENT. It does not imply the idea of one universal super-executive which rules the world from a central administrative office. In fact, one could argue that Global Governance is the exact opposite of world rule by one central hegemonic authority. Global Governance is rather a kind of world ordering principle which is founded on the conviction that global problems demand global solutions by global players. These global players are not just States, but a widely ramified network of actors involved into interactive decision-making at the international level. These actors are, among others:

  • States, which are still the primary and most powerful actors in international relations;
  • Intergovernmental organizations, created by States to further common interests, for example the United Nations (UN), the Organization of American States (OAS) or the International Labor Organization (ILO);
  • Global conferences, like the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.
  • But there are also, and increasingly, actors not directly related to States, for example:
  • Multinational corporations whose investments and business practices affect economies and living conditions all over the world;
  • Non-governmental organizations and civil society actors like Amnesty International, Greenpeace or the anti landmine coalition.
  • Political institutions at a sub-national level, like the municipalities of the increasing number of megacities.

Among the many definitions of Global Governance, the one advanced in 1995 by the UN funded Commission on Global Governance is frequently quoted. It was also used by a Commission of Inquiry that the German Parliament – the Bundestag – had established in 1999 to study the challenges of, and political responses to globalization. Key parts of that definition read as follows:

“Governance is the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs. It is a continuing process through which conflicting or diverse interests may be accommodated and co-operative action may be taken. It includes formal institutions and regimes empowered to enforce compliance, as well as informal arrangements that people and institutions either have agreed to or perceive to be in their interest. (…) There is no single model or form of global governance, nor is there a single structure or set of structures. (…) Although bound to respond to the specific requirements of different issue areas, governance must take an integrated approach to questions of human survival and prosperity (…) and must promote systemic approaches in dealing with them.”

This may sound abstract and academic. So let us approach reality and take a look at the historical evolution of Global Governance.

The Emergence of Global Governance

About 250 years ago, nobody knew or even thought about Global Governance. States were the only actors. They pursued there national goals sometimes via ad hoc coalitions, but mostly on their own. Additionally, there was no perception of truly global common problems, since transnational contacts and information were rather limited.

After the defeat of Napoleon, the so called Concert of Europe evolved as a follow-up to the Vienna Congress of 1814/15. It was a rather loose and not too successful security regime for Europe, but it was nevertheless one of the first ancestors of international institutions. This institution sprang from the growing conviction of States that some problems can only be tackled by mutual coordination and cooperation in a fixed framework. Although it was only designed for a limited subject (security) and for a limited region (Europe), it was an international institution. During the next century, technical innovations and the experience of large-scale violent conflicts made international institutions eventually cross both these limits: In 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross was founded in search of universal standards of humanity. In 1865, the International Telegraph Union was founded in Paris in order to guarantee the standardization of international communication beyond Europe. Thus, it became the first international inter-governmental organization. And in 1889, the Interparliamentary Union (IPU) was founded as a first attempt to promote democratic governance. After the First World War, the League of Nations was founded in order to establish a collective security system, but also as an umbrella organization for global State-based institutions. The system of collective security eventually failed, but the experiences of the Second World War gave rise to a more successful and today truly global and comprehensive organization: the United Nations System. It encompasses a vast number of specialized agencies which deal with almost any global problem and provide a forum for Global Governance.

But as I mentioned above, it is no longer only States which operate in the international realm. In particular during the last decades, the revolution in information and communication technology has enabled non-state actors to emerge on the international spot. Non-governmental organizations have brought together transnational communities with common interests in a specific policy area, e.g. human rights or environmental protection. They have become powerful lobbyists for their goals in the international system and partly even reached consultative status at the United Nations, i.e. they have been recognized as important international actors. Big corporations have become political actors as well. Through their investments, they can shape, to a certain extent, the political and social future of countries all around the world. Bust just like States, corporations are also exposed to the downsides of a world without borders: A stock market crash or an avian flu epidemic in one part of the world may have immediate repercussions on business on a distant continent.

So, a look at the historical process leaves us with a complex picture of today’s international realities: We face a vast amount and diversity of actors who pursue their goals at different levels of decision-making and in a number of issue areas which differ in content, scope and range.

Challenges to Global Governance

How can we make sense of this complexity? Or, to put it this way: How can we assure that this global governance is a “good global governance”, that means above all an effective and a legitimate one. Questions of legitimacy are at the heart of many a political debate. Does the current structure of the United Nations and of the International Financial Institutions adequately reflect the shifts in world politics since 1945, particularly after the political emergence of the South? Questions of effectiveness play an equal role. Do decision-makers have the means and the political will to act? What can be done to improve the means and to invigorate the political will?

