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  • Geoff Mulgan

Impossible and inevitable: the twisting road to global governance


The current crisis has shown up just how weak many global institutions have become – with most of the work of containing COVID-19 done by national governments and the WHO under attack. But the crisis – and growing awareness of other global crises like climate change - has also reminded us why it is so vital to sustain our existing global institutions and, in some fields, to create new ones. Here I suggest potential design principles for what must be a long-term project to re-energise the idea of global governance.


Milton Friedman once wrote that “only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” This piece is written in that spirit.


There is no chance of a global government being created in the near future. None. Indeed, the prospects are worse than they have been for many years. The high hopes that inspired so many reformers in the early 20th century, and then again in 1940s when the UN was created, have steadily decayed. Our era is dominated by super-strong super-states that are sceptical of pooling sovereignty.


But that may make this the very best time to do some hard thinking about what could come next, without taking too much account of the constraints of the present. Ten years before the UN was created the prospects of anything similar looked utterly bleak. Realism meant pessimism. But history moves in non-linear ways. It curves, twists and bends, both for better and worse. So it makes sense to be prepared for good twists. That’s what I attempt here.


In a small way I’ve tried at various times in the past to develop ideas of this kind. When I ran the UK government’s Strategy Unit under Tony Blair we worked on reform options for the UN, and potential new arrangements for everything from nuclear proliferation and vaccines to organised crime. I’ve written chapters on global governance in books such as ‘Good and Bad Power’. More recently I’ve attempted blueprints for specific areas of global governance (such as this one on global Internet governance a more recent overview on options for governance of fields like cybersecurity and AI), and for reshaping parts of the UN system around data and knowledge.


One reason for taking this question seriously is that there is surprisingly strong global support for global institutions. Pew surveys consistently show large majorities backing the UN and a minority, but growing, who strongly identify as global citizens.


The more important reason is necessity. If any of the forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others are accurate then we face many plausible scenarios where it will be hard to survive, or at least to survive well, without much more power and collaboration at a global level. Otherwise the central forecasts are for ecosystems to die off, food shortages to become normal, soils to turn to dust, species extinction to accelerate alongside knock-on disasters in financial and social systems, all fuelling heightened competition and aggression both between nations and within them. The COVID-19 crisis was in this sense, perhaps, a gentle rehearsal.


More globalism isn’t always good. Distant governance is not generally something to be celebrated and network theory shows how important buffers are: too much free flow creates more likelihood of crashes and disasters, and some countries have thrived because they ignored the strictures of global organisations.


But we need global governance to help us handle the risks individual nations cannot handle alone – from climate change to pandemics, financial crashes to organised crime - and to put in place the shared rules and standards that make daily life so much easier and allow us to travel, make calls, buy products and transfer money with confidence. Crucially, too, we will need a better organised ‘noosphere’ or ‘cognosphere’ of shared knowledge and information if we are to protect the biosphere on which we all depend.


So here I suggest a few guiding principles for how to be pragmatically utopian in keeping the dream of global governance alive through dark times. My central argument is that the world is already innovating many ways of collaborating around data, knowledge and information, even as nation states cling onto their traditional sources of power in military and finance – and that amplifying these trends could give us many of the benefits of global governance even in a time of great power competition.


The persistence of the idea of global government

The idea of whole world governance (de Vitoria’s idea of a global republic - the res publica totius orbis) is as obvious as it is distant. We now take for granted the deep interdependencies of our world and have done so ever since the first photograph of earth from space made us simultaneously see our world as a single thing and made us aware of its vulnerability. Even a cursory study of history reminds us that many civilisations destroyed themselves and the most likely threats to our own civilisation are ones that result from failures of governance – whether climate scorch or nuclear war or pandemics. The success of the project to make the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a common language, from governments to business to NGOs, confirms just how much hunger there is for a truly global sense of shared responsibility.


So what might guide the design of institutions to reinforce this mission? Form to some extent follows function. The design of institutions is bound to reflect their most important tasks. Nations primarily concerned with defense look different to ones concerned with welfare. The same applies to global governance.


The precursors of the UN arose from the Congress of Vienna and aimed to solve very specific tasks around trade, allowing free movement along Europe’s great rivers, establishing principles that were later applied to postal systems and the telegraph (the International Telecommunications Union was first established in 1865, far ahead of any other global organisations).


