A Brief History of Global Governance

The global governance structures seen in the world today are the product of a lengthy trajectory shaped by historical failures and successes alike. The ideal of universal political cooperation among global actors to manage shared problems is not a new idea, but has only been embodied in concrete institutions in the last century. Attempts at global governance face the hurdle of being tasked with solving humanity’s most pressing and enduring challenges while respecting the circumstances of individual nation states and other diverse communities. While most recognize the need for national legislative bodies to enact laws, an executive to implement them and to run the government, judiciaries endowed with the power to interpret and apply the law, central banks to issue currency and manage aspects of economies, and police forces to guarantee the safety of citizens, there is inadequate discussion on the extent to which structures performing similar functions should exist at the supranational level.

Early Visions

Against the background of episodic phases of political instability and violence, history is replete with calls for exploring alternative political arrangements or methods of organizing global human affairs in a way that would be more conducive to an international rule of law. For instance, in the wake of recurring, devastating continental wars, the French cleric Charles Castel de Saint Pierre (1658-1743) called for the creation of a European Confederation in his Plan for the Perpetual Peace in Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau later adapted his ideas to call for the creation of confederative government to end the “perpetual dissensions, brigandage, usurpations, rebellions, wars, and murders” of Europe which had long distracted people from more productive pursuits.1

Charles Castel de Saint Pierre, 1658-1743

Charles Castel de Saint Pierre, 1658-1743

While such a model of international cooperation based on the rule of law at first failed to materialize in Europe, the founding of the United States represented a critical experiment in governance. What emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was a system that sought to balance the interests of states with the need to have a strong central government that would operate under the rule of law and with clearly identified limitations on its powers, to guard against the dangers of authoritarianism, excessive centralization and the infringement of individual civil liberties.

Charles Castel de Saint Pierre, 1658-1743

Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787

The League of Nations

Acting on this model to remedy the nationalist maladies that precipitated World War I, US president Woodrow Wilson championed the institutionalization of global governance. He sought to abandon isolationism in favor of more robust engagement with the world. In his vision, the League of Nations “would be founded on a moral principle, the universal opposition to military aggression as such, whatever its source, its target, or its proclaimed justification.”2

The League eventually failed because of the destructive power of lingering nationalism and militarism, deeply embedded in the national consciousness of its member countries, something that the League was too weak to reverse or cure on its own. As conceived in its Covenant, the League had very weak enforcement mechanisms for violation of its articles and thus was not an effective mechanism to restrain some of its signatories from violating its key provisions, as happened with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland and Mussolini’s incursions in Ethiopia.

The 1930s were a trying period on an economic level as well. As states grappled with the full global ramifications of the Great Depression, the rise of protectionism and economic nationalism exacerbated international tensions and—against the background of a struggling League—highlighted the weaknesses of existing arrangements to ensure peace and economic stability. The League’s death knell rang with the rise of fascism and the descent into World War II.

League of Nations

League of Nations’ 11thAssembly, 22 September 1930: Meeting on World Economic
Crisis and discussion of re-opening of Disarmament Conference.

The United Nations

Within three weeks of entering the Second World War, US President Franklin Roosevelt set up in early 1942 an Advisory Committee on Post-War Foreign Policy under the direction of then-Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Undersecretary Sumner Welles. The aim of the Committee and, in particular, its Permanent International Organization subcommittee was to work on the design of an organization that would secure global peace and security while avoiding some of the weaknesses associated with the League of Nations.

It is important to note that, until October of 1943, much of the global governance thinking largely [led by/ spear-headed] by the United States centered on the future establishment of some type of international entity founded on federalist principles, not unlike in conception to the model adopted by the United States during its Constitutional Convention in 1787. This would have implied the creation of a legislative body with substantial powers to enact laws that would be binding on member states. Grenville Clark argued that “to be effective in the maintenance of peace the ‘general international organization’ must have some definite and substantial powers to make decisions binding upon the member countries in matters of war and peace.”3

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1882-1945

Those assembled at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, however, largely due to ideological differences, were in the end not ready to contemplate the creation of an organization with binding enforcement powers over its member states, in which the legislature would have enhanced powers such as those found already within the boundaries of the nation state, in order to ensure the efficacy of its functioning. Loftier aspirations for a more federalist model of global governance was finally buried due to the fact that the Soviet Union would only accede to a weaker, minimalist United Nations and President Roosevelt, wishing to avoid a repetition of Woodrow Wilson’s failure to get US Senate approval for the League of Nations’ Covenant was also compelled to scale down considerably the scope of those early, more ambitious visions.

