International Governance and International Institutions in a New Reality

Governance is the sum of laws, norms, policies and institutions that define and constitute relations between citizens, society, market and the state – the wielders and objects of the exercise of public power. Intensifying global interdependence, growing recognition of problems that defy solutions by a single state or organization, and the increasing numbers and importance of nonstate actors have all contributed to the growth of global governance as an analytical framework.

As the number of international actors and the frequency and intensity of their interactions have grown, so has the requirement for institutionalized cooperation among them. This is done through formal and informal arrangements that provide more order and stability for a world in constant and rapid flux than would occur naturally. International transactions are typically characterized by order, stability and predictability. Before the current pandemic, when I boarded a plane in Canberra to get to London, Moscow or New York via multiple stops at different airports and with several flight changes, I had every expectation of arriving at my destination on schedule. 

This immediately raises a puzzle: how is the world governed even in the absence of a world government in order to produce norms, codes of conduct, and regulatory, surveillance and compliance instruments? The answer lies in global governance. Conversely, outbreaks of disorder, instability, volatility and conflict represent crises and decay of domestic and/or global governance. 

International governance entails multilevel and networked relations and interactions to manage and facilitate linkages across policy levels and domains. The architecture of global governance is made up of formal international organizations with the United Nations at the centre of the mandated multilateral order; formal regional and subregional organizations like the Association of South East Nations ASEAN); informal general-purpose groupings of which the most visible example in recent times is the G20 heads of governments and states but which also include the old G7 and the new BRICS groupings of the industrialized and emerging market economies; and transnational networks of civil society and market actors.

The basis of world order has come under strain in recent years due to several disconnects. Let me take up two big ones that vividly illustrate the new reality.

First, policy authority, and the resources required for tackling even pressing global problems, remain vested in states. But the source and scope of the problems are global and require multilateral solutions and the globalization of the process of policy-making: solutions without passports for what the late Kofi Annan called “problems without passports.” For example, in their reach and destructiveness, nuclear weapons challenge the very basis of the territorial state. A nuclear war could destroy us all but most of us would have no say on the decisions and actions to launch the bomb: annihilation without representation. Hence the famous declaration by the two visionary leaders at the time in 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” 

To return to the definition of governance: 

  • The twin norms of the nuclear age are non-proliferation and disarmament; 

  • The policies of all nine countries that possess the bomb indicate continued indefinite retention of nuclear weapons as core and indispensable elements of national security, despite their demonstrable threat to our common security at the global level; 

  • The institutional arrangements that underpin strategic stability in the form of arms control agreements are being violated and abandoned one by one, from the ABM and INF treaties to the Open Skies Treaty and the failure, thus far, to extend New START and ratify the CTBT to bring it into force; 

  • The compliance institutions are headed by the UN Security Council, whose five permanent members (P5) are the very five nuclear weapon states under the NPT that have signally failed to implement their Article VI obligation to pursue and conclude nuclear disarmament negotiations in good faith.

Second, the distribution of military, political and economic power in the real world is increasingly out of synch with the distribution of decision-making authority in the socially constructed world of intergovernmental organizations. As I argued in a previous paper, the gap between legal authority in the Security Council and the objective metrics of power and influence in the real world has severely damaged the standing, legitimacy and operational effectiveness of the United Nations in general, and of the Security Council in particular.

The UN Security Council at 75: Less and Less Fit for Purpose
Ramesh Thakur
The first and most urgent task for the United Nations Security Council is to add more permanent members, believes Ramesh Thakur, emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
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The Security Council is the most powerful international institution for enforcing compliance of individual states with international norms and laws. But some of the most egregious failures of collective enforcement are with respect to the P5 themselves. China rejected the ruling of the international tribunal in its maritime dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea. The United Kingdom continues to ignore the opinion of the World Court on Chagos Islands. Russia has been less than fully cooperative with the international inquiry on the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. And, most startlingly of all, the United States has imposed sanctions on the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

With regard to nuclear weapons, for the first time since 1945 we saw a split between the General Assembly as the UN’s normative centre of gravity and the Security Council as the geopolitical centre of gravity. This happened in 2017 with the Nuclear Ban Treaty. It was approved by 122 states in the General Assembly against the united opposition of the P5 (and of the other four nuclear-armed states). It will enter into force when 50 states have ratified or acceded to it. As of now, it has 44 States Parties; another 40 have signed and their ratification is awaited. Once it does enter into force, the new institutional reality will be that the world will have two global treaties for steering nuclear policy and the big challenge will how to harmonize their mostly complementary but also potentially clashing obligations.

A second good current example of the mismatch between international governance and institutions in the new reality is in relation to health. On the one hand, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the inadequacies in the existing architecture of international health governance centred on the World Health Organization (WHO) within the UN system. Yet, on the other hand, it is also a sharp reminder of the limits of unilateralism in an age of shared threats and fragility but unequal resilience. Aggressively nationalist responses of “my country first” and “sicken thy neighbour” bans on exports of medical supplies and medicine will lead to widely damaging economic and trade deglobalization. 

The pandemic and the resulting socioeconomic crises also highlight the policy utility of reconceptualizing security threats within the analytical framework of human security that has been promoted by the UN system since 1994. The health and economics crises underscore the interconnectedness of peoples’ security. Regardless of where the pandemic originated from, it spread rapidly across the globe and will remain a threat to people in all countries as long as it is still active in any country. We really are all in it together.

The WHO was tardy in investigating the gravity and immediacy of the threat. It deferred needlessly to the initial claims of Chinese authorities of the lack of human-human transmission of the virus. The ostracism of Taiwan, owing to deference to China’s political sensitivity on the issue, has prevented WHO dialogue with a government that has been among the most impressive in the world in managing the pandemic. The pathology of politicizing specialized agencies is most acutely reflected in the balance between assessed financial contributions that strengthen the institutional integrity (17 percent for WHO) and voluntary contributions that attempt to shape work priorities to donors’ agendas (80 percent), mostly from Western countries.

Yet, there is no substitute in the foreseeable future for the WHO’s worldwide efforts to promote universal healthcare, monitor public health risks, prepare for emerging epidemiological emergencies, coordinate responses, set international health standards and guidelines, and provide technical assistance to developing countries. Rather, the coronavirus pandemic underscores the importance of continually realigning the requirements of international governance with the institutions and not undermining them in the middle of a pandemic with unilateral withdrawals and financial cutbacks. 

The UN system is the biggest incubator of norms, laws and codes of conduct for regulating the international behaviour of all states. It is a trusted agent for the necessary tasks of surveillance, detection and best-practice interventions because of its universality and unique legitimacy. Its expertise has accumulated over decades of experience. Its scientific objectivity buttresses its political neutrality. And its presence in the field in so many countries around the world gives it a truly global footprint. All of these priceless assets, however, will continue to depreciate in value with the failure to recalibrate them promptly in line with the new realities.

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