These set the tone for much of the everyday work of global governance – setting detailed standards for mobile phone messages, bank transfers, airline routing and safety, and such things as barcodes and html.


By contrast the UN agencies grew up primarily around prevention of interstate warfare, and the management of the global economy. In between these two poles of standard setting on the one hand, and high geopolitics on the other, a huge array of other issues have prompted the creation of more specialised entities – like the WHO, FAO, ICAO, IMO, IWO, UNHCR and many more.


None of their tasks have gone away but many other topics also look pressing and lack obvious homes – such as stopping some nations from disrupting democracy in others; cyber-warfare and cyber insecurity; and global competition policy in an era of dominant platforms. Others like the growth of refugee numbers; climate and biodiversity loss; and nuclear proliferation have institutions associated with them, but arguably without adequate powers to act.


So what might global government or governance that could tackle these look like in the future? And what mix of tools might it use – from enforcement and reward to mutual problem solving and standard-setting? Here I suggest five ways we should think about the job of design:


· With the right metaphors, thinking of governance as a network not a single command structure, but with some centres of state-like power;

· With new methods to ensure legitimacy and responsiveness to a global public, so that global governance is at least democratic in spirit, if not in form;

· With a high proportion of future global governance organised as much around data and knowledge – a shared brain for the world - as around military force and finance;

· With collective problem-solving, carried out in often time-limited structures, as a major activity for global governance alongside permanent institutions; and

· With a new economic base for global governance that comes from global public goods (such as spectrum, satellite orbits and oceans) to reduce dependence on national governments.

1. Get the metaphors right – governance as a network not a single command centre


A century ago it was assumed that a global government would look like national governments. There would be a single governing assembly; perhaps a single army; perhaps a single money; and a single permanent civil service. This is also the image of many sci-fi novels and films, which usually portray a council of elderly men and women speaking in portentous tones, with their own fleet of spacecraft and a supportive bureaucracy.


This metaphor is almost certainly wrong. A more plausible metaphor imagines a network of related, cooperating and sometimes competing entities dealing with the multitude of different global tasks. This is of course how global governance has anyway evolved with different principles for the IMF, World Bank, UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, WHO, WTO, ILO, ITU and so on (sometimes called a multi multilateral system).


Indeed this complex picture has become steadily more complicated in recent decades, thanks to ‘forum shopping’ and turf wars, shifting patterns of legitimation, political controversies, new informal structures like the International parliamentary networks, and, in the last decade, China’s moves to create competing bodies like the AIIB and the Belt and Road Initiative.


This complicated ecosystem is unlikely to get any simpler, and any new entities will also need their own governance principles as they evolve to deal with the big issues of the present – from migration to epidemics, drugs and organised crime to cybersecurity and security. Already air safety, IP protection and many other topics have specialised organisations that have arguably proven more adaptable than the bigger, more politicised organisations. The same is true of global financial regulation and tax alignment and action to reduce the role of offshore havens and evasions.


But the most interesting shift is the rise of bodies dedicated to orchestrating knowledge to help the world think and act, like the IPCC, IPBES and others. These now sit alongside the great commercial platforms, the media and the world science system, and help to organise the world’s ‘cognosphere’ – the information and knowledge on which we all depend.


A host of hybrid organisations now help the world govern itself in this way. A typical example is IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with 1400 institutional members that include nation states and NGO, scientific and business organisations, and providing analysis and ideas (some of which end up as conventions). Gavi, the vaccines alliance, is another example: created by the Gates Foundation, it includes national governments and UN agencies on its board, but in a minority, but its main task is to orchestrate knowledge.

It is still possible to have first among equal parts of the system – like the UN Security Council and General Assembly. But they cannot exercise everyday hierarchical control without undermining the system.


However, although the hybrid bodies are good for coordination, and improving the shared intelligence of the world, they are less good for action. So the system also needs institutions within it that are more ‘state-like’ with power to deploy large sums of money or military forces. In my view we will need some more of these as well as the looser networks – on issues as varied as tax evasion, organised crime and policing carbon emissions – but these require backing from the major powers.


So our metaphors need to reflect how we now understand our own brains – not overseen by a single command centre, but rather a network of distinct modules in uneasy alignment, some more devoted to thought, others more tied into action. And, as with our own brains, linkages are all-important: in this case through open data, transparency and shared knowledge which make it easier for the parts to coordinate with each other in the absence of hierarchical command.