Obviously, in the long-term perspective, there is a strong link between effectiveness and legitimacy. Acts of governance will only have a lasting effect if they stem from a legitimate authority and if persons affected by that act of governance feel that the act is in their best interest. At the international level, there is certainly no authority that could match the legitimacy enjoyed by the United Nations, by virtue of its universal membership. But are the United Nations an effective organization? Experience of more than 60 years has shown that decision-making at the United Nations can be slow and its decisions may lack implementation. By contrast, decisions taken by, let's say, the Finance Ministers of the G8 may be very effective, but the G8 do certainly not have the same broad-based legitimacy as the United Nations. G8 legitimacy does not flow from the composition of the group, but from its problem-solving capacity.

Talking about effectiveness and legitimacy leads to an interesting problem of Global Governance. The mere existence of a broad range of very diverse and often very qualified global governance actors does not necessarily – let alone automatically – produce effective results. Moreover, there are sometimes several institutions competing for the authority of and the participation in decision-making. Thus, the Global Governance challenge is to organize decision-making and implementation in such a way that each actor, be it a State or non-state actor, can assume the role where it enjoys comparative advantages – either advantages of legitimacy or of effectiveness. As the Commission on Global Governance stated – and I repeat their message in simpler words: There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, but you must have a systemic approach – you must look at the full range of the actors.

An important concept in this context is the principle of subsidiarity. It means that you try to tackle problems at the lowest level which is able to deal successfully with a given problem. It is a simple formula, at least at the first glance: You try to tackle local problems at a local level, national problems at a national level, regional problems at a regional level, and, of course, global problems at a global level. This principle sustains “Good Global Governance” because it counteracts the two challenges I have outlined above. It counteracts the lack of legitimacy, because it refers the decision-making process as close to political constituencies and electorates as possible. It counteracts the lack of effectiveness, because it transfers the political decision-making to the level which is best suited for it. To illustrate my point, here is an example: Just as the municipalities of Mexico City, Sao Paolo or Berlin may not be the right agencies to define global parameters to fight against global warming, the United Nations is probably not the most suitable institution to organize garbage collection in these cities. But in real life things are slightly more complex: Quite often, challenges need a global regulatory framework, but local action. You certainly know the famous civil society slogan: “Think globally, act locally!” To stay in my previous picture: The fact that it is up to the UN to define a global framework against global warming is no grounds for Berlin, Mexico or Rio to lay back as if global warming was none of their problems. On the contrary: These cities must act, too – through programmes to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions stemming from urban traffic or from heating, etc.

This leads again to a challenge of organizing good Global Governance: How to connect the global level and the State and non-state entities at the local level? Most often, the solution lies in the hands of the State: to act as a transmitter between “global” and “local”, or as a convener between global and local, State and non-State, formal and informal actors.

Opportunities of Global Governance

If you look at Global Governance from this angle, you will certainly not agree with those who believe that globalization or non-state actors are side-lining the importance of States. Quite to the contrary: Good Global Governance needs capable State institutions to give globalization a political and social orientation. The issue is not to play one level of governance against another, but to combine different layers in a meaningful manner, thus taking advantage of the broad potential of experience, knowledge and executive power that exists throughout these layers.

Let me mention one area where efforts to build partnerships between different global players are becoming increasingly successful. I am referring to efforts to engage international corporations into the promotion of the purposes of the United Nations. The most vivid expression of these endeavours is the Global Compact, launched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1998. Corporations may join this initiative by committing themselves to promote, in the course of their business activities, respect for human rights, social and environmental standards and the suppression of corruption. Through the Global Compact – a web-based learning forum – companies are expected to share their practices and to discuss them with other stakeholders. Another avenue for involving business into the promotion of the UN purposes has been launched by Germany in April 2004. At that time, we were a member of the Security Council and organized a thematic session on the role of business in conflict resolution and post-conflict peace-building. We are currently planning to take this initiative one step further, some when next year.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have attempted to describe Global Governance as an effort to manage global challenges by making intelligent use of the actors and the knowledge that we find at the various layers of today's political landscape. We do this confidently, as we have developed, over the years, a certain expertise in this field. Here in the European Union, we live in such a multi-layered world. We are still in an almost daily struggle to calibrate the layers, to weigh the advantages of a strong central power against the need to keep government close to the people. But, all in all, it is probably fair to say that once we Europeans have started to look beyond our national horizons, we have considerably expanded our political options and, let's not forget it, our well-being.

I am happy to note that Latin America is moving in the same direction. The Organization of American States, Mercosur and the System of Central American Integration are examples for dealing at the regional level with regional problems, such as trade, security, social affairs, migration, drug trafficking and poverty reduction, and for maintaining a dialogue on these issues with other regions. This is a useful approach to stimulating closer cooperation between like-minded States and to prepare for global solutions.

Together, we have witnessed the evolution of the international system from a solely State-based realm into a complex network of diverse actors who cooperate and compete in global decision-making. This evolution continues to pose questions about coordination, cohesion, effectiveness and legitimacy. However, it has opened up new opportunities to deal collectively with problems which we can no longer resolve on our own. I hope that your stay in Germany will leave you with the impression that here you find people from all walks of life who would be happy to work together with you and your countries in making this world a better one.

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