Center for Governance and Sustainability

at the University of Massachusetts Boston

The Context: WEF Shifts the Debate

As observed earlier, the global governance system is no longer working. For some, this is frankly a good thing. For those whose core belief is that the state system  1  should have a minimal role in the economy and in social life,  2  a non-functioning global governance system is a dream come true. A dysfunctional global governance arrangement also suits those who welcome the flexibility currently in the global economic space to pursue corporate growth in a legal vacuum. These free-market enthusiasts may well want a major nation-state or the UN system on occasion to act on their behalf against what they see as a rogue nation-state or an annoying civil society organization. They may also want the international system to set trade rules or standards that give them preferential access to new markets, protection from domestic regulations, 3  or automatic rights to their patents in foreign markets.

But fundamentally, a number of powerful Actors receive quite significant benefits from a global governance architecture that is incoherent and ineffective.

Others feel the international system threatens their national interests and want a minimalist role for the UN system. These critics are infamous for vitriolic attacks on the UN, as if it were some terrible weapon that threatens their lives and their national sovereignty. These critics make it a practice to discredit and de-legitimatize any form of inter-state cooperation throughout the UN system, routinely disparaging such as pre-ordinated institutional failures.

WEF is not among this crowd.

To its credit, WEF has shifted the debate in three very significant ways. First, it counters arguments from the Right with a new conceptual framework and operational plan to undermine the misdirected attacks on the UN system. Second, to the international policy community, WEF says that piecemeal re-conceptualization of specialized governance systems – such climate governance, food governance, or trade governance – cannot properly be accomplished absent a more comprehensive global frame of reference. Third, to address the voices coming from the Center and the Left, WEF articulates a candidate system for the governance of globalization which incorporates key leaders from international civil society as partners in global governance. 

For some, diversity of political and economic power is a good thing. It should not remain concentrated in the institutions of former colonial or current imperial powers. It should not be based on the supremacy of a highly concentrated global marketplace. This view recognizes that each nation-state should equitably have a say in extra-territorial and global matters. It also recognizes that startups, new technologies, and out-of-the-box thinking comes disproportionately from small enterprises and small places. It welcomes the autonomy and variety of gender, religion, ethnic cultures, and race history. For WEF, however, dispersal of international power is a source of anxiety, not an ethical or practical goal.

The WEF community however argues that some form of state and inter-state capacity has long-term benefits. It recognizes that the current system of government-to-government meetings and highly specialized business and sector meetings is not the perfect system. For Davos, this fragmented system is characterized by limited participation of truly important Actors and results in limited cross-fertilization of ideas between key global communities. This position departs from the view of the International Chamber of Commerce and other main line corporate leaders. These business association and corporate executives argue that the market is a self-regulating institution that will adjust on its own to take care of social, environmental, and cultural necessities without a significant role for the state.

The GRI project recognizes that large corporations left alone in the international market are also not likely to re-organize globalization, that the intergovernmental system left alone is not likely to re-organize itself  4 ,  and that some critical combination of nation-state institutions, multinational corporations, and civil society is needed to attempt to manage globalization.


Related Ideas: Public governance failures

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

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