Everything connects to everything else – but not everything can be dealt with in an interconnected way all the time. Instead the system has to identify priority linkages and address these directly. For example, climate change links closely to trade, because of the problems that flow if one part of world persists with high carbon economic models. So it makes sense for some trade agreements to include carbon conditions (and vice versa). But these are best understood as a lattice of links not as the responsibility of a meta body.

2. Global democracy: legitimation and public input will be hybrid not singular


In one image of the future, all of the world’s citizens vote for a global President, or a global assembly. This is neither practical nor desirable, and would lead to domination by the most famous not the best suited to lead, or by the high population nations which would dominate the ones with smaller populations. Awareness of similar risks led large federal states to create hybrid models, like the US Senate which gives equal representation to each state to balance the Congress that is weighted to population.


The most important issue both for the system as a whole and for its parts is legitimation: without legitimacy they cannot act, raise money or expect compliance. But their legitimation tasks are different, with relatively little spill-over of legitimacy from one organisation to others.

So, we should imagine not one person one vote but rather hybrids that give some role for the peoples and some for the nations, but with a variable geometry to reflect the range of tasks (and in some cases the reality of military and financial power).


The biggest role for reformed democracy in the global system should come in the early and late stages of the democratic cycle: the stage of proposing and nominating issues, proposing ideas and scrutinising options that come before the moment of decision. Democracy has less role to play in the stages closest to decision which is bound to involve a harder-edged assertion of interests and more secrecy. But it again becomes relevant in the later stages of monitoring and learning.


These are all very amenable to use of digital technologies, as the UN discovered when over 10m people took part in its global consultation on SDGs (and as it could be finding now with its survey on responses to the pandemic). It would not be hard to imagine a global version of the UN assembly using analytics and visualisations to map citizen inputs on emerging issues, commenting on ideas and scrutinising the reality of actions.


The decisions themselves could still be taken by much smaller groups in the very varied forms of governance likely to be needed for different fields. But changing the environment for those decisions would have a huge impact. Indeed, this is the great lesson of democracy in nations – periodic votes matter, but just as important is a dense hinterland of ideas and argument, followed by transparent scrutiny, that sits around formal representative assemblies. Again, working to make the cognosphere more democratic can have a lot of impact, without impinging on the traditional mandates of elected leaders.


3. Intelligence and a shared brain as the core for future global governance – organised as a commons


A central task for future global governance will be to orchestrate a global commons of knowledge, data and information. These will underpin every other aspect of governance.

The IPCC is one pointer to this future, providing the analytic underpinnings for global negotiations on climate change drawing on the work of thousands of scientists and many computer models. A future WHO would have a global Health Knowledge Commons at its core. Many of the more recently created bodies – like the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – have also prioritised generating and sharing knowledge in order to influence decisions.


The key to making these work is to have a strong emphasis on the use of knowledge as well as creation and synthesis – rapid feedback from the users of knowledge, whether policy makers, public health workers or forestry managers. A weakness of many at the moment is that they are stronger on the supply of knowledge than demand or use.


My book on collective intelligence – Big Mind - describes some of the emerging models which are growing up around ecosystems, health and education and other fields. These ‘intelligence assemblies’ deliberately try to curate and orchestrate the world’s know-how to help the world operate a bit more like a single brain. This includes the state of relevant science; available data; evidence about works; and horizontal linkages between practitioners and innovators.


I’m convinced that a UN being built now and not in the 1940s would place data and knowledge on as prominent a footing as finance. These would form its core. So we would not just have a World Bank and an IMF but a global data fund, a network of ‘what works’ centres, platforms for experimentation and so on, all aimed at accelerating the achievement of the SDGs by better mobilising the world’s knowledge. It would more directly link into the many global networks around science as well as practical evidence.


Systematic orchestration of data and knowledge is, in a sense, what the big commercial platforms already do, but focused on extracting profit from data and selling consumer goods rather than public goals. How equivalents for public data and knowledge would work is set out in much more detail in this paper which suggests a vision of future global governance focused much more on know-how as a complement to the military force and financial force that shaped the UN at its origin.


For now, however, there is no institution or role in the UN system with responsibility for these fields which leads to initiatives being small scale, fragmented and often ineffective. But this is a relatively soluble problem and many initiatives are beginning to build up what in time could be a true global knowledge commons.

