Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Reply to Coen & Pegram: Three ways to fix global governance research

seddon-Cropped-154x200Jack A. Seddon replies to our conversation on the Coen/Pegram commentary on global governance research:  With three simple observations, I would like to concur with the call for a third generation of global governance research. I would further agree with Professors Coen and Pegram that global governance is failing, though it is probably too much—and a wholly ungenerous reading of the understandably polemical call to arms published in Governance—to assert that it is failing equally everywhere. My only comment is that the ubiquitous backsliding and inadequacy that characterises much of what constitutes global governance is probably only a surprise to the second generation of global governance scholarship. This, if correct, suggests three relatively concrete things about the next generation of research. Global governance analysis needs to be less functionalist and conceptual, more attuned to power and political conflict, and better grounded in its empirical claims.

First, for too long, the concepts of global leadership and governance, especially in my areas of study, international monetary and financial relations, but also elsewhere, have been conflated with constructive cooperation that is historically efficient and functional. The historical record offers almost no support for these assumptions. On the contrary, the first object of most global leaders (be they hegemonic states, intergovernmental networks, NGOs, private corporations, or whatever) is quite sensibly to secure their own power and authority. We can therefore reasonably rely upon global governors to develop policies and devices that are anything but ideal from the point of view of the systems that they govern. If we want to understand where and why global governance is failing, this seems the most obvious starting point. Despite all the talk of radical complexity, uncertainty and second-order cooperation problems, many of the governance problems that we face today are not really all that complex. It is the politics that is difficult. We must investigate the substance of leadership and governance in light of this politics, rather than simply declaring them, by theoretical fiat, to be always inherently good.

Second, studies of global governance have marginalised interstate distributional conflicts, perhaps in an effort to differentiate themselves from prior state-centric paradigms. Yet, even in the eurozone, where the state is most superseded, the most intractable governance question remains: Who adjusts? The shadows of state hierarchy and political conflict operate in even the purest examples of supranationalism, such as the Bank for International Settlements and European Central Bank, and in even the most seemingly networked, market-based, and decentralised international orders, such as global capital markets. To avoid missing the wood for the trees, like the leaders of the many failed international monetary orders that I study, the next wave of global governance analysis must confront these distributional realities, and avoid being seduced by considerations of technique and efficiency, especially where governance arrangements appear to take on new and experimental forms.

Last, there is little new under the sun, and we should avoid overstating the originality of the governance processes being observed. There is no need for overstatement. Clearly, globalization presents new governance challenges. But its constitutive elements, in grand international conventions, cross boarder flows of people, capital and goods, transformations of the state, shifting power relations, private forms of regulation, networks of technocrats, spill-overs of good and bad public policy, and so on, are not especially new. Moreover, the essential conflicts of interest, such as those between the private and public interest, which global governance systems must try to manage, are not new. And, global governors have always had short arms, limited gazes, and constrained intellectual processing abilities.

What is most important to recognize is that, if much of what we claim to be unique to global governance is not actually new, this will be a good thing. We would then not need to impose the counterfactual image of the pre-globalisation unified nation state and public international on our analyses. The problem is not so much that this state and this international never really existed. This is true of any counterfactual. The problem is that this starting point inflicts major limits on the theoretical and empirical perspectives that we can offer, because we must assume that everything about global governance today is radically different from what existed before 1989, and can only become increasingly so. Relinquishing the intellectual gains that are offered by this starting point will not be easy. But the payoffs could be very large. We could then begin the task of comparing the actual operation and performance of global governance systems, not with a counterfactual, but with each other. The door would open to the pro-empiricist and forensic agenda that has been called for. At its ambitious best, such a research agenda might actually establish a basis for asserting where global governance is in a state of crisis, and equally importantly, where it is not.

Jack A. Seddon is a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute.

Written by Governance

November 26, 2015 at 12:42 pm

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