Center for Governance and Sustainability

at the University of Massachusetts Boston

Governance by Volunteering

Over the centuries, nation-states developed a range of legal options to express their inter-governmental decisions. They could build international hard law by negotiating and ratifying treaties, conventions, and other legally binding agreements. The progressive development of the rule of law was seen by many as important social goal and counterweight to authoritarianism and lawlessness within countries. On the less binding side, governments could make soft laws through joint declarations, intergovernmental resolutions, and international plans of action. These explicit soft law multilateral governmental actions were complemented by the accumulation of daily practices of countries, which take domestic decisions involving foreign actors on matters not covered by hard law and grant these regular practices recognition as a part of international soft law.

This mixture of hard law (the conventions) and soft law (the declarations and national practice) provide a wide range of options for nation-states to use in formalizing their joint undertakings. All these are in addition to any bilateral agreements, military alliances, or regional economic integration agreements. In the current climate change negotiations, for example, one of the issues that remains on the table is whether the next joint multilateral action under the UNFCCC is going to be “protocol, legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force.”    

At the heart of the Global Redesign Initiative is a new opt-in-opt-out governance approach. GRI clearly advocates that states, MNCs, and CSOs work together voluntarily, when it suits them. Those that want to participate should; those that do not want to participate can stay out the process. The fact that the non-participants stay on the sidelines is not seen as a particular hindrance, at least as less a hindrance than obligatory standards. The thrust toward volunteer implementation is captured well in last phrases of Step One.  

Redefine the international system as constituting a wider, multifaceted system of global cooperation in which intergovernmental legal frameworks and institutions are embedded as a core, but not the sole and sometimes not the most crucial, component.

The joint US National Intelligence Council and EU Institute for Security Studies report on the future of global governance makes a similar argument:


In some cases, innovative approaches stem from dissatisfaction with the relative inertia of traditional frameworks or with their perceived Western bias. Such approaches often involve ‘lighter’ forms of cooperation than the highly legalized regimes inherited from the 20th century: consultation replaces regulation, codes of conduct prevail on binding norms, regional initiatives escape lengthy debates in multilateral forums, and national prerogatives trump international authorities in implementing and overseeing agreements.  1  

GRI argues that, if nation-states don’t act on a specific matter, then they should expect that, according to Building Block Three, “plurilateral, often multistakeholder, coalitions of the willing and able” could voluntarily take over a given international governance function.

This enthusiasm for voluntary implementation in Everyone’s Business extends even to the trade regime. The trade GRI taskforce presents a detailed call for a WTO protocol laying out the ground rules for acceptable trade accords involving a voluntary collection of nation-states, unlike the current arrangement where all the members of the WTO accept a new agreement. 2

The call for voluntary state and corporate action extends even to emerging new global issues. The GRI taskforce proposal for ocean governance is premised on such volunteerism – those firms and civil society bodies which find an interest in a cleaner ocean and stronger fish stocks are encouraged to create a market-driven system. 3  There are no sanctions on those firms or nation-states that do not want to be involved in having a healthy ocean, nor are there penalties for those nation-states,firms or ships which willingly keep undermining the quality of the oceans. 4

The government-by-volunteering message may well re-cast the developed legal foundation of traditional state-to-state international relations. If there is a significant global problem that needs attention, then the best way to address that crisis may well be through a voluntary multi-stakeholder approach, not a multilateral approach.

 

Related Ideas: Plurilateral; Multidimensionality; Repositioning; Results-oriented coalitions; Nuclear fuel

The Readers' Guide welcomes comments with alternative examples or counter examples and commentary – critical or otherwise – of the above interpretation of GRI’s perspective.

  • 1. ^ Global Governance 2025, pg 18
  • 2. ^ Plurilateral and Regional Trade Agreements: Global Agenda Council on Trade  A Plurilateral “Club-of-Clubs” Approach to World Trade Organization Reform and New Issues task force report and pg 67 of the GRI report
  • 3. ^ “Use Market Mechanisms to Drive Better Management of Fishery Resources : Ocean governance includes not only governmental action, but also various norm-setting activities that occur in the non-governmental and private sectors. A recent development is the use of market incentives (access and price premiums) for companies that meet standards of “sustainability.” These incentives promote beneficial changes in behaviour. . . . The upshot of this development is that the “major buyers” are engaged in finding solutions, and they are setting norms for behaviour and asserting these norms through “market mechanisms” – they are voting with their wallets in favour of sustainable fisheries. “Ocean Governance Initiative : Global Agenda Council on Ocean Governance and YGL Restoring Ocean Health Task Force, pg 101
  • 4. ^ The Oceans taskforce does recommend a data exchange system between land-based law enforcement governments and organizations. This Blue Ocean Peacekeeping Force would “combine the data, resources and intelligence of law enforcement officials, navies, and coast guards, search and rescue services, and other cooperative maritime surveillance and enforcement arrangements. In addition to its focus on the high seas, it could also enhance the capacity of countries to combat crime in Exclusive Economic Zones, where requested. It could enhance INTERPOL, which covers criminal activities that may take place on land or at sea (piracy, terrorism, smuggling (drugs, humans, wildlife) and pollution) by adding a dedicated oceans presence. And finally it could build links with existing cooperative maritime surveillance and enforcement arrangements such as the Forum Fisheries Agency, Niue Treaty countries, Australia and France cooperative maritime surveillance in the Southern Ocean and others, and provide complementary global coverage.”, GRI , pg 110

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