4. Collaborative partnerships focused on problem solving


A lot of what global bodies have to do now involves partnership and collaboration to solve problems, not just state action, treaties and laws. The UN was a body of nation states. But most important tasks now are collaborations – mobilising civil society, big and small business, or the media. In some cases, these are formal partnerships involving capital; in others they are alliances or coalitions, for example around malaria, access to water or gender equity. Many are meta-organisations that bring together others. Some compete – or are actions taken by big philanthropists that largely bypass other global entities.


Their tasks are often time-limited rather than permanent – addressing intense phases of a problem, like conflict reconstruction, drought or famine, a refugee surge or a financial crisis.

But in current circumstances they tend to be very labour intensive to set up, each created as a one-off. So, the world system would benefit from mechanisms that make it easy to construct coalitions and assemblies for limited periods, focused on both knowledge and action. The UNDP Accelerator Labs are an important step in this direction – set up to accelerate and innovate rather than aspiring to permanent roles. They are working at country and regional level. But we also need global equivalents that make it easier for corporates to participate (and in real ways that reduce the temptations to cosmetic CSR).


At the moment too much time and money goes into glitzy conferences, summits and launches rather than the hard graft of achieving results. Some standard principles and norms would help this work (in my piece on data and knowledge infrastructures I suggested a few that would help, such as a commitment to open data, reciprocal links and user engagement, but these are just part of the answer). This will also require distinct skills that are different from traditional diplomacy.

Again, these partnerships can be messy, and drift ever further from the neat image of coherent global governance. Their proliferation is in part a symptom of weak governance – the failure to create bodies with the resources and authority to act. But a denser web of such partnerships is likely to be part of the future and can change the operating environment for governments.


While some of these partnerships can be temporary others will need to be more permanent. An example is global collaboration to address disability which affects perhaps a billion plus people. Global work on disability requires many things in alignment: science and technology (to address needs like sight, hearing, mobility); promoting policies and new rights (including in the labour market); as well as voice and expression. It’s a space where business has as big a role to play as government. So we’ll need new kinds of collaboration for topics like this – distant from the traditional territory of war and money - which don’t try too hard to look like quasi-states.

5. A new economic base for global bodies: taxing global public goods to fund global public goods


One of the biggest challenges all global bodies face is funding. None have the power that nation states depend on – the power to raise taxes. Instead they have to pull together funds from governments and then become dependent on the bigger donors. Increasingly, super-rich philanthropists have filled part of the space – which is good in terms of addressing needs but unhealthy in representing a return to pre-democratic models of power without accountability.


An alternative would more deliberately sort out the economic base of global governance. My preference is to use global public goods to fund global public goods. Specifically this would mean raising taxes or license fees for such things as geostationary orbits, electro-magnetic spectrum, access to natural capital, oceans and the like, and potentially air traffic routes and landing slots, and the major seabed communication links, and using these resource flows to fund global action.


Getting this right would greatly transform the psychology and confidence of global institutions (though more funding would also need to be matched by transparency and strict auditing to ensure efficiency). Making this happen would depend on leadership from the major powers which, if short-sighted, would see it as a threat. But the benefit would be more effective global action which we would all benefit from in the long-run.


A few conclusions


These are hardly propitious times for thinking about global governance, although COVID-19 has starkly exposed the weakness of cooperation. As Robert Keohane pointed out in his book After Hegemony, the creation of new global institutions depends on strong leadership from a superpower, even if their operation does not. That leadership is clearly missing right now.


But the same was true in past periods when apparently utopian concepts like the United Nations were dreamed up.


In the next few years we are likely to see a shift in the global debate as a rising China increasingly sees global rules as serving its interests – and enabling its firms to trade, invest and grow. A more global China will also have a growing interest in maintaining peace and a stable environment too.


Although the backlashes against globalisation are very visible – with populism and nationalism on the rise in part because of stagnant incomes in many places - the world today is far more aware of its interdependence and, seen in the long view, values are far more globalist than ever before.


The tipping point would come when at least three of the great centres of power in the world (China, the US, Europe and India) gained leaderships with the vision to change, and when their publics believed it to be common sense that the world needed new ways to work as one.


That’s not so implausible in the next few decades. But the preparatory work needs to be done now.