Opening Session of the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations

Reconsidering the UN

Following the establishment of the United Nations, the global governance debate has continued to evolve. The key objective remains striking a balance between the need to ensure that the UN will be able to deliver peace and security and achieve the other goals laid out in the Charter, and the need to retain appropriate powers at the national level. Dissatisfied with the UN Charter and against the background of the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a group of US-based[international/US?] intellectuals formed The Committee to Frame a World Constitution. The committee met from November 1945 to July 1947 at the University of Chicago[where? & one or two words of context?] to discuss what a Federal Republic of the World might look like. Similarly, in October of 1945, Grenville Clark, the main advisor to Henry Stimson, the US Secretary of War under presidents Roosevelt and Truman, organized the Dublin Conference “to explore how best to remedy the weaknesses of the United Nations Organization and to seek agreement upon and to formulate definite amendments to the Charter or other proposals to remedy these weaknesses.”4 Neither the work of the Committee nor of the Dublin Declaration had any major immediate effect. However, their significance lies in their prescience regarding the problems which would come to face an ineffective United Nations in the decades that followed.

The united Nations

The United Nations’ 193 flags

Grenville Clark

Grenville Clark, 1882-1967

Looking Forward

Today, we are again at a turning point. Multilateralism is under threat. Passions of narrow nationalism, however maladapted to a globalized world, are currently experiencing a resurgence in some quarters rather than receding. The future of global governance, and perhaps of civilization itself, depends on our ability to reconcile somehow political realism, the scientific facts of a limited planet under serious stress, the fears generated by rapid change and the hopes of finally achieving a just and intensively cooperating world. Without reform in global governance, we risk a downward spiral of disintegration into an intensified anarchy of absolute national sovereignty in a globalized world, made more dangerous by our advanced technologies for destruction and the destabilization of the life support systems of our planetary environment. The history of global governance suggests that more robust global institutions are unlikely to emerge unless some sufficiently profound crisis, again marks human consciousness with the notion of global interdependence and the dangers of remaining within an international institutional framework inadequate for and unresponsive to the current needs of humanity as a whole.

Few would argue that the present world order is fit for purpose, or that it is a solid basis to ensure security and prosperity for the future, whether in the developing or developed world. The idea that in a globalized world we need a higher level of government to deal with problems that straddle national boundaries has gained considerable traction in recent decades. Global governance today needs to reflect the changing role of the state in the context of a fully integrated global economy and a world facing a range of critical global problems, the solutions for which seem to be out of reach without a significant strengthening of our mechanisms of international cooperation. We need to understand the accelerating change we are experiencing as existing and emerging technologies transform the scale of human interaction and our ability to educate, communicate and consult.

Cord Meyer

Cord Meyer on the consequences of the veto at the UN Security Council:
“A major power can violate every principle and purpose set forth in the Charter and yet remain a member of the Organization by the lawful use of the veto power expressly granted to it.”
Meyer, Cord. 1945. “A Serviceman Looks at the Peace”, The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 176, No. 3, September, pp. 43–48.

The more sensible approach in developing the foundations of an enhanced global constitutional order is to build on the existing institutional infrastructure associated with the United Nations. The UN Charter, despite the many extraordinary aims, legal principles and values it enshrines, is too weak: it is heavily constrained by the commitments it makes to uphold outdated notions of state sovereignty, it is saddled by the veto, it is inadequately resourced, it has not succeeded in establishing a genuine international system of rule by law, and it has consistently proved unable to control or prevent abuses of power and other forms of deviant state behavior. On the other hand, the UN has universal membership, it has accumulated during the past 75 years a body of texts and practices that have precipitated important normative changes in selected areas such as human rights, and it has participated, however ineffectively, in most of the peace and security debates of the postwar period. However it is poorly structured to protect and promote the collective global and human interests that must be the primary focus in the twenty-first century. Governments and peoples around the world need to feel that whatever new system is brought into being, it will protect diverse populations, safeguard national autonomy and cultural distinctiveness, and lead to objective improvements in the status quo. The system has to earn their trust, a rare commodity today among governments.

This Forum is an effort to foster discussion and dialogue in order to shine some light on the possible ways ahead, to provide a vision of where we might need to go and to suggest the most workable mechanisms for the next steps in our evolving system of governance. The most fundamental area in which to build consensus is the ultimate purpose of governance itself. Why do we need governance: to avoid anarchy and collective destruction, and/or to achieve some common purpose? What should be the ultimate outcomes of effective governance? The need today is to seed ideas, stimulate discussion and debate, to show that there are reasonable ways forward and to encourage positive developments in order to avoid the worst in our collective future.

1 Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Charles Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre, A Project for Perpetual Peace, Printed for J. Johnson and T. Davenport, 1767.

2 Kissinger, Henry. 2014. World Order, Penguin Press, New York, 262.

3 Quoted by Baratta (2004), from the invitation issued by Clark to the participants, p. 106. The Politics of World Federation: United Nations, UN Reform, Atomic Control. Westport Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2004.

4 Quoted by Baratta (2004), p